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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Five Classic Books which take no time to read…

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Want to become very well read but don’t have much time to spare? Then try these…

Goodbye Mr Chips: James Hilton

Is it possible too condense a Victorian schoolteacher’s life from 1870s upstart to 1930s school institution in a few hours’ reading? Hilton shows us how it should be done. Actually quicker than watching the Martin Clunes TV version.

Candide: Voltaire

Sounds highbrow doesn’t it? Voltaire? But it’s honestly really easy, short and fun to read. And you’ll soon be able to explain what “Panglossian” means.

Animal Farm: George Orwell

A great novella and much more political than The Animals of Farthing Wood.

The Catcher in the Rye: JD Salinger

A short one, brilliantly written, although to be fair, more rewarding if you read it twice. This still won’t take you long though.

A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens

Dickens isn’t exactly famed for his brevity but this one really is a speedy read (my wife and I even managed to read it off the same e-reader simultaneously). You might want to save it for December though.

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13 books that would make the BBC’s Big Read list were it held in 2013

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Ten years have passed since the BBC launched its “Big Read” with the aim of finding the nation’s best loved novel.

The results, drawn from three quarter of million votes, are repeated below. Voters could initially vote for any novel they wanted although the top 21 were then voted for again, on condition that one book per author was permitted for the top 21.

THE ORIGINAL BIG READ TOP 100 (2003)

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
  8. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  11. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  12. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  13. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
  14. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  15. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  16. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  17. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  18. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
  20. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  21. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  22. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
  23. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
  24. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
  25. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  26. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  27. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  28. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  29. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  30. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  31. The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson
  32. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  33. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  34. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  36. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  37. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
  38. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  39. Dune by Frank Herbert
  40. Emma by Jane Austen
  41. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  42. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  43. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  44. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  45. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  46. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  47. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  48. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  49. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
  50. The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
  51. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  52. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  53. The Stand by Stephen King
  54. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  55. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  56. The BFG by Roald Dahl
  57. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  58. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  59. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
  60. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  61. Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
  62. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  63. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  64. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
  65. Mort by Terry Pratchett
  66. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
  67. The Magus by John Fowles
  68. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  69. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
  70. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  71. Perfume by Patrick Süskind
  72. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
  73. Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
  74. Matilda by Roald Dahl
  75. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  76. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  77. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  78. Ulysses by James Joyce
  79. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  80. Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson
  81. The Twits by Roald Dahl
  82. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  83. Holes by Louis Sachar
  84. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
  85. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  86. Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson
  87. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  88. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  89. Magician by Raymond E. Feist
  90. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  91. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  92. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
  93. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
  94. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  95. Katherine by Anya Seton
  96. Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer
  97. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  98. Girls in Love by Jacqueline Wilson
  99. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  100. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

It’s hardly for me to pass judgement on the biggest survey of public reading thus held (although I am about to, anyway!). However, I do feel the list holds up pretty well in the age of the e-reader. The top 21 seems pretty solid. Some might question the presence of so many children’s books but these are often the “best-loved” books after all. I would be more inclined to question the decision to include the Narnia and His Dark Materials books as one book apiece while each of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are included as separate entities.

Would the likes of The Thorn Birds and Goodnight Mr Tom have made the list today? It is not clear.

However, had the Big Read been conducted in 2013, I’m sure the following novels would have found a place somewhere:

1, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling.

2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time by Mark Haddon

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (and possibly the sequel, Bringing Up The Bodies)

6. One Day by David Nicholls

7. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (and sequels?)

8. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (and sequels?)

9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (and sequels?)

10. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (and sequels?)

11. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

12. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

13. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

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Iain Banks : where to start?

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Iain Banks, who died this month, was one of my favourite writers.

In a career spanning twenty-nine years, he wrote an impressive twenty-nine books including the science fiction Culture books (as “Iain M. Banks”: his middle name was Menzies). To my shame, I’ve largely not read very many of these though I would recommend The Player of Games (1987).

But, to the uninitiated, which of Banks’  “mainstream” novels is best to start with? Let’s take a look…

The Wasp Factory (1984)

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.

It was just a stage I was going through.”

The first book Banks was published when he was still in his twenties and might seem the obvious place to start. Indeed, it’s the first Banks book I ever read, aside from the first Culture novel Consider Phlebas (which I didn’t enjoy).

Be warned though, while brilliant, this is a darker offering than any of Banks’ other books. Frank, the “hero” is a sexually, confused, isolated and, indeed, homicidal teen. His older brother enjoys setting fire to dogs and Frank himself lives in a superstitious dream world, many of his activities (which include fighting a real life giant bunny) are dictated by the factory of the title, a bizarre construction of his own. The book generated a tabloid furore and Banks did well to escape its shadow.

Fact: A stage version of the book has been produced and performed.

Walking on Glass (1985) and The Bridge (1986)

Both fairly outlandish books and Walking on Glass is not a total success. I would not recommend either book as a starting point. Yet The Bridge, dealing with the aftermath of a road accident, is one of Banks’ best.

Fact: Iain Banks frequently cited The Bridge as his own favourite of his own novels.

Espedair Street (1987)

“Two days ago I decided to kill myself. “

A tale of rock and roll excess viewed from its aftermath by bass guitarist Dan “Weird” Weir of fictional band Frozen Gold. Despite the grim opening line (above), it is one of Banks’ cheeriest novels and an excellent place to start.

Fact: Banks admitted he did no research for this book whatsoever.

Canal Dreams (1989)

Banks recently said this attempt at a political thriller was one of the few books he was unsatisfied with. I would agree that it is a disappointing. I would argue A Song of Stone (1997), The Business (1999) and Transition (2009) also represent rare Banks misfires.

The Crow Road (1992)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Banks’ masterpiece, a time jumping family saga centring on teen Prentice McHoan and his conflict with his atheist father and quest for his long lost Uncle Rory. The book spans fifty years ranging from Prentice’s own father’s wartime childhood to Prentice’s present. The usual dark humour, discussion of politics, piss-ups, drug use and a murder mystery element are also thrown in. Brilliant.

Fact: A decent TV adaptation appeared in 1996 featuring Bill Paterson and Peter Capaldi (later of The Thick Of It).

Complicity (1993)

A rival to The Wasp Factory, for the title of Iain Banks’ darkest novel this centres on Cameron Colley, a journalist addicted to drugs, computer games and sex who finds himself under suspicion after a series of bizarre murders. Excellent.

Fact: A film version received a limited release in 2000. Most felt Jonny Lee Miller (of Trainspotting), then in his twenties and best known for his marriage to Angelina Jolie, was too young for the main role.

Whit (1995)

Teenaged Isis leaves her small Scottish cult to explore the outside world. Plot-wise, a bit iffy, but an enjoyable book nevertheless.

Fact: Also known as “Isis Amongst The Unsaved”.

Dead Air (2001)

An intriguing premise; the main character is a left-wing British shock jock DJ, but the novel feels a bit rushed.

Fact: One of the first novels to deal with the events of September 11th (an event cleverly evoked by the cover).

The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)

The Wopold family made rich by the board game Empire! meet to discuss their future. A return to form for Banks with similarities to The Crow Road.

Stonemouth (2012)

Stewart Gilmour returns three years after being chased out of his home town. Highly enjoyable.

My review of The Quarry (Banks’ final book) will appear shortly. I am thoroughly enjoying it, however. My only sadness is that there will be no more Iain Banks books to come. He was truly a great author.

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