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Stephen King: I’m Not One of the "Bad" Prolific Authors

3733018812_3a5d1b83f4_bStephen King has reached an age where he has started contemplating his literary legacy, and for some reason he feels the need to defend his body of work.

King penned an editorial in the NYTimes on Thursday which ostensibly argues whether the work of more productive authors is inherently bad simply because there is more of it.

He doesn’t take one side or the other but instead neatly splits the difference:

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.

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.

Chris Meadows beat me to this post, and he argues over on Teleread against King’s point. Meadows counters with the argument that popularity is proof of quality.

That’s a good argument, but given what I have learned about book marketing over the past half-decade (and how that affects sales) I can’t accept it. Volume has no correlation to quality (and vice versa).

And in any case, quality is a subjective measure. It’s a matter of opinion, and I’m not interested in debating whether the work of a industrious author is inherently bad. I see it as an argument based on flawed logic, just as if the argument were based on the author’s gender or ethnicity.

King, on the other hand, might have a different view. As I read this piece for the thirs time, I get the impression that he is interested in the opinion of the literati. We can see that in the the later section of the piece where he argues that he’s not one of the "bad" prolific authors.

After a pro forma denial, he writes:

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.

That, I think, is the whole point of this piece.

The only reason I see for King to bring up his own copious body of work is to defend it in the context of the assumption that quality is inverse to quantity.

Or am I wrong?

image  by Harry Vale

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Daniel Vian August 30, 2015 um 8:45 pm

Maybe the piece has more than one point. Maybe the major point is to defend Joyce Carol Oates. He does that explicitly and she gets more flack for being prolific than he does, and she is certainly more "literary" than King. But the point you make is strong: As long as there are gatekeepers and marketeers shaping both availability and popularity of authors and their work, it may be senseless to make judgments.

moom August 30, 2015 um 9:49 pm

Many years ago King would publish pieces — much more blunt pieces — expressing his displeasure with the lack of literary esteem his work received. Of course, that was before he stopped drinking. That sent me out to sample some of his work, and I decided his work wasn’t very impressive. He’s a genre writer, and not really a very impressive one. Contrasting his work with Joyce Carol Oates is a good example. Oates publishes fiction which makes use of gothic elements, but she’s not trapped as a gothic writer.

Daniel Vian August 30, 2015 um 10:53 pm

P.S. Nate: The King piece appeared in print in the Sunday Review. It’s really an "Op-Ed" piece and not an "editorial"–he does not speak for the NYT.

Muratcan Simsek August 31, 2015 um 2:28 am

He writes some good novels; but further he is from his genre, better he is, I think. ANd he is right that being prolific doesn’t mean being bad. There is Enid Blyton, Michael Moorcock, Pablo Neruda, Isaac Asimov, C. S. Forester… and these are only in English. List goes on.

I think one I like most is Hearts in Atlantis among his novels. It wasn’t horror. Genre writers does sometimes surprisingly well when they leave their genre. Like Mother Londen or Pyat novels of Moorcock.

DavidW August 31, 2015 um 6:51 am

Stephen King has written some great novels, very good, good, mediocre and even terrible novels. But even his best efforts are still sprawling messes that can do with more time spent rewriting and editing. If he wrote half of what he wrote and spent more time polishing those novels, he would have a stronger legacy. It his style of letting the story unfold as he writes it without any clear vision of a beginning, middle and end firmly in mind that allows him to write so fast. But that is also the reason that many of his endings are terrible.

That being said I’ve noticed that prolific writers treat writing like a job. Not something they need to be in the mood for but their 9-5 work schedule. While GRRM is posting blog entries about sports and finding new ways to waste time, Stephen King starts the morning my making a big pot of tea and then he sets down and writes all morning. Michael Connelly used to be a journalist. And his approach is to not entertain writer’s block but to just work. And if what he writes doesn’t make sense or support the narrative, he backtracks and makes it work. He also is a prolific writer publishing a novel every year since he started.

Now to be fair some writers that take along time to publish really do work hard. They simply revise, revise, revise, revise.

Dave Creek September 1, 2015 um 8:16 pm

DavidW, how do you know GRRM is "wasting time" when he writes on his blog or does something other than working on the latest "Song of Ice and Fire" book? Perhaps that’s a form of relaxation that helps him get back to more serious writing. So many people bitch at Martin, but have you seen how think those books are and how dense the prose is? Of course they take years to write! And I’d bet some of these folks would be the first to complain if the quality went down.

And in the meantime, GRRM wrote some of the most insightful material about the dustup with this year’s Hugo Awards (too complex to explain here), complete with conclusions based on actual research, and while taking a respectful attitude toward both sides of the controversy.

In other words, GRMM rocks!

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