Tuesday, 16 August 2011

An Excuse to Write

Most professional authors will tell you that it's not possible to write a novel in 30 days, which is obvious - perhaps even more so to those of us who take part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every November. During that time I often chat online to other authors and have yet to come across anyone who is deluded enough to believe that the manuscript sitting on their hard drive on December 1st is a completed work.

Nonetheless, the realistic appreciation NaNo novelists have for their 30 days' toil hasn't deterred the critics, who contend that events such as NaNoWriMo are not for real writers. Indeed, Laura Miller of Salon.com goes as far as to say:
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.
The article was written in 2002, when NaNoWriMo was just three years old, and a quick search led to no further finds of such heavy-handed criticism, so it would seem that the event has proved its worth for the most part. However, what I find most objectionable is Miller's proposition that the writing workshops are stealing 'cultural spaces' from 'selfless readers' - a massive dismissal of the authors involved, whose work she perceives as having no cultural value whatsoever. She does go on to suggest that the world does not need any more novels, because she doesn't have time to read them all. Well, thank goodness for that!

This conservative attitude is nothing new and frequently rears its ugly head in relation to literature. The literary canon - a body of work, which up until the 1980s was dominated by white, male, 'Western' authors, continues to exclude the majority of popular works of fiction with snobbish disregard. I find myself skimming through The Guardian's Review supplement each Saturday with an expression fixed in disdain, as I try and fail to elicit a mote of interest in any of the publications reviewed therein. If nothing else, it serves as a useful example of the 'narcissistic commerce of writing' Miller gripes about, as more often than not, the novels are penned by middle-class / working-class-come-good authors, all writing within the accepted confines of the canon - books that sell because they look good on a book shelf, but are about as interesting to read and content-rich as a Shredded Wheat box.

The problem as I see it (but then I am a social scientist and a socialist) is that the Laura Millers of this world simply can not comprehend what it means to fit authorship into a normal existence, one that is already full to the brim with earning a living, caring for a family and so on. Taking part in something like NaNoWriMo is, for many, the only opportunity to give life to a novel. The alternative long haul of school runs, low-paid jobs, writing and sleeping could see a novel finished eventually, providing it or the author doesn't die before the final chapter: those '30 days of literary abandon' could make all the difference.

What most working class authors need is an excuse to write. They can't afford to give up the day job; partners aren't necessarily sympathetic; hungry children won't wait. What NaNoWriMo offers, above all else, is a community of authors who provide solidarity and the strength to fight, if only for 30 days, for the right to write. OK, so the end product more than likely won't be a beautifully crafted work of art and it may never become such a thing. As Joe Kissell, author of ITOTD blog says of his NaNoWriMo experience: "I ended up with something that must never again be read by anyone...", which is a risk we all take each time we start writing something new and is always a possibility, but a poor reason for not trying in the first place.

So, forget what Laura Miller says: on the contrary, NaNoWriMo is absolutely necessary because it will make you write. 50,000 words in 30 days means no time for continuous editing and back-spacing and it is all about quantity, not quality. A lot of what you produce will fit neatly with founder Chris Baty's description of 'a load of crap', but it can be edited and honed later. And if you're thinking "You can't polish a turd", bear in mind there's a whole host of journalists making a living out of doing exactly that every Saturday in The Guardian Review supplement.

References
Laura Miller 'Better yet, DON'T write that novel.' http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2010/11/02/nanowrimo

Joe Kissell 'National Novel Writing Month. Becoming a novelist in 30 days.' http://itotd.com/articles/606/national-novel-writing-month/

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