Friday Speak Out!: Sneetch School, Guest Post by Melissa Olson

Friday, April 15, 2011
Sneetch School

by Melissa Olson

For years now, I’ve been told that there are two kinds of fiction writing: “popular” or “commercial” fiction, and “literary” fiction. (Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that both terms are insulting to the other kind of writing.) Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with either kind of book--I probably enjoy commercial fiction the most, but I definitely read both. Somewhere along the way, though a line was drawn in the sand, and now everybody seems to have these…attitudes.

I’m not necessarily talking about the readers, though there are plenty of literary snobs and commercial junkies who fight about this stuff. No, I’m referring more to the writers themselves. Very few authors have worked in both literary and commercial fiction, and each side seems to snort at the other. It’s like (to reference a great commercial writer) the Dr. Seuss story with the Sneetches. Some have stars on their bellies, and some don’t, but both sides look down upon the other, which can only be described as pointless. Commercial writers have a lot of insecurity that their work isn’t as good as literary writers, and literary writers are embarrassed that their so-called "superior" books don’t sell nearly as much. Writers don’t like having their egos challenged.

This quiet feud has been around for decades, but it’s only recently that I’ve really been forced to get involved. Even though I haven’t sold a book yet, I’ve always thought of myself as a commercial writer, because that’s the kind of stuff I produce. My first book was a PI whodunit, and my second was a vampires and werewolves fantasy. Somewhere along the line, though, I started to wonder if I was capable of more “literary” writing. I don’t have a problem with being a commercial writer--I’ll never win the Pulitzer, but I might keep food on the table--but I just really wanted to know, for me. Which, combined with my desire to be able to teach in a pinch, is how I ended up in grad school working on a master's in Creative Writing. And after two uncomfortable semesters, I think I’ve finally figured out why I don’t seem to fit in there: nobody crosses the line. There are great commercial writers and great literary writers, but you can’t have a star on your belly and no star on your belly at the same time.

I guess if I’d really thought about it, I would have realized that by even going to grad school I was heading straight into literary-only territory, but my focus was just on learning to write better--I really thought about just how snobbish it would be. My professors and all my classmates have been really cool, interesting people, but nobody wants to write genre fiction: it’s lit or bust. For these people, writing isn’t about having fun or having a career, it’s telling important messages in detailed and well-developed ways. It’s more about great art than great stories, and that’s taking some getting used to.

Sometimes I feel like I’m sneaking around behind enemy lines, and at any moment someone is going to read this blog or critique some of my writing, and I’ll get tossed out of here on my rear. And I have to admit, by about week two I was wondering if I should just drop out and focus on my book. I thought I couldn’t write literary fiction because I’ve never been taught, but maybe it’s just because I can’t write literary fiction.

The smart thing would probably be to cut my losses and walk away from grad school, but historically I'm not known for doing the smart thing, which is how I ended up trying to be a full-time student and mommy to a toddler at the same time. I'm going to go for it, but I'm going to try to remember that life is too busy and too full to worry that I might be holding onto a star, trying to figure out if/how/when to put it on my belly. The whole division thing is silly. Seriously, it's a Dr. Seuss book. Things don't get much sillier.

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Melissa Olson grew up in Chippewa Falls, WI (home of Leinenkugels) before attending the University of Southern California , where she earned degrees in English Literature and Cinema-Television. She worked as a features and reviews writer, columnist, and film editor for the Daily Trojan newspaper. After graduation, she spent a brief time in the Hollywood studio system before moving to Madison, WI. Melissa is currently pursuing her MA in creative writing and working on publishing her two completed novels. She is an occasional film columnist for the Chippewa Falls Herald Telegram, and also writes blogs on entertainment, motherhood, and writing at her website, . Academic interests include film studies, fantasy/magical realism, feminist literature, and screenwriting.


Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!




Nancy Christie said...

I can sympathize with your position. In my case, my short fiction--some of which has actually seen the light of (publishing) day--is "literary" for want of a better term. But both my first novel (which I am currently marketing) and the one I am working on now are strictly commercial.
The fact is, I like writing on both sides of the fence. And since my short fiction tends to be darker and more serious, which I don't think I could (or want to) sustain for 75,000-plus words, it all works out. Now if I could only find an agent...

Bookie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bookie said...

What a delightful essay! No one loves literary fiction more than I do, but a starving (literary)artist in the attic is just...well, hungry. I think eventually the lines will begin to blur like published and self-published lines are already beginning to blur. The writing world is big enough for all sides!

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