Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Another Professor...Another Crazy Comment

By Casey Tolfree

First off, thanks for all the love for the Dear Jack Foundation. It's just an amazing story (with a killer soundtrack).

But on to my topic... so another one of my professors said something completely harsh yesterday.

One of my classmates asked how to differentiate between commercial and literary fiction. I was liking her response would be subject, themes, writing style, academic praise or criticism. No. Her answer: they are usually poor written with characters that aren't developed and don't make you think at all.


Then she cited Sophie Kinsella. Okay, that's chick lit - it's way different then general commercial fiction. I've read plenty of commercial fiction that is well-written, has extremely developed characters and made me think about my life and society. I think Bella Swan and Harry Potter are pretty well developed, just to prove a point. (You guys are commenting on this like I said Harry Potter and Twilight belong in the canon. I'm just saying that they are well-developed. Yes the writing is for YA and yes it's sometimes not amazing. But character-wise... they are good. So Relax!)

Anyway, I just couldn't even imagine someone saying that to their class of writing students. I write commercial fiction. Sigh. This is why I didn't want to be an English major.

In other news, my playwriting class is still AWESOME! And my story gets workshopped tomorrow so I'll be back with an update... oh and my story definitely commercial.


  1. I understand where you're coming from, on the poetry side some academics have strong feelings about whether spoken word/performance poetry is even poetry at all. That debate annoys me lol. But professors are still people with opinions and that was her opinion of commercial fiction. There are debates like that all over academia about a lot of different things. I think some people become really protective of their chosen genre/their art and fear things that make that art accessible to a broader range of people because doing that makes them feel less special for being able to do what they do. So they might try to say that only this type of writing (the kind of writing they do) counts.

    I'm a big supporter of proving people wrong. Let this be your fuel to write and publish some well-written, character driven, thought provoking commercial fiction. I think John Grisham's stuff fits this description.

    My jury is out on whether Bella Swan is a well developed character. Now that I think about it, maybe she is, since I feel that I know her well enough for her dependence on Edward to get on my nerves lol.

  2. I was by no means claiming Harry Potter and Twilight to be great works of commercial fiction lol but they are commercial and their characters are really developed.

    But think of Jodi Picoult or Kate Jacobs... and John Grisham (I agree)... they are all well-written and make you think about life.

    Sigh. Crazy teachers. My response was that's really harsh and she just blew me off, which just made me more upset. lol. It's going to be a long two years.

  3. I know I am opening a can of worms here, but I do have to agree and say that "Twilight" is rather poorly written. I did read all four books in about two weeks (yikes!), and yes, I soooo enjoyed them. But, I couldn't help but notice that it was rather sloppy. I think by the third or fourth installment, it became clear to me that they were written very quickly--an obvious mark that they are more commercially driven novels. I plan to re-read the books and highlight every mentioning of "smoldering" and "topaz" and "liquid fire" and "amber" as well as circle every horrible adverb.

    Being in an MFA program, I'm sure you understand the importance of a thesaurus and unique word choices. Don't let her opinion get in the way of your pursuit. It's a dangerous thing when sharing these opinions because it can be really damaging, and you should know your work is meaningful!

  4. No can of worms - I said above they weren't examples of great commercial fiction just well developed characters... big difference. ;)

  5. I buy that Harry Potter is a well developed character, but Bella Swan? Sorry. She is the classic two-dimensional character. In fact, she is SUPPOSED to be. Readers wouldn't hero-worship Edward if they couldn't impose themselves so easily over her. She exists (and narrates) for the purpose of idolizing Edward, and I'd argue that in order for her to be a well developed character she'd have to think about something other than 1) Edward, 2) the werewolf guy or 3) herself, and I don't think she does.

    I could go (and have gone!) on a whole Twilight rant. I won't, but do want to say: If there are any fellow Twilight Haters out there, I'd suggest reading this summary of the books:
    It's image heavy, sarcasm heavy and pee-in-your-pants funny.

    But, Casey, I think you have to take your professor's words with a grain of salt. For every well written "commercial fiction" work out there, I'd guess there are half a dozen really crappy pieces. This isn't to say you can't have both well written work and commercial appeal, but the first shouldn't be given up for the second. Also, if you haven't found her yet, I suggest you check out Tanya at Scribbling Novelist, She has had some of these same concerns in her first year of her MFA program. She's a good blogger and I think you'd find some of her posts interesting. :)

    But, write what you want to write. Your professor does and you deserve to, too!

  6. I just think it's sad how writers are criticizing their own. You can say the same thing for movies - hell for every one great pair of jeans I find I get a half dozen crappy owns before I find another great pair. I think that instead of just putting each other down we should be talking about the differences in a good like and not in a like as well that sucks and literary is great. They are different - they are intended to be different.

    I don't pick up Twilight or the Jessica Darling series (so good if you like smart girls and boy drama) intending to read the great American novel - but I am usually extremely satisfied. I can't say I am satisfied when I read literary fiction all the time...usually I'm like what's the point this isn't that amazing, Catcher in the Rye.... Great Gatsby.... that's just me. I write because I'm good at it and it's fun. I bring relationships to the forefront and explore them. I don't need nor want to make grand statements and I'm not so sure that every other wants to.

    Maybe I'm just a new kind of MFA student.

    Oh... Don't forget guys that Twilight is young adult fiction lol.... it's not meant to appeal to the adult masses :) (I like Edward and Bella - they have that classic appeal but I dig it. I get it and if you read all four books... Bella's pretty in depth. Just don't read it and be all heady. Read it for fun.)

  7. Casey, I think you're right. People write and read with different intentions. And we should look at that before we assign whole categories of writing as "good" or "bad." Also, we should all probably remind ourselves that "good" and "bad" are opinions and even though we believe strongly in our own, that doesn't make them gospel.

    Dani Shapiro wrote something on this topic, today-

    I think she hits on some interesting points and ends by saying that in the end, she wants to write good books, and that is what matters. I think as writers, that's the best we can do. And then let our readers figure if they agree or not.

  8. The commercial versus literary debate does get tiring doesn't it? I seem to read a lot of both and have no problem with either side of the room (well except Twilight - to me - isn't that well written although I did find myself sucked in so throw out the grammar I guess!). I hate that a teacher would say that though instead of just opening it up for discussion *sigh*

  9. Yeah... it's definitely super addictive... I stayed up like all night reading them. lol. I think the ease of the reading allows you to really get into the story line. You don't have to stop and go ... what wait.

    Can't wait for New Moon ;)

  10. I agree with everyone about Bella being really two dimensional. I read the books and sorta enjoyed them too, but besides just hating Bella, I think she was a poorly thought out character. I think I can describe her in like 3 words, and they would the same 3 words I would describe her in the last book (plus one more word, which I won't say here in case people haven't read it).

    But Casey, you're absolutely right about Harry Potter. Whatever you have to say about the popularity of those books, or Rowling's ability at writing, it's hard not to be impressed at her ability to create compelling characters.

    But that old commercial vs. academic thing is going to happen throughout your career. You should ignore it as much as you can. Have you ever worked retail? Often, first shift hates third shift hates second shift and on and on. It's the same with writing. If you are a 'literary' writer, and you write a damn impressive book, and it sells 100 copies, you might just start hating Stephanie Meyer.

    Like I said, don't worry too much, Casey. Ask your professor what Charles Dickens was writing when he wrote it. He was writing popular fiction, which is now considered classic, and therefore, literary.


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