Monday, February 8, 2010

Guest Blog: Jane Genre

Literary Snobs? Get Over Yourselves

As a writer of commercial fiction, I’ve experienced my share of literary snobbery. I get a lot of prickly-pat reviews like this: “Although the novel is well-written and entertaining, it’s definitely not War and Peace.”

Once a friend even remarked to me, “Your books are fun but I know you’re capable of weightier work.”

Most people think writing commercial fiction is easy. They imagine genre writers dashing off their prose in a few afternoons (in between soap operas and game shows) while more serious writers spend years in windowless garrets, exchanging a pound of flesh for every word.

I think writers, like most artists, have a predilection towards a certain type of work. Sure, it would be grand to have my mug on cover of Poets and Writers, and to be reviewed by the New York Times, but I’m consistently called to write lighter works. When I’ve tried to get serious and literary, the results haven’t been pretty.

I am, however, determined to the best commercial writer I can be, so I recently enrolled in an MFA program. I was prepared to encounter some literary snobbery, but didn’t think I’d be consistently hit over the head with it.
During my first semester, certain instructors continually made unflattering and misguided comments about commercial fiction and the people who write it.

There was no subtlety about it and it definitely made me uncomfortable .

Having been in the pub biz for several years, I’ve developed a skin like a crocodile. Still it’s annoying to pay big bucks to have what you do continually dissed. Usually I get that sort of abuse free of charge.

I honestly considered quitting, but instead I forced myself to overlook the snobbery and learn something.
The program was informative and well-run. I’m sure I’ll be a better writer when I finish. Will I be the next PEN/Faulkner recipient when I graduate? Not likely. But that wasn’t my goal.

I hope my experience was some kind of freakish anomaly, and that literary snobbery doesn’t run rampant in most MFA programs. Why pit writers against writers? All writing, whether it’s commercial or literary takes tremendous skill. Not to mention few readers start out devouring Proust. Commercial fiction is often a gateway drug to more serious fiction. Certainly there’s value in that.

MFA programs are designed to create literary writers and that’s fine and dandy. But with the realities in the marketplace (literary mags closing their doors, short story markets drying up), it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge that some lessons can be gleaned from commercial fiction (plotting, pacing). Additionally while many agents find literary novels tough sells, they are always looking for “upmarket fiction,” which is a hybrid of commercial and literary fiction.
I love the idea of commercial and literary fiction mating to create something wonderful. So here’s my message to the literary snobs of the world: Make love, not war. Recognize the worth and the skill that goes into all fiction.

Jane Genre is a pseudonym for an author of several commerical fiction novels.


Linda said...

Thank you for this great post! I want to learn the "craft of writing" to make my novels more readable, but who is THE authority to define "readable"? What makes one genre more "worthy" than another?

Too much of life is serious these days and a market exists for entertaining reading material. Does marketable preclude well-written? If so, of what use are classes in modern literature that use such texts as the Harry Potter books? If Dan Brown's books were not fast-paced adventure reads, would there have been so many "expert" discussions and studies regarding the history of the Catholic Church or Washington, D.C. after each volume was published?

It remains to be seen if any of these books stand the test of time. What they have done is bring many hours of enjoyment to many millions and have also instigated thought-provoking discussions among the masses (AKA the prolitariat) and perhaps that scares the "nobility" in the literary community.

Anonymous said...

Literary snobbery really is rampant, and not just in MFA programs, either. One of the problems with writing and writers, I think, is that people miss the fact that the underlying purpose - to convey ideas - is the same, whether the author is writing poetry, a crime novel or some other form of literary fiction. I've been in higher education for more than twenty years, and I've never understood the kind of snobbery you describe. It exists, though.

Interestingly enough, there are several institutions where the kind of writing one does determines one's place in the "pecking order" of an English or MFA department. Commercial fiction ranks much lower than other kinds of fiction.

Yet, the fact is, the one person who's made more people - especially young people - pick up a book and read than anyone else in the last fifteen years is arguably J.K. Rowling - a commercial fiction writier. For that, Rowling deserves whatever acclaim can be offered her. When it comes to getting people interested in books and reading, you could do a lot worse than commercial fiction.

Lorel Clayton said...

Writing is hard work, so why make it boring too? Commercial fiction is fun and will keep you from falling asleep over your keyboard. And, if you really want to pass on a nugget of hard-earned wisdom for the benefit of humanity, it's better to sugar coat it. That way it's swallowed by the population at large. Converting a small group of already "right thinkers" to "right thinking" is pointless.

Claire Cook said...

Great post! The literary/commercial thing drives me crazy! I once received a review from a snobby newspaper that said something like "surprising moments of poignancy and depth." Ha! And I've been told far too many times that I'm good enough to consider writing "serious" fiction. I don't want to!

What I've learned to do is to put on my blinders and write the books that only I can write. My gift is to make readers laugh and to appreciate their crazy lives and quirky families. I'm proud of all my novels, from Life's a Beach to Must Love Dogs to The Wildwater Walking Club. I think my upcoming novel, Seven Year Switch, is my best yet. I have amazingly supportive and loyal readers.

As for the rest of it, you just have to let it go! I also try to remember, as one of my characters says, that "karma is a boomerang." I share what I've learned via writing and reinvention tips at and teach free workshops whenever I get a chance.

A Good Blog Is Hard to Find said...

Nice to see you here, Claire. I'm a big fan of you books.

Karen Monroy said...

Hi "jane", It's interesting how writers are instructed by the 'experts' to, "write what you know." then slammed for doing it! On the 'serious' side, as I write about Spiritual Principals, I hear, "your work is so heavy, can't you write lighter?" To wit I reply, "uh, duh, um, nope." They never get it.

Anonymous said...

Great post.
Not everyone wants to write work that feels like it is weighty. I don't read to feel bogged down and dpressed so why would I ever write something that I found slow and dull?

Cat Connor said...

You think literary snobbery is rampant in the USA try New Zealand! It's diabolical over here.

I'm happy as could be writing commercial fiction (thriller/suspense), it's what I love, it's who I am.

N.L. Lumiere said...

Snobbery of any kind is just ignorance, nothing to feel uncomfortable about.
I got the same kind of condescension when I was an animation artist. People would say with a sniff: "I'm a FINE artist." showing their bigotry because animation artists can do everything a fine artist can do AND draw cartoons as well.
Commercial fiction and art brighten just as many lives as does literary fiction.

Somebodysdad said...

I appreciate the message here, I am aspiring to become a writer. I have NO intentions, however, of writing to please a few individuals who feel superior to the rest of us, and want to trash something that "regular joes" may find entertaining. Writing for me is an escape, and I want my readers to feel involved and comfortable, it shouldn't be laborious to read.