Today is Larry McMurtry's birthday. I have an older book, with an older picture of him wearing a shirt declaring "Minor Regional Novelist." Little did he know that Lonesome Dove was about to take the world by storm--and win a Pulitzer Prize.
In The New York Times, I read this story about Justin Cronin, a Rice University professor and writer of short stories and two literary novels. He's just published a vampire novel, The Passage, which has catapulted him into a different literary level, with a huge print run and tons of money.
He reflects on the difference between the tags "literary" and "commercial": "I think literary is shorthand for appreciated, and commercial is shorthand for sells. I did not undertake the writing of this book thinking that it was one thing or the other, or even that books in general have to be one thing or the other. Those are descriptions of what happens to a book after it’s written."
The story also reminded me of an encounter I had with an MFA student years ago, when I was almost done with grad school. He learned that I had literary ambitions, and he asked, "Are you hoping to be good or are you hoping to sell a lot of novels, like John Grisham?"
At that time, I was the only person in America who hadn't read The Firm. I had been finishing my Ph.D. in British Literature, and I hadn't read any literature written by a non-Brit in almost two years. I thought the MFA student offered me a false choice. I asked, "Can't a book be both?"
He said no, and I have to admit that so far, it seems like the rare book that's both beautifully written and compelling to read in the way that sells lots of copies. I have since read several of Grisham's novels, and I think he pulls it off. Likewise, Larry McMurtry accomplishes a certain level of beautiful writing into his page turners.
Other novels, not so much. I thought The Da Vinci Code was terribly clunky writing, so wretched that I couldn't finish it, with various plot twists that felt obvious and manipulative: we're about to unlock a puzzle, and gee whiz, here's a puzzle included inside. All that and badly done dialogue to boot. I've heard similar things about the Stieg Larsson series (you know, that fire playing, hornet kicking girl with tattoo series).
So far, I write poetry and blog entries, so I don't have to worry about selling my soul. I think of that MFA student, and the temptations he thought we would face, the choice between writing compelling prose and writing beautiful sentences. I still hope to do both, to create well-written prose that's compelling. I even have that hope as I write various reports for work. It delights me to sneak in some lovely sentences, even into such dry materials as assessment documents.
I think of that MFA student and the question he was really asking: would you accept boat loads of money for your writing? Of course I would; wouldn't we all?
What he was really asking: would you accept boat loads of money for your writing if you had to dumb it down?
We were young then, and we thought that the literary devil that tempted us would be the idea of writing a thriller or a bodice-ripper of a romance. Little did we know how many ways there would be to sell our literary writer souls.
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