Novelists are a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings, obviously. It's a necessary part of the job, that languid repose; that successful weakening of the usual human determination to do something useful and purposeful rather than just sit around all day trying to think up amusing names for people and places that don't exist. Trollope, renowned for his determined working habits, and often held up as an exemplar with his little charts and his writing slope and his 250 words per page, used to put in a couple of hours a day, which is less time than my grandfather used to put in on his vegetable patch. But Trollope also worked at the Post Office, people say: well, so did my grandad. Writing is a business full of boasters, shirkers, bullshitters, jerrybuilders and out-and-out cowboys. You hear a lot of nonsense about craft and craftsmanship; but the truth is that in order to publish anything you have to be prepared to bodge and skimp: you have to believe that this, after all, will do. If you don't, you're Harold Brodkey. If you still believe that writers work hard, go and live with one for a week, and the next time they're whining about their sad and difficult lives pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge while having another coffee break and trying to decide what colour to repaint their study or which notebook size really suits, dash the cup from their lips and offer to swap their life of ease for your own 12-hour days at the chalk-face/coal-face/screen-face under cheap fluorescent lighting, working with shifty, scheming and very probably psychopathic colleagues, and cry out to them: 'Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest' (Ecclesiastes 9.10), or something similar. That might get their attention, although it probably won't: most writers are so wrapped up in their own diddlings and dawdlings that it'd take a smack in the face with a piece of unplaned two-by-four to get them to sit up and take notice of the world outside.
LRB 2 December 2004 | PDF Download