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October 5, 2002

Deserts of vast literacy
Posted by Patrick at 11:58 PM *

Joseph Epstein cites a perfectly dreadful statistic:

According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them 97 and that they should write it.
That’s been my perception too, but I’d been trying to convince myself that I must be wrong.
Comments on Deserts of vast literacy:
#1 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2002, 03:30 AM:

Not a new problem:

"Surely the end of the world is at hand:
Children no longer obey their parents
and *everyone* wants to write a book."
--attributed to a Babylonian clay tablet

I'm also reminded of one of my favorite reviews, which wasn't *intended* as a negative review:

"This volume fills a much-needed gap in the literature..."

#2 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2002, 08:51 AM:

I think it's Joseph Epstein, Teresa, he of "Plausible Prejudices" and one-time editor of American Scholar (if memory serves, which it frequently doesn't on Sunday mornings...)?

#3 ::: marty ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2002, 01:09 PM:

Ah, but Teresa, you do have a book inside of you. Several. AND I WANT TO READ THEM. ahem.

#4 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2002, 01:11 PM:

This reminds me of something that Barbara Ehrenreich said during an interview about her book "Nickeled and Dimed." She did the research for the job by going "under cover," working low-wage jobs in different parts of the country. When she left each job, she'd come clean to her co-workers, telling them that she was writing a book. Nobody was ever surprised by this revelation, because having the ambition to write a book was nothing out of the ordinary.

#5 ::: Christian Claiborn ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2002, 02:25 PM:

So, how's his "Snobbery" book selling?

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2002, 06:49 PM:

Joseph Epstein. Yes. Sorry. A stupid error. I was stranded on a small island off the Atlantic coast, with a slurpy little soda-straw of a modem connection in place of my homely broadband, and was weary with much teaching. I have now fixed it, unless I'm even more exhausted than I thought, and his name is actually Isaac or Abraham.

Marty, put down that knife. That's not what we mean when we talk about getting a manuscript out of someone.

#7 ::: Tim Kyger ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2002, 09:09 PM:

Yes, but what I *really* want to do is direct...

#8 ::: marty ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2002, 09:33 PM:

I know, Teresa.. I just want to read another of your books. I loved your Making Book.

(wave, wave, Christian. Oh, and I have lost your phone number. Call me)

#9 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 01:30 AM:

Well, after all, I already have all these other people's books inside me, some good, some dreadful, so why not one of my own?
Those 81% of the millions of Americans' books end up in the library described in Richard Brautigan's The Abortion.

#10 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 03:31 AM:

You know what the problem is with commenting on a story like that? The good writers who shouldn't be discouraged will nevertheless take it to heart, and the bad ones aren't listening anyhow.

#11 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 07:05 AM:

Robert, how does he describe it?

#12 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 09:15 AM:

Teresa: You know what the problem is with commenting on a story like that? The good writers who shouldn't be discouraged will nevertheless take it to heart, and the bad ones aren't listening anyhow.

And those of us who aren't sure if we're any good or not, and who were really considering writing a book, are just really confused. Somewhat discouraged ("I think I could actually write a novel! But wait: so does just about everyone. Ick.") But also somewhat reassured: my desire to write a book isn't, forgive me, a novel perversion, but one shared by many people.

Maybe I'll write some short stories and see if I can sell them. Last time I tried was 10 years ago, and I've been writing a lot since then...

#13 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 10:29 AM:

Christopher wrote: Somewhat discouraged ("I think I could actually write a novel! But wait: so does just about everyone. Ick.")

Don't be discouraged. I think the majority of people who have that book in them are thinking non-fiction. (Not that this makes it any easier for fiction writers these days....)

#14 ::: C.R. Odell ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 12:00 PM:

Question:
Do the other 19 percent of Americans want someone else to write the book for them?

#15 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 12:16 PM:

81% sounds awfully high. I'd like to know more about the poll, and the exact question asked.

I think a lot of the dread surrounding this finding comes from the assumption that people will be trying to write *novels.* The wannabe hoi-polloi may simply have it in mind to write cookbooks, or dog training guides, or ignorable things like those matchbook-sized prayer books displayed at checkout stands.

#16 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 01:17 PM:

Me, I think that 81% statistic is iUniverse's business plan.

#17 ::: Christian Claiborn ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 01:29 PM:

Well, it's sort of the same impulse that leads everyone to get their own blogs, isn't it? "My brand of witty rejoinders to stories I stole from Glenn Reynolds deserves a greater audience."

Not that I'm guilty of the same thing. I got a license from the Reader's Manifesto guy.

#18 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 02:09 PM:

>

The Abortion is a very strange fantasy whose narrator works in a very strange library. The authors hand-deliver their manuscripts 24/7, and they are nearly all records of loneliness and obsession. "Growing Flowers by Candlelight in Hotel Rooms" is, as I recall, a typical title. (There is both fiction and nonfiction.) It's the variety of odd books that Brautigan comes up with that makes it worthwhile.

#19 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 02:33 PM:

Indeed, what kind of book? I suspect a lot of them would turn out to be commonplace books, collections of family recipes, genealogies, and memoirs--the things that if you don't write, your grandchildren will wish you had.

In other words, I doubt that 81 percent of Americans think they'll be the next Stephen King; I suspect they want something to hand their families, or for their own reference.

#20 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 08:18 PM:

It gets worse. The percentage of people who think they have a book in them exceeds the percentage of literate people in the US.

http://www.nifl.gov/reders/reder.htm

#21 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 08:38 PM:

Goodness. The percentage of Americans who fancy they have something worthwhile to say exceeds the percentage of Americans that a professional "literacy" alarm-raising group rates as "literate."

Pardon me while I fail to be shocked.

#22 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2002, 11:41 PM:

You might check out Paul Bowles's description in his introduction ot "A Life Full of Holes" of how he came to "tape, transcribe and translate from the Moghrebi" some very interesting books and stories by illiterates.
I can certainly think of some very entertaining books by people who, while not illiterate, basically dictated their books and had other people do the writing and editing.
Vicki, many of the books in Brautigan's libray were as you describe.

#23 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 12:02 PM:

Vicki, I have collections of exactly that kind of material, written by my gone-befores, and edited and privately published by my mother and my grandmother. I don't know how much they'd mean to anyone who wasn't family, but to me they're priceless.

Robert, thanks, and I'll check that out. Your recommendations have a good track record. Meanwhile, I'll swap you for Julian of Norwich and St. Catherine of Siena, both non-writers who dictated their work. Julian's A Revelation of Divine Love is good stuff -- I have it loaded on my Palm Pilot -- and St. Catherine was later declared a Doctor of the Church, which is not half bad, considering she lived in the 14th C. and was illiterate, female, and the twenty-third child of a Sienese dyer.

Glenn, I'm not sure that literacy study says what you think it does. I started examining it more closely when I looked at the data for Arizona and realized that the stats on adult literacy levels in Apache County, Navajo County, and the city of Nogales were getting thrown into the total.

I also noticed, when I looked up places like Tucson, Nogales, Las Cruces, and Santa Fe, that its section on racial/ethnic background says the question of Hispanic background is subsumed in the questions about (1.) English proficiency, and (2.) whether or not you're a recent immigrant. That troubled me for a while. I've had to ask for driving directions in New Mexican cantinas where I had as much trouble understanding and being understood as I would have had in Italy -- and believe me, the Nuevomexicanos I was talking to weren't recent immigrants.

What I eventually figured out was that the study isn't looking at illiteracy in terms of the failure of our educational system to teach people to read. That's why they didn't throw out the data on long-established Spanish-speaking communities, or the Hopi-, Navajo-, and Apache-speaking northeastern counties. What they're trying to divine from available statistics is the subtler problem of what percent of adult residents of any given area of the US are functioning at Level 1 or Level 2 literacy.

The classification system they're using comes from the International Adult Literacy Survey. Here's a quick explanation of it. Basically, adults functioning at Level 1 and Level 2 can't read and write fluently enough to keep up with modern life.

Level 1 means they can locate one piece of information in a sports article but not two. They can total a bank deposit entry, but not calculate total purchase cost from an order form. Identifying dosage instructions on a medicine bottle is Level 1. Answering a simple question about plants based on a brief article about gardening is Level 2. Reading four short movie reviews and identifying which movie was considered the worst, without help from ratings devices like thumbs or stars, is Level 3. Having so many citizens functioning at Level 1 is a real problem, but it's not the same thing as outright illiteracy.

This is from the How literate is the adult population? section of the study's FAQ:

Very few adults in the US are truly illiterate. Rather, there are many adults with low literacy skills who lack the foundation they need to find and keep decent jobs, support their children's education, and participate actively in civic life. Between 21 and 23 percent of the adult population, or approximately 44 million people, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), scored in Level 1. Another 25-28 percent of the adult population, or between 45 and 50 million people, scored in Level 2. Literacy experts believe that adults with skills at Levels 1 and 2 lack a sufficient foundation of basic skills to function successfully in our society.

Many factors help to explain the relatively large number of adults in Level 1. Twenty-five percent of adults in Level 1 were immigrants who may have just been learning to speak English. More than 60 percent didn't complete high school. More than 30 percent were over 65. More than 25 percent had physical or mental conditions that kept them from fully participating in work, school, housework, or other activities, and almost 20 percent had vision problems that affected their ability to read print.

Thus literacy.

And beyond all that -- can you tell I'm having remorseful second thoughts? -- who am I to say that all those people who think they have the material for a book in them aren't right? I've met plenty of non-writers who were fascinating to talk to.

The trouble is, having the material for a book is only one part of the making. Shaping it into a book is a separate thing, a very complex piece of processing. That's why that brilliant idea so many non-writers have -- "I'll tell you my story, you turn it into a book, we split the take" -- is in most cases impracticable.

But you know, we'll have an interesting time of it if all those mute inglorious Miltons ever stop being mute.

#24 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 12:40 PM:

So obviously the real problem isn't that all these people might write their books, with or without help. The problem is that they'll overwhelm the system with floods of slush, then there'll be a hopeless shortage of editors (strutural, line, copy) and proofreaders...

#25 ::: Lucy Huntzinger ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 01:35 PM:

You know, this inspires me to write a book.

#26 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 02:06 PM:

You know, when I'm not writing (and should be) I tend to read other writers on writing. And one thing that's interesting about this stat is wondering how many of these people would stick it out to actually finish a book.

I've been reading a lovely little paperback called The Passionate Accurate Story by someone I've never heard of, Carol Bly. (One of those little finds in the basement of Harvard Square Bookstore.) She spends the first couple of chapters talking about the difference between a real life incident that may spark someone (from that 81 percent) to want to make a story out of it--and how difficult it is not to let the inspiring incident dictate or control the creative process that would otherwise take off from it to form a great story.

I hope this makes sense. Indeed, many people may have a story in them, or what they think is a great story. But a severely smaller percentage of them I imagine would know how to handle the creative process once it starts taking on a life of its own.

#27 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 05:08 PM:

Teresa, what I was trying to say is that the number of people who think they have a book in them seems to vastly outstrip the number of people who have the capacity to write it, as you yourself expressed in much more detail.

I'm not sure how many books written by someone who "can't read and write fluently enough to keep up with modern life" I want to read. And we're talking about 30% of the US population, if those numbers hold-- 90 million books? And you thought your slush pile was bad now.

#28 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2002, 08:10 PM:

But in your case, Lucy, it'll be something I want to read.

#29 ::: Emmet O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 10:08 AM:

It's taken me a couple of days to click on the angle from which this statistic doesn't click for me. It's the thought of what that other nineteen per cent of people think about when, oh, travelling to work on the subway, or in the last few minutes before going to sleep, those little interstices of time in which one can't really do anything useful. Fret, perhaps ?

I'd be really interested to know how many of these people think what they have in their head is fiction and how many think otherwise.

#30 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 01:36 PM:

Me! Me! I've got a book in me ...

(The bloody thing is wedged sideways and won't come out; I'm afraid it's going to be a breech birth :-( )

#31 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2002, 06:46 PM:

I'd be really interested to know how many of these people think what they have in their head is fiction and how many think otherwise.

And how many of them are correct in their opinion on this issue.

#32 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 12:54 AM:

Teresa said: But you know, we'll have an interesting time of it if all those mute inglorious Miltons ever stop being mute.

That was in September 1993, wasn't it? And what a glorious future it is.


#33 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 12:30 PM:

In fact, it is.

Then again, I've never thought the "September never ended" thing was that much of a laugh riot. Right, the Internet isn't what it once was when it was dominated by graduate students and computer people.

#34 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2002, 01:48 PM:

Patrick: When I say "Perpetual September", I'm not referring to the Internet as a whole, but specifically to Usenet.

It's also not a blanket condemnation. But things have changed on Usenet as it's gotten bigger, and while many of those changes are for the better--a much wider range of people posting brings much more real information--many of those changes are emphatically not. I'm not happy about the fact that rec.arts.comics.misc is haunted by at least two people who think that it's a good idea to follow up posts with "Fuck you, you fucking fuck" at least five times a day.

Usenet was never a walled garden--well, at least not since it spread past UNC and Duke, and really not even then--but during the 1980s all of its users seemed to agree that the existence of Usenet was, itself, a good thing. That no longer seems to be the case.

On the other hand, all of this is much less relevant to the web; if I put up a web site, there's no way for someone to deface it. All they can do it link to me negatively. Or spew nonsense onto my comments links, if I have comments links.

#35 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2002, 11:38 AM:

If everyone has a book in them, maybe the way to capitalize on it is to make software that makes book extraction easy and painless. I envision something you talk to. Speech recognition compares with bad typing anyway, so why not just make it easier? You tell it if you're writing prose, poetry, a song, a play, or whatever, and it puts it in the right form. It could offer helpful advice. "Do you wish to stop now? Then you have written a \short\ \story\."

Then it has agentware that reports back that it has gone online and checked with all publishers, and it presently does not meet their needs. (The expensive version could really check.)

#36 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2002, 04:36 PM:

The survey was the topic of a segment on NPR's "Morning Edition" today.

It sounds like the survey-ors were a vanity press.

The NPR folks did their own survey, in the street.

#37 ::: Kris Hasson-Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2002, 06:05 PM:

I'm in the 19 percent. I make up stories in my head about stuff, but it's not a book, and I know from experience that either I don't tell them well or other people don't find them interesting (or both). I don't have anything to say that needs a book to say it.

Plus, my style is reactive--Usenet is great because there's so much that tweaks my mind and outrages me and elicits responses in me that are interesting.

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