November 12, 2010

600,000 Characters in Need of an Audience

[Here’s another post I wrote for The Missouri Review, which I’m going to reproduce wholesale here.]

GalleyCat reports that 45,000 kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are signed up this year as participants in National Novel Writing Month. I’ve started several times over the past two weeks to write something about NaNoWriMo, but always stopped because A) there has been so much polemical discussion of NaNoWriMo in the blogosphere this month that there seems to be little more to add to the discussion, and B) I don’t really know what I think about NaNoWriMo. I find myself vacillating wildly between positive and negative responses. At this point, I would tentatively say that I think NaNoWriMo probably does have a positive effect at the level of individual participation (that it is a “good” experience for people to have), but that as a collective force and (nascent) institution it does indeed project some problematic and troubling values concerning the nature and function of art.

But rather than rehashing what some of those questionable values are — which has been done many times elsewhere, most especially in Laura Miller’s controversial piece — I want to look briefly at the question of audience, which GalleyCat’s statistic put me in mind of. Miller asked who’s going to read all these novels, and a lot of the negative response to her has replied “Who cares?” You write your novel for yourself, the argument goes, and participation in NaNoWriMo is essentially an exercise in self-esteem building and personal achievement. This, one could argue, makes the act of writing not about “art,” per se, but about accomplishment, which is similar to how the fad of marathon-running has made those events no so much about athleticism but about ticking off personal checkboxes. And, of course, whenever someone argues that whenever the seriousness of an endeavor has been diluted by the mass participation of “tourists,” cries of elitism are sure to follow (and I use the word “tourist” quite deliberately here — the problem is not amateurs vs. professionals; it’s people who take the art/sport/hobby seriously for its own sake vs. those who only want to fulfill short-term, personal goals, or those interested in advancing the state of the field [and, as it were, being resident in that field] vs. those who just want a diversion from the mainline of their lives [who want to visit, but aren’t really interested in risking or investing anything in it]).

All of this is merely a long-winded way of saying that if your answer to “Who’s going to read all this work” is “Who cares,” then that is, at heart, a denial of the communicative purpose of art (which is one of the troubling values associated with NaNoWriMo). But this, too, is not really what I want to talk about. I think it’s rather easy for many of us who think of ourselves as serious writers to slip into that “Who cares?” mindset just because getting an audience is so hard. The more you begin to feel like nobody out there wants to read your work, the more tempting it becomes to dismiss with a contemptuous wave of the hand the whole idea of seeking out an audience. If I can’t really see a “them” for me to write to (or for), then maybe I am better off thinking that I’m writing just for “me.” [A variant on this is the feeling that one is only writing for other writers, an attitude endemic to creative writing programs, and, indeed, to literary journals as well.]

I have a stock lament that I often wind up presenting to students in my fiction workshops (though it cannot be easily characterized as inspiring or empowering) that culminates in the complaint that the only venues for fiction (especially long-form fiction) are essentially national. Are you an amateur musician? You can play at an open mic night. You can play at large family gatherings. With even slightly above average talent, you could well play a paying gig somewhere locally. If you’re a visual artist, there are fairs and fleamarkets (if not galleries) where you can share your work with your community.

But local venues for writers are much harder to come by. Open mic nights can work for poets and perhaps writers of short shorts. You can circulate your work to your family and friends, but it is in the nature of reading that even this most intimate audience can feel awfully distant (as compared with the immediate reward of playing a few songs in the living room after Thanksgiving dinner). Really, if you want to be read, you have to be submitting to literary magazines and publishers who are mostly all drawing from a nationwide (if not global) pool of submitters and trying to reach a nationwide (if not global) pool of readers. That’s a very competitive field to wade into. Perhaps the only harder fields to break into are screen and television writing.

[An aside: there are certainly some niche genres that support primarily local or regional audiences, such as certain veins of historical fiction or mysteries (set in your hometown!), and I find writers and publishers who have tapped into that kind of audience rather fascinating.]

This seems a very dispiriting proposition. If you gave an otherwise disinterested person the choice of an art form to learn, there are so many more arts that offer the real possibility of modest but meaningful reward that it’s hard to picture that student selecting writing as the one to learn and practice. And thus my heart breaks a little bit to think of all those adolescent authors putting hours and hours into their NaNoWriMo manuscript, with no outlet for it other than a loving parent here and a generous teacher there.

But maybe I’m wrong. Outside of perhaps a handful of metropolitan environments, I do seriously doubt that local venues for nurturing local would-be novelists will ever be very significant (other than as quid pro quo workshops and writers’ groups — I’ll read your book if you read mine). However, the internet has given us a new version of the “local” scale. You may not be able to sell your novel out of the back of your car at a real world fleamarket (although some people do, or so I’ve heard), but you can post it for free or cheaply to any number of online publishing markets now. I know that fan fiction communities have been vibrant and supportive (and populated with ordinary readers, not just writers willing to read each other) for a couple of decades now. Perhaps other, less genre-bound online writing communities are just as engaged (though I haven’t encountered many).

So I turn the question(s) over to you: Who is your writing for? What venues do you have for your work besides the traditional, national markets? Is there a future in “local” writing, and what does “local” even mean in a digital world?

———

Two addenda:

1.) I wonder if the internet doesn’t foster a somewhat false sense of limitless audience. It’s easy to go to some amateur musician’s YouTube video and see all the comments on his or her song (even if a fair number of those comments are less than kind), and thus it’s easy to imagine that if you put anything up on YouTube, you’ll get an audience (even if it’s an audience mostly of hecklers). But of course most of the videos we tend to see on YouTube are the ones that already have an audience of some kind. Someone’s linking to them or they’re being bumped up in the search rankings through other sorts of viewership. We tend to see the stuff that’s being seen, naturally. But there are plenty of videos going unwatched on YouTube, plenty of stories going unread on blogs and fictions forums, plenty of e-books going unsold. The idea of massive internet audiences is largely the product of confirmation bias.

2.) I was going to add a question at the end along the lines of “Would you be more likely to send your child off to music lessons or…” and then realized that “writing lessons” doesn’t really work, because there really isn’t such a thing. There are writing camps and kid’s writers’ groups, and maybe those are roughly comparable to the idea of taking lessons on an instrument. But the idea that we don’t really have any well-established or customary institutions for engaging kids with writing in the same way that we have for music or drama or the visual arts probably says something significant about our culture’s attitude towards writing and what it is (and isn’t) good for. Creative writing is either schoolwork or entirely self-directed. I think few kids experience writing (relative to other arts forms) in other ways. But, as above, I’m happy to be proven wrong on this perception.


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