Question Authority

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


Since my daughter was born, my big outings are to places like discount stores, malls and bookstores. I also haven’t had the energy or free time to do much creative writing. Recently our family of three went to the Barnes and Noble in a nearby college town for a fun outing. A sign announcing “Writers Workshop 1-3 p.m.” stood just inside the door. Always curious to hear what people are writing, I decided to eavesdrop from the World History section.

The group was small, about ten students and an instructor. I heard a few pieces of good advice immediately. The teacher asked the students, “What creates the urgency in your story?” Silence. She rephrased the question as: “What must your character do for the story to reach its resolution?”

I couldn’t hear the answers. Having been in writing classes, I understood the reluctance to raise the volume, especially when people are browsing bargain hardcovers just behind you. I ventured closer.

The next piece of advice floored me. Seemingly in response to a student’s answer, the instructor said, “You should never write in first person. You should only write in third person. You need to know what every character is thinking and doing.”

As a fan of first person POV as a writer and reader, I could hardly believe what she said. You should only write in third person? I felt like going around the store and gathering up Jane Eyre, The Catcher In The Rye, The Great Gatsby, Out of Africa and other first-person classics and dumping them at her feet. Unfortunately, I could only stand there gape-mouthed and hear the follow-up.

“Your readers won’t know where you end and your narrator begins.”

When I was reading Judy Blume books in fifth grade, I didn’t think she was Margaret or Peter. By that point, I was already writing my own short stories, always in first person and almost always told by a boy. No one in my class though I was transgendered; they thought I was a writer telling a story.

Besides, who cares if a reader mixes up a narrator and an author? It won’t be the first or last time it’s happened. The question is: is it the reader’s problem or the author’s?

My original idea for this Snark Zone was to write about the lack of character-based TV shows and linking that fact to the dearth of quality programming and the no-writer-involved rise of “reality” TV. After hearing what new writers are being told in a little workshop in northern Colorado, I have a different idea about the source of the problem: we’re supposed to dumb down our work to appeal to the audience.

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Remember when Oprah Winfrey picked Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections as her book club selection? Behind the main dispute, there was another set of squeaky wheels that wasn’t being heard. People were angry that Oprah had chosen a “hard” book.

In all, Oprah’s choices had gone back and forth between mainstream choices (Where The Heart Is,The Deep End of the Ocean) and lit fic novels (three of which were authored by Toni Morrison, including the 318-page Paradise). When she chose more mainstream works, the discussion conversation swirled around topics gleaned from the stories, only occasionally touching on aspects of the writing process. Discussion of the lit fic or “hard” books was generally somber and geared toward structure, symbolism and the evolution of the story.

I think the mainstream books deserved as much attention on those topics but it only seemed to be the “hard” books that got it. Back Roads, a favorite which straddled lit fic and mainstream, got a discussion group that kept telling author Tawni O’Dell that they were “in love with” the main character, Harley. It didn’t take a dozen readings for me to realize that Harley was not the kind of character one is meant to “fall in love with” in the way they indicated. It only took one close, deliberate reading.

People also asked her about writing this first person novel with a male narrator. If memory serves, she indicated that it was no different than writing a female narrator. I don’t know if the discussion group or other book club readers had trouble wrapping their minds around that but if we’re to believe the writing group instructor, they did.

Some church-goers recently gathered in Denver (and possibly other towns across America and elsewhere) to dismiss The DaVinci Code as heretical nonsense. One man interviewed on the local news said his concern was that “people would believe this novel was not fiction.”

By definition, a “novel” is fiction. It’s sad that large groups of people feel the need to debate whether or not fiction is fiction. Maybe that’s why publishers have resorted to printing “a novel” underneath the titles on the front covers.

As a reader, I’m offended that writers are being told that I’m not smart enough to deal with their work. As a writer, I’m offended that I’m not allowed to tell the story with the best narrator for it or from the best perspective.

When I see readers who just don’t get it, whether in an Oprah Book Club discussion or on the evening news, I’m almost tempted to do what the writing instructor said and “dumb it down.” But that’s not how I was taught to write. I was taught to expect effort from a reader, to assume a reader is relatively intelligent, to write in a way that suits the story.

Intelligent literature, be it lit fic or mainstream, still sells. You don’t have to comb through the classics section to find a well-written read. It’s right on the front table as you walk in the local bookstore. Read smart, write smart. Despite what the writing authorities say, you won’t be alone.

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Send us your opinion on this Snarkzone topic and you could win a best-selling book! Choose from gently-used copies of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (hardcover), White Oleander by Janet Fitch (hardcover), or The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (paperback). Title your e-mail “TC March Snarkzone,” include your name and a mailing address and send to editors[at]toasted-cheese.com. Your opinion can agree or disagree; it just needs to be coherent. We’ll post some of our favorite responses on a TC forum board in June.

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