Wednesday 1 July 2009

Too few? Too many?

Last night I finished Toni Morrison’s Paradise. When I closed its covers I felt what I always feel in the wake of one of Morrison’s novels—as if all of my bones have been broken and then re-set. It is as if I have been visited by goddess Kali, who dismembered and put me back together, as if I have been a shamanic initiate, whose internal organs have been dissolved and replaced by new ones. So, it might strike one as strange that I wanted more of the same.

When in my desire for more I found myself on Wikipedia, checking how many novels of hers I have yet live and die through, I was disappointed in my count. She had written nine novels, of which I had already read five. Four left. Only four. It seemed unreasonable to be disappointed, and have demands, but there I was. I couldn’t help thinking of Carol Joyce Oates, who in about the same period wrote more than fifty novels, not including short story and poetry collections and criticism. It also struck me that Oates’s sheer productivity had cost her in terms of literary reputation. So, I wondered, how do writers decide how many books to write?

It is a strange thought, but it could indeed be the case for some writers to think “I’ll do one a year”, or “I’ll do one in three years”, or “I’ll write as many as I can.” Or perhaps they could try to make themselves scarce and precious by saying “I’ll do one in ten years.” It is more likely, though, that vague as it may sound, most writers write exactly how many books they have in them—be it two or sixty-nine. This is perhaps why, as writers, we can rarely predict when we will finish or begin the next big writing project. We can’t begin until the book begins in us, and we can’t finish it until the book is done with us. Forcing the issue is likely to have unfortunate consequences for both readers and writers (note the numerous second-novel, or second-album catastrophes).

So I’ll comfort myself with just four, and hope that Morrison has a few more still left in her.


Lexi said...

Death has done us out of some good reads.

Jane Austen, not enough, of course. Mary Renault was working on a novel set in the Middle Ages when she died. Her executrix destroyed it according to instructions; I approve of this, but would love to have read it.

Iris Murdoch, way too many. I got a third of the way through her 23rd, I think it was, stopped and never read another word of hers.

Paul Lamb said...

I think the same thing about Philip Roth. I hope he has another half dozen in him. As for Iris Murdoch, I've reading all of her novels in sequence, but I'm spacing them out by several months in between. I love her characters and the ideas she plays with When I'm done with her last, I may start again with her first. (I've done that with Philip Roth.)

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