The Audacity of Authorship

So it’s November 15, the halfway point through NaNoWriMo. For those of you unaware of what this is, refer to a brief description from the official website:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenges you to write a 50,000-word novel, from scratch, in the month of November. It’s a global, uproariously fun endeavor, where participants exchange advice and writing tips on the NaNoWriMo website and in real life, with group write-ins held in coffeeshops, living rooms, and libraries all around the world.

I make note of this because last night my wife completed the 50,000 word requirement for her latest NaNovel, just before the middle of the month. Each year she’s proud of the accomplishment and I’m proud of her for completing such a challenge, which ultimately is self-imposed. She takes the writing of novels seriously, has spent years developing her style and craft and produces quality writing. I imagine thousands of others around the world (last year 120,000 people took part) were equally satisfied with their efforts and the product of their hard work. My wife’s reached the word count limit, but she’s far from finishing the work of writing the novel.

Earlier today I stumbled, completely by accident, upon a blog post by CanLit critic Steven W. Beattie assessing the value of such writing exercises. In his post Beattie aims some discouraging criticism at both Chris Baty, the creator of NaNoWriMo, and the people who take part:

…it is perhaps churlish of me to complain that the whole premise behind the project (in both its adult and youth forms) is based on an erroneous perception of how novels are written, and why….

…writers are encouraged to write without paying heed to the nasty editor in their heads, the one that tells them to refine, delete, excise, rework. The vocabulary of the NaNoWriMo site testifies to the way in which it has bought in to the tyranny of diminished expectations where writing is concerned. Instead of deliberation and focus, writers are encouraged to let loose and be free, and pay no heed to trifling matters such as talent or technique.

Beattie’s argument stems from two flaws in thinking: first, that the people taking part imagine themselves to be in the same way professional novelists and, second, that the writing of a NaNovel ends with Nov. 31. For many of these writers, “noveling” is merely a hobby they attempt once a year as away of expressing themselves or realizing an interesting story they’ve created in their minds. Most of these writers don’t intend to show their work to others outside a small group of family and friends, making it a personal accomplishment for their own entertainment. For those who do hope to make something of quality that others might wish to read, the editing and revising processes are still a part of the writing. There are those who spend months preparing for the event: working out plot details, characters, tropes, scene descriptions, etc. and will later work towards the end result. The competition ending on Nov. 31 does not imply the writing ends; this would be an erroneous assumption.

Novels – at least the ones that endure – take time, commitment, and patience, all things that are in short supply in today’s jacked-up, Internet-driven society, and all things that are antithetical to the very idea of NaNoWriMo.

 To say that writers taking part in NaNoWriMo lack such qualities as commitment and patience is a sweeping generalization that, if nothing else, is insulting. What is so appalling about someone on his/her own time writing a novel for their own enjoyment? Beattie claims it is a serious offense, stating that “…’noveling’ has been reduced to the literary equivalent of knitting.” I imagine professional novelists everywhere running around with their arms flailing above their heads in fear that their efforts have been belittled by NaNoWriMo participants. This stance is somewhat ironic when one considers the statements quoted above. The author of the blog post in question should also be aware that the members of  “today’s jacked-up, Internet-driven society” are no small part of his own readership at That Shakespearean Rag.

The NaNoWriMo website offers the promise of recognition and sense of accomplishment, but says nothing about how this devalues the work of countless underpaid, underappreciated professional writers who have spent the better part of their lives honing their craft. Instead, it buys into the cult of celebrity that is inescapable in what passes for North American culture these days.

I find it hard to believe the NaNovelist sitting at home this month, quite possibly as I write this, is attempting to devalue the writing of serious “underappreciated, professional writers”. To be frank, I doubt people participating in this month’s writing endeavour are even considering the professional writer whose talent and commitment are, as Beattie has assured us, of greater value than theirs. There is a self-important pretension placed on the professional writer in this argument that belittles the amateur’s desire and right to produce work of whatever quality for themselves. In many cases these are people who have never written anything of novel length and to suggest that their aspirations of completing such should in some way preclude them from the ranks of those who take part in the “inherently elitist activity” of novel-writing is absurd. Should writing be limited to professionals? In response to this argument my wife says, “If so, one better hope he/she has the ability of Lance Armstrong when getting on a bike, or the talent of Eric Lamaze when mounting a horse”.

A similarly ridiculous argument against writing has been ongoing for years as it relates to genre fiction such as Sci-fi, Fantasy, and ChickLit. These genres are popular because people want to read them and most criticisms I’ve heard or read about them come from readers/writers of “serious” literary fiction and come across as embittered and juvenile. These realms of writing should be taken for what they are: differing and appealing to alternate audiences and sensibilities (this is not to say that readers of literary fiction do not enjoy genre fiction or vice versa).

Such audacity of authorship is to be acknowledged as worthwhile, if not praised for spreading the love of writing and creative expression among a wider demographic. Elitist authors need not worry about the devaluing of their own works, which should speak for themselves. In a phrase: it’s not about you.

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