We had a guest speaker in a recent MFA class–Intro to Writing as a Profession. She was really great, funny, clever, and an alumni of our program whose fiction, though not yet published, has made the finalist cuts for some note-worthy awards. She shared a near-universal frustration with trying to get her novel published and said, at one point, her frustration with the competitive nature of publishing literary fiction reached such a level she was compelled to do something desperate–write genre. Chick lit. She called it her “Cash Cow” book.
The idea was to write a book purely for commercial value; to make money. She said she just tried to think of what would appeal to the masses and get snatched up by an agent. I knew what she meant and I’ve heard it before. It’s a commonly held belief by those in “Creative Writing Academia” that producing “genre fiction,” like chick lit, is a no-brainer. A few days after you throw together some nice romance scenes, pretty main character, and a few descriptions of shoes, clothes, or hijinks, and finish the manuscript (and writing it won’t take long, not like the years you’ll spend writing your real, literary novel), it’ll get picked up by an agent, followed shortly by a publishing deal with on of the Big 5 and a month later you’ll be raking in the royalties faster than you can rake leaves off the October grass (which you’ll no longer be doing because you’ll have hired a lawn man with all the dough you made).
For the record–she’d only written about 50 pages of her “Cash Cow” and she wasn’t being a total snob or purposefully degrading chick lit. She was really nice and open to our questions about life, post-MFA. It’s not that she is a snob–it’s that all of literary fiction is. And by the same token, all of Creative Writing Academia is, which puts me in an interesting position. I’m in CW Academia. I’m pursuing an MFA in a highly competitive program where I am 1 of 2 fiction students admitted for the year out of a hundred or so applicants. I feel good about my place in the program–I feel like I belong there and my writing is on par with my peers. What I mean is, I don’t feel like the ugly genre duckling, surrounded by a bunch of literary swans. I’m a swan too.
But, I’ve also self-published *gasp* a novel that falls easily into the category of chick lit *double gasp.* And I like genre fiction. I enjoy reading it, I love writing it, and I’m grateful to be part of the supportive community of genre writers. So far, they seem to be a lot more encouraging, fun, and helpful than their literary counterparts (my classmates and program peers not included). And the truth is, most people like genre. There’s a reason the household name authors are genre (Stephen King, Emily Giffin, James Patterson, JK Rowling, Sophie Kinsella, etc). Their work sells because people want to read it. They want to read about shopaholics, psychopaths, detectives, and wizards more than they want to read about the closer-to-home trauma of actual life (in general). But part of my goal in my MFA program is to learn a more literary style of writing (the struggle is real). So, what to do?
I must admit, I don’t shout it from the rooftops that my first novel was self-published, genre fiction. In fact, I rarely mention my first novel at all in school. Maybe because I’m embarrassed, maybe because I don’t want to seem like a know-it-all, been-there-done-that type (I’m really not), maybe because I want t fit in. Probably all of those and then some. Maybe because part of me believes what they say about genre: it isn’t worthy of acclaim because it’s isn’t on the level with literary. This is what I’ve been thinking about since my class. The conclusion I’ve come to: bologna.
I’ve read some really, really, and I mean really, terrible “literary fiction.” I’ve read some really, really, really well-crafted “chick lit” that only falls into the category because the MC is pretty or a sleuth, her clothes are described or her body, and it ends happily. I’ve also read great literary fiction and horrible genre. The door swings both ways–that’s the essence life. I can also say from personal, as well as second-hand experience, genre is not easy to write. Betsy Lerner said it best in her craft book The Forest for the Trees (one of my 5 favorite craft books):
It is true that most books that sit on the bestseller list fit a certain genre…and they are prized in part for how well they work within a certain formula. Their authors are successful for having created characters and stories so compelling that they engender intense loyalty among their readers, a following. On more than once occasion, I’ve heard a “literary” writer (usually one who is stalled or struggling) announce that he’s thinking of writing something commercial; implicit is the idea that this project would be beneath his skills. I’ve always found this arrogance mind-boggling. If any writer could toss off a “commercial” novel and cash in, why haven’t they? The reason may be obvious: it’s not as easy as it looks. On the contrary, these writers deploy the tools of their craft, a craft they have honed and studied and labored at for years, if not decades. I don’t believe writers can choose a topic or genre the way you can choose a country you’d like to visit by spinning the globe.”
Genre has categories as distinct and finely-tuned as memoir is from satire or gothic is from romanticism. They follow certain parameters, there are similarly occurring themes and images. How is that different from chick lit, science fiction, or thrillers? It’s not. I think a great progression for the world of Creative Writing Academia would be to support and encourage writers to write what they love. It’s an old adage but it still holds true. If you are fascinated with the ideas of love and cognitive dissonance–write about it, as I do, and if you love clothes and shoes as I do, incorporate it into your stories. That’s the essence of my writing. If that’s not your thing–fine. Write about something else. Write about whatever makes you happy and engages you and do it to the very best of your ability. Study craft and technique. Read. A lot and don’t limit yourself to your favorite genres. You never know what you might discover and what might inspire or speak to you as a writer and as a reader. Don’t worry about whether or not it will sell–statistically speaking, it won’t.
The bottom line: Writing really well is hard, regardless of whether your dream publisher is Knopf or Penguin or your author fantasy is a spot on Charlie Rose or a Lifetime Network Mini Series. Getting published is even harder and we all need as much support, encouragement, and camaraderie as we can get.
More chances to win a birthday copy of The Golden Apple.