Embracing your bookshelf.

There was a really interesting little story on the NPR segment “My Guilty Pleasure” this week, about a writer feeling guilty admitting his love for Stephen King and John Irving in an MFA setting. I found this to be somewhat interesting, given that, in my opinion, John Irving and Stephen King are both writers to be emulated–successful, prolific novelists with wild, fertile imaginations, rich characters, and diverse bodies of work–and shouldn’t earn anyone’s derision, even if their work is not to a particular person’s taste.

Later in the story, the writer (Joshua Braff, a novelist himself and a graduate of the MFA program at St. Mary’s College), says:

My guess is there are M.F.A. students sitting in class right now, burying the fact that they’ve read 12 vampire novels in the past two years. Be truthful, is my advice. Take your sunglasses off inside and tell those people whom you really enjoy reading. And if they smile-giggle and a hush comes over the room, don’t do what I did and lie to your classmates. Be proud of the books you’ve absorbed. Revel in your guilty pleasures.

So, with that encouragement, here is my confession: I am an avid consumer of Charlene Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries series, the books on which the campy, ridiculous show True Blood are based. They are trashy and I adore them. (There are ten of them, not twelve, but I still think that Joshua was speaking to me.)

On a more serious note, I think that it’s worth pointing out that when a writer reads a book that they enjoy–even a “bad” book with no real redeeming literary qualities–there is still a small amount of influence that is happening. You might not be able to directly link the contents of a bodice-ripping romance novel or a Twilight with something that you’ve written, but when you consider your “bookshelf”–not just the books you own, but all of the books that you have read in your lifetime–you are looking at the thing that has shaped you into the writer that you are today. I am a conglomeration of Madeleine L’Engle and Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein and Calvin and Hobbes and Michael Chabon and bad science fiction and good science fiction and Michael Faber and Ray Bradbury and The Dark is Rising and John Bellairs and Isabelle Allende and Sarah Waters and Winesburg, Ohio and Ann Patchett and Harry Potter and yes, Charlene Harris’ vampire books, not to mention the thousands of other authors and individual novels and stories (not to mention the authors that I haven’t heard of, the books that I haven’t read), passed through a lens of age and experiences and perspective and experimentation, leading to every single sentence that I write. The same is true of every writer.

Take pride in your bookshelf! Or, at the very least, don’t be wildly ashamed that you’ve never read a particular author, or that you have. If you have, embrace them. If you haven’t, ask the person making that disbelieving face if you might borrow their copy of that particular book, so as to become familiar with the writer. That is how I ended up with a stack of Philip Roth books from a member of my cohort. Win.

My guess is there are M.F.A. students sitting in class right now, burying the fact that they’ve read 12 vampire novels in the past two years. Be truthful, is my advice. Take your sunglasses off inside and tell those people whom you really enjoy reading. And if they smile-giggle and a hush comes over the room, don’t do what I did and lie to your classmates. Be proud of the books you’ve absorbed. Revel in your guilty pleasures.

3 thoughts on “Embracing your bookshelf.

  1. Mommy

    You forgot about reading Goosebumps books or did you just read one and was too frightened to read the rest? Maybe that was Mario? All I remember was for months checking under the beds at night to verify that there were no living dummy dolls waiting to come out in the dark. Oh well, there were not enough books to satisfy your hunger for reading, even though we had books stacked to the celing in every corner.

  2. Hi Carmen! This is Liz followed you here from facebook…

    Not in an MFA program, but as a English major I often found myself in the great literature verses pop literature debate. If something is popular, is it automatically sucked of artistic merit? I’m sure there’s some Indie musicians who could weigh in on this question an well…

  3. Neal

    When I saw Micheal Chabon speak some years ago he talked about how he devoted a good portion of his MFA experience to writing sci-fi and detective stories-working within genre fiction in general. The most common response he got from his professors was: “That’s great Micheal, when are you going to show us something serious.”

    Pop literature can be good or bad but it will always be relevant and interesting because it’s going to characterize how people have chosen their culture and how they plan on imaging or appreciating it.

    It’s no coincidence that when Chabon was doing his MFA James Ellroy and Stephen King were the big authors in each of their genres and you can see shades of them in what he writes.

    Something we forget with older forms like western classical, jazz, dance, and literature is that they were premised on absorbing raw and unrefined adjunct styles. Concertos are peppered with rural folk and ballet reconstructed its entire premise around contemporary dance trends.

    What makes literature any different ?

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