Stephen King’s prolific writing will leave future generations grateful

Donald Clarke: Problem is not with the writer but with the smallness of the critics’ minds

It has come to our attention that this is a busy year for Stephen King. In February, writing with Richard Chizmar, he published an adventure novel called Gwendy's Final Task.

Fairy Tale, a fantasy expected to clock in at a relatively modest 600 pages or so, will be with us in September. Last month, he confirmed that PI Holly Gibney, who appeared in five previous King works, will return next year in Holly.

‘Twas almost ever thus. Shortly after finding his early stride, King developed into an author of staggering prolificity. Since the arrival of Carrie nearly 50 years ago, he has published 64 novels, five non-fiction books and a few hundred short stories. No catastrophe can halt him.

“I wrote The Tommyknockers … with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding,” he said, recalling a period of now-shaken addiction. In June 1999, he was seriously injured in a car accident – the doctors considered amputating a leg – but he was back at work a month later.


Trollope got up every day at five o'clock, wrote for three hours and then went to work and invented the post box

On Writing, published in 2000, is rightly considered a contemporary classic. The pace slackened for barely a beat before he got back into his rhythm.

All well and good. Nice for his fans. But opprobrium still attaches to super-productivity in writing. The fellow who, after 20 years living off spaghetti hoops in a shed, produces just one slim volume of neo-vorticist verse gets more respect than the writer who delivers two fat volumes a year over the same period. King himself addressed that in an excellent piece for the New York Times seven years (and more than that many novels) ago.

“There are many unspoken postulates in literary criticism, one being that the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be,” he wrote. It hardly need be said that he went on to dismantle the “postulate”.

This argument has never carried much weight among enthusiasts for what, for want of a better phrase, we must still call genre fiction. No fan of Michael Moorcock, veteran fantasy and science fiction writer, is dissuaded by the knowledge that his books number in the scores.

Philip K Dick clocked up around 44 novels. Agatha Christie managed 66 detective novels. Few people living can offer sincere opinion on the quality of all Barbara Cartland's 723 novels, but even that much-derided romance novelist has her supporters.

While being paid by the word for stories in pulp magazines, Dick would never have questioned the fact that he was doing a job of work. The more words you write, the better the chances of paying your phone bill on time. Awareness of such calculations should not affect appraisals of literature, but there has, among more pointy headed critics, long been a suspicion of the writer who approaches the desk as a carpenter approaches his lathe.

Consider Anthony Trollope. The English author – a postal official in Ireland for some years – has remained stubbornly in print for two centuries. During the second World War, his writings enjoyed a second or third surge as Londoners took them into the bomb shelters. George Eliot was a friend and Virginia Woolf an enthusiastic reader.

"We believe in Barchester as we do in the reality of our own weekly bills," Woolf said of Trollope's fictional cathedral city. Yet he has never enjoyed the critical respectability that has come the way of Eliot, William Makepeace Thackery, Charles Dickens or the Brontës. It surely matters that he expressed no shame about his working practices.

Trollope got up every day at five o’clock, wrote for three hours and then went to work and invented the post box. It has been said that, upon finishing a 200,000-word book, he would, if there were still half an hour to go, pull out a fresh sheet and immediately begin the next.

The sheer volume of Trollope’s work – the best of which compares favourably with any contemporary – continues to triggers suspicion in critics. Balzac gets away with his many dozens of novels by gathering them together into one many tongued project called La Comedie Humaine.

But Anthony Burgess, late into his career, was still having to defend the hugeness of his output. "Too prolific for his own good?" the Guardian asked 15 years after his death.

The problem is not with the busyness of the writer; it is with the smallness of the critics' minds. This is not an argument about objective quality (if there is such a thing); it is an argument about how authors are perceived.

Neither Trollope’s The Way We Live Now nor Burgess’s Earthly Powers is any less powerful for its being surrounded by scores of less successful books by the same author.

The same can be said of King's The Shining, The Stand, Misery and 11/22/63. Future generations will rank him as an entertainer to compare with Alexandre Dumas, H Rider Haggard, Jack London and Arthur Conan Doyle. And they will be grateful there is so much to enjoy.