Sunday, September 06, 2009

Literature Played at Variable Speeds

The writers of stone tablets maybe managed a page a week; perhaps the ornate scripts of a Medieval monk took almost as long to craft a perfect page; moveable type saw a page set in several hours; a page could be typed in an hour or less on a typewriter, yet few writers were good typists. (Orwell's handwriting was so illegible that he had to do his own typing of "1984" even as his health faltered.) The many millions of copies of the new Dan Brown novel will have been printed at breakneck speed over a number of weeks, I imagine. A single web page can be written and published in the time it takes to think the words, and be distributed to the whole world, or at least that bit that is watching, at the touch of a button.

Literature has always ran at different speeds; in the writing of it, in the finishing of the manuscript, in the print and publication, and in the distribution; then there is the reading. However long the Dan Brown novel took to write, it will have been written to be read as quickly as possible. One of the oddest elements of the Harry Potter phenomenon was the desire to be the first readers to have completed the latest book. As those books got longer, and the time between appearances got longer, it was as if a gourmet feast was being swallowed down with the alacrity of a TV dinner.

Some books require repeated readings to give up their secrets, others are still unfinished, unfinishable. I've yet to complete "Ulysses", and the last time I tried to begin "from the top", it was the Sirens chapter that derailed me again. I've read the end, the middle, the start, but not the whole novel. A Borges story could be re-read on a perpetual loop, understanding not coming any quicker because one had memorised the piece. A memorisation of a passage of Shakespeare or off "Dover Beach" will give off more than an understanding, but an "inhabiting" of the words, yet the full meaning might not come even then.

But we live in fast times, we live in an impatient age. Blog posts are first drafts, sent out with only a cursory editing - and, increasingly so are first novels, newspaper articles and volumes of poetry. All text is dynamic of course, a book is not a machine with a certain number of moving parts which have to be in the same order to work; however if there turned out to be a "director's cut" of "White Teeth" or "Remainder" I doubt that there'd be many who'd have the time or inclination to read the new version, or, indeed, wonder at any differences. I've 3 versions of "Lady Chatterley's Lover", you can read both "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Stephen Hero;" "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is even briefer, but maybe not as wondrous, in its New Yorker magazine version.

I've been thinking about this as I've re-read some recent prose. I know how long it takes even to write something that has appeared to come easy. There are some stories that I've sat down with a dozen times and not moved a word forward. I tend to avoid writing anything if I can't write anything good. Yet even as a I read what I've been working on, and seeing that it's not all bad, that there could be something of value in it already, which just needs work to become what it could be, then I also see something speeding away from me. I'm wanting fiction that is as fast as the age, I'm impatient for it. I don't mean I just want a "page turner", after all that's more to do with the speed of action, than the speed or otherwise of the writing, rather, the speed of the inaction is a problem - a "light" prose is almost a necessity. I cut out the dead wood, I prune, and trim, and cut; I expunge awkward formulations, convoluted sentences; the words are "true" to the subject, and say only that, yet that very lightness creates a problem - it's hard to stop reading at speed; it's hard to take in the detail. I've made a virtue of an economic descriptive style, and I have forgotten how to read it slowly. I don't want to read slowly. There is no reason to...

...I always liked "White Teeth" because it was so full of stuff, that, more than any other reason was why it seemed a good first novel. I was hungry for content. There are stories within stories, and Zadie Smith is a highly amusing teller. But you read a big Proustian book like Philip Hensher's "Northern Clemency" and there's hubris amongst the description. Its a vast book that demands its read reasonably fast, or else you'll despair at never making it to the end, yet the writing wants you to read slowly; yet hardly gives you the sustenance that slow reading requires. A non-literary novel from an earlier age will now seem too slow and too solid, whether its a workmanlike prose or highly literate.

Literature has always played at different speeds, but I'm not sure now, as writer as well as reader, what we want or expect. Something too complex will seem too slow, something simpler, but more honed, we'll whizz through without giving it the time it may require. All that's left are impressions, tastes. Somehow, as a writer, you have to ensure that the essence of the work remains, and style, length, and ease of reading, as well as the words you use, the sentences you form, are all part of that. Get it right, and the world, I suspect, is yours for the taking.


Ben Gage said...

I like the critical distance of the stone tablet and the art of fiction. Harry Potter and Dan Brown are examples of picture writing, and ironically the stone tablet, because only a handful can read it, has become a picture too.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Interesting to think of some books as picture writing. We start by "reading" picture books, grow up with comics, and perhaps, as adults, some people still want that comfort. Because our alphabet aren't "pictograms" we've forgotten that...maybe Emoticons are a return to ancient symbols.