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QUICK TO MAKE, QUICKER TO FORGET

“When the strike of the hawk breaks the back of its prey, it is because of timing.”

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

All successful authors and publishers have an impeccable sense of timing and generate literature either by reflecting upon the calendar or on what’s going on people’s minds. Much of this topical literature is non-fiction — the dividing line between books and tabloid journalism is becoming thinner and thinner — but it goes for serious fiction as well. For instance, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and so many others which were topical books because they talked about what was uppermost in our minds at the time.

Timeliness, in a sense, is all, or at least it is as important as other factors — the content, language and style, price, discounts, packaging and publicity, and distribution — for the marketability of the book.

Take the Iraq war. It is just about a fortnight old, and the publishing machine has already been cranked up. Clearly, there is a two-pronged attack under way. First, the old classics are being reissued under new covers and new prices: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, and so on. On the other hand, journalists, especially photojournalists, who have been “embedded” with various units, are being commissioned to write and report on various aspects of the war. There will surely be a deluge of books in the next few months. The question is: how do they manage to get out so much, so fast, and — following from that — how good are these quickies'

First, with the advent of the digital printing technology, producing a book quickly is no big deal. A 100,000-word manuscript with pictures can be turned out comfortably within a month. Second, the ready availability of information via the internet and other sources. There is information overkill now. Censorship or lack of information, in fact, has become a technological impossibility.

Bruce Berkovitz, a former CIA analyst, says in his latest book, The New Face of War: How War will be fought in the Twenty-first Century, says, “today the ability to collect, communicate, process and protect information is the most important factor defining military power”. Therefore defeating the enemy requires winning “the information war.” It may not be as simple, but fast, accurate information takes one a long way.

Apply this to the production of quickies. Information is on tap — maybe at a price — and the technology is widespread. “Only connect”, as Forster might have said, the prose to the computer, and you can have any number of books you want.

But, when all is said and done, a quickie is a quickie: it may have all the pictures you would like to see but the prose will be little more than reportage. Depth and analysis, which make a book last beyond a single read and therefore be bought, will be absent. That requires time and reflection.

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