In 1986, visitors to the Spanish Steps in Rome encountered a gastronomic dilemma: They could enjoy a burger from the new McDonald’s that had just opened, or they could accept a bowl of penne from Carlo Petrini. A writer and political activist, Petrini’s goal was to protest the standardization of the world’s food. In doing so, he sparked a movement that has, for the last 30 years, aimed to promote culinary diversity. Since it was formed to protest a McDonald’s, the movement’s name was a fait accompli: Slow Food.
Cooking and writing are similar professions; I know, because I’ve been doing both professionally for years. A good book, like a good meal, is consumed with little thought to the hours of care that went into its preparation. A book takes months to write and only hours to read. If you factor in the time it takes to grow, harvest, and prepare the ingredients, every meal takes just as long to prepare; they also disappear with rapid speed. Both chefs and writers create products that people want to consume, and both can only have full-time careers if they are able to create repeat business and feed their audience at a rapid rate.
Today’s writer is expected to craft an online identity while churning out everything from literary snacks to full-course feasts that threaten to be labeled TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read). It’s an exhausting scenario and, to compensate, many writers resort to templates that allow them to ape what has come before. We copy and paste out of practicality: it’s the only way we can keep feeding the bear. The consequence is that many articles, books, and films have a familiar taste – the same you would get from eating a Big Mac on the Spanish Steps.
This familiarity is precisely what Carlo Petrini was protesting. The movement’s original 1989 manifesto declared that adherents were choosing “tranquil material pleasure” over those “who confuse efficiency with frenzy.” To this day, the Slow Food movement wants diners and chefs to challenge themselves by taking their time and making every meal a hedonistic experience. Should we ask any less from ourselves as writers – or from those who choose to read what we make?
With its never-ending stream of reboots and sequels, modern culture has heightened the ideal that artists have a duty to capitalize on our success. Consequently, we can understand Stephen King writing over 50 books far more than we can fathom why Ralph Ellison only published one in his lifetime. Ellison, of course, is the author of the 1952 novel Invisible Man, a book declared by the New York Times to be “feverishly emotional.” The paper went on to add that “whatever the final verdict on Invisible Man may be, it does mark the appearance of a richly talented writer.” The Times would probably have been surprised to learn that Ellison’s debut was also his swan song. No one would ever accuse Ralph Ellison of confusing efficiency with frenzy: In the 40 years that followed Invisible Man, he released only a single book of essays. When he died, he was survived by over 2000 pages of a book that was published posthumously in 1999. “Despite my personal failures,” said Ellison, while accepting the National Book Award in 1953, “there must be possible a fiction which…can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”
Ellison is hardly alone in being an author who valued work over filling a library’s shelves. Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 and didn’t publish again until 55 years later, when she was in poor health; in 2015, Go Set a Watchman was released, a book that may or may not have had her blessing, depending on who you believe. In 1990, the author Stephanie Vaughn released Sweet Talk, a collection of short stories dubbed first-rate by Wallace Stegner, himself a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. “She is not merely gifted, or talented, or promising,” wrote Stegner. “She is not a comer; she is there.” Vaughn may have arrived, but she isn’t exactly making herself known; according to repeated interviews, she has been working on her sophomore book for the past 27 years.
In 2015, I published my first novel. At the launch party, people asked me the same question they no doubt asked Ellison, Lee, and Vaughn: “What are you working on next?” It was a good question, but I didn’t have an answer. My novel hadn’t achieved the sort of notoriety of Invisible Man; truth be told, it didn’t look like it would achieve any notoriety at all. The urge to produce another – to redeem the first book by writing a second – led to my own spurt of inefficient frenzy, which didn’t result in anything of worth. I was stalled, not by writer’s block, but by the conviction that whatever I wrote had to be of superior worth. I wanted Ellison’s bright fairy-tale magic. While that could theoretically appear overnight – Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in a little more than a year – I became aware that I needed the one thing both Carlo Petrini and Ralph Ellison understood was a disappearing treasure: time.
Writing and publishing are two very different acts, and the two are not as connected as might be assumed. In 1974, J.D. Salinger told the New York Times that while he was still writing, publication was no longer his concern. “There’s a marvelous peace in not publishing,” he said. “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.” In October 2016, the truth of his remark was born out when author Elena Ferrante, one of the more famous pseudonyms in the literary world, was unmasked by a crusading journalist. Against her wishes, her identity was revealed. Writing is a personal act. But there is a price of admission to publication, and while not every published author has to pay it, the potential is always there, like an option in your contract that you might someday have to fulfill.
The urge to publish – the urge to stay current – is both a practical and emotional concern. J.D. Salinger could live off his royalties, but the rest of us aren’t half as lucky. The internet is hungry for content, and those who can provide it will earn a paycheck. Yet Salinger’s philosophy (apparently shared by Ellison, Lee, and Vaughn), suggests that there is a different way for writers to look at their art. To the outsider, Ellison’s 2000 posthumous pages suggest he was a victim of perfectionism and high ideals. To someone like Salinger – and probably Ellison himself – the work was its own reward.
In the first stage of my career, I was a writer obsessed with publishing a book. Now, as I move forward, I am becoming more attracted to writers who, like Ellison and Vaughn, turn the act of writing into a leisured quest. I know that I am not a Salinger; I am not willing to write without ever submitting my work to the world. That I will publish another novel is an absolute certainty. But I’m giving myself the time to write 2000 pages first.
I do not come to bury the purveyors of fast writing anymore than Carlo Petrini directly attacked the creators of fast food. The Slow Food movement’s strategy has always been to promote a passion for eating while creating an awareness of what industrialization has done to traditional foods. There is room for both in this crowded, crowded world. Everyone eats and everyone must decide what sort of eater they want to be. Not everyone writes, of course, but those who do must constantly ask themselves what kind of writer they hope to become. For now, I am the writer who would choose the penne over the fast food; I am the eater who writes daily but prefers to publish with care.
—Joel Fishbane is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and freelance writer. His novel, The Thunder of Giants, is available from St. Martin’s Press. For more information about him or his work, visit joelfishbane.net.
Read more in our essay series:
Losing mom and finding Flo
Producing manuscripts in sensible shoes
Writing into the mainstream: Learning the ABCs of writing about Cuba
Robin Black: Unsealing fate
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