Just lately, everything I read provides another example of extraordinary creative productivity. Agatha Christie, for instance, passed through amazing periods of writing, Between 1930 and 1940, she published 27 novels or collections of short stories, and that’s not counting the plays. And these were her magnificent years, the years of her best work, not just the best speed of production. One of the novels she published under the name of Mary Westmacott she wrote over the course of three days on holiday. How could anyone do such a thing?
But she’s not alone; there’s an anecdote I always remember about Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. Three weeks after war was declared, he went to see Harold Nicholson in his chambers at the Temple, and commissioned him to write a Penguin Special of 50,000 words entitled, Why Britain Is At War. He took delivery of the manuscript a fortnight later. Then there’s the extraordinary women of the 19th century: Mary Braddon, who brought up 11 children, five dating from her common law husband’s first marriage, six that she gave birth to herself, while writing over 80 novels. Or Fanny Trollope, author of a whopping 100 volumes, who also had money problems and numerous children, a fair few of them languishing towards death while she wrote in the other room.
Now me, if I get 5,000 words a week, I figure I’m doing quite well. I often don’t.
I’ve been puzzling over this, wondering why it is that we are such slowcoaches compared to those 19th and 20th century authors. (Who are the big-output writers of the contemporary culture? Ruth Rendell, perhaps, Lee Child? I can’t think of anyone headed towards 80 novels.) Nor do I think I’m alone in being a slow writer, in fact, most writers I know or know about produce more or less the same number of words. Partly it’s because we are expected to do more towards the business of living, despite all those so-called labour-saving gadgets. No servants these days to cook and clean and look after children. All those emails and phone messages to answer (although the authors I mention often wrote quite a few letters), the internet to surf. But it still doesn’t quite account for what I feel in my bones is a more dissipated way of living in the modern world, in which our focus is fragmented time and again over the course of each day.
Reading one of my student’s essays today on Foucault, I got excited about what felt like a revelation. And perhaps it isn’t; maybe it’s just me following some little jumpy idea around, bedazzled by its lustre. But anyway, it was an essay on surveillance, and the way that changes in the systems of discipline and punishment had resulted in changes in the way we govern ourselves. So the example most people know of Foucault’s theories – if they’ve heard of him at all – is the panopticon. This is the prison arranged with a central viewing tower and cells surrounding it. Each cell is visible from the central vantage point, but prisoners in the cells do not know if they are being watched or not. All they know is that they may be under observation at any time of day. In consequence, they tend to internalise discipline, rather than have to have it imposed upon them by punishments. They are more likely to behave according to the rules ‘just in case’. The system of justice is only one example of a society ever more concerned with policing its citizens closely. Take health care, for instance. Nowadays it’s not enough for us to be healthy; we have to engage all the time in health-promoting activities, just in case something we are doing may be killing us. It’s not enough not to smoke; we mustn’t even feel urges towards our vices. Agatha Christie was not bothered about getting herself to the gym, or eating well-balanced meals. It must have been a weight off her mind. And she lived to a fine old age, regardless.
We live in a world where increasingly we could be guilty at any moment – guilty of not doing or thinking or feeling the things we ought. And I wonder just how much of our energy goes on self-surveillance, and on trying to do things or stop doing things, that our society censures. The rise and rise of attachment parenting must be contributing to this, because what attachment parenting means is that the child is constantly observed by its parents. Darwin was the first to promote observation of small children. He motivated an army of mothers to watch and note down their children’s growth and development. For the first time, unsurprisingly, the children began to suffer from anxiety, having been made aware of themselves and their potential to do things wrong. Of course, children who are neglected get anxious too – it’s a fine balancing act, weighing enough concern against enough healthy neglect. But I do think it leads us to watch ourselves more closely as adults. What is social media, after all, other than a form of self-surveillance that we hold out to the attention of others? Why would people post status updates on facebook about the nice piece of toast they’ve just eaten, or their relief at having finished filling in tax forms? All this requires time and energy and attention. If we weren’t paying so much time and attention to policing our inner worlds, wouldn’t we have more energy and focus to give to projects outside of ourselves?
(And given that blog posts can also be a form of self-surveillance that wastes energy, I apologise to all my friends waiting for emails from me – very busy week! So sorry! Will write soon!)