Just three days into NaNoWriMo — and, as my stats show, I’ve kept up so far — and the very act of amateur novel writing is under attack from Salon’s Laura Miller. In a column yesterday she argued that National Novel Writing Month amounts to “a lot of crap.” It’s not apt to produce many highly literary works, she says, noting that publishers cringe upon seeing the term “NaNoWriMo” dotting hastily written cover letters each December.
That’s fair — most of the novels, mine surely to be included, probably aren’t stellar. “The last thing the world needs is more bad books,” Miller writes. Frankly, more bad books are hardly the last thing the world needs, and such blatant hyperbole indicates perhaps she suffers from a narrow worldview. Miller’s unspoken assumption here is that bad literature is inherently worthless both to society at large and to the writer or artist. To presume the production of bad art (and here, of course, we ignore the much stickier argument of what “good” and “bad” art are) has no purpose is both outrageous and short-sited. It’s a cliché, to be sure, but practice makes perfect has a great deal of truth to it.
To prove Miller’s folly, let’s explore an analogy. Food and culinary concerns apply to all people, just as reading and writing do. In this metaphor, fine literature is fine cuisine, junk novels are junk food and the rest falls somewhere in between. There are increasingly more people who never cook — and by cook I mean actually combining ingredients and following instructions to produce a balanced yet satisfying meal, not heating a frozen pizza or slapping together a quick sandwich. There are also some people who generally eat dinner out, consuming the word of a professional. The rest of us enjoy some combination of eating out and cooking ourselves. My chicken cacciatore may not be as decadent as Mrs. Robino’s or even Olive Garden, but by Miller’s argument rather than preheat my oven I should simply eat out all the time where I can enjoy a well-prepared meal.
In the same vein, there’s no point running a marathon because tens of thousands of other people run marathons all the time; quilting hobbyists might as well just buy a professionally manufactured quilt; cellists should retire their bows because they likely will never be as talented as Yo-Yo Ma; and philatelists should just visit the National Postal Museum every once in a while because that’s how the professionals do it.
Fortunately, poor quality isn’t Miller’s primary gripe with NaNoWriMo. “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.” NaNoWriMo targets writers, she says, forgetting to clarify that the real targets are non-writers seeking a challenge.
Miller is also extremely worried that some NaNoWriMo participants don’t consider themselves great readers.
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. …
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. After all, there’s not much glory in finally writing that novel if it turns out there’s no one left to read it.
What Miller fails to recognize is that the drive to read and the drive to write originate from different sources; writing is creative while reading is consumptive, and the two energies are not necessarily transferable. Some people, like Miller says, write but never read, and their work probably reflects that lack of broad experience. But conversely, there are probably far more people who read but never write, and most likely their reading experiences would be enhanced by a greater, more personal understanding of the writing process. As usual, the most beneficial mix seems to lie somewhere in the middle, wherein one both reads and writes.
The personal enrichment that can come from writing — and quilting and stamp collecting and marathon running and cello playing — transforms a world of consumers into a world of creators, where the simple act of trying is laudable in and of itself. It’s a world more open to new ideas and contributions from outside the establishment. I’ll take 21,683 crappy novels over one arrogant column any day.