This is more of me, as a writer, contemplating one of the ways a writer can lose her voice.
Twenty years ago when Cornwell first came out with Scarpetta the books were sharp and intriguing and compulsively readable. Patricia Cornwell had lived a writer’s life to that point, doing the odd jobs here and there–including working as a denier in a mortuary. Her books were written in the corners of her everyday life, just like the books of most of the authors I know. Then she got very famous and very popular and very wealthy.
And it occurs to me just now that I can only think of one writer who has been able to maintain voice and readability once they hit the ranks of the superwealthy. JK Rowling. Well, and maybe Stephen King, who has repeatedly had his own mortality dangled in front of him as a sort of mantra and muse. Of course this new book of Rowling’s will be the true test, because with Harry she was finishing what she started when she was poor.
Once writers become wealthy, they seem to lose touch with the things that make stories readable. They still have their core abilities (for the most part), but they don’t have story. They’re living in a sort of Midas curse, where all they touch turns golden…and food is inedible and other people are kept at a distance.
It has long been acknowledged by Cornwell herself that Scarpetta is merely an exceptionally well-done Mary Sue, the version of herself that Cornwell would have been if people like that actually existed. So it’s very telling that as Cornwell has had financial success (and difficulty) and romantic success (and difficulty) that Scarpetta would become who she is in this dreadful story. No longer is she a competent and intelligent woman dedicated to finding answers and tracking killers. Now she has a different job every five minutes–either she’s the chief medical examiner or she’s on loan to some other arcane death investigation outfit–and she is perpetually annoyed by anything and everyone around her. The only character that brings her any joy is one newly introduced in this story. Scarpetta is visibly tired of every single person who is part of her life, because they have problems and keep messing up and are so very very human. Humanity is not something of which Cornwell herself is overly fond, it would seem. While the characters like Lucy, Marino and Benton are all reintroduced with mini-tirades which run down their myriad faults and recite the ways in which they have dared cross Special Kay, the loving introductions are all saved for material goods. There are fawning descriptions of shampoos and watches and smartphones. Over the counter drugs are introduced by brand name as if we’re reading The Price Is Write. Expensive clothing is praised–in one instance the same outfit is described three times in four pages–while the wardrobes of poorer people are mocked. Like Cornwell it seems that Scarpetta has fallen in love with money.
This book is ruined by its author having sold her soul. As a writer that makes me incredibly sad. But it’s also a very good cautionary tale. At the end of the day if what matters most to you is your craft it is probably best to not hope to hard for exceeding wealth, because that turns your wine to an unreadably bitter vinegar.