A question that has intrigued me since the dawn of the digital age is technology’s impact on writing, by which I mean not everyday discourse but the works of those who write (more or less) for a living‚ that is, the works I’ve been making (more or less) of a living reviewing for the past 26 years. Does the ease of composing on a keyboard make for sleek, deft reads or long, baggy ones? Does the Internet’s casual ethos encourage less carefully crafted language or argument? Certainly, technology can help writers write more books, something Gabriel García Márquez said he would have done if he’d had a computer from the beginning.
These thoughts are prompted by a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times reporting something that most people in the book world already know: some authors are writing more, up to two or three books a year compared with the traditional once-a-year release, largely because of technology. The Internet has conditioned us to expect instant gratification; omnipresent online media keep authors to the fore, feeding the frenzy; ebooks let us get whatever we want to read whenever we want it.
So folks from Stuart Woods to David Balducci to Lisa Scottoline, who was interviewed for the Times piece, are giving fans more, more, more. Other authors might produce only one full-scale work a year while also writing a short story or novella that sells for a dollar online (no profit there) yet has the advantage of keeping the creator in the public eye and priming readers for the next big book. Often, those works are related to the forthcoming biggie and serve as excellent marketing tools.
As the Times piece points out, literary authors like Jeffrey Eugenides don’t feel obliged to churn out works in the same way. Theirs is a different audience, willing to wait. Theirs is a different kind of writing, too; implicit here is the idea that commercial fiction can be written faster than literary fiction, since mysteries, thrillers, and women’s weepers hone more closely to a formula.
Certainly, successful writers of commercial fiction are a skilled and disciplined bunch. (Scottoline says she writes 2000 words a day, seven days a week.) But writing is still writing, and pressing oneself to produce too much too fast can make for sloppy, uninteresting work. I’ll bet any one of us can cite a recent work from a favorite author that feels hurried along, with unexpectedly lackluster language and an unrefreshed, that’s-been-done-to-death plot. Meet that schedule!
Bad books aren’t always the result of rushed writing, less prolific authors can produce half-baked disappointments after years of trying, and more books from García Márquez would no doubt have been good for everyone. But for today’s energetic crew, wasn’t the once-a-year grind enough? Readers might be sated and publishers enriched, but for authors burnout is real. If the writing suffers (and the writing is everything), is squeezing out one more book really worth it? I think not.
I suspect I’m up against a tidal wide and can’t fight the zeitgeist. All I can do is worry about the future of good writing. Just know, authors, that at least one reader wouldn’t mind if you stepped back and took a few deep, sweet breaths before giving us your next big book.