Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Making Conversation

Laura Miller, book critic at Salon, wrote a post questioning the value of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWrMO).  Carolyn Kellog at the LA Times picks it apart so I won’t bother.  There’s a lot that’s wrong with it. 

And, as a writer I know put it, the piece was “mean spirited”. 

Yes, it was. 

But here’s my dirty little secret.  I liked that she said things that were mean spirited. Because thinking about aspiring writers makes me say things that are mean spirited too. 

No, that’s a lie. I don’t say mean spirited things.

I think them. 

And then I think, “gosh that was mean spirited, you can’t SAY that.”

You want examples?

I’m thinking, my GOD you are so BORING!

See?  Mean spirited. 

People say lawyers are boring but they should spend time around  writers.  Case citations can’t possibly be more boring than word counts.  Yes, word counts.  Oy.  

Of course I’m kidding.  Not all writers are boring.  Just the ones I know. 

KIDDING!  Really.

They aren’t all boring.  But they are far more boring than the writers I knew years ago. Yes, the quality of writerly conversation has deteriorated.

I used to work with mystery writer Michael Kahn who was quite entertaining.  The thing is, he never talked about writing.  He talked about other stuff.  Sometimes he talked about books – other people’s books.   He never talked about word counts.

And when I was in law school, Francis Nevins was one of my professors.  He also wrote mystery novels.  And he never talked about writing in class or out of class (at least when I was around).  He talked about other stuff.  He talked about trusts and estates law. He never talked about word counts.

And I worked across the hall from Richard Dooling when he was a young summer intern at a law firm where I was a paralegal.  He was hilarious.  I never dreamed he was an aspiring writer.  I just thought he was a funny, creative person.  Ok, let’s be honest.  I thought he was way too funny and creative to be a lawyer.  I was sure he’d be bored out of his mind!  Again, he never talked about writing. He talked about other stuff.  Sometimes he talked about books – other people’s books. He never talked about word counts.

Now, if you put all these men in a group their conversation might not be as fascinating as, say, what I imagine the Bloomsbury Group conversation was like. But it wouldn’t be boring.  You would come away thinking that they were engaged in the world around them, they were interested in the world at large and that they were reading the fiction being published by their contemporaries.

But over the last five years or so, as I encounter people who “write” I find them obsessed with discussing word counts.  And that doesn’t even count all the people I don’t really know but who I read on line who talk about it even more. Counting is not a problem for me, I just don’t want to hear about it. Do we think that Virginia Woolf sat around talking about page counts?  I hope not.

And the thing that has been bugging me for a few years is this … these aspiring writers really don’t talk about other people’s books. At least not around me.  Not most of them.  And when I ask what they are reading, I feel like I’m interviewing Sarah Palin. 

Ok, YES, not ALL of them.  But enough that I’ve noticed.  Enough that I’ve thought about it regularly.  Enough that it has really bugged me.

See, the thing is …

I’m convinced that many of them don’t read.

Really.

So when Laura Miller relates this story in the middle of her piece, I found myself nodding:

"People would come up to me at parties," author Ann Bauer recently told me, "and say, 'I've been thinking of writing a book. Tell me what you think of this ...' And I'd (eventually) divert the conversation by asking what they read ... Now, the 'What do you read?' question is inevitably answered, 'Oh, I don't have time to read. I'm just concentrating on my writing.'"

Carolyn Kellog rips this by asking: “Where on earth does Miller get the idea that the writers participating in NaNoWriMo don't read books? She cites one dinner party anecdote, one Atlantic article referencing an unnamed independent publisher.”  

Good point.

But I’m with Miller on this one.  I have nothing but anecdote either but when you are bored out of your mind by people who claim to be fiction writers, you just know that something is wrong.

Kellog writes:

At NaNoWriMo, I checked out the Fictional Character Crushes II forum. Among those setting the writers' hearts a-beating: Sherlock Holmes, both Jay Gatsby and Nick from "The Great Gatsby," Mr. Darcy, Aragorn from "Lord of the Rings," Anne from "Anne of Green Gables," the Cat from the Neil Gaiman short story "The Price," Algernon Moncrieff from Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," Alcide from the Southern Vampire Mysteries, Edmond Dantès from "The Count of Monte Cristo" and Archie Goodwin from the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout. There are also plenty of crushes on TV and film and anime characters, which just goes to show that these hopeful writers are readers as well as watchers. They are contemporary cultural consumers, and in NaNoWriMo, they're trying to create something.

um.  Does anyone else notice that most of these characters are from books these people should have read in high school?  What are they reading TODAY?  Neil Gaiman obviously.  But who else?  Any LIVE authors they are reading?  Are they discussing the work of their contemporaries?

Look,  I like Jane Austin’s Mr. Darcy as much as the next person and, yes, I’d gladly welcome a discussion of him.  But did they actually read the book recently?  Or did they read it in high school/college and just recently see the movie?  Because in my book that doesn’t count.

See?  Mean spirited.

Look, I don’t give a shit if people want to sit around all month writing.  I’m not against this writing month thingy, not at all. 

But I’m sticking with Laura Miller on the idea that writers need to read more. They need to be engaged in what is going on in the world.  They need to know what their contemporaries are writing about and they need to be EXCITED by someone’s writing that isn’t their own.

It might not make them better writers.  But it would certainly make them less boring at parties. 

And if they promise to never bring up word counts I promise not to talk to them about statutes of limitations.