February 24, 2009

Quantity and/or Quality

In Sunday's New York Times Book Review Geoff Nicholson wrote about the implications of being called a "wildly prolific" writer, and mentioned others who have earned this label like Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and William T. Vollmann. He laments that some readers see an abundance of quantity implies a lack of quality, and almost admits this himself when he concludes that:
perhaps the real reason we keep writing is the hope, na├»ve perhaps, that we’ll make a better job of it next time. Unless you’re a genius or a fool, you realize that everything you write, however “successful,” is always a sort of failure. And so you try again.
This reminded me of Raymond Carver's complaint against writers who don't take the time to polish their work because of pressures from agents and editors, or financial constraints, and then bemoan their suffering art. If Mr. Nicholson, whose work I've never read, feels that everything he produces is a sort of failure, and he is not simply feigning the position of the uncompromising, perfectionist artist, maybe he should spend some more time on his work rather than darting off to the next project (to be fair, Nicholson is not as prolific as the company he purports to keep - writing 20 books in 22 years hardly measures up to Oates's 100 in 45).

Isaac Asimov wrote more
than 520 books in 53 years

In response to Nicholson, Caleb Crain, in his blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything, linked prolific writers to "excellent" composers, who don't produce a higher proportion of excellent work than "good" composers, but simply produce a higher total number of works. he claims this correlation between quantity and quality exists among writers as well, "If you subtract cases of early demise from tuberculosis, alcoholism, and mental illness, and handicap for poverty and/or day jobs."

I decided to test this theory on a quick and not-so random selection of ten 20th century authors I've recently read:

Practically all these writers are considered, rightfully or wrongfully, excellent, or brilliant, or at the very least successful (the list includes two Nobel Prize winners, as well as recipients of the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, The Jerusalem Prize, Guggenheim Fellowships, etcetera), but none of them is particularly prolific, even factoring in Crain's attenuating circumstances of additional occupations or early death. Aside from reinforcing my wariness when approaching overly-productive writers, these unofficial findings also made me feel better about my own modest productivity (in case you're wondering, my own output is similar to Malamud's - 2 novels and 12 stories completed in about nine years, though I can't vouch for the quality of the first novel).

John O'Hara wrote fourteen novels and more than
four hundred short stories, but none were as successful
or accomplished as his first novel Appointment in Samarra

At the end of his post Crain adds that, “In an age when authors write blogs, only the prolific will manage to write books at all.” That might be somewhat of an exaggeration; I think blogging (like translation, drawing, and reading), is ancillary to writing fiction, and can often inspire or exercise the brain, preparing it for the loftier, more difficult pursuit. Nevertheless, I must admit that at times I feel I have to abandon my various side projects for a while, and just sit down and write, no matter how poor I consider the results, just so I can feel like I'm still, and primarily, a writer of fiction.

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