Monday, February 18, 2013

A Book a Year: Too Much?

Last week it was announced that Donna Tartt will release her third novel this Fall. Why was this big news in the publishing world? Well, partly because her debut, The Secret History, was so well-received. The New York Times called it “forceful, cerebral and impeccably controlled,” and predicted “a lengthy stay on the best-seller lists” which, in fact, it had. But the hoopla is also partly because there is a ten year gap between each of her books. The Secret History was published in 1992 and her second, The Little Friend, in 2002. Ms. Tartt is famously reclusive, refusing to give interviews about herself and her writing. In the last interview anyone could dig up, with the Guardian in 2002, she said she couldn’t “think of anything worse than having to turn out a book every year.”

And yet that’s exactly what many of us authors are being told, in conferences and online, by publishers and agents and anyone else with an opinion on how to become successful in the writing game. Personally, I’m always slightly concerned when an author says they’ve written twenty books in say, ten years, or that they have to write at least two or three a year. Can they be any good, I wonder? Wouldn’t you just be writing about the same thing over and over?

I think copiousness makes more sense in some genre writing—romance, mystery, thriller, perhaps. That’s not a condescension at all; it’s just that sometimes, there’s a standard formula these genres follow and to plug in new characters and circumstances still creates variety and a rich reading experience. But because I write mostly from considerations of THEME and CHARACTER, it feels like novels take time to percolate. Certainly, there are writers who grapple with the same themes throughout their careers—love, death, identity, bad mothers, etc.—but usually, there’s enough time in between for transition to other branches or deeper consideration.

In the Guardian interview, Ms. Tartt quotes William Styron, who once said “he had about five books in him, and that was OK.” How many books do you have in you? Can a writer be too prolific or too unproductive? One of the arguments for the book-a-year philosophy is that your readers will forget about you if there’s too much time between novels. And yet, no one has forgotten about Donna Tartt.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka