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Attention, #NaNoWriMo Fans: No One Cares How Your F***ing Novel Is Going

Watching a person write is one of the most boring things in the world. Please don’t inflict your process on us.

Try staring at this for a while. It’s boring, isn’t it?
Photo: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s almost November, which means it’s roundabout the anniversary of when I last checked that I had muted the Twitter hashtag #NaNoWriMo and also its year-round ugly twin #amwriting. I just needed to be sure. I’ve just done this year’s annual check-up and yes – breathe a massive sigh of relief guys, wipe the sweat off that furrowed brow – they are still wholly blocked along with #NaNoPrep and also #NaNoWriMoPrep because I like to cast my dick net wide. To the best of my abilities I have ensured that the doors of my nuclear/NaNoWriMo bunker are shut tight for November, unless a Twitter technicality leaves me open to a torrent of inanity from everyone who thinks that peer pressure alone will be enough to make them finish their 50,000 word novel in the space of a month. I’ve got canned goods down here. I’ve seen The Road. I’ll be fine.

National Novel Writing Month is when 300k+ people sign up and swear to themselves/each other that they will write 1,700 thousand words per day, from 1 November to their final, juddering finish on 30 November. In one month they will go from being a primary school teacher or waitress or guy who fixes cars to novelist, which is a great thing. But over the next six weeks there will be a lot of people trying to help. There will be webinars hosted by people you’ve never heard of who have “novelist” and “writer” in their Twitter bio beside a black and white photo of them with their hand on their chin, wanting to teach you how to use a writing programme they designed to order to more easily organise your 50,000 words (accidentally set your novel in a shit place? Just do a universal Find & Replace and change it from Wigan to Paris! They’re basically the same, you don’t need to change anything else, this is a problem now solved – you can change this problem to a different colour on your problem chart). There will be blog posts telling you how to cheat your way to a great book (use the Snowflake Method! It’s like fractals but for stories! Here, let me explain fractals to you). There will be inspirational quotes to “unleash the novelist inside you”.  There will be articles about life-saving tips for writers written by previous NaNoWriMo participants, usually ranging from 5 to 12 tips, half of which are about believing in yourself. 

People will link to time-saving apps and spread the work about distraction-killing apps because while you are a person signing up to write a novel, clearly the last thing you want to do is actually write a novel. People will blog about the loneliness of being a writer, having been one now for three whole days. Others will talk about how they made themselves cry with a scene they just wrote, how they broke their own dumb heart. People will go into Settings and then Profile and delete “aspiring writer” from their bio and put instead: WORDSMITH. WORD DOCTOR. WORD ALCHEMIST. DREAMWEAVER. Plus actor. Or whatever.

All of Tumblr will be #writing the most politically correct book ever using all of their favourite hashtags (there will be no white people in these books, and if a white person is writing it they will be checking their privilege against everything that happens throughout, in footnotes). Some joker will bait the NaNoWriMo forums by posting an excerpt of Ulysses or Infinite Jest and asking for feedback, and they will be roundly rubbished on the boards for their rambling descriptions, superfluous words, and one helpful person will always suggest they pick up a copy of The Elements of Style by E B White to help them with the next few chapters.

Over on Twitter there will be thousands of these: “Bloody protagonist, taking the story in a different direction! Don’t they realise I’m on a tight schedule here?! #amwriting” and “Just realised why this novel isn’t making any sense. There’s a plot issue in the second arc. No sleep for me! #amwriting” and “what is another word for nervous? #amwriting”. Thesauruses exist. Other stuff to talk about exists. No one needs to know your process.

Because one of the most boring things in the world is watching a person write. They do not move. Their google searches are tedious; they google synonyms for words they just made up. If you ask a novelist how they wrote their book, it’s always “I researched a bit and then I didn’t get out of my pyjamas for properly ages.” That’s it. There was probably an exiting moment when a blob of apricot jam fell off a bit of their crumpet and they had to suck it out of the lapel of their dressing gown to avoid having to wash it properly. That’s it.

Don’t get me wrong – like everyone else with a Macbook and enough money to buy coffee, I sit in coffee shops and write my stupid novel. Pretty much everyone you know and love thinks they have a book in them, and pretty much everyone you know and love has roughly 3,000 words of it written in a dead file in the back corner of a hard drive three computers ago that they won’t tell you about. You are not special. No one cares how your novel is going. Maybe it’ll go somewhere, maybe it won’t. But the actual finished novel is entirely beside the point.

Just shut up and fucking write it.

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era