Hack Work?

The other day I came across a blog that questioned how a number of well-known F&SF writers could physically produce the amount of work that they do. The blogger’s obvious and pat answer was that they could because “they’re hacks, and their readers have minimal expectations.” He then went on to mention some well-known mainstream authors who are prolific… but stated that these mainstream authors were quality writers. The blog had a clear implication that genre authors who write quickly must be hacks, unlike prolific mainstream authors.

As H.L. Mencken was reputed to have said, and as I recall, “For every difficult and involved question, there is an answer that is clear, simple… and wrong.”

Not only was the blog’s conclusion an insult to the genre writers, but it was also an insult to their readers.

The writers in question [who will remain nameless, because this is not exactly about them, but about preconceptions] have won more than forty “literary” awards, including the Hugo. Between them, so far as I was able to determine, their books have received more than 30 starred reviews from “mainstream literary” sources such as Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Several of their works have been named as “books of the year” by Kirkus and Booklist. Some have even won awards from Romantic Times.

Yet this blogger [it would be an insult to professionals to term him a writer] could only term these successful genre authors as “hacks” because of the number of books they wrote in the speculative genre. I’d call them professionals, who have worked long and hard at their craft and who have been able to please both fans and literary critics. Pleasing both is far from easy.

Yet there remains a preconception that any writer who is prolific must be a hack, because good writing must be agony and take forever. I’m sorry. It doesn’t work that way. I’ve seen terrible novels that took the writer ten years or more to produce and good novels that a talented writer produced in less than a year. A good novel is a good novel, regardless of how long it took to write it, and the same is true of a bad novel.

As for time… think about it this way. There are 52 weeks in the year. Assume a writer only works five days a week like many people [this isn’t true, but assume it is], and that he or she sits before the computer or pad of paper or old-fashioned typewriter seven hours a day [an hour off for lunch and other sundries]. If that author writes one hundred words a hour, or 1.7 words a minute, at the end of a year, he or she will have written something like 175,000 words. This is not exactly breakneck speed. It’s also why I don’t have much patience with so-called professional authors who complain that they can’t produce a book more than every other year.

Now, obviously, that’s just for purposes of illustration, because there’s a need for such matters as research, editing, and lots of rewriting. Still… if that writer speeds up to three words a minute, that leaves a full five months of the year for rewriting, research, and “inspiration.”

On the other side of the “numbers mean hacks” issue are the readers. Yes, there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of readers who are only looking for a story that will pull them in, and there are plenty of authors who can do that. But there are also thousands and thousands of readers who are looking for more than just a “quick read.” This latter group of readers can be quite critical, as I well know, and they don’t continue to support authors who don’t meet their expectations. Those expectations are not based on how many books an author publishes, but how well he or she writes what is published.

And, as I will repeat, quality is often independent of quantity, especially in our field, something that the blogger I’ve referenced didn’t seem to understand. Judge the books, not their numbers, nor the field in which they’ve been published.