Some people seem to think a great novel or painting or piece of music just springs fully developed out of the artist’s head like Athena in full armor from the head of Zeus. Nor do those make any distinction between the works of, say, William Faulkner and Jane Austen and those of John D. MacDonald and Nora Roberts.
For years I had the occasional student (or parent) who accused me of being an intellectual snob because I refused to teach the books they were enjoying so much on their own. I think I finally did convince some of them (by no means all of them!) that, indeed, there are many kinds of novels available to us and we may enjoy all of them for what are and for the pleasure they give us, either momentarily or repeatedly. (I always tried to avoid terms like levels of appreciation or meaning.)
Meanwhile, I continued to teach works that merited the class time for discussion and the students’ time and effort in writing papers delineating their own views of a given text. Even as I was teaching Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare, I would go home and read Georgette Heyer. And I make no apology for what may seem a double standard (if not hypocrisy!). I think occasionally we need to just lose ourselves in pure entertainment. As Francis Bacon said before the novel as we know it was even invented: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested . . .”
Nor do I make any apology for the fact that the books I write offer only a few hours of entertainments. (I would like to write a book like The Scarlet Letter or For Whom the Bell Tolls, but so far such work eludes me.) Nevertheless, I and thousands of others work hard at honing our craft. I think I have written in this space before that when I first started writing fiction, I had been teaching expository writing for an eon or two. I thought I knew it all about putting words into sentences and paragraphs, etc. Well, I did—so far as it went. Which wasn’t nearly far enough! Fiction is a whole different game (to resort to cliché).
So I devoured (and still do) “how to” books on writing fiction. Books on creating believable characters, on plotting, on the use of setting to establish mood, on writing dialogue, and so on. I read (and reread) John Gardner and E.M.Forster and Christopher Vogler and, later, Stephen King on writing fiction. I read Anne Lamott and Eudora Welty. I have learned hugely from these and many others, but mostly I have learned (over and over) from just doing it—that is, from just writing and then submitting my work to the crucible of critiques from other writers. For me, these were/are the members of Lone Mountain Writers in Carson City, Nevada. They never fail to help me make my work better!
The Jackson Pollack image aside, painters don’t just toss bits of color onto a canvas and hope it will turn out to be something. That is not the way we got the Mona Lisa or Guernica. Nor did Mozart or Copeland just effortlessly produce those sounds that move us so. Rodin made image after image before he had what he wanted in sculpture. Jane Smiley and Tony Morrison struggle to produce those award-winning novels. And I am here to say that so do those who are producing the who-done-its and the romance novels so many find purely entertaining!