War on #amwriting
God died over one hundred and thirty years ago, longer even than your mother’s been around. It’s natural that you should turn to #amwriting to give your life meaning. It’s more healthy than becoming an alcoholic. Like your mother did.
Writing is like asthma. It used to be cool to be prescribed a blue inhaler and get excused cross-country running. Now, the only exceptional kids are those with fully operational lungs.
I realised the full extent of my hatred for unpublished novelists during an evening of drinking craft beer with a friend. It’s something I like to do, drinking beer, often also tweeting #amdrinking to let my thousands of Twitter followers know that I’m drinking beer because that’s how Twitter works. We wore plaid shirts and talked about craft beer, craft coffee and vinyl. And, after I’d returned from the toilet, he revealed that he wanted to quit being a lumberjack (or whatever it is that he does – facetiming Japanese businessmen) to write a novel. It would be a novel easily translated to cinema, he said. It would be a novel about his boyhood and the middle-class struggles he faced. We’ve all got one in us, he said, meaning a novel. Graham Greene wrote the screenplay for The Third Man, he said, apart from the bit about Switzerland and cuckoo-clocks. That was Orson Welles.
I knew all this. And I told him so. But what I didn’t tell him was that there’s lots of stuff we all have in us, a spleen for example, but decide not to share. I didn’t say that. I only said that his book sounded ‘neat’.
This casual plan for a future novel-writing is indicative of the literary world’s failing health. We must wake to this imminent danger. Soon, more people will write fiction than read it. Much like my parents’ inevitable adoption of Facebook, I dread the day Dad announces he’s writing a novel set in an alternative reality where the Nazis won after all. I’d rather bring up my son in the Third Reich than a world in which nobody reads fiction but everybody writes it*.
The internet has mutated reasonable people into wannabe writers. Starting a novel is the middle-class equivalent of getting a fake tan and manicure, sure that you’re only an audition away from pop chart success. I blame JK Rowling, rich beyond our wildest dreams, her origin myth reliant on the image of a knackered Dell laptop in an Edinburgh cafe. It’s like the X Men but if the X Men had convinced themselves of their mutant powers through overuse of the #amxmen hashtag, rather than concrete proof of superhuman ability. We are blind to the harsh truth-light-radiating facts such as ‘half of self-published authors earn less than $500’, facts written about in newspapers by professional writers.
NaNoWriMo’s got a lot to answer for. In 2012, the website says, ‘341,375 participants started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.’ That figure is coming up to 10% of total local election votes cast in the UK’s 2012 local elections. That’s a political party of novelists, if you concede that writing a novel makes you a novelist.
‘What do want? Publication! When do we want it? Now! (It doesn’t matter if it’s only an e-version, we’re sure big publishing houses will pick it up when it’s sold a few thousand virtual copies!)’
NaNoWriMo must be the worst thing that’s happened to literary agents since alcoholic lunches fell out of fashion. I almost pity the bespectacled bastards, receiving thousands upon thousands of unedited manuscripts, their December inboxes overflowing like knackered toilets, the only merit to the majority of these ‘novels’ being that they were completed quite quickly. Yeah, I like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but I would have liked it more, Michelangelo, if you’d managed to get it finished in a week. Hunger-Games-t-shirt-wearing members of local writers groups will retort that the joy is in the writing, and that’s fair enough, I suppose, if part of the contest conditions were: a) not being allowed to tell anyone you were taking part in NaNoWriMo and b) having to promise to delete the manuscript at the month’s conclusion/when you can’t be bothered to write anymore.
(The opportunity to boast is one of the prime motivations of modern behaviour. Nobody would ever participate in a marathon if they weren’t allowed to tell everyone that they were.)
I’ve been trying to be a novelist for ten years. You may have guessed this. How many more years, marked by each subsequent NaNoWriMo in which I don’t take part, will I require to admit failure? Yet on every tedious click of those desperate book plugs on Twitter, I read the ‘free’ first chapter and it’s staggeringly awful and I understand an increment further that a prime state of mind in the #amwriting community is delusion. And I delay abandoning my own dream. As long as you believe in your talent, regardless of evidence, the whole world will soon surely follow. And if they don’t, it doesn’t matter, because it’s YOUR opinion that’s cardinal. And your mother really did like that story about the dog that dreamt it was a cat, written back when you were in school and you MUST have improved since then.
#amwriting is constantly trending on Twitter and 75% of Twitter accounts use the word ‘writer’ in their profile bio. FACT. It doesn’t matter if you’re unpublished. The act of putting finger to keyboard is qualification enough. Writing ‘#amwriting’ is qualification enough. I blame Marshall McLuhan. A friend of a friend once introduced himself as a journalist. He wrote for a self-published blog. I pre-emptively unfriended him and cried a torrent of tears for the modern world. Being skilful, rather than a braggart, once held value.
Part of the problem is that the fantasy genre is becoming mainstream. Unpublished writers often write fantasy. Over seven million ‘normal’ people watched the last episode of Game of Thrones, for fuck’s sake. Defenders call the genre ‘escapist’ to excuse its witlessness. Defenders bang on about ‘world building’. My fantasy is to build a world in which fantasy doesn’t exist. You know the fat middle-aged men with extravagant facial hair and weird dice and cards with pictures of unicorns on them? That’s fantasy. That’s you. Like slaughtering cows or black magic, if the thing has to happen, I’d rather it took place silently, without drawing attention to itself. What ever happened to clandestine meetings in your basements? Why must everything take place in Starbucks, pimped through Facebook and Twitter? Dignity, as traditional publishing, as God, is dead. #amsacrificingvirgin
And sci-fi isn’t much better. There’s a subgenre called ‘space opera’. Its main characteristic is to emphasise the tedium and unintelligibility of the mother genre.
It used to be cool to be an unpublished writer. It used to be sexy. The witty, intelligent bookish type, bothering his/her imagination at unreasonable hours, taking Mexican amphetamines to keep the muse awake. You had to buy a typewriter. A specialist tool. It didn’t come free with your TV or phone. Word processing was something only your mind could do. You were obliged to save money earned from blow jobs/washing dishes to buy a device designed specifically for writing. Imagine that. More importantly, the unpublished writer was unappreciated in his/her lifetime. John Kennedy Toole – there’s an unpublished writer, with the suicide to go with it.
But times have changed and the unpublished writer is now a middle-aged office temp writing dinosaur erotica. That’s not sexy. Being unappreciated in one’s lifetime is an anathema to the modern unpublished writer. That’s why the modern writer spends more time thumbing out the hashtag #amwriting than working on their zombie/erotica crossover that will be shortly sent to Quirk, just as soon as their beta readers (work colleague/mother) email feedback. And it’s been 12 weeks now, already, but Ma’s eyesight isn’t what it was, bless her.
Wannabe writers are like French-exchange photographers. Their ‘art’ is a way of fabricating meaning in an otherwise meaningless life, now that all the churches are closed. Apple’s advertising department encourages it, attractive kids taking iPhone pictures of attractive kids to the sounds of 1990s indie-rock. But if I take iPhone pictures of attractive kids, I’m a pervert, supposedly.
‘I may die childless and in great agony but on an eternal cloud drive somewhere, the Kindle 99c edition of my Nordic crime meets Harry Potter will live on,’ unpublished novelists tell themselves during insomniac Sunday nights.
So what’s the solution?
Thinking back to NaNoWriMo’s flawed conceit that merely writing a novel makes you a novelist, I offer the following suggestion, especially to those whose parents paid for their MFA:
Don’t call yourself a novelist unless you’re paid to write novels. You take your clothes off every day but you don’t introduce yourself to strangers as a stripper, right?
Same difference, William Fuckner. And don’t bother sending your NaNoWriMo novel to agents. Dystopian fiction is so passé.
My unpublished novel is currently on submission.
*a joke. It’s a marginal call.