Saturday, 4 April 2009

Time

Having just finished re-reading J G Ballard’s The Crystal World and spent a morning looking at new books, blogs, reviews, and the like; it struck me that writers no longer have time.

Ballard didn’t really hit his stride as a novelist until Crash (having already found a unique voice as a short story writer), which was his fifth, sixth, or fourth novel (depending on how you define ‘novel’ and whether you accept Ballard’s rejection of his first novel – which I don’t, sorry Jim). Whatever the facts of that may be, he was allowed the time by his publishers to develop. And he had the outlets in which he could hone his skills.

I know I bang on about magazines like New Worlds, but that was a publication that gave us a huge number of excellent writers and which took the time to look at new talent as well (thanks, Mike).

Let me reiterate a point I have made before. I do not believe there was a golden age of publishing; not in the ‘60s or at any other time. I do think things are getting considerably worse. Because I doubt very much whether any publisher would allow an author so much time to develop these days.

And there are other ways in which writers no longer have time. Unless you are extremely talented, highly motivated (bills to pay and sure knowledge that someone will print what you write), you are not going to turn out a novel in a week. It has been done and some of them are very good. On the whole, however, it takes a great deal longer.

I am powering through a pot-boiler at the moment and it will probably take me four months. If I was healthy and knew there was a publisher waiting, I would probably have it oven ready in the same amount of time. That is: drafted, re-written a couple of times, proofed and ready for the printer. More ‘serious’ stuff with a complex structure takes longer. It can take a year to eighteen months just to get a first draft on paper. All the rest: another twelve months. Then another year before it gets into print (if you have a publisher – or did I already say that?). It takes time. And rightly so.

Writing is difficult. Doing it well takes a huge amount of effort. Most writers are lucky if they have a room of their own in which to work (don’t be fooled by all those wonderful pictures in The Guardian, they don’t bother looking at mid-list and genre writers (unless the genre writer has some unwarranted mystique attached to them). Most writers have to do all the domestic stuff and then fit their writing in as and when they can. To get a novel out in a year in those circumstances is nothing less than miraculous. Added to which most authors are lucky to get an advance big enough to pay for a slap-up meal to celebrate getting an advance.

On top of all this, writers are now expected to do a great deal of their own marketing (which is a whole other discussion I’m not getting into just at the moment as I’m too tired for a rant). This takes time. Discussions, liaison, travelling, talking, signing, answering questions, most of it in out of the way places where you consider it a success if half a dozen people turn up. In addition, there is all the blogging (yes, I know, this is a blog), social networking, Twitter (not ever going near it), and all those bloody online games sites (I try to stick to word games on the premiss they are relevant to my calling, although my poker has improved enormously in recent months).

Then there is the endless round of submissions to agents and publishers (you know what I think about that – I don’t stop telling anyone who is prepared to listen). Courtesy, people, that’s all I ask. Like today’s rejection. Hand written on headed paper. Polite. Rejection still hurts (my book was perfect for their agency – honest), but I respect their decision.

If you do get published, there’s all the other stuff you have to do, including accounts and tax returns and all that wonderful stuff (unless you hit the best seller lists, then you can afford an accountant).

There are other distractions as well. Programmes on the radio about writers and writing. Ditto the television (silly me, when was the last time there was a really decent, in-depth, intelligent series about writers and writing – one that didn’t use the same old celeb pseudo-intellectuals to fawn over the same bunch of dull literati? when was the last time there was a really good, writer driven series?). Oh yes, and books. You are expected to keep in touch with what is happening in terms of literature (that is, wondering how the hell so many talentless idiots get into print in the first place and then warrant large marketing budgets, television interviews, and so on).

When, oh when, is there the time to write? When, oh when, is there time to sit and think about how develop one’s skills as a writer? Who is going to allow a promising writer the time to write? Who is going to ease the pressure of expectation from the writer whose first book is puffed to give it good sales figures and whose second book (written more quickly than the first ever is under all sorts of different expectations) is something a bit different? Who is going to have the courage to turn round and say: sod the big advances and celeb titles; sod the ritz and glitz; sod the supermarkets, big book chain stores (and behemoth online sellers) and their impossible demands. Let’s spend our money building up a good author base and promoting our author’s books so they have time to write, let’s give writers time to develop and experiment, let’s recognize that without good writers earning a living (i.e. enough to pay the rent, put food on the table, and look smart when occasionally shambling out into the light of the real world), a varied talent base, and new writers being brought on, the publishing industry (and TV, radio, film, newspapers, magazines, cereal packets, schools, colleges, and universities) will all collapse.

Let’s give writers time. Proper time. They will reward us.

2 comments:

liz fenwick said...

You get my vote. Excellant post. Sorry about the R but pleased this time it was civil.
lx

Graeme K Talboys said...

Thanks, Liz.

I felt the shade of Virginia at my shoulder when I wrote.