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Award-Winning Novels; Fighting Procrastination

November 5, 2010 | by

I was having this argument with my friend recently about award-winning novels. I find them stodgy and inaccessible. She thinks I’m not applying myself to the pages long enough to get it. In defense, I invoked a literary heavyweight—Martin Amis. He was quoted a few weeks ago as saying, “There was a great fashion in the last century, and it’s still with us, of the unenjoyable novel. And these are the novels which win prizes, because the committee thinks, ‘Well it’s not at all enjoyable, and it isn’t funny, therefore it must be very serious.’” She tried to tell me that Amis has sour grapes from his Booker Prize near-miss in the early nineties. We need someone to settle this. —Paul Hawkins

It may have been sour grapes, but don’t you think Amis is right? The worst is when the judges of literary prizes try to legislate from the bench—flexing their “muscle” by giving a prize to some book that nobody’s ever heard of, or passing over a popular favorite because it’s “too obvious” or “doesn’t need it.” As I wrote the other week, when it comes to literary merit (or sex appeal) there is no such thing as too obvious. And most unfun novels are not much good. My heart sinks when I see a list of unknowns as finalists for a prize I care about. It is usually a case of committee work or telling people what they ought to like (and already know they don’t).Then there are wonderful exceptions, like Tinkers, a fine novel rescued from obscurity by the Pulitzer Prize. Or—a very different case—the most recent recipient of the Nobel, Mario Vargas Llosa, a writer who has been accused of many things, but never of being hard to read.

I am a terrible procrastinator. In order to avoid writing assignments, I clean, respond to e-mails sent months ago (which I neglected to reply to promptly because, well, you know), and watch hours of dubious television. Once I’ve actually started, I find the writing process pretty painless—even enjoyable. But I just can’t bring myself to open that word document and start working until the very last minute. Any advice? —Laurie

Are these assignments paying the rent? If so, then get cracking. The trick is to let yourself write badly—as badly as you need to, in order to make your word count and your deadline. At least, that’s what works for me. If these assignments come without a paycheck or a deadline, however, and if you find that you keep avoiding them, I think it’s worth asking yourself why. Maybe you don’t want to do them. Nothing feels better than walking away from a job you don’t want to do.

Or maybe it’s just your style to do things at the last minute. If you can swing it, well, congratulations. In that case, my only advice is to forget about your work until you do it. In the meantime, enjoy those reruns!

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  1. Jeff | November 5, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Thank You. That was very simple yet made more sense than most of the things I’ve read today.

  2. jon R Horton | November 6, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    No one has ever accused Llosa of being hard to read? Have you ever picked up Conversations in the Cathedral or The Green House with their continuous discontinuities and several unreliable narrators?

  3. Rolli | November 7, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Humor is always fatal. Much of the best writing – not to mention film, and visual art – has at least an element of comedy, of quirk. I’ve even, of late, seen books condemned by reviewers for being “whimsical” or “imaginative” – not for any aesthetic or technical reasons – as if these were suddenly dirty words. Frightening times.

    It’s a shame this disqualifies a piece from awards, and its creator from fellowships, grants, etc. But it happens every day.

  4. Lorin Stein | November 7, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Dear Mr Horton,

    I stand corrected. The Vargas Llosa I know is the author of The Time of the Hero, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, In Praise of the Stepmother, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, The Feast of the Goat, Letters to a Young Novelist, and The Language of Passion–books that are often tricksy, but never hard to read. It sounds as if I’ve skipped the hard ones! Something to look forward to?

    Thanks to all for the comments.

  5. Joan Dempsey, Literary Living | November 8, 2010 at 8:50 am

    As for Laurie’s procrastination, she could be experiencing basic fear and/or self-doubt, and getting to the root of her fears should help with all those avoidance techniques.

    According to Christopher Peterson and Martin E.P. Seligman in “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification”, there’s “a large body of [psychological] literature [that] indicates that people sometimes self-handicap, or put barriers in the way of their own success, to protect and enhance their self-esteem and the esteem in which others hold them.”

    Protective procrastination is powerful but there are numerous techniques to overcome it. Laurie can check out 5 strategies – cognitive reframing, awareness, visualization, habits, motivation – in “The Power of Deliberate Thinking” (it’s free) at

  6. Lenore | November 8, 2010 at 10:07 am

    The best cure for fear of writing is the combination of Sake, a subtly pervy foreign film, and Nag Champa incense.

  7. Thessaly La Force | November 8, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    That’s a very specific cure! How’d you find it?

  8. Lenore | November 8, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Mario Vargas Llosa’s cousin.

  9. M.M. | November 12, 2010 at 4:25 am

    Agree with you on obvity as far as literary merit goes. It’s hard enough work decoding written words as it is, it better jolly well be worth it.

    But sex appeal is the complete opposite. It’s why Victorians put trousers on the legs of their pianos. Less is more and none at all… Well!

  10. nicholas | November 12, 2010 at 12:40 pm

  11. Panayotis Ioannidis | April 6, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    All of us [doubtless!] genetically wired procrastinators are indebted to your sensible advice!

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  1. […] unaware of the dichotomy between what he preaches and what he practices. As he stated in a Blog Post from November 10, “There's no such thing as too obvious.” The advice-seeker asked Stein to […]

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