Southern Scotch

Southern Scotch

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Literary Factories 2: Should a book go full throttle or work on all eights?

Two men I respect have raised good points about speed in the creative process. Russell Blake makes a strong case for turning out novels in 4-6 weeks by working almost round the clock. And his sales figures do seem to bolster his case. Photographer Paul Cotter argues that creative speed is relative to talent, temperament and drive: some brilliant musical albums have taken years to produce while others came about over a wild weekend. And Mozart was said to have heard completed symphonies in his head before he wrote a note.

Agreed. And I'll take the argument further: I enjoy reading pulp fiction that I know was written in days. Further still: long before Russell Blake, there existed a lengthy tradition of popular writers who worked at great speed: from Dumas to Balzac to Dickens, from Agatha Christie to Erle Stanley Gardner. And many of these writers' books are still being read. Other once-famous factories made excellent livings by writing far more.

--Ned Buntline, the pen name of Edward Zane Carroll Judson, wrote 400 novels in the 1800s--including one 600 page novel written in 62 hours. He earned the then royal sum of twenty grand a year and lived as a country squire.
--His contemporary, Prentiss Ingram, whipped out two novels a month for a grand total of 600 books. Lived as a Southern gent on $16,000-$18,000 a year.
--Meanwhile, Gilbert Patten went on to write 1,000 novels under the pen name Burt  Burt L. Standish
--Frederick Faust, a.ka Max Brand, outdid them all in the 1920s--publishing 25 million words of fiction under 20 pen names. At least twenty typed pages a day, every day. He could write  a novella in a night, a short story in an hour, a short novel in less than a week. Annual income from his books and film work: $100,000.
--And the list goes on.

But the success they enjoyed raises questions:
1) What exactly do we want from the more prolific writers--sparkling literary style and profound insights into character or consistent excellence in plotting, pacing and visceral fun?
2) Can good writers take too long to write?
3) What might we expect from a book by a writer who works at a much slower pace?
4) Why does Quentin Tarantino spend years on his films when spin-off can be done in months?
5) Could the ideal reading diet be a mixture of factory-style productions and books that  are more custom made?

I read Russell Blake with great pleasure. At the same, I treasure books that took Ira Levin a decade to write.

In part three, we'll explore the benefits of breakneck pace in writing.

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