Once, in my early teens, I competed with my best friend Rob to see who could read more in the course of the summer vacation. It wasn’t a subtle contest: the winner would be the one who devoured more pages. Matters of comprehension and artistic quality didn’t concern us. We didn’t tackle Proust; we needed something faster-paced than that. I hit upon the idea of reading science fiction short stories — pithy, easily digestible page turners, or so I thought.
Matters of literary quantity have been much on my mind since a new book of mine was published recently. A fair percentage of the reviews described me as “prolific” or “highly prolific,” in one case “wildly prolific.” Now, I’m not going to argue about the accuracy of this. I’ve published 20 books in 22 years (some quite short), and I’d say that’s not excessive, given that I don’t have a day job. But accurate or not, “prolific” definitely didn’t feel like an unalloyed compliment.
I’ve consoled myself by noting that the “prolific” tag puts me in some good, if otherwise unlikely, company — that of Joyce Carol Oates, for instance (more than 100 books in 45 years). Has anyone in recent decades been able to review her work without mentioning prolificacy? John Updike couldn’t manage it. His review of Oates’s “You Must Remember This” referred to her “astounding productivity,” and suggested she was born a hundred years too late and “needs a lustier audience” of “Victorian word eaters.”
Coming from Updike (60 or so books in 50 years, more if you include all the poetry), this seemed a bit rich. He, if anybody, should have understood. Those who wrote his recent obituaries certainly found it hard to get past the astounding fact that Updike was a writer who actually did a lot of writing. The Associated Press called him “prolific, even compulsive,” and The Los Angeles Times declared, “For better or worse, John Updike produced a nearly endless stream of work.” Not completely endless, then.