For the last couple of weeks, I have been trying to decide whether or not I should participate in National Novel Writing Month. On one hand, The Pythagoreans is getting closer and closer to being finished. I have learned so much about myself and the art of writing and do not want to stop just as the Pythagorean community is preparing to alter history and use forbidden technology to avenge their fallen leader. On the other hand, there is still a whole bunch of historical and speculative technology that I feel needs additional research and reflection before they can be fully realized on the page. I’ve got a great idea for a short novel that could give me the breathing room that I need to make sure that The Pythagoreans lives up to its full potential.
Anyway, I was having a hard time deciding whether I should stop writing my current novel to meet the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novella in a month until I read this article on salon.com. Go ahead, check it out. I’ll wait.
Wow, right? I did some more research, and this article, written by Laura Miller, a founder of the website, has already been torn part both in its own comment section and across the internet, but I would like to add my two cents to the mix.
As I see it, the article’s main premises are as follows:
1. Writing a sloppy first draft of a novel in a month is a HUGE waste of time, both yours and that of any agent or editor that you decide to inflict your novel upon.
2. There are already enough books out there written by ‘real’ writers. The world does not need any more novels written by proletarian hacks.
3. With the number of readers who are willing to devote the time and energy to get through a novel dwindling, it is readers who sold be celebrated rather than evil, selfish writers seeking to entertain them.
Let’s discuss these in detail, shall we?
I am a huge proponent of any program that helps people develop self-discipline in a world where the rewards for hard work and dedication are deferred more and more and instant gratification at the expense of long-term growth and development becomes easier and easier. Writing 50,000 words in a month will not be easy, and I honestly have no idea whether or not I will be able to pull it off. If I do, I have no idea whether my work will eventually transform into an actual, sellable novel. That is not the point. The point is that my fellow contestants and I will be able to finally write a story starring the characters that have been rattling around in our head for years or even decades. The point is that we will learn more about the art of writing and have a deeper appreciation for the books that we read, just as even an amateur musician often has a deeper appreciation for music than someone who has never played a note. The point is that we will learn what superfluous activities are standing in the way of our overarching goals, and begin taking steps to eliminate them. Obviously, very few people that possess the self-discipline and willpower to write 1,700 words a day for a month are expecting to press ‘print’ on December 1st and be raking in millions of dollars in time for New Year’s. Even if the gates of the publishing industry have to weather an assault from a few hundred unwashed barbarian books every December, it is a small price to pay if thousands of book lovers become better readers and learn some self-discipline.
Moving onto the second argument, we see a complaint that has been voiced ad-nauseum over the years. There are plenty of unsuccessful writers who lament the fact that there are so many novels out there that their hard work gets lost in the mix and they do not receive the attention or financial reward that they feel is their due. While their frustration is understandable, one of the cool things about writing is that it is one of the few remaining professions that has no barrier to entry. Anyone can write, and in this country, they can write just about anything that they want to. The trick is writing something interesting that people want to read. I agree that it is frustrating to see novels designed to pander specifically to thirteen-year-old girls dominate the bestseller lists year after year, just as it is to see a wife-beating NFL player who couldn’t hold down a job at a gas station make more money per year than my entire battalion combined. The flip side however, is that competition and openness beget quality and innovation. For every Twilight book, there are dozens of worthy titles that achieve success right alongside them. No one is holding a gun to the heads of the millions of football fans that drop everything on Sunday to root for their favorite team. They are spending their time and money on something they care about. Furthermore, for every professional athelete or pop star raking in millions of dollars, our economic system allows thousands of entrepenuers, business owners, and farmers to feed their families, benefit from the invention and hard work of others, and build better lives for themselves and their communities. The real winners of a situation where there are too many good books for anyone to possibly read are readers like myself, who get to enjoy an unprecedented level of choice and quality as we search for our next read. Why would we or any self-avowed lover of books seek to limit this amazing opportunity by telling ambitious new writers seeking to hone their skills to shove it?
I am not surprised that Ms. Miller would hold such a small-minded opinion. Her own books seem incredibly uninteresting, and it is no small wonder that even an editor of a major website with the marketing platform implied therein would have a hard time selling her books. One deals with her struggle to reconcile her lack of faith with her love of C.S. Lewis’ body of work, and is chock-full of bigoted and ignorant generalizations about Christianity. Her second book, released this year, discusses Common Core and uses the word ‘reeducation’ in the title to discuss the implementation of a massive expansion of government oversight without a trace of irony.
I have a problem with the third premise about dwindling readership and the implication that NaNoWriMo somehow exacerbates the decline of reading in western society because uh… this lady at a cocktail party said she did not read anymore since she was too busy writing. I was a reader long before I was a writer, and at no point have I ever felt that I was doing the author a great favor by deigning to read his work (at least when I was reading recreationally). I read three or four novels a month, but many people don’t read three or four novels a decade. Ms. Miller discusses declining readership as if it is a foregone conclusion rather than examining the underlying causes. Why is readership declining? Maybe the community of writers is not doing enough to attract readers. This ties back in to the second argument and suggests that we need more not fewer books on the market. In my opinion though, it can be partially explained by the aforementioned cultural shift toward instant gratification. For the rest… I blame school. We force kids to read dozens of obtuse literary novels that attempt to be ‘artistic’ by removing essential storytelling elements from their books, and then make them write essays about these horrible, uninteresting, angsty stories and characters. To add insult to injury, the essays are graded subjectively and often harshly. With that unpleasant experience behind them, the kids go home and watch movies, listen to music, and play video games of their choosing. Is it any wonder that recreational reading gains a stigma in the minds of so many young people? That said, according to statista.com, the declining number of books consumed per capita in the US is not a clear-cut case. It is true that a growing portion of the population reads almost nothing recreationally, but the number of people reading twenty or more books per year is actually increasing, probably due in no small part to the rise of ebooks. True, it’s only a few percentage points, but the trend is there, and each percentage point represents three million people. That’s great news for niche and genre fiction writers, since these are the people that would be actively searching for books that speak to them specifically and not just skimming the bestseller lists.
Anyway, the smugness and condescension apparent in this article is staggering, and has provided me with the impetus to get after this new project, and I am sure it has done the same for others. We will write those novels, Ms. Miller, and even if no one ever reads them, we will be a better readers and people for it.