New website is under construction.

Nov 8, 2010

Does NaNoWriMo Create Too Many Bad Books? Or, a Manifesto on the New Social Literacy

Does NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) encourage a glut of crappy books that would be better off unwritten?

Laura Miller wrote a now infamous article at Salon:

Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it's likely to produce more novels I'd want to read. (That said, it has generated one hit, and a big one: "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen, who apparently took the part about revision to heart.) The last thing the world needs is more bad books. But even if every one of these 30-day novelists prudently slipped his or her manuscript into a drawer, all the time, energy and resources that go into the enterprise strike me as misplaced.

Here's why: NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it's largely unnecessary. When I recently stumbled across a list of promotional ideas for bookstores seeking to jump on the bandwagon, true dismay set in. "Write Your Novel Here" was the suggested motto for an in-store NaNoWriMo event. It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.

...Frankly, there are already more than enough novels out there -- more than those of us who still read novels could ever get around to poking our noses into, even when it's our job to do so. This is not to say that I don't hope that more novels will be written, particularly by the two dozen-odd authors whose new books I invariably snatch up with a suppressed squeal of excitement. (Actually, there are more of those novels than I'll ever be able to read, as well.) Furthermore, I know that there are still undiscovered or unpublished authors out there whose work I will love if I ever manage to find it. But I'm confident those novels would still get written even if NaNoWriMo should vanish from the earth.

Yet 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.

So I'm not worried about all the books that won't get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on.

I love her article because it's like those 19th Century sermons justifying slavery. It's so full of wrong-headed nonsense that it's downright inspiring.

The first question that comes to mind is, even if NaNoWriMo filled the world with books, so what? As Nerdshares asked,

Is it sad that Twilight exists? I don’t know. I don’t like it. I think it’s legitimately an awful piece of work, but I also don’t know that I’d feel comfortable telling Stephenie Meyer to stick her manuscripts in a drawer because it’s no good so why try? (I think because this, which Laura Miller doesn’t seem to understand, is what we would call being an asshole.)

And Carolyn Kellogg provided an excellent point by point rejoinder.

But I think Pop Matters addressed the condescension best.

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.

So why do we keep hearing that there are too many books? If it's not NaNo that's being derided, it's some other phenomena, like the Kindle. Dana Gioia and Jonathan Franzen are fretting that an ereader like the Kindle, "will not make a significant positive impact, however well it does business-wise.” Franzen thinks you can read travel books on the Kindle, but not Kafka. (Which is weird, because I thought Kafka wrote travel books. Something about touring castles? Or maybe it was penal colonies? Anyway, I read Kafka while I was touring Europe, and it sure would have helped to have it on my Kindle. And in English.)

Or alternatively, it's self-publishing that is blamed for an anticipated tsunami of awful books. Oh my goodness, that was Laura Miller in Salon also. "Again, these developments are in many ways great for authors. Readers, however, may be in for a serious case of slush fatigue."

But Miller isn't the only one desperate to save readers from being overwhelmed by having too much to read. In a great article on a completely different subject (the lost art of rejection letters -- it's really interesting!) Bill Morris suddenly and inexplicably declares:

We need fewer books, and better ones; we need more readers, and smarter ones. And I believe the former would lead to the latter.

I couldn't disagree more.

An individual does not become a good writer by writing less, but by writing more, by writing and writing and writing. It's said that you have to write a million words of dreck before you can master the craft. If that's true of writers in the singular, why wouldn't it be true of writers in the plural? Why wouldn't it be true of a civilization?

Countries that win the Olympics year after year are countries that have the most athletes practicing those sports, not just at the Olympic level but across the board. Thousands and thousands of amateur athletes are needed if a country is to produce just a few gold-medalists.

The same is true of inventions. You don't just invent the airplane by favoring only one or two of the smartest inventors. You have as many inventors, smart and moronic and everything in between, striving to fly. They learn from each other and they compete with each other and they spur each other on. Soon you're flying.

If every person in the world wrote a book, that would be awesome, wouldn't it? I think it would. The very people who are the least likely to write a book are holding secret inside them some of the books I would most like to read. The African mother who would, if she could, leave a story for her child before she dies of AIDS and leaves the child an orphan. The Russian dude who could tell me what it's really like to go from working for the KGB to an independent mafia. And then there are all the imagined worlds which I can't even imagine because only someone else could. I wish I could read those books. Why don't Miller and Morris?

I think they fear more books because a couple of different issues are operating here.

(1) No one reader can read everything. People who have an obsessive-compulsive desire to read every book ever written (I really sympathize with this) can find it frustrating that the task is already IMPOSSIBLE but just keeps getting more so because darn authors keep writing more. Just look at the number of books selling more than 100,000 copies I listed in a previous post. Have you read all of those? Neither have I.

(2) If you are an author (as Miller, Morris, Franzen etc. are) then all those new books being written during NaNo, published through Smashwords and read on ereaders are COMPETITION. Of course authors don't want more competition. Even though Konrath claims it's not a competition. Readers are finite, with finite reading time. It's hard not to worry that with so many other good books out there, ours would get overlooked.

Notice that the real problem, then, is not that there might be too many BAD books out there. The problem is that there might be too many GOOD books out there. There are wonderful books you won't have time to read. That is heartbreaking, isn't? And someone else might have written a much, much better book than you. In fact, probably hundreds of authors have written better books than you.

And yet, there is one more important truth:

No one but you can write your book.

Unlike Miller, I think that would be a loss. Because unlike the naysayers, who think literate culture is on the brink of self-implosion, I think we are in the midst of a wonderful renaissance of literature. Historians centuries from now will look back on our era and marvel at the burst of creativity. They will point to the huge number of novels, both horrendous and gorgeous, the flurry of interest ordinary people, not even professional writers, are taking in learning how to write novels, the communities, like NaNoWriMo (but not limited to it) that have sprung up to make writing novels a social activity.

Let me repeat that... writing novels is a social activity. Look, that is astonishing. Hey, let's be friends: we'll all write 50,000 words expressing our deepest feelings in the form of a story and share it with one another. This is art; this is friendship; this is community; this is amazing. I love human beings for doing this.

We are not becoming an illiterate culture. We are becoming more imbricated with the written word than ever. Our daily social lives revolve around the written word more than ever before. No wonder more people than ever, not less, are reading.

Do let us share our novels with one another. Do let us buy the books our friends write, and read them, and write about them, and be inspired by them. Do let us create a community of the written word to communicate our soul aches and heart breaks and dream aims through the secret language of story -- both the oldest and now the newest way to share with one another.


Jamie D. said...

I love this post. :-) Well done - I couldn't agree more.

Ginger said...

Absolutely spot on!

Stephen Simmons said...

Tara - I keep finding this "other writers represent competition" idea in various locations, and I always feel pity for the authors who think that way.

Take "Twilight" and "Harry Potter", even Ramona and Beezus. These aren't "competition" to a competent author. They are the proverbial "rising tide that lifts all boats". Because those literary phenomena are recruiting the next generation of readers. More urgently, to those insecure authors, the staggered releases of each installment in those series are the primary recruitment tools in finding the next generation of bookstore-patrons and online-book-orderers. Because the act of going to a bookstore to obtain the next volume of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" (or whatever popular series) inevitably exposes those children to OTHER books, some of which they are likely to find at least moderately intriguing.

Note that you seem to encounter this "rationing" mindset with markedly less frequency among speculative-fiction authors. Oh, there are definitely some who feel that way, but they seem, in my admittedly-limited experience, to be a clear minority. Most of the authors I encounter at Cons and on blogs rave openly anout other lights in the field, and actively encourage younger, emerging talent.

SandyG said...

This is a really good post, Tara - you must be a fine wine, getting better with age.

Now that I have that catty remark out of the way (I noticed you had a birthday here, had to rub it in), one thing that some people don't realize is that with the advent of the internet, the concept of mass media really can take off. When I lived in India, I loved being in the local bookstores. Wonderful as they were, they were essentially urban institutions - quite distant from the millions of Indians who lived out in the villages. You would never find a book in most Indian mud huts.

But with the advent of the internet, it is getting easier and cheaper to get computers out into those villages. And suddenly, your market goes from one billion people to two or three billion people. There is no shortages of readers.

You and most of the people like you who write for an electronic medium are living in the turbulence of the shock wave of changing technology. The rest of the world won't waste money on printed books, the same way it didn't waste money on copper telephone cables. The underdeveloped world leap frogs to new technologies - and you and others like you are giving them a reason to do that.

(I also loved imbricated! Not often that I have to look up the meaning of a word - way to go, girl!)

Lindsay Buroker said...

Very thoughtful post, thank you for sharing. And that reminds me... I still have 1300 words to go before midnight, so I better get cracking. :)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Tara, very well done! That article really is filled with nonsense crap. Part of me thinks she wrote it just to be a jerk and get attention. It borders on ridiculous. NaNo was great for me ONCE, but not to do again because it's just not for me. That doesn't mean I think others shouldn't do it.

It seems crazy for writers to think other writers are competition. Why we feel that way makes sense when you pull it apart, but it's really just a huge wall we have to knock down.

V.R. Leavitt said...

Spot on...Love it!

The Happy Whisk said...

Hi. Nice to meet you. I just joined your blog today, and wanted to say hello.


CRF Montgomery said...

First, Happy Birthday! I really enjoyed this discussion. I am going to speak for the side in favor of ever more books, and touch on Aramelle's point. I loved your idea of writing as a social phenomena. Actually, we are trained to write socially, in school (whether we like it or not), so it seems natural for those who CHOOSE to continue to do so in social venues and enjoy it. Not that we don't need that alone time and solitude as well, but the idea of writer's groups and gatherings in any venue is a joyful vision and luckily, a reality.
As for more books, please; I spent years teaching high school, and was constantly on the hunt for MORE for various reasons. Sometimes I was praying for that "not yet written book" that would be perfect for a frustrated or heartbroken young person. Or I might equally be praying for it for that voracious young lady who read a book a day and had already ransacked both the school and public libraries and wanted MORE. My husband reads a book a day, which leads me to indie pubbing and electronic media. Thank God!!!! Maybe someone will start a new program "A Kindle for Every Child" just like that computer promotion they have going. I am still an educator, of graduate students now, who are teachers in the literacy field, and I hear from them frequently, "I wish someone would write . . . " Like me, they find themselves with needs yet unmet. Personally, I am like Tara, there are more awesome books than I fear I will ever get to, but I am excited about the creation of each and every one. And if anyone is on NaNo, take a moment and look at their YA program. Incredible. I have done a similar program with teens writing books, and the results were astounding. I think that experience plays a huge role in my desire to continue to support writers. Thank you, Tara and commentators for a great discussion!