Hurry up?

New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner is generally a pleasure to read, but this week’s “riff” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/dear-novelists-be-less-moses-and-more-cosell.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&ref=books struck me as pretty fatuous. In it, Garner argues that writers need to publish more than one book every ten years lest we, their reading public, learn to “live without them.”  Of these parsimonious producers he opines:

“Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.”

Really? Sure there are slow writers—in his essay he singles out Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt and contrasts them unfavorably with the prolific John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and Saul Bellow—but given the pressure any published writer is under to deliver and publish on a set schedule in order to build an audience, I’m skeptical that we’re in the midst of a diabolical slow-book movement.

Garner continues: “Surely they’re in flight from the shackling apparatus of modern publishing: the long press tours (“Hello, Cleveland!”), the much-hated publicity stops.”

In this era of bare bones publicity budgets, the press tours to which he refers are hardly the norm (indeed, the “tedium” of cities like Cleveland seem like some fond, golden age memory, when book tours had not been supplanted by “twitter campaigns” or “targeted mailings”). Most authors are keen for more promotion, not less.

Garner also seems to imply that the time between books is a willful act of withholding, or worse yet, some dark means of artificially controlling the market, like DeBeers with diamonds. Perhaps Franzen and Tartt follow some strict writers’ diet, where by sheer force of will, they stop after a paragraph when they’d rather churn out pages, but I doubt it. The speed at which different people write seems to me as individual as their styles. What do you think?

Do you think that novelists have a responsibility to their readers to write more quickly? If they are slow, do they, as Garner says, forfeit their place in the cultural conversation? Or alternately, do you, like this Guardian blogger, think that these “Moses” style writers are unfairly accorded prestige because of the time in which it takes them to hand down their stone tablets http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/sep/19/literary-productivity?

7 Responses to Hurry up?

  1. Anonymous says:

    They write on a schedule that suits them. The only debt they owe is to their art. If they can write quicker I imagine they would. Do they risk losing their audience? Of course. But as that old commercial (probably aired before you were born) that starred Orson Welles he declared in his most portentous tone that: “We will serve no wine before its time.” The same sentiment applies to the creative output for the writers the yahoo critic took to task. Frankly, my dear, the reviewer has his head up it.

  2. Lance Parkin says:

    I think it comes down to ‘was it worth the wait?’. So if the book’s mediocre *and* there’s been a long gap, it’s disappointing.

    When I think of my favourite authors. Well, there’s a new Umberto Eco novel out in six weeks, and if past form is anything to go by, it’s going to feel like it took all five years since the last one to write. Iain Banks puts out a book a year, and some of them have felt a little undercooked in places … but there will be another one along pretty soon so I can forgive that, and an undercooked Banks book is still better than just about anything else.

    It’s what I’d call the Philip K Dick dilemma. He was writing pulp paperbacks and not getting much money for them. So he wrote three or four a year, and dozens of short stories. The result is that, wonderful though he is, classics though some are, most of his books feel a little rushed, they can get repetitive. And it’s a function of money, not art. When he got a bit more money for each book, later in life, the books came out less frequently. So … in an ideal world, would there be half as many PKD books that he’d done another draft of? If he’d poured all that energy into, say, ten books (a highly respectable size of canon) instead of fifty five, or whatever it is, would they all be flawless? My instinct is no. I don’t think there’s much correlation between the *brilliant* books he did and the time he had to write them. I think it’s more that the sheer mass of work means that he had plenty more shots at the target.

    And this is a short term thing: before long, books are sat on the shelves like all the others, no one remembers how long it took for them to get there.

  3. Julie Nilson says:

    I think they have an obligation to continue writing books that are as good as the books that made us love that author in the first place. So whatever their process is, then that’s what they need to do.

  4. Yeah, Garner’s article was the dumbest thing I’ve read in awhile. What argument was he even trying to make? That readers will lose interest in an author who hasn’t published anything new for a few years? Obviously that didn’t happen to Jonathan Franzen — FREEDOM landed him on the cover of Time, and, more importantly, became one of the only recent works of serious literary fiction for adults to enter the mainstream cultural conversation. Was Garner trying to say not enough new books are being published to meet the demands of readers? More books are being published now than at any other time in history, esp. if you count electronic publishing.

    Readers don’t need more half-baked books shoved into an already crowded marketplace. They need more masterpieces — or at least more substantial, thoughtfully written works that speak to real contemporary concerns. And for readers to know these books exist, they need to be promoted properly. That’s what will get intelligent people excited about reading.

    And for everyone else, there are always ghostwritten paranormal children’s books.

  5. I think everyone writes on a different schedule and I’d rather wait a few years if it will mean a good book. I feel more for the writers who have to push out multiple books a year, especially if writing isn’t their day job. I’m pretty sure the publishers are pushing them there, in hopes of keeping their name current. It’s got to be a stressful position, though.

  6. RamseyH says:

    I think writers should write the books they want to write whenever they want to write them.

  7. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I guess there are different kinds of author, too. Philip K.Dick’s books might have been better if he hadn’t been under pressure to produce so many of them – they tend to begin well, then fizzle out – but I reckon, just as there are miniaturists with tiny outputs (Salinger, Flaubert) there are also authors who are sustained by their own momentum. If they stopped they’d cramp-up. Stephen King, Balzac,Mike Moorcock come to mind.

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