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James Patterson’s carefully worded apology after ‘racism’ claim is an eyebrow raiser

The author said that he strongly supported diversity of voices, but that would be hard to tell looking at many of the co-authors he's chosen to work with.
James Patterson attends The London Book Fair on April 20, 2009.
James Patterson attends The London Book Fair on April 20, 2009.David Levenson / Getty Images file

On Sunday, James Patterson, whose enormous output of thrillers has netted him an estimated $750 million in personal wealth, caused a chorus of heads to turn and tilt. The U.K.’s Sunday Times published an interview in which he alleged that he and his fellow “white males” were subject to “racism” that prevented them from getting writing jobs. “Can you get a job? Yes. Is it harder? Yes.” He continued by saying, “It’s even harder for older writers. You don’t meet many 52-year-old white males” in film, theater, TV or publishing.

Two days later — an eon in social media backlash terms — Patterson apologized and walked his statement all the way back. But it’s still worth asking what the most successful author in the world was thinking when he shared his frankly laughable allegation that white male scribes have it harder than most. 

By any assessment, using any metric, and with any set of objective eyes, white men continue to do very, very well in film, theater, TV and publishing.

As someone who’s been in and adjacent to creative industries for the better part of my career, I can say firsthand that if white men really did have any problem getting jobs as writers, they can blame other white men, who are disproportionately represented in the ranks of gatekeepers in those industries, controlling both pipelines and pursestrings. But the fact is, they don’t. By any assessment, using any metric, and with any set of objective eyes, white men continue to do very, very well in film, theater, TV and publishing. So much so that people across social and traditional media wondered if Patterson was simply living in a delusional bubble or, as Salon mused, if the statement was a PR stunt to drum up attention for his recent eponymous memoir: “Is this…a publicity stunt by an expert at the con? Maybe.” Salon noted that Patterson began his career in advertising and knew exactly how to grab headlines when attention was needed. 

But let’s give the man the benefit of the doubt and say that instead of being cynically manipulative, he’s just bizarrely unaware of the state of diversity in the creative industries that have made him a 3/4ths billionaire. Fortunately, there are now a plethora of institutions ready to provide Patterson with the statistics he lacks. 

According to the 2022 Hollywood Diversity Report, out of the 251 screenwriters for top box office feature films in 2021, nearly 68% were white; 47% were white men, specifically. A 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report showed that during the 2019-2020 season, out of the 1,214 broadcast script writers, only 26.4% were people of color, and white men made up 46.1% of the total. A similar trend extends across the scripted cable and digital industries.

In theater, according to the most recent Asian American Performers Action Coalition Visibility Report, nearly 90% of shows produced on Broadway and 76% of the shows by major New York nonprofit theater companies — which collectively set the theatrical agenda for the rest of the nation — were written by white playwrights. And multiple reports have highlighted the issue of men outnumbering women playwrights. For the book publishing industry, the numbers by race are just as staggeringly imbalanced, as a 2020 New York Times report showed. In 2018, nearly nine out of 10 books published by major houses were by white writers — which, based on the relatively even gender divide among authors, suggests that about 45% of the white writers published by major houses in the U.S. are men. 

So, across these creative fields, white men — about 30% of the American population — consistently receive nearly half of all writing opportunities. 

Where could Patterson have gotten the impression that this represents discrimination? It’s almost as if his benchmark for “fairness” is, essentially, giving all plum writing jobs to white people, with most of them being men. Now, hold onto that thought as we discuss the means by which Patterson transformed himself from a successful crime writer with a breakout hit under his belt — the first of 29 Alex Cross novels, “Along Came A Spider” — into a burgeoning cottage industry.

Patterson is an incredibly skilled and successful book creator, but he’s no longer best described as a “writer.” He creates outlines, sometimes as short as a couple of dozen pages long, and then finds co-authors — sometimes well known, sometimes obscure — to flesh them out into poolside tomes. The New York Times, in a 2010 story called “James Patterson Inc.,” called him “part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course.”

The writers seem to do pretty well for themselves. They’re likely paid handsomely for their time and effort, and while their cover bylines are often in a font size that’s microscopic compared to Patterson’s, the success of these joint efforts still allows them to call themselves “New York Times bestselling authors” — a designation that often gives their stand-alone writing careers a needed jump-start. 

Now, given that Patterson made his bones as a storyteller with a series featuring a Black detective and envisioned his second hugely successful franchise, the 22 books and counting “Women’s Murder Club” series, as a way to expand his audience among women, you’d imagine he’d have gone out of his way to partner with Black and female co-authors. 

You’d be wrong.

In a search of the publicly visible collaborators for Patterson’s “big books” (not counting his side forays into children’s books, YA serials, graphic novels, romance and nonfiction), I found them to have been overwhelmingly white and male. Out of the 44 co-authors I found in his front-line novel franchises — the ones aimed at global bestseller status — I only identified one woman of color: Rachel Howzell Hall (a bestselling crime queen herself and a former board member of the Mystery Writers of America). Nine others were white women. 

So, is this Patterson’s benchmark for fairness — a publishing empire in which nearly all the major writing jobs go to white people, with nearly 80% of them being men? If so, no wonder his scan of the broader landscape, where white men take up less than half of the available creative gigs, left him taken aback. 

Patterson’s carefully worded apology on Twitter recanted his allegation that white writers experienced racism and asserted that he “strongly support[s] a diversity of voices being heard — in literature, in Hollywood, everywhere.” If that’s the case, he might consider beginning in his own backyard and welcoming in some choice collaborations with nonwhite and women authors. I’m sure Alex Cross and the “Women’s Murder Club” would approve.