When The Glass Wives was published in 2013, I was taken aback when some readers said my novel was an easy read. I’d spent FOUR YEARS writing it. Sentences were painstakingly composed. Characters were crafted from the inside out. The manuscript was edited, revised, rewritten, and then edited again. Others said it was a light read. So I wondered–how many grieving children does it take to write a heavy read? And was that what I wanted? The answer was no.
And then it hit me.
IT’S HARD TO WRITE AN EASY READ.
I flipped my internal switch and that which I considered a slight became a compliment.
Today we have Karin Gillespie sharing with us her experience with real life literary snobbery and how it inspired her latest novel, Love Literary Style.
Please welcome Karin to WFW!
Struggling With Literary Snobbery
When my debut novel, a lighthearted Southern tale, came out in 2004, one of first reviewers said, “It’s a fun read but Gillespie is no Flannery O’Connor.” For heaven sakes, I thought, who said I was trying to be Flannery O’Connor? I was fully aware my novel, unlike Flannery’s fiction, fell into the “guilty pleasure: category. And besides, there’s definitely a place for fluffy fiction. I often get letters from readers who are facing difficult circumstances, and they claim my novels cheered them. That’s a good thing, I’d tell myself. But if I’m going to be perfectly candid, the snobbery against my books, which I’d experienced more times than I liked, stung some.
In 2008, when the publishing imploded, I thought it’d be wise to take a break and get my MFA. By this time, I had five books published, all commercial novels or as academics call them, genre fiction.” In the majority of MFA programs, the goal is to write literary fiction, and genre fiction is seen as a much lesser art form. I basically knew that going in, but there was one instructor who wanted to make certain I didn’t miss the point..
In front of the entire workshop, he deemed my novels as mere “parlor fiction” (of interest to women only, as he put it), and proceeded to tell me that genre fiction was worthless. He claimed, “I could easily write a bestselling novel, but I wouldn’t lower myself that way.” It was one of the worst days of my life, and he shamed me so thoroughly I almost quit the program.
But, happily, I ended up sticking it out. Later I wrote about my MFA experiences in an essay for the New York Times called “Masters in Chicklit.” The article went viral, and authors like Elizabeth Gilbert and Anne Rice shared it on social media. I got dozens of supportive letters and comments. It seemed almost very writer had an experience similar to mine, and they wanted to share it.
I’m delighted to say that the uppity instructor no longer teaches for the program (for reasons that have nothing to do with me), and the rest of my MFA instructors were wonderful and warm. But clearly, literary snobbery is alive and well in America or else my article wouldn’t have resonated with so many people. That NY Times article inspired my latest novel, Love Literary Style, which is about a relationship between a stuffy literary writer and a vivacious, self-published romance author, and how their union suffers when she becomes more successful than he.
From what you’ve read so far, you might imagine genre fiction will come out on top in Love Literary Style, but that’s not at all true. I genuinely tried to fairly portray both sides. In fact, I strongly believe that literary writers can learn much from genre writers and visa versa. Initially, because my instructor was so unkind, I was a little resistant to what my MFA program had to offer and I feared they were trying to change me completely. But gradually I loosened up and started to take in some very valuable lessons. My instructors taught me the art of nuance, and how to go much deeper with my themes and characters. While I’m definitely still a commercial writer, my new strengths are reflected in the reviews I’ve been getting for the books I’ve written since the program.
Likewise, literary writers can learn volumes from commercial writers, particularly when it comes to structure issues. Structure and plot concerns get little or no airtime in MFA programs, and, unfortunately, it shows in the novels. During my MFA program, I did extensive research on structural concerns and presented it at the end of the last semester. It proved to be a revelation for a number of writers, and I’d be glad to send it to any of you who want to improve in this area. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Agents and editors are always saying they want upmarket fiction, which is a marriage of the best elements of gene and literary fiction. Think of novels like A Man Named Ove, The Light Between Oceans, and Me Before You. Such novels appear on the bestselling lists and stay there for weeks, instead of slipping off after a week or two. Which just goes to show you, no matter what kind of writer you are, there’s always something valuable to learn from writers who are different from you. Just don’t let your biases get in the way.
Karin Gillespie is the national bestselling author of six novels and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Writer Magazine. She writes a book column for the Augusta Chronicle and a humor column for August Magazine. She’s also a part-time writing instructor at Augusta University.
You can find Karin on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/29974338-love-literary-style; on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/karin.gillespie, and on her website: http://karingillespie.net/.