Recently I totted up that, of the eighty or so college students I’ve taught this year (only about a half of whom were creative-writing-emphasis English majors), a good dozen have written novels. That’s a fifteen percent. They’ve completed novels, they tell me. A couple of them have written more than one.
I haven’t read any of these novels, so I can’t say if they’re any good. Judging from the student-novelists’ writing in other contexts, they’re probably not much worse than a lot of what gets published these days, but they’re probably not masterpieces.
Whether their novels are good or not, though, it seems important that there’s all this fiction-writing going on these days beside and beneath and perhaps instead of all the assignments and tests and papers and other writing that comprise a college education. I certainly wasn’t completing novels—not even short stories—back when I was their age, and I can’t think of a single classmate who was. I’ve been speculating what all these budding—nay, blossoming—young writers might mean for the state of literature in our time and for the writing community at large.
One thing that occurs to me right off is that young people these days must feel more invited and encouraged and empowered to write and publish novels than I ever was. That’s perhaps to be expected of the self-esteem building curriculum promoted in the generations between mine and theirs. I once had my seventh grade teacher’s Little Brown Handbook thrown across the room at me for chewing gum. They, on the other hand, were told they could do pretty much anything they wanted. Consequently, not a few of them went ahead and did that—which is sort of exciting, when you think about it.
Students these days are also very motivated to write. By what? one wonders. One incentive would surely be the myriad publishing opportunities available to writers these days. Several of my students have published their work online and two have paid to have their work published by what we used to call a vanity presses. Publishing has become something anyone can do, at any stage of life, often with little or no investment of resources beyond the time it took stole from a few games of online poker.
Another motivation could be the greater variety of subgenres popular with kids nowadays. When I was young, girls read Nancy Drew as tweens, then progressed directly to the classics (Austen, the Brontës, for me Defoe and Dickens); boys who read mostly read adventure or sci-fi then stopped; and everyone liked the odd fantasy stand out like J. R. R. Tolkien. Nowadays, bookstores and libraries have separate young adult sections with whole shelves of mystery/thrillers, even more shelves of fantasies, plus equally popular subgenres we never heard of in my day: apocalyptic, dystopian, historical fiction, alternative historical fiction, cyberpunk, steampunk, contemporary, Christian contemporary, romance, LGBT romance, Amish teen romance. . . The world of fiction these days is like a map of the brain: so much stuff going on, so much new vocabulary you need to even talk about it.
Then there are the novel-writing success stories: J. K. Rowling and her napkin, Christopher Paolini writing Eragon at fifteen, the almost immediate transformation of their and other books popular with young people into big screen movies. It looks so easy nowadays, writing a book. A flick of the pen and you’re there.
I guess the thing that fascinates me most about the novelists among my students is not their license and motivation to write or even the astounding investment of time involved but the enthusiasm they must bring to the fiction-writing enterprise: to prefer it over other more age-appropriate entertainments—such as, for me at their age, hanging out with friends, cooking, reading, learning aikido, making ceramic pots, scavenging my natural and suburban surroundings for sea urchins and kumquats, sewing.
(For them, playing video games, watching YouTube, poking their cellphones? Maybe it’s that. The screen-squinching narrowness of their entertainment alternatives. Writing has become their life before they’ve even had lives, I’m supposing. Although I’d have to read their books to know for sure.)
From everything I’ve heard in the news lately, reading’s on the wane, but writing sure isn’t. Either that or the students at Christian universities like mine are way different—more creative and prolific, harder working, more hip to the possibilities out there—than their secular peers. I’m guessing they’re not all that different, though. I’m guessing my anecdotal fifteen percent of kids these days—perhaps more!—are writing books in lieu of reading them (or maybe in addition to reading them, since somebody’s got to be reading all those cyberEpiscopalian dystopian romances) and will soon be filling the shelves and movie marquees with their opuses.
It’s becoming my new writerly nightmare. Used to, bookstores scared me. All. Those. Books! All that competition for readers. Now it’s them. My students. Our kids. Our kids’ kids.
This isn’t a very encouraging post, I fear, for fellow writers—especially those of a certain age—so let me just close with a little remediation in the self-esteem training some of us missed out on: Don’t. Give. Up. If they can do it, we can too!