Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Novel in a Month Backlash (5 Nov 2010)

Longtime readers of this blog (I hope there are some!) may remember that I once wrote a novel in a month in November as part of NaNoWriMo. I didn't think the experience was a waste of time, but it didn't really open up my horizons as a writer either. It was rewarding for the sake of the time spent writing, of pushing necessarily into a state of flow; in that way it was its own reward.

Laura Miller, Salon's book critic, thinks everyone participating in NaNoWriMo should find something better to do, like perhaps read books written by legitimate authors who get published by a "major" house.
While there's no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books. Even authors who achieve what probably seems like Nirvana to the average NaNoWriMo participant -- publication by a major house -- will, for the most part, soon learn this dispiriting truth: Hardly anyone will read their books and next to no one will buy them.
I can't say that Miller's condescension makes me feel any sorrier for the plight of published novelists. It doesn't make me want to rush out to scour the bookstores (weirdly described by Miller as "cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading" -- really? aren't they in fact dedicated to the selfish art of selling stuff?) for more fiction to buy.

Miller seems to suggest that it's wrong to encourage the idea that everybody can and should write (particularly, she argues, since writers will insist on doing it anyway), but by that logic you may as well not encourage everyone to read either. That was received wisdom of much of Miller's counterparts in the pundit class of the 18th century, when it was widely believed that dimwit readers and their vulgar tastes were leading to the destruction of the world of letters. She instead wants to extricate reading from writing, as if they weren't symbiotic pursuits, and promote the former at the expense of the latter. We should worry about getting more people to read, because their writing is basically a waste of time since there are already so many books lying around.

Isn't writing just a selfish demand for attention anyway? "Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the insistence that other people read it?" Miller asks. Yes, shame on you; you think you deserve attention because you bothered to work on something. And worse, you might even distract literary agents from their holy endeavors: "editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they'll shortly receive." Oh, no! What about the agents? No one thinks of the agents! It's not as though they chose for themselves the role in life of rejecting some people's work and trying to pick winners. Heaven forbid they should have to do their job!

Wouldn't it be a better world if only the people with the proper grooming and pedigree bothered to make things? Certainly we don't do enough as a society to discourage the artistic ambitions of ordinary people. Sapping it off in crypto-participatory co-creation branding schemes only goes so far. Miller is troubled by the possibility that books about how to write fiction could be more popular than fiction itself, but she regards that as the audience's fault rather than the authors'. It may be that the manual writers are catering to a fantasy that is currently more powerful than what fiction writers can conjure -- that people would rather vicariously be an author, a creator, imagine themselves creating, than imagine themselves in someone else's fictional world, becoming someone else, being at their mercy.

The implication seems to be that reading is rightly self-abnegating and masochistic; correspondingly, Miller derides encouraging the fantasy of readers writing for themselves as "narcissistic commerce" that prompts self-centeredness (like basically just about every other kind of consumer good in our culture, sold as part of a lifestyle package). The right thing for the nobodies to do is to efface themselves and consume more, and become "the bedrock" of literary culture (i.e. nonparticipants who fund it and fuel writer egos). Reading should teach them to never put themselves forward, to never "misplace" their creative energy by preventing them from generating it in the first place. We should as a society label their ability to consume as creativity. We should personally use our energy the way Miller's champ reader used it: "Instead of locking herself up in a room to crank out 50,000 words of crap, she learned new things and 'expanded my reading world.' " Reading should lead to more reading, nothing else. What else is there?

Anyway, on to my requisite social-media point: Considering how much quasi-fictionalizing of the self must go on in social media, it's no wonder the how-to manuals appeal -- they have real practical value. Social media reinforces the value of trying to imagine oneself as more creative, as sharing more. Whereas for novels, beyond escapism and those fleeting moments of sympathetic insight, their practical value lies mainly in the social capital that comes from being able to say you've read them and can discuss them. Miller would like us to work on enhancing that social capital and cheer the formation of more book groups (is there really a shortage of them? Are more people really participating in NaNoWriMo than in reading groups of some form or another?). I don't see why one couldn't do both -- it's not zero sum. Amateur writers and readers can all be the "real heroes." I also don't see why people couldn't get together and read one another's work, even if it is "bad" by professional standards. I have been to see enough of my friends' bands, and they have been generous enough to come see me play and certainly none of us are ever going to be putting out records on major labels. Reading and writing both are lonely, solitary activities by necessity; people often adopt them and become passionate about them because social interaction is for them far more taxing and far less rewarding. Anything that injects a hint of sociality into either process probably won't make for better writing or reading, but it might make for people who feel less isolated by their own passions.

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