The Narcissistic Commerce of Writing

I have some reservations about National Novel Writing Month. It seems like a promotional thing for hobbyists and arts administrators. The object is simply to get shit out rather than write well (which demands time, finesse, haggling over every comma) and besides, writing books is fun: you don’t want to rush the process, it’s the journey not the climax. Laura Miller claims that many participants don’t redraft or rewrite these books, leading to a barrage of unreadable submissions in early December. She suspects this scheme is mainly used by people who want to make their name on the world but who aren’t interested in reading fiction. This rings true for me, having asked many creative writing students what they read for pleasure, and being met with a blank or even offended expression. 

Miller asks: where is the reader in this?

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.’

In an essay for the Atlantic earlier this year, the fine short story writer Richard Bausch describes meeting a couple who edited a struggling literary magazine and funded it by publishing a never-ending stream of how-to manuals for would-be writers. The wife offered him $10,000 on the spot to write one himself. ‘These kinds of books sell better than the fiction books,’ she explained.

Frankly, there are already more than enough novels out there — more than those of us who still read novels could ever get around to poking our noses into, even when it’s our job to do so. This is not to say that I don’t hope that more novels will be written, particularly by the two dozen-odd authors whose new books I invariably snatch up with a suppressed squeal of excitement. (Actually, there are more of those novels than I’ll ever be able to read, as well.) Furthermore, I know that there are still undiscovered or unpublished authors out there whose work I will love if I ever manage to find it. But I’m confident those novels would still get written even if NaNoWriMo should vanish from the earth.

Yet while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books. Even authors who achieve what probably seems like Nirvana to the average NaNoWriMo participant — publication by a major house — will, for the most part, soon learn this dispiriting truth: Hardly anyone will read their books and next to no one will buy them.

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. Writers have a reputation for being tormented by their lot, probably because they’re always moaning so loudly about how hard it is, but it’s the readers who are fragile, a truly endangered species. They don’t make a big stink about how underappreciated they are; like Tinkerbell or any other disbelieved-in fairy, they just fade away.

Rather than squandering our applause on writers — who, let’s face, will keep on pounding the keyboards whether we support them or not — why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? Why not celebrate them more heartily? They are the bedrock on which any literary culture must be built.

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