December 2, 2010




City of Words by Vito Acconci

"City of Words" by Vito Acconci

NaNoWriMo, the merry one-month novel writing marathon, has drawn to a close. 2,799,449,947 words were written. $665,018 was raised. Tens of thousands of “winners” completed 50,000+ word “novels.”

Earlier in the month Laura Miller expressed her skepticism about NaNoWriMo in her Salon article titled “Better yet, DON’T write that novel: Why National Novel Writing Month is a waste of time and energy” in which she argued that we don’t need more writers, and should actually be focusing on creating readers. The article created a wave of angry and often vicious responses in the comment section (a characteristic one began “Well aren’t you just the Queen of Everything”). Carolyn Kellogg of The Los Angeles Times also took issue with Miller’s position in her Jacket Copy piece “12 reasons to ignore the naysayers: Do NaNoWriMo.” Among her counterpoints, Kellogg argues that Miller’s “readers vs. writer” argument was flawed because “Literary culture isn’t a temple, it’s an ecosystem. Writers can be readers, readers can be critics, critics can be writers, audiences can have a voice.” Also, she felt that Miller’s attack was blown out of proportion because:

Spending a month “writing a lot of crap” is more fruitful than many things, including much of the fun, casual cultural consumption we regularly engage in. It’s more fruitful than watching TV, playing video games, spending hours on Facebook or Twitter. It might not be more fruitful than innoculating children in an underdeveloped village, but we’re not talking about people quitting the Peace Corps in order to do NaNoWriMo. The only thing “writing a lot of crap” can genuinely be said to be less fruitful than is writing well.

Last week on Australia’s “The Book Show” Miller expanded on her criticism of NaNoWriMo:

I don’t have any problem with people who want to write a novel in 30 days if that’s enjoyable for them, I think it’s great, and I feel the same way about people who want to knit or build model railroads or get to the final level of Halo. These are all fun things that people do that they enjoy but I don’ think they should be doing fundraising for it anymore then there should be a non-profit for, again, building model railroads or playing Halo…To me a non-profit, and fund-raising, and this whole apparatus should be doing something that would be more helpful to literary culture as a whole. Because what we have is not a shortage of writers–we have a surplus of writers–what we have is a shortage of readers.

I previously wrote about my ambivalence about NaNoWriMo and as the month draws to a close I find that… I’m as ambivalent as ever. Like all debates about value, NaNoWriMo raises many slippery issues.

Perhaps this is a simplification, but it seems to me that there two basic camps in the NaNoWriMo debate. In one camp there’s the populist “cult of the amateur” that believes all writing has some inartistic merit and sees writing as a psychologically/spiritually rewarding experience that we all should partake in. The “cult of the amateur” has an essentially a laissez-faire attitude and feels that the more words people write, the better off everyone is–it’s the upbeat “ecosystem” that Kellogg describes. We all have a story to tell. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

The other group is the “critical” camp–or, as some would have it, “elitest.” Whereas the “cult of the amateur” is interested in the aspirations of the writer, the “critical” camp is a reader-centric group. They want only one thing: great books. Since great books (by whatever standard) are a rare and precious thing, “critics” are constantly trying to weed out the endless thickets of the lowest common denominator. That’s why they attack fiction whenever they think it’s flawed or lacking, and why they don’t necessarily see one billion hastily written words as an exciting development. They are, often, tyrannical. They wish 99% of the culture would either vanish or stay quiet. They are cynical and don’t care much about people’s feeling, but they also are deeply passionate about the writing they love.

I suspect that many of us have a little of both these camps inside us. In America, the populist argument is part of our bloodstream. “All men are created equal” etc. (It’s no coincidence the Salon comment accused Miller of being monarchical.) However, when you look at the endless waves of cultural kitsch, the interminable television, bad fiction, the bland cheerful “like this!” optimism of Facebook, and the happy writing hordes of NaNoWriMo, it’s understandable for the critic inside you to rise up and cry out, “Enough!”

Oddly perhaps, the “person” who best captures these contrasting principles is “Lemony Snicket” who, along with Dave Eggers, Aimee Bender, and others, provided a pep talk to the NaNoWriMo participants. Snicket satirically tells the would-be writers to “give up”:

There are already plenty of novels. There is no need for a new one. One could devote one’s entire life to reading the work of Henry James, for instance, and never touch another novel by any other author…. Think of the world of literature as an enormous meal, and your novel as some small piddling ingredient – the drawn butter, for example, served next to a large, boiled lobster. Who wants that? If it were brought to the table, surely most people would ask that it be removed post-haste….

Even if you insisted on finishing your novel, what for? Novels sit unpublished, or published but unsold, or sold but unread, or read but unreread, lonely on shelves and in drawers and under the legs of wobbly tables. They are like seashells on the beach. Not enough people marvel over them. They pick them up and put them down. Even your friends and associates will never appreciate your novel the way you want them to….

Give up your novel, and join the crowd. Think of all the things you could do with your time instead of participating in a noble and storied art form. There are things in your cupboards that likely need to be moved around….

In short, quit. Writing a novel is a tiny candle in a dark, swirling world. It brings light and warmth and hope to the lucky few who, against insufferable odds and despite a juggernaut of irritations, find themselves in the right place to hold it.

The writer reads this and thinks, “It’s true, the novel is a noble form. I can hold my head up high, my novel brings light and warmth.” The critic thinks, “Hell, most people probably would be better off reading Henry James.” One craves nobility, but can wind up deluded and self-satisfied. The other craves quality, and risks becoming cynical and bitter. Where you stand on the spectrum between writer and critic can be a daunting philosophical question.

Until I figure it out, I might just take up knitting.