Monday, December 14, 2009

The Issue of Pacing

Grosset and Dunlap would have gone out of business no matter what. But it’s worth noting they didn’t go broke by publishing literary fiction or avant-garde poetry—they went broke by chasing trends to a ridiculous extent, with celebrity biographies and other mainstream titles that failed to sell.

Even at the time, I realized that Grosset was in no way emblematic of the publishing industry as a whole. The thing is, nearly 30 years later, the industry is a lot more like Grosset and Dunlap than it cares to admit. Incompetence coupled with greed, in search of the ultimate bestseller.

Many people in publishing appear to have an obsession with pacing. Their fear is that today’s readers will lose interest if they are not immediately sent on a linear trajectory, that we are all afflicted with a severe form of ADD. They fail to realize that what intensely interests one reader will completely bore another. Each reader is different, an idea that is anathema to marketing people and to sociologists.

In the Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco reveals how he had to fight to be allowed to keep the first hundred, deliberatively slow-paced pages of his novel intact. His aim was to immerse the reader in the daily routine of a medieval monastery without advancing the plot to any appreciable degree. Eco’s reputation in Italy was such that he was ultimately permitted to do this. It is virtually impossible to imagine an American writer being allowed to do so. Neither Henry James nor Proust would be published in today's environment.

It seems not to have occurred to publishers, editors, or agents that while technology has exponentially sped up our lives, it also allows us to select the rate at which we process information and entertainment. Many readers—perhaps most—will want a novel they can curl up and relax with at night. Which is to say, a book that is not as frantically paced as the rest of their lives.

In a era when even television shows have extremely complex, nonlinear plots, (eg, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost) the publishing industry seems intent on enforcing the idea of simple linear plots and fast pacing. The thing is, a paperback book can never be as fast-paced as a movie on a large screen with fully dimensional sound effects. Then again, this is the industry that turned down Tom Clancy's first novel (“all that boring techno stuff”), even as it was searching for fast-paced thrillers.

Writers are always asked for changes in their manuscript, many of which are arbitrary, and some of which are reasonable but not necessarily appropriate (ie, they take the book in a different direction, one the writer isn't interested in.) No writer can afford to be implacable. If a passage is boring, or incomprehensible, or if it repeats a description that appears on a previous page, then it needs to be rewritten or deleted. Making things happen more quickly is a useful technique, but it is not a universally applicable one. Drawing out a narrative can add layers to it, even when the layering is not immediately apparent to the reader.

Publishing people are surrounded by mountains of words—they are subsumed by them—and are thus forced to read rapidly and superficially. And so, they approach works that offer a substantial degree of complexity and try to simplify them. Much editing is an attempt by the editor to put his or her stamp on a manuscript, without fully thinking through the narrative repercussions of their actions.

The reading of fiction is a highly subjective experience.  Each
of us, by virtue of relying upon different experiences and assumptions, will read a passage slightly differently. Some readers revel in complexity, others do not. That is why the superficial reading and superficial judgment of a piece of writing don’t really work. Unless one is looking only for superficial readers and superficial writers, that is.

What we really need, rather than Wordsworth’s “Intimations
of Immortality,” is an "Ode to Superficiality." Perhaps we could have a reality show where contestants from across the country attempted to create one.

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