Don’t overlook the creative output of prolific writers

A library cleaning is always deeply satisfying. It’s also a good opportunity to take stock of your reading habits. Sifting through messy piles of books after a three-year gap with Covid, my husband and I recently discovered that we share a love for prolific writers – from Agatha Christie, the ‘queen of crime’ who wrote at least 66 mysteries and romances, to Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under three major heteronyms and several pseudonyms and left thousands of unpublished works.

Much of literary myth-making surrounds the authors who work on their books; friends suffering from jerky creative flow take comfort in the fact that James Joyce took 17 years to write Finnegans Wakeand JD Salinger spent 10 years on Catcher in the rye.

On the other hand, a slight whiff of condemnation hovers around the word “prolific”. It’s part of the literary snobbery and – perhaps – envy of productivity of many genre writers such as romance novelist Danielle Steel (190+ books) or Stephen King, who wrote at least 70 books and shows few signs of slowing down.

In 1973, the English writer Anthony Burgess (55 books, including 33 novels) felt compelled to defend his tribe in an interview for the Revue de Paris: “I was less annoyed by the mockery of my alleged overproduction than by the imputation that to write a lot means to write badly. I have always written with great care and even a certain slowness. I just put in a few more hours a day on the task than some writers seem capable of.

This generation’s crop of brilliant writers would no doubt agree. Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi, just 35 years old, tweeted recently: “The other day I realized in a conversation that I had released five books during this pandemic. FIVE.”

Emezi’s books have broken through the shackles of the genre — from Fresh water (2018), a semi-autobiographical fiction, and Animals (2019), a dark debut in young adult fiction, to Dear Senthuran (2021) a memoir in letters, and the living romance of this summer, You made a fool of death with your beauty. “My job in revolution is as a storyteller, to take those possibilities and turn them into stories [that] broadcast,” Emezi said in a recent Time magazine interview. This sense of mission is deep; Emezi (who uses “they” pronouns) has enough ideas to fuel another 10 books, and has reportedly signed contracts for the next three.

The belief that prolific writers lose quality because of their high output does not stand up to scrutiny. Stephen King’s work inevitably includes some hiccups (the 992 pages The Tommyknockersfor example) but he also produced timeless classics such as Carrie (1974) and Misery (1987) that transformed horror fiction. Over a lifetime, authors such as King or Joyce Carol Oates (58 novels in multiple literary genres) have proven that prolific writers can have the same success rate as slow writers.

I may have a soft spot for prolific writers because they think inspiration is a bottomless pit and they’re not afraid to publish their work.

A few years before his death in 2016, I had a long conversation at the Kolkata Book Fair with Mahasweta Devi, the Bengali writer whose powerful conscience was well matched by his tireless pen. In Bengal, she was an imposing figure. Of the more than 120 books she has written, from novel Aranyer Adhikar (The rights of the forest) about the turbulent life of tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda in breast stories, one of her many fierce and feminist collections of short stories, several of which have been made into films. These included Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma (The mother of prisoner no. 1084), released in 1998, about a mother who discovers that her son, lying dead in a police morgue, was Naxalite (or Maoist).

Devi, who was born in 1926 into a “cultured” (to use the approving idiom of an earlier age) Bengali family, has spent much of her life living alongside tribal people from West Bengal to Chhattisgarh. His novels, stories and plays were endlessly curious about India’s history and often furious about its present day. Many writers are encouraged to write for a specific market or subconsciously align themselves with a particular genre — instead, Devi followed her instincts, and much of her work was both fresh and absolutely fearless.

We met another Bengali writer while we were talking, who foolishly asked Mahasweta-di how she writes so much. “Why do you all write so little,” she said, “when there’s all this dark and beautiful life around you to choose from?”

Not everything in abundance is timeless or good, but a surprising number of writers who move like trains produce work that is both. For others, especially writers who believe that writing is a long and miserable journey between multiple drafts, I hope they find inspiration in Emezi’s words in Dear Senthuran“People can do such spectacular things if you forget to tell them it’s impossible. I want them to try.

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Coffee