I realize this is not going to be a popular sentiment on the eve of National Novel Writing Month, but I find the entire enterprise misguided and detrimental to both the art and business of fiction writing.
And, I say that as an unpublished author trying to break into publishing. I’m not pouring hot oil on the heads of barbarians from atop the alabaster walls of literary privilege. No, I am also on the outside of the city, watching the hordes fling their latest “vampire slayer” or “vampire romance” tale at the towering slush piles of the citadel of literary agency,* and wishing that they might disperse so the city gates could be opened to allow more regular commerce.
Luckily for me, I am not alone in my disdain for what is basically the storytelling equivalent of flash dating. Other amateur pundits have trashed found fault with the growing NaNoWriMo phenomenon as well. My favorite deconstruction of the pretenses of this drecksprint is by Eric Rosenfield, who wrote in 2006:
To the NaNoWriMo people, writing a novel is like running a marathon, something difficult and strenuous that you do only so you can say you did it before you died. (Or rather, like running a marathon has become in the popular imagination; there are those who still lament the passing of the age when marathons were for serious runners only.) I shouldn’t have to say that this attitude is repugnant, and pollutes the world with volumes upon volumes of one-off novels by people who don’t really care about novel writing. I can’t help but wonder out of all those 59,000 people, how many of them will ever write another word.
It is this quality of quasi-genuine meta-participation — that half-ass middle ground between being a fan-spectator and a sincere participant — that makes NaNoWriMo such a bad idea. According to the project’s own website, out of tens of thousands of “novels” written, there has been one bestseller and only a few dozen published at all. And, even accepting the 50,000-word NaNoWriMo goal as novel-length, the project still consistently results in an over 80 percent failure rate.
Rosenfield’s pollution metaphor is apt: the project taps sources of superficial enthusiasm for writing, but spits out Niles, Mississippis, and Amazons of very real text that wash out into the sea of writing where more serious and sincere writers, agents, and publishers live and breathe. As Paul Combs pointed out in 2007:
For many, it is a month-long excuse to meet friends at Starbucks while pretending to hammer out a few hundred words. For some it’s exactly what [NaNoWriMo founder] Chris Baty originally envisioned: a way to meet girls.
So, the project has been insincere from its inception, not so much about writing itself as it is about exploiting the glamor of writing for various non-literary ends.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the glamor of writing, but those swept up in it should use their enthusiasm to buy and read more novels, and encourage others to do the same — particularly in these troubled times for the publishing industry — rather than flooding an already crowded field with “Hey mom, look what I can do!” antics.
As recently as a few weeks ago, Zoe Whitten characterized NaNoWriMo as “IntNoWaMo, or International Novella Wankfest Month,” even as she confesses to using the process as a sort of purgative to get the bad writing out of her system so it doesn’t show up in her work for publication. Talking about one of her own NaNoWriMo products:
At least I had the common sense to bury that book like a cat buries a particularly radioactive piece of cat shit. There will never be edits made, nor hope of pushing that bad boy onto an unsuspecting public through Lulu. This is what almost every entrant into the contest should do with their “winners.” Just bury that shit, mumble some excuses if people ask about it, and move on. Sure, there are some exceptions, but those are books from real writers who are using NaNoWriMo to script something outside their favored genres.
What will I be doing during NaNoWriMo? I will continue sketching out a sequel to my not-written-in-four-weeks novel while I also write a short story in the same milieu but outside of the main storyline. In other words, nothing flashy or spectacular: just writing as usual.
* Before you accuse me of literary elitism, I also have a “reluctant vampire” story hidden away in a dark corner of my library. Let me repeat, hidden away in a dark corner, where it belongs.
A year after I published this, Laura Miller at Salon.com repeated the basic sentiments of my critique: “Better yet, DON’T write that novel: Why National Novel Writing Month is a waste of time and energy.”