Why you should care
These writers published at least one book — and often many more — every year they worked.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, began in November 1999 with a handful of writers. The 2013 grind is quite the bigger to-do: At press time, almost 300,000 people had signed up to participate. They all aim to write 50,000 words this month, roughly five pages a day. Quality doesn’t count. Volume does. The idea is that it’s better to lower amateur writers’ inhibitions and stave off that ugly, critical voice in their heads, even at the risk of some seriously bad prose. Not all of it is bad: The Night Circus, a best-selling fantasy novel by Erin Morgenstern, began as a NaNoWriMo project.
Inhibition? Nerves? Forget it. The writers below had no such problems. One might not deem all of their works “art” or “genius,” but a shockingly high number of them were amazing. Most didn’t have word processors, Web encyclopedias or Internet support groups on their sides. Maybe that’s why they were so productive.
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)
Output: Probably between 200 to 300 books
Best known for: The Three Musketeers
Tricks of his trade: Unheralded ghostwriters
Perhaps more profligate than prolific, Dumas had some 40 mistresses and, as some portraits of him suggest, enjoyed a lush, louche life. He was apparently a gastronome and considered his Dictionary of Cuisine his masterwork.
Most serious fans know that Dumas employed “assistants” or what we might today call ghostwriters to hash out plots and do the actual scribbling. Dumas’s included Anicet Bourgeois and Paul Meurice, with Auguste Maquet serving the longest. He worked with Dumas from the 1840s on, helping with The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas got all the credit, and, in 1858, Maquet sued him for joint rights. The court sided with Dumas, who insisted he’d been the one true creator, and the partnership dissolved. Afterward neither of the men wrote anything truly great, critics say.
Georges Simenon (1903-1989)
Best known for: Commissaire Jules Maigret, the fictional detective
Tricks of the trade: Manila envelopes, a good doctor and avoiding Josephine Baker
In 1955, the Belgian writer told the Paris Review that he began his books on the back of a manila envelope, on which he wrote the names of characters, their ages and their families. He had no idea of the plot. Off Georges would go, into some hermetically sealed space, with the envelope, a phone book (for inspiration conjuring names) and a map of the town. Then he’d write, without revising, chapter by chapter in a madman fury. He wrote 60 to 80 pages a day and didn’t look back. “After I have started a novel, I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day … If, for example, I am ill for 48 hours, I have to throw away the previous chapters. And I never return to that novel,” he said.
Maybe that’s why he got a doctor’s check-up before embarking on a new novel. Each book took about 11 days, Simenon said, because he had to fully inhabit his main character, like a method actor: “[I]t’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons my novels are so short; after 11 days I can’t — it’s impossible. I have to — it’s physical. I am too tired.”
Simenon retreated from the world during his writing sprees, living like a monk and taking no visitors or calls. But during his non-writing time, he was not so monk-like. He told Federico Fellini that he had slept with 10,000 women. He broke off a steamy affair with chanteuse Josephine Baker because, he said, he became so obsessed with her that it interfered with his output. (He wrote only three or four books that year.)
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
Output: wrote or edited more than 500 books
Best known for: Science fiction
Tricks of his trade: Intense concentration, a PhD and an attic office
In the late 1960s, the Brooklyn-raised Asimov merited a New York Times profile headlined ”Man of 7,560,000 Words.” By then he had written only 100 books and had more than 20 years to go. What explained his productivity? “Should he look out the window, he would see a willow tree in his yard,” a journalist reported, “but he does not look.” He started typing around 10 a.m., after breakfast and the mail, and continued, at 90 words a minute, until at least 5 p.m. Sometimes he wrote after dinner. Asimov kept a backup typewriter in case of breakdowns. And though he’s best known for his sci-fi and other wonky works (An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule, anyone?), Asimov wrote basically everything, and his oeuvre spanned nine of the 10 categories in the Dewey Decimal System, if you remember what that is. A screenplay for a science-fiction movie musical with Paul McCartney, however, fell through.
R.L. Stine (b. 1943)
Output: 300 books and counting
Best known for: Goosebumps and other young-adult horror fiction
Tricks of his trade: His left index finger and a love of scaring children
Stine came to New York after college because he figured that’s where writers go. He landed a job with a magazine — or, more properly, a publisher of six movie fan magazines, and his job was to fabricate interviews with the stars. As he described it to the Village Voice:
I’d come in in the morning and she’d say, do a [made up] interview with Diana Ross. I’d say okay and type type type. She’d then say, do an interview with the Beatles. They were sold as real interviews. No one ever complained in those days. You learned to write really fast. I had to write five or six interviews a day.
So that’s where he learned efficiency! Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Never let anything get in the way of a good story: Stine says he never gets writer’s block. The pomp has carried him through more than 300 books as well as side projects with TV series and magazines. Dexterity is not to credit, for Stine claims he can’t type properly. “I just started typing with my pointer finger, nothing else, just one finger, not even two. And I’ve now written 300 books on this finger,” he told an interviewer. His typing finger, he added, “is totally bent, totally curved, from all these books.”
Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938)
Output: At least 50 novels, plus dozens of novellas, plays, children’s novels, essay and poetry collections, novels under pseudonyms, etc., etc., etc.
Best known for: Gothic
Tricks of her trade: Faith in art, self-discipline and no uppers or downers
“We may as well get this one over with first,” an interviewer said in 1978. “You’re frequently charged with producing too much.” A strange accusation — should writers be lazy? Oates suggested the complaining came from critics who believed they had to read her entire oeuvre before opining on her latest work.
In the quarter century since then, of course, Oates has only written more and more and more. By 2010, she had lost count of how many books she’d written. There were the novels — at least 50 — plus the poetry, the books under pseudonyms, essays and plays and novellas. Oh, my.
Oates starts writing around 8 a.m. without the aid of coffee– “I must have been born with a rather sensitive constitution,” she told the Paris Review — and finishes in early afternoon. She writes longhand and then types up her manuscripts. And though she’s less of a homebody since remarrying (her first husband died in 2008), Oates writes regardless of her emotional weather. “One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’ In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function — a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind — then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in.”