This was published in Guardian Books on 3 July 2007:
Slow-Cooked Books: The Virtues of Writing Slowly
In an age of unreflecting haste, there are many good reasons for authors to take their own sweet time.
Responding to an article in these very pages, back in February, I expressed concern at the accelerating pace of publishing and called (half-jokingly) for the creation of a Slow Writing Movement (SWM), modelled on the Slow Food phenomenon. Word processing probably enables people to write faster than ever, and the internet provides the sometimes dubious means of instant publication.
As a result, what often passes for fiction today would have been considered no more than an early draft only a few years ago. In truth, however, the digital age has simply compounded a problem caused by the increasing hegemony of one school of writing (the Ionic) over another (the Platonic).
Platonic writers tend to see their works as imperfect reflections of an unattainable literary ideal. They do not celebrate the birth of a new opus so much as mourn the abortion of all the other versions that could have been. In short (a keyword here), written books are sweet, but those unwritten are sweeter. Authors (and characters) belonging to this lineage have been known to give up writing altogether or contemplate destroying their own works, although they usually settle for spending an awful lot of time producing precious little.
Platonic writers are the antithesis of Grub Street hacks: for them, less is resolutely more. Since publication is, of necessity, an abject compromise with base reality, they agonize over endless revisions (like William H Gass whose novel, The Tunnel, was 30 years in the making) or grace the world with a slim volume of acerbic aphorisms whenever they can be arsed (à la Cioran).
In Plato’s famous dialogue, Socrates argues that the eponymous Ion and his fellow rhapsodes (the slam artists of Ancient Greece) are possessed by the gods whenever they tread the boards. According to this tradition, the artist, in the throes of creation, is under the influence — be it of the Muses, drugs, alcohol, a dream vision or some other variant of divine inspiration. Ionic Man does not speak: he is spoken through (or played upon like Coleridge’s Aeolian harp), hence the cult of “spontaneous prose” in its various guises. The work of art comes as easily as leaves to a tree, appearing fully-formed in a blinding flash of inspiration or in an accretive, free-associative manner as if under dictation. In both cases, logorrhoea beckons.
The Surrealists‘ experiments with automatic writing belong to this school. So do the numerous penis-extension tall tales of binge typing. A driven Kerouac composed On the Road in a three-week, benzedrine-fuelled session after fashioning a scroll manuscript which allowed the all-important free flow of words to go unimpeded. Capote‘s famous quip — “That isn’t writing; it’s typing” — unwittingly captured the histrionic quality of Kerouac’s feat. This is action writing that transforms a sedate, sedentary, haemorrhoid-inducing activity into a heroic performance.
Another prime instance of Ionic braggadocio is the legend according to which Georges Simenon once locked himself in a glass cage to toss off a novel in three days and three nights while spectators gawked. This planned publicity stunt never actually occurred, but it may well have inspired Will Self who, back in 2000, wrote a novella in a London art gallery during a two-week residency: the words were projected live on to a plasma screen behind the desk where he sat. These experiments, and others like National Novel Writing Month, are all interesting enough, but perhaps the time has come to ditch literary hothousing in favour of the Platonics’ “precious little” aesthetics.
Yes, of course, there is a social angle to all this. The Platonics belong to an aristocratic lineage which is at odds with our egalitarian times (how many authors can afford to be so unproductive?), but that should not blind us to what they have to offer. They write as if their lives depended on it. Whereas the Ionics try to merge life and literature into a seamless continuum, the Platonics, spurred on by what Paul Eluard called the “difficult desire to endure”, often sacrifice the present on the altar of posterity. How many works of fiction produced today have any staying power?
Everything comes to those who can wait, so join the Slow Writing Movement — if not now, then when you get round to it.