The Problem Of Prolificity

The following clip aired about a month ago, but I just recently came across it and want to point out a few things. Yes, it's about Jonathan Franzen, who, believe it or not, I don't hate. That's right, I haven't jumped on that bandwagon. I mean, really, what is there to hate about the guy? His talent? Have we really gotten to the point in our society where we hate people just because they are talented and successful? Okay, on second thought, the answer is obvious, but that's stupid.

In the following clip the deputy managing editor of Time magazine reveals their new cover, which is the one featuring Franzen. The last time an author graced the cover of Time magazine it was Stephen King. Which is interesting considering what all he says. Just watch.

Did you catch it? The man hasn't even read the novel yet. The person they really should have had on to promote the cover was Lev Grossman himself. But anyway, he makes it a point to mention how this is "not a small book. It's not weird. It's not odd." It's one of those books that "if you can get through it, will help you understand the way we live now."

Now I'm currently reading this particular book, about 80 pages in. It's good. I'm enjoying it. Is it the best novel I've read in the past decade? Too early to say. As a writer, I certainly appreciate a magazine like Time trying to make a point about novelists and getting more people to read (though, let's be honest, the vast majority of Time’s readership already reads more than one book a year).

But the impression I get from this clip is that the real reason Freedom is such a great novel is because it is not only 600 pages long, but it took the author almost a decade to write. Let's not forget that Justin Cronin's The Passage clocks in at a little under 800 pages and no doubt took him a few years to write.

Oh, but that's right. The Passage is "commercial" fiction. Freedom is "literary" fiction. Is there a difference? You bet you ascot there is.

See, the purpose of commercial fiction is entertainment and to sell a lot of books. The purpose of literary fiction is to write great art and win or be nominated for some really big awards ... and if it sells a few copies, great.

Stephen King could probably write a 600 page novel in a weekend, and it would be published and get somewhat good reviews and sell a lot of copies and be made into a movie. And then a year later the same thing would happen. He's a writer of -- yep, you guessed it -- commercial fiction.

But Franzen? He's a literary writer. It took him almost a decade to produce a 600 page novel. That's works out to about 60 pages a year.

Please keep in mind, I'm not knocking Franzen. I respect him and his work. But it's the perception of certain people that really irritates me. They see that it took him a decade to write his new book and they immediately think, Well it must be good because he put so much time and effort into it. And maybe he did. But these same people will look at writers like, say, Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner, and see that it took them only a year to write a new book and they'll think, Well, I'm sure it will be entertaining, but it can't be that good if they were able to write it so quickly.

It's that wonderful problem of prolificity (which, by the way, is a word). But just what makes a writer prolific? One book a year? One book every two years? One book every five?

Of course, it depends on what kind of fiction you write. If it's commercial, then you are expected to produce at least one book a year. If it's literary, your best bet is to take a few years off, then spend a few months writing a new novel, then take a few more years off, then turn in your novel to the publisher. Oh yes, it will be an event. Who knows, you might even get your picture on the cover of Time.

Again, I'm not knocking Franzen. I'm just knocking the skewed way some people think. I mean, you saw the clip. Talking about how in our ADD-filled world of Twitter and Facebook and blah blah blah. These are the same people who will thumb their noses at something like, oh I don't know, an anthology of stories in 25 words or fewer. Would a book like that have been published ten years ago? Maybe. But even though it's being published today (or in two months), does that make it any less value or is simply a testament to our rapidly declining attention spans?

Awhile back, I was in New York and met a doctor who knew many important people in the world. We got to talking about writing and he mentioned how one of his favorite writers was Joyce Carol Oates. He mentioned how he knew someone who was on the committee who handled the Nobel Prize for Literature. He said he had asked this person whether they would ever consider Oates for the award. The response was simple: No, because she publishes too much and in too many genres.

Sad, yes, but that's prolificity for you.