Monday, November 17, 2014

NaNoWriMo and the writerly culture of self-abuse - and a call to arms to stop it!

NaNoWriMo has been a very positive experience for me.  It's my first year of doing it and I'm very glad I have - it has been wonderful.  Still, I guess I'm just a critical person because there's one thing that vexes me: the extent to which wrimos are critical of their own work.  There is a persistent culture in NaNoWriMo that says to its participants that their novel will stink, that writing swiftly is somehow inferior to writing patiently, but there's no reason to think that's . . . true.  That's right.  My criticism is that you people think you suck when you don't!

My initial draft of this post included a lot of historical stuff about 19th century writers like Dumas and Tolstoy who have written enduring classics of literature on very tight schedules.  It is true.  Many of the finest novelists who have ever lived wrote in ways similar to wrimos.  My initial post included additional historical details about how this kind of writing fell out of favor due to changes in publishing that made centralized publishing houses more economically profitable and not because of the preference of the audience, and how that centralization lead to those publishing houses putting a premium on shorter works due to the cost of paper, glue and ink.  Yeah, that's right, all that "stay focused, write concise" stuff is primarily due to publishers wanting to save money on paper, ink and glue - it was never an artistic choice!  It was never a popular choice!  (Which is part of the reason why almost everyone who reads this will have their favorite works in some giant series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or whatever.  Most readers don't want their favorite novels to end!)  I ended up saying that modern comic book writers also write in a fashion similar to wrimos and they have created many of the most enduring cultural icons of the past hundred years.  In short, I talked a fair bit about why writing quickly, as wrimos do, does not lead to inferior art and a brief history behind the often cruel modern editing practices that have more to do with the cost of physical books than anything artistic.

But that was long and boring, so I just summarized it and am going to move on to what I think is the more trenchant argument:

The odd of you failing to suck are in your favor - you're probably an average writer.  There, I said it.  Your book doesn't suck, it's probably average.  Some will suck, but the odds of your book being truly bad are about the same as it being truly great.  And for most of you?  Your book is somewhere in the middle.

But here's the thing - being an "average" writer is pretty goddamn incredible.  Just like the "average" of any other artist!  In any other artistic field, people are quick to point out that their local music scene, art scene produces things that are lacking only big budgets of major distributors and are more in sync with the local attitudes and culture!  Local artists rock.  You are a local artist.  This means you rock.

I don't understand why wrimos attack each other like this.  If this was musicians instead of writers, we'd be pretty goddamn awesome.  I assure you that musicians don't stay around their local scene talking about how much they suck!  They instead talk about the conformity and banality created by the big labels, they revel in their idiosyncratic nature and local culture.  And people would come from far away to listen to the products of that local musical culture.

What I'm saying here is we should adopt that mindset.  We would find that the "average" of unpublished writers is about the same "average" for published writers, just as it is for musicians who aren't signed by big labels, or indie filmmakers, or pretty much anyone in the visual arts who doesn't have a studio in Manhattan.  Because, let me tell you, I don't think a bunch of rich white people in New York City are any better at determining what's good for the three-hundred and fifty million people in the United States any more than a tiny group of rich white people in LA are very good at deciding what we should all listen to or make into movies.  (And, of course, this doesn't even count everyone outside of the United States!)  Most of us live in a huge country with incredible diversity and it is ill-served, I think, by the New York City centered publishing industry.  We should break free of the strange notion that a small group of people far away from us in terms of culture, education, needs and wants should determine what defines good writing!  I'm saying we're as good as the local artists in every other field, who are very good artists.

I think we should adopt that mindset.  We are good artists.  We are making good art.  As good as all those other local artists out there that we thing are good.

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