Should Writers Take A Year Off?

books (Photo credit: brody4)

This article was originally published by ‘The Guardian.’ The views expressed there are not necessarily our views but we deem it fit for publication all the same!

Writers Should Take  A Year Off And Give Us A Break!

Colin Robinson

”This is a tricky piece for me to write. I’m a publisher, after all, whose job it is to find authors, help them develop ideas for books, and edit their writing for publication. But I have a confession to make, a growing conviction that won’t go away: I much prefer readers to writers. Let me qualify straightaway: I know a great many writers and am close to more than a few. And, as a reader, there are many writers whose work I admire. It’s just the category as a whole that gives me trouble.

Let’s divide the world into two groups: those who write and those who read. Readers set out wanting to experience, or learn, something new. They share the attributes of intellectual curiosity, of modesty, of a capaciousness that seeks fulfilment through the ideas of others. As Virginia Woolf put it, the common reader is “guided by an instinct to create for himself out of whatever odds or ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing”.

Writers are people who, by and large, have made up their minds and seek to deliver the resulting verdict to what they imagine is a waiting world. A few, the private diarists, may scribble for the sake of posterity or self‑improvement. But, as the Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano once observed: “Writing for oneself is like dancing with one’s sister.” Most writers have egos of sufficient muscularity to be confident that their words merit an audience.

In this, the majority will be mistaken – for the ability to write well is an attribute not widely shared. The self-assurance that coaxes many writers into seeking publication is irrigated by the supportive words of family and friends, as well as publishing professionals too busy, or lazy, to offer a critique. The misapprehension that even the poorest writers are worthy of an audience is spurred further by online retailers prepared to sell anything with an ISBN. And Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has proudly pronounced that it is happy to sell “the good, the bad and the ugly”.

According to Google, some 130m titles have been published since the first books took form on the desks of monks. This overwhelming catalogue is today being supplemented at a rate never before seen in the history of the book. Another industry statistician, Bowker, reports that nearly 1.8m new titles were published in 2012, an increase of half a million in just three years. As the constant thrum of laptop keyboards in coffee shops across the nation testifies, nearly everyone, it seems, wants to be an author. And, according to the New York Times, 81% of Americans feel they have a book in them. New technology plays its part here. So too, perhaps, does writing’s attraction as a way of asserting one’s existence in a world where the traditional terrain for being acknowledged by others – the workplace, family or neighbourhood – is increasingly under strain.

But if writers today are ubiquitous, readers seem an increasingly endangered species. A recent survey revealed that one in four Americans had read not a book in over a year. Again, technology is a significant factor in this (electronic Scrabble entered my life like a new drug a couple of years back). Bye-bye bedtime novels.

Paradoxically, the deluge of writing itself contributes to declining readership. It’s not just that if you’re writing then you can’t be reading. It’s also that the sheer volume of what is now available acts as a disincentive to settle down with a single text. The literary equivalent of channel surfing replaces the prolonged concentration required to tackle a book. Condensed capsules of digital communication are infecting all forms of reading. But books, the longest form that writing takes, are suffering disproportionately in the reduced attention spans of readers.

As ever more writers dive into the shrinking pool of readers the laws of the market threaten to turn the cash nexus in book publishing on its head. Increasing numbers are paying to write; that’s why self-publishing operations such as Lulu and iUniverse and burgeoning fee-rich creative writing courses are all making money. Academics are deep in discussion about open-access systems for the publication of journals where the writer, rather than the reader, will pay for the publication.

If we haven’t yet reached a point where readers are actually being paid, it surely isn’t far off. Newt Gingrich‘s “earning by learning” scheme, which launched in Georgia back in 1990, gave students two dollars for every book they read. It was greeted with justifiable derision by publishing and teaching communities aghast at its cold monetisation of education and art. But the constant cutting of book prices or, worse, the giving away of millions of books through initiatives such as World Book Night are undermining the idea of reading as something for which one should be expected to pay. If this trend continues, the only people not writing will be the professionals who previously earned a living from a craft they can now no longer afford to practise.

Sometimes, on darker days, it seems that my job as an editor comprises little more than hacking away at the Gormenghast-like tangle of poorly crafted words in order to admit sunlight for the few well-composed ones that are left. An editor friend told me she felt much of her working life had been spent “spinning straw into brass”.

I would like to propose a writers’ moratorium. What if everyone could be persuaded to stop scribbling for a period of, say, 12 months? Of course we would lose some marvellous work during The Year of Not Writing, and that’s not to be taken lightly. But look at the compensations: we could all kick back, take stock, and get off the spinning carousel of keeping up with the latest offerings. Just think what could be done with the free time: books we’ve loved could be revisited; philosophy or poetry could be afforded the time they demand; tomes of previously forbidding length could be tackled with languorous leisure.

The writers would survive a break. They could devote new-found free time to hobbies: Will Self could pull on his hiking boots, Martin Amis sharpen his tennis serve, John Updike could have headed for the links. Better still, they could fill the empty hours by joining us readers, immersed in the work of others, to the great benefit of their often inflated sense of self. You can almost hear the hiss of compressed self-regard being released. I might even start liking them again”

• Colin Robinson is a co-founder of the New York-based independent publisher OR Books.


NP: If writers should accede to the demands of the writer of this article, then it would be a boring year indeed. People love to read and have the power to choose from the deluge of titles publishers churn out daily!


Author: arrowgatepublishing

Home of Quality Books