Thursday, 7 March 2013

Speed Novel Writing

I've mentioned briefly before my passion for French feuilleton fiction of the early twentieth century, which was aroused principally by Fantômas, the epic crime soap opera novel (arguably the longest novel ever written), written between 1911 and 1913 at a rate of one volume per month, non-stop for thirty-two months, by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. I'm proud to say I've read the whole thing in French.

Sadly, my activities these days don't allow so much time for reading avant garde French pulp fiction. Some years ago, I made a start on translating Gustave le Rouge's sci-fi horror novel Prisoner of Mars and its equally bonkers sequel, War of the Vampires, into English, and the promises to myself that I'll finish the job have become an annual fixture. Finally, however, someone else has done it for me, somebody a lot more competent and qualified: Brian M. Stableford, who is both an expert on and a prolific exponent of the genre.

I'd like to quote to you from his fascinating introduction, which I hope gives a flavour of the environment in which these books were produced.

Alexandre Dumas, one of the great pioneers of feuilleton fiction, had set a very conspicuous example in his amazing productivity and his distinctive methods of composition, which routinely involved collaborators. These collaborators sometimes did his background research for him and produced rough drafts for him to expand and polish, but their primary duty was to serve as amanuenses. To a great extent – no one is sure how great is was, because the authors were routinely secretive about it – feuilleton fiction was not so much written as dictated, and the duties fulfilled by the dictation-takers often went beyond mere copying to various kinds of embellishment. Productivity became a matter of pride to many feuilletonists, as did speed of composition; Second Empire writers like Paul Féval and Ponson du Terrail openly competed in the matter of how many daily serials they could compose simultaneously, and Ponson not only thought very highly of himself for being able to do five at a time but boasted that he had got them done in time for lunch, so that he could spend the afternoon doing more interesting things. (His amanuenses, if he used one – he never admitted it – presumably could not.)
By the time Le Rouge got into the act, the art – or craft – of fast composition had been perfected by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, the creators of Fantômas, who produced books in ten days flat, spending the first three on planning an outline, the next three dictating and the final four correcting the typescripts. (The invention of the typewriter, including an automatic double-spacing level, had made it easier for shorthand typists to produce easily-correctable copy for their bosses to look over.) Allain and Souvestre were, however, regarded as perfectionists by some of their contemporaries, who thought that outlining and second drafts were for wimps and took a perverse pride in never planning or revising anything. It was not so much that they were proud of being slapdash, but they were sufficiently laid-back not to care about such minor matters as leaving plot-ends hanging loose and vital questions unsettled.

While some of these authors appear to be arrogant hacks of the worst order, their collaborative approach to creativity is pretty liberating. It is a world away from the image of the tortured artist alone in his candle-lit garrett plucking honed expression from his strained heartstrings. It is more like Michelangelo doing the Sistine Chapel with his team, doing the layouts and the faces, and letting the students fill in the drapery and backgrounds. I personally find this style of work hugely exciting. It's not 'slapdash'; it's spontaneous and full of life.

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