Friday, June 29, 2012

Acceptable Abeyance in the Arts

There was an interesting front page article in the New York Times recently. It was about how authors—specifically writers of genre fiction—feel pressure these days to produce more published work. The article states that readers are quickly becoming accustomed to the instant gratification of an ebook market that can deliver a book within 60 seconds of its purchase, which is increasing everyone’s desire for more new things to read and creating an insatiable hunger that is forcing authors to write something, anything—a short story, a novella, preferably another novel—in order to appease the mass of voracious readers. The old benchmark of prolific authors—a book a year—is no longer applicable, the article posits. Authors need two or more books annually to keep up with demand.

As an author of basically the type of books being discussed, I think the article is both ludicrous and totally accurate. Or rather, it’s ludicrous that it’s accurate. Even as the writer of one lone book (so far), I feel the daily accretive pressure to put out another book ASAP. There is a hopefully not too distasteful careerism at work here, a desire to build a back catalog and a “brand” associated with my name. But, like it says in the article, there is also a vague but ever-present concern that readers will move on to something else if not offered something new quickly. Wherever this anxiety originated and regardless of whether it’s truly a result of the new landscape of book consumption, I’ve been infected with it. I find myself wondering, “Is one book a year enough?”

The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems. Of course a book a year is enough. No one would call Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner—both of whom put out at least a book a year—unproductive. Granted, they are no James Patterson (who apparently has 13—yes, thirteen—new books coming out this year), but a book a year is still wildly prolific, especially taking into account that we’re talking about a medium with a rich history of authors taking their sweet time.

Never mind the ones who wrote one book and called it quits, like Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison. There are plenty of examples of authors who eventually wrote enough books to fill at least half a shelf but took a long time getting there. It took William Gaddis 20 years to write his second book; Joseph Heller needed 13 years. Seventeen years passed between Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland. (His short story collection Slow Learner came out 11 years after GR, but the stories it contained were written 30 years prior.) Marilyn Robinson followed up her debut novel Housekeeping with Gilead—24 years later (although there were a couple works of nonfiction in between, spaced 9 years apart). These are extreme examples of limited productivity to be sure, but they are nothing compared to the case of Henry Roth (not to be confused with Philip Roth, who has written 31 books in 53 years). Roth wrote Call It Sleep in 1934, then 45 years later put out another book (which was a special small print run/limited edition kind of thing. You could make a case that his next proper book was sixty(!) years later).

All of which make the more recent examples of slow writers—like Jonathan Franzen (9 years in between The Corrections and Freedom) or Jeffrey Eugenides (9 years in between Middlesex and The Marriage Plot)—seem brisk in comparison. But these books are all literary fiction, which is held to a different standard. It’s not unusual for years or even decades to pass without a new book from someone who dabbles in capital L Literature. A three-year gap between books seems to be regarded as the fastest pace you can expect a big-time literary name to maintain; Richard Powers and Don DeLillo keep that schedule, roughly. (Although DeLillo used to be a book-a-year guy back in the day.) Then there are writers of literary fiction who are prolific by anyone’s definition of the word—surely the name at the top of this list is William T. Vollmann, who in 25 years has written a batch of 22 books that includes novels, short story collections, a thousand-page work of journalistic fiction, and a 3,300-page treatise on violence. He’s the literary equivalent of James Patterson, Stephen King, and Jodi Picoult all rolled up into one frenetic word-producing entity.

The people who write serial novels or books for popular consumption have no problem keeping up an annual turnaround. Patterson, Weiner, Picoult, King, and John Grisham are all prime examples. When they were working on their respective series, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Lemony Snicket were also dependably fast.  Readers gobble up these authors’ works as fast as they can be produced, and the speed with which these books are written don’t seem to have an adverse effect on the success or quality of the finished product. In fact, in some cases it seems that a long layoff is actually detrimental to a prolific author’s work. When Harry Potter was being published, we usually had to wait only a year or maybe two between books. But Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was published almost 3 years after Book 4—by far the longest wait for any of the books—and it is universally considered to be the weakest book of the series.

Let’s compare and contrast with other artistic mediums for a second. There is more music being produced now than ever before, or at least it seems that way. But even in pop music history, there are notable cases of long periods of silence. Perhaps the most infamous case is Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, an album that seemed to take forever to come out, a situation exacerbated by the constant promises of its imminent release. In actuality, it was on shelves a mere 15 years after the release of Gn’R’s previous album. Portishead took 11 years to follow up their second album, Portishead, with their third album, Third. In 2000, Steely Dan put out their first album in 20 years, which promptly won multiple Grammys. Blondie had a 17-year gap between albums; Kate Bush 12 years. Fiona Apple just released her first new album in 7 years (making it 3 albums in 13 years).

There are plenty of prolific musicians out there, though. At last count, Lil Wayne has 5.3x1087 mix tapes. In the pop music world, the bar for proper album releases has been set by Rihanna. At the age of 24, she has released six albums, almost one a year since her debut album Music of the Sun, released when she was 17. She’s definitely not your stereotypical young slacker.

There are also some memorable periods of great artistic achievement in a compressed timeframe in music history. The Beatles spring to mind, the way they constantly evolved and remade themselves during the short lifespan of the band (less than 10 years). I used to think the greatest 4 album streak of all time was the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet/Let It Bleed/Sticky Fingers/Exile on Main Street combo, which all came out in an amazing 3-and-a-half years. But then I was made aware that Bob Dylan put out Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in a mind-boggling 22-and-a-half months. I’m still trying to find my jaw, which hit the floor and rolled away after I found that out.

But taking those hyper-prolific musicians out of the equation, the acceptable time in between albums would appear to be two or three years. That’s the schedule kept by stars like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and BeyoncĂ©. The way that popular artists space their single releases also extend the life of an album, making it seem still fresh and new a year after its release. So aside from some minor grumbling, their fans are perfectly content waiting a couple years for new music.

What about movies? Actors and writers are able to work on many movies a year, but for the purposes of this discussion we’ll ascribing a movie’s authorship to its auteur: the director. Some directors are very prolific, like Woody Allen, who has about as many movies as Lil Wayne has mix tapes. Guys like Spielberg and Scorsese and Nolan seem to have a movie every couple years. There are quite a few directors who take their time, though. Kubrick was a notoriously slow worker, although that indictment could only really be leveled at him toward the end of his career: there was a 7-year gap between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, and 11 years passed between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, his final movie. James Cameron took 12 years to follow up Titanic with Avatar. Earlier this year, Whit Stillman released his first movie in 14 years. The King of Taking His Time used to be Terrence Malick, who waited 20 years to direct his third movie, The Thin Red Line. But since then he’s moving at a relatively brisk pace, making 2 movies in 14 years (with a third coming out next year).

A movie every three years seems to be the sweet spot for prolific directors, especially those who write their own material. Wes Anderson is regarded as a fairly prolific writer/director, and that’s basically the schedule he keeps.

So, to recap—
Productive artists keep the following schedules:

Musicians: an album every 2 years.
Filmmakers: a movie every 3 years.
Authors: a book or two every year.

Looking at the standards by which other types of artists are judged, it quickly becomes apparent that unreasonable demands are being put on authors of books. Why should an author produce more work than a musician or a filmmaker? Especially considering that music and movies are collaborative mediums, made with the help of a team of other artists. I know that, strictly speaking, no author writes a book totally alone, that they are helped by editors and initial readers, but you have to admit that they carry more of the burden of the finished product than musicians—who have helping them producers, sound mixers, guitar/bass/keyboard players, et al.—and movie directors—who have cinematographers, actors, editors, costume designers, et al. So isn’t it kind of ridiculous that we expect one guy or gal to make more art than a team of artists and to do it faster?

Also, consider this: Authors produce something that takes much longer to be consumed than what their fellow artists produce. An album can be consumed in usually no more than an hour. A movie takes a couple hours to watch, three at most. A book, even a short one, takes at least a few hours to read, usually spread out over days or even weeks. Why are we rushing the people who make the things that take the longest to get through? Shouldn’t we be banging on the doors of musicians instead, forcing them to get a move on? I mean, isn’t 2 years quite a long wait for 40 minutes of music? Or maybe we should be harassing filmmakers to hurry up and make more movies. Star Trek 2 comes out next year—why did it take them four years to make a sequel?

I have to admit that part of the blame must be placed on the artists themselves. No matter what the audience clamors for, the artists set the rate of production. What seems to be happening is that some popular authors are putting out more than one book a year, creating an expectation for others to do it as well. For whatever reason, the artists in other mediums are pacing themselves. But if Taylor made an album every 6 months, that would become the new standard. If they made an Avengers movie every year—which they could easily do, with all the manpower and resources at their disposal—everyone would think that an annual Avengers movie was normal. (Avengers 2 is slated for a 2014 release.)

Why the artistic output of musicians and filmmakers isn’t typically cranked into overdrive probably has to do with the creative process, which is usually a long, drawn-out ordeal. But another plausible reason has to do with a certain shrewdness on the part of the artist. Too much output can make the audience weary of what the artist has to offer. David Mamet once said he could easily write a play a year, but “who’d want to see them?” he asked rhetorically. Sure, his fans would love to see anything he put out, but it’s easy to see how a new Mamet play would cease to be special if there was a new one every 12 months. An abundance of artwork, like an abundance of anything, devalues it. However, this point seems lost on the insatiable readers who devour every word their favorite authors write and are perpetually hungry for more, which seems both a blessing and curse for the authors.

Look, I’m as eager as the next person for my favorite musician/filmmaker/author’s next album/movie/book. There are times I’ve cursed how long the “next thing” was taking. I’ve been impatient with slow artists, and I’ve bitched about the interminable wait between their projects with other impatient people. I understand, I get it. But I also understand that, ultimately, things take as long as they take, which is almost always longer than you’d like them to. That’s just the way it is, it’s the nature of the beast.

So this is just an earnest reminder: The next time your favorite author is taking a long time to write her next book, think about how she is working in the loneliest, most non-collaborative medium, and how her ongoing battle against the blank page is an unavoidably personal one, and how the burden of production is on her and her alone with no one there to make the most excruciating parts of the creative process more bearable. You still might not like how long she’s taking, but at least you’ll better understand why you don’t have her next book in your hands RIGHT THIS INSTANT.


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