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When I was a teenager, I loved writing-themed events. Workshops, seminars, “author advice” panels, you name it. Maybe I got jaded. Or went to college. Or started getting things published in literary magazines that hadn’t been looked at by any bearded dude with a polyester beret. I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but 90% of the events started just giving me the creeps. And I think I know why: they feel dishonest.
First, let me distinguish between two different categories. Writing workshops at highly competitive writing programs (some of the top MFA’s, such as Vanderbilt’s, pretty much have more competitive admissions than Harvard medical school). Then you have writing classes than anyone can join. Provided they pay. Or writing workshops that are part of an event schedule at some conference or literary festival. Or the kind of writing class you find at universities that struggle with retention. This second category is, in my experience, downright damaging. Because at some point, it will become clear that the teacher (speaker/panelist) is the one who needs to keep the student pleased, rather than it being the other way around. There are exceptions. But a whole lot of the time, you’ll hear shit like this:
Student/audience member: “Yeah, so, I’m writing a literary novel-book about a woman who is unhappy and overweight and suddenly realizes she can travel back in time to periods in which her Rubenesque form is considered beautiful. The first 100 pages have no plot, just candy descriptions, but the ending has a twist that will knock your socks off if you know anything about 17th century chubby chasing.”
And instead of the teacher telling the student or audience member to please please please find another vocation, he or she might say something like. “Mhm… I really like the time-traveling thing. But maybe. Uh. Maybe work on tightening the plot. Hrm. Next?”
Student/audience member sits down, grinning.
If you look around the internet for a minute, you find thousands of messages along the lines of “anyone can be a writer”, “you can be published!”, “write your blockbuster today by following these 10 simple steps”. The introduction to most writing books read as if they were written by Deepak Chopra on speed.
I took “Introduction to Creative Writing” at a college that struggles with retention. The kind of college where they’ll tell you’re the Messiah as long as the tuition check keeps coming in, and where professors feel as if they have no choice but to dumb down their classes so students will write “Mr. Willard’s class was awesUme” on those shitty evaluation forms that are currently destroying American colleges. Some of the kids in the class I took would bring in excerpts from their favorite books as a class assignment. I’m talking Koontz. Picoult. Sparks. Patterson. After reading the excerpts, they would sing their praises to their interpretation of Koontz’s detective drivel as “[having] like, really good descriptions and characters.” The professor later told me she sat in her chair in literary agony. What she told the student, however, was something along the lines of, “Hm. Good example of the genre. ”
Think about it, if you ever attend a writing workshop of some sort. How the speaker, while possibly having good intentions, rarely if ever dares to offend anyone. How the mood in the room is always friendly and “safe”. How no one is being honest in trying to teach something that requires honesty more than anything.
Please, Simon Cowell, start teaching writing classes. I know I’d watch “American Writing Idol”.
One of my most awesome readers, H. E. Ellis, wrote a guest post. Check it out! And check him out!
“So for my guest post I thought we’d play a game. Below is a list of quotes. Contestant (A) is our reigning champion Nicholas Sparks! Today I’ve pitted him up against a Mystery Contestant (?) spelled backward at the bottom of this post.
So now let’s play…Dueling Douche bags!
(A) “A WALK TO REMEMBER is set in the late 1950’s because that was the last really innocent period in schools.”
(?) “I was a beatnik in the ’50s before the hippies came along.”
(A) “If I wasn’t doing this, I have no idea what I’d be doing.”
(?) “I’d probably try to stop the rain forests from being cut down. I’d probably join the revolution down south somewhere and try to save my life on the planet Earth.”
(A) “In all love stories the theme is love and tragedy, so by writing these types of stories, I have to include tragedy.”
(?) “It’s a comedy-tragedy, an opera that was played in the early morning.”
(A) “I don’t write fantasy, I write reality. Also, my novels have roots to Greek tragedies and as such, there has to be tragedy.”
(?) “Is the truth fun?”
(A) “I have seldom been described as shy.”
(?) “Most insecure people need attention. I don’t.”
(A) “F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner have fewer published novels combined than any number of contemporary novelists-Roberts, King, Koontz, Steel, etc.”
(?) “I’m not of this generation.”
(A) “What’s the challenge in writing a novel that few people will read? I’m more than happy writing what I do and have no plans to change that.”
(?) “Over a period of about 20 years, I would imagine you’d want to change something.”
It’s this last statement by Sparks that really struck a nerve with me. He has, unbeknownst to himself, just defined why he is regarded as a commercial novelist and not the literary genius he’d like the world to believe he is. What separates his work from what appears monthly in Playboy or Hustler? How hard is it to pump a primed well? There’s no shame in writing commercial fiction but for God’s sake OWN UP TO IT. Don’t sling shit and call it a mud bath.
Everything I love about literature–true literature, flies in the face of this statement. It’s not meant to reflect what we already know to be true of ourselves, it’s meant to lift us up to places we’ve never been and expose us to worlds and ideas and opinions broader and grander than the scope of our own backyards. It’s meant to FILL our dry wells. It’s why THE NOTEBOOK is commercial romance and why LOLITA is a true love story (tragedy and all). Every time I think I’ve churned out a staggering work of genius I re-read the first five hundred words of LOLITA and reopen my doc. file.
Embracing the challenge of writing a novel that few people will read is EXACTLY why I became a writer.
***The Mystery Contestant is: NOSNAM SELRAHC
Literature Police’s note: the following YouTube video is what you should play as background music while you re-read the post. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Di7CUECvn0s
Yup. You heard it here first. I’ll even be at an official table (for the cool lit. dudes I work for).
Maybe I’ll wear something distinct, so you can spot me. So far, I’m thinking Nabokov lapels. Or a Snow Globe in which the words “general public” are drowning in water from whatever is the worst section of the Chicago river (all of it?). GIVE ME YOUR SUGGESTIONS. The only other thing I’ll tell you is, I’m blonde. So if you don’t see anyone wearing anything snarky, just go up to every blonde in the room and ask, on a scale of one to ten, how much they dislike Nicholas Sparks. That’s almost literary. That’s like, a freshman creative writing class short story by that weird transfer student from Des Moines.
Of course, if someone affiliated with any writers I’ve written about comes up, I’ll call them crazy and say my favorite writer is Stephenie Meyer 4ever and a day. Unless of course it’s Jodi Picoult, in which case the moral duty is to perform a citizen’s arrest due to literary crimes against mankind.
UPDATE: The commenter below has the PERFECT plan! Check it out!
You’ve been asking.
It was a tough choice, but I have come to a decision. The winner is….
NICK. I asked if he was Nicholas Sparks on the interwebz, but he swears he isn’t. I’ll trust it, for now.
I’ll be mailing this lucky guy the signed author photo, which he says he’ll use to seduce high school girls. Valid.
The reason I picked Nick was mainly due to his comparing Sparks to a young John Wayne Gacy with an Etch A Sketch and book deal. Genius.
Do you really think that pajama-jeans-wearing soccer mom in the park is going to flip the final page of “Breaking Dawn” and pick up Plato next?
And even if you did, how is the “gateway drug” book relevant at all aside from being just that, a gateway drug? A million ravenous preteen Twihards would tear your esophagus out if you suggested this was true about their desert island book of choice.
There’s this idea that people who select books as if they were CW shows in print form will at some point gobble down one too many paranormal romances about star-crossed Merman-human relations and the heartbreaking challenges of fish sex and suddenly see the light and praise Hemingway and sing Kumbaya in the classic lit section of Borders shutdown sales and the gateway drug book fall will into oblivion. SHENANIGANS! Hoards of these kids are just plain lifers for commercial lit. One sniff and they’re hooked. Yeah, maybe one or two will grow up a little, get a library card, realize Nabokov is awesome. Whatever. Those are just the kids the Twihards pick for Indian burns when the heresy is unveiled.
It’s not a gateway drug if it’s the only thing you keep snorting. Or if you’re over the age of twelve.
I hereby announce a war on literary gateway drugs. Just say no.
PS: Zadie Smith wrote this nugget of awesome: “readers fail when they allow themselves to believe that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced.”
Got that quote from this sweet article, which also recounted a story about Jodi Picoult saying her readers tell her all the time Stephenie Meyer was a gateway drug for them to find her novels. On that note, stop the world. I want to get off.
Anyway, here’s the sweet piece, from Newsweek http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/04/10/why-is-it-a-sin-to-read-for-fun.html
Someone, please explain why Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner and Nicholas Sparks show up under “literary fiction” on Amazon.com. Anyone with half a library card knows these douches write commercial fiction and/or romance. I saw Weiner’s novel under “literary bestsellers”. Picoult’s book of short stories was listed under “literary fiction” in a kindle sale. Sparks… I think I repressed the exact location (Thank you, brain, for protecting me from future mental harm). Anyway. WTF, Amazon?
Theory one: whoever assigns the categories on Amazon.com is an illiterate asshat. Or a member of the “general public” (see previous post on this sneaky breed).
Theory two (Conspiracy alert!): Picoult, Sparks and Weiner morphed into a trio of literary evil (acronym/code name: P-WeinerS). Modus Operandi: crying on their publishers’ desks about how they’re the Tolstoys of their century, and people just don’t Re-ah-lize it. Also, strapping the Amazon CEO down for waterboarding.
As soon as I figure out how a Kobo works, I’m sending my Kindle to those guys who do that TV segment on whether or not something “will blend.”
UPDATE: I got a comment reading: “Amazon isn’t at fault here, the publisher is. Amazon doesn’t categorize the books they sell; that task is left to the author or publisher. The examples above should be reprimanded for misleading the book-buying public.”
Whatever, Amazon PR assistant. That’s even worse. THAT’s misleading to the book-buying public. What kind of soulless writer would willingly let themselves be listed as “commercial/general/romance” when “literary” is an option by request? Indulge me while I exaggerate: Wouldya sell Mein Kampf as “inspirational” if the author insisted?