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Prolific and Super-prolific writers

23 May, 2009

At the Katoomba part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week, novelist Michelle de Kretser said she sets herself a daily goal of 500 words. This habit must work for her because in the last eight years she has published three acclaimed novels: The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case, and The Lost Dog.

A pretty good output? I thought so until I read about writers who are not just productive but awe-inspiringly prolific.


In his NY Times essay, Can’t. Stop. Writing (19 Feb 09), Geoff Nicholson identifies famous writers of literary fiction and nonfiction noted for their long  productive careers:

  • Joyce Carol Oates: 100 books in 45 years
  • John Updike:  60-some books in 50 years, plus poetry
  • William T. Vollman: not only 20 books in 20 years, but, according to Nicholson, they are ‘mostly whoppers: an 800-page novel here, a seven-volume study of violence there.’

Nicholson wonders if prolificacy results from writers judging each published work, even if it is successful, as ‘a sort of failure’. They keep writing, trying to make a a better job of it the next time. He applies a  famous quote from a Samuel Beckett play to describe this writerly quest: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Nicholson also suggests two kinds of prolificacy: normal and extreme. The normally prolific writers control their output, but for the extremely prolific, their writing controls them.

Genre fiction

Nicholson has two suggestions for writers if you want to be prolific: Live longer, which gives you more time to produce, and write genre fiction.

In David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace’s list of the 20 most prolific authors and writers in literary history, most wrote genre fiction: westerns, children’s adventures, romance, and crime. It makes sense. A genre provides a familiar framework, freeing writers from having to invent every element each time they write.

Perhaps genre writers may be prolific because they have to be. These days, their publishers and their fans expect a new book each year. The more the newer writers in the genre produce, the more chance they have for the insatiable readers of the genre to find them and become fans.

Crime/detective lit: Crime writers of series establish their characters, milieu, and style in their first book, then draw upon this for their subsequent books. The queen of crime writing, Agatha Christie, was prolific, with 55 detective novels, plus her short stories and screenplays. Currently, Sue Grafton is up to the letter ‘T’ in her alphabet series and Janet Evanovich is up to 15 in her number series.

The prolificacy prize, goes to Georges Simenon, who featured his character,  Maigret, in 75 novels and 28 short stories. Simenon also wrote approximately 300 other novels and novellas, plus pulp fiction (under more than two dozen pseudonyms) and nonfiction. According to Wikipedia, he was ‘capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day.’

Romance lit: The romance genre also provides a set framework for writers—girl meets boy, girl loses or misunderstands boy, girl reunites with boy. A current prolific writer in this genre is Danielle Steel, who has written about 100 romance blockbusters.

Her record pales when compared to that of Barbara Cartland. Cartland published 700 books, sometimes 20 in one year. Admittedly, her novels were smaller than Steel’s. She dictated many of her plots, which meant that when she died she still had 160 novels in the pipeline. Impressive?

What about Spanish romance writer Corin Tellado? When she died recently, aged 81, she had published 4,000 books, many which were turned into radio serials, movies and television soap operas. She published her first novel in 1946 when she was 19 and finished the manscript of her last novel in April 2009, three days before her death.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. glitchunter permalink
    27 April, 2012 5:07 am

    “A genre provides a familiar framework, freeing writers from having to invent every element each time they write.”

    Then Literary Fiction is far more of a genre than Sci-fi or fantasy, which would defy the classic definition. After all, for a science fiction or fantasy work, you have to create an entire world, with a different culture and different ways of doing things, whereas literary fiction is usually set in a more familiar place and time.


    • 28 April, 2012 8:45 am

      Interesting way to look at that. Others would say that sci-fi fans would still come to a new sci-fi novel with expectations, the same way that mystery readers look for familiar elements in a new mystery novel. With literary fiction, you’re right that the time and place may be familiar (or not, depending on the culture the novel it set in), but the plot itself may not follow any kind of familiar line. Of course, there are hybrids, which complicates any sense of defining each area distinctly.


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