31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 17: “The Moving Finger” by Stephen King

May 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Nightmares & Dreamscapes

Nightmares_and_Dreamscapes_Stephen_KingIn the introduction to his 1985 story collection Skeleton Crew, Stephen King compares the novel to “a long and satisfying affair,” while the short story is like “a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” The critic Kathleen Margaret Lant has penned some interesting commentary on the sexualized nature of King’s posture as literary seducer here, although it is probably possible to push this line of inquiry too far – after all, what author of fiction does not attempt to seduce his (or her) readers in one way or another? What is more interesting about King’s comment is its emphasis on danger and surprise: stories do not contain the same built-in safety mechanisms as novels, which, no matter how difficult or esoteric, cannot help but become familiar over the course of several hundred pages. In their brevity and tight focus, stories have the power to blindside a reader.

Sometimes, a reader is blindsided by a story’s lack of resolution or explication; the close focus on a particular incident or thought or instant in time precludes the kind of panoramic field of vision that might supply tidy context or meaning. The writer Rebecca Rosenblum has suggested that short stories provide a glimpse of what happened in a given moment, but don’t offer the before or after, and, significantly, withhold the why. Or, as King writes in a note at the end of Nightmares & Dreamscapes, “My favorite sort of short story has always been the kind where things happen just because they happen.”

“The Moving Finger” is such a story. The central phenomenon – a human finger inexplicably extruding from the drain in the protagonist’s bathroom sink – is never explained in any rational way. The story’s central character, Howard Mitla, hears a strange scratching emanating from his bathroom one evening while he is watching Jeopardy and, upon investigating, discovers the rogue digit poking out of the basin drain:

For a moment it froze, as if aware it had been discovered. Then it began to move again, feeling its wormlike way around the pink porcelain. It reached the white rubber plug, felt its way over it, then descended to the porcelain again. The scratching noise hadn’t been made by the tiny claws of a mouse after all. It was the nail on the end of that finger, tapping the porcelain as it circled and circled.

Howard, “one of New York’s lesser known certified public accountants,” is an intelligent man – at least to the extent that he is able to best all the contestants on Jeopardy – but he is unable to comprehend the appearance of the malevolent finger in his bathroom, and is alternately comforted and aggravated by the fact that his wife does not also see the intruder. Howard initially believes he is hallucinating as a result of undiagnosed epilepsy or a brain tumour, but becomes increasingly unhinged as the finger from the drain appears to grow in size, poking over the rim of the basin and adding joints each time it manifests itself.

The accountant’s attempts to deal with the problem likewise become more and more outrageous, beginning with him refusing to enter the bathroom (he urinates in the alleyway outside his apartment and in his kitchen sink), and continuing through a frenzied trip to the local hardware store, where he purchases a bottle of industrial strength drain cleaner and a pair of electric garden shears.

King’s premise is patently absurd, but it is this very absurdity that paradoxically lends the story its energy. The bizarre situation builds in intensity until the climactic showdown between Howard and the finger, now grown to gargantuan proportions; this confrontation scene is presented as gleeful Grand Guignol, complete with flesh burnt by corrosive drain cleaner, vomit-covered hair, and fountains of blood.

In his notes at the back of the collection, King attempts to position this story as a kind of existential fable about horrible things happening to essentially decent people, though this may be gilding the lily; at its core the story is a brisk, sick, twisted vignette about an ordinary man attempting to deal with a patently ridiculous situation. (Freudians will have a field day with the phallic nature of the villain in this piece.) But it is this very ridiculousness that allows King to get away with his extravagances and exaggerations here. One of the pervasive elements in “The Moving Finger” is humour: something that crops up in a lot of King’s work, but is often not commented upon, except in a highly dismissive and perfunctory manner. The absurdity of the situation is precisely the point here: the reader accepts the premise as a given in the context of the story, even as Howard is literally driven insane by the unwanted presence in his pissoir.

Freedom to Read Week 2011

February 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

In 1995, the school board in Lanark County, Ontario, denied approval of Stephen King’s collection of four novellas, Different Seasons, on the basis of the book’s sexual content and language. The book had been recommended by teachers for use with senior students at Carleton Place High School. One of the board members who was involved in making the decision admitted not having read the book. In Stephen King from A to Z: An Encyclopedia of His Life and Work, George W. Beahm quotes the author’s response to the suppression of his book by the Lanark County School Board: “I know the attitude and the mindset. These people love to be despots in their own little territory … Book banning is never about what’s pornographic or what’s not. It’s always about who’s got the power to … try and impose their view of the way the world should be on the minds of the young ones in their charge.”

***

From “Apt Pupil” by Stephen King:

“Do you suppose, I ask myself, that the very atrocities in which Dussander took part formed the basis of some attraction between them? That’s an unholy idea, I tell myself. The things that happened in those camps still have power enough to make the stomach flutter with nausea. I feel that way myself, although the only close relative I ever had in the camps was my grandfather, and he died when I was three. But maybe there is something about what the Germans did that exercises a deadly fascination over us – something that opens the catacombs of the imagination. Maybe part of our dread and horror comes from a secret knowledge that under the right – or wrong – set of circumstances, we ourselves would be willing to build such places and staff them. Black serendipity. Maybe we know that under the right set of circumstances the things that live in the catacombs would be glad to crawl out. And what do you think they would look like? Like mad Fuehrers with forelocks and shoe-polish moustaches, heil-ing all over the place? Like red devils, or demons, or the dragon that floats on its stinking reptile wings?”

“I don’t know,” Richler said.

“I think most of them would look like ordinary accountants,” Weiskopf said. “Little mind-men with graphs and flow-charts and electronic calculators, all ready to start maximizing the kill ratios so that next time they could perhaps kill twenty or thirty million instead of only six. And some of them might look like Todd Bowden.”

“You’re damn near as creepy as he is,” Richler said.

Weiskopf nodded. “It’s a creepy subject. Finding those dead men and animals in Dussander’s cellar … that was creepy, nu? Have you ever thought that maybe this boy began with a simple interest in the camps? An interest not much different from the interests of boys who collect coins or stamps or who like to read about Wild West desperados? And that he went to Dussander to get his information straight from the horse’s head?”

“Mouth,” Richler said automatically. “Man, at this point I could believe anything.”

“Maybe,” Weiskopf muttered. It was almost lost in the roar of another ten-wheeler passing them. BUDWEISER was printed on the side in letters six feet tall. What an amazing country, Weiskopf thought, and lit a fresh cigarette. They don’t understand how we can live surrounded by half-mad Arabs, but if I lived here for two years I would have a nervous breakdown. “Maybe. And maybe it isn’t possible to stand close to murder piled on murder and not be touched by it.”

Who knows what (and how and where) you’re reading?

December 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Back in July 2009, readers found that digital editions of two books they’d purchased from Amazon – George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farmhad mysteriously vanished from their Kindle e-readers. Although it turned out that Amazon removed the books (and credited the affected accounts) because the editions were unauthorized, this episode stands as a cautionary tale about the power e-book retailers have over e-book readers.

That power could be about to expand exponentially. Today, NPR published an article outlining the data that various manufacturers of e-reading devices collect about their users. If the irony of having Orwell’s books erased from Kindle readers is thick, imagine what the author would think of the following:

  • According to Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Amazon can track how fast a person reads by the number of page clicks, and can tell where the reader stopped reading.
  • Bestselling author and president of the Authors Guild Scott Turow says of Amazon’s Kindle: “They could tell you with precision the age, the zip codes, gender, and other interests of the people who bought my books.”
  • Google stores pages from books a reader purchases through its eBooks store to keep track of where the buyer finished reading, but also for “security monitoring” and to police “abusive sharing” of titles.
  • Apple’s iBookstore sends “functional data” back to the company so that Apple can better “understand customers and customer behavior.”
  • Kindles and iPads are equipped with GPS software that allows their manufacturers to track not just what you’re reading, but where you’re reading it.

If all of this Big Brotherish activity strikes a cold note of fear in your heart, you’re not alone. Author Stephen King, who knows something about fear, told NPR, “Ultimately, this sort of thing scares the hell out of me.” And it should. The more society hands over its privacy and information to the digital machine – which increasingly means big corporations trying to sell people stuff – the closer we edge toward a precipice beyond which everything we do is monitored, crosschecked, analyzed, and monetized. Orwell feared that Big Brother would take the form of a totalitarian government; the truth is it may take the form of rapacious corporations collecting minute amounts of data on us to better understand how to enrich themselves at our expense.

Of course, it’s foolish to blame corporations and product manufacturers alone for the current state of affairs. The public at large seems all too eager to allow anyone and everyone access to every corner of their lives. Social media like Facebook and Twitter, and geolocation sites like Foursquare, provide constant updates about a person’s whereabouts, activities, and interests.

This has not gone unnoticed by the folks at Kobo, who are in the process of rolling out a Facebook-linked app called Reading Life, which will allow users to post reading lists to their Facebook pages, along with favourite passages, comments, and reading histories. What caught my eye, though, was a paragraph in Quill & Quire‘s report on the Kobo initiative:

The app isn’t just about cultural sharing, however – it also provides Kobo and other companies with new marketing opportunities. [Michael Serbinis, CEO of Kobo] gave this example: Kobo will be able, via the app, to detect if a particular user reads frequently at Starbucks. If that reader logs a certain number of reading hours at Starbucks, they could be offered a coupon on their next latte. If Kobo users don’t want Facebook to know what they’re reading or where they’re reading it, the app can be temporarily deactivated.

Kobo is quick to point out that Reading Life is an opt-in service – in other words, users have to consciously turn it on for it to work. This would likely be small comfort to the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, or to the novelist Auldous Huxley, who, in Brave New World, predicted that humans would be all too willing to assist the forces desiring to subjugate them. The uncritical enthusiasm with which users have embraced Facebook, Foursquare, and other social media indicates that Huxley was right. Who can blame Kobo, Apple, and Amazon for wanting to profit off such consumer indifference? The problem is that by the time we realize we’ve relinquished our lives to the machine, it will be too late.

Consider this: in the movie Seven, detectives Somerset and Mills track down the serial killer John Doe by accessing his library records. In that movie, what the detectives do is clearly meant to appear unethical and underhanded. In today’s wireless world, it’s just business as usual.

“I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs, or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me”

February 5, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Courtesy of Life: a picture gallery of famous literary drunks and drug addicts. How come it doesn’t surprise me that Ayn Rand was a speed freak?

P.S. Three guesses who was responsible for the quote in this post’s title. (And, no: it wasn’t me.)

The problem of sustained reading in a distracted society

February 3, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

This past weekend, yr. humble correspondent finished reading Under the Dome by Stephen King. The endeavour took approximately 30 days to complete. While a novel of 1,072 pages is by no means a minor undertaking, 30 days to read a single book seems – to an inveterate reader such as myself – excessive. True, I completed two other, shorter books for review in the interim, but for the most part, my reading time in the month of January was devoted to a single book.

One reason for this is that I read the book in snippets – short gulps here and there whenever I could fit them in – rather than setting aside blocks of time to read, say, 100 pages or so. True, I have a day job that cuts into my reading time, and it’s clearly important to maintain a life outside the confines of a book’s covers, lest one become a kind of anti-social hermit. Still, it’s not as though my life is so back-breakingly full that I couldn’t find a quiet hour or two for sustained reading each day. Indeed, if I were to add up all the time spent staring at various screens in the month of January, the total would probably have been sufficient to allow me to finish a book of 1,000+ pages in 10 days or so.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember a time, not so long ago, when blocks of several hours per day could easily be found to read for pleasure. What has changed? In a word: distraction. The Internet, social media, reality television, and 24-hour-a-day celebrity culture have increased easy access to all manner of distraction, and distraction is anathema to sustained reading. Reading requires concentration and active engagement, qualities that are in short supply in today’s hyperlinked, attention-deficit society.

Alan Bissett, writing on the Guardian‘s Books Blog (yes, I recognize the irony), makes the same point, and extends it to include a value judgment:

So besieged are we by the entertainment industry that we are being stimulated only in certain directions. The sound of fizz is everywhere. Sustained concentration on the printed word, whether in-depth argument or fictional narrative, creates a particular cerebral event which visual-dependent media cannot. The assault upon this has meant the very theft of our thinking space.

This argument has been made before, notably in a 2008 article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. Carr points out that although we are engaging with the written word more than ever before, the way we are doing so is changing:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking – perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

This is no small matter. Skimming an online news article for tidbits of information or the next interesting hyperlink on which to click does little to develop the kind of complex thinking skills that are necessary to engage in a sustained analysis or argument, nor does it allow for an acceptance of ambiguity or nuance.

Jakob Nielson, an influential figure in “web usability,” provides statistics to support this shift in the way people read online: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word by word.” All of which might be fine in an online environment, but the same kind of reading habits have begun to bleed into our offline lives. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t picked up the print edition of The Globe and Mail recently. If you had, you’d surely have noticed that the news articles are getting shorter, and are frequently displaced by verbal graphics, “charticles,” and bulleted lists. All perfect fodder for people who want their information provided to them quickly and cleanly, without requiring the reader to chew over intricate concepts or bedeviling subject matter.

Neil Postman was certainly ahead of his time when, in his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, he surveyed the media landscape and noticed the deleterious effect that television was having on our political culture. It was a brilliant time-waster, to be sure, but Postman also realized that the ubiquitous home entertainment device was destroying rational argument and civic awareness. In his foreword, he juxtaposes the visions of two authors, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Huxley – who, while nailing our “almost infinite appetite for distractions,” could hardly have foreseen American Idol, Twitter, or Perez Hilton – was also far ahead of his time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read a book.

Literary algebra: The commercial + the literary = the not-quite

December 16, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Ever since commercial fiction has outsold its literary counterpart (which, for those who are unsure, means always), people have argued about what exactly constitutes “literary” fiction. How esoteric/highbrow/impenetrable does a work of fiction have to be to qualify as a “literary” novel? My colleague and buddy Nathan Whitlock has charged into this minefield with characteristic abandon in a recent column for Maisonneuve magazine. Whitlock kicks off his argument by pointing to a review of Lori Lansens’ novel The Wife’s Tale, commissioned by yours truly for Quill & Quire (where Whitlock and yr. humble correspondent share a pod-like cubicle) and written by James Grainger.

Now, I consider Grainger to be one of the sharpest critics in this country, but his review – which was generally positive – nevertheless roused the ire of Lansens’ agent, Denise Bukowski, who accused the reviewer of getting his facts wrong (the review erroneously stated that Oprah Winfrey had optioned the film rights to Lansens’ first novel, Rush Home Road)* and, more egregiously, of committing what Whitlock refers to as the “Sin of Distinction”: “after listing some of the authors who had been picked either for Oprah’s Book Club or … the U.K.’s Richard and Judy Book Club, Bukowski fought back against Grainger’s ‘patronizing’ notion that Lansens was working within chosen boundaries.” Whitlock summarizes the whole farrago this way:

This dust-up was a visible manifestation of a larger problem dogging Canadian publishing: the semi-utopian belief that literature is a garden that not only welcomes all comers (true enough), but contains no hedges or fences, is equally accessible from corner to corner, is blind to difference and immune to personal bias. Authors of all stripes mingle freely, and woe to him who suggests there are fundamental differences between what they write and for whom it’s intended.

The temptation to conflate various kinds of novels that are in fact distinct in execution and intended audience, Whitlock contends, should be avoided; critics need to “be more discerning” in “understanding (or perhaps admitting) that fiction comes in many forms” and they must be “unequivocal about what a given book is, and … catholic enough in their professional tastes to fairly assess diverse authorial intentions.” By describing the commercial aspects of Lansens’ novel, Grainger was simply performing one aspect of the critic’s job: situating the work within a particular category or tradition. Where Bukowski erred was in assuming that this implied any kind of value judgment.

Whitlock puts his finger on the reason a certain kind of middlebrow novel holds sway over CanLit these days: the dominant trend favours a kind of hybrid novel – what he refers to as the “Not-Quite Novel” – the literary equivalent of Dr. Moreau’s man-beasts: books that are “too thorny and/or sober to entertain, yet too conventional and broad to last.” The result of this artificial generic enjambment is novels like The Book of Negroes: ambitious tales about weighty subjects told in a manner that is straightforward and unchallenging. By refusing to completely embrace one aspect or the other – the commercial or the literary – the novel ends up doing justice to neither.

If I have any difficulty with Whitlock’s argument, it would reside in my feeling that he goes too far in pursuing an overly rigid dichotomy between “commercial” novels – those “big-plot, lots-o’-story books” – and “literary” ones (by which I take it he means difficult, more stylistically adventurous books that eschew story in favour of character development and syntactical pyrotechnics). The implication seems to be that “thorny and/or sober” books can’t entertain, while “conventional and broad” books don’t endure. What, then, is one to do with Dickens (who has been called the Shakespeare of the novel), whose writing was enormously commercial in the author’s own day, yet endures down to the present? (Whitlock covers himself here, referring at one point to “the strange things that time and distance can do to artistic categories,” but this admission seems to take a bit of the sting out of his argument.) How does one account for a book like Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, an Oprah pick that is unequivocally a “big-plot, lots-o’-story” novel, but seems to have a certain amount of staying power (first released in 1996, this month it was selected as one of the five contenders for the 2010 edition of Canada Reads)? And since Whitlock himself brings up Steven Galloway, how are we to categorize that author’s 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo? It’s a story-driven book, but it also has frankly “literary” properties: a weighty subject (the Siege of Sarajevo), well-drawn characters, and evident attention to the prose on a line-by-line basis. (Whitlock might characterize this as a hybrid, or a Not-Quite Novel, but I consider it to be generally better than that.)

Recent years have seen a retreat from the kind of obscurantist anti-novel that began in the Modernist era and found its apogee in the French nouveau roman as practiced by authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet. In its stead, we are witnessing a resurgence – and newfound critical acceptance – of novels that privilege story over technical experiment – witness the critical accolades being heaped upon Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome. King is a self-admitted commercial writer, and it’s unlikely the broad spectrum of his readers would be entertained by, say, the prolix digressions and postmodern approach of David Foster Wallace (despite the fact that, to a certain sensibility, Wallace is giddily entertaining). This, of course, is Whitlock’s point: different writers employ different styles and appeal to different audiences. But I wonder whether the broad categories he sets out may in fact be somewhat more permeable than he seems to suggest they are.

*It was Whoopi Goldberg. What idiot was in charge of fact checking that? … Oh. My bad.

Just say NaNo?

November 1, 2009 by · 11 Comments 

Today is November 1, which marks the first day of the annual writing marathon known as NaNoWriMo. For those of us who despise cutesy acronyms, this must serve as some sort of reductio ad absurdum, standing as it does for National Novel Writing Month and not, as one might be forgiven for assuming, Nah, No Write More. The project, which is based in America and is now in its 11th year, is kind of the marathon version of Canada’s annual Labour Day weekend sprint, the 3-Day Novel Contest.

NaNoWriMo was inaugurated in 1999, when a group of 21 friends banded together during the month of July to see how many of them could write a novel over the course of 31 days. Their rationale was simple. They wanted to be novelists so that they could get laid:

[O]ur July noveling binge had little to do with any ambitions we might have harbored on the literary front. Nor did it reflect any hopes we had about tapping more fully into our creative selves. No, we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.

What they discovered was that turning the practice of novel writing into a kind of month-long block party made the entire process enjoyable in a way that “would have rightly horrified professional writers.” In the words of NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty:

We had taken the cloistered, agonized novel-writing process and transformed it into something that was half literary marathon and half block party.

We called it noveling. And after the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed. If my friends and I could write passable novels in a month, I knew, anyone could do it.

Ignore (for the moment) the way in which “noveling” has been reduced to the literary equivalent of knitting, or the unbridled ambition involved in wanting to write “passable” novels. It appears that Baty’s sense of possibility was not misplaced: in the decade following that summer’s literary block party, NaNoWriMo has grown exponentially: last year, over 119,000 people participated, according to the website for The Office of Letters and Light, the non-profit organization set up to run NaNoWriMo, among other endeavours. NaNoWriMo corporate sponsors include Amazon, Scrivener, FW Media, and literally dozens of individual sponsors who have donated sums of money anywhere from $10 to $2,500. Donations to NaNoWriMo underwrite the annual writing marathon, but more importantly, they fund the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, which is specifically targeted at classrooms, offering lesson plans and forums for teachers and opportunities for students to participate in deadline-driven events (tied to NaNoWriMo) meant to encourage the students’ enthusiasm for writing.

Which sounds like an undeniably noble endeavour, so it is perhaps churlish of me to complain that the whole premise behind the project (in both its adult and youth forms) is based on an erroneous perception of how novels are written, and why. According to the NaNoWriPo website, the goal of the project is to write 50,000 words of fiction between November 1 and midnight on November 30, then upload this to the NaNoWriPo site for verification, at which point successful participants will be declared winners of that year’s challenge.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. 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.

All of which, again, sounds good in a kind of self-help, writer’s craft way; writers are encouraged to write without paying heed to the nasty editor in their heads, the one that tells them to refine, delete, excise, rework. The vocabulary of the NaNoWriMo site testifies to the way in which it has bought in to the tyranny of diminished expectations where writing is concerned. Instead of deliberation and focus, writers are encouraged to let loose and be free, and pay no heed to trifling matters such as talent or technique. Writers are encouraged to be great warriors who contact first thoughts and write from them. (In case you think I’m making that up, you are advised to consult a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, a heartfelt, new-agey text that could easily have served as the inspiration for NaNoWriMo.)

But this is not the way novels get written. One is reminded of Paul Sheldon, dreadfully injured in a car crash and trapped in a small cabin’s bedroom, frantically churning out the latest installment of his Misery Chastain series at the behest of his “number one fan.” But as Paul points out, novelists don’t work to artificially imposed deadlines (although their in-house editors would likely have apoplexy to hear that uttered out loud), and they don’t write to order. Novels – at least the ones that endure – take time, commitment, and patience, all things that are in short supply in today’s jacked-up, Internet-driven society, and all things that are antithetical to the very idea of NaNoWriMo. On one level, the only difference between Paul Sheldon and the participants in NaNoWriMo is that the latter don’t have a crazed Annie Wilkes standing over them with an axe and a blowtorch.

Additionally, NaNoWriMo entrenches the invidious notion that writing is less a craft to be learned than a hobby to be practiced on weekends and in snatches of spare time:

In 2008, we had over 120,000 participants. More than 20,000 of them crossed the 50k finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.

The NaNoWriMo website offers the promise of recognition and sense of accomplishment, but says nothing about how this devalues the work of countless underpaid, underappreciated professional writers who have spent the better part of their lives honing their craft. Instead, it buys into the cult of celebrity that is inescapable in what passes for North American culture these days.

Perhaps I’m taking all of this way too seriously. It’s clear from reading the NaNoWriMo website that the organizers have no illusions about turning out works to rival Tolstoy or Dickens. Still, in a culture that increasingly marginalizes the important work that novelists do, I can’t help but feel a certain frisson surrounding this kind of literary challenge. NaNoWriMo supporters will line up to brand me an elitist, which has become one of the most damning insults conceivable in a society based around the “democracy” of the Internet. My response would be that novel writing is an inherently elitist activity. If it weren’t, everybody would be doing it.