Friday, November 18, 2005

Burn your novel

November's National Novel Writing Month has always intrigued me, from a distance. A novel in thirty days. Well, 50,000 words. How appealing! You become an equal of Anthony Burgess before his breakfast, of William T. Vollmann clearing his throat, of Joyce Carol Oates on Mogodon. Of course quality is not the issue with NaNoWriMo. That's the difference. Just get it written. That’s all. 50,000 words.

But it can never be that simple. Quality is always the only game in town. One might as well copy & paste from random documents until the magical word count is achieved. So how does one judge? Isn't it just a waste of time?

This week I have been reading Reiner Stach’s thrilling new biography Kafka: the Decisive Years. He begins two years before Kafka’s famous breakthrough work began on September 22nd 1912. It took him eight hours through the night to write The Judgment.

Stach makes it clear, however, that before this ecstatic night, Kafka had consigned many hundreds of pages to the family stove. His high standards could not have stood otherwise. Apparently he also spent hours lounging on the sofa, doing nothing. There seems to have been a lot of wasted time and effort in Kafka’s short life. The image of pages covered in his spidery handwriting disappearing into the glowing mouth of the stove has stuck in my mind. Maybe it was a good thing.

I'm thinking of what Emerson says in his essay Experience: We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us.

The inverse is also true. Perhaps December 1st could become worldwide Burn Your Manuscript Day. Imagine what might emerge.

In Kafka’s diary entry for September 23rd, he looked back to the previous night: The conviction verified that with my novel-writing I am in the shameful lowlands of writing. Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.

Later, he burned another story.


  1. Anonymous7:38 pm

    High standards? What do you mean by "high standards"?

  2. Anonymous1:56 am

    I am asking, what do you mean by "his high standards"? Do you really think Kafka had high standards; somehow that seems absurd to me, since he was uniquely original. Originality has no standards, because it can't be compared to anything-- even that its own author can find. I know this sounds like a quibble, but it isn't. It points to a common fallacy of critics: assuming that the subjects of their criticism are operating with anything like the same principles, or standards, as them. We don't know why Kafka burned what he did, and never will. We do know he was gifted with the ability to doubt everything he did. But I do agree with the general point of your post; it just struck me as funny to think of Kafka cooly measuring himself against ANY known standard.

  3. Well you've kind of answered your own question. He judged his work by his high standards rather than 'ANY known standard'.

    Still, it's quite clear that Kafka had favourite authors and used them in some way, just as we all use our own favourite authors in some way.

    Anyway, the biographer says high standards is the reason for him burning so much. I happen to think that's the most plausible explanation. Would he have burned so much if he was happy with what he'd written?

    You're right that it's a fallacy of criticism to assume a subject operates within the same principles or standards. But I don't know which particular critics you mean - I can't know, and perhaps never will - but Occam's razor is a necessary tool of the reader.

  4. I have to say I'm not crazy about Emerson's remarks about grief BTW. Says it made little impact on him, that it was 'shallow'. I'd be guessing it might not have been the emotion that was at fault there. Thanks for the link.

  5. I think you're unfair on Emerson there Genevieve. He says he cannot get his son's death nearer to him, which grieves him; this is his grief. It is shallow because it isn't enough - and isn't this why we grieve, in order to experience something commensurable with the non-experience of irreversible absence?

    The essay is a subtle repost to the Cult of Experience, I think; the romantic notion of unmediated contact or engagement.

  6. Anonymous6:42 am

    I certainly don't think of experience of that sort as cultish in any way, nor am I terribly happy with your definition of grief - in my experience it is anything but 'ordered', think rather 'demoralisingly undermining and overwhelming' - but I'll give Emerson another go.

  7. Fine sentiments. Nanowrimo is worthwhile as exercise, as training, as process. But the actual physical burning is important, too. Just pressing delete is not enough. Word count is less rewarding than physical pages stacked up by the typewriter, or printer. Write your 50,000 words, print them out, fees them into the stove. I can't guarantee you will have produced a novel of any value whatsoever, but it's highly likely you will improve as a writer. You will raise your own standards. And what could be a greater achievement than that?

  8. Anonymous3:12 pm

    Stach's biography is so very good. Easily one of the best I've read in quite some time.



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