Today’s Western world is all about speed. We eat fast. We work fast. We walk fast. We drive fast. We talk fast. We don’t phone a friend, we text because it’s quicker. We don’t handwrite a letter, we email because it’s quicker. We don’t fetch groceries from the specialist shops in our local high streets, we get everything at the supermarket because – you guessed it – it’s quicker. We all seem to be marching to some pounding rhythm that thrums, Come on, hurry, come on, hurry.
Perhaps the rise of technology is to blame, pulling us into a world of speed and disconnection from the world around. Perhaps it is down to competition – the culture of bigger, better, brighter, which of course means faster. Or perhaps the exhausting galloping through life goes hand in hand with the medical advances of the past century: because we can live longer, we want to so very much, and the ticking of time becomes something to haunt us, to fear – driving us closer to The End.
Whatever the reason, the increase in speed is clear – and it manifests in so many aspects of life, especially in culture. Have you noticed how books are changing?
I grew up reading classic literature. Books that are long, and weighty, and detailed, and descriptive, and in no great hurry to barrel towards the final scene. My degree is in French literature, and if you’ve read any of the French Romantic writers of the nineteenth century, you know that you don’t really get into the story before page 100. Balzac and Stendhal are typical of that, and are my favourites. There is so much depth to the writing, and the time you put into the reading is rewarded: you feel, at the end of the book, that you have achieved something, been changed somehow, really escaped the confines of your daily life.
Compare this way of writing, from the days when life’s pace was slower, with modern fiction. Undoubtedly, there is a trend today to write ‘quick’ stories. Writing ‘experts’ advocate that you cut out all but the most essential detail; that you focus on plot and dialogue and pare down description; that you move along at pace, forcing the reader, heart pounding, to keep turning the pages. Of course, such a style works wonderfully in the thriller genre, and some readers appreciate this pace in other genres too. But were this the only way to write a book today then I fear reading – that wonderful activity for relaxation and escape – would become just another stimulating, fast input for a tired mind.
Are you familiar with the concept of mindfulness? It’s from Buddhist meditation and it involves being attentive to the reality of things, especially the present moment. Mindfulness is an excellent practice for anyone who feels drained by the pace of modern life and disconnected from what really matters: self, loved ones, nature, spirituality. The more often you are mindful, the more often you are calm – and, according to the Buddha, you are further along the path of enlightenment.
You can be mindful in many areas of your life: taking a moment to notice the scent of a rose in a garden, for example, or really appreciating the taste of an apple you’ve bitten into. And I believe that the practice of mindfulness has a place in writing too. I believe that we writers should not be afraid to slow down; to trust that some readers actually appreciate a more classically written work. We can:
1. Write longer books. ‘Quick to read’ need not be an essential criteria for marketability.
2. Write stories carefully. And carefully can mean slowly: rather than shoehorning in ten events in the first part of the book, you can explore carefully just three, for example.
3. Describe our story worlds. Many readers have commented in reviews of my book that they like my writing for its vivid and detailed description that transports them to the setting and time. I think of the plot as the artist’s pencil outline, and the description as the rich, colourful paints the artist uses to fill the gaps.
4. Explore the depths of our story worlds. The problem with speed is that it does not allow for reflection. But the entire point of a story is to move the reader – and to do this the writer must be prepared to go beneath the surface of the plot and explore the cause and the effect, not just the event.
I like to think we can borrow from the wisdom of Eastern philosopher Lao Tzu, who said: ‘Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.’ Must the writer hurry, so that the reader may hurry? I hope not.