National Novel Writing Month: My Experience, and the Modern World

1. Words without thought (or other qualitative measure) are stupid and lacking in quality.
2. A high volume of production causes a devaluation of quality products in both economic and intellectual areas.
3. It is therefore the economic, social, and intellectual responsibility of everyone to strive to only produce and only reward quality – in anything we pay for or support.

If you agree with me on the above points, and don’t have much time, or don’t want to hear my conclusions from these theses, you needn’t read further.

As the few who read this blog with any regularity perhaps know, I have been participating in the National Novel Writing Month, hosted by the so-called “Office of Letters and Light.” On Saturday I “finished” with a total of 52,698 words, making me one of the 2008 “winners.” In their vapid and hyperbolic prose, the office of letters and light would like to call this a resounding victory. If my victory resounds, it is only because this victory is hollow – and that is the only reason I would like it to resound.
I will not be posting the rest of my novel on this blog. I apprehended, even in chapter 1, that this writing would not be of the quality I desired. My “novel” suffers most from a complete lack of organization – a trouble I feel is deadly to any story, especially a detective story. While there are certain passages of my novel I do like, while there are certain parts I enjoyed writing, I generally found the exercise not to be worth my time.
I find the reason this exercise was not worth my time interesting, and symptomatic of modern culture as a whole. The reason, specifically, I found this experience hollow, is that the focus of the National Novel Writing Month is entirely upon the production of a set number of words. I believe, however, that the quality of writing should never be judged or even referred to by the number of words. I believe, furthermore, that not even the quantity of writing, and especially of novels, should be judged in words. A novel is not a creature of words - this is obvious as soon as we consider collecting a jumble of words and calling it a novel. It is not a novel. A novel therefore is composed of something other than words – it is composed of ideas, and the quantity of these ideas, the number and depth of them, is the true and only quantitative measure of any writing.
Yes, one might say, but the Office of Letters and Light cannot measure that. Exactly so, and therefore, they should not encourage the production words without content. So far in 2008, according to their webpage, 1,519,501,005 words have been written as a part of National Novel Writing Month, and through the writers, the Office of Letters and Light received donations of $333,682. Needless to say, I find it unbelievable that even a small percentage of these words were produced with worthwhile content. I once had a teacher who would doubtless be happy with this result. He told us often that, to become good writers, we must write every day. I disagreed with him then, and I do so more now. If writing every day were the content of the practice of becoming a great or even good writer, romance novelists would be great writers, as they produce huge amounts of fiction every year. In any list of the most prolific authors of western literature, I would challenge anyone to actually recognize as reasonably good any but Alexandre Dumas, who ranks somewhere around 19th, and wrote many of his books with co-authors. The most prolific authors of the western world are known for novels such as “Wind of Desire” “Gathering Storm” and “Wild Bill, the Pistol Prince.” It seems to me that to encourage the production of novels in the same method as these – as Shakespeare, and later T.S. Eliot phrased “words without thought”, is not only a step backwards in literature, but literally irresponsible.
To save time, and to save myself from proving my point while making it, I will refrain from making suggestions of what might replace it, but I have thought of some which could likely be implemented with less than $333,682 (as a side note, they’re still griping that they don’t have enough money).
I would, however, like to say (at this point my complaint about NaNoWriMo has ended, and my subject becomes the culture) that I think this seems to be a symptom of much of the character of the nation today, a character which the internet makes daily and increasingly apparent. Many pundits refer to western culture as “consumption” or “consumerist” culture, but I think that in some respects, they may have the thing completely backwards. Western culture may be more dangerously “productionist” or “producing” culture. I have heard that one of the contributing factors to the great depression was that there were large volumes of low-quality products warehoused, which began to destroy the value of new production. It has been said that the current bust is deeply related to the production of houses which were assumed to have value, although there were too many houses for any to be of the assume value. Though stores were crowded, and people died, black Friday was considered a failure, because not enough product was sold – so which is there more of? Production or consumption? Of course, especially in this case, the over-production could be symptomatic of too much consumption, but, especially in the case of letters, a terrific amount is produced which is not meant to be read, largely the form of National Novel Writing Month. This production is present not only on the internet, but in Academia, where academics are pressured to (or do of their own free will) produce new books constantly repeating what they have already said, in order to satisfy tenure boards or research grants, rather than taking their time to produce really quality material.
It seems to me that this over-production, without a careful eye to quality (and it is extremely rare when quantity is raised but quality not lost), de-values the qualitative product, burying it in a huge number of suitable but low-quality replacements that consumers will consume, because they are cheap and easy, and, more so, because it is difficult to wade through the thousands of low-quality products to find one or two high-quality ones. Therefore, because no one can find the high-quality product, and high national sales are generally generated through ubiquity, there is even less encouragement for those with the ability to produce to produce a high-quality product, and the bar is lowered again. This is the system which it seems to me the National Novel Writing Month participates in, to name just one.
As an expected result of this, I will not recommend that anyone engage themselves in either National Novel Writing Month or Script Frenzy in the future. I will also recommend that if they really want to, they should be of a specific, and very rare character – a character which has more trouble writing words than planning them, and who, while they might have a refined plot, developed characters, and a host of interesting ideas, lack the impetus to actually sit and write them down. This is not my character (really? You could tell?), but to those who have such a character, I would encourage them, too, not to force themselves through National Novel Writing Month or any other means, to write, but rather, share their ideas with someone, perhaps a friend, with a gift for writing, but little gift for ideas, characters, or plots. Work with someone else. The internet is rife with the production of possibilities of social network, so network, so that you may concentrate on doing what you do best, rather than trying to do something you aren’t really excited about, and depriving someone else of the opportunity to do it. Quality is the only really rare thing in the world, and I still believe that when people see it, especially in writing and philosophy, they long to pursue it, to be a part of its production.
What shall I do? Well, first, I am going to hound a friend of mine, who is a far better proofreader than I, and has a different eye for stories. I’m going to hound him to work with me, because I greatly respect him as a thinker, and don’t want to miss an opportunity to write with him, even though that probably means we’ll disagree about a number of items. Second, I am going to focus on my short stories (since I can’t find someone to write plots for me, I’d best improve on mine) in part so that I can work on my editing, and try to produce small things of unquestionable quality. This will not be easy. Finally, I will work on another blog, the sartorial screen, which will speak mostly of the cinematic history of men’s style, something for which I have a passion, as my loving wife has often pointed out. Through these three things, and in my posts here, (which will large be concerned with the quality of my short stories and essays) I hope to pursue a quality and brevity unmatched by my previous writing, and a quantity of ideas unalloyed with the dross of vapid production. Also, I will be producing less total words. Hopefully. A higher percentage of them should be on my blogs, because a higher percentage will be readable.

1 comment:

David said...

And who is this dashing young chap you mention at the end? He sounds like a wonderful fellow.