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Does Writing Fun Mean Giving Up My Seat at the Smart Table?

November 20, 2012 Books, Genres, Guest Posts, Humor, Lifestyle, Opinion, Writing 22 Comments


Megan Mulry, author of A ROYAL PAIN

By Megan Mulry 

I’m pretty sure I used to sit at the Smart Table. I was a magazine editor. I knew the difference between my Woolf and my Wolfe (and the other Wolfe). As my dad would have said, I had the advantages. Poor Dad. All that time and effort spent on my education and I go and write a bunch of twaddle about relationships and sex and why the contemporary woman is in a perpetual state of feeling like one of those Chinese plate-spinners.

My first book, A Royal Pain, came out November 1 (please don’t tell my publisher I called it twaddle) and, especially while I was writing it, I’ll confess it relieved me to think that none of my friends at the Smart Table would ever pick it up in the bookstore. Just look at that cover…it’s pink and swirly! It might as well be about cotton candy, it’s so cheerful. I wouldn’t have been seen reading that in a million years.

Turns out, it was more like six years. Around 2006, I changed. Something physical I think—the birth of my son, a cancer scare, I don’t know exactly—but I started thinking “life is too short” in a way that was no longer a bumper sticker. A voice in my head was shouting to get a move on, sister, just do it, and the “it” was the writing of books.

I think the specific catalyst was Lionel Shriver. I adore Lionel Shriver. If I ever meet her in real life, I will certainly embarrass both of us with some awkward declaration of how much I adore her books. But. I will never be as good a writer as Lionel Shriver. I’m not being falsely modest, I just won’t. I know my limits. She has words and thoughts and ways of fashioning them all together that are so far beyond my ken. For years, the realization that I would never be The Best Writer in the World kept me from writing at all. And then the same realization freed me up to write whatever I wanted.

Soon after I finished a back-to-back binge of We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World, I realized I wanted to read Lionel Shriver for the rest of my life…but I couldn’t. It’s too grueling. I wanted Lionel Shriver with a happily ever after. Not because I wanted the cheap thrill of a happy ending, but because I wanted something grand and happy…not something grand and sad. When did grand and sad become covalent? I began to wonder. It was a philosophical crossroads that thoroughly affected my reading (and eventually writing) habits. Where was the well-written happy section of the bookstore?

Around that time, a kind friend gave me a couple of romance novels. The little bag sat accusingly on my front hall bench for a couple of weeks, and I finally realized I was a terrible literary snob. The least I could do was skim one or two of the books. Insert LOL here. More like one or two…thousand. I was hooked. I used all sorts of internal-rationalizations to allow myself this new addiction: Julia Quinn went to Harvard! Eloisa James is a Shakespeare professor! But eventually I just copped to it: I love romance novels.

I now realize they are great books in their way. The brisk pacing, the passionate characters, the way my heart races and my fingers tingle when a good one fires on all cylinders. When I pick up a book—whether it’s Violet Winspear or Virginia Woolf—worlds are upon me. The universe opens up. When people (okay, me…I admit I used to do it), marginalize or minimize the power of reading because it’s “only” a romance or it’s “only” manga, we are narrowing the experience of an entire subset of readers based on the genre of book they read. We are doing a disservice to readers, but more importantly in a way, we are denigrating writers. Randy Susan Meyers addressed this in her September 2011 piece, The Big Tent of Reading, when she quoted Tayari Jones, “other writers do not deserve your scorn.”

As it turns out, my book isn’t total twaddle (thank you, Publishers Weekly). The irony is that I needed to let go of all of my preconceptions of what “smart” meant in order to let it all out. And then sell it. Those ugly words. Repeat after me. Sell. It. That’s when I realized it didn’t matter if I wrote like Woolf or Winspear, I was still going to have to send the query letters, go on submission, and deal with the consequent misery. That agent rejection I received 57 minutes after I submitted my query? That particular misery bound me to other writers in a way that I never could have anticipated. It’s a shared struggle that makes me absolutely love the success of my fellow writers. The literary writers. The humorous writers. The romantic writers. I’ll set up my circus in a field adjacent to Meyers. The Big Tent of Writers.

I now feel almost ludicrously enthusiastic in my support of other people’s creative enterprises. Whether it’s my daughter learning her first piece of Chopin, or a Harlequin writer who is going to release seven (yes, seven!) category romances next year, my response is now always: You can do it! Do it!

Because why not? I mean, with all the misery out there, a little encouragement goes a long way. A happy ending can go a long way.

Megan Mulry writes sexy, modern, romantic fiction. She graduated from Northwestern University and then worked in publishing, including positions at The New Yorker and Boston Magazine.

After moving to London, Mulry worked in finance and attended London Business School. She has traveled extensively in Asia, India, Europe, and Africa and now lives with her husband and children in Florida. Mulry is a member of RWA. Her first book, A Royal Pain, released November 1, 2012. 



Currently there are "22 comments" on this Article:

  1. Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

    Love this piece, Megan. You deserve your spot at the smart and fun table.

  2. This is me if you replace the literary magazine world with the building materials trade (I know, probably a down-the-nose trade for the literary types, but real to me) and replaced the romance novels with historical fantasy. Worse yet, my fantasy work relies heavily on a romance element. For the longest time, certain people from my past would pop into my head when I thought of my world being out there in the world, and cause instant embarassment.

    I love your line about ‘Life’s too short’ becoming more than a bumper sticker. I finally decided it was short enough that I would be a fool to care what anyone else thought. The work defines me in a way nothing else ever has or will. Thanks for a great article, Megan. Perfect time of year for it.

  3. I go to workshops for non-romance writers, and can see that each genre has its challenges. The mystery has to skate between credible and clever with its ending, the thriller has to have faultless pacing and thorough world building, the literary work has to have great prose, and all of them should have compelling characters. Well written romance requires ALL OF THE ABOVE, plus a love story, arcs for two characters, and an ability to handle very tried and even shopworn tropes and themes while standing out from an avalanche of new titles each month. Our readers demand no less and deservedly so.

    And the cherry on top of this literary delectation? We must deliver the happily ever after. Yes, plenty of romance authors sit at the Smart Table, and so, I would hazard, do our readers.

  4. Julie Wu Julie Wu says:

    Love it! Thanks for posting this, Megan.

  5. Brie says:

    I assume this is written from the perspective of someone who used to be a literary snob, but now knows better and no longer looks down on genre fiction and romance in particular. Yet it sounds a lot like someone who’s embarrassed to be writing romance and feels the need let us know that she’s smarter than that. Even if that’s not the case, using patronizing phrases like “they are great books in their way”, doesn’t help her case.

    It also sounds like someone who doesn’t believe in the quality of her own book. If you need Publishers Weekly to convince you of your work’s worth, you’re doing a poor job at convincing me that it’s worth reading.

  6. Dee DeTarsio says:

    After I looked up the word “covalent” I realized no one saved me a seat at the smart table! That’s OK, my favorite genre is smart romantic books with happily ever after endings!

  7. I think I might love you for this article.


  8. Keziah Hill says:

    Your story is mine Megan. Thanks!

  9. […] guess there are certain things I can’t sit down and let pass by. And I’m seeing people saying, what a great article, and thinking, wtf – am I reading something completely different because I see nothing great […]

  10. A great case for the Big Tent of respect. Love the logical conclusion of this: anyone can write anything.

    Was it Twain or Dickens or maybe Derek Zoolander who said, The best writer in the world lives in a Kentucky holler but he doesn’t know how to read. And I’ll bet he wouldn’t be invited to the smart table.

  11. carol carter says:

    Pretty tongue in cheek but true. I did’nt have a seat at the smart table either but I do know there is a enough gloom and doom without me doing my part to add to it. Laughture gives you the heart to go with life and a spirit that refuses to be crushed by the sadness that everyone must experience. Bravo–you’ve seen a great truth and I intend to follow you and see how you deal with it.

  12. Shelleyanne Fogarty says:

    I would have to agree with Stephanie Tyler, what have you all just read. What an insult to all writers that write books that Megan Mulry labeled as “fun”. Stop being embarrassed about what you write and trying to justify it and just be happy that you are a published author. This article has disappointed me to the point that I will not be buying any of her books. A writer is a writer it does not matter if you write literature, romance or your own journal, you are a writer. It is in how you believe in yourself and not what you write.

  13. […] is breaking out all over! Get […]

  14. Sadly, writers (especially female) are often put in literary shtetls based on their chosen subject matter, genre, etc. I say especially women, because though (more traditinally male-weighted) horror, adventure, thriller novels will be reviewed in the NYT and other major media, it would be a huge surprise to see romance on the book page. How can writers and others not internalize the attitude? I think great essays like Megan’s go a long way towards opening that door and recognizing a page-turning, well-written, thought-provoking book is just that. A page-turning, well-written, thought-provoking book. No slice of the book pie holds the lock on that.

  15. Nice post, Megan. Interestingly enough, the people who had a visceral reaction against your post are saying pretty much the same thing as you are. That is, writing is a choice. You find the style/genre/voice that works best for you, and you go with it, whether it’s romance, scifi, fantasy, horror, chicklit or that less defined genre, literary fiction.

    Sometimes, as might be the case with your detractors here, the choice is clear from the beginning, and the writer is able to take pride and find joy in the path he/she has chosen. More often, writers start out with one idea of what a successful novel should be, only to discover that they find far more fulfillment (and success) writing a different kind.

    How many of us dreamed of being the next Dickens or Joyce or Woolf or Atwood when we were young? How many of us thought that the ultimate goal of being a writer was to stand the literary world on its head and show everyone “how it’s done?”

    That IS a kind of snobbery. But it’s the kind that comes with youth and passion and inexperience, the kind that virtually every teen and twenty year old (and yes, thirty and forty year olds, too) suffers from at some point. It’s the high school freshman who puts himself/herself on the moral high ground and lectures everyone about renewable energy and recycling. It’s the college graduate who thinks he/she has all the answers to saving the world.

    This, I think, is what you are getting at: that you suffered from the same misconceptions and hubris as many (most?) young writers do, and now you’ve realized there is so much more to writing–so many different directions one can take, so many different sources for pride and joy. Does that make you a literary snob? Or does it make you someone who has learned something very valuable about yourself and about writing in general?

    It is easy to say “I’ve always known genre writing was as smart and artful as any other kind.” It’s far harder and braver to say, “I was blinded by ego. Now I see how much wider and richer the world of fiction can be.” I applaud you, Megan, for putting your path to fulfillment–with all its assumptions and confusions and epiphanies–up here for all of us to see. I know I wouldn’t be that brave.

  16. Well said, Chris. Hear hear!

    Or, here here.

    I’ve never been quite literary enough to know which. And I’m admitting it for all to see.

  17. Robin Black says:

    I love this piece.
    And . . what Chris said. And what Randy said too. And I hope that when I am not neck deep in Thanksgiving dinner I’ll have a chance to post a longer response. . .

  18. Densie Webb says:

    A fellow Lionel Shriver fanatic! I too, read her novels and just sigh knowing that my unintellectual brain doesn’t work like that, but her writing inspires me just the same. I think I have 3 more of her novels to read and then I’ll start over. But, in the meantime, I’ll continue writing my “twaddle” and enjoying every minute of it. Thanks for this.

  19. I like to think of my published novel as a “smart comedy,” but even so I found myself torpedoing it to my friends. “It’s just a comedy,” I’d say.

    It took me awhile to stop saying that, and embrace the carefully calibrated ambitions of my fun little book.

  20. […] We even see it from within. For example, Megan Mulry is one of the latest authors to struggle with the implications of reading and writing ro…: […]

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