I recently had a conversation with an Irish writer, one whose work I admire a lot, and the subject of being prolific came up. This writer calculated that, at her current rate of progress, she might manage to get nine books written in her lifetime. She liked to take her time, to mull over her work, and couldn't imagine writing at a faster rate, however much she might like to. That was fine, I thought. She's a very fine writer, and if it takes three years to produce work of such quality, then that's how long it takes.
Mind you, I did feel a bit embarrassed. Even if I'm struck down by a bolt of lightning tomorrow, my ninth book will be published this year. Compared to her, I was knocking them out at quite a rate. I wondered if I should be writing at a slower pace. Then again, it wasn't like I was writing tens of thousands of words each day. As it happens, I do write quite slowly, but I write a little almost every day. I also do lots of other things, like drink coffee, read books, watch DVDs (I have, I must confess, watched an entire series of Battlestar Galactica this week. It was a gift, and I was a bit dubious about it when I received it but, frankly, I'm hooked. My bad.), annoy those dear to me, and generally live a full, if sometimes dull, life. If I were to write any more slowly, I wouldn't be doing anything at all.
The issue seems pertinent in light of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Rising. I had to review it for The Irish Times, and was rather looking forward to it. After all, it was Harris, it had taken years to write, and I was one of that rare breed who was willing to mount a fairly reasoned defence of the much maligned Hannibal.
Hannibal Rising is a very peculiar book, and appeared seven years after Hannibal. I suspect, from reading reviews, that it didn't live up to expectations, mine included. Had Harris really spent seven years writing this book, and did that, in some way, work against him? Were expectations too high? After all, it does seem to me that there is sometimes a tendency to judge a book by the length of time that it took to write, as if there were some direct correllation between time and quality. Had Hannibal Rising appeared a year after Hannibal, would the critical knives used upon it have been quite so sharp?
(Perhaps, too, such matters eventually reach a kind of critical mass in certain cases, so that the time spent on the production of a work actually mitigates against a favorable reception. Why would J.D. Salinger even bother to publish now even if he has, as some suggest, been writing away for all these years and locking the results in a safe. No matter what he produces, it will never be good enough to justify decades of non-publication.)
I recall reading Donna Tartt's The Secret History and, like most of those who read it, I loved it. A decade later came The Little Friend and, while it was impressive in parts, it didn't seem to me that there was a decade of progress in the writing. To be honest, I don't think it's as good a book as her debut, although there is much to admire in it. The same could be said about Hannibal, which is also separated from its predecessor, The Silence of the Lambs, by a decade or thereabouts. What, the reader might legitimately wonder, was Harris doing for that period? Was he slowly, painstakingly, creating Hannibal, and did he follow it with another seven years of toil on Hannibal Rising? Perhaps so, but the effort does not seem to me to have been matched by the quality of the finished book in either case. Hannibal has fewer flaws than Hannibal Rising, but after seventeen years such judgements seem rather relative.
Charles Dickens would have been appalled by such a workrate. Between 1837 and 1841, which included a period of two years during which he edited Bentley's Miscellany, he published Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, and The Old Curiosity Shop in monthly installments. These are not small books. He wrote to put bread on the table, to satisfy the demands of his readers and, one imagines, because he rather liked writing.
Dickens was unusually productive, even for his time, and I doubt that there will never be another writer like him, one capable of combining quantity with a quality touched by genius, but there is something to be said for taking his application to his craft as a model. I suspect that Dickens learned, not just from writing, but from the act of publishing, of writing with a publication deadline in mind that forced him not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Human beings, after all, learn not just from the tasks that they carry out, but the tasks that they complete. Only then can success or failure be judged, and a lesson learned from the process.
Looking back, I spent the best part of five years working on my first book before it was published. In theory, I could still be working on it now, making changes and improvements to the manuscript, yet I doubt that the book would be significantly better for them. I took what I had learned, and applied it to the book that followed, and I think I have been doing that ever since. Whether readers notice or not is another matter, but I notice. With each book that I complete, I learn something new and so, slowly, I progress.
I suppose this is a mild attempt to defend the prolific, or the relatively prolific. In the end, what matters is that a writer produces his or her best work in whatever time it takes to write it, whether that is one year or ten years. We all work at different paces, and if, at the end, a book emerges with which the author can be content, then the pace has been appropriate. When I look at the little shelf of books that bear my name, I feel reasonably happy with what I have achieved. When each was handed over to my publishers, it represented the best that I could do at that time, and I don't think any of them would have been significantly better for another five or ten years of labor. I don't think that even one would have made much difference.
I guess, when it comes down to it, I'm just not a ten year kind of guy.
Recently John has read
Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
Perfume by Patrick Suskind
A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming
Next by Michael Crichton
The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
and has listened to
Mend by De Rosa
Holy Heathens and The Old Green Man by Watterson-Carthy
Ys by Joanna Newsom
Coins & Crosses by Ryan Teague