29 September 2015

Losing Tempo

There has been a recent spate of outraged arguments concerning "how fast can one write a decent book?" that leaves me utterly frustrated, primarily because none of the people involved are talking about the same things.

  • There's a huge difference in the amount of pre-words-on-paper creative effort for different kinds of books. It should be pretty obvious to anyone who actually reads them that the sheer research effort supporting David McCullough's The Wright Brothers substantially exceeds that for a historical work of fiction like Anne Perry's The Angel Court Affair, let alone a context-minimized slice-of-life-in-stereotypical/hypothetical-suburbia work like Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons. And this is not a value judgment on the "worthiness" of those examples; it is, in fact, a declaration that for this purpose they are inherently noncomparable.

    And, for you barbarians east of the Hudson, this distinction still holds — if less obviously, if to a somewhat lesser extent — within much narrower categories, such as those that might be found on adjacent shelves at a chain bookstore. The preparation time for Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons is necessarily distinct from a more-historically-tied work like Scott Turow's Ordinary Heroes... let alone a wideranging "deeper" work like Richard Powers's The Echo Maker. You barbarians do not get the privilege of defining "a book" by "what is to my taste."

  • Different writers simply work at different paces. I think there's little question that the years spent by Thomas Harris on his horror novel Hannibal produced more pages... but not a better book than the few weeks that (John) Anthony Burgess (Wilson) took to create A Clockwork Orange. There's a good argument that all the extra time devoted by Harris, in a notorious string of missed deadlines, resulted in an overly-padded, lesser book — whether measured by "amount of horror inflicted," "literary merit," or "foundation for a decent movie."

But there's something much darker, much deeper, and much older lurking behind the entire argument — something that is not getting any consideration at all. The limiting factor on book-creation speed starting by the middle of the twentieth century (when authors almost all had typewriters) and accelerating since (when authors almost all had word-processing systems) has not been the speed of composition, whether we're talking about "sheer ability to put letters on the page" or "time devoted to research that can't be done in the local library" or "time needed to do the bloody typesetting (while still cringing at the inevitable mistakes)." No, the limiting factor has been a confluence of purely commercial considerations that even the rise of "indie publishing" has not managed to do more than slightly weaken. In no particular order:

  • Review outlets still want copies four months in advance of publication (because they still operate on a production calendar based on how long it takes to do hot-metal type and distribute those products, but that's for another time). And review outlets simply do not want to have multiple works in hand at the same time by the same author... whether or not they're related. This is a relatively conscious decision.
  • Historically, publishers have preferred to keep authors a bit hungry — all too often literally! — by keeping most payments due an author in the same half of the year. Plotting out the calendar of how advances, royalties, etc. actually get paid according to "careerist" contracts is disturbingly educational (or educationally disturbing). It also helps regularize the publisher's own outgoing cashflow by making some of its authors "spring payees" and some "fall payees," with much the same effect as portfolio diversification (although publishers don't want authors doing so because it makes them less dependent upon the particular publisher). This is a less-conscious decision... largely because almost nothing about publishing management is coherent or strategic enough to be truly conscious.
  • Except, perhaps, what passes for sales-and-marketing strategy. There continues to be a meme that once a year is enough; if the example of Harlequin didn't manage to blow that up four decades ago, I seriously doubt that something over which commercial publishers have no control (like, say, Amazon) is going to do so, either. Books are not cars, folks... and even the automobile industry has adopted a mid-year-product-introduction plan!
  • Once upon a time, the actual production-plus-fulfillment cycle acted as a significant brake on the pace of an individual author's output. It took time to typeset, whether we're talking about Gutenberg press, cold metal, hot metal, film, or early digital. It took time to manage fulfillment before reliable next-day (or even next-week!) delivery. And so on. Now... not so much, especially with electronic books. That has not, however, changed perceptions.

    There remain some things that can't really be speeded up, such as true/proper editing, proofreading, and so on. These are the real remaining limfacs in the publishing process — but even they can be managed by redefining the other duties of those people. And, inevitably, making them nonpromotable and burning them out; but that's for another time. There is such a thing as the intellectual equivalent of a repetitive-stress injury...

  • Not all authors are truly full-time. Indeed, remarkably few authors can earn a living as full-time authors without relying on other resources (inheritance, prior earnings, spousal/family support, a horror-of-horrors day job). Those who do tend to publish widely and prolifically, not well-known blockbusters; for every Stephen King (and his H'wood history makes him a particularly poor example) there are at least two dozen of John Gardner (university professor) and Joyce Carol Oates (ditto) and Larry Niven (inherited wealth) and Scott Turow (practicing big-firm lawyer). Each. And the less said about authors whose works are beneath the notice of the barbarians, the better (even though many of them make better returns from their books).

    The publishing industry knows this, even if subconsciously — historical analysis of author compensation back to the early 18th century demonstrates it rather convincingly. But that's not the sort of work that people want to put in; I could have easily included Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Adams in that list in the previous paragraph!

It's a stupid argument. For every published piece of rapidly written crap like The Exemplar Novel By Erich Segal That Shall Remain Unnamed, there's an overblown, overwritten, and overweight piece of garbage that is purportedly the work of years or even decades. Conversely, for every rapidly written work of excellence like A Clockwork Orange there's one that took a long time to create, perhaps even overlapping with other writing. The only people who benefit from the assertion that "more than one book a year is too fast to be worthwhile" are those who themselves can't do it faster, for whatever reason (some good, some bad)... or who want to keep those who do write more rapidly in a less-favored position in the marketplace by implicitly criticizing the quality of those books without ever reading them.