The More the Merrier

When I saw that Steven King had written a column in this weekend’s New York Times about profligate authors, my mind immediately went to this blink-and-you-miss-it joke from Futurama:


That was done in February 2001. He’s published 19 books since.

What I’m saying is that Steven King is amazingly productive when it comes to writing. He is also, of course, very very good at it. After all, here’s a guy who’s spent most of his life in the genre ghetto and had nonetheless won the National Book Award. He doesn’t need to do much more than point to that award to debunk the idea that quality is inversely proportional to quality.

So let’s ignore that – or rather take that point as given – and ask why the contrary holds true for so many people? Why do we tend to view people who put out lots of creative product – books, music, movies, you name it – aren’t as good?

One reason is that people figure that if you’re cranking out product at such a prodigious clip you must be scrimping on quality. It’s certainly possible that some creators would do that, releasing their stuff upon the world without a lot of editing or polishing. But it’s equally possible that whoever we’re talking about is just that prodigious. For some people writing is a hard slog, something that takes weeks and months to get right. Others are just able to pour forth things from the mind, tapping into a wellspring of creativity. We people in the first group aren’t fond of people in the second group, but that’s our petty problem.

The bigger issue, I think, is that the more someone produces the more their best stuff seems to get watered down, somehow. With only To Kill a Mockingbird on her resume Harper Lee was an undisputed master, a woman with a perfect batting average for writing classic American novels. Now that Go Set a Watchman has been released to less than thunderous applause, she’s batting 50 percent. Still really good, but somehow less impressive. Which is silly, because even if she followed up Mockingbird with a string of badly written shallow zombie mysteries Mockingbird itself is still what it is. But it takes some of the aura of inspiration off when somebody who hits a homerun their first time up at bat can only manage bloop singles (at best) for her other at bats.

Another issue is that the more product someone produces the more likely they are to experiment or move out of their comfort zone, potentially alienating existing fans. Steve Hackett’s had a pretty productive solo career (24 albums since 1975) that’s frequently jumped outside his progressive rock comfort zone to include a blues album and albums of orchestral material. As it happens, I’m not a huge fan of Hackett’s tangents, so I can see where someone’s overall opinion of an artist like him would dip at the perceived diminishing returns. But on the other hand, that’s silly because, no matter how many other albums he makes, Voyage of the Acolyte, Please Don’t Touch, Darktown, and several others will continue to be brilliant.

Which is to say that no matter how strange the creative mind may be, the minds of the people we create for can be even stranger. “Quality” is as much about perception as anything else and it’s nearly impossible to control how perfect strangers perceive you. If your muse only lets you grind out a new work every decade, don’t force it. But if your muse won’t shut up and helps you pop out something every month, don’t stifle it. Do what works for you.

Stephen King’s got your back – what more do you need?


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