NaNoWriMo: Is National Novel Writing Month a Literary Threat or Menace?

More than a quarter of a million people are spending November writing novels. But does this mean an influx of new voices or the end of literature altogether?

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Now that the U.S. Presidential election is out of the way, it’s time to turn our collection attentions to the true purpose of November. No, not Thanksgiving. For hundreds of thousands of people around the world, November means National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo for short — and writing 50,000 words of their latest magnum opus by the beginning of December.

For those who aren’t familiar with NaNoWriMo, the thinking behind it is actually fairly simple: Participants are challenged to write a 50,000 word novel from scratch between 12:00am November 1 and 11:59pm November 30. Sounds simple, right? Well, aside from that “writing a novel” part, of course. It’s not a contest — the only things you “win” upon completion are a sense of satisfaction at having met the goal and a certificate from The Office of Letters and Light, the organization behind the month-long event. No one sits down to judge the results of your efforts, although completed novels have to be submitted for verification (a process which exists to ensure that (1) you wrote a novel that (2) consists of at least 50,000 words that (3) aren’t just the same word repeated over and over again, and yes, that last part is actually one of the few rules of the whole thing).

Nonetheless, each year that the event has taken place since its creation in 1999 has seen an increase in the number of people signing up to attempt to unleash their inner Stephen King/JK Rowling/Dan Brown, with last year seeing 256,618 deciding to sacrifice their free time for an entire month in the name of creating art… or, at least, an unfinished Word document with really, really good intentions. (Only 36,843 from that 256,618 actually managed to meet their goal last year.)

This year’s NaNoWriMo will be the fourteenth, and the seventh since the Office of Letters and Light was established as a non-profit that existed purely for the purposes of promoting writing. (The OLL has spun the NaNoWriMo brand into two related events, NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, for school kids aged 12 and under, and Camp NaNoWriMo, which is essentially NaNoWriMo: The Catered Ski Chalets Version.) Launched as a 21-person writers’ group in the San Francisco Bay Area in July 1999 — the shift to November came the second year — with what started as, in the words of founder Chris Baty, something that happened “because we thought that, as novelists, would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists,” turning novel writing into a more approachable, less mysterious pastime than ever before. The question is, is that actually a good thing?

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Well, the answer to that question depends upon whom you ask. Kate Sullivan, founder of independent publish Candlemark & Gleam once wrote that “NaNoWriMo turns out more crappy manuscripts than any other idea in the history of mankind, it’s true. I’m both excited and terrified to see what comes through the slush pile after this month — I expect that there’s going to be a lot of short, awful manuscripts (50k words does NOT a novel make, children…shoot for 80-100k, please)…but there may also be some gems.” Salon’s Laura Miller was far less charitable: “As someone who doesn’t write novels, but does read rather a lot of them, I share [editors and agents’] trepidation,” she wrote in a much-discussed 2010 column.” Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the instance that other people read it? Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it’s likely to produce more novels I’d want to read.”

Miller wasn’t exaggerating when she referred to the event giving permission to “write a lot of crap”; that’s literally right there in the site’s FAQs: “Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing,” the OLL folks explain. “By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.” The idea of writing without pause to self-edit isn’t one that appeals to writer Patrice Sarath, however; “Writing requires steady, consistent effort,” she wrote in a blog post subtlety titled “Writing a novel? Don’t do NaNoWriMo.” “Blasting through a novel at over 1000 words a day means that you will get a lot of crap and at the end of the experiment you will have 50,000 words, far too short for any market today.” She continued her barrage a year later, writing that “I think [NaNoWriMo] reduces an art form to gimmickry.”

(Not all established writers feel the same. Many — including Philip Pullman, Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem — not only support NaNoWriMo but have written essays to support those who participate in the November projects.)

Another common complaint is that NaNoWriMo devalues writers’ talent by indulging the cliche that everyone has the potential to be a great writer if only they’d sit themselves down and actually write . “NaNoWriMo relies on the peculiarly American belief that every person has a story — or a novel, or a book of any kind — inside. (Some have quipped that this was where it ought to stay),” the Economist’s Prospero blog once sneered. “There is no analogous drive to write the Great French Novel, or the English, or the German. The very notion that a novel is in everybody’s grasp, and could be knocked out as a draft in just a month, is far more likely to induce some cringing in other countries.” Instead of idolizing writers, Salon’s Miller suggested, we should look to the other side of the equation to keep literature alive: “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?”

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Such criticism feels unwarranted. Surely the idea of supporting writers or readers isn’t an either/or binary prospect? Isn’t supporting one also supporting the other and amazingly dismissive of the possibility that novels created for NaNoWriMo could actually be, well, good. The implication seems to be that, because the NaNo writers were allowed to write without fear or concern of poor quality, the quality will inevitably be poor. Neither Miller nor Sarath seems to credit writers with the ability or inclination to go back to rework or edit their work after the November 30th deadline to turn a first draft born out of unfettered creativity into something more sculpted, coherent or just simply complete. There’s a snobbery at play in that assumption — that if anyone who uses the framework of NaNoWriMo as motivation to write doesn’t have the same “need” to do as other authors do, or the same level of skill.

But NaNo books aren’t inherently low quality. After all, more than a hundred authors have had their NaNoWriMo works published in methods from self-publishing, small press or digital publishing all the way through to “real” publishing houses including Doubleday, Random House and Simon & Schuster. (Special mention should go to Lani Diane Rich, who in 2003 became the first unpublished author to get a book deal with a NaNo-originated effort, signing a two-book deal with Warner Books.) These aren’t necessarily novels that few have heard of, either: amongst the NaNo projects to find homes with mainstream publishers are Sara Gruen’s New York Times-bestselling Water for Elephants — adapted into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson last year — and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, also a New York Times bestseller and one of TIME critic Lev Grossman’s Top 10 Moments in Reading of 2011.

Those concerned about whether NaNoWriMo heralds the downfall of literature as we know it can take comfort in fact that the rest of the publishing industry still has gatekeepers in place to uphold standards and trust in market forces to reward the worthy (or, at least, the popular) as much as ever before. To be fair, Sarath wasn’t actually wrong when she called NaNoWrimo a gimmick. It is. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By inventing the (entirely arbitrary) month deadline and word count, writing a novel becomes a game instead of something to be scared of, a challenge with a constantly visible end-point that removes much of the fear and overwhelmingness from the idea of actually trying to write a book — especially with the explicit permission to just keep going regardless of whether or not it’s actually any good.

NaNoWriMo hasn’t reduced an art form, increased the percentage of crap to revise Sturgeon’s Law upwards to 99%, or any other such paranoid hyperbole. It’s done something far, far more important: It’s made writing feel like something that’s achievable and, in the process, returned literature to a place of pop art possibility that it hasn’t been in for years. As far as gimmicks go, you have to admit; that’s a pretty impressive one.