Monday, December 21, 2009

How many short stories did JDM publish?

In the numbers game, every fan of John D MacDonald knows the two most important ones: 78 books and "over 500" stories published.

The books are fairly easy to quantify, although many sources miss a title or two, usually Reading For Survival and Two. We can even break down the books by category, albeit imperfectly:

66 Novels
7 Short Story Anthologies
5 Non-Fiction Books

Some of the books are difficult to classify. Border Town Girl (1956) is really an anthology of two novellas, but is typically counted as a novel (I have not done so above). Reading for Survival, a posthumously published essay issued as part of a program sponsored by the Library of Congress Center For The Book, is sometimes listed as a novel because MacDonald expresses his ideas in the form of a conversation between Travis McGee and Meyer. It properly belongs among the non-fiction works. Some lists include The Lethal Sex as the author's work, when he simply served as the anthology's editor, and Two is usually omitted, although it does contain a previously-uncollected story.

Still, that total is correct and easy to prove.

The short stories are another matter entirely. The claim of "over 500" is invariably cited when discussing MacDonald both generally and specifically, and even people who should know better have used that number. Including me, but I'm in good company. Hugh Merrill uses it in the very first paragraph of his "definitive" biography, The Red Hot Typewriter. The late Ed Hirshberg, editor of the JDM Bibliophile, used it in a 1979 interview with JDM. Laurent Auguste claims over 500 on his JDM web page, although he lists only 300+, and, most recently, the figure is repeated in the HBS article I posted the link to yesterday. Must be right. Right?

I certainly thought so, until I decided to sit down and count. Not surprisingly, I came up with a much lower number, and unless my math is suspect, or there exists a huge cache of stories that have yet to be documented, it's a new number I'm fairly confident with.

It helps to define what we're talking about here. When I use the term "short story" I am including novellas and anything shorter. I am not including non-fiction, which appeared often, and I am not including either serialized novels or works that went on to become published books. I'm also not including the ten "missing" stories, works that were sold but where no evidence of publication can be found. I'm using the Shines' Bibliography as my primary reference. It is the best piece of research out there and nearly everything they listed was verified by someone actually looking for and finding the published result.

Here are some examples of what I am talking about. MacDonald's works appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine 36 times, from 1947 to 1975, so immediately one adds 36 to the short story total. However, when looking at exactly what was published there, we find that 16 of those submissions were later published as novels, and usually under different titles. Two were condensations of published novels, leaving 18 short stories, or half of what was originally counted. The Cosmopolitan example is extreme, but when going through all of the magazines where MacDonald published stories, the numbers add up.

The point of all this is really being made for the reader seeking to locate and read as much original JDM as they can. It would be extremely frustrating to find an old issue of Dime Detective containing a story titled "Five-Star Fugitive," pay top dollar, take it home and read it, only to realize that the story later appeared re-titled as Border Town Girl in a readily available paperback. Or paying for an old issue of Cosmopolitan with his "The Tug of Evil," only to find out it was later published in book form as Slam the Big Door. As a self-confessed maker of lists, I like to know how many original works of the author I have read and how many are still out there waiting to be located.

It is highly doubtful that there is a huge number of published-but-unlocated JDM stories out there. The author was a meticulous record-keeper who ran his writing career like a small business. Copies of all his original manuscripts (excepting the early, unpublished ones he burned) were kept, filed and later submitted to the University of Florida, where they are currently housed and catalogued. Anyone can view the lists of their holdings online, and I don't see much out there that hasn't already been documented. Walter and Jean Shine were very good at what they did.

So, what is the revised number? As I said, it's a lot lower than 500. I came up with a figure of 390 works of short fiction. The number is probably off by a few here or there, but I believe it is reasonably accurate, and a lot less than 500. Twenty percent less.

Admitting I'm fallible, I'd welcome any corrections or additions. Truthfully, this may seem like calculating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but some of us enjoy such calculations in the pursuit of accuracy.

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