Too Little or Too Much?

Another consequence of crime fiction aligning itself with « literary » standards that I didn’t discuss yesterday is that modern authors as a rule are far less prolific than their predecessors.

Your typical vintage crime writer averaged two or three books a year, not to mention the short stories that came in between (I’m not counting phenomenons like Georges Simenon, John Creasey, Earl Stanley Gardner or Cecil John Street whose productivity was so high that you wonder how they could find time to, well, live.) The bibliographies of writers such as Mignon G. Eberhart, John Dickson Carr, Michael Gilbert, E.C.R. Lorac and of course Agatha Christie are pretty impressive in that respect. Modern crime writers on the other hand mostly content themselves with one book a year and write very little short fiction. Some are even less productive, with long gaps between books – James Ellroy comes to mind, with « only » fifteen novels under his belt in forty years. The trend is not limited to only crime fiction, which is why a Stephen King’s extreme prolificity is so remarkable and may have worked against him in his early days.

This is not to say that crime writers with small or smaller outputs are an uniquely modern thing. Some of the most influential writers in the history of the genre were also among the least fertile. Dashiell Hammett comes to mind, and so does Raymond Chandler. Dorothy L. Sayers arguably was the least prolific of the Crime Queens, unless you include Josephine Tey, and post-war crime writers in general were much less productive than their elders. It has to be pointed out however that several of those « small-output » writers made up for the scarcity of their book-length work by writing short fiction, some of them ending having written more short stories than novels despite being better known for the latter.

Why one writer will be more or less productive than another is ultimately a matter of temperament, with money only a secondary factor. An urgent need to make ends meet won’t be enough to turn you into an Edwy Searles Brooks overnight. You need fresh ideas coming all the time to sustain your writing and this is not an ability everyone possesses. Still, one may wonder why the average productivity of modern crime writers has dropped so significantly. The official answer is that they spend more time polishing the « literary » aspects of their work; a « novel of crime » is much harder work than a « mere puzzle ». There is probably some truth to this: the least prolific vintage crime writers also tended to be the most « literary conscious » so there is an obvious connection between the two. Another less flattering reason is that the industry these days doesn’t like extreme productivity, and not just when it comes to crime fiction and writing in general. Did you notice how fewer albums modern recording artists release compared with their predecessors? Similarly, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg are often hailed as prolific directors because they manage sometimes to release two movies in the same year, a feat that would have John Ford and Raoul Walsh shrug in disdain. The entertainment industry has always been about money first and « excessively » productive artists cost a lot of it, unless of course they’re as popular as a previously mentioned horror writer.

Not that I’d like modern crime writers to be fiction factories like the vintage ones were, more often out of necessity than calling. I’m perfectly okay with writers taking more or less long lapses of time between books if the result reflects and justifies how long it was in the making – but I’m also perfectly okay with those resourceful enough to write two, or three or more books in the same time their colleagues need to finish just one. It is once again a matter of temperament.

Un commentaire sur “Too Little or Too Much?

  1. In the case of Stephen King, his prolific output early in his career did work against him that his publishers recommended he use a pseudonym. This marked the birth of Richard Buchman and a host of books following this name. They didn’t want the book market to be saturated with his name. Today, his output appears remarkable but authors have been doing this for years, way before Stephen King came on the scene. But even King is mellowing down, not producing as many books per year as he used to.

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