The Wall Street Journal answers its own question with this insightful online debate…
Link is here, if you’re itching to have your say…
Writers can be a masochistic kind. For many of the greatest authors of the canon, the only thing more pleasurable than ascending mountains of prose was moaning about just how hard it was. Hemingway, who might have laboured more than most to craft long books from short sentences, summed it up succinctly. “There is nothing to writing,” he quipped. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Why do it? is an obvious question. More interesting: why insist on doing it alone? For a hundred years modern authors have prided themselves on doing things differently: they write about things they shouldn’t; they write in made-up languages; they write their books backwards. But surprisingly few of them have been prepared to break that final taboo – not writing the whole thing themselves.
From Stonehenge to Strictly Come Dancing, history’s lessons convey pretty convincingly that the best things happen when clever people collaborate. It’s not just that the mavericks fall foul of their peers; unable or unwilling to access the support and knowledge of their peers and predecessors, lone guns simply fail.
So why are literature’s loners so often feted for ploughing their own, isolated furrow? Why do we quite admire the soloists whose names sit on the spines of our most popular books? Why do we pretend not to notice that the single-minded, cold-blooded, rampant individualism that we celebrate in the most determined authors is not all that distant from the qualities we detest in the common-or-garden office psychopath?
It’s certainly worth asking if the cult of the solo author diminishes the variety and quality of the books on our shelves. The rest of the cultural world seems to have learnt long ago that solitary slog is hardly the quickest route to great results, and as audiences we don’t very much seem to mind. The most acclaimed television series of our day are written by teams numbering 3 to 30. From the Beatles to the Bangles, some of the most popular music of the century is credited to several musicians. Even journalists regularly share bylines – if it’s worth sharing the efforts of two or three people to create one thousand-word article, how much more effective to enlist a team to create something a hundred times as long?
Admittedly, the dirty business of books hardly encourages collaboration amongst the writing community. In today’s crowded bookshops, marketing one new author is hard; marketing two is madness – so the vast majority of collaborating writers still hide their identities behind singular pen names. Equally, the great literary prizes don’t encourage authors to turn up en masse. Teams of screen-writers win BAFTA awards; collaborating artists have won the Turner. Yet the individuality of British literary prizes is actually enshrined in their Terms and Conditions – according to their literature the Orange Prize will be given to ‘a woman’ who produces the best book; the Booker Prize is intended for ‘an author’.
“Two people writing a novel is like three people having a baby”, wrote Evelyn Waugh. Waugh could turn a fine phrase, and without much assistance from anyone else. But if we accept his opinion without question we might just end up with the books, and the writers, that we deserve.
I try my best not to like Giles Coren. Smug, arrogant, preening - but the man can write. And I found myself cheering silently at his latest Times column, which suggests ‘Generation Crunch’ should stop complaining quite so loudly about the imminent implosion of the graduate jobs market:
Do not curse your fortune, but rather thank your lucky stars. You have been saved! You’re an arts graduate, for heaven’s sake. You didn’t want to be a banker anyway. You wanted to read books and write poetry and kiss girls…
…For the past 15 years or so, graduates have emerged blinking into the white light of a witless and capricious boom time. The “milk round” was in full flood at the major universities, allowing corporate raiders to rape the best and the brightest of each new generation. Men and women who might have made great academics, teachers, writers, doctors and scientists sold themselves, like a thousand Fausts, to the corporate Mephistopheles with his shiny brochures and six-figure starting salaries.
And they are the lost generation, believe me, not you. They work now for monstrous institutions that came to get them when they were 19 or 20, before they were able to make any sort of informed choice, fed them money with which to have fun at college, and then threatened to withdraw the supply - like drug dealers - unless they gave them two, five, ten years of their lives afterwards. And so the very best of the best, for the first time in history, became salarymen - dull, acquisitive, witless, bloated….
Read the full article here.