Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Fair Unfair

Yesterday I read Damien Walter's essay in the Guardian about the "attention economy." This sense that time is now the desired currency in short supply, and that leisure has decreased (while new techno-pleasures have taken over leisure time) is one that seems to be cropping up in print lately. Damien's take on the situation is that writers should not be too hasty about rushing into print, lest they alienate readers with lesser work, and that years are better than months when it comes to books. The image of the writer who cranks out a good deal of rubbish in short order was clearly in Damien's mind when writing the article. And one has to say that he gives good advice.

But life isn't fair, is it?

And the merit of a book is simply not assured by the amount of time spent in writing it. This plain fact seems terribly unfair to many. Sometimes there seems to be almost no connection between time spent and merit--books go unloved that represent a decade of daily labor, while others tossed off with careless grace are remembered.

Samuel Johnson wrote The History of Rasselas (1759) in a week (I was told a weekend in school, but I looked it up to make sure, and perhaps-reliable Wiki says a week) to pay for his mother's expected funeral expenses. The book is still in print, read, and studied. You may read about "The Prince of Abissinia" on Kindle, or as a brand new Penguin paperback, or one from Oxford or Dover or some other press. (In doing so, you join a great many fictional characters who have thought the book worth a read; Wiki lists them here. Why not aspire to be like Jo March and Fanny Price and many another fictional character in this way?)

A mere week...

Ease. Grace. Water pouring from the fountain. Unfair! Fair.

8 comments:

  1. Wise editing of a good (fortuitous) story and engaging characters can make all the difference. And that might happen in a short time. Alas, even some of the best writers, taking much care over years of working on a book, may not give us a gem but a dud. More sadly, it seems that most readers want action and tension and suspense more than a book to savor and characters that grow and change and surprise us (yet are credible). So, we each choose, and we each judge by our own taste. For publishers, alas, in general, the push will be for the quick result (a book a year? three books a year, if possible) to satisfy more readers who may value distraction rather than the challenges and rewards of what some of us call a truly good read, which I still believe takes more care and often more time, although pressure (self-imposed or externally) might speed things up considerably.

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  2. Hi Lavinia--

    I'm hoping that as the Big 6 publishers hang on to their "lead book" mentality, a supportive culture for richer, more interesting books grows up online. Possible. Crossing my fingers and toes.

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  3. I'm hesitant to measure quality in terms of attention - or at least attention alone. And if we define attention as the new currency, this raises all sorts of interesting questions about trade, a gift culture, and what free really means.

    Still, I essentially agree that it takes time to learn to write well - which at least in my case doesn't mean that I won't continue to read a writer if their early work is flawed. If there's some good stuff in there, I love to see how they develop.

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  4. Indeed. After all, the business/publishing world creates attention...

    And many a flawed book is more rewarding than a tidy one.

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  5. I like how you put it - ' a tidy book'. Sebald, one of the prose masters: 'If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.'

    (from some classroom notes via a Twitter link today)

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  6. Interesting quote. No doubt if we hit perfection, we would be satisfied and stop aspiring...

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  7. I think the only time period worth truly caring about is the amount of time a book and its characters stay lodged in the reader's mind and heart. Jo March, for instance, has accompanied me all my life! I'm sure Thalia will too.

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  8. Oh, yes, I agree, though my head is somewhat sieve-like... Jo March, definitely. Elizabeth Bennett. Tom Jones. David Copperfield and lots of other Dickens characters. Etc.

    I hope Thalia will live long in your mind!

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.