Friday Column: Prodigious Writers

To get us started, a couple familiar Frenchmen. Honore de Balzac wrote well over 100 novels and plays. The great majority of them went to his monumental cycle The Human Comedy. Emile Zola, no laggard is nonetheless diminished by comparison: he was only the author of 30-some books, although it undoubtedly would have been more if he hadn’t died of a carbon monoxide poisoning that many believe was an assassination. Similar to Balzac, the heft of his oeuvre consists in a cycle of novels—Les Rougon-Macquart (the name of a family) in this case, and there are 20 of them.

Georges Simenon, by my count, has everyone beat. He was the author hundreds of books, but of course they all weren’t literary; most Simenon aficionados will tell you that only about 100 of them carry that distinction. (NYRB is bravely bringing them into English.) In a good year he could write 30. He would beat out the thin books in a week, and if it took much longer he couldn’t stand to work any more. As he told The Paris Review (quoted in this Bookforum article):

On the eve of the first day I know what will happen in the first chapter. Then, day after day, chapter after chapter, I find what comes later. After I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day. Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel. . . . All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels. . . . And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t—it’s impossible. I have to—it’s physical. I am too tired.

Everyone’s favorite prodigious writer, Joyce Carol Oates, is no Simenon. In fact, she’s not even a Balzac. She’s only published about 70 works, almost split evenly between novels and short story collections (with a few odds and ends tossed in). Give her some time, though. She’s not done yet, and at the clip she’s going she’ll give Balzac a run for his money.

Not always thought of as a prodigious writer, Graham Greene wrote 33 books; most of them novels, some of them autobiography, and a few of them travel narratives. On top of that he wrote 18 plays and screenplays. John Steinbeck wrote 31 novels. Philip Roth, in the high 20s, is closing in on that.

Argentine author Cesar Aira has written 63 novels and shows no signs of quitting. Like Simenon, Aira tends to write exclusively short novels (The Hare, one of three Aira books available in English, is one of his longest, at 223 pages), and they often follow the author’s flights of fancy, regardless of plot or context. In one book, a pregnant woman is murdered and the fetus is taken from her womb, carried throughout as a mascot named "the little gaucho." Another, How I Became a Nun (also available in English), begins with a daughter’s first taste of ice cream, which turns out to be laced with cyanide (this is based on an actual occurrence in Argentina) and tragi-comedically leads to the father accidentally killing the vendor. These flights, however, don’t mean that Aira’s books don’t come together, though. In the opinion of one essayist:

[Aira’s literary] versatility is possible only because at the heart of each Aira novel there is a marvelously ingenious storytelling device—a premise, central anecdote, or plot mechanism—which Aira exploits to the nth potential. He has a vertigo-inducing capacity to suggest a cornucopia of stories even while telling just one.

There are some up-and-comers among prodigious writers. Haruki Murakami has published some 15 novels and short story collections since 1980. That’s not counting his many translations, of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Paul Theroux, among others. He’s 58 now and he says he’ll write till he’s at least 80, and if that holds true then his complete output will need its own bookcase. He claims to write for 5 hours a day between 4:00 and 9:00 am, to have written every day for the past several years, to have completed his 500-page novel Kafka on the Shore in six months, and to pound out each of his numerous short stories in under a week.

This brings up a good question: What is the method of a prodigious author? Balzac worked intensely and may have sent himself to an early grave. He claimed to have once written for 45 hours out of 48. He would go to sleep at 6 in the afternoon, sleep to midnight, and then wake up for hours of work.

By contrast to Balzac, who was prodigious in spite of his mania for revising his novels, Aira claims not to edit his work at all. He believes in what he has called "the constant flight forward," a concept by which editing is tantamount to stepping backward. It’s a reckless, maybe even haphazard way of writing, but the results are hard to argue with.

But to return to the up-and-comers. Eric Chevillard has written 18 novels since 1987. He’s similar to Aira in that his writing is said to feel unedited. He takes an idea and wrings out perturbation after perturbation until he feels like he’s had enough, and then the book just stops, wherever.

William T. Vollmann has published 17 books since 1989. This is deceptive, though, since many of them close in on 1,000 pages, and one of his works is arguably 7 works (the complete set being 3,300 pages long). A repetitive stress injury and a stroke haven’t stopped Vollmann; nor have they appeared to have slowed him down, as he’s published a book each for 2008, 2007, and 2006.

Lydie Salvayre, whose novels are written as short, paranoiac, almost chaotic monologs, has published some 13 books since 1990, when, in her mid-40s, she launched into the literary world from a career as a psychiatrist. (Despite publishing 13 novels in 18 years, she still practices.)

Last we come to the Italian novelist Paola Capriolo, an award-winning author who is often identified as a major voice in the future of Italian fiction. Since 1988 she’s published more than 15 books. With their bending of space, time, and reality, they are often referred to as "fantastic," as in "somewhat unreal," but the author prefers the term "ambiguous." The are often praised as highly inventive and postmodern in the best sense of the word.

Balzac aside, prodigious writers contradict the idea of the author who labors day after day refining a novel until it is hewn just right; their output is so large that it’s hard not to get the impression that at least a few of their books are disposable. To close, I quote Murakami: "I’d say my readers are in a certain way addicted to my style of writing. They are loyal readers. That’s why I know that they will put up with reading my next novel, even if it’s just so-so. Although they probably wouldn’t buy my book if it’s really bad, I at least have confidence in myself that what I write won’t be that bad."


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I wrote an essay about long novels and short novels which might be relevant.
Writing today is an economic issue. Those who can do it full time have an easier time being prolific, to restate the obvious. Less lucrative forms of writing take more time. Also, I think the beselling novelist can afford an editor to clean his writing up later on (negating the need do revisins on one’s own).
BTW, don’t forget above Asimov.

Simenon was a master of the psychological novel. His method was to mine the diamond, polish it, then with one blow split it into perfection. In these days of short attention spans, he is prescient, and has created a class of modern novels that fit well with today’s reader, assaulted on all sides by time consuming distractions. He understood how the economy of language can get the same emotional effects as paragraphs of bloated prose. As a novelist, whose 30th book will be published next month, I have always considered him my ultimate role model.

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