I started re-reading Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom last week and was delighted to find out – on the same day – that he is to publish his fifth novel, Purity, in September. In my opinion, Franzen is a brilliant writer, one of the finest I have ever read, but he is also a slow writer. Is that a bad thing? He has talked about closing curtains, switching off his internet connection, even wearing earplugs, to focus on the words, and only the words, on his computer screen.
Similarly, Donna Tartt seems to enjoy a leisurely approach to her work. She published her third novel, The Goldfinch, in a twenty-year plus publishing career, in 2013. Between the two authors they have won The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award and The James Tait Memorial Prize, sold millions of books and are world famous. Those facts would seem to conclude they are doing something right.
I was lucky enough to be in the audience, at the Oxford Union in 2002, when Donna Tartt gave a wonderful reading from her book The Little Friend – even singing at one point! She was interviewed after the reading and asked the inevitable question, ‘Why does it take you so long to complete a novel?’ Her answer was simple – that she wanted her books to be as good as they could be; that every character, every piece of dialogue, etc, be an asset to the story. And she added she would be perfectly happy to have a career tally of only four or five novels, as long as they were all ‘complete’ in her mind.
Obviously we can look at JD Salinger and – up until recently – Harper Lee and see literary legends built on one novel. But do great writers, who have given the world an amazing book or two, owe their readers more and more? Is there some form of unspoken contract of devotion between artist and fan that needs to be honoured?
As far as I’m concerned, as a writer, I feel I’ve learned a huge amount about the craft of writing simply by getting on with it. However I also feel as if – after hundreds of thousands of words and many hundreds of hours spent putting them on to a computer screen – there are only a few pieces of my writing I am truly proud of (one of which is my next novel – Simon Says published by Urbane Publications in January 2016).
As a reader I would love more from Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt, et al.
But writing and reading can never be prescriptive and perhaps the law of diminishing returns would simply kick in and destroy the quality. Ten, twelve or more years is a LONG time to wait for a book, but when it comes (Franzen has managed to write and release Purity in just five years since Freedom – that is VERY fast for him) the thrill of reading that precious new work is usually an incredible experience.
Perhaps patience really is a virtue. And a good title for Franzen’s or Tartt’s next novels?