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That’s Too Much: The Problem with Prolific Writers

By posted at 6:00 am on September 2, 2015 23

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On Thursday, The New York Times published an op-ed defense of prolific writers by one of the modern era’s most prolific writers himself, Stephen King. It was a timely bit of writing for me, a non-prolific writer with a first book deal in the works, for whom the question of appropriate literary output is often debated.

covercoverIn King’s take, which is certainly worth a read, he basically argues two things. One, that there are great works buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of some writers. (i.e. “Alexandre Dumas wrote ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ — and some 250 other novels.”) And two, that for some authors, like him and Joyce Carol Oates, “prolificacy is sometimes inevitable.” He describes the crazy-making clamor of the voices in his head since his youth, all the stories crying out to be written.

covercoverThe potential for those unwritten works is an interesting point of entry. Like most everyone, I’ve always found a particular romance in the notion of lost works of literature. There are so many different kinds, aside from those that never manage to be written. There are the truly lost, like William Shakespeare’s missing play The History of Cardenio. The nearly lost, like the poems of Emily Dickinson. There are the mostly-lost works that could have died with their authors but were published anyway, like Vladimir Nabakov’s The Original of Laura or David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

But lately I’ve been struck by the notion that there might be no books more lost than those buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of authors who have simply published too damn much.

covercoverWhat’s your opinion, for instance, of the William Faulkner novel Pylon? How about Joyce Carol Oates’s Solstice? Larry McMurtry’s incredible doorstop of a novel Moving On? Or the only book in which Philip Roth wrote of a female protagonist, When She Was Good? Any non-John Updike scholars out there recall A Month of Sundays?

No? Well, who can blame you? Faulkner wrote 19 novels. You could hardly be expected to read them all. Larry McMurtry has written over 45 books. Roth, nearly 30 novels and novellas. Updike, more than 20 novels and almost as many short story collections.

Joyce Carol Oates, as King points out is “the author of more than 50 novels (not counting the 11 written under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly).” But that’s just the novels. I stopped counting the short story collections listed on her Wikipedia bibliography entry after 20 — which just brought me to the early 1990s. Oh, and that entry is listed as “incomplete.” Wikipedia would be grateful for your help in expanding it, though it’s unlikely you could do so faster than Oates herself.

Seeing a bibliography like that I can only wonder, isn’t it possible — even likely, perhaps — that Oates’s best novel is some forgotten, out-of-print book she wrote in, say, 1982, maybe one that hasn’t even landed on that incomplete bibliography yet? If so, most of us will never know it, because her massive output has built a body so forbidding that it deprives us of the experience of her books.

This kind of output isn’t limited to the literary scene, as King’s piece clearly illustrates. In fact, things only get really wild when you start talking about genre. There’s King himself, of course, who is at around 70 books all told. Agatha Christie who, as he points out, published 91 novels. Isaac Asimov, who, King says “hammered out more than 500 books and revolutionized science fiction.” James Patterson — also name-checked by King — has produced (mostly co-authored) nearly 150 books. He released about 15 in 2014 alone. And where would Modern Culture be without Nora Roberts, who has written more than 200 romance novels?

Maybe King is right that this kind of output is a good thing. But something about it still makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s because, upon discovering a book I love, I invariably feel compelled to track down and devour everything else by the same author.

covercovercoverWith some it’s simple. Flannery O’Connor’s entire bibliography basically consists of four books, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Then, if you’re really hungry, there are her letters, interviews, whatever remains of her collected “uncollected” marginalia, and, most recently, a prayer journal. Finish those, and you’ve done it. You know Flannery all the way from “The Geranium” to “Judgment Day,” and whatever else she thought, wondered, or murmured to the heavens. There’s something wonderful about having seen all that an author has to offer, following the progression of her skill, obsessions, the recurring tropes and themes, the trails of subconscious leakage.

The problem comes when I happen upon an author, like one of the above — King included — whose body of work defies, by its sheer heft, that kind of close study without lavishing a truly abnormal amount of time and devotion upon it.

It’s not as if reading a novel is the same as watching a movie or viewing a piece of art. After all, one could see all of Vincent Van Gogh’s 860 oil paintings in a few days if they were physically available. And a cursory appreciation of Johannes Vermeer’s 34 mightn’t take longer than an hour. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography amounts to 13 feature films I could watch in a few of days if I felt like a binge. But it’s not so simple for writers, unless I want this to become my own personal Year of John Updike, Two Years of Philip Roth, or Decade of Joyce Carol Oates.

King concludes his op-ed by saying that he’s glad Ms. Oates continues to write new books “because,” he says, “I want to read them.” I wonder if he really has. If anyone has read them all. Or truly does anxiously await the next one’s arrival. Whoever has or does is in possession of far more free time than I. If we were immortal, if our time on the planet was infinite, I’m sure I’d feel differently, but as King wisely points out in his own piece, “life is short.”

And let’s say I wasn’t an obsessive completionist. When considering huge bodies of work, there’s still the uncertainty about where to enter and where to go next once you’ve found a way in. If I wish to dig into the oeuvre of Oates, McMurtry, Updike, Roth, or even James Patterson, I’m forced to either choose at random or rely on others to tell me which work is most important and worthy. Which might be fine if the people on whom I were relying had read all of the work themselves, but of course they haven’t — with the exception perhaps of King’s devoted fan base.

I experienced a similar anxiety many years ago at a record store. I had gone there determined to finally delve into Frank Zappa’s music. Unfortunately, it was quite a good record store, and they stocked most of his 100 albums. Finally, after trying to make a decision based on the album art, I gave up and decided to get into punk instead, a lot of short-lived bands that self-destructed after just an album or two, tidy discographies I could learn by heart. Of course there were probably some truly great albums buried in Zappa’s discography, as in the Grateful Dead’s 144-plus record output. But I’ll never know. The volume of work becomes a barricade, a wall that one cannot reasonably scale even if one wishes to.

So it is with novels. It’s true that telling Oates, et al., not to write so much might deprive us of great works, but the net effect is the same either way. Each new book is, for me anyway, another lost in the flood.

Image Credit: Flickr/library_mistress.





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23 Responses to “That’s Too Much: The Problem with Prolific Writers”

  1. clifford
    at 7:26 am on September 2, 2015

    great post, but none of this is actually inconsistent with what king wrote, which was:

    My thesis here is a modest one: that prolificacy is sometimes inevitable, and has its place.

    king’s point is that writers like he and oates needed to write that much, it’s just part of how their process works, and that many extremely profligate writers have had a very big impact on literature.

    as for the idea that “minor works” of profligate popular writers get lost in the shuffle, i’m sure they do. but they still get more attention than the major works of many minor writers.

  2. Jack M
    at 7:59 am on September 2, 2015

    If you are dealing with an author who is prolific and you want to know which books you should read and which you should not, or should defer until later, why not do a little research first to help you decide?

    BTW, I’ve never heard anybody say that Shakespeare wrote too much.

  3. Mygod
    at 11:19 am on September 2, 2015

    Great article.

    I had the exact same thoughts on reading the Stephen King essay: is this guy freaking kidding? I was reminded when Franzen starts multiplying the number of novels he read last year times the amount of time he had left to live and ends up with a 3 digit number…

    Also, how much better might King or Joyce be if they had focused that energy?
    Imagine if Stephen King spent 5 years pouring over one book, instead of producing 7 or 8 books in that time?

    While King always defends genre as “just as good as literary fiction,” I think it’s no coincidence that the prolific authors are all genre: it’s easier to write and they’re worse writers so they don’t spend as much time.

  4. Jack M
    at 11:24 am on September 2, 2015

    Mygod,

    Not all prolific authors are genre. Isaac Asimov wrote both science and science fiction.

  5. James Harrigan
    at 11:27 am on September 2, 2015

    The problem isn’t that some authors write too much, it is that some authors publish bad books when they (and/or their publishers and editors) really should know better, and/or publish books which could have been much better with more work. My favorite example is Paul Auster, who has written some of the most memorable books I have read in the past 15 years, but who simply writes way too much: some of his books are just plain bad (most painfully his failed attempt at a comic novel The Brooklyn Follies), while others could have been much improved with more work (Invisible and Sunset Park, for example).

    The problem with musicians, especially jazz musicians, is somewhat different – since it is so easy and cheap to make a recording, the temptation is to release way too many recordings, which makes it hard for even a devoted fan to figure out which work bears serious, repeated listening. The great David Murray is the worst offender I know of in this regard.

  6. Steven Axelrod
    at 12:10 pm on September 2, 2015

    I must agree with you on the dangers of writing too much. You could make an impressive bibliography just out of King’s truly awful books (“Christine”, “The Tommyknockers” etc). But I must take issue with the way you dropped “Moving On” among Larry McMurtry’s lost masterpieces. Actually, it’s the centerpiece of a group of wonderful books, including “All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers”, “Terms of Endearment”, “Somebody’s Darling”, “the Late Child”, “Some Can Whistle”, “Texasville” and “Duane’s Depressed”, the last two of which tie the other novels in with “The Last Picture Show” . It’s quite a cycle of books, and well worth reading.

  7. Steven Axelrod
    at 12:13 pm on September 2, 2015

    BTW, this goes for musicians, also. After the Beatles broke up, Paul McCartney routinely put out albums with just a couple of good songs. Why not delete the chaff and put out one great album every five years? One answer might be that his best and most exigent critic was no longer on hand to help.

  8. Jack M
    at 12:45 pm on September 2, 2015

    I would think, however, that an author or a musician would not necessarily know whether or not their creation was “great” or not. And there is the question of selling books/albums in order to make a living. I’m sure Danielle Steel has no reservations when she cranks out her romance novels.

  9. Mygod
    at 1:14 pm on September 2, 2015

    @ Jack M

    Don’t nitpick – obviously the article is talking about fiction. Yes, Asimov wrote some nonfiction science books but if Isaac Asimov isn’t a genre writer no one is.

    I’d say pretty much all the prolific authors are genre: it’s why they can pump out book after book based on templates they know well and are expected to stick closely to. The hero’s journey, etc.

  10. Evan Banned
    at 1:38 pm on September 2, 2015

    Great article. I can’t wait to track down everything the author has written for The Believer, Tin House, The Daily Beast, Electric Literature, and others as well as his first novel, Arcade (Unnamed Press), forthcoming in June 2016. Just like every other prolific columnist/website/reporter I love because that’s a thing that people do. I mean, I can’t miss that one great article he wrote just because there’s bunches! But do I have the time? Oh, man, I spent too long making this comment. Hey, I wonder if people out there read these… I’ve got comments on such websites as Cracked, NYTimes, iO9, and Lifehacker, track down all my comments today as well as my website! This is easy, this commenting on something. Hope there’s not too many comments out there of mine that people won’t be able to judge the best… Oh well, maybe somebody one day will curate my comments and articles like this one.

  11. Monty Johnston
    at 2:48 pm on September 2, 2015

    What strikes me is when logorrhea meets Emerson’s saying something like that poetry demonstrates the tremendous power of a few words. That is, King is what I am, a recovering alcoholic, and sometimes we can’t just shut the blank up. There’s something about each moment and each word.

    And then J.C. Oates, whose work I’ve never been able to find a way in to – I began reading her current NY Review of Books article and began skipping through it when she started knocking inspiration. She ended with what I took to be a paean to other-direction, which is not where the work of my favorites comes from.

    Yes, I’m being too severe. Lots of things don’t have to be great to be great. But one thing I’m not, about their prolificity, is jealous.

  12. C B
    at 10:57 pm on September 2, 2015

    This article makes be frantic and gives me hives. Don’t remind me how many books there are… and also that there isn’t enough Flannery O’Connor.

  13. Sara
    at 3:52 am on September 3, 2015

    Drew, You have a compulsion to finish – the prolifics (JCO, SK, etc – but not the Pattersons, those are just sausage makers) have a compulsion to write. I never published a line, most likely never will, and still I need to write an hour or two each morning before work just to get my head straight. Why should the prolifics stop doing what they need to do just to make it easier for completionists?? It’s not something you can moderate.

    Evan, that made me laugh…

  14. Gert Loveday
    at 6:20 am on September 3, 2015

    I’m firmly of the belief that writers can write too many books. John Banville is one and so is Peter Carey. Possibly Ian McEwan. The originality of their earlier works is lost and they become mere technicians. Good technicians, perhaps, but the first fine careless rapture is gone.

  15. Maureen Murphy
    at 8:50 am on September 3, 2015

    Lots of grain to grind in the mill from this piece and the comments. Evan, you made me laugh as well. Cheeky!

    Just some thoughts:

    a.) Could a focus on too much, or too little productivity cause a discombobulation in the creative “pipes?” To get a little earthy, reminds me of someone who is too apt to wield the Ex-Lax at the first sign of constipation (or vice versa). Seems risky to create a self-consciousness about creative flow.

    b.) Writer teacher/author Leonard Bishop is an idol of mine, and this discussion brought to mind a quote:

  16. Maureen Murphy
    at 9:03 am on September 3, 2015

    [CONTINUATION OF ABOVE – Pressed the wrong button]

    Leonard Bishop quote:

    “The writer’s consciousness is like a well he empties through writing. When he has spilled all that he knows onto the pages, he must fill the well again, so he can again empty it.”

    Are there some books a writer “must” produce (presuming they are in themselves fully realized, see below) so that a much greater work of art may rise to the surface?

    c.) Distinguish books referenced in b.) with products that are clearly not fully-developed. For example, I have seen every Woody Allen movie, and found “To Rome with Love” the greatest disappointment. Beautiful cinematography, but clearly many vignettes were a good several drafts short of what they could be. On the other hand “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” was minor Woody Allen, but I found it an amusing escapade and passable as light entertainment, on its own terms. Finally, after the darkness and body horror of “The Skin I Live In,” Pedro Almodovar’s air-travel themed farce, “I’m So Excited” seemed a light and refreshing palate cleanser. Looking forward now to his next film, set in the 1980’s.

    d.) Prolific and excess must be distinguished. Overwriting is a failure of technique (does the writer need to improve his self-editing skill?) or perhaps a failure of character (does the writer believe he is too grand now to need an editor?).

    The failure of character may be more challenging. Perhaps the extremely successful writer needs to employ retinue of court jesters to puncture their ego on a regular basis, or whisper in their ear that “this too shall pass.” :)

  17. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 9:37 am on September 3, 2015

    Gert et al,

    What would you have Banville or McEwan do, spend 2-4 years researching, writing, and editing a book, and then give it a read and say, “Well, that’s not quite up to snuff, back to the drawing board.” That’s just not realistic, or how artistic creation works. For one thing, when you have a huge amount of time sunk in a project, you tend to think its worthwhile. Public opinion may not bear that out, but you simply often don’t know. Also, artists and especially prolific artists tend to get to the wheat by producing chaff, but some chaff is chaffier than other chaff. And then there’s the fact that you make a living, or some of your living, selling books to publishers–there’s something of a cultural double standard implicit in the position that artists should float above the concerns of commerce, presumably living on a magic cloud and meditating, in order to produce an unimpeachable masterpiece every fifteen years.

    While I agree that in theory, it would be sort of nice if all authors were Flannery O’Connor, with the good grace to die at forty and leave four good to great books as their easily digestible legacy, it seems a bit churlish to desire this in reality. And actually, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away, aren’t really up to the standard of her stories. Maybe she should have just left the collections. Maybe she should have only written A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Now there’s a career!

  18. Shelley
    at 9:45 am on September 3, 2015

    To move further back in time: I think too many people refuse to read Trollope because there are simply so many books. That’s a shame, because the marriage of Glencora stands as one of the best portrayals in literature of that state. I find almost all of Trollope’s novels of value (he was a Freudian before Freud, and a feminist despite his ridiculous remarks)–but maybe he’d been better off if he had only written the Palliser novels.

  19. Mygod
    at 11:04 am on September 3, 2015

    Death to prolific authors!

  20. Jim Harris
    at 7:38 pm on September 3, 2015

    Some prolific authors are better writers than other prolific writers. I’ve read many novels that were pretty good but forgettable that if the writer had spent another year on could have been memorable.

    If a prolific writer writes 100 great novels there’s no problem. But what if they wrote 100 pretty good novels? Would readers and the writer’s career been better served by writing 25 very good novels, or 12 great novels?

    Isaac Asimov is mentioned above for writing 500 books, but even his most memorable ones are very poorly written, and will soon be forgotten.

  21. Ezra
    at 11:56 pm on September 3, 2015

    While I don’t disagree about Isaac Asimov’s poor prose style, if Mr. Harris regards having novels continuously in print for sixty years and counting as being “soon forgotten,” he has an unusual notion of “soon.”

  22. S.A. Traina
    at 5:05 pm on September 5, 2015

    Dear Mr. Smith,

    Quite right. Even among the very greatest writers, only a portion of their writing is truly memorable. I think it was Teddy Roosevelt who once apologized that he was sorry the letter he wrote to Mr. X was so long, but he just didn’t have time to make it shorter.

    But when a writer can’t self-edit, there’s no problem. The reader will edit for him.

    Cordially,
    S.A. Traina

    P.S. In King’s case, I read Carrie, Hearts in Atlantis, and On Writing. And stopped there.

  23. James Boswell
    at 5:41 pm on September 6, 2015

    Being prolific doesn’t always mean poor writing. Unlike those who write literary fiction, genre writers don’t labor over style (which is largely invisible, subservient to imagery and plot).

    What’s remarkable about Asimov’s writing is how consistently good it is (“good” on the level of thought, extrapolation, lucid and compelling prose).

    I don’t believe in disowning writers I grew up on, and I’m glad I can still enjoy them. Asimov has inspired generations of scientists and young people, as well as broadened our knowledge of the world beyond the small human.

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