Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and Salon.com's Laura Miller

-- by the way, this post has been significantly edited for clarity. Please don't be mad. --

Okay, so this thing was published in Salon.com, penned by a Miss Laura Miller, on the phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It's both incredibly petty and mysteriously sympathetic (although for any individual, it'll probably strike one of those chords sharply, and miss the other entirely). And it's interesting to parse out as commentary on writing, on our changing literary and creative ecosystem, and on what it means to be an artist in our digital world.

NaNoWriMo is an event, mostly organized online, calling on people to write a 50,000+ word novel in a month. If you successfully do so, you're granted the status of "winner," and there were about 37.5 thousand of those last year. The objectives of this exercise, as gleaned from the NaNoWriMo website, are: 1 - to exercise your innate creativity, which you may ignore or set aside in much of your everyday life; 2 - to commit to a large project and follow it through, which is something you may not often get a chance to do; 3 - to break the shackles of self-censorship that may constrain your intellectual and creative life; 4 - to take part in an important cultural art form, in order to better understand and appreciate it. For the record, I hate that "NaNoWriMo" abbreviation, but I'll keep using it as necessary.

Miss Miller's thesis (perhaps laid out a bit snarkily) is that this organized activity is tragically misguided. She points out that writing demands more than a steady 50,000-word stream of consciousness, and that this initiative creates a glut of amateur prose in a world that's already got too many books and not enough readers. Her arguments aren't very concrete or practical, because she doesn't convincingly show any harms; rather, she's giving voice to a more general frustration, a lack of patience for the narcissistic, the trivial, the self-indulgent that, in her opinion, this initiative seems to appeal to. She seems to be saying, "If you really want to write, you'll learn to do it, and eventually, you'll do it well. Why must there be a widespread movement of people who push themselves and each other to write badly?"

Miss Miller's argument sounds puffed up and crotchety, given the apparently harmless inspirational nature of the NaNoWriMo program. People who participate in NaNoWriMo aren't damaged by the experience; to the contrary, they tend to come out feeling very gratified, like their souls have grown, and proud of having created something personal, often for the first time. Editors may gripe about those few writers who send them amateurish manuscripts thrown together for the sake of a writing exercise, and some random people around the world may be annoyed that their novel-writing friends are forcing them to read badly-written manuscripts, but these complaints are minor at best. There's already quite a bit of writing about how arbitrary the "slush pile" process is anyway, and it's hard to imagine that editors are really that heartbroken by having to scan over and discard a few more pages of bad writing.

And yet, there are reasons to sympathize with Laura Miller's angst.

One of them might be your sense of our digital culture, which has been developing over the past decade: an ecosystem of vapid consumption and creation, of capriciousness and self-regard. This is the age of blogs and Facebook, not to mention the world of self-publishing, of YouTube filmmaking, of self-promotion in 140-character chunks. It is a world of consumption that's accelerated but not well-informed, as people ravenously devour the most accessible and sensationalistic media artifacts -- Snookie and the Kardashians, Jack and Jill, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

It may be a new world of digital media, with more ubiquitous access to cultural products, but this doesn't mean it's more favorable to talent, or more rich and evolved. A bookstore owner recently said to me, "The e-book devices don't really threaten my business, because they're not for book-lovers... they're actually more for the book-haters." If he's right, it's that much scarier that these devices are taking over the market so quickly.

If you really wanted to back up Miss Miller's thesis, you could probably argue, on a theoretical level, that NaNoWriMo is contributing to a culture of noise. There is a great deal of content being created, more and more every day, and the capacity to curate this content is not keeping up. Ten new blogs pop up for every new magazine or reviewer. Everybody is talking more and more about themselves, feeling more and more pressured to project themselves into profiles, blogs, and tweets. Noise is starting to overpower signal, and arguably, NaNoWriMo is just going to contribute to that trend.

This argument is shaky, given that NaNoWriMo doesn't sell itself as some sort of Great New Writers Tryouts and Awards. Arguably, the vast majority of the people who write a novel in November don't even try to make that novel public... they ask a couple people to read it, and then allow it to disappear into a drawer, existing simply as a personal badge of accomplishment. You may say, "Then what's the point?", but that's not for anyone to judge except the person doing the writing -- nobody is entitled to judge anyone else's creative act in this mundane little world.

Following this "signal vs. noise," "creation vs. consumption" thread, there's another assertion in Miss Miller's argument: that the world needs more readers, rather than more writers. In a way, this is a pointless observation... the lack of readers may be a problem, but it's not NaNoWriMo's problem, because the organization is devoted to personal growth and the individual journey of writing, not to the issue of informed literacy. However, it clarifies Miller's vantage point: she's coming from a place that's concerned not about writing per se, nor about reading per se, but about the economy of creation versus appreciation.

I think this aspect of her argument can best be summed up thus: we in the Western world are developing a culture, not simply of creation and consumption, but of mindless, impulsive creation and consumption -- and NaNoWriMo is an initiative that trivializes and cheapens the very difficult process of creation, and muddies up the literary landscape, making informed consumption that much harder.

Of course, there's something else in Laura Miller's post that bears witness, and it's not so much a "good reason" as it is a way of understanding where she's coming from. It doesn't justify her sourness, but it brings it a small measure of validity. It's something she touches on in this passage:

"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. Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say."

If you read the comments on the article, you'll only discover a few that agree with Miss Miller, and these mostly come from people who claim to be writers and editors already. On the other hand, sundry great writers (Neil Gaiman, Dave Eggers, Meg Cabot) have strongly supported to the initiative (via "pep talks" in particular). If you consider the status of these various participants, with their various positions, you discover something: the people who are most irked by NaNoWriMo are semi-successful or struggling writers, and the people who sing its praises most highly are amateurs on one hand, and celebrated masters on the other.

On a superficial level, this may explain Miss Miller's position: she's part of that class of semi-successful and unrewarded writers who resent all the naive amateurs elbowing in on her profession. Perhaps this essay is simply an expression of insecurity, a blast of misguided frustration with her own professional status, which is obviously respectable, but not transcendent. This may be one of the reasons I feel some sympathy with her, as well: when NaNoWriMo tells amateurs that "anyone can do it," we want to say, "Wrong! It's goddamn difficult! We've been working on it for years, and our careers have hardly seen the light of day!" It's a narcissistic reaction, but there's always some narcissism in art.

However, on a deeper level, there's something here to be said about the actual creative process, and how a creative career develops. There are two highly rewarding parts of a creative career: the very beginning, where there's no barrier to at least "trying it out," and the eventual end, when you finally get the fame and recognition that registers as "fulfilled potential." NaNoWriMo is full of the latter famous people commiserating with the former hopeful people, who are just discovering their own potential: their first comments from readers, their first chapter headings and plot twists and cliffhangers, their first obsessions with their own worlds and the characters who inhabit them.

What's obscured by this process is the fact that between the beginning and the glorious end, there's an extremely long, torturous, difficult journey of thwarted expectations, setbacks, and self-doubt. Audiences don't come easily, and you quickly get tired of soliciting people to read and appreciate your work. The amount of effort you put into each piece increases rapidly, until you're strained and exhausted, and the returns on this investment diminish, basically to nothing. The people who once thought you were so talented and promising are now openly avoidant and dismissive, thinking you're misguided, tired of hearing about what they consider your private obsessions. This period of an artist's life is a trial by fire, and this is why so many give up or discard something that they once claimed to do "just because I love doing it."

This period is not just growing pains. Committed artists know this -- many people will begin an artist's journey thinking they've found their calling, only to give up on it after five or ten years have vanished into a quixotic pursuit. Others will continue with their passion their whole lives, but will never actually be discovered, and they'll have to find some reason to keep going without from the thrill of validation (an absence which, unfortunately, often feels a lot like "failure").

I think it's natural, and even somewhat justified (I don't know, maybe 5-10% justified) to feel some frustration and resentment toward something like NaNoWriMo, which calls out to so many aspiring, idealistic, uncommitted amateurs and invites them to experience the first fleeting thrill of an artist, but doesn't provide any fertile ground for them to really commit. It feels like it trivializes the work of the people who have built lives around their art. It feels like a massive giddy tour bus going through a coal mine or an auto factory.

And yet, I can't stand in open opposition to such a movement. It is not claiming to create great writers, nor is it intended to trivialize the hard work of the great authors. Personal growth and new experiences are valuable in themselves; agency, artistic awareness, well-roundedness, and positive mental habits are things the world could use more of. I can think of lots of alternative projects and initiatives I think would be more valuable than NaNoWriMo within the literary cultural space, but I'm not the one who's taken that first step of creating an organization. Even in the dark forest of my own misgivings and anxieties (and Miss Miller's), I have to step back and remember: this is about giving people a chance to make their own lives better through writing. That's utilitarianism and virtue ethics and self-actualization, the groundwork of great individuals and great societies. There are so many bad things in the world. This is not one of them.

By the way, if you know any websites or services that are dedicated to discovering great writers in the digital ocean of amateur work, please let me know. I've seen them for visual arts and music, but not for writers.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The article was simply terrible. She accuses NaNoWriMo participants of narcissism, but she is the narcissist. There's nothing narcissistic about people writing. It is, however, narcissistic to think you are are among an elite who has ideas, and that everyone else should just sit down and shut up. That's what she does for a living, is to tell other people what to think. There's nothing wrong with that, the problem comes in when when it involves telling others to sit down and shut up. Who is she to tell people there are too many books written? I've seen people say that NaNoWriMo is "insulting" to writers, and that's a classic case of narcissism. There have been detractors who claimed that NaNoWriMo is like being an amateur brain surgeon, and this is still more narcissism. We restrict brain surgery to the experts because it is a matter of life and death. With books, the reader has the final say. Narcissists want to tell you what you can read.

Why is writing the one creative endeavor that people get angry when the unwashed masses try it? Where is the wrath when an amateur buys a guitar or a cookbook? There are many thousands of art supply stores, and no one protests against them. Why the inconsistency? The vast majority of the art that people create wouldn't even sell at a garage sale, let alone see the inside of a gallery. Yet those amateurs who paint are not considered narcissists for doing so, in fact any professional artist who did decry amateurs would be labeled a narcissist. The claim that there aren't enough readers assumes that people who participate in NaNoWriMo don't read, which is a baseless claim.

It is tempting to look at the past with rose colored glasses, but there have always been bad books published, you've heard the term "Penny Dreadful"? It is no different today. There never was a time when people sat around reading the classics, they read the dreaded popular fiction. One thing I have noticed is that really successful writers don't have a problem with amateurs writing, whether they participate in NaNoWriMo or not. It seems there is a great deal of fear of the competition. Book haters do not buy e-readers. People who buy e-books buy them for one reason only, to read. I buy both e-books and paper books. I'll get public domain and independent books in e-book format, for other books, I go to my local independent store. The big box bookstores are the real enemies of independent stores, not e-books.

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