Not quite the Sookie Stackhouse books
The first semester I taught creative writing there was one student who terrified me more than the rest because I was fairly certain she was smarter than me. She was also quite sure of this, which led to things sometimes getting a bit awkward in the classroom. I found myself researching hybrid texts when she expressed disappointment that I didn’t have any on the syllabus and farming out her poems to my poet friends because she kept showing up to my office hours and demanding more feedback than I could find it in me to give. When she got mono mid-semester, I was thrilled to have a three-week reprieve from her hand going up.
But she came back rested and even more well read, with a bunch of new, very good writing.
Then one day in the TA office, the best thing happened. I was grading papers with my friend Emily, a fellow grad student who also happened to have Carmen, the scary-smart student, in one of her classes. “Oh my God,” Emily said, a little gleefully.
“I know,” I said, presuming she was exclaiming over another horrible sentence construction or idiot plot development. “I just read another one that used emoticons instead of adjectives.”
Emily shook her head. That wasn’t it at all. “Troll erotica,” she said.
“What?” I asked, imagining some poor misguided undergrad had turned in a racy story involving internet jackasses.
“Carmen writes troll erotica.” She turned her laptop around so that I could see the screen. It was a somewhat homespun looking webpage, mostly text, with some Shrek-ish creatures marauding in the margins. She scooted her chair closer to mine and leaned in, rapt. “It’s quite good, actually. She has four thousand subscribers.”
Emily had given her students an assignment where they revised their best piece of writing from the semester, chose a literary journal where it might be a good fit, and submitted it along with the customary cover letter. It was Carmen’s cover letter that outed her as a writer of, not just erotica, but erotica featuring trolls.
As Emily and I abandoned our grading that day to crack a bottle of wine and read aloud tales of troll romance, a range of emotions came over me. There was the surprise I felt at discovering Carmen, who seemed so relentlessly highbrow, had such a lowbrow hobby, and there was the entertainment I derived from our dramatic reading of it, but behind that was another, uglier reaction.
I had felt threatened by Carmen all semester because I believed that she questioned my intellectual authority in the classroom, yes, but also because her talent made mine feel smaller. When I found out she spent her spare time writing smutty stories about grotesque cave-dwelling mythological creatures, I felt the warm buzz of superiority. Erotica and romance novels were genre fiction, and that wasn’t what I wrote, read, or concerned myself with.
“Read at the level you want to write at.” I don’t know who said it first, but teachers and fellow writers have said it to me over the years, and I in return have parroted it to my own students. “We will not be writing genre fiction in this class,” is another thing I’ve heard, and said myself.
This idea that there are good things to read and bad things to read is one that I picked up young and carried with me. I was taught that some books were better than others, that reading great works of literature could offer readers a lasting take-away, be that a greater understanding of the human condition or, for a writer, some new tricks to employ in their own work. Basically, reading a good book could make you a better person and a better writer. No big deal. But then, could reading what I’d been raised to think of as a “bad” book make you a worse person? I don’t think anyone outside of book-burning circles would ever argue that. But what about a worse writer?
Growing up, I was a friendless book-nerd. Starting in the second grade, so great was my anxiety at the thought of not having anything to read on the bus or during recess that I brought three books to school everyday, in addition to my required texts. During the mandatory middle school dances, I hid in the locker room showers with a novel. For my 16th birthday, I got the complete Oxford English Dictionary and I was happy about it. My father, an enigma who dropped out of school in ninth grade, never to return again, but who could recite passages from Joyce and Faulkner from memory, monitored my reading closely to make sure my books were of a certain quality. That meant “girl books” from series like The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High were verboten, although I craved them and snuck them in secret when I could. Still, there was the feeling of indulgence and guilt attached to those and other types of popular literature, as if some books were like a bag of Doritos and others were a kale salad. When one of my early writing teachers commented that my work was a bit too “chick lit,” I went home, tail between legs, to examine my soul and my bookshelf for where I’d gone wrong.
But then, could reading what I’d been raised to think of as a ‘bad’ book make you a worse person?
“Chick lit” might sell a lot of copies at airports, but such books did not win literary prizes (or praise in undergraduate creative writing workshops). I was told to get better by reading the work of great writers and trying to imitate them, taught that you could become a better writer only by aiming to write literary fiction.
“An Adult Fairy Tale”
That’s the emotional literary baggage I brought to the classroom when I began teaching, and as Emily and I read more deeply into Carmen’s troll archives, I sensed that she didn’t share my hang-ups about popular literature.
“Do you read a lot of this stuff?” I asked.
Emily laughed. “You know what I did yesterday? I bought the fifth book in this crazy fantasy series on the day it was published (which was yesterday) and spent six hours reading it from start to finish. And yes, I cried at multiple parts. Seriously, genre knows something about plot that a lot of literary novels want to pretend doesn’t exist.”
I’d known her for almost a year by then, and in that time we’d talked endlessly about books, but she’d never mentioned anything about being into genre fiction before. I believed what she said about plot though, because the thing about Carmen’s troll erotica was that, while the writing wasn’t nearly as good as the stuff she’d been turning in to me in class, it wasn’t bad either. You might call it strangely engaging. We couldn’t, as they say, put it down. I had been looking at Carmen’s genre writing as a sign of weakness, but what if the troll erotica was responsible in part for the very strong, very literary work she was handing in to me for class?
Personally, I hate talking about plot. I find it unseemly somehow, but at the time Emily and I discovered Carmen’s trolls, it had become apparent to me that I needed to address the plot problems in the novel I was writing. I wondered if maybe both popular and literary fiction are at their best when they borrow from each other. A kale salad needs to be massaged with salt and oil, otherwise you’ll be chewing for a week. And Doritos have been reformulated to include one full serving of whole grains per bag. Maybe I could fix what was wrong with my novel by borrowing from the propulsive, can’t-put-it-down nature of popular literature.
I took these thoughts home to stew with me. Not a few days later, Carmen rolled into my last office hour of the semester, wanting me to clarify my comments on her final assignment. I obliged, and for once, she seemed a bit satisfied by what I’d had to offer.
“I have a confession to make,” I said. “Emily told me you have a website, and I checked it out.”
For a moment, all of the guilt and embarrassment I would have previously associated with the writing of troll erotica was present on her face.
“I’m curious how you go about structuring such a long narrative. Do you plan out the plot arcs in advance? Or figure it out as you go?”
Cautiously, she relaxed, and even began to look a bit proud as she talked about her work. “It’s kinda like, you never want people to have all the answers. Some, but not all, or they wouldn’t keep reading. That means you have to keep posing new questions.”
I wondered if maybe both popular and literary fiction are at their best when they borrow from each other.
It was one of the most useful things I would hear about writing while I was in grad school. You have to raise questions the reader will stick around to find out the answers to.
I described our exchange to Emily later, and she agreed. “There’s this quote from one of the Sookie Stackhouse books—that’s what the show True Blood is based on—that’s something like, ‘Everything I know I learned from genre fiction.’”
Since then I’ve relaxed my rigid ideas about what’s good writing and what’s bad. In fact, I’m trying to write a mystery novel, a genre not even my father can frown upon. Turns out, he’s grown to love them in recent years. The last time I visited there were stacks of detective novels around the house and I asked him what he likes about them. “They’re just good stories,” he answered, as he is wont to do, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
Nora Decter is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her fiction and nonfiction have recently appeared in TSR: The Southampton Review, Cowboy Jamboree Magazine, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and is forthcoming in The Malahat Review. She received an MFA from Stony Brook University and now calls Toronto home.