Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Assembly Line Writing

In reading about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo: Write a novel in 1 month?) and the objective of churning out 50,000 words or 175 pages in just 30 days, I reflected on various writers labelled "prolific". I am familiar with Georges Simenon (1903-1989) who wrote over 500 books and John Creasey (1908-1973) who wrote 564 but discovered a list of the 20 most prolific authors which puts a Mary Faulkner (1903-1973) at the top of the list with 904 books.

When I first heard about such an output, I wondered if these people spent the majority of their waking moments penning their literary works. Just imagine, if I come back to the idea of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days then take Mary Faulkner's total of 904 books divided by 12 months of the year, she would have had to write one book a month for 904 divided by 12 = 75 years. Good Lord, did any of these people take any time to actually some living? I know that Georges Simenon managed to write and write and write - Quel écrivain prolifique ! - but also found the time to marry several times and to have supposedly "numerous" affairs including with the famous Josephine Baker.

In my review of the book On Writing by Stephen King, I pointed out how Mr. King talks of writing 2,000 per day without fail when he is working on a novel. He also discusses writing out the complete novel then putting the manuscript away for a month or two before starting the process of revising the work. It is the Stephen King method however it's interesting to note that Wikipedia lists his total output as being 49 novels. In comparison with some of the numbers above, this output seems low. Of course, one would have to add a comparison of commercial success to the mix. Mr. King is a very popular novelist and certainly one whose work has been turned into some very successful films.

Assembly Line Painting: Trash or Art?
Years ago I saw the 1987 movie Surrender starring Michael Caine and Sally Field. Not the best romantic comedy (Rotten Tomatoes gave it 13%) but the story showed me something I had never seen before which I found quite bizarre.

Sally plays your starving artist who is making ends meet by working in a shop that mass produces art. Several canvases would be worked on at the same time where one person would paint the sky, another would do the landscape and another would add, let's say, animals or people or buildings. It's been years so forgive me if my memory is a little fuzzy. The point was that like an assembly line in a factory, an individual would specialise in doing one thing and they would do it over and over again.

When I was watching the movie, I remember how I found it so bizarre making the association between art and thinking of the lesser art one would find at a store like Zeller's or K-Mart where there are bins of cheap paintings to be had for just a few bucks. I'm not talking about prints; I'm talking about actual oil paintings more than likely produced in a shop not unlike what was portrayed in the movie Surrender.

Of course, anybody would be quick to pooh-pooh such art as being next to worthless but in doing a little investigation, this technique for mass producing commercial art is not without precedence. Apparently the great master Reubens (1577-1640) ran a shop just like this. From Wikipedia:

In 1610, Rubens moved into a new house and studio that he designed... where he and his apprentices made most of the paintings.

Paintings can be divided into three categories: those he painted by himself, those he painted in part (mainly hands and faces), and those he only supervised. He had, as was usual at the time, a large workshop with many apprentices and students, some of whom, such as Anthony Van Dyck, became famous in their own right. He also often sub-contracted elements such as animals or still-life in large compositions to specialists such as Frans Snyders, or other artists such as Jacob Jordaens.

I quote from the article Rubens and Flemish Painting:
Yet some criticize Rubens in that his enormous entourage of assistants created a near production or assembly line operation, where some experts in flesh, and others in armour, filled in their sections of the paintings.

I quote from the review of the book Peter Paul Rubens: From the Assembly Line of a Genius:
Yet more refined drawings would follow the oil sketches, for which live models assumed the poses of figures in the compositions. Finally, apprentices would paint the paintings, with the oil sketches and detailed drawings as guides. Rubens would come in at the end to touch things up (adjusting the price depending on how much he contributed). It was Baroque art's luxury version of an assembly line, albeit an assembly line overseen by a genius, who employed assistants who were geniuses, too, like Anthony van Dyck.

This is an interesting comparison. The movie Surrender made me connect the mass production of oil painting to the discount bins at department stores but then I see Reubens who is considered a master using precisely this technique to commercialise his own business. The difference? Well, I don't remember seeing any paintings by Reubens in the discount bin. So is the characteristic of "art" determined by technique - mass produced or not mass produced - or is it determined by quality or possibly popularity?

One modern artist, Damien Hirst (b 1965) seems to have pushed this idea to the limit. He runs what seems to be informally called an art factory where he conceptualises but doesn't "do". Ofttimes others execute his ideas. In fact, his philosophy about this is described as:

Hirst sees the real creative act as being the conception, not the execution, and that, as the progenitor of the idea, he is therefore the artist.

A work by Hirst may not have actually been by Hirst himself but by an underling. Curious but similar to Andy Warhol's studio "The Factory" and so it seems similar to the master Reubens.


Then the question came to mind: is there such a thing as "assembly line writing"?

James Patterson
In putting together Writing: James Patterson, I discovered this author to be prolific but more importantly, how. From Wikipedia:

His prolific output is partially owed to the relationship he has with his many co-authors who share an authorship credit on the cover. The authors, in their agreement with Patterson, have agreed not to disclose the terms of their working relationship, including how much involvement Patterson has on each co-authored book. In the same Time magazine 10 Questions interview, he responded to a question about his collaborations: "If I'm working with a co-writer, they'll usually write the first draft. And then I write subsequent drafts."

Some of the references said that Patterson had published 9 titles in 2009 and was slated to publish another 9 in 2010. How can a single person keep up that level of output? It is interesting to note that the statement is ofttimes made that one in 17 hardcover novels sold in the United States is a Patterson book. Yes, there is a the question of popularity but when you may be publishing 9 titles a year, you are just putting more product onto the market and it stands to reason that you're going to sell more than any of the other authors who may only put out one title a year.

Patterson has gone beyond writing to look at the whole package, turning himself into a "brand" and mass merchandising himself, his product the same way a company would tackle the issue of selling anything. Heck, Patterson is Skippy Peanut Butter. It seems that Tom Clancy has also put this idea to good use by turning himself into a brand:

Many of action writer Tom Clancy's books from the 2000s bear the names of two people on their covers, with Clancy's name in larger print and the other author's name in smaller print. Various books bearing Clancy's name were written by different authors under the same pseudonym. The first two books in the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell franchise were written by Raymond Benson under the pseudonym David Michaels.

James Frey and Full Fathom Five
The name may not immediately ring a bell so here's a quick recap. James Frey (b 1969) was involved in a bit of a scandal when parts of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces (2003) detailing his drug addiction were proven to be false or exaggerations. Oprah had not just backed him but made this book one of her selections so when all this hit the fan; she apparently tore a strip off of him about abusing her trust. No matter, he may have been dropped by various supporters and publishers but the spotlight was enough to ensure his name was remembered and remained a marketable commodity.

In 2009, he created "Full Fathom Five", a company devoted to creating commercial successes like the Twilight series. The operation involved recruiting unknowns to pen the books while Frey took the credit and much of the profit. The details of the contracts between Frey's company and these starving authors may remain questionable but the central idea to the whole affair seems to be assembly line writing. According to Wikipedia:

In 2009, Frey formed "Full Fathom Five," a young adult novel publishing company that aimed to create highly commercial, high concept novels like Twilight. In November 2010, controversy arose when an MFA student who had been in talks to create content for the company released her extremely limiting contract online. The contract allows Frey license to remove an author from a project at any time, does not require him to give the author credit for their work, and only pays a standard advance of $250.

One such author, Suzanne Moses, detailed her experiences with Frey in the New York Magazine dated November 12, 2010 talking about meeting with Jobie Hughes who collaborated with Frey:

Frey handed him a one-page write-up of the concept, and Hughes developed the rest of the outlined narrative. Frey’s idea was a series called “The Lorien Legacies,” about nine Loric aliens who were chased from their home planet by evil Mogadorians and are living on Earth in the guise of teenagers. Through early 2009, Hughes told me, he delivered three drafts of the first book, I Am Number Four, to Frey, who revised them and polished the final version. Hughes wrote the novel without any compensation and signed a contract, without consulting a lawyer, that specified that he would receive 30 percent of all revenue that came from the project.

She goes on to point out that I Am Number Four the novel is being made into a film with a release date of February 18, 2011. This example would give one the idea that Frey's "fiction factory" may in fact produce results. After all, if you keep doing something over and over again, at some point something has to work. As a wise woman once said to me, "If you throw enough Jell-o at the wall, eventually some of it will stick."

Final Word
The term "assembly line writing" seems to evoke a connotation of "non art". "Commercial" is crass? Then again, AndyWarhol managed to turn a Campbell's soup can into art so one could argue that even commercialism in our society is in some way artistic.

I didn't get into various articles which talk about lesser forms - or should I say shorter forms - of writing like magazine articles and how to approach their composition with something of an assembly line mentality. When you may be paid by the word, speed is probably of the essence.

Nevertheless, the concept of an assembly line is being applied to writing. If somebody can distil the essence of what's currently popular, there is no reason why success cannot be replicated. One can "clone" a bestseller. Yes, there will be the detractors who call the work dreadful but let's not forget the expression "laughing all the way to the bank". A New York Times article talks of James Patterson $17.4 million oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach.

There are thousands of people who don't like what I do. Fortunately, there are millions who do.
- James Patterson; Time July 2010: 10 Questions for James Patterson


my blog: Writing: November Challenges - Jan 27/11

my blog: NaBloPoMo: National Blog Posting Month - Jan 23/11

my blog: Writing: James Patterson - Jan 11/11

my blog: Writing: Less is more: the drabble - Jan 8/11

my blog: NaNoWriMo: Write a novel in 1 month? - Jan 2/11

my blog: On Writing by Stephen King - Dec 27/10


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1 comment:

Leslie Broussard said...

I find it interesting that people often "pooh-pooh" commercialism as "selling out."

I think "selling out" actually translates "I hate it that you caught your big break and I did not."

Besides, the only people who really care about literature are English professors and critics...the average reader just wants to read!

I think sales can be a great indicator of whether or not a book is "good" because it means people want to pay to read it. Unfortunately, used book sales do not have a way to be counted :(

Anyway, thank you for letting me know that "assembly line writing" exists. I had no idea!