Tuesday, November 29, 2016


I recently encountered a Salon article titled, "Better yet, DON'T Write That Novel: Why National Novel Writing Month is a Waste of Energy." It might seem to some people that was an article I might have written (sadly, I am not a writer for Salon. I really need more work) but I'm going to go ahead and disagree with some it, and not just because I'm currently trying to finish up my own NaNoWriMo novel while fighting off jetlag and possibly pneumonia. But this section was particularly interesting to me:

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.

I say “commerce” because far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter. “People would come up to me at parties,” author Ann Bauer recently told me, “and say, ‘I’ve been thinking of writing a book. Tell me what you think of this …’ And I’d (eventually) divert the conversation by asking what they read … Now, the ‘What do you read?’ question is inevitably answered, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to read. I’m just concentrating on my writing.'”

It really is amazing how NaNoWriMo has taken off. I got involved with it around 2008, and done it more or less every year with some exceptions for family emergencies or because I was busy editing a novel that had a publication deadline. Only one of my November novels was turned into a book that was published, and its admittedly one of my weaker works.

I don't think there's anything wrong with teaching writing being an industry, because I've always understood writing as an act that is very different from reading, and the two are not always connected. It's true that my favorite writing is when I'm doing something that I would want to read and just doesn't exist yet, but I've also written for more professional reasons, or even less professional ones, like I needed to finish NaNoWriMo. The act of writing is very different from the act of reading; they have their own demands and pleasures and are really two separate hobbies, and people can have as many hobbies as they want and spread their energies across them accordingly.

I was probably 11 or 12 when my mother was on a trip and happened on a group of writers, and she expressed concern that I was spending all of my time writing, and therefore cutting back on my reading. They told her not to worry; that happened to all of them, but I would slowly circle back, or that's what she told me they said. They ended up being totally correct. On average, in my adult life, I read around 50 to 60 books a year outside of work or school. A lot of that is thanks to the luxury of being Shomer Shabbat (google it), so I have 25 hours every week where I can't work, travel, shop, or use electronics, and I don't have children, so that really opens my time up for reading, so I confess that I don't read a lot during the week. The overwhelming majority of the books are non-fiction, overwhelmingly history books or books on religion or culture, sometimes as research for something I want to write and sometimes just out of random interest, and I'm very lucky to live in New York, where there are stands full of cheap paperbacks at the same time as non-fiction is so popular, so I always have enough material to find while just walking around.

There are undoubtedly writers with very small worlds who don't read enough and end up producing the same material over and over because their contact with new ideas is minimal (looking at you, Woody Allen, who doesn't read books or watch new movies or really interact with the world at all), but plenty of people get their inspiration from things other than books, and plenty of people get too much inspiration from books and just copy their favorite writers. As I kid - I was probably about 9 - I wrote a 400-page novel, still unfinished, that was basically a Redwall rip-off. But spending so much time writing each night (I wouldn't let myself go to sleep until I'd written ten pages, though to be fair the spacing on those pages was pretty wide) gave me a certain discipline about writing that has carried me through my professional life, and is always why I've never not finished NaNoWriMo, though this year's going to be a close one.

I don't remember seeing submissions at work that were NaNoWriMo books, except maybe one or two. People know that 50,000 words is too short for a book, so the people who do submit books from that month are probably submitting them after finishing them in December or January, at a proper length. Generally people overwrite; I saw many more books that were way too long than way too short. I wouldn't be terribly upset if there's a shift in our word culture towards shorter novels, but that remains to be seen.

I don't see NaNoWriMo as positive or negative. It just is. People want to write, and they now have a more concentrated outlet for that, and people who might not normally try something of this length would be encouraged to. Yes, a lot of nonsense will be written, but that doesn't always translated to a lot of nonsense being submitted, which is different. I don't see writing as selfish. It's a contemplative and difficult personal act done in one's own time, and everyone has the right to decide how to spend their time. Even if it's writing a piece for a blog and then just putting it in your NaNoWriMo file because it's November 29th and you've still got 8000 words to get on digital paper, because you've never not finished.

1 comment:

Julia Hebner said...

I have often thought that I know more writers than readers but believed it was unique to me or to Richmond, Virginia. But even in my wonderful critique group, there are writers who haven't read a book in years, apparently. I assume this because they only talk about TV and movies, even in reference to the pages in front of them. Very strange.