Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Reader's Coming of Age

When I first started in publishing I was fresh-faced and fresh out of college. While I had spent my summer reading commercial fiction like John Grisham, Michael Connelly, and, yes, Bridges of Madison County, I somehow had the impression that as a recent college grad, or just an intelligent woman, I should be reading more intelligent books (whatever that means). In other words, I should be catching up on the classics I missed out on as a journalism major or reading only books that incited great philosophical discussions. The irony of that sort of thinking is that one of the reasons I got my first job as an editorial assistant with Berkley Publishing is that I was reading exactly the types of books they published. I was reading commercial fiction and they were looking for someone just like me. They didn’t want to hire someone who had spent the summer reading The Celestine Prophecy, Dickens, or To Kill a Mockingbird. They wanted an editor who understood the market for the books they were publishing.

Well, it took me a long time to accept and advertise the fact that I was a commercial fiction girl. Some of that could be because of the reactions I received when hired for my new job (laughter and disdain about romance novels), and some of that could have been my age. See, like all young women (like all young people), I think it took me a while to come into my own and really accept myself for who I am. Sure, I can read and enjoy Dickens just as easily as the rest of you. But I don’t have to. Because what I really want to read, when I have the chance to read, is what some of you might refer to as a good old-fashioned bodice ripper, or what others have called “trash.” I’m no longer embarrassed to carry a steamy book on the subway or to the doctor’s office. In fact, often I’ll carry the steamiest book I can find, simply to advertise my clients. It helps now to be confident in who I am and prepared to defend the books I love. It also helps that I make a good living off of them [wink].

I think all readers evolve and grow over time and eventually find their niche. I hear often from those who read only fantasy as young people and now have grown to read different kinds of fiction, and I hear from others who still can’t stomach commercial fiction but love nothing more than to cuddle into a long classic. Some typically enjoy longer literary works, but when life is tough or getting them down, they will pull out a favorite romance or thriller. What we read and when we’re reading it can say a lot about who we are in that time of our life, just like the music we listen to and the movies we watch. Did I ever tell you how much Sex Pistols I listened to in my angst-ridden teen years or the number of times I’ve seen The Breakfast Club?



Being Beth said...

I used to wince when someone asked me what I was currently reading -- I love Louis L'Amour. His books are like comfort food. I read a wide variety of books, but when I'm tired or it's a rainy Saturday, you'll find me snuggled up on the couch reading a L'Amour book. The only reason I don't write westerns is because i've read L'amour's books so often, I'm afraid I'd inadvertently plagiarize him and that simply wouldn't be good.

I enjoyed your posts every morning. Your blog is a great start to my day.

Michele Dunaway said...

There's a picture of me, on my website, reading a Harlequin Presents. I started reading them in high school.

Once, early in my career, I was in the library checking out a least 10-15 romance novels. The male librarian at the time (who kept seeing me come in weekly) asked me if I ever read anything real.

No, I'm not kidding you. I have to admit, I'm still proud of myself for my reaction. I didn't miss a beat.

I looked him square in the eye and said to the effect of, "I teach English and am steeped in the classics all day. When I go home, I want to read something's that's real, has a happy ending and isn't boring. And, no matter how good Mel Gibson might have made Hamlet look, I'm not taking Hamlet to bed with me."

Then I walked off. He never really took that approach with me again, and once I sold, I know I made it clear that not only did I read them, but I wrote (and published) them as well.

So wear it proudly. As I say, I'd rather see people reading for pleasure than watching TV.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jessica!
Wow....I used to be the same....I wouldn't approach the romance section in the bookstore unless there was noone around...pretty sad...I guess I just felt the same as you...but now, I don't give a rats a$$ what anyone thinks! I read romance because I love it...and that's why I write it as well!
so, yeah....feels good to not give a damn what anyone thinks!

Mark Terry said...

I stopped defending my reading choices a long time ago. That said, out of college I read pretty broadly, then as my writing got focused, so did my reading, where I read very deeply and broadly into mysteries and suspense and thrillers. In the last year or so I've been trying to read more outside my favorite genre, throwing in SF and fantasy and a lot of nonfiction books, sort of like pulling my head up out of the trough and looking around to see what else is out there in the world.

I think it's probably a sign of growth, but who knows?

Anonymous said...

This is the best post, ever. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that reading what I liked reading was, in fact, good enough. For a long while I tried reading what I felt I "should" want to read, as a writer.

I write YA and there are so many books out there right now that are edgy to the point where I can no longer suspend my disbelief. They are SO hip, SO slang-filled, with characters that seem to have no apprehension or moments of reflection. I don't at all mind sex in YA, but the problem with it in YA, is that if there is sex it is usually ALL the book is about. It simply doesn't ring true. I found I really missed exploring a character than had a larger goal and dilema for herself rather than whether or not to give a BJ to another character.

What you read says SO much about who you are -- I like large goals for myself (writing books) and as it turns out, I need the same for characters in books. Why deny who you are?

Holly B. said...

As the former BookEnds intern/assistant, I feel the need to comment on this post in particular. On my very first day at BookEnds, on the way to my very first meeting, I remember Jessica asking about the types of books I liked best and who my favorite author was. Wanting to be completely truthful, but at the time not sure what her reaction would be, I blurted out that I had an obsession with Nora Roberts and romance. Then a great thing happened...Jessica started laughing and said I was going to fit in perfectly. :) She, Jacky and Kim answered all my questions throughout my time there, about basically everything, and I learned so much, about different genres, what makes certain things work and others flop, and how to really spot a potentially great book.

Now I'm an editorial assistant, working for a senior editor at a major publishing house that deals with 99% commercial fiction, at least half of it romance and/or erotica. If I hadn't received such a great reaction and support from Jessica, and BookEnds in general, I probably wouldn't be where I am, or as comfortable telling people what kind of books I work with for a living. Thanks for everything ladies!!

It is still a morning ritual to read the BookEnds blog. :)

Suzan Harden said...

Interesting post. The so-called classics I truly LIKE to read (Twain, Dickens) were the commercial fiction of their day. And I owe Stephanie Bond for her Harlequin Love & Laughter titles getting me through law school. (After breaking down Texas intestate rules, you need something fun or your brain explodes.)

For the single ladies, read a Star Trek novel on the subway. You'll meet a lot of cute, fairly wealthy geeks.

Anonymous said...

It's a lot like this with reading children's and YA--people look at you like you must be reading one of your kids' books. Nope.

The scene where Ally Sheedy puts the "snow" on her picture is one of the classics of film. :)

Anonymous said...

I hate that the snobbery exists. It really does. I read things that are called literary and I just don't get it. Once at a conference, an agent on a panel said, "I want literary, but it must be very readable." And I thought to myself, "Oh, you want commercial fiction."

Anonymous said...

Writers tear down other writers all the time, which might be one reason why it is hard to come to terms with what you like/want to read and write.

Literary fiction writers snub their nose at thrillers for mindless, cookie-cutter plots. Commercial thriller writers snub their nose at Romance writers, pegging their readers as bored housewives. I once heard a struggling, unpublished romance writer ask a published YA author (young adult, teen books) when she was going to write a "real" book.

That's why I go out of my way to respect any published or struggling-to-get published writer, anywhere, no matter the genre.

Writing is tough, do we really need to cut down others' taste to make ourselves feel better about the genre we choose to write?

Robena Grant said...

I read commercial fiction but across many genres. Everything from thrillers to romance.
But, Michele, I have to say I'm with you, I love Harlequin Presents. And you know what, the sillier the title the more I like it. Those titles make me laugh.

I also love the Harlequin Intrigue and Silhouette Romantic Suspense lines. There are so many fabulous writers and they sure know how to get the emotion on the page, and the pacing is always fast.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

This post strikes a chord with me. I usually lurk, but have to comment. As a writer who just sold her first novel to Harlequin Presents this week, I understand all about loving a genre that some people look down on. I've even heard other romance writers (and an editor or two) say derogatory things about Presents (it's those alpha males and virgins!).

And you know what, I don't care. I've read the classics. I have a master's degree for pete's sake and I did my thesis on Virginia Woolf. I know what angst is; I know what the classics are about and how important they are.

But dammit, what I (we) write is important too. It means something to a whole lot of people, or Presents wouldn't sell as well as they do. And Dickens wasn't exactly literature in his day. No, he was a commercial fiction writer.

So bravo to everyone who loves commercial fiction and doesn't apologize for it! Yes, it can take time to learn to be that confident in our choices, but I'm too old to put much stock in someone else pooh poohing my reading. I guess I also love to trot out the fact I was a Lit major as a contrast -- been there, read it, love it, but still choose to write and read romance.

Thank God for commercial fiction writers! I'd much rather curl up with a romance than Hamlet too. :)

Kate Douglas said...

First of all, congratulations on that sale, Lynn! That is just too cool!!! I was a kid in the fifties and sixties and had never heard of romances--I read S/F and fantasy and loved the stories, but when I went on to college and majored in English, I read the classics and loved them as well. It wasn't until 1976 when a friend handed me a Harlequin Romance and said I might like the story that I was hooked. What did and still does it for me are the guaranteed happy endings. A so-called "literary" read can leave me depressed for weeks, but a good romance just makes me feel, if not downright good, at least more optimistic. That's why I write romances--I love that HEA. I'm not at all apologetic for my choice in reading or career, but in my case it truly was an evolution, or as Jessica puts it, my own "reader's coming of age."

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Excellently put, Jessica.

Anonymous said...

Hear Hear!! I couldn't agree more, it took me years to not only get comfortable with browsing in the romance section of bookstores, but to also realize I wanted to write them as well. :p

Like you I love the classics, but they've never really been my favorites, give me a good LKH or Fever series book any day. ;)

Anonymous said...

I'm just happy that people still read, no matter what they like to read! I like TV and movies just as much as the next person, but nothing ever gets me like reading does, and sometimes I worry that no one reads any more. Reading these blogs (and the comments on these blogs) give me faith again. I will admit that I am not a big romance fan; my "junk" book addiction is mystery. I also like books that challenge me intellectually a little, though sometimes there is just nothing like a good chick-lit book to make your soul happy :) Just as I was not embarrassed to read Anna Karenina at the beach a few years ago, I am also not at all ashamed to haul Hell's Belles into the doctor's office. Whatever, as long as it's what I feel like reading at the time!

Anonymous said...

GAK! You consider The Celestine Prophecy to be serious literature? Even To Kill a Mockingbird is considered middlebrow.

There is no question that each genre's fiction has its high standards, but your backhanded slap at so-called literary fiction is insulting to the millions of readers who devote themselves to reading and discussing it.

Anonymous said...

To Greg Lyons--

I had to laugh when I read your comment. My sister and I are both writers, both published. I write thrillers; she writes literary fiction, and we've had a lot of discussion over what is what, and why. I mention this because my question to you is placed with complete sincerity: what books would you consider represent high literary standards?

Anonymous said...

I did the same thing. I was an English major and when I graduated, as soon as I finished paying off the student loan, which was $50 a month, I signed up for a classics of the month club, which was also $50 a month. 100 books in the club. I did great at reading them until I started having kids. Then I discovered genre fiction (the reading and writing of) and here I am, SEVERAL years later, with only 1/2 of the 100 Greatest Books Ever Written collection read. I'm stuck on Tom Jones. The pacing is *so* not today.

The Rejection Queen said...

What's the difference between mainstream fiction and commericial fiction?

Michele Dunaway said...

The bottom line is that books of all kinds have to compete with all other forms of entertainment.

Most of my students hate the classics, as in, they love to watch Huckleberry Finn, but reading it (since the language is so outdated as to how they read/speak/write now) is torture to them.

And I can tell you they find watching She's the Man much cooler and fun than reading the Shakespearean play it's based on.

And congrats Lynn on your first sale. That's so cool! Savor this moment.

I always wanted to write a Presents. Once Abby Gaines sent me an email of a Harlequin brochure in Australia. There I was, a Mills & Boon Sexy, out with the likes of Penny Jordan and others.

I emailed Sandra Marton and said, "Look, I made it! In Australia & NZ, I'm a Presents author." Or close enough that I'm satisfied.


Anonymous said...

The Breakfast Club is still one of my favorite movies -- I think it's a very intelligent movie -- of course, the first time I saw it I didn't realize it was actual social commentary -- It was just simply life in the 80s as a teenager.
Yes, I may be a little stuck in the 80s -- but I enjoy it.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

You are correct that none of the books I cited would be considered "literary." Dickens and To Kill a Mockingbird are classics and fall in a genre outside what many are trying to publish in now. Celestine is not literary, but not quite the same type of commercial fiction that the house I was interviewing at published.

My intention was not to insult anyone who enjoys literary fiction, but to criticize those lovers of literary fiction who have given commercial fiction the "backhanded slap" for years.

As for those looking for examples of literary fiction, obviously this is somewhat subjective, but what about Don DeLilo, Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, Khaled Hosseini, or Toni Morrison?


Lynn Raye Harris said...

Thank you, Kate and Michele. :) It is an amazing feeling. :) I'm pretty happy.

Jess Anastasi said...

This totally resonated with me! When I was younger, I used to try to avoid telling people I was reading/writing romance simply to avoid the eye-rolling and typical disdain. When I was studying Writing & Editing at college, all our lecturers were journos and published literary authors. I'm sure some of them didn't take me seriously. We had to read and discuss the classics, and while I did enjoy it, over the years it taught me that I loved, and to be proud of the romance genre. By the time I left, I had totally 'converted' some of the lecturers and now every so often they ask me back to present information about commercial romance to the students.
This post is so right! It really is important to find yourself not only as a writer/reader, but as a person too.

Miss K said...

I absolutely agree. I enjoy most types of fiction but what I turn to when I have down time for reading would be good old commercial fiction. There should be no shame in what we are all reading and enjoying, so long as we ARE reading!!

Kimber Li said...

Actually, I still love the kinds of books I loved as a teen. In fact, I'll read almost anything, except Horror (except Stephen King) or Erotica. However, my favorites back then and now are books which carry me away to a different time and place - Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Historicals. I did go through an Edgar Allen Poe phase, which may explain Stephen King on my list.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I think it is horrible that people sometimes feel ashamed of the books they chose to read. I say if a person is reading, it is a great and wonderful thing in itself! I haven't read romance much in the past 10 years, but from the time I was 12 to about 27, it was my favorite genre. I've read many books from most genres, the classics, and literary fiction. I never felt insecure when reading a romance novel or even thought to try to hide the fact. Perhaps it is because I majored in history and not in English.

s.w. vaughn said...

OMG, The Breakfast Club! I must've watched that movie a hundred gajillion times.

Now I'm gonna have to go and hunt down a copy (seem to have misplaced mine between high school and now :-)

So glad to read this avowal of commercial dedication. I'm right there with ya.

The Rejection Queen said...

Literary fiction are those novels were they have 10 dollars words on every page and it takes like an hour to read one page. I wish I could write like that but I can't. I'd rather have someone enjoy my novel then sit there and try to figure out what the hell I am saying. By the way...I wouldn't even get through one chapter of "Atonement"...way too complicated.

Spy Scribbler said...

God help me if I ever took the advice to write what I read. I go through intense phases that last 6 months to 2 years, where I'll primarily read one genre. Right now it's Dickens and Irving, mostly, but they're both pretty commercial, when you think about it. I think I'm about to go on an erotica phase again. Or maybe historical.

I mix other stuff in the middle, though, too!