Monday, November 19, 2012

Fair or Foul? James Patterson, Robert Parker and Authors In Name Only

Plagiarism is not just copying, but fraudulent copying that enhances of value of a creative work by false representation. 

That's one view expressed by Judge Richard Posner, legal scholar, prolific author, and long-time judge on the United States 7th Circuit Court of of Appeals, in his excellent work A Little Book of Plagiarism (Pantheon 2007), pp. 43-48.

Concealment is at the heart of plagiarism," Posner writes: "The plagiarist does not play fair," Id. at 17

So what about the recent proliferation of "institutional" authors - that is, authors (or estates of authors) who lend their names to books which they did not write.  Are they "playing fair?"

I think not.

Posner keys in on Margaret Truman, the late daughter of President Harry Truman.  Her cozy mysteries set in Washington, D.C. (Murder at the National Cathedral, etc) have long been rumored to have been written by someone else.  Truman denied the assertion until her death.  Posner casts his lot with those who doubt that being a President's daughter is a qualification for a mystery writer.

No matter how good an impersonator, it's NOT Elvis
But more troubling to me is the proliferation of  James Patterson's books - seemingly a new one every month.  JAMES PATTERSON is spread in huge block letters across the cover.  Below, in relatively small type, is the name of a co-author.  Few doubt that the co-author actually wrote the book.

In fact I hope Patterson himself is not writing these books.  I've read two - okay, 1 1/2 - and they  are just hideous.   The second was so bad that I  broke my personal rule and did not finish it.

My opinion seems to be shared by many. An Amazon forum excoriates the quality of "co-written" Patterson books.  (Click here for the link to the Amazon forum)

It is even more evident with the recent Robert Parker books.  I absolutely love the Spencer books.  But Mr. Parker died in 2010.  His estate hired a writer Ace Atkins to continue the Spencer books and Michael Brandman to continue the Jesse Stone series. I've not read any of the new stuff, and both Atkins and Brandman are successful in their own right.  But they aren't Robert Parker.  The new books are being published with covers that in huge type tout them as ROBERT PARKER's, with the actual author in small type at the bottom of the cover. 

So who is hurt by this marketing?  According to Posner, its not the readers.  They get a book which is what they bargained for.

I disagree with Judge Posner on this point.  When you plunk down $25 for a James Patterson hardcover, that's often not what you are getting.  Had I spent my own money (instead of checking out the book from the library) for The 4th of July, I would have felt ripped off.  This was not a taut thriller with the same skill in plot development, tension, and rich characters that you find in Kiss the Girls and other works clearly written by Patterson.  Instead, it was soap-opera styled drivel with cardboard characters, irrational motivations and strained plot devices, set in the legal system of which the author clearly was ignorant.

Posner suggests, and I agree, that the real damage from this type of misrepresentation is to other authors.  Across the nation, thousands of authors are working hard, trying to get published, or if published, trying to get their works noticed.  They are the ones whose works are being shoved off publishers lists, being buried on back shelves,  and not being reviewed.  Meanwhile, "brands" such as Patterson and Parker are given front shelf space.

There are ways to fairly deal with this situation.  The James Bond books have continued on since shortly after Ian Fleming's death in 1964.  The most recent Bond book was written by noted thriller author Jeffrey Deaver, and Fleming's name does not even appear on the cover. Other post-Fleming Bond novels identify only the real author, or identify the author "writing as Ian Fleming", but all in print at least as large as Fleming's name.

The publishers of Patterson, Parker and others may not be dealing in misrepresentation, but its close.  And they certainly are not playing fair, either with the reading public or with other authors.

It's not quite plagiarism.  It's not quite fraud.  But from where I sit, its not quite legitimate either.

Photo 1:  photo credit: <a href="">gadl</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

Photo 2:  photo credit: <a href="">Ian Muttoo</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

1 comment:

  1. It's called "write for hire" and is been common 'secret' practice since the 1930s at least. For example, everyone knows Carolyn Keene did not write all the Nancy Drew mysteries, but the public bought them anyway because they wanted to read the franchise Ms. Keene's name represented. However, since Keene didn't buy a $17.4 million home and spend another $14 million renovating it on the proceeds made off such write-for-hire projects, like Patterson, and wasn't the media whore he is--the money and media he gains on the backs of other writers given only a "with" status on the book title--there was little press about the real mind(s) behind Nancy Drew. You're right that ethically the quality must remain high, but it's like anything else--if people don't buy, the franchise thrives. And if it weren't the case where so many good women writers can't get the contracts they deserve simply because of their DNA, people like Mr. Patterson couldn't exploit them. Before the wife of Dick Francis passed away, most of his fans knew the 'secret' that she actually wrote his bestselling books. But if you're married to the man who was once the jockey for Queen Elizabeth, and you write mysteries based on his knowledge of the racing world, why not put his name on the cover and get better remuneration? Again, what it all boils down to is simple contract law and a work-for-hire contract. She gave up her credit for a better lifestyle, he was the face behind the blockbuster and the research source for her plots--but only his name was given credit. Like you, I don't believe Mr. Patterson puts that much work into his write-for-hire arrangements with his authors, and Mr. Parker obviously cannot since he's deceased. But like Carolyn Keene from the 1930s through the 1960s, write-for-hire is alive and well, and giving writers work and a paycheck on an already established franchise, if not the credit they deserve.