Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a historical fiction novel, the story of two men in 19th-century England who are trying to bring back English magic.1 They think and operate very differently:

“Oh!” said Strange. “I think that the quicker one gets these things out of one’s brain and off to the printers, the better. I dare say, sir,” and he smiled at Mr. Norrell in a friendly manner, “that you find the same.”

Mr. Norrell, who had never yet got any thing successfully out of his brain and off to the printers, whose every attempt was still at some stage or other of revision, said nothing.

I look at these two guys as archetypes of writer-personalities. Jonathan Strange is the blogger who posts three times a week and might or might not later convert those posts into an ebook. Mr. Norrell is the one who sets out to write a blog post and finishes up years later with a draft outline of a five-volume set. Jonathan Strange would have enjoyed NaNoWriMo; Mr. Norrell would have found it frightful and paralyzing. Jonathan Strange wants to spread knowledge; Mr. Norrell wants to build private shrines to knowledge.

I tend to be more like Mr. Norrell; my drafts folder is full of rough outlines for large writing projects. I hesitate to publish anything I might want to reuse later in a more finished form.

Some nagging instinct, probably the collective voices of dozens of overlapping articles about writing, tells me I ought to be more like Jonathan Strange. Get it off to the printers and move on.

  1. “Magic” even provides a ready analogue to the effect of writing, as Stephen King describes in On Writing: “At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style…but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.” 

The “Norrell approach” might not be all that bad if one judges by Tolkien’s example and his literary results.

“Tolkien was often criticised by his academic colleagues for wasting time on fiction, even though that fiction has probably done more to popularise medieval literature than the work of 100 scholars. However, his failure to publish scholarship was not due to laziness nor entirely to other distractions. He was an extreme perfectionist who, as CS Lewis said, worked ‘like a coral insect’, and his idea of what was acceptable for publication was several notches above what the most stringent publisher would demand.”

— John Garth, writing for The Guardian

Joel (Author) ·