Monday, May 2, 2011

Don't Worry if You're Not Tolstoy

I'm not an idealist anymore. At least not about writing. That's right, you heard it here first. Back when I was a grad student--I have an MFA in creative writing--being the Great American Novelist who wrote the Great American Novel was all that mattered to me. I read Hemingway and Mailer and Dos Passos wanting to be in the forefront of my generation of Post-Post-Post Modern writers. I wrote pastiches of Elizabeth Tallent, emulated everyone from Sherman Alexie to Edgar Allan Poe in my short stories.

And then I woke up.

My first dose of realism came when I found that I had no idea what to write as a master's thesis (see, in my program, us fiction students either had to write a novel or a collection of short stories and then hand it over to a thesis director for their approval). I re-read several short stories I'd written and decided they were all crap. Worse than crap, actually: pretentious crap. I'd always liked Dickens, so I figured maybe instead of short stories, I could write a sweeping epic that would enshrine the times in which I lived for the ages.

And nothing came to me. I started to get worried. So I told myself: screw it. Just write what comes to you and stop asking questions. So what did I do? I wrote an expansive, uber-massive 617 page Mafia novel.

Yeah, you heard that right. Mafia novel.

One member of my thesis committee, after I'd handed it in to her, called it "ginormous." She was of Italian descent, so I knew she'd at least show a passing interest in it. My biggest concern was my thesis chair, a man who other novelists know and respect, a prominent novelist himself who works for a nationally-known news outlet as their literary reviewer. A man who, in his classes, actively railed against the very notion of genre. One time, someone compared a book we were reading to Star Wars, and I thought he was going to throw up. Would this same man throw my Mafia book in the trash, douse it in lighter fluid, and sing "That's Amore" as he danced around the inferno?

Not exactly. Instead, he took one look at it, told me to chop it in half if I ever hoped to get it published, and signed his name to the approval slip without so much as opening the first page.

I have since seen a blurb written by this guy on the back of one of the most popular genre novels in modern times, giving it a stellar review. What is my point in writing this? That even the most staunch critics of popular culture secretly like it. Ok, maybe not Harold Bloom. But this guy, he likes well-crafted stories, even if they're--gulp!--genre fiction. And the title of my piece--which screamed, "Hey, this is a Mafia novel!" wasn't the thing that put him off: it was its sheer size.

His reaction gave me heart. After years of writing "sophisticated" screenplays and tales of woe that went nowhere, after feeling that I was somehow inferior to my classmates who'd written volumes about American angst and the dissolution of marriages, I've now turned my attention to young adult fiction. And I don't feel any of the misgivings I'd have felt just ten years ago. Because as long as a story is good and it transports the reader and provides them with a happy escape, that's just as important as writing War and Peace II.

No comments:

Post a Comment