Prolific Souvestre and Allain August 24, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
Beachcombing is back from his time at the top of the mountain. His ‘restful’ reading material there included Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s Fantômas, the first in a series of French pulp novels from the teens of the last century. For those who have not been initiated Fantômas is a master criminal who works without any regard for human life: he sinks a ship with a hundred and fifty passengers to sink an alias; at another time he kills an old lady in the most savage fashion because she has a lottery ticket; then there is the cupidious actor and the guillotine… The Fantômas series interested all kinds of dubious people when they were being printed in their millions back before the Great War. Cocteau, Colette, Picasso… But what Beach found most incredible about Fantômas was not the pre-Tarantino noire cachet, nor even the study in evil (Fantômas was overshadowed by No Country for Young Men on Beach’s holiday), but the speed with which these books were written. The two authors were commissioned to write twenty-four novels in as many months and they did it. This is how:
In order to churn out over 380 pages [130000-170000 words??] in length every month (as the contract stipulated), Souvestre and Allain employed the following strategy. During the first week of production, the authors would outline a particular novel’s plot. For the next two weeks, they took turns writing the chapters, or sometimes dictating them onto wax rolls for transcription. During this same period, they would convey details about the particular episode to illustrator Gino Storace, who designed the lurid, full color covers for the entire series… In the final week, Souvestre and Allain would review the transcribed text, work out transitions to get in and out of each other’s passages, and submit the edited manuscript to Fayard for publication. Exceeding the terms of the original contract, Souvestre and Alain wrote thirty-two Fantômas novels, comprising 12,000 printed pages, in less than three years.
Let’s concentrate just on the original contract. Every month for two years the authors were writing about 150,000 words a month. That means about 5000 words a day… Beach knows that full of inspiration he could write 10,000 rough words or 5,000 publishable words in a day: but only after drinking a lot of coca cola and stung by some extraordinary historical discovery or more likely a Roman spy novel plot. And they did it day after day after day for two years, longer given that they exceeded the terms of the first contract.
Of course, there were two of them, but Beach can’t help think that that made things more difficult. Still even if you have to write ONLY 2,500 publishable words per day for two years… Do journalists manage this? It makes ‘a Christie for Christmas’ look almost pathetic: it would have taken them a long month to spit out a Miss Marple. Has anyone ever been so prolific?
Beach’s knowledge of authors’ output is slight but, for what it is worth… We have at one extreme of the prolific scale poor old Juan Rulfo who managed two short works of fiction in three score and ten and yet who is still often described as Mexico’s greatest writer. Joyce took for ever. A single page of Ulysses demanded twenty-four hours work: that’s twenty-four writing hours or about twelve days at his speed. Then there are the slow but sure: Evelyn Waugh who claimed that every child (in a very large brood) cost him half a dozen books: each of which would have been worth one of Joyce’s but we polemicise. Shakespeare was no slouch: there have even been arguments claiming that Shakespeare could not have written Shakespeare because a theatre director would not have had time. Then we move down the scale toward prolific pussy-cats like Wodehouse and Ford Maddox Ford who worked towards a hundred books in a lifetime. (A.S.Byatt has a very perceptive comment to the effect that no one has ever really got a handle on FMF simply because his canon is too large. The lesson? Doctoral students can’t actually read that much so if you want to be studied after your death make sure that you don’t write more than about twenty books.)
If there are rivals to Souvestre and Allain they are likely to be found in pre-war pulp fiction (and Stephen King’s collected works would kill you if they fell off a brick wall onto your head). Beach would love to hear of any pretenders to the prolific throne: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
And with that note Beach bows out turning back to Fantômas. What does five thousand words a day do to your head? What does it do to your writing? Well, on the latter point the surrealist Philippe Soupault came to this conclusion: Je mets au défi n’importe quel écrivain d’écrire et à plus forte raison de dicter quatorze heures successivement et pendant plusiers jours sans obéir à un automatisme absolu. (I challenge any author anywhere in the world to write, or even more to dictate, fourteen hours a day, over a long period, without finding himself under the total control of an absolute automatism). So did their work come springing up from the collective unconscious? Was this detective fiction by spirit writing? Certainly when you write a lot something ‘takes over’: usually though it is not very good.
31/August/2012: Beach’s favourite emails this month came for this post. Here is that master of Ephemera, the Count: The all-time champion in this category has to be Charles Hamilton – George Orwell wrote an essay about him. And then there’s Lionel Fanthorpe (yes, that bloke from Fortean TV.). With over 250 books to his credit, he certainly qualifies, especially when you consider the following: Fanthorpe began working for Badger Books in the early 1950s, and over the period of the next 15 years produced many books under different pseudonyms, some of which were house names shared with other of Badger Books’ writers. These included: Victor La Salle, John E. Muller, and Karl Zeigfreid. Pseudonyms exclusive to Fanthorpe’s short story output include Neil Balfort, Othello Baron, Noel Bertram, Oben Leterth, Elton T. Neef, Peter O’Flinn, René Rolant, Robin Tate and Deutero Spartacus. Names he used for novels include Erle Barton, Lee Barton, Thornton Bell, Leo Brett, Bron Fane, L.P. Kenton, Phil Nobel, Lionel Roberts, Neil Thanet, Trebor Thorpe, Pel Torro, and Olaf Trent. The exact number of books Fanthorpe wrote for Badger Books is not known, but is estimated to be in excess of 180, 89 of which were written in a 3 year period – an average of a 158 page book every 12 days. During his time at Badger Books, Fanthorpe was essentially a small cog in a large publishing machine. The way the company worked was to acquire the cover art before the book was written, and send it to the author who then had to write a story around the cover. In some cases, Badger Books re-used cover art that had been produced to illustrate completely different novels. For example, Fanthorpe’s 1960 novel Hand of Doom was written to suit a cover that had been produced to illustrate John Brunner’s Slavers of Space, which formed one half of Ace double D-421. Apparently he sometimes used a system of dictating into tape recorders, and the moment a reel was full, it was rushed to the typing pool. Unfortunately, he sometimes “wrote” faster than the girls could type, and the reels piled up. What with one thing and another, they were from time to time transcribed in the wrong order, and printed that way before anyone noticed. But in terms of plot coherence and overall quality, it didn’t really matter. Galaxy 666 by “Pel Torro” is sometimes said to be the worst sci-fi novel ever written. For further information, check out this bibliography, and this amazing cover gallery! And spare a thought for Henry Darger. He may only have written one novel, but it was 15,145 pages long.’ Wade writes: ‘’Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand among many other pen names, is the pulp writer that fits your prolific pulp writer suggestion, and according to this Wikipedia link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Brand Faust was cranking out a million published words a year during the 1920s. He is my mother-in-law’s favorite writer. She loves those Max Brand Westerns. Having read a number of them at her urging, it’s amazing to me what a good, solid professional he was at the pace he maintained.’ Macmac writes: Might I suggest the Dame Barbara Cartland. Eighty years of work, 722 books, average somewhere around a book every 40 days. While I have read no more than a few lines of hers, I recall in earlier less electronically distracting days her books making a virtual wallpaper of more than one (usually female) acquaintance’s bookshelves, with the signatory flourish rather like an Arabic script in its heavy paperback spine repetition. Guinness record holder for most novels written in a single year (23 in 1983) When did she find time to have her hair done?’ Kate and Ruth the unstoppably curious drag Asimov in. Ruth, first, Husband and I used to joke that Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a one-man book-of-the-month club. I don’t know where Dr Asimov might fit on your bell curve of literary output. As to quality, I have noted that some of his writings did not have as much thought put into them as others, but his best were very good and very thought provoking. He inspired a generation or two with the science bug. As a point of interest and possibly pertinent to prolific output – Dr Asimov apparently (I do not recall where I read this) had agoraphobia to a significant degree, and had a strong tendency to remain home. Ricardo finally remembers: Once I saw an enterview on the telly about this actress turned script writer. And she said she would never again write another soap as she had to write 60 pages per day of script every day for the duration of the soap… so I would think soap writers should rank in there… somewhere.’ Thanks to Kate, Ruth, Ricardo, the Count and Wade!