Sunday, September 28, 2008

Notes from the Literary Ghetto

Writing Goddesses in Happier Times

So I’m in Park City, Utah, at a writing retreat with my fellow writing goddesses, Martha, Mary Beth, Kate, and Debby. We took the afternoon off to shop the tantalizing wares in Old Town Park City and encourage each other to spend money.
We were in a jewelry store, browsing the showcases, when the woman behind the counter pointed to my pin and said, “What’s that?”
“This?” I said, fingering my brooch. “This is the cover of my book.” (I’d had a pin made with the image of The Wizard Heir cover on it.)
“Your book?” she said, showing a spark of interest. “You’re a writer?”
“Well, yes,” I said. I fished in my purse and pulled out a bookmark and handed it to her. “I write young adult fantasy.”
“Oh!” She looked at me like I’d handed her a live serpent. “Here,” she said, thrusting my bookmark back at me. “I’m going to give this back to you. I don’t do fantasy, and I don’t do YA.”
I was speechless for a moment. “OK,” I said finally, sliding the bookmark back into my purse. “So you don’t do fantasy.”
“No,” she said, practically shuddering. “You can probably tell I have a master’s in library science.” When I looked blank, she added, “I know the jargon. YA, for instance.”
“I see,” I said.
I could have said that some of my best friends are librarians, and many of them fantasy fans and lovers of YA books. I could have said, glancing around the store, “So I guess the library gig didn’t work out.”
I should have just walked away.
Instead, I said, “Well, um, maybe you just haven’t read any good fantasy.”
She shook her head. “Oh, no, I’ve read fantasy,” she said, rolling her eyes. “We were forced to read it in school.”
Like the entire genre of fantasy had its chance and she was not amused.
She reached under the counter, pulled out a paperback literary novel and slapped it down on the counter. “This is what I like to read,” she said. “Have you read it?”
“No,” I said. “Um, I’ve heard of it, though. Is it good?”
“He’s a Pulitzer prize winner,” she said, thoroughly nailing me in my place.
My friend Martha had drifted over during this conversation. “Well,” she said, “Cinda is a best-selling author, you know.”
The clerk stared at me like she didn’t quite believe it. “Really?”
Martha nodded. “New York Times.”
“Oh,” the clerk said, eying me like she might be missing an opportunity to score something she could sell on E-Bay. “Well, maybe I will take a bookmark.”
I could cite other examples of this kind of literary snobbery—for instance, the workshop leader who said to me, as if she couldn’t quite believe it, “You know your writing is really quite good.” She went on to say that my stories could be quite literary if I took the magic out.
And I thought, Why would I want to take the magic out? And what is it about magic that makes them non-literary?
Here’s my point: I have my preferences in my pleasure reading, like everybody else. I read widely, but I know that I’m more likely to like certain kinds of books than others. But I’m not talking about preferences. I’m talking about a clear and visceral disdain for the heart’s work of others. Some people look down on those who write for children and teens. Others sneer at writers of women’s fiction or mysteries or science fiction. As for picture books: how hard could it be?
Nobody should be made to feel like a second class citizen of the writing universe.
If a story is formulaic, predictable, boring, pompous, or confusing—it doesn’t work. What makes a story successful is the same in every genre: engaging characters, compelling plots, and vivid settings. If those pieces aren’t there, nothing works. That’s where the magic comes from—in fantasy and in every other literary category.
Book lovers have more commonalities than differences in a world where many people don’t read a single book in a year. We should celebrate that.


Michelle said...

Hear, hear! That kind of unfounded anti-genre attitude always makes me so mad, too.

Also, hi! :)


BigMan said...

I'm sure you hear this all the time; I LOVE YOUR HEIR BOOKS!!!! They rock: hard and out load. I can't wait to get my hands on the dragon one. Please continue to write. Your books are awesome. Also, I saw you put links on your website for young authors, and i'd like to thank you. I'd love to be a writer. Even if I don't go big like you.

Bethany Lara said...

Ach, well...

Just think what an awful world it would be if nobody ever wrote for children, and young adults! That clerk sounds like what I refer to as a pseudo-intellectual.

"I don't DO fantasy." Tee hee. Charming.

I just finished "Warrior" and I think I will follow the YA fantasy with a chaser of slushy romance. But then, I am dreadfully plebian. :)