Skeptical Word: Laura Miller on Novel Writing Month

From Salon, a few years back, the book critic Laura Miller suggests, not so gently, that the world doesn’t need more novelists, it needs more readers.

The Kings James Bible’s warning for novelists: “And further, by these, my sonne, be admonished: of making many bookes there is no end, and much studie is a wearinesse of the flesh.” Ecclesiastes Chapter 12, Verse 12. (Cool site, you can browse the 1611 printing!)

Miller: So I’m not worried about all the books that won’t get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on. Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say. Writers have a reputation for being tormented by their lot, probably because they’re always moaning so loudly about how hard it is, but it’s the readers who are fragile, a truly endangered species. They don’t make a big stink about how underappreciated they are; like Tinkerbell or any other disbelieved-in fairy, they just fade away.

Rather than squandering our applause on writers — who, let’s face it, 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.

Consider turning away from the self-aggrandizing frenzy of NaNoWriMo and embracing the quieter triumph of Kalen Landow and Melissa Klug’s “10/10/10″ challenge: These two women read 10 books in 10 categories between Jan. 1 and Oct. 10, focusing on genres outside their habitual favorites. In her victory-lap blog post, Klug writes of discovering new favorite authors she might otherwise never have encountered, and of her sadness on being reminded that “most Americans don’t read ANY books in a given year, or just one or two.” Instead of locking herself up in a room to crank out 50,000 words of crap, she learned new things and “expanded my reading world.” So let me be the first to say it: Melissa and Kalen, you are the heroes.

Earlier in the piece Miller makes the same point that Stephen King makes, if you want to be a writer, read. Oddly, I’ve never met would-be writers who don’t read. But perhaps they do exist. Statistics about reading seem almost as shaky as statistics about sex.

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