There is a certain snootiness inherent in most graduate literature and writing classes when it comes to genre and popular fiction. I recall getting a note on my thesis, which was a creative work, that my style was readable. It was not the first time I had gotten this backhanded compliment from the same professor; I call it backhanded because she always followed it with “And that is a good thing.” Had she not tagged it in such a way, I would never have considered it to be a bad thing. Isn’t that what, as writers, we strive for? Something to be read?
Shortly after she bestowed the ‘readable’ title on me the first time, during a fiction workshop, I realized what she meant–she viewed my work as somewhat possibly commercial and lacking opaque style. The revelation came during a critique of another student about an hour after mine. In this case the other student’s story was built around magical realism and surrealism; essentially the story of a girl waiting in a coffee shop before actually diving into her coffee cup. Her work was hailed as deep, profound, and complex. At the time, I felt discouraged knowing that nothing like that could organically come out of me. I was doomed to readable.
It was a curse that haunted me for the next few classes. My professor would reference books that I considered well-written, like Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, as airport books, a term she applied to books that required little focus and could be read in a passing manner. By the end of the class I had a specific view of the writing world as made up of two types of writers: there were those who wrote complex, intense pieces that might require multiple readings before making sense, and there were those that wrote readable, light fare that was easily forgettable. Guess which one I thought made a writer good?
When the phrase popped up again on my thesis, I was of a different mindset. A year and a half had passed since I first got the critique, and I had read a great deal in the interim: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Emma, Jane Eyre, The Wicked Day, Bleak House, Life of Pi, Grendel, The Mists of Avalon, and many more. While that list contains several of those books that are less commercial and certainly more demanding to the reader, a number of them would qualify as genre books and many of them were readable, with strong narrative and writing that was good without pointing out how good it was. Although authors like Dickens might seem antiquated now, during his career he enjoyed great popularity. (I will say that Bleak House is not the easiest of his works only because of the massive number of characters, but the majority of his work is certainly readable.)
I think one of the biggest challenges to any writer is to accept critique, weigh it carefully, and find a way to remain true to yourself while still growing. Much as I can appreciate well-done magical realism, I don’t believe it is something that I need to include in my own writing just so I can seem more complex. My strengths lie in description and character development. While I want to work on other aspects of craft, trying to force my writing to be something it’s not does no one any good. Some things are best left to others.
My name is Amber Kelly-Anderson and I write readable prose.
And that’s a good thing.