Recently, I was skimming the front pages of the New York Times book review when I caught this item: Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, “Here I Am,” is coming out next fall. I’m looking forward to reading it—I admired his earlier novels, “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”—but what really caught my eye was this line in the paper: “’Here I Am’ will be the onetime wunderkind’s first new novel in 11 years.”
This note, besides sounding snarky—a “onetime wunderkind?” Ouch!–neglects to mention the fact that Foer also published a memoir in 2010, “Eating Animals.” If I’m doing the math right, Foer therefore only took five or six years to write his newest novel.
Still, this fact is clear: Foer is a writer who takes his time. In this month of resolutions posted all over social media, where writers are vowing to commit to putting thousands of words on the page each day, I found this knowledge refreshing.
I’m considered a hybrid author—I self-published a novel before starting to publish fiction with Penguin Random House—so I have novelist friends who fall into both the indie and traditionally published camps. We are all driven by a love of story, and by some insane optimism that makes us believe our stories will reach readers. But, the more I listen to writers talking about how fast they’re producing their books, the more I worry that our fiction is suffering as a result.
Self-published authors have discovered that, if they write mysteries or romances or fantasy novels in a series, readers who like one book will immediately start gobbling up the backlist of books on their virtual bookshelf, which means money in their pockets. These are plot-driven books, of course, rather than character-driven, and shouldn’t be compared to what Foer writes. While I love the idea of earning money for fiction as much as the next writer, I have to think the quality of books that are written at such a breakneck pace could be improved if the writers had taken more time in producing them.
Traditionally published authors like myself are not immune from this new push to write faster. Publishers are scrambling to play financial catch-up now that so many genre writers have discovered they can do just as well on their own as with publishing houses—and often better, because they charge much less for ebooks and earn a larger percentage of their royalties. There is a new urgency, especially for writers of commercial fiction, to publish our novels at a faster clip (while still struggling to follow the edict from on high that we must keep up with social media and build our fan bases through newsletters, etc.)
I published two novels in 2015, a big jump from from having published one book each of the previous years. While I’m delighted to be blessed with a publisher and editor I love, I found the pace to be daunting. This year, I’m publishing only one novel, but even so, that gives me only eight months to write it.
Again, I’m not complaining—it took me two decades to get to this point in my career, so I know I’m lucky to have a publishing deadline at all—but I’m wondering what would happen if we all slowed the heck down and gave our fiction room to breathe.
This idea—to slow down when creating new stories—is a tough sell in 2016. We live in a binge-loving culture, where new things are trending every minute on Twitter, Instagram feeds are chock full of people having more fun than you are in more exotic places than you’ll ever be, and Netflix encourages us to gulp down an entire television series in one weekend.
But think about the books you loved reading this past year. One of my favorites was Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things,” a whopping 512-page novel that sprawls across generations and delves into ideas about botany and history, spirituality and evolution. According to one interview I read with her in “The Believer” magazine, Gilbert writes only four hours a day.
Even before starting this particular novel, she “read hundreds and hundreds of books, for hours and hours a day.” The research paid off: when you are reading this novel, you’re completely immersed in the world of 18th- and 19th-century botanists.
Could Gilbert have written this book in a year? Hell, no.
So, my vow is not to write faster, but to write better. To truly write the books I want to write, the way I want to write them, because who knows what the market will be like next year, anyway?
My resolution for 2016 is to resist any outside pressure to speed up my fiction, whether it comes from the publishing world, my writer friends, or the marketplace. Instead, I will write the kind of fiction that feeds my soul and, I hope, sings for my readers, no matter how long it takes.