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Stephen King: Can a Novelist Be Too Productive? (2015) (nytimes.com)
118 points by lermontov 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 92 comments

King was my favorite writer growing up. I read "Firestarter" in 6th grade, and then continued working through about 20 or so more of his works until graduation from HS. I was "that kid", always had my nose buried in a paperback from the library, usually one of his. His works were like familiar friends to me. I could step into nearly any library or bookstore and find myself absorbed into some small town in Maine, or perhaps a more fantastical setting in some cases. Some books I remember better than others, some left me frustrated at the end (looking at you "Cell"), but mostly I just felt like I was a hanger-on, privileged to be hitching a ride into King's imagination. It wasn't just his imagination though, it was his experience as a human that I think I really craved. It sounds sort of funny to say I learned a lot about human nature and society from reading his books (and reading them in the 2000's no less, 20+ years after many of them were written), but I did. His characters were never stupid or shallow or boring just because they were female. His characters had flaws and issues, motivations and fears, and the world around them was not often a nice or sensible place. I can relate to that, and I needed to relate to that growing up.

I don't read his books as often now, but I do love the man and his works for how much they mean to me. I never regretted reading any of them (even ones I may not have finished). I'm glad he doesn't regret writing them either.

Favorite quote from that piece that I think applies to many of us, in any creative field:

> But I also understand that life is short, and that in the end, none of us is prolific. The creative spark dims, and then death puts it out. William Shakespeare, for instance, hasn’t produced a new play for 400 years. That, my friends, is a long dry spell.

I read them when I was around the same age, but a decade earlier than you. They pretty much had the same effect on me. Did you read anybody else at the same period? Koontz, maybe?

I read a few of each in High school. Koontz was fun but to me felt a bit more targeted for mass appeal (as weird as that feels to say in comparison to King). Then again, for King I was reading stuff like The Stand and The Dark Tower series, which may or may not be indicative of the rest of his work (which I mostly know through the movies made from them)?

I recommend checking out one of King's novella or short-story collections for a different perspective. Some of those are actually some of my all time favorites.

"Different Seasons" is my favourite collection, and out of the 4 total stories in it, 3 became movies (The Body became Stand By Me, Apt Pupil, and The Shawshank Redemption). Can't recommend this collection highly enough.

I read King and Koontz during my teens, my two favourite books of each author are 'It' by King and 'Phantoms' by Koontz, I actually read 'It' first and thought Koontz had been inspired by King given how they were quite similar, however I learned later that Koontz Phantoms was published in 1983, while It was published in 1986, so I guess that if anyone was inspired by the other it was King.

Never gave Koontz a try. Frank Herbert and Ray Bradbury were my other favorites. I tried a few other "popular" writers (Grisham, Agatha Christie) but thet didn't really make an impact. Do you recommend Koontz?

I read some Koontz around the same time period, but honestly King had so much work that I didn't find a good reason to continue doing so.

Reminds me of when George RR Martin asked King, "How the fuck do you write so many books so fast?"


Now... Someone who can really write decent fiction fast is Brandon Sanderson[].

[] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brandon_Sanderson

hilarious. But really, they dont write the same sort of books... Martins books are hella complex worlds. King does theme'd stories... I'm not saying one is better than the other, just very different products that require a lot of different sorts of work to complete.

Are you unfamiliar with the Dark Tower series? King is no stranger to "hella complex worlds". Though tbf, it did take him quite a while to finish the entire series. But he was writing things in the meantime (or getting hit by a truck) for the most part. If you sum up the time he spent actually writing, he still was able to get them much faster.

Edit: Another fun fact, many of King's non-Dark Tower books tie into the same universe, check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiverse_(Stephen_King)

I think that actually proves the GP's point. The Dark Tower was started in 1982, and not finished until 2004.

A fan of Dark Tower but in a way, the Dark Tower multiverse is of "lower resolution"

Later on in the series he also turned to referencing other series in a way I'm sure he thought was clever, similar to how he wrote himself into his own book. I didn't care for it. He also had the annoying habit of using cultural references as a crutch for world and character building. Oh, see this thing, it's just like a light saber from star wars! Or those flying objects, they're sneetches from harry potter! Well, that's one way to write a book. The DT was a sweeping, intricate, wild ride to nowhere. I'd put it in the same box as LOST. I don't regret either. I enjoyed them both immensely. But they weren't leading anywhere, and I didn't need to reprimanded by King at the end for wanting a satisfying ending.

Martin's books are a retelling of a story about the War of the Roses, with a couple of fantasy elements slapped on top. The amount of world-building is pretty minimal for a large-scale fantasy series. The reason Martin doesn't produce a lot of work is because a) he only writes at home, and spends most of his time travelling, b) when he does write, it's other books and not ASoIaF, c) he's had problems with losing chunks of work, continuity errors and other issues that have required rework and/or rewrites, and d) he's just not a fast writer at his best.

I don't disagree with King's thesis that a prolific writer can, of course, produce great works and many have done so, but I also can't shake the feeling that there is something special about authors who produce great works and then quit when they don't have anything else to say.

bad works don't diminish great works, but it feels like authors who only produce works of great quality and nothing else have a special feel for their craft, it seems like they are so confident in what they have to say that they'd be repulsed by just putting anything out that isn't remarkable, and that at least to me makes them special.

It's like comparing Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Carrey. The former has taken on roles in remarkably few films, but pretty much every role is amazing and that's what's stuck in my mind when I see him in a film.

Carrey also has participated in films like the Truman show but then I'm also reminded of the Grinch and the Mask, which just ruins it for me a little bit.

Is Jim Carrey really a fair comparison? Most people know him first and foremost as a comedian. He's not even super prolific, has 60 acting credits on IMDB vs Day-Lewis' 30, and many of them are one-off cameo roles on comedic TV shows.

I'd be more interested on your thoughts on, say Gary Oldman's performance quality (credited with 90 acting roles on IMDB) in comparison.

There’s a similar issue in sports discussions. I’m specifically thinking of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Do you judge a player by their career totals, their career averages, or best period? Can a player work themselves out of the HoF by having a few terrible years at the end of a great career?

Personally, I think we should focus on something like the best seven years of a player. I don’t believe that someone sticking around too long and underperforming hurts what they did before.

I like the comparison to Jim Carrey. Some of his work is brilliant. (Dumb and Dumber, The Grinch are two of my favs.)

Carry, like King, seems plagued by personal demons. Both have immense talent, but also seem to be prone to these kinds of problems.

You yourself love "The Grinch", though the other commenter says it makes him like Carrey less. I loved "The Mask". I guess I just don't think "less than brilliant attempts" makes actual brilliance any less enjoyable. If anything I respect the creator for taking risks.

I'm not a published writer, but my thought has always been that "serious" writers don't write less. They just publish less. And they publish less because they have a higher standard for their writing and their art (if I may use that word) than novelists who publish regularly. And (as Barrin92 also noted elsewhere on this thread), they only speak (meaning publish) when they have something to say.

And don't we all take people who speak sparingly and choose their words carefully more seriously?

There's William Butterworth, who has about 11 pseudonyms and over 100 published novels. I've read too many of them. You start seeing the same stock scenes coming around again. He writes good potboilers.

"Tom Clancy" books are still coming out, even though he died years ago.

As a boy I began working my way through Ian Fleming's "James Bond" series. After a few I noticed that they followed a formula, and abandoned the rest.

I'm reminded of Lovecraft, who would use a thesaurus to pad his paid-by-the-word word counts by inserting various adjectives that sounded scary but didn't actually mean anything in context.

I hadn't heard the postulate "one being that the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be" before. I suppose that outside the world of the literary criticism, there's a bit of an opposite feeling: If you're great, you probably have a reasonably large body of work.

A while back, a friend and I both bought a copy of the complete works of Lovecraft; a single volume. It's a pretty thick book, but I was surprised it was just one book. For all the influence he had, all the diverse tales of horror, it all fit in one volume... with a reasonably large font-size at that. I remarked to my friend about this. Call him influential, but I'm not sure I'd call Lovecraft "prolific".

Curiously, while Lovecraft's works of fiction may fit in a single volume, his correspondence does not. It's estimated that he wrote over 100,000 letters -- one of the most prolific letter writers in history.


That's quite interesting! Does that not detract from how well his work reads, though? I suppose not by much given how popular he is.

It definitely does detract from it. It's just so over the top ornate. There's a beauty to it, but you can lose sight of the story in the style.

I'd liken it to trying to read a book written in calligraphy. Here's an example of what to expect:

>In youth he had felt the hidden beauty and ecstasy of things, and had been a poet; but poverty and sorrow and exile had turned his gaze in darker directions, and he had thrilled at the imputations of evil in the world around. Daily life had for him come to be a phantasmagoria of macabre shadow-studies; now glittering and leering with concealed rottenness as in Beardsley's best manner, now hinting terrors behind the commonest shapes and objects as in the subtler and less obvious work of Gustave Dore. He would often regard it as merciful that most persons of high Intelligence jeer at the inmost mysteries; for, he argued, if superior minds were ever placed in fullest contact with the secrets preserved by ancient and lowly cults, the resultant abnormalities would soon not only wreck the world, but threaten the very integrity of the universe. All this reflection was no doubt morbid, but keen logic and a deep sense of humour ably offset it. Malone was satisfied to let his notions remain as half-spied and forbidden visions to be lightly played with; and hysteria came only when duty flung him into a hell of revelation too sudden and insidious to escape.

Lovecraft is more popular for his ideas than the quality of his prose, except in a "so bad it's good" way.

It's a very different prose style, but it works for the stories he's telling. That he stumbled into that style by trying to pad his length is interesting, but ultimately beside the point: the resulting stories stand or fall on their merits.

(It does raise the question of to what extent good writing relates to the author trying to write well. E.g. I found the "author's preferred text" of American Gods verbose and meandering, and suspect that the original release was superior, even though Gaiman regards it as having been excessively edited for commercial reasons)

Would be interesting to know, his work process to achieve that output. I'm reading "Deep Work", and I bet Stephen King, did the "lock yourself" and write until it's finished or something among those lines (avoiding all distractions)

I was wondering the same thing, so I read his book "On Writing" a few weeks ago. I figured there might be some good take-aways for writing software since there seems to be some skill overlap.

Here are my (crappy) notes:

* The golden rule: read a lot, write a lot.

* Have a place for only writing and concentrating. Do nothing else there.

* Everyone has an innate talent ceiling. A good writer won't progress beyond being a merely good writer.

* Story > plot. Stories can 'write themselves,' it's hard to plan up front.

* He doesn't write for symbolism or metaphor directly, but may notice it as he's writing and fold some in.

* Let the first draft age for a while before revisiting. His ideal time is 6 weeks.

* "Kill your darlings." Aka be willing let a concept go even if it seems great.

* Have an ideal audience in mind when writing. He says that his is 1 person - his wife. He says it should be 1 person.

* 2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%

* He's not a fan of adverbs

* Research is inevitable for backstory. He wanted to write a story that took place in a specific location, so he went there to see how it was so he wouldn't get things too wrong. He doesn't worry about it too much though, unlike a writer like Tom Clancy.

* He writes because he likes to, ostensibly not for money or anything else

* He gets a TON of angry letters and criticisms, particularly for his use of vulgarity.

* A lot of characters are based on people or stereotypes he encountered in his working class upbringing.

One thing that struck me is how much he reads. He had a list of suggested books to read in the back page, and there were probably hundreds

Obviously not all of the points apply to all types of writing, his list is very King-centric. If you've ever read him then the points will make more sense in context. For example, story > plot is definitely a "king-ism" since his stories are off the cuff and meandering. I couldn't even get through half of the Dark Tower series since it seemed like the plot wasn't going anywhere. In any case, I don't think you'll get very far writing software without identifying some of the "plot" up front.

And the most important, unspoken one that King would disclose to us if he were a bit more honest with himself:

* Learn to ignore your inner critic.

The way you write Six Pages a Day No Matter What, as King does, is by not caring all that much whether they are six awesome pages or six mediocre pages. If you've got talent and you exercise it faithfully enough, then sometimes your Six Pages will, indeed, be awesome, and nobody will even remember the rest.

None of the other points he lists in his books and advice columns matter anywhere near as much as that one. Unfortunately, what that means is that what works for King will not necessarily work for everyone else.

It's probably been easier for King to ignore his inner critic ever since his wife fished his manuscript of Carrie out of the trash and it went on to become a bestseller.

On the other hand, this also reminds me of what William Staford answered when asked how he was able to write a poem every day: "I lower my standards."

Ah, didn't know that - that's a great story. Others here might enjoy this:


That was fantastic and just what I needed to read today. Thanks for sharing the link.

Comment above about Trollope, seven handwritten pages a day.

Hemingway worked ever single morning, even if he was half dead from a hangover.

I need to read that one. I love the point:

> Everyone has an innate talent ceiling. A good writer probably won't progress beyond being a merely good writer.

That reasoning was actually the same reasoning that convinced me to enter tech. I always hated the "follow your passion" thing people say about careers. So even though I was really into politics and debate, I knew I could only ever be mediocre at best in that field. Meanwhile this tech stuff always came naturally. Even now at a much higher level it seems I'm able to get stuff faster and do more than my peers. It's rewarding in many ways.

If you want to explore that topic more, check out "The Sports Gene." Spoiler alert: it comes to a similar conclusion. It's one of the best books I've read though!

“On Writing” is amazing and everyone should read it. But, I have one quibble with your list: I think he writes because he needs to.

I would be interested to see a histogram of the number of books read total, per person. I bet there would be interesting correlates in that kind of data.

I think it's mostly bimodal. Either you read obsessively, or you barely read at all.

It's true but can be turned on and off. The device matters.

I tried to do 500 books about 2 / 3 a week with some taking 2 weeks. Mostly history/biographical. Made it to about 350 over a couple years. My ebook reader died and could not get the same ( old Alaratek 6") and lost interest.

I never read a novel now. Trying to watch every tv series I've missed. Getting through a series in a week or less. I've always had the ability to torrent these shows but streaming services have made it so easy.

Awesome, it's available on Audible so there goes one more of the credits I'm trying to use up so that I can finally cancel my membership. :-)

I watched that interview linked elsewhere ( https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17307920 ) and also thought this could very much apply to software development, especially for me when tackling new stacks.

> One thing that struck me is how much he reads. He had a list of suggested books to read in the back page, and there were probably hundreds

Here's the list, from the ebook I have at least:

  - Abrahams, Peter: A Perfect Crime
  - Abrahams, Peter: Lights Out
  - Abrahams, Peter: Pressure Drop
  - Abrahams, Peter: Revolution #9
  - Agee, James: A Death in the Family
  - Bakis, Kirsten: Lives of the Monster Dogs
  - Barker, Pat: Regeneration
  - Barker, Pat: The Eye in the Door
  - Barker, Pat: The Ghost Road
  - Bausch, Richard: In the Night Season
  - Blauner, Peter: The Intruder
  - Bowles, Paul: The Sheltering Sky
  - Boyle, T. Coraghessan: The Tortilla Curtain
  - Bryson, Bill: A Walk in the Woods
  - Buckley, Christopher: Thank You for Smoking
  - Carver, Raymond: Where I’m Calling From
  - Chabon, Michael: Werewolves in Their Youth
  - Chorlton, Windsor: Latitude Zero
  - Connelly, Michael: The Poet
  - Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness
  - Constantine, K. C.: Family Values
  - DeLillo, Don: Underworld
  - DeMille, Nelson: Cathedral
  - DeMille, Nelson: The Gold Coast
  - Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist
  - Dobyns, Stephen: Common Carnage
  - Dobyns, Stephen: The Church of Dead Girls
  - Doyle, Roddy: The Woman Who Walked into Doors
  - Elkin, Stanley: The Dick Gibson Show
  - Faulkner, William: As I Lay Dying
  - Garland, Alex: The Beach
  - George, Elizabeth: Deception on His Mind
  - Gerritsen, Tess: Gravity
  - Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
  - Gray, Muriel: Furnace
  - Greene, Graham: A Gun for Sale (aka This Gun for Hire)
  - Greene, Graham: Our Man in Havana
  - Halberstam, David: The Fifties
  - Hamill, Pete: Why Sinatra Matters
  - Harris, Thomas: Hannibal
  - Haruf, Kent: Plainsong
  - Hoeg, Peter: Smilla’s Sense of Snow
  - Hunter, Stephen: Dirty White Boys
  - Ignatius, David: A Firing Offense
  - Irving, John: A Widow for One Year
  - Joyce, Graham: The Tooth Fairy
  - Judd, Alan: The Devil’s Own Work
  - Kahn, Roger: Good Enough to Dream
  - Karr, Mary: The Liars’ Club
  - Ketchum, Jack: Right to Life
  - King, Tabitha: Survivor
  - King, Tabitha: The Sky in the Water (unpublished)
  - Kingsolver, Barbara: The Poisonwood Bible
  - Krakauer, Jon: Into Thin Air
  - Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird
  - Lefkowitz, Bernard: Our Guys
  - Little, Bentley: The Ignored
  - Maclean, Norman: A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
  - Maugham, W. Somerset: The Moon and Sixpence
  - McCarthy, Cormac: Cities of the Plain
  - McCarthy, Cormac: The Crossing
  - McCourt, Frank: Angela’s Ashes
  - McDermott, Alice: Charming Billy
  - McDevitt, Jack: Ancient Shores
  - McEwan, Ian: Enduring Love
  - McEwan, Ian: The Cement Garden
  - McMurtry, Larry: Dead Man’s Walk
  - McMurtry, Larry, and Diana Ossana: Zeke and Ned
  - Miller, Walter M.: A Canticle for Leibowitz
  - Oates, Joyce Carol: Zombie
  - O’Brien, Tim: In the Lake of the Woods
  - O’Nan, Stewart: The Speed Queen
  - Ondaatje, Michael: The English Patient
  - Patterson, Richard North: No Safe Place
  - Price, Richard: Freedomland
  - Proulx, Annie: Close Range: Wyoming Stories
  - Proulx, Annie: The Shipping News
  - Quindlen, Anna: One True Thing
  - Rendell, Ruth: A Sight for Sore Eyes
  - Robinson, Frank M.: Waiting
  - Rowling, J. K.: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  - Rowling, J. K.: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban
  - Rowling, J. K.: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  - Russo, Richard: Mohawk
  - Schwartz, John Burnham: Reservation Road
  - Seth, Vikram: A Suitable Boy
  - Shaw, Irwin: The Young Lions
  - Slotkin, Richard: The Crater
  - Smith, Dinitia: The Illusionist
  - Spencer, Scott: Men in Black
  - Stegner, Wallace: Joe Hill
  - Tartt, Donna: The Secret History
  - Tyler, Anne: A Patchwork Planet
  - Vonnegut, Kurt: Hocus Pocus
  - Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
  - Westlake, Donald E.: The Ax

He talks about it in his book on writing. It boils down to the same advice all great authors give:

Reserve a time. For that time you do nothing but write. No internet, no phone, no people, nothing. Just you and your writing. Same time every day like clockwork. Yes, every day. Defend this time viciously.

I find such practices so helpful I call them sidchas -- for self-imposed daily challenging helpful activities -- to distinguish them from mere habits, like brushing teeth or reading the news.

I find that having a few sidchas one of the most important life practices and that naming things makes them easier to instantiate.

Much of his best early work was "Get blitzed on Schlitz and cocaine, and get to it"

I think in On Writing, he claims to have almost no recollection of writing Cujo.

Seriously, though, reading On Writing or Danse Macabre is fun. His style, as I recall is come up with a premise and characters, amd tell the story they lead you to. His experiments with more formal planning and plotting he feels are weaker.

I've tried to read King a few times over the years. I couldn't get over the lack of prose style and find him to be a craftsman of plots that (other) people are enthralled by, but not much of a writer. This is what happens when you're raised in your literary interests by the likes of Joyce and Proust, perhaps. If I'm a snob so be it. When I heard Harlan Ellison wrote novels in bookstore windows in a matter of days I thought "that makes sense."

Speaking as a relative non-snob, I'm always a bit baffled when people cite Joyce like this. I mean, he clearly had an unrivalled mastery of language, but do people actually like reading prose like that? Even his supposedly more accessible stuff like Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist just seemed so dense and obtuse that while I could objectively admire the skill on display, I never once really found myself enjoying them.

I'm not saying art should exist purely for the sake of entertainment. But, ultimately, if I'm investing the time to read a book, I need to get something out of the experience from moment to moment, and generally I find I get more from reading a bad writer with fun ideas than an expert stylist who makes no concessions to enjoyment.

Bloomsday celebrations frequently include reading Ulysses aloud where a series of people have a go at it. They love Joyce's prose and want to share the music of it with others. It is OK if it is not your thing, but there is certainly an audience out there who sincerely love Ulysses in all its facets.

There is a way to find great pleasure in Joyce, it does require effort and education, but so do many other pleasures. Terence McKenna's "Surfing Finnegan's Wake" is a good way in, especially if you enjoy McKenna's weirdly-similar-to-George-Bush's voice.


funny - King actually has a quote on this that stuck with me quite a while.

"Some books you read for the story. Don't be like the snobs who won't read a book for the story. Some books you read for the words. Don't be the kind of person who won't read a book for the words either. But when you find a book that you read for the words and the story... treasure that book".

I certainly agree with your assessment that one wouldn't read a King book for the words, but as someone who really likes the scifi-fantasy genre, that's not a standard to which I can afford to hold the authors I read...

That one is a surprise to me.

I would argue that the best certainly write more than most. Maybe there's a difference between churning out book after book, and rewriting one book again and again until it becomes good. I think the latter is the one that makes one great. The first one offers little feedback, since three books further the author probably forgot most of the details of the first one. So maybe the problem is that "writing a lot" is measured in books rather than in words typed (and then deleted, to be typed again, in a different form and structure).

Just reading this comment you will probably find a few errors that I will never see, because I won't rewrite it. Let that be an example of my theory.

>I’m a recovering alcoholic, haven’t had a drink in almost 27 years

OT, but what does that even mean? Recovered maybe, recovering, no. He is just someone that hasn't been an alcoholic for 2+ decades...

It's like saying "I'm recovering from a broken ankle, I had my surgery in 1983 and have had no pain at all, and no fractures either, and been running ultra-marathons and doing base jumping ever since 1986".

The way I've often heard alcoholics talk about it is that despite their effort, the disease is always there. There's always a voice saying "have a drink" that they have to constantly guard against, even after such a long time.

> and been running ultra-marathons and doing base jumping ever since 1986

Your own analogy doesn't hold up because by that logic then a recovered alcoholic would be 'fit' to have a drink again

They would certainly be fit to have a drink again -- and they do just that all over the world.

It's a AA/12-step inspired prejudice that you're "always recovering" and that having the occasional drink will be fatal to regress into alcoholism. What we call an Americanism.

There are tons of people who once were alcoholics, quitted, and can enjoy a beer or glass or wine or two now and again, without becoming alcoholics again, and being able to go for weeks or months without drinking (just like any regular non-alcoholic person). It's a matter of character and willpower and life's circumstances, not some physical law or physiological necessity.

Many folks can drink again, once they've learned how to control things. That generally means a period of sobriety, though it doesn't always. There are ways to treat the underlying issues while not completely abstaining. Many folks don't get treatment for alcoholism in their early 20's, quit, and drink normally the rest of their life.

Unfortunately, many folks think that once an addict, always one. While this is true for some folks, it certainly isn't true for everyone. You really can be "fit" to drink again.

> Many folks don't get treatment for alcoholism in their early 20's, quit, and drink normally the rest of their life.

If they don't get treatment, were they ever properly diagnosed? As I understand it, "drinking (way) too much" is something a good number of people in their 20s do, then they cut down without any particular problems. That isn't alcoholism, it's just drinking too much. Even the urge to grab a glass of wine to relax, when it's just a habit, isn't an addiction.

>If they don't get treatment, were they ever properly diagnosed?

If they had trouble quitting, such as withdrawal symptoms, and only managed to do so after hard attempts, then they don't really need to be diagnosed.

Other than that, the line between alcoholism and drinking too much is really blurry, if it exists at all. Some people manage to function perfectly and be OK while drinking heavily throughout their lives, and are not considered by others or consider themselves alcoholics.

Btw: "One of the most interesting findings, as far as I'm concerned, was that among remitted alcoholics (link is external) the average amount of drinking was around 1.3 drinks per day with a lot of variability, a little higher than that of moderate drinkers (0.8 drinks per day) but lower than that of heavy drinkers (4.0 drinks per day). I see this as a little more proof that people who met criteria for alcoholism at one point don't necessarily abstain forever and don't necessarily continue to have drinking problems (per Moderation Management (link is external), spontaneous remission (link is external), or some other means of stopping their alcoholic drinking)."


Sure, a lot of people drink too much when they are young. Most of the people doing so are normal, and a few develop dependencies both mental and physical. it isn't just alcohol here: Lots of folks do drugs when they are young. A portion of those folks get a habit, and a portion of those don't break their habit when their brain stabilizes around 25 or something. I wish I had the information to link to, but it is something they've at least started to study. Similar threads happen with, say, service members addicted to heroin overseas, yet are able to break the habit when they get home and into a different life situation.

Besides, non-diagnosis happens all the time, and is more common when folks either can't afford healthcare of if using healthcare means they put their jobs at risk. People have depression and don't seek treatment, but that doesn't mean they aren't depressed. Folks break toes without treatment. People clean up from harder drugs and we don't question if they were really addicted or not most times. It doesn't mean their toe wasn't broken, simply that they didn't get it treated. Medical-based treatment is expensive and not everyone can afford to get a proper diagnosis.

Going to AA meetings isn't a diagnosis either: They don't require any of that. I can go into AA as an occasional drinker and simply lie about it. If I get in legal trouble during on of those occasional drinking sessions, I might be forced to go.

The uptake of treatment and a proper diagnosis doesn't mean someone isn't addicted, simply that they didn't have official treatment.

I would agree, but that's not how the definition works. And if you screw up and do something stupid when drunk, you end up thrown into court-ordered counseling and AA meetings, where they do their best to convince you that you are broken, must forever wear the scarlet A of alcoholism, and fight a constant battle against Demon Rum. It's a little Kafkaesque.

In the Victorian era, Anthony Trollope was very productive. His rule was seven pages a day. If he finished one novel, he started the next one.

Contemporary publishing, with book tours and other publicity, can't really absorb more than a book a year or so from a single author.

And the book tours, etc, take up a lot of a writer's time.

> "Donna Tartt, one of the best American novelists to emerge in the last 50 years, has published just three novels since 1992. Jonathan Franzen, the only American novelist who is her equal."

Pynchon. DeLillo. McCarthy. Roth...

Edit: Morrison. Updike. Mailer...

Pynchon - Born 1937, "V" published in 1963

DeLillo - Born 1936, published first short story in 1960, novel in 1971

McCarthy - Born 1933, first short story published 1959, novel 1965

Roth - Born 1933, won award for "Goodbye, Columbus" in 1959

Updike - Born 1932, first published in 50's and 60s

Morrison - Born 1931, first published in 1970

Mailer - Born 1923, first published in 1949

Remember that 50 years ago (from the time this was written) is 1965. Morrison is the only author you mentioned that doesn't have published works from before 50 years ago, and even then she still belongs to that same generation.

King wasn't trying to slight any of them. It's just really has been a very long time.

Edit: To compare, Tartt was born in 1963 and Franzen in 1959. I think this is really the generation he is referring to.

Point made. I think you're right. : )

If it helps, you just made me realize I really need to read some books by these folks. Shamefully, McCarthy is the only on on that list I was familiar with before.

Roth didn’t emerge in the last 50 years (otherwise I’d agree with you).* I’ve enjoyed books by all six but I agree with King on this one. The Goldfinch was, page for page, probably the best reading experience I’ve ever had. I adore that book. Franzen is less lovable but undeniably talented and, for me at least, more fun to read than the people who influenced him (Pynchon, DeLillo, etc)

*edit: I didn’t read the quote carefully. Looks like he really is saying those two are the best American novelists, full stop. Bold and kind of interesting statement on King’s part.

I love Franzen. But not in a class by himself, at least not in a half-century.

I'd take Philip K Dick over all of them put together.

He also emerged more than 50 years ago though.

Him too.

With few exceptions, genre fiction doesn't count as Serious Literature.

You mean because it’s not boring?

It’s like serious literature has to eschew anything that would make it a good story, in case it got in the way of being good writing.

Oh come on, Vonnegut is one of the most obvious examples of well respected American writers and you could hardly call his work boring. One of the 2016 Pulitzer prize winners (The Sympathizer - not cherry picking, just a recent book that comes to mind) was an extremely gripping/exciting story about escaping the end of the Vietnam war to America but it still managed to receive nearly unanimous praise.

On the other hand, one could argue that if your works require elaborate setpieces and a fantastical setting then you're drawing attention away from an inability to write captivating stories. A plot summary of a Jonathan Franzen novel for example sounds incredibly boring but his writing is nearly impossible to tear yourself away from and will have your mind going for days or even weeks after you finish. It's perfectly fine to enjoy sci-fi/fantasy etc but there's no need to develop a victim complex about its position in the literary world.

Vonnegut is the exception that proves the rule (perhaps with Atwood).

I found Franzen terrible FWIW, but there is certainly excellent literary writing out there. Prosecraft is a skill, just as plotting and settings are - neither is superior to the other. And there is a real cultural disrespect for the things that SF does well. I wouldn't mind that if good SF was still allowed to continue in its own place, but lately even that seems under threat (e.g. the Hugo awards are lately dominated by literary prose at the expense of the classic SF virtues).

It's subjective.

Sure. I'd even put Gibson, Wallace, Stephenson, Asimov, and Martin on my own subjective list, just on pure influence and enjoyment. The other ones though are at least in the running by most objective criteria, I'd imagine.

There's no such thing as objective criteria.

It's all a matter of personal opinion, much as some gatekeepers (like critics and academicians) would have you believe otherwise.

The people who make the effort to seek out great prose tend to gravitate to the same stuff.

Those who have no interest in leaving their cave defend their sloth by claiming it's all a matter of personal opinion.

> It's all a matter of personal opinion

I'm all for "enjoy what you want" but to say that there is no objective difference in the writing of, say, Don DeLillo and Dan Brown, is ridiculous.

I didn't say there was no difference, just that whether you think one is better than another is not "objective" but a matter of personal preference.

Clearly Dan Brown and Don DeLillo are different. They write different sorts of books that appeal to different sorts of readers. But I struggle to see how those differences make one "objectively" better than the other.

If there are objective criteria by which one could judge whether the one is better than the other, I'd like to know what they are.

There are fairly standard criteria for literary criticism that include psychological and social insight, use of vocabulary, use of advanced writing techniques, use of form, and many, many more.

It is all opinion, but there’s a difference between the opinion of Alan Kay and of someone who has two days of Python and a copy of Angry Birds.

Your example of Alan Kay isn't a very good one though, because we can objectively test their opinions on say, the best way to implement `malloc` by having them do it and testing the results against the computer. There is no such equivalent for literature.

> It is all opinion, but there’s a difference between the opinion of Alan Kay and of someone who has two days of Python and a copy of Angry Birds.

I'm not sure I see your point.

We put more stock in the opinions of Alan Kay, because he has a better command of the relevant objective facts than does the newbie.

In 'pure literature', there are no such objective facts.

Yes, I guess writers are creative people

I really like some of King's writings. But it's a mixed bag-- some are really good, some are really bad.

When he's gone, I'll miss his best fiction. But I won't miss his public rants, they've been an embarrassment to him.

Links to some rants please?

My Google fu is weak today.

Can we stop with the random posting of non-technical nytimes.com articles?

I think prolificacy is an interesting subject, and this type of articles add to the richness of HN.

> posting

I don't think you're ever going to persuade a given HN user to stop posting content here. But to order 'we' to stop deeming content relevant and worthy for the rest of the community (by up-voting — which is what I think you meant) is rather laughable.

The community decides what it wants to make popular, not you or I alone...

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