The art (or job, if you like) of writing is full of ironies. Whilst many on Medium swear by a 20- or 30-article-per-month routine, others are just as happy churning out pieces every other week. In reality, no one knows any better. Just do what is right for you.
And you could do worse than looking at what established writers get up to. For instance, Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel arrived in 2016. Named The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, this was the author’s sophomore effort after a 20-year lull. Compared to famous procrastinators such as Harper Lee and Leon Tolstoy, two decades might not seem much, but what hid behind the wait?
I, for one, was really looking forward to reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. If it was anything like The God of Small Things, Arundhati’s only novel until then, I expected free-jazz-like sentences jumping off the page. A language as rich as the twins Rahel and Estha’s imagination. And a million-story plot. I wanted to be surprised and shaken, but also entertained.
Therein, then, lies the dilemma of the “tardy” author.
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I have often wondered what led the likes of Joyce and Kundera to wait several years before continuing to do what was apparently natural to them: novel-writing. The former let seventeen years slip by between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The latter took thirteen to complete The Festival of Insignificance after the publication of Ignorance. Was it fear of not rising up to the challenge posed by the devoted reader? Or perhaps dea(r)th of creativity?
I have a theory. Authors whose oeuvre transcends the confines of literature and become bywords for cultural phenomena (think Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and its social and political connotations) have much more to lose if their next book does not stand up to scrutiny as their previous one. That is a lot of pressure already. On top of that, there is the commercial one. They have to make money. After all, this is their craft. So, making money whilst remaining authentic. Fancy giving that a try, reader?
A second reason for any dilly-dallying when bringing another book out could be linked to fear of disappointing followers. For me, Kundera’s philosophical musings are central to his narratives. Without them, I would not have enjoyed The Joke or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Hence my feelings of frustration when I read his three “French” novellas (they were written in French rather than Czech, the language he had used until then). They lacked his usual insightful, eagle-eye examinations. Understandably, Milan went away and came back with what many thought was a return to the golden years of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his 2015 effort The Festival of Insignificance.
Self-consciousness could be another factor. Harper Lee famously miscalculated the impact of To Kill a Mockingbird on both the public and the critics. The fact that the novel was so well received and that there was such open encouragement for her to keep on writing might have been one of the reasons why she became a recluse.
Lazing on a Sunday afternoon
Some of you are probably thinking “Yes, but writing and publishing are two different things. The former can take two days or two years or two decades. The latter is decided by a group of people, including the writer’s agent, a publisher and editor and it is done within a reasonable time frame.”
You are right. Not only that but also, not writing a second or third or fourth novel for fifteen, twenty or thirty years does not mean that the writer does not write at all. Arundhati Roy was very busy writing non-fiction during those two decades. Some of it I read and it was just as good as the make-believe world she created in The God of Small Things.
What, then, makes a writer procrastinate? I have no idea, other than it seems to do the trick for some. What I do know is that sometimes, just like in 2016 with Roy, the delay was worth the wait. Especially when the book was a celebration of an author at the height of her literary powers. I’ll certainly toast to that any time.
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