On Thursday, The New York Times published an op-ed defense of prolific writers by one of the modern era’s most prolific writers himself, Stephen King. It was a timely bit of writing for me, a non-prolific writer with a first book deal in the works, for whom the question of appropriate literary output is often debated.
In King’s take, which is certainly worth a read, he basically argues two things. One, that there are great works buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of some writers. (i.e. “Alexandre Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers—and some 250 other novels.”) And two, that for some authors, like him and Joyce Carol Oates, “prolificacy is sometimes inevitable.” He describes the crazy-making clamor of the voices in his head since his youth, all the stories crying out to be written.
The potential for those unwritten works is an interesting point of entry. Like most everyone, I’ve always found a particular romance in the notion of lost works of literature. There are so many different kinds, aside from those that never manage to be written. There are the truly lost, like William Shakespeare’s missing play The History of Cardenio. The nearly lost, like the poems of Emily Dickinson. There are the mostly-lost works that could have died with their authors but were published anyway, like Vladimir Nabakov’s The Original of Laura or David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
But lately I’ve been struck by the notion that there might be no books more lost than those buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of authors who have simply published too damn much.
What’s your opinion, for instance, of the William Faulkner novel Pylon? How about Joyce Carol Oates’s Solstice? Larry McMurtry’s incredible doorstop of a novel Moving On? Or the only book in which Philip Roth wrote of a female protagonist, When She Was Good? Any non-John Updike scholars out there recall A Month of Sundays?
No? Well, who can blame you? Faulkner wrote 19 novels. You could hardly be expected to read them all. Larry McMurtry has written over 45 books. Roth, nearly 30 novels and novellas. Updike, more than 20 novels and almost as many short story collections.
Joyce Carol Oates, as King points out is “the author of more than 50 novels (not counting the 11 written under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly).” But that’s just the novels. I stopped counting the short story collections listed on her Wikipedia bibliography entry after 20—which just brought me to the early 1990s. Oh, and that entry is listed as “incomplete.” Wikipedia would be grateful for your help in expanding it, though it’s unlikely you could do so faster than Oates herself.
Seeing a bibliography like that I can only wonder, isn’t it possible—even likely, perhaps—that Oates’s best novel is some forgotten, out-of-print book she wrote in, say, 1982, maybe one that hasn’t even landed on that incomplete bibliography yet? If so, most of us will never know it, because her massive output has built a body so forbidding that it deprives us of the experience of her books.
This kind of output isn’t limited to the literary scene, as King’s piece clearly illustrates. In fact, things only get really wild when you start talking about genre. There’s King himself, of course, who is at around 70 books all told. Agatha Christie who, as he points out, published 91 novels. Isaac Asimov, who, King says “hammered out more than 500 books and revolutionized science fiction.” James Patterson—also name-checked by King—has produced (mostly co-authored) nearly 150 books. He released about 15 in 2014 alone. And where would Modern Culture be without Nora Roberts, who has written more than 200 romance novels?
Maybe King is right that this kind of output is a good thing. But something about it still makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s because, upon discovering a book I love, I invariably feel compelled to track down and devour everything else by the same author.
With some it’s simple. Flannery O’Connor’s entire bibliography basically consists of four books, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Then, if you’re really hungry, there are her letters, interviews, whatever remains of her collected “uncollected” marginalia, and, most recently, a prayer journal. Finish those, and you’ve done it. You know Flannery all the way from “The Geranium” to “Judgment Day,” and whatever else she thought, wondered, or murmured to the heavens. There’s something wonderful about having seen all that an author has to offer, following the progression of her skill, obsessions, the recurring tropes and themes, the trails of subconscious leakage.
The problem comes when I happen upon an author, like one of the above—King included—whose body of work defies, by its sheer heft, that kind of close study without lavishing a truly abnormal amount of time and devotion upon it.
It’s not as if reading a novel is the same as watching a movie or viewing a piece of art. After all, one could see all of Vincent Van Gogh’s 860 oil paintings in a few days if they were physically available. And a cursory appreciation of Johannes Vermeer’s 34 mightn’t take longer than an hour. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography amounts to 13 feature films I could watch in a few of days if I felt like a binge. But it’s not so simple for writers, unless I want this to become my own personal Year of John Updike, Two Years of Philip Roth, or Decade of Joyce Carol Oates.
King concludes his op-ed by saying that he’s glad Ms. Oates continues to write new books “because,” he says, “I want to read them.” I wonder if he really has. If anyone has read them all. Or truly does anxiously await the next one’s arrival. Whoever has or does is in possession of far more free time than I. If we were immortal, if our time on the planet was infinite, I’m sure I’d feel differently, but as King wisely points out in his own piece, “life is short.”
And let’s say I wasn’t an obsessive completionist. When considering huge bodies of work, there’s still the uncertainty about where to enter and where to go next once you’ve found a way in. If I wish to dig into the oeuvre of Oates, McMurtry, Updike, Roth, or even James Patterson, I’m forced to either choose at random or rely on others to tell me which work is most important and worthy. Which might be fine if the people on whom I were relying had read all of the work themselves, but of course they haven’t—with the exception perhaps of King’s devoted fan base.
I experienced a similar anxiety many years ago at a record store. I had gone there determined to finally delve into Frank Zappa’s music. Unfortunately, it was quite a good record store, and they stocked most of his 100 albums. Finally, after trying to make a decision based on the album art, I gave up and decided to get into punk instead, a lot of short-lived bands that self-destructed after just an album or two, tidy discographies I could learn by heart. Of course there were probably some truly great albums buried in Zappa’s discography, as in the Grateful Dead’s 144-plus record output. But I’ll never know. The volume of work becomes a barricade, a wall that one cannot reasonably scale even if one wishes to.
So it is with novels. It’s true that telling Oates, et al., not to write so much might deprive us of great works, but the net effect is the same either way. Each new book is, for me anyway, another lost in the flood.
Image Credit: Flickr/library_mistress.
Vladimir Nabokov recently did it. So did Ralph Ellison, Roberto Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, and Stieg Larsson. Now an immortal god of noir fiction, James M. Cain, has done it too – published a novel from the grave, a move that’s sure to delight Cain’s fans while dismaying those who feel that the publishing world should have the decency to let dead authors rest in peace.
Cain’s lost last novel is called The Cocktail Waitress. Like two of his early masterpieces, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, it tells the story of a sexy young woman, Joan Medford, who’s caught in a vise between a prosperous older man and a younger, more desirable, more dangerous one. Since this is a James M. Cain novel, you know there will be lust and there will be blood and things will not turn out well for either of these guys. Same goes for Joan Medford’s first husband, who is already dead when the book opens.
There are stories behind this book’s classic noir story. One is the story of its author, once famous but nearly forgotten late in life, still sweating out the words as his health fails and death closes in. Another is the story of the manuscript – or, more accurately, the manuscripts – the last things Cain produced, which never got published, then got lost for 35 years, then got found. Luckily – or unluckily, depending on your bias – the manuscripts got found by a dedicated Cain fan who also happens to be an accomplished writer and editor. And he was willing to take on the daunting task of sorting out and polishing the chaotic manuscripts, then bringing the finished book to light.
The story of the publication of The Cocktail Waitress began to unfold at the corner of Broadway and 112th Street in New York City on a fall day in 1987, when Charles Ardai, a bookish freshman English major at nearby Columbia University, was walking past a table of used books. The title of a slim volume caught his eye: Double Indemnity. He had never heard of its author, James M. Cain, but he was about to become a hopeless junkie.
“I read it in one gulp and needed more,” says Ardai (pronounced ARE-die), now 42. “I found Cain’s bleak worldview shockingly sympathetic. His world was brutal, unfair, unjust. As the son of two Holocaust survivors, you learn that the world is an uncaring place. It’s indifferent to your suffering.”
Ardai, who had started selling articles about video games while still in high school, sold his first short story, “The Long Day,” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for $250 while he was at Columbia. He was specializing in the British romantic poets at the time and embarking on a program to read every word James M. Cain ever published.
After graduation, Ardai put his writing ambitions on hold and went to work for a finance/tech company called the D. E. Shaw Group, where he worked on the early free e-mail service, Juno. Down the hall a co-worker named Jeff Bezos was putting together the concept for an online bookselling service he would eventually call Amazon.
One day Ardai and another co-worker, the graphic designer/novelist Max Phillips, were having a drink and chatting about their shared love for Cain and his pulp peers, the writers of fast-paced, blood-drenched tales that used to appear between colorful paperback covers featuring slinky women wielding a knife or a gun – or a nice dependable baseball bat. The two friends lamented the fact that the genre was in a state of eclipse, and many of the form’s masters were either dead or getting there quick.
“There’s a body on page one,” Ardai says, ticking off pulp fiction’s irresistible appeals. “The cover art is classical realism with a heightened sense of sexuality and menace. The stories are heart-stopping, a wonderful blend of high and low culture. Max and I asked ourselves: Why doesn’t anyone produce books like that anymore?”
They decided to do it themselves. Phillips did some mock-ups of cover art, and three years later he and Ardai launched a new line, a blend of reprints and paperback originals called Hard Case Crime. Their first book, Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block, has been followed by more than 70 others by such writers as Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, Madison Smartt Bell, David Goodis, and Ardai, writing under his own name and the pen name Richard Aleas. Some of the titles will stop your heart, such as Blood on the Mink, The Vengeful Virgin, and The Corpse Wore Pasties. Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid has been Hard Case Crime’s best-selling title by far, and it became the basis for the TV series Haven, now in its third season on the SyFy channel, for which Ardai has served as consulting producer and occasional scriptwriter.
Which brings us back to James M. Cain.
In 2002, while Hard Case Crime was still in the larval phase, Ardai was exchanging e-mails with Max Allan Collins, a prolific crime writer and dedicated student of the genre. While discussing possible authors for the series, they discovered they shared a passion for Cain’s work. This put them in good company. André Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre were also admirers of Cain’s stripped-down prose and bleak worldview. So was Albert Camus, who said he used Postman as a model for The Stranger.
Ardai thought he’d read every word Cain ever wrote, but Collins mentioned a book Ardai had never heard of, one that Cain had noted in an interview shortly before his death in 1977, a book that was sketchily summarized in Roy Hoopes’s 1987 biography of Cain. The book, Collins told Ardai, was called The Cocktail Waitress.
Ardai then embarked on an odyssey that would last nearly a decade. He started digging for the missing manuscript, contacting Otto Penzler, the founder of Mysterious Press, as well as academics, the Cain estate, book collectors, fellow writers. No one knew a thing. Then serendipity intervened. Ardai’s agent, Joel Gotler, inherited the business of an old-school Hollywood agent named H.N. Swanson, who had died in 1991 at the age of 91. Swanson once represented many famous writers, including William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, and, as it happened, James M. Cain.
“I asked Joel to look into Swanson’s files,” Ardai said, “and a week later an envelope showed up in the mail. It was a photocopy of The Cocktail Waitress manuscript.”
Ardai then learned that there were Cain papers in the Library of Congress, and he promptly took a train to Washington and made a heart-stopping discovery worthy of a pulp novel: more than 100 boxes of papers from all stages of Cain’s life, including other completed versions of The Cocktail Waitress, along with partial manuscripts and fragments of the novel, notes Cain wrote to himself, lists of possible names for characters, alternative titles, different versions of key scenes.
“It was like a moment out of Indiana Jones – prying the lid off the sarcophagus, blowing off the dust,” Ardai says. “It was breathtaking. I was thrilled. To find new words from an author you thought would never speak again – it was magical.”
Ardai spent three months sifting through the drafts and notes, cutting, stitching, smoothing. If anything, he had too much material to sift through. Here’s how he describes the arduous editing process in the Afterword to the published book:
Not only did Cain try out multiple variations of key scenes, he went back and forth with regard to his choices…. All of this leaves an editor in a somewhat odd position of having to choose the version of each scene – where there are multiples – that works best in and of itself and also fits best into the overall architecture of the plot. And that means deciding what pieces to leave out, a painful set of decisions. Editing the book was difficult for other reasons as well. Some lines and paragraphs needed to be excised or altered for consistency…or for pacing and focus…. On the other hand, a few excellent scenes Cain wrote in his first draft inexplicably didn’t make it into later drafts and I took the opportunity to fit them back in…
I gave particular care to the sections Cain worked over the most himself, aided by the notes he left behind, which ranged from details of setting…to chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of events and motivations…and notes on atmosphere…. It almost felt – almost – like having Cain sitting there with me at the keyboard, watching over my shoulder, keeping me on the straight and narrow.
And now we arrive at an unarguable conclusion and a delicate question. The conclusion is this: While The Cocktail Waitress has its virtues – most notably the unease Joan Medford stirs in the reader, the way it’s impossible to know if she’s a repeat killer – the book simply is not in a class with Cain’s three early masterpieces, Postman, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. Despite Ardai’s deft job of editing a messy mass of material, the book tends to lose its sharpness from time to time. You’ll cringe every time Joan Medford says “lo and behold.” For me, the setting in a bland Maryland suburb gives the proceedings a fatally tepid feel, the opposite of the smoldering dread and doom that bled through the California sunshine in Cain’s dark early masterpieces.
Ardai disagrees, sort of. “Some writers peak early and their powers wane,” he says. “Cain tried screenwriting in Hollywood and was a failure. He moved back to his native Maryland, and he hated it. He tried to write a novel set during the Civil War, and it failed. He tried to get labor unions and politics into his fiction. He seemed to have a desire to deal with Big Issues, and he just wasn’t good at it. It was almost like he was embarrassed by what he was good at – depicting individuals whose lives are coming apart. With The Cocktail Waitress he was trying to get back to the kind of story that he was known for and that he did best – brutal stories about desperate people in dire circumstances doing terrible things.”
The delicate question is this: Shouldn’t books that went unpublished in a writer’s lifetime, for whatever reason, remain unpublished after the writer’s death – especially if the writer expresses the wish that they not see print?
“If an author expressly asks that a book not be published, I would respect that,” Ardai says, quickly adding that he believes there are exceptions even to this rule. He cites the case of Franz Kafka, who ordered his friend and biographer, Max Brod, to destroy his unpublished manuscripts after his death. Brod ignored the request, and we now have him to thank for three enduring classics, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.
Ardai also cites the more recent case of Vladimir Nabokov, who ordered his family to burn the manuscript of his final, unpublished novel after his death. The “manuscript” consisted of 138 index cards, in no discernible order. Nabokov’s son and literary executor, Dmitri, kept the cards in a bank vault, occasionally showing them to scholars after his father died in 1977. Finally, in 2009, Dmitri contravened his father’s wishes and published The Original of Laura (A Novel in Fragments). “In fact,” David Gates wrote in the New York Times, “it’s simply fragments of a novel.” Even so, Ardai believes that Max Brod and Dmitri Nabokov did the right thing.”If it’s a cultural treasure – a book by a Kafka or a Nabokov – I would make an exception,” he says. And while he doesn’t claim that Cain is in Kafka’s and Nabokov’s league, he makes no apologies for bringing The Cocktail Waitress into the world.
“I don’t think it’s a classic,” he says, “but I definitely think there are things in it that are exceptional. I’m proud to publish it because of the exceptional parts and because of its historical value. You publish it not to cash in, but because major writers deserve to have their entire catalog available not just to scholars, but to readers. And it’s a good read.”
No argument there. It falls short of Cain’s best work – most books do – but Charles Ardai has done us all a service by unearthing it, lovingly shaping it, and sending it out into the world.
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]