Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Do writers write too much?

Do some writers write too much for their own good? I defended Ogden Nash against that charge, made by a literary critic, in my last post. But what about other prolific writers? Do any of them ever write too much? The question might be addressed according to several different topics.

1. The writer's income

Except for bestsellers, books do not make a lot of money for their authors. Therefore, for full-time writers struggling to support their families, the more books they can write, the better. Even bestselling authors strive to maximize their income by writing at least one book a year. Some writers produce new books faster than their publishers are willing publish them. Publishers usually don't want to put out a new book in hardback before the earlier book has been reprinted in paperback.. In that case, authors may use pen names to sell books to other publishers. Romance writer Kathleen Lindsay used at least 11 pen names. John Creasey wrote under 28 names other than his own. French mystery writer Georges Simenon wrote under a dozen different names. Such writers as Donald E. Westlake, Agatha Cristie and even Joyce Carol Oates have also used pseudonyms. Getting more books published is hardly the only reason for using a pen name, but it makes sense for some.

2. Long books

Some writers seem incapable of writing short books. I am thinking of Thomas Wolfe, Pat Conroy, Edward Rutherfurd and Neal Stephenson, among others. Their mammoth books may scare away some readers, but others are attracted to books with some heft to them. Why take two or three novels with you on your winter cruise when you could just take that 920-page Ken Follett novel I recently finished? But it has often been argued that Wolfe, for one, would have benefited from more ruthless editing. Writing long can indicate a lack of skill and discipline. Graham Greene, one of our better writers, says his publishers complained because his books were too short.

You might think an author could write two 400-page books instead of one 800-pager and thus double sales and royalties, but it is not that simple. Once you have developed a plot, created characters and done whatever research is necessary, writing a long book is much easier than starting over on a new book.

3. The number of books

Some people just write faster than others. I noticed that at the newspaper where I worked. Some reporters seemed to no more than return to the newsroom before their stories were done, while others struggled right up to deadline every day. Isaac Asimov, who wrote science fiction as well as nonfiction on a variety of topics, produced well over 400 books in his career. He claimed to be able to write as fast as he could think, and he rarely, if ever, rewrote anything. Would his books have been better if he had taken more time? Perhaps, but probably not. He wrote at the pace that worked best for him, and producing great literature was never his goal. He just wanted to entertain and inform, and he could do that just as well writing fast as writing slow. So he wrote lots of books. Barbara Cartland is said to have written 723 books, Georges Simenon more than 500, John Creasey more than 600 and L. Ron Hubbard more than 1,000. We might have more trees in this world if these writers had written fewer books -- or sold fewer books -- but I can't see how their high production rates were detrimental to them as writers. They might have benefited from more time with their family and friends, but that is another question.

4. Fans

I have been a Westlake fan for 50 years and read one or two of his books a year, yet there are still several of his books I have yet to read. I find this a trifle frustrating, especially since there are so many other writers I love who write books faster than I can can read them. Yet this wealth of unread books also seems like something of a luxury. It means that, while I may never catch up on my reading, I also will never run out of books I want to read.

5.  Literary quality

Most of the writers I have mentioned so far are not literary greats, although you could make a case for Wolfe, Oates, Conroy and Nash. When you are writing literature, as opposed to just telling a good story, it might be best to write deliberately and to re-write entire passages, or even entire books, on occasion. Some masterpieces have been written quickly, but usually they take time. Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, was published in 1992, and she has written just two novels since then. Is that why her books are so good, or is she just a slow writer? Joyce Carol Oates is someone who might be more highly regarded by literary critics if she wrote fewer books, but then maybe not.

In the end, writers write as they write, fast or slow, long or short, good or bad. Readers, both literary critics and the rest of us, just have to take them as they are and render our verdicts as they be.

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