I posted last year about a letter I sent to Laura Miller in response to her Salon.com op ed piece where she (in my opinion) blasted the participants of NaNoWriMo and attacked the Office of Letters and Light. (NaNoWriMo’s parent company). This is her response to me. I have yet to send one back. In other news, Salon.com has put itself up for sale.
Thanks for writing. I think in your anticipation of being slapped down, you leap to some unjustified conclusions about what I said.
Although I hoped to respond to every email I received about my NaNoWriMo piece, it turns out I just can’t scrape together the time, so I’m going to attach a comprehensive response that I hope will address your remarks, whether positive or negative. (The email I got was about half and half, by the way, and I’m not any happier about the positive ones that willfully misinterpret what I said than I am about the negative ones.)
Here is what I did NOT say:
I did NOT say that *writing a NaNoWriMo novel* is a waste of time.
I did NOT object to people writing novels, whether they do it in 30 days or more.
I did NOT say that NaNoWriMo novels are “a lot of crap.”
I did NOT say that NaNoWriMo contestants do not read.
How can the above statements possibly be true? I think if you go back and pay attention to what I actually wrote instead of what you assumed I wrote or what other people told you I wrote, you will see that it is so. (Yes, the headline for the piece is not as clear as it could be, but like most journalists, I do not determine the headlines attached to my articles. That’s up to the cover editor.)
My complaint is not with anyone who writes any kind of novel. Let me repeat: I have no objection to anyone writing a novel in 30 (or more) days, any more than I object to people making scrapbooks or perfecting their gelato recipe or doing anything else that satisfies their creative impulses and it makes them happy.
My complaint is with the investment of public time, energy and money in a program that promotes novel-writing. The *apparatus* of NaNoWriMo — nonprofit status, fundraising ($300K+ this year, according to the website), paid staff, volunteers, website, press campaigns — strike me as squandered. For the same reason, I would also call it a waste for someone to solicit donations for a nonprofit organization urging more people to knit or play championship Scrabble. These are harmless and agreeable pastimes, it’s true, but do we really need to invest scarce resources in boosting them?
I DO put the event in the context of a culture where 81% of people say they plan to write a book (reported by the New York Times) yet only 57% report having read a SINGLE book for pleasure in the past year (from a study by the National Endowment for the Arts). Anecdotally, every writing teacher I know reports having several students in EVERY class they teach (including expensive university MFA programs!) who, when questioned, admit to almost never reading books for pleasure. I have met dozens of aspiring writers at literary events who blithely tell me the same thing. Of course NaNoWriMo is not to blame for this. I never said it was. However, I don’t see that NaNoWriMo is helping the situation very much, either.
We don’t have a shortage of writers. We DO have a shortage of readers. These are the facts. As gratifying as NaNoWriMo may be to individual writers, it is not meeting a need that’s in service of the greater public good. My argument is that we are better off redirecting these limited resources and this collective enthusiasm to the encouragement of reading (especially, I’d add, in creative ways that don’t instill the idea that reading a book is the intellectual equivalent of eating your spinach).
With regard to whether or not Nanowrimo is helpful to writers, in the second paragraph of the piece, I acknowledged the following:
… it fosters the habit of writing every single day, the closest thing to a universally prescribed strategy for eventually producing a book. NaNoWriMo spurs aspiring authors to conquer their inner critics and blow past blocks. Only by producing really, really bad first drafts can many writers move on to the practice that results in decent work: revision.
Furthermore, I never claimed that NaNoWriMo novels are “a lot of crap.” I’ve never read a NaNoWriMo novel, so I wouldn’t know. I was merely quoting the NaNoWriMo website, which assures contestants that they will be writing “a lot of crap.” That’s a direct quote from them, so if it offends you or strikes you as inaccurate, please take it up with them.
Let me repeat this one more time: My point is not that people shouldn’t write, only that any apparatus designed to encourage them to write is not really doing much to foster a healthy, sustainable literary culture. The world of readers and writers is like an ecosystem, and ours is getting more and more out of balance.
Ironically, in the long run, making the celebration of reading the center of our literary culture will help writers far more than programs like NaNoWriMo ever will. Even if NaNoWriMo contestants don’t expect their NaNoWriMo novel to ever get published, most of them probably dream of publication some day. Well, guess what: If we continue to lose readers at the rate we’re going, that won’t happen. There will be no more publishers because people will have ceased to buy their product, or will only buy books by 10 or 15 blockbuster authors. You might opt to publish your book yourself at your own expense, but, even then, will anyone (outside of family and friends) read it? Or will they be too busy writing their own books?
Anyone who loves novels, as I do, has to find this prospect saddening. Personally, nothing depresses me more than the possibility of a world full of good books that will never be read.
No one likes to hear this news, and the natural impulse is to lash out at the messenger. There certainly is a lot more money and applause to be had only telling people what they want to hear instead. I’ll point out that the only book the founder of NaNoWriMo has ever published is a book on how to write a novel.
Please consider the possibility that you are looking at this issue from the narrow perspective of what makes you personally feel better, right now, and not taking the bigger picture into account. Given that many people seem bound and determined to believe that I have attacked NaNoWriMo contestants no matter what I say, this is probably hopeless, but it did seem worth a try.