There are many unspoken postulates in literary criticism, one being that the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be. Joyce Carol Oates, the author of more than 50 novels (not counting the 11 written under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly), understands perfectly how little use critics have for prolific writers. In one of her journals she wrote that she seemed to create “more, certainly, than the literary world allows for a ‘serious’ writer.”
As with most postulates dealing with subjective perceptions, the idea that prolific writing equals bad writing must be treated with caution. Mostly, it seems to be true. Certainly no one is going to induct the mystery novelist John Creasey, author of 564 novels under 21 different pseudonyms, into the Literary Hall of Heroes; both he and his creations (the Toff, Inspector Roger West, Sexton Blake, etc.) have largely been forgotten.
The same is true of the British novelist Ursula Bloom (over 500 published works, under many pseudonyms), Barbara Cartland (over 700) and a host of others. One is reminded of Truman Capote’s famous bon mot about Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
Yet some prolific writers have made a deep impression on the public consciousness. Consider Agatha Christie, arguably the most popular writer of the 20th century, whose entire oeuvre remains in print. She wrote 91 novels, 82 under her own name and nine under a nom de plume — Mary Westmacott — or her married name, Agatha Christie Mallowan.
Those novels may not be literary, but they are far above the porridge turned out by John Creasey, and some of them are strikingly good. Christie gave us two characters — Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot — who have achieved a kind of immortality. Add to this the stylistic and thematic unity of Christie’s novels (the cozy warmth of the settings and the British stereotypes, placed within the context of her surprisingly cold appraisal of human nature), and one must view those many books in a different light.
The same can be said of the prolific, mid-20th-century writer John D. MacDonald. His Travis McGee novels now seem embarrassingly dated, and many of his over 40 stand-alone novels are an indigestible mix of Ernest Hemingway and John O’Hara, but when MacDonald forgot about his literary heroes and wrote strictly for himself, he did striking work. The best of his novels, “The End of the Night” and “The Last One Left,” rise to the level of that shape-shifting beast we call American literature.
No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality, but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane and demonstrably untrue.
Then consider the other end of the spectrum. Donna Tartt, one of the best American novelists to emerge in the last 50 years, has published just three novels since 1992. Jonathan Franzen, the only American novelist who is her equal, has published five (his latest, “Purity,” will appear on Tuesday).
It is easy to look at those few books, each of extraordinary quality, and conclude that the fewer the better. Perhaps: The recently retired Philip Roth wrote multiples more than the two of them combined, and “Our Gang” was pretty awful. But then, “American Pastoral” seems to me a much finer novel than either Ms. Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” or Mr. Franzen’s “Freedom.”
I’m a recovering alcoholic, haven’t had a drink in almost 27 years, and these days the thought of drinking rarely crosses my mind. Yet when I think about those eight novels by Ms. Tartt and Mr. Franzen — not enough to fill even a quarter of a library bookshelf — I’m reminded of a lunch I had with my wife not too long after I sobered up.
There were two older ladies at a nearby table. They were conversing with great animation over their meals, while their half-finished glasses of white wine stood forgotten in the middle of the table. I felt a strong urge to rise from my place and speak to them. Only that’s not right. I felt an urge to actually hector them. To say, “Why don’t you drink your wine? It’s sitting right there, for Christ’s sake. Some of us can’t drink wine, we don’t have that privilege, but you can, so why the heck don’t you do it?”
The long gaps between books from such gifted writers make me similarly crazy. I understand that each one of us works at a different speed, and has a slightly different process. I understand that these writers are painstaking, wanting each sentence — each word — to carry weight (or, to borrow the title of one of Jonathan Franzen’s finest novels, to have strong motion). I know it’s not laziness, but respect for the work, and I understand from my own work that haste makes waste.
But I also understand that life is short, and that in the end, none of us is prolific. The creative spark dims, and then death puts it out. William Shakespeare, for instance, hasn’t produced a new play for 400 years. That, my friends, is a long dry spell.
This is not a roundabout way of justifying my own prolificacy. Yes, I’ve published more than 55 novels. Yes, I have employed a pseudonym (Richard Bachman). Yes, I once published four books in one year (shades of James Patterson … except mine were longer, and written without the aid of a collaborator). And yes, I once wrote a novel (“The Running Man”) in a single week. But I can say, with complete honesty, that I never had any choice.
As a young man, my head was like a crowded movie theater where someone has just yelled “Fire!” and everyone scrambles for the exits at once. I had a thousand ideas but only 10 fingers and one typewriter. There were days — I’m not kidding about this, or exaggerating — when I thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane. Back then, in my 20s and early 30s, I thought often of the John Keats poem that begins, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain …”
I imagine it was that way with Frederick Schiller Faust, better known as Max Brand (and best known as the creator of Dr. Kildare). He wrote at least 450 novels, a feat rendered more remarkable by his ill health and premature death at the age of 51. Alexandre Dumas wrote “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers” — and some 250 other novels. And there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at 19, hammered out more than 500 books, and revolutionized science fiction.
My thesis here is a modest one: that prolificacy is sometimes inevitable, and has its place. The accepted definition — “producing much fruit, or foliage, or many offspring” — has an optimistic ring, at least to my ear.
Not everyone feels that way. I remember a party where some self-appointed arbiter of literary taste joked that Joyce Carol Oates was like the old lady who lived in a shoe, and had so many children she didn’t know what to do. In truth, Ms. Oates knows exactly what she is doing, and why she is doing it. “I have more stories to tell,” she writes in her journals, and “more novels.” I’m glad of that, because I want to read them.
Stephen King is the author, most recently, of Finders Keepers, the second volume in the Bill Hodges trilogy.