Too many books?: Stephen King and other ultra-prolific authors

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I’ve read 13 Stephen King books I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but I thought this was a good total. It’s certainly more than I’ve read by almost any other grown up author who I have read.
I feel I can also hold my own fairly well in any Stephen King themed conversation. I’ve read most of the “early scary ones” (Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Night Shift, Christine, Different Seasons) which are often amongst his best along with the likes of The Dark Half and Misery. I’ve also read a few stupidly long ones such as The Stand: Uncut Edition and It. Less isn’t necessarily more in Stephen King’s case. In fact, his short stories are often considered his best work (It is pretty good throughout but the second half of The Stand is something of a megabore).

Like many people, I read Stephen King the most when I was a teenager. I am now in my thirties so haven’t really kept up. The most “recent” Stephen Kings I’ve read have been The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and his excellent book On Writing. I abandoned Dreamcatcher when I realised it was terrible.

Despite this, I felt I must have read most of Stephen King’s novels. Thirteen books by most authors would undoubtedly constitute at least half of their work.

But no. I have not. Stephen King’s latest novel Mr Mercedes is his 54th!

I am, in fact, way way behind if I ever want to be a Stephen King completIst.

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It gets worse. Some of the books I HAVE read by Stephen King (Different Seasons, Night Shift and On Writing) are, of course, not even novels!  It turns out I have barely read a FIFTH of Stephen King’s actual novels. I don’t really know him at all. And many of the books I haven’t read are massive.

Stephen King seems to have the opposite problem to Harper Lee. She has only had one book published in over fifty years. In forty years, Stephen King has produced well over one a year (in fact, over eighty books if you cheat slightly and include collections etc).

Stephen King is a hugely popular author I know there must be quite a few people who have read all of his books out there and some of you are probably reading this now. Indeed, I do tend to read an average about sixty books a year anyway so could quite easily read all of his remaining works in that time.

The trouble is, I don’t really want to. I liked the Stephen Kings I read (mostly) and still dip into them occasionally. But there are so many other authors out there and so many other books. It would seem a waste to restrict myself to one author for so long. Especially as, like anyone, his work can be a bit variable in quality.

Clearly the process of writing takes a lot longer than the process of reading. How the hell is Stephen King able to churn them out at such a rate? I would attribute his speed to some sort of renewed lease of life caused by the car accident which very nearly killed him in 1999. But, in fact, he was already very prolific before then anyway. And strangely, despite being hospitalised at the time, there is little indication from looking at a list of Stephen King’s books produced between 1999 and 2001 that the accident even slowed down his work rate much when it happened.

And Stephen King isn’t the only one…

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Terry Pratchett: I read loads of these when I was a teenager too. He was funny and easy to read. But forty six Discworld novels alone? Come on! I’ve read about twenty anyway (again, mostly when I was a teenager) easily beating my Stephen King total.

Alexander McCall Smith: Again, he is funny and light. I’ve read about ten of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency ones. But not only does McCall Smith write lots of books but he writes several different series (44 Scotland Street, The Sunday Philosophy Club, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Corduroy Mansions and the Professor Dr Von Igelfeld Experiments) and at the same time! Sometimes, he apparently starts writing for a bit and then realises he’s slipped accidentally into writing about characters from another saga and has to stop. It is mad.

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Anthony Trollope: Victorian novelist Trollope had a strict schedule of working for several hours a morning before going to work at the post office. He produced forty seven novels (mostly biggies) this way. I have read three but intend to read more. Incredibly, if he finished writing one book during his allotted period, he would use the remainder of the scheduled time to start writing the next one! Even more incredibly, he also found time to invent the post-box (when he was doing the day job).

But why should I complain? All of these authors have lots of fans, most of whom will be pleased to have as many books to choose from as possible. A good writer should write after all and as long as the quality doesn’t suffer who cares?

It’s just personally I wonder if the quality does suffer with these ultra-prolific authors. Wouldn’t their work benefit from their slowing down just a little? Certainly, I, as a reader often find myself struggling to catch up.

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Once in a lifetime: is one great book in an entire career really enough?

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Harper Lee is eighty eight years old and is the author of one novel and one novel alone.  You’ve probably read it. To Kill A Mockingbird was published to huge acclaim in 1960. The book remains a classic and was made into a successful film in 1962. Lee did, in fact, work on a second novel in the Sixties entitled The Long Goodbye but eventually abandoned it. At the end of the day, To Kill A Mockingbird came out when Harper Lee was in her thirties and has never had a novel published since. She probably never will now.

Lee is not the only member of the “one novel only” club. Oscar Wilde wrote many plays, poems and stories but only one novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890. Other famous cases are, like Lee, female. Emily Bronte also wrote poems but unlike her sisters, only one novel Wuthering Heights in 1847 Anna Sewell only ever wrote Black Beauty (1877) Margaret Mitchell only ever wrote the massive Gone With The Wind (1936)

None of these examples are quite like Harper Lee though. Of these four, only Anna Swell made it past the age of fifty. Sewell, was in fact, well past that age, when her book was published but died soon afterwards.

Joseph Heller wrote five novels after the massive success of his debut antiwar satire Catch-22 in 1962. But none of them recaptured the magic of his debut novel. His sixth book Closing Time (1994) was actually a somewhat belated sequel to his most famous book. His last, Portrait of An Artist, as an Old Man focused on an elderly author trying to repeat the success of his earlier work. It was published in 2000, the year after Heller’s death.

Heller was never modest about his early success, however. Asked why he had never written anything as good as Catch-22, he would typically respond: “Neither has anyone else!”

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JD Salinger, increasingly reclusive in later life, wrote nothing for publication after the 1960s and nothing as good as 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger only died in 2010 and left several stories which he insisted, only wanted published fifty years after his death. So be patient, Salinger fans. More is on its way in the year 2060.

Donna Tartt’s story is happier, however. The Secret History was a big success in 1993 and since then she has published one novel a decade The Little Friend in 2002 and The Goldfinch, just last year. The latter, a very long book, was almost as well received as her first. The thriller writer Thomas Harris writes at a similar rate, publishing an average of a novel a decade (including the four Hannibal Lecter novels) since his first non-Hannibal book Black Sunday in 1975.

I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. On the one hand, if you are a writer shouldn’t you damn well write? Harper Lee clearly has a major talent. Imagine all the novels she could have produced in the fifty years since! What a waste.

On the other hand, she certainly wouldn’t have needed to write from a financial point of view: To Kill A Mockingbird remains very popular, although she had no way of knowing it would continue to endure so well when it was first published. Not every classic book does

There is also something undeniably cool about writing just one sensational hit and leaving the reading public wanting more.  Particularly, as any subsequent novels would undoubtedly have been compared to her first and however good they were, found wanting.

Besides, if Lee didn’t feel inspired, why should she not write anymore? It is unlikely any other book would have ever been as well received as her first.

And let’s face it: would we think more or less of Salinger or Heller had they only ever written one book? I’m guessing, we would probably esteem them more. Like a bad film sequel, their later works although by no means awful, slightly diminish the reputation of their early respective masterpieces.

That said, Harper Lee could now have produced a wealth of books. Like Daphne du Maurier or Donna Tartt, her debut might have overshadowed her other works. Daphne du Maurier will probably always be chiefly remembered as the author of Rebecca. But she also wrote Jamaica Inn. And the stories which inspired the classic films Don’t Look Now and The Birds.

Harper Lee certainly deserves the rich praise she has received. One truly great novel is more than most people, indeed most novelists, ever achieve.

But what more could she have done? We will probably never know now.

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