Tank

I have a confession to make: I don’t watch Game of Thrones.

I did watch season 1, and maybe even parts of season 2, but at some point I lost interest. It moves too slowly for my taste. I can keep up just fine by looking over DH’s shoulder to see what the characters have been up to once every few months.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post…

DH is complaining that G. R. Martin still hasn’t released the much-awaited final book of the Songs of Ice and Fire sextalogy (?),  the book series that sprouted the show. We got to talking about how Martin is the opposite of a prolific writer (a blocked writer?), how each book takes him many years to produce, and while they are good (so says DH, I don’t like fantasy and haven’t read the books), there are books of comparable quality written by far more fecund authors.

One of Eldest’s favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, came up. Eldest adores his books, and DH concurs that they are very good (you have to be into the genre). Sanderson is a machine; he produces one or more books per year, you can follow his publication plans and completion of his various projects on his website. Stephen King is of similar cloth — a book every few months.

I admire prolific artists. Not everything has to be a masterpiece, but famous prolific writers have certainly produced more than one strong, memorable piece.

Even if not everything they make is gold, the abundance of their output means their creative tank is large and never dries up. These people also seem to be generous toward those who attempt to write fan fiction — they don’t have to be stingy with their worlds or their characters, because there’s always new and more and better inside them. (Someone like Martin does not seem to have a large creative tank, and I have come across several interviews with him where he says that fan fiction writers are stealing from him, and he actually goes after them).

In the world of music, Bob Dylan comes to mind — he may not be your cup of tea, and not all he made was great, but he has recorded dozens of studio albums. That’s copious creative juice, and that’s what I admire.

I admire the same qualities in scientists. Those with a robust publication output (talking about senior ones here), always changing, growing, also seem to be the ones who every so often publish a highly influential paper, because influential papers require lots of creative power.

I know someone will come to say quantity doesn’t equal quality, and of course that’s true, but “quantity breeds quality” is not entirely false either. The more people produce, the better the average quality of the output is, and the best stuff also gets better.

If you have a creative job or hobby that you enjoy, just do it; create. Not every nugget will be great, but some will be, and to get good enough to make the great ones, some early (or late) turd nuggets are par for the course.

8 comments

  1. Yes! In my theoretical sub-field of engineering, there is a bit of a stigma against folks who write a lot of papers (and double stigma if they are women or minority or not a member of the “in-crowd”). While all papers they write may not be that great, my observation has also been that prolific people tend to produce more influential papers than those who wait to publish until everything is perfect!

  2. Just what I needed to read.

    I think this matches a model of research productivity published in the past few years. Publishing is like rolling the dice a bit. I have a bad tendency to hold out and perfect and am trying to overcome it. Ironically, my mentor (I’m untenured) is probably more of a perfectionist than I am and doesn’t publish much, and I’m afraid I strike him as sloppy.

    Totally agree about GoT being slow. I stick with it because I like finding new aspects to critique.

  3. Not necessarily. Though it would be interesting and possible to quantify that theory by some metrics- relate “highly cited papers” to frequency of publication by their authors, for one. In my sub field, there are a lot of people who publish paper after irrelevant paper that never gets cited, and people joke about them: some people refer to it/them as “digital diarrhea.” Yet some of the most classic and important papers in my field are by people who published rarely.
    It may be different in other disciplines.

  4. I think there’s probably some level of correlation between quantity and quality, but not a causation. If people are really creative and gifted, they will likely produce both quantity and quality. It’s part of their nature…without even trying, they’ll find cool things across multiple areas of interest. People at the opposite end of the spectrum will likely be neither insightful or prolific…they just won’t be able to pull it off. In the middle are folks who likely have to be one or the other (spend a lot of time and focus to pull off something relatively high quality, or shotgun out a bunch. They don’t have the capacity to do both). Like Gob said, there are folks who churn out a lot of mediocre stuff, but those same people are also not going to get a lot of attention (because mediocre stuff doesn’t/shouldn’t). Even people who focus in and produce one or two awesome things will not be as high profile (visible/what catches one’s eye) as the really creative/gifted. I’ve seen that in my field…one-hit-wonders who only get much attention if they got their name tagged on as how people refer to a theorem or formulation. I’m not sure how the statistics would work out…theoretically there’s more folks in the middle than at either end of the creative spectrum, but the bell curve of creative capacity is going to inherently be skewed among groups like high-profile writers or scientists (from the standpoint that some level of capacity is required to make it that far).

    I think all of that’s why it can seem like quantity = quality, but I’m not sure that translates to quantity breeds quality. I’d hypothesize that someone who’s middle-of-the-road and tries to produce more will see their quality go down.

  5. Hm. I think there’s room for more than one way to produce quality — I’d hate to undervalue the Harper Lees of the science world, and I think there’s an argument to be made that Harper Lee’s time-integrated quality and impact far exceed that of an author like Brandon Sanderson whose stuff is great fun (he’s my husband’s favorite author, and I enjoy his books too), but won’t ever change lives and affect the course of society the way To Kill a Mockingbird did.

    I absolutely respect the scientists and authors who crank out consistently good stuff on a predictable schedule, and I hear what you’re saying about how dedication to the practice of your craft is an important ingredient in producing quality work. But I also think it’s important to recognize that not everybody works that way, for a number of reasons, and that it’s also not the only way to produce quality.

  6. I don’t think the post argues that quality equals quantity.

    It’s more along the lines that high impact often (not always) comes from a large creative capacity and that the volume of output is often (not always) a good proxy for the large creative capacity. And that I admire people with a large creative capacity.
    (Btw, I don’t know a single superstar in my field who doesn’t also produce a lot.)

    As an aside, I don’t think it’s fair to compare Harper Lee to Brandon Sanderson. Genre novelists always get shafted in comparisons with literary fiction, because one can always say it’s “only” entertainment, so it’s frivolous by default, even though a) the skill and imagination needed to write bestsellers, i.e., something that so many people are able to enjoy, so consistently are rare and in my view something to be admired and b) the best genre novelists do touch on overarching problems plaguing humanity, often through their imagined worlds, and are able to reach a lot of people with their writing, so I don’t think their actual societal impact is that small.

  7. Re: Harper Lee vs. Brandon Sanderson
    Fantasy actually is my favorite genre, and one of the things that I like best about it is that imagination is fully unfettered. I love that anything the author can imagine could happen. A lot of genres get shafted by the need to be ‘literary’, whatever that means.
    Sanderson has grown on me, don’t much like his earlier stuff, but the current stormlight novels are fantastic…compelling characters plus interesting plot.

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