Sorry I’ve been silent (again) for so long. In addition to teaching two writing seminars at Penn, I’ve been busy with book revisions. Those are now done, so I should be back (again) to more regular blogging.
Given the glacial pace of my contributions to TNR in recent months, perhaps it makes sense that I’d return with a post about . . . the pace of writing. Back in late September (an eternity ago in Internet time, I know), Ezra Klein—along with Matthew Yglesias, the boy wonder of high-speed blogging—wrote a post about the new partnership between The Daily Beast and the Perseus Books Group that will publish books on a highly accelerated schedule. Here’s the plan:
On a typical publishing schedule, a writer may take a year or more to deliver a manuscript, after which the publisher takes another nine months to a year to put finished books in stores. At Beast Books, writers would be expected to spend one to three months writing a book, and the publisher would take another month to produce an e-book edition.
This inspired Klein to remark on how much easier it’s gotten to write quickly:
Writing doesn't take very long. Quoting doesn't take very long. But assembling information used to take an awful long time. It required a lot of phone calls and microfiche and faxes and walking over to Brookings and paging through newspaper archives and begging a source at Gallup. Now it doesn't take much time at all. That allows me to be the equivalent of a very fast columnist, and there's no reason it won't allow others to become very fast book authors.
“Writing doesn’t take very long.” I suppose not. I mean, I’ve written some long emails in the amount of time it takes me to type. Perhaps the next time I’m starting a book I should open my word processing program, imagine it’s an email, start typing, and keep typing until I’ve gone on for two hundred or so pages, taking momentary breaks to surf the Web so I can gather some needed information along the way. I bet at that rate I could finish it in a couple of months.
But would it be a book? Or at least what, until quite recently, we understood by the word? You know, a lengthy, sustained argument about, interpretation of, or engagement with a topic, one meant to be of lasting value—would my 200 or so pages of typing be that? Would it be worth reading six months—let alone ten or more years—after it was published? Or would it instead be something very different—merely a 55,000-word blog post, as ephemeral as the latest news cycle?
I like blogging. I enjoy its informality and instantaneousness—the way it provides me an opportunity to spout off publicly about this or that outrage of the moment. Opining is fun, and so is ideological combat.
But a book is, or should be, something different: A chance to slow down. An opportunity to raise one’s sights a little higher. To stop focusing so incessantly on the moment and strive, instead, to step back a bit, to take in a wider view, perhaps even to rise above the fray. To reflect instead of react. To ruminate instead of respond.
And what of style? Klein’s statement implies that the only thing that might keep a writer from producing a book in a couple of months is the time it takes to conduct research. As if writing were a process of compiling and arranging lists of facts and figures. Maybe when blogging about public policy, that’s what it mainly is. (Though surely even Klein has paused for five minutes now and then to make sure he nailed a put-down of George W. Bush?) A book can, and should, strive to be more than a list of information. At its best, a book of non-fiction can even aim to be a form of literature.
What Beast Books is proposing, and what Klein is promoting, is (in Truman Capote’s words) the reduction of writing to typing. The typing might be clever, and witty, and informed, and politically useful. But in most cases, it will also be hurried and harried, merely echoing or negating the conventional wisdom of the moment, not placing it in a wider context or viewing it from a broader perspective. And that will be a incalculable loss to our culture.