Monday, August 25, 2008

The next screen

A very good interview with Helen DeWitt at A Softer World. NB she is not exaggerating about the time and energy it takes to see books into print - it is the bane of my life, the one thing that there is no hope of changing and that I must just suffer through! I do not begrudge the time as such, it is necessary to do something with time, only it so clearly ends up being time spent not having enough energy to think about new things and write new books!

Here's a great bit, anyway:
Our social practices aren't as well developed as our games. A community of game players improves the standard at which a game is played over time. Bridge has only been around for a bit over a century, for instance, but well-developed bidding systems enable even very weak players to communicate the strength and shape of their hand and determine whether they have a good fit with their partner; the systems work well because they have been developed by first-class players who have a good sense of which hands play well. (You can't know the potential strength of a pair of hands, obviously, unless you know what can be done with them.) So if I'm playing bridge and have a six-card heart suit and 3 Aces a King and a Jack I have a very good chance of finding out whether my partner has a) a four-card heart suit and a fistful of honours, b) a four-card heart suit but a weakish hand, c) no hearts, a long spade suit and a fistful of honours, d) a few honours and no strong suit, or e) zilch. (to name just a few possibilities) By way of contrast, we have no comparable sophistication in the communication of sexual preferences or strength of interest. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever gone to jail for optimistically raising a 1 heart opening to slam on a hand with a singleton heart and the Jack of diamonds; we might think that the sophistication of the game could usefully be transferred to areas of life where the penalties for misunderstanding are higher.


  1. What do you mean by "to see books into print"? Are you talking about struggles with the copy editor, or is there something else you're thinking of?

  2. I was thinking much more broadly than that.

    The case is somewhat different for academic books than for novels; but let us say that I have written two of each, that one in each of those categories required DRAMATIC and significant rewriting, for total rewriting on the order of 10+ times over a period of 5-10 years, and that obtaining an agent is pretty much the hardest thing I have ever done.

    I revised "The Explosionist" 3 times (that's in addition to probably 10 x through on my own bat) for an agent who in the end wasn't interested in working with me; I then did I think three substantive revisions (all greatly to the benefit of the book, I must add) for the editor I ended up working with...

    I took my "Breeding" book entirely to pieces and put it all back together again last summer; I submitted the "final" version in September, then did the final round of revisions on readers' comments in January and February, then had a copy-edit (light!) in May and proofs and index in August.

    But along the way with that book, I "finished" it at least half-a-dozen times, with all the frenetic all-night proof-reading that entails...

    You have got me in RANT mode I'm afraid! None of this do I mind, really, but it edges out so many of the other more interesting things one could be writing and thinking about! It is one of the little-known secrets of book-writing, how very much trouble still awaits one after completion of a quite good and very polished first 'final' draft...

    My rule: 60-80% of the intellectually stimulating work on a novel or an academic book is done in the first year of working on it, but many books seem to take, let's say, 5 years to write, with fairly even time commitment over those years. You can see how unfortunate the consequences of this rule are for the internal mental lives of authors...

  3. That's very interesting!

    So, if there was a different publishing system -- where you could just decide when you are done with book on your own and then publish it -- could you have written several more books? Do you thinks the books would have been as good if you were just allowed to publish them when you felt they were done?

  4. No, I do not think they would have been as good, but let us say if they had been 85-90% as good and I could have written 2 more books, wouldn't that be a worthwhile tradeoff? To me, it seems the process rather than the product of writing a book that is so valuable - I write a book to figure out what I think about something - then there is a lot of subsequent craft-type work sorting out how to get the form as effectively as possible making my point and engaging the reader - but this, though it has its own interest, is not intellectually interesting...

    I particularly admire novelists with an ethos of productivity over craft - writers like Iain Banks and Anthony Burgess, many of whose books are perhaps not up to the standard of their very best ones but who have successfully made a kind of tradeoff for stimulating productivity...

  5. Thanks for the reply!

    I guess once you are an established popular writer you can pretty much decide on your own when a book is done -- I imagine that is/was the case with Banks and Burgess.

  6. Jenny,

    That's interesting. It hasn't been so bad for me: for my academic books I've simply written them first and found a publisher after, and for my popular book, I found an agent but then was so constrained by time (wanting to get it out in advance of the election) that we went with and academic publisher anyway.

    But you'll get the last laugh when you're a bestselling author and I'm still churning out books for university presses...

  7. Jenny,

    @ par. 2 of your 10:49 comment. Responding to the French writer (name escapes) who wrote the 15,000Inspector Maigret novels, who was denigrating Ralph Ellison for having written one books, Saul Bellow said something to the effect of, "you've also written one book!" ....or something along those lines.