A little before I began this blog, Sci Phi Journal published an article lamenting the prevalence amongst modern novels of what its author, Mariano Martín Rodríguez, calls “fat literature”. According to Rodríguez, hefty tomes produced by the likes of Stephen King and George R. R. Martin have their roots in writers who churn out words according to formulae devised to please publishers and the reading public and, ultimately, “who want to write for a living, instead of having the freedom to write only when they feel the inner need to do so”.
Whatever the prevalence or merits of fat literature might be, and whether or not it really is the result of writers needing to make money, the question relevant to this blog is: how and where would one get the freedom to write only when struck by an “inner need”? And, perhaps, what is the writer to do when the inner need isn’t there?
I gather that the answer for many writers is to have a “day job” that pays the bills while leaving enough time to work on writing projects; or perhaps an employer willing and able to give time off to work on a book. This is more or less the position that I am in now. Depending on the demands of the day job and how often one feels an inner need, combining the two may require compromises, but plenty of novels and academic or journalistic books seem to get written this way. On the other hand, perhaps there’s an argument that a writer could truly write only in service of inner needs precisely if he or she was able to get by without the day job.
I recall an interview with another writer (I never caught her name) who instead suggested that, to be a writer, one had to be able to write when writing needed to be done and not just “when the muse strikes”. I suspect that one reason that I didn’t get far with my fiction writing when I was younger was because I didn’t understand this, leading to piles of rambling unedited text that amused me to make up but lacked the effort and attention required to turn it into a readable and coherent story.
Around the same time, I was able to work on software until it was complete and correct, possibly because I spent four years studying for a degree that required me to submit work of a certain standard, and later produced software that had to satisfy customers and not just whatever innate desire I might have had to produce code. Perhaps Rodríguez wants to see literature written to similar standards when he complains that writers of fat literature “choose the path of conventional bliss over the rigour required to build literary muscle”, but requiring structures like university degrees and actual software users would seem to contradict the desire to respond only to inner needs.
Being older and wiser now, I’d like to think I’m better at setting my own goals, and perhaps I can take some lessons from software development into writing and other endeavours in which I am less experienced. I may have an inner need to create software when I think of a great idea for a program, but I know that creating software that I can be proud of requires a lot of effort and isn’t always fun. I certainly don’t feel any inner need to sit in front of a debugger wondering why the program doesn’t do what I expect it to—but I know it has to be done, and I’m confident I’ll work it out eventually because I’ve done it many times before. It takes more than mere passion to produce good software, or good literature, or anything else of quality: it takes a lot of skill and work to translate the inner need into an artefact that does justice to that need.