Stephen King: Too prolific?

In an article for the New York Times (27 August 2015), Stephen King addressed a topic which has apparently struck a raw nerve. That is, can an author be too prolific?

King has been accused of being too prolific – including by me, in a review of his Doctor Sleep. In that review I wrote

“King is a talented writer who has not written a wonderful novel in many years, perhaps not since Misery in 1987. He has written far too much – no novelist has 50 decent (let alone good) novels in him.”

King contends that sometimes an author is compelled to write. Fair enough. But that does not make the writing worth reading. The question that King does not address is not how much an author writes but how much he publishes. There is no one in the world, apart from King and his immediate famliy and closest friends, who might want to restrict how much King writes. Writing is a private matter. Publishing is public. The question is: why is an author compelled to publish so much?

King is a famous and popular novelist. Anything he publishes will sell in huge, impressive or reasonable amounts. He has built this goodwill and high profile on some wonderful books and some good film adaptations of these books. But his output has been unreliable for some time and has included a few books that are virtually unreadable. This is written by a long-time fan, who thinks that The Shining, Misery and Pet Sematary are great books by any standards. But even this goodwill has been worn thin by Dreamcatcher, Needful Things and The Regulators – the last is the only book I have hurled across a room in frustration and never picked up again. I keep willing each successive book to reach the heights of King’s early writing career. It is true that while some are pretty good and few are actually as bad as those three novels – but none are as exciting or vigorous as the early novels. And this is a sentiment shared widely among fans who feel worn down by disappointing novels published at a rate of 1 or 2 per year.

There are enough good scenes, memorable characters, powerful imagery and engaging ideas in his later books. The problem is that they are spread over 30 mediocre books rather than condensed into 3 really good ones. Of course, the difficulty is that one does not know exactly how good or bad a book is until it is written and each element exists only in the context of the framework around it. So it is not possible to lift characters, plots and images and to collage them into organic wholes. Yet this process of condensation and winnowing does take place in the minds of some authors, resulting in sparingly few high-quality works. King is not that sort of writer.

There is a belief that overthinking can drain the freshness of a concept or undermine the will to write it. But in those cases, perhaps the initial idea was simply not good enough and it could therefore die privately and with dignity. The essence of the problem is that King loves writing, that (as he admits) he rarely completely plots novels before writing and that through force of habit he cannot step back and assess an idea without actually writing it. And once it is written there seems no obstacle to polishing it then publishing. Hence the endless cycle of writing and publication without adequate scrutiny.

If King had just published his ten best novels and novellas and nothing else, he would today be held in very high esteem. It is not only snobbery towards the horror genre but disappointment at some of the sub-standard work King has published that has damaged his reputation. We esteem writers not just for their best work but for their consistency and their refusal to put forward poor work. If King resents the fact that he has not got the respect he deserves until only recently and grudgingly, he must also concede that his own erratic production has contributed to this situation.

It is all very well to say “let the public decide” and publish everything that is finished, but a great craftsman – no matter what his genre – takes pride in his work. It is not just a matter of taste, of disliking this or that book; it is a question of competence. There are some places in the later books where problems with plot, tone or theme impinge on the attentive reader but King or his editors have allowed the books to be published with serious flaws. And it is true that even the worst of King’s books are better than the best of lesser authors, but that’s no way the serve fans or posterity.

If King feels burned by criticism of his later output, it isn’t half as burned as some of his fans feel having read – and often paid for –  some of his later novels.

As a poet and an artist who publishes and exhibits relatively rarely – and obscurely – I cannot know or guess properly at how it is for an author to be offered large amounts of money to make work public. Nor do I understand what legal or personal obligations any particular author might be under. But I do understand that my reputation, however obscure it is, rests on the consistent quality of the work I make public. I write that as someone grateful for King’s best work and as someone who considers him a talented writer and a compelling presence in American culture.

King concludes his piece:

“My thesis here is a modest one: that prolificacy is sometimes inevitable, and has its place. The accepted definition — “producing much fruit, or foliage, or many offspring” — has an optimistic ring, at least to my ear.”

To which one might counter: even the best of trees need judicious pruning.