Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Life's Work

I was reading an article about Updike in The Guardian by his biographer, Adam Begley, where he talks about Updike's best work being his short stories. In the article, he lists ten favourites. Updike was famously a regular writer for The New Yorker, and you could argue that our idea of the genre of the "New Yorker story" comes partly from Updike (and Cheever.) Of course, Updike was a prolific writer, over 20 novels for a start including the Rabbit novels and "The Witches of Eastwick", also a successful (and to my mind, excellent) poet, and writer of reviews, correspondance....and short stories.

His short stories are collected in two volumes in the "Library of America" series, and Begley says there are 186 collected across those two books. Whereas we understand, I think, a little of a poet's "collected" - short but intense books from Eliot or Larkin - much more prolific complete works from Auden or Hughes; the sense of a collection every four or five years. Popular novelists tend to be prolific (Stephen King) whilst literary novelists often only slowly pile up the volumes or - in some cases - are parsimonious with their finished works (Heller, Pynchon). But what does a good writing life mean for a short story writer?

The Updike collected presumably doesn't include everything he wrote, but heading up towards 200 stories for a long writing life seems a good life works in itself. More than most I'd imagine, though short story masters have sometimes had much shorter writing or publishing lives (Fitzgerald, Carver, Salinger, David Foster Wallace) for various reasons.

Of course, we can't all be Updike, and certainly can't have such an illustrious history writing for the New Yorker, but I guess the imagination is the thing. I've wondered what makes a good "haul" for short stories in a year - even in poor years I've written three or four, and usually aim for twice that number. So having begun writing regularly from about 1996 - so twenty years - I seem to have completed about 125 stories in that time. 200 would seem a good target for a lifetime writing.

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