Op-eds

Writing a column is easier, but a book is better

  • JohnnySteinberg
In my working life, I have two regular writing responsibilities: a 700-word newspaper column to be delivered every fortnight, and a 120 000-or-so-word book to be delivered every three or four years. No prizes for guessing that these are two very different endeavours.
by JONNY STEINBERG | Feb 27, 2020

The most striking difference, for me, is the question of form. There are maybe three of four choices to make when deciding how to structure a newspaper column. (For instance, start with an anecdote, by all means, but make sure it’s done by the end of the first paragraph; the reader wants to know immediately what it is you want to say.) The form is really so simple and thus so limited that the major choices are already made for you.

Not so when writing a book. You have worked for years. You have gathered masses of information. How to shape it into a story? Where in the narrative’s timeline to start the book, for instance? The beginning? Not necessarily. And from whose perspective? The decisions are really quite limitless.

This morning I finished Deborah Levy’s new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything. Told at its most simple, it’s about a man run down by a car in London in 2016; much of the action takes place in his morphine-addled return to a trip he did to East Berlin 28 years earlier while lying in hospital. But if Levy had presented the story in the way I have, nobody would have read it. It would have lost its very raison d’etre (reason for being). Instead, the reader learns quite late about the book’s present time; the result of this strange temporal structure is that we are admitted to the most intimate, the most private biography of a human being.

And so, in choosing how to shape a book, the point is to keep asking, again and again, what’s the purpose of this endeavour? What am I ultimately trying to achieve? These questions crystallise as choices about structure and form: what sort of architecture will give expression to what needs saying? If this is the most challenging aspect of writing a book, it’s also the most rewarding. Determining how the purpose of a book expresses itself as form involves such a complicated entanglement of inspiration and borrowing from others, that the two become indistinguishable.

That I write non-fiction doesn’t make these questions any simpler. The fact that you are gathering information from the world instead from your head doesn’t in any way erase these formal questions. What it does mean is that you need to learn when enough is enough. For unless you draw a line in the sand and stop, you will go on researching forever. The labour is never complete. There is always another interview to do or another document to discover. In the end, you drag yourself away from the field only to avoid the pathetic, if not bizarre, scenario of researching for ever and ever.

A newspaper column is about a thousand times easier, but so much less rewarding. After all, I barely remember the newspaper columns I read three days ago, and who wants to live a life writing stuff nobody will remember?

  • Jonny Steinberg will be participating in two sessions at the Cape Town Jewish Literary Festival on 15 March. In the first, Jonathan Ancer will speak to him about apartheid spies, and in the second, Steinberg will discuss his latest book, and how it changed the lives of those involved. For the full programme and booking, go to www.jewishliteraryfestival.co.za

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