Monday, October 10, 2011

Thoughts on being prolific (and Asimov’s middling mysteries)

[From my weekly books column]

As someone who isn’t always a happy multi-tasker (I find it difficult to properly work on a column or review until I’ve cleared the ones before it – not the ideal situation for a freelancer!), I’m envious of the really prolific writers – the ones who toggle effortlessly between projects. And when a writer working across a range of genres and subjects manages to be seriously good too, it can be infuriating. Consider Isaac Asimov. He was best known for his work in science fiction, but the 500-plus(!) books he wrote or edited included mysteries, limerick collections, writings on history and popular science, and even an 800-page-long guide to the works of Shakespeare.

In his chatty and hugely engrossing autobiography I. Asimov – written as a collection of essays on numerous topics, ranging from fellow sci-fi writers to Jewishness to acrophobia to new parents-in-law – Asimov shares some thoughts about his own prolificity. Someone once asked him how he got into the mood for a writing session: did he do a crossword puzzle, for instance, or ritually sharpen his pencils or go for a quick jog around the block? “Before I can possibly begin writing,” Asimov replied, tongue firmly in cheek, “it is always necessary for me to turn on my electric typewriter and to get close enough to it so that my fingers can reach the keys.” This ability to simply sit down and start working without any fuss or preamble is something that many writers would willingly sacrifice a finger off each hand for.

Asimov also claims that he was never afflicted by writer’s block because he wrote so many different types of books that if he ever got tired of one genre, he could switch to a different kind of writing for a while. “I don’t stare at blank sheets of paper. Instead, I simply go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap.” He makes it sound straightforward, but this approach reflects professional dedication as well as love for the actual process of writing – which is something that, believe it or not, many great writers simply don’t have.


Of course, this is not to suggest that everything Asimov wrote was of the highest order – inevitably, some of his work has an assembly-line quality to it. I was recently reading The Union Club Mysteries, a collection of the monthly mysteries he wrote for the magazine Gallery in the early 1980s. Gallery wasn’t a respectable literary journal (it was a “skin” publication, one of the many Playboy spinoffs), so these 2000-word stories can be considered Asimov Lite – it would be unfair to hold them up to the standards of his best work such as the Foundation series or the “Robot” stories and novels. But even by lower standards, these are largely pedestrian pieces, only occasionally salvaged by a clever idea.

Each story uses the framework of a conversation between elderly gents at the Union Club, with a polymath named Griswold relating a tale from his incredibly colourful past (he may have been a spy or an important government official, or perhaps he’s simply making things up; one can never tell). In every case, he was called upon to solve a mystery, which he invariably did – and at the end he has to divulge the solution to his clueless club buddies. For the reader, the payoff in each story is this ending, where a visual break in the text allows one to try and figure the answer out before Griswold drawls out the solution in his patronising way.

The format is a good one, but Asimov is definitely working at low steam overall. The “puzzles” usually centre on a trite detail, such as the differences between the British and American ways of writing a date (which means “6/8” could be either June 8 or August 6) or the fact that a library book has a little pocket in which something might be hidden, and too often the final revelation doesn’t justify the long buildup that preceded it. A couple of the riddles are entertaining (what's a reasonably common English word that you couldn’t be sure how to pronounce if you saw it written in all-caps? **), but on the whole these pieces are presumably meant for the reader who’s taking a break from ogling at the magazine photo-spreads. Me, I’m returning to Asimov’s wonderful memoir, or to his Black Widower mysteries which are more elaborate and satisfying than the Union Club trifles. (See, that’s one advantage of being a fan of a really prolific writer. If something isn't to your taste, there's plenty else to choose from.)

** Answer: POLISH


  1. I've read the Black Widow series -- they are great! Never heard of the Union Club series before, thanks for mentioning it here.

  2. what's a reasonably common English word that you couldn’t be sure how to pronounce if you saw it written in all-caps?


  3. "PRODUCE"

    B: well yes, I suppose - but the point of the question (perhaps I didn't phrase it in the best way) was that you wouldn't know how to pronounce the word if you saw it written specifically in all-caps. With "POLISH", if the all-caps rule doesn't apply, then the word will be written either fully in lower case or with the P capitalised.

  4. What I mean to say is that with "produce" (and a few other words, I think) you couldn't be sure how to pronounce it whether it was in all-caps or in lower case.

  5. I've read the Black Widow series,too. They are amazing.

  6. Ah Asimov! I think his particular genius was in writing about the social aspects of sci-fi rather than the techno-mcguffin gizmos that most other sci-fi writers got trapped in. Talking about his prolificity- i think one of his short story books has an intro for each story in which he explains how it was born - including quite a few challenges like today's flash fiction fad.