Here’s an interesting fact about two very different but very successful female authors:
In her entire life, Harper Lee wrote only 1 novel.
Dame Barbara Cartland wrote 723.
Which begs the question: what kind of writer do you want to be? Will it be quality, or quantity?
1 to 723
I’m not judging either of them. I just think it’s amazing that success came to these two writers in such different forms.
Harper Lee, though a prodigious writer, only created one novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. Yet that novel is regarded as one of the finest pieces of fiction ever. It is taught to children in schools around the world, it was turned into an Oscar-winning movie, and has become one of those pieces of fiction that transcends time and change. It has been translated into 40 languages, and has never been out of print since its publication in 1960.
Dame Barbara created 723 (and left behind 160 manuscripts…) but I couldn’t name a single one before checking online. All I do know is that her books have been translated into 38 different languages and enjoyed by millions, if not billions of people, across the decades around the world, as summer beach reading and bedside cabinet fodder (incidentally, some of Babs’ works include such hilariously titled thigh-tremblers as The Ghost Who Fell in Love, Cupid Rides Pillion, Love & the Loathsome Leopard and, my favourite, The Incredible Honeymoon).
Success Comes In Different Forms
No doubting that both women are popular, but they’re both popular for incredibly different reasons. Cartland’s tales are pulp romance, about as subtle as a slap to the privates but titillating enough to keep a casual reader satisfied. Lee’s novel is a nuanced work that questions society, prejudice, and indeed the views of the reader themselves.
Yet despite the galactic chasm of difference between those authors and their works, there’s a place for both kinds of book in this world. It’s like eating or watching TV: you don’t always want souffle and The Wire. Sometimes you just want to sit down with a burger and watch America’s Next Top Model.
What Do You Want?
So back to the original question: what kind of writer do you want to be, or think that you are?
Do you want to be the sort that works diligently, slavishly, for years on one masterpiece, finely crafting the profound message of your magnum opus? Or do you want to write as much as possible as fast as possible and hope some of it sticks?
One way is not easier than the other. Both approaches require a great deal of commitment and time, and authors have found success in both styles. For every J.D Salinger there’s an Alexander McCall Smith, churning out books like a runaway Gutenberg Press. It’s not an absolute dichotomy of course. There’s a lot of middle ground, and it’s the ‘handful of books’ area that most writers occupy, but in defining the two ends of the quality/quantity scale you can see roughly whereabouts you sit on it, and in doing so it’ll help inform the kind of writer you are.
So where do you think you might be?
Robert Smedley is a TV Reviewer and Writer. When not staring at moving images or being creative with ink, he can be found at any bar that serves a good martini.