When Words Come Rushing, Why Do We Build Dams?

October 9th, 2004 · 2 Comments
by Booksquare

While it’s rare that we point to the same article twice (except when it’s not rare), Elissa Schappell’s review of the new Nora Roberts book raises a question in our mind: what’s so bad about being prolific? Schappell’s review starts with:

More than 150 novels by Nora Roberts have been published in the last 23 years. In 2004 alone, this one-woman romantic-suspense-novel mill will crank out half a dozen…All this is enough to make Anthony Trollope, with a paltry 47 novels, and Joyce Carol Oates, still plugging away with over 50 works of fiction, seem like mere plodders.

If we were to read an article about Joyce Carol Oates, there would be a similar paragraph, if not a near-duplicate of this lead. While we don’t know about Oates’s daily writing schedule, we do know that Roberts works long hours. She writes, by all accounts, daily, even when vacationing. She’s lucky in that she’s successful enough to have people who handle the administrative aspects of her writing, but when you get down to it, her output and pace are a result of constant work.

This does not mean that her every word is genius. She tells great stories — it’s easy to be swept up in her work — but not every book hits the mark. This is the downside of rushing so much. But even if she were to slow her pace, she would still be very prolific. Like we said, this doesn’t excuse her missteps. We’d say there should be some editorial roadblocks, but we know the economic reality — a Nora Roberts book is going to sell no matter what the quality. In the end, it will be the readers who set printed output.

Throughout history, there have always been authors who outpace their peers when it comes to pages written. This innate wordiness always seems to be viewed with some suspicion. Is it that the prolific ones don’t seem to pay the same level of attention to obsessively rewriting every sentence that less prolific authors do? Is that slower writers are jealous? Is that so many words simply cannot be healthy? One can only run so many marathons before the knees quit — is it the same for writing?

There is a weird pressure thing we’ve noticed: too much is suspect, too little is career-threatening. It’s almost like authors, especially in genre fiction, are expected to maintain a specfic pace. No author should move outside the pack, and no lagging, please. The readers will forget you. It would be nice to have a little more faith in readers, yes, but what is one to do when faced with conventional wisdom, buck it?

So what’s the deal with prolific? Why can’t it be trusted? Or maybe we should ask the question in another way: What ever happened to letting art be made on its own schedule? Is that really so bad?

File Under: Tools and Craft

2 responses so far ↓

  • Brenda Coulter // Oct 10, 2004 at 12:25 pm

    Sorry, Booksquare, but which lines were you reading between? I didn’t see anything in Shappell’s NYT article that suggested writing fast and writing well were mutually exclusive. No, Shappell doesn’t appear to be particularly enamored with Nora Roberts’ latest offering (or with Roberts’ writing, in general) but she did not hint that Roberts could write better books if only she would slow down a bit.

    I always enjoy reading your rants, but I’m curious about what provoked this one.

  • booksquare // Oct 10, 2004 at 9:38 pm

    Ah, then perhaps I wasn’t clear — the first paragraph (which I redacted) suggests a prejudice against the prolific (cranks, mill). These words do not suggest this type of output is a positive accomplishment; they hint that there’s something not right with prolific writing. I read a recent interview with Joyce Carol Oates (which I can’t find, darn it!) where her output was as much the story as her new book. Sure, it’s relevant, but I don’t recall there being any sort of analysis that indicates this is as normal a state for an author as the (equally suspect in its own way) taking ten or twenty years between a novel. I get a sense there’s a norm and authors who fall outside the lines need to explain themselves. This interview with Oates:

    ‘The Falls’ is a dark beauty by Joyce Carol Oates, October Talking Volumes author

    addresses this topic (in the third section). Why should it matter if she writes one or two or eight books a year? On the flipside, if you’re writing that fast, are you doing the best you can for your craft? This is the topic I’m wrestling with, especially as I’m trying to slow myself down a bit.

    The rest, of course, is my interpretation and speculation of why prolific bothers some.people. I believe Roberts would be better served by a slower pace. I found the review to be fair, but I am also a longtime fan of the author, a fan who thinks she sometimes rushes the production line. This results in a certain sameness to her works — Schappell alludes to this — that is both comforting and makes one less likely to rush out and buy her new books. When I consider where she’s been innovative (the JD Robb series and some of the single titles over the past five years) versus where she’s been almost painting by numbers (the trilogies), I think her pace certainly affects her product.

    I hope others weigh in on this topic — I’m curious to see if I’m nuts (highly possible) or reading more into a topic than exists.