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Bloody hell! Stephen King's quitting

He's conceded that 35 novels ought to be enough for anyone; not least, enough for the author
STEPHEN KING was in town this week, promoting his new novel, Bag of Bones. It's being snapped up by great numbers of the veteran horror writer's fans, old and new. His popularity is huge, and if he has never quite made the leap from genre writer to intellectually respectable novelist and if, even to his fans, he seems slightly less on the cutting edge than he did, say, 10 years ago, he can presumably comfort himself with the knowledge that his readers can be relied upon to dash out every year or two to snap up the new offering.

He has settled into a way of writing where the name Stephen King signifies a reliable product, a novel of a predictable quality and unsurprising manner. But King used his London trip to announce to his fans that he started to feel enough is enough. He's thinking of hanging up his blood- spattered pen, and conceding that 35 Stephen King novels ought to be enough for anyone; not least, enough for the author.

It was this figure that caught the eye. Thirty-five novels! A fabulous number, and all the more remarkable in that King isn't an old man.

What drives a writer to produce on this kind of scale? It's not necessarily genius, or inspiration, but something closer to a frenzy of activity, embarked upon to scare off some inner daimon, to satisfy what Juvenal described as a disease, the itch to write.

Given the size of King's oeuvre, and the psychic energy which patently drives him to write, it is odd that he is thinking about giving up. But he's surely right to think that 35 novels is enough; that, if he is ever going to manage it, he has staked a claim on posterity. You might ask a question parallel to Tolstoy's and say simply this: "How many novels does a man need?"

The tempting and enviable novelists are those with a relatively small output, of which everything has survived. Never to put a foot wrong in what you finish - that's a daunting ambition, but one which a surprising number of writers have managed to attain. Kafka's three perfect novels, for instant, or those of Flaubert, show the budding writer that it might not be necessary, after all, to get things wrong in embarrassing early efforts.

You can see Jane Austen improving and learning as she moves from Northanger Abbey to Persuasion but you wouldn't say that she ever produced a duff book. Her six novels are a perfect, shapely body of work, of which one would discard nothing, and her mistakes are still more remarkable than the triumphs of other novelists.

The most enviable and mysterious novelist is the one who puts even less of a foot wrong, who writes just one astonishing novel. You might have thought that writing a novel was not something which could fall like a bolt from the blue, that it might depend on practice, on getting things right in a second novel which have gone wrong in the first. But every so often, a novelist does contrive to get it right first time, and then, tantalisingly, to fall silent.

It's not fair to cite Proust, because his single novel is as long as six or seven by anyone else. But writers like Pierre Choderlos de Laclos or Emily Bronte, who with Dangerous Liaisons and Wuthering Heights got it right first time and never had another go, are among the most bizarre and fascinating in the canon: brilliant, freakish, and the biggest temptation for the novice.

For the most part, though, novelists have to plug away producing book after book in the hope that one or two of them will get through to posterity. And they never quite know when they have done it; they carry on writing long after they have produced their masterpiece, like Conrad, never entirely sure that their best book won't, after all, be their next one. The best that most novelists can hope for is that, out of a life's work of a dozen or two novels - or, in Stephen King's case, three dozen - a few will get through, and continue to be read with pleasure.

Musicians have a famous superstition about symphonies; it's often been remarked that, after Beethoven, few of the great composers managed to write more than nine. And there seems to me a similar sort of constraint on the work of novelists. It hardly matters, in the end, how many books a novelist writes: posterity will boil down a life's work to a few essential books. And it's difficult for a prolific novelist to hang on to the readers' affections. At worst, like Thackeray, a single novel survives; at best, like Dickens, there are about a dozen with some kind of continuing life.

I wouldn't put money on Stephen King just yet, but the best thing he can hope for is that, like Trollope or Balzac, he finds dozens of his novels discarded and forgotten, just so that a half-dozen vivid examples can continue in the precarious existence books always have.