The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing

The Caxton Celebration

I’ve known about this joke for nearly as long as I’ve worked in book publishing. It goes like this: “More than 80% of people say they have a book inside them. And that’s exactly where it should stay.”

While speaking and tweeting at the International Digital Publishing Forum at BEA this week, I had the opportunity to hear Jane McGonigal speak. (She’s well-known for this TED talk.) She shared this statistic:

More than 90% of young people in the United States say they want to write a book someday.

I tweeted the stat, and while there were some people who considered that inspiring, the more common response looked like this:

That’d be inspiring if more wanted to learn basic grammar and improve their reading skills.

But do they want to READ one?

Jane McGonigal saw the responses later and said:

oh my gosh your followers are very cynical about young people wanting to write books! Wow! (Reading their replies)

Unfortunately, every generation is quite the same in this regard, which is nicely expressed in the following 1900s quotation: “The world is coming to an end. Children no longer obey their parents and every man wants to write a book.” (A Twitter response reminded me of it.) This type of complaint dates back to when the printing press was invented, when many warned that the bad books outnumbered the good.

McGonigal’s talk was meant to inspire publishers to think more imaginatively about how to engage young people in reading—by making the experience match the positive emotions that come from gaming (such as creativity, curiosity, awe and wonder, excitement, surprise, and joy, among others). She emphasized that younger people aren’t interested in passive consumption—they want to engage, respond, create. And this message fits what you’ll hear if you talk to the folks at Wattpad, where 40 million people (predominantly young adults) go to read and write.

I’ve had more than one conversation with adult writers who just don’t understand why anyone would take Wattpad seriously.

But it’s a mistake not to take it seriously. (If you’ve never heard of Wattpad, I encourage you to watch this video to begin to understand it.) It’s where young people are learning to write, in front of a “live” audience if you will, and going on to publish with traditional houses.

Why do we feel the need to place value judgments on how young people read or write? Dare I ask why we believe someone must become a serious reader before it’s okay for them to begin creating/writing? How much reading should be required before you get the green light to write? Doesn’t writing make you a better reader? (I must say at this point that I have never formally studied these issues; if there are educators who can comment intelligently on this, please do.)

What I observe in the reaction:

  1. There’s an overabundance of books and it’s just as upsetting now as it was in the 1400s. With digital publishing tools, even if you can’t get a publisher, the manuscript doesn’t have to collect dust under the bed. You can publish it. And as Clay Shirky has said, the question today isn’t “Why publish this?” It’s “Why not?”
  2. We think young people are not as smart, hard working, or [fill in the blank]. Every generation thinks the one after it is somehow deficient. Today’s young people are especially under this burden, as they’re constantly referred to or identified by the fact they grew up with the Internet, or digital devices, which tend to take the blame for the many evils in the world. We’re all fretting about whether or not we’re slowing down enough to read a book—even though we’re likely reading more than ever, just in different formats and mediums.

We are potentially entering a new era—what has been called the Era of Universal Authorship  (see graph below). And one of the tweeted responses did in fact acknowledge this subtext: “That [statistic] is a bit depressing. Not just the competition. That takes away from the notion of writer as identity.”

Exactly. If everyone is a writer, then what makes any particular writer special?

Era of Universal Authorship

That’s a pretty damn scary thought for the “serious” writers out there—who can also be the ones who cringe at the masses who wish to write or ridicule them for their attempts. If everyone is a writer, and no one is a reader, then who will read us? Who will care about our special snowflake work? Who will put us on a pedestal if everyone else is writing? And won’t the good work get crowded out?

Our culture used to have the same qualms about the spread of literacy. There were elitist objections that books would be misread by unworthy and ignorant readers. We somehow progressed in our thinking, so much so that we’re now erring in the opposite direction. (You can hardly go a week without seeing claims of how important fiction or novel reading is because it increases empathy or some other social good. It’s a tiresome argument that smacks of desperation, but that’s another post for another day.)

In any event: Trying to stop the era of universal authorship is pointless. We’re not going back to a time where we all passively consume media again. Writers who want to be visible or differentiate themselves in the market will have to:

  • Have an authentic and engaging connection with their readership (and before even that, of course, they’ll have to find out who their readers are or where they are!)
  • Think beyond the book artifact when it comes to what they create

Of course, those two things have been the topic of my blog for a very long time now.

Posted in Publishing Industry and tagged , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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35 Comments on "The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing"

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Amy Butcher
Thanks so much for this post, Jane. I hear complaints all the time about how there are too many books, and people who write badly are “wannabes,” as though the greatest writers in the world never write anything bad, or never wrote anything bad when they were young and starting out. Pooh-poohing things like Wattpad or other self-publishing platforms is kind of like saying we shouldn’t use email because people use it to send spam. I’m never sure what kind of math is used to decide that an abundance of badness detracts from goodness. Do you have any particular sources… Read more »
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[…] her part, Friedman has written a post today on the issue, The age-old cynicism surrounding the dream of book writing, in which she points out that such concerns have been with us for a long […]

David Biddle
This is a great (and super timely) post, Jane. Gonna share with my side of the mountain. I agree with all your points. We are just beginning down the path of Universal Arts in general I would think. However, with books in particular, or stories and essays too for that matter, there is not as much tendency for writers to see themselves as hardcore readers. I have never met a musician who didn’t know a boatload about all the rest of the music hitting the streets in their genre. That’s not true with “writers” of all ages and it really… Read more »
Shirley Showalter

Love this post. So much to think about here. And the quote you cite in response to Amy’s question above is priceless. Makes me want to read the whole book. Oh, and thanks for the Wattpad link. Now I’ll understand a bit better its appeal to young readers and writers. Oops. Reverse that order. 🙂

Kim Foster
Hi Jane – I love this post. I have a horror novel series posted on Wattpad and the whole experience has influenced my idea of young people and reading and writing. I couldn’t have a more enthusiastic reader base. They love to read, get into the characters, pick up on inconsistencies, make really thoughtful comments and are just generally supportive of writing, creating and putting out work. A reader just wrote me last night saying she read the book 4 times! The interaction between reader and writer is so immediate. I also love that while older folks are hemming and… Read more »
Suw
I think this reaction is related to societal norms on who’s allowed to have a public voice. When I first started blogging, nearly 15 years ago now, there was an attitude amongst the primarily American bloggers I knew that anyone’s opinion was valid and important. If you knew your onions and could write about them engagingly, then you were good to go. But as blogging slowly took off in the UK, a different attitude came to the fore: “Who are these people? Why do they think their opinion is important?” If you didn’t have some sort of authority to speak… Read more »
lexacain

We’re all just special little snowflakes, aren’t we? Some of us are hard-working, learn-everything-about-the-industry-and-writing snowflakes, and some are “following rules would stifle my creativity” snowflakes. Yet 90% of us melt the same way. I enjoyed the article. Thanks!

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[…] More than 90% of young people say they want to write a book some day. So why does that inspire such cynicism among adults?  […]

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[…] More than 80% of people say they have a book inside them. And that’s exactly where it should stay.”  […]

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[…] I visited the site because of a comment Jane Friedman made in her post, The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing: […]

William Ash
This is in part a reflection on how difficult it is to be successful as an author. This underlying fear of competition and the dilution of the market where the same amount of money is divided by more people. It is a fear reaction. A reaction everyone goes through–how long has the phrase “you have to pay your dues” is expressed, which is just another way of say why should someone else get a chance if they have not suffered as I have? I wonder if any of the authors complaining about this possibility of a wave of writers would… Read more »
mackaybell
I was always interested in writing but I’m not a good reader (I’m dyslexic). But growing up I did enjoy short pulpy fiction. In college, I briefly took a few novel writing classes, but it became very clear to me that the publishing landscape was not interested in the kinds of pulpy stuff I was interested in writing. So I not only gave up on writing novels, but I also pretty much gave up on reading them. It was too hard to find the kind of stuff I liked anyway. Cut to: 20 years later and the self-publishing revolution has… Read more »
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[…] The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing — Younger people aren’t interested in passive consumption — they want to engage, respond, create” […]

Vaughn Roycroft
Thanks for this enlightening post, my Zen-master Mentor. It’s funny, back in ’75 or so, I was sure I had a book in me (and had no idea that others would wish it had stayed there). I took typing in high school just because of the notion. Then I convinced myself otherwise (maybe I heard some version of the quote about keeping it there…?). Then I “came out” as a “wannabe” and started typing away. Now, after ten years of said clickity-clack, I’m more certain than ever that it’s the most difficult undertaking of my life. Not just pumping a… Read more »
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[…] Jane Friedman writes about the age-old cynicism surrounding the book writing dream. […]

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[…] of adults want to write a book. Friedman gives us this in her well-turned and timely write-up, The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing. Needless to say, not everyone shares Sattar’s Bibliocrunchy enthusiasm for the idea of 90 […]

Hayley N Jones
In my experience, the most serious writers (and the best) are the ones who are the most encouraging. Perhaps it’s because they love literature and believe that it’s better, in general, to have more stories even if the result is getting awful ones along with the wonderful; perhaps it’s because their success and confidence in their own abilities has persuaded them that the cream always rises to the top. The people I come across who tend to be negative about aspiring writers are those whose own aspirations have never been achieved. Having said that, I can appreciate the frustration writers… Read more »
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[…] Teresa Tysinger shares 5 things she’s learned from her critique group, Fiona Quinn interviews scriptwriter-turned-novelist Jim Morris, Susan G. Weidener explores the current state of literary fiction, and Jane Friedman discusses the age-old cynicism shown young writers. […]

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[…] Tells Us What’s Watt(pad) … Blogger and lecturer Jane Friedman posts this week on a talk by Jane McGonigal on the statistic claiming 90% of young people in the US say they […]

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[…] Some sound advice from Jane Friedman: The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing. […]

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[…] Friedman on Jane FriedmanThe Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing “While speaking and tweeting at the International Digital Publishing Forum at BEA this week, I […]

Claude Forthomme (@claudenougat)
Fascinating post, thanks Jane, and an interesting thread of comments. Comments that confirm a view of self-publishing that I had been slowly forming but wasn’t quite sure it was right. The tsunami of books (over 4 million titles now in the Kindle Store alone, 30 million digitized by Google so far and they’re still going at it!) does mean that chances for a new book by an unknown author to be found are minimal unless the book fits into a category where millions of current online readers flock to – like the lady above who never liked reading anything but… Read more »
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[…] You write poetry and literary fiction. The blogosphere’s been taking shots at you lately. Watch your […]

britta326
I enjoyed this post. You educated me on Wattpad and all the links were useful. I especially liked reading about The Era of Universal Authorship. Sometimes I fear that my ability to read a novel is declining because of all the blogs and social media and short pieces I read. My attention span for a reading a novel is something I am trying to preserve. As a blogger (for hobby), I am always curious about who reads all the blogs and self-published books that are being produced these days? Thanks for your words. I am one of those people with… Read more »
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[…] – for many years I was one of the very many people (according to some statistics) that thought: I have a book in me. After making that grandiose statement on multiply occasions, my […]

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