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Can the Working Writer Be an Artist?

Sarah Skwire

Every four seconds, someone buys a novel by Lee Child, author of the popular Jack Reacher series. That’s 15 books every minute; 900 every hour; 21,600 every day.

University of Cambridge lecturer Andy Martin’s new book, Reacher Said Nothing, follows Child throughout the writing of Make Me, the 20th of Child’s Jack Reacher blockbuster novels, providing Child’s fans and anyone with an interest in the creative process with unprecedented access to the writer at work.

The part of Martin’s book that most interested me was the copy of Child’s schedule for one writing day:

7:45 Up, straight to work
Coffee 3 (mugs)
Camels 3

9:28 Breakfast. Sugar Smacks

9:35 Back to work
Coffee 3
Camels 5

1:29 Lunch
Toast and marmalade and cheese (Swiss)
Coffee 2
New Yorkers 1

1:55 Back to work
Coffee 5
Camels 7

7:01 Dinner
Alpen cereal
Coffee 2
Camels 4

7:35 Evening shift
Coffee 4
Camels 7

10:20 Shut down

Total number of words in the day: 2,173

Total mugs of coffee: 19

Total Camels: 26

I was fascinated not just because of the daunting amount of coffee and tobacco Child takes in every day, but because this rigorous accounting of his writing day reminded me of a similar account given by Anthony Trollope in his autobiography in 1883. Trollope reported that he sat down to write every morning at 5:30. (He paid a servant an extra £5 annually to be sure that he was awakened on time.) He then wrote for three hours, after which he left to go to his job at the post office. Trollope records that it was his practice “to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.”

Writing at this rate, he found, “allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year… which must at any rate be felt to be quite as much as the novel-readers of the world can want from the hands of one man.”

The autobiography closes with the Victorian equivalent of a spreadsheet recording the titles of Trollope’s novels, their publication dates, and the amount he was paid for each one.

Trollope’s autobiography came close to killing his literary legacy.

Unlike Child’s readers — cheerful purchasers of genre fiction who are thrilled to have new novels produced as rapidly as they can be consumed — Trollope’s readers, and the critics who weigh his fitness as a “real writer,” were not content to think of writing as a job and novels as a product of work. They had been trained by the Romantic movement to think of writing as a mysterious, spiritual experience where one is overtaken by inspiration.

The English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley gives probably the best example of that Romantic theory of creativity in his 1821 Defense of Poetry. While he writes specifically about poetry in that book, this same theory would have been applied to novels, paintings, drama, and nearly any creative endeavor of the time.

A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.… I appeal to the greatest poets of the present day, whether it is not an error to assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labor and study.

Writing, for the Romantics, was not a matter of sitting down at a writing desk at a particular time and not getting up until the day’s work was complete. The Romantics waited for inspiration.

And so when Anthony Trollope listed his daily schedule, the Romantics and the critics who loved them dismissed him completely.

It did not help that Trollope noted,

I do lay claim to whatever merit should be accorded to me for persevering diligence in my profession. And I make the claim, not with a view to my own glory, but for the benefit of those who may read these pages, and when young may intend to follow the same career. Nulla dies sine lineâ [Not a day without a line]. Let that be their motto. And let their work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. 

Now, a little more than 130 years later, Lee Child is joining Trollope in sharing his less-than-romantic writing process with the world. I strongly suspect that he will respond to any critique of his productivity with, “Millionaire, don’t care,” but I suspect nearly as strongly that there won’t be such a critique.

Child is already firmly fixed in the minds of critics as a genre novelist — which means he is less subject to critical snark. But also, we are no longer shocked to hear that writers follow 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson’s advice: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Indeed, lately readers are far more likely to excoriate their favorite writers for not producing new works fast enough. I think Trollope might have enjoyed that.

I know he would have been at his desk at 5:30 tomorrow morning, writing. I suspect Lee Child will be as well. After all, there’s work to do.


This is Trollope’s accounting of his novels and what each one earned:

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