Ursula K. Le Guin recently blogged right her on Book View Café about how the marketing practices of Amazon.com results in disposable, interchangeable world-pablum instead of thoughtful, well-crafted literature. She wrote:
If you want to sell cheap and fast, as Amazon does, you have to sell big. Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.
The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.
I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese. Fortunately, I also know that many human beings have an innate resistance to baloney and a taste for quality rooted deeper than even marketing can reach.
The Guardian responded with an article about her powerful essay, so I expect it’s gotten a lot of exposure now.
Le Guin’s perspective reminds me of an experience I had when I was a fairly new writer. I’d sold a handful of short stories to professional markets and I was perpetually working on one novel or another but I hadn’t sold one yet. Because I was still learning how to write at novel length, I wrote really awful, disorganized first drafts and then revised over and over. It took me a couple of years to get a novel into sufficiently good shape that I felt comfortable in sending it out. That was okay, because each one was better than the one before. They were better written, but also deeper in concept and grander in scope. I was getting personalized rejection letters from editors, which encouraged me greatly. At a convention, I encountered an author who had already sold several novels. In fact, he (nominal pronoun for the sake of the article) was churning out three or four a year. When I asked him how he did that, he told me he never revised. He’d write a draft and that was it.
I was devastated. I guess I didn’t have a lot of confidence as a writer to begin with, but I remember thinking that if I had to write a publishable first draft (an utter impossibility for me), not once but several times a year, there was no hope for me. Fortunately, I had a good support group and I soon realized that this author and I had different aims and abilities. He wanted to write quickly enough to get lots of books on the shelves, and his first drafts must have been sound enough for his editor. I wanted to write books that readers would savor and return to, books they wanted to keep.
The two goals aren’t necessarily incompatible. I know successful authors who write more than one novel a year (it takes me one to two years at this point to finish a novel to my own satisfaction). They are dedicated craftspeople, and some of their work is very good. It’s not that one way of working is better than another, it’s that I got into trouble by comparing mine to someone else’s.
I know romance writers who support themselves with their writing. They sell on proposal with very detailed outlines. They know exactly how many pages each section of the outline will require and by what date they must finish them to meet deadline. They do this every 3 months. By and large, their readers expect a particular experience and the writers deliver it consistently. It’s a 9-to-5 job, but one they love.
Sometimes when I as a reader pick up a book, that’s what I want. Not challenging literature but a predictable, engaging read. Fast food For The Mind, as it were. It could be escape reading, or comfort, or perfect for a time or situation rife with distractions, when subtle writing would get lost. (Think: on the bus, during your kid’s karate class, in the dentist’s office.)
If all I ever read what Fast food For The Mind, my brain would turn to jelly. Or adipocere, more like. I need my vegetables and whole grains, too: chewy, beautifully crafted work. Sometimes with prose so gorgeous I want to weep. Sometimes so thorny I want to scream at the author. Sometimes so powerful I can never see things the same way again. I won’t say these books can never be written quickly, but it’s important that writers who have these stories in them and who need to write slowly and thoughtfully have the time to do so. And that those difficult, “uncommercial,” non-best-seller, utterly transformative books find their ways to the readers they will nourish.
As a writer, I try to work at the pace that allows me to reflect and dig deep into my stories instead of dashing off the first things that come to mind. (Sometimes these are brilliant, but more often than not, they’re just trite.) As a reader, moreover, I don’t mind waiting another year or two or five for another splendid story from my favorite writers.