Thomas Wolfe has won a chest full of awards and honorary doctorate degrees for his work. Most of the recognition came as a result of his non-fiction work, (The Right Stuff; for example) although he did manage to pick up recognition for his fiction work as well. Not all the recognition for his fiction was positive and his major critics (Especially of A Man in Full) were fellow authors like; John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving. Their beef can be boiled down to an opinion that Thomas Wolfe’s books were entertainment and not literature.
Wolfe has written (so far) four fiction novels: The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987, A Man in Full in 1998, I am Charlotte Simmons in 2004, and Back to Blood in 2012. As you can see, the minimum time between books is six years with the longest at eleven. In today’s environment, where an author like James Patterson publishes fourteen books in a given year, the question comes up as to why so long between books?
I have not interviewed Thomas Wolfe so I can’t actually provide the real reason, but I’ll bet it has something to do with patience. If you have read his books it is very apparent that the words are collected and crafted very carefully to convey the scene or mood being described. This kind of attention to detail cannot be done by all authors, and most specifically, almost impossible in a rushed situation. Wolfe has always aspired to document modern society in the tradition of John Steinbeck, so I believe he forces himself to exercise extreme patience to ensure that each paragraph lives up to his personal benchmark. This kind of self discipline takes time. As we all know when writing, time is the resource that we believe works against our goals. We feel we waste time if we don’t make deadlines that are self imposed. Can you imagine sitting down to begin your next novel and know that it will be eleven years until it is published. If you are like me; you would rather put a stick in your eye then to contemplate that reality.
On the other hand, if you were told that your novel done properly would earn you the recognition and honor you feel you deserve, would you be more content to take your time? I’ll bet you would. So why are we all in a hurry? Do we think someone else is going to scoop our plot or capitalize on our character development?
I think we should all ask ourselves a simple question when we feel that time is getting away from us; WHAT IS THE RUSH? Don’t we know a well-developed chapter is so much better than just getting the chapter finished? Don’t we know by now, a query letter done right is so much better than just getting it done? Don’t we know taking time on a well thought out synopsis is better than rushing a submission? A lot of questions I know, but the answer has to be that we know full well the need to be patient.