More is more

In an essay for the New York Times Book Review, Geoff Nicholson notes that he has been called "prolific" for writing twenty books in twenty-two years, and he suspects that the adjective might be seen in some quarters as a slur.

He shouldn't let it get to him. A couple of decades ago, a psychologist named Dean Keith Simonton found a correlation between quantity and quality. In The Mating Mind (2000), Geoffrey Miller summarized Simonton's results thus:

Among competent professionals in any field, there appears to be a fairly constant probability of success in any given endeavor. Simonton's data show that excellent composers do not produce a higher proportion of excellent music than good composers—they simply produce a higher total number of works. People who achieve extreme success in any creative field are almost always extremely prolific.

If you subtract cases of early demise from tuberculosis, alcoholism, and mental illness, and handicap for poverty and/or day jobs, I bet the same would prove true of writers. Like the notion that genius is always youthful, the notion that it is always costive is myth.

It might also console Nicholson to recall that in an age when authors write blogs, only the prolific will manage to write books at all.

3 thoughts on “More is more”

  1. I just posted a note on my blog about this, with a thought that came to me just as I was about to post: "name a truly great artist who lived past the age of thirty but who produced very little work." Can you think of any?

  2. @ Andrew, I think it depends on how you define quantity. James Joyce is not what I think of as a particularly prolific writer.

    And as to genius, I doubt there are many – or any – rules. That's why it's genius.

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