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

CA: Premiere Of Paramounts' Remake Of "The Manchurian Candidate" - Arrivals

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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Underrated: Rob Reiner

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Rob Reiner has directed some of the best loved films ever made.

He has mastered different genres to such an extent that you might not have realised that some of his films were even made by the same person. Who would, after all, assume A Few Good Men was linked to This is Spinal Tap? Or that Misery had anything to do with The Princess Bride? Or even that When Harry Met Sally was directed by the same man as Stand By Me?

Reiner directed them all.

Reiner has a long background in comedy. His father Carl Reiner was a noted US comedy star (now in his nineties) and directed the Steve Martin classic The Man With Two Brains. And like Ron Howard, Rob Reiner was a familiar face to US TV audiences long before he became a director. He was a regular on the long-running Seventies US comedy show, All In The Family. This is reflected in the fact that a good number of Reiner’s films have been comedies.

Just take a look at this list of Reiner’s incredible output between 1984 and 1996. Chances are, at least one of your favourite movies will be here:

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Reiner himself plays interviewer/director Marty DiBergi in this celebrated rock documentary parody about a fictional English band famed for their punctuality and their tendency to lose drummers: one spontaneously combusts on stage. Another chokes to death on vomit (somebody else’s vomit).

Nigel: “It really puts perspective on things though, doesn’t it?”
David: “Too much. There’s too much fucking perspective now”.

The Sure Thing (1985)

A lesser spotted Reiner but still very much a cult favourite, this stars John Cusack and future ER actor, Anthony Edwards and centres round a college road trip.

Stand By Me (1986)

Funny, poignant and moving, this coming of age drama based on a Stephen King novella (The Body), actually improves on its source material in its depiction of four boys embarking on a macabre camping expedition into the woods to see the body of a local boy in the 1950s. With great performances from its young cast and a number of classic scenes, this is Reiner’s greatest film.

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesusdoes anyone?”

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The Princess Bride (1987)

Inconceivable! But true. Rob Reiner also directed this hilarious and wonderful fairy tale which features everyone from Robin Wright, Peter Cook, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, Andre the Giant to Peter Falk.

“Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”.

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When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Famous for launching Meg Ryan’s decade of stardom and for “that scene” (Reiner’s late mother is the one who says “I’ll have what she’s having”), this Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy is endlessly watchable.

“When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.”

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Misery (1990)

Reiner’s second crack at Stephen King features a chilling Oscar winning turn by Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes the “Number One fan” of unfortunate writer and captive Paul Sheldon (James Caan). By my reckoning, two of the four best Stephen King adaptations are by Reiner (the others would be Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). Which isn’t bad going.

“I thought you were good Paul… but you’re not good. You’re just another lying ol’ dirty birdy”.

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A Few Good Men (1992)

Courtroom drama starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and an Aaron Sorkin script. Reiner’s biggest ever box office hit.

Col. Jessup: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I WANT THE TRUTH!

Col. Jessup: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

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North (1994)

The big exception during this period, this all star comedy was a total flop and is often rated as one of the worst films ever. Reiner, arguably, has never fully recovered from this. The critic Roger Ebert famously opined: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

The American President (1996)

Aaron Sorkin again with a film that effectively launched Michael J. Fox’s late Nineties Spin City TV comeback and foreshadowed Sorkin’s huge TV hit The West Wing. US president and widower Michael Douglas woos lobbyist Annette Bening. Fairly unambiguously aimed at helping President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, this is still a good, if perhaps not great film.

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Even ignoring North, it’s an incredible record. I make that six iconic great films in the space of a decade (Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men). Compare this to James Cameron who directed four iconic films over the same period (the two Terminators, Aliens and if you’re feeling generous, True Lies).  Fellow ex-sitcom star Ron Howard directed Splash in 1984 and then ten other movies over the same period up to 1996. Only one of these, Apollo 13, could conceivably described as “great”. So Reiner did very well indeed.

Why then is Rob Reiner not held in higher regard?

There are several reasons:

  1. He has genuinely gone off the boil since the mid-Nineties: there’s no denying this. With the possible exceptions of The Bucket List in 2008 (which is only okay), Ghosts of Mississippi, The Story Of Us, Rumor Has It… Alex & Emma and The Magic of Belle Isle were all total duds.
  2. The fact that his films are so different from each other is to Reiner’s credit. However, his successes have been so diverse that he has probably suffered from the fact that he is hard to pin down. What is a typical Rob Reiner film? This is difficult to say.
  3. His politics may have harmed him. South Park ridiculed him for his anti-smoking stance. He has campaigned for Al Gore, Howard Dean and still campaigns for Hillary Clinton. None of these presidential campaigns was successful.
  4. Even his successes were not always huge box office smashes. Even Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride were only modest hits at the time.
  5. Unusually, Reiner’s screenwriters – Nora Ephron, Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman have often received more credit for his films than he has. All were admittedly great.

But credit where credit’s due, Rob Reiner: six great films. That’s six more than most directors manage in a lifetime.