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January, 2008

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Literary Fictions Part II
Go gently, average reader
By  Jennifer Edelson

ast month, The Bitter Quill printed a quote from Writer's Digest that is, in my opinion, the embodiment of literary elitism. This month let me start by introducing you to the flip side:

Over at Writer's Weekly, one reader opined in an Internet forum that, "Literary would, in my opinion, be a higher caliber of writing... but usually not preferred by your average reader. Most people like a fast, easy, entertaining read while the minority prefer literary works that use words and phrases to imply meaning to the reader without stating the author's meaning in clear, easy-to-interpret terms. There are only a few literary authors I like to read... When an author gets too literary and I find myself interpreting more than reading, I get bored really fast. Sometimes I joke that literary authors just have bigger thesauruses."

So I have to ask; just who is "your average reader?" Does an "average" reader need a dictionary to get through her copy of Classics 101? Does he read for enrichment, or grab the shortest most monosyllabic book he can find to kill time? Does she prefer art and culture, a la The Smithsonian and National Geographic, or romance and gossip a la People and Cosmopolitan? (Yikes, does this mean I have to hide my issues of Entertainment Weekly 'and Us under this week's copies of Discover and Scientific American to escape humiliation?)

And can somebody please tell me what an "average" reader does for a living? Because if I didn't know better, I'd think only cultural studies professors and art historians read Chaucer, while waitresses and housewives in Ames, Iowa, read, well, you know what I'm saying (Yeah, but Ames sucks. —Ed.)

Most of us probably get, even if in that way deep down, I'm-in-denial way, that literature isn't only about pretty images or beautiful words.

That it isn't just a measure of comfort for highbrow society and the socially or educationally advantaged. Just as we get that commercial fiction isn't only about raw entertainment and quick fixes, or written and dumbed down for the as of yet to be determined "average" masses.

We know that there are commercial writers who write excellent stories about social change, class, morality and the complex minds of "everyday" people, even by certain "literary" standards. No doubt, commercial writers come up with some pretty creative and exciting methods to explore themes sometimes overlooked in more disenfranchised writing. And they manage to do it without getting bogged down by "meaningful" but tired scenarios, and dysfunctional stereotypes.

We also know that there are literary writers so divorced from everyday life and its concerns; their stylistic odes to the common man and humanity ring pompous and untruthful. We've all encountered literature with a capital L. Those over-inflated books written the way some pay reverence with a big G to the heavens.

And yet, in every stereotype lays a kernel of truth, patiently waiting to pop into existence. Literature has given me the most beautiful, profound and spot-on perspectives about life and living. And I've pulled the worst gack, as in drek, imaginable from bookstore best-seller shelves.

Regardless, literature and commercial fiction share more in common than best-seller lists and bookstore posture imply. Yet for various reasons, editors, publishers and readers alike continue to pigeonhole writing.

Writers fan the flames too. Ever hear a writer say she'd rather be esteemed than rich, literary than mainstream? Or that he'd gladly give up esteem for lots and lots of money? And haven't we all thought about cashing in under a nom de plume — as if profit necessarily precludes worth, and so we need a new moniker to stay in good graces.

Why are we so rueful in admitting we'd have as much fun penning a romance or mystery, as we would a book about familial relationships and the fate of humanity? And why is there such a division between money and esteem. The popular consensus among many writers and publishers, is that commercial fiction makes bucks, while literary fiction make an editor look good.

Funny how we assume the two can't be one and the same. Strange how our supposed preferences seem to fluctuate with the circles we frequent, and the piece d'jour we happen to be writing. Sad that we have such ingrained stereotypes about what respectable means.

I guess I'm my own perfect example. I want to make a living writing, not squander in distinction.  So I'll tell you, I'm not banking on winning a Pulitzer Prize any time soon, and I don't really want one (but in light of what I've written, I might be I fibbing).

My mother is another. She once told me I'm likely to make money writing, hinting that my writing is marketable, or in mother speak (at least mine), not literary. I didn't know whether to feel insulted or proud. So I long ago decided on neither. She sees what she sees, and whatever the case, it is what it is.

Like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, once famously said while trying to define pornography, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material, but I know it when I see it."

I do have preferences, though I like a little bit of just about everything. Every genre has losers. But it's pretty subjective.

So I have no answers, only questions. And in a world already divided by so many labels, categories and distinctions, some warranted some useless and arbitrary, they seem to be well worth asking

Read the previous part to this series.

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Jennifer Edelson is a former practicing Minnesota attorney, now regular IN columnst, freelance writer and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed at:

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IN This Issue
Creative Karma
Rejected! Now What?
Seven Deadly Sins
Seven Virtues
Essential Ingredients
The Last Quill
Done At Last!
Part III: It's A Fact
Part II: It's A Fact
Part I: It's A Fact

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The path to inspiration starts
Upon the trails we’ve known;
Each writer’s block is not a rock,
But just a stepping stone.

Poetry Is Not
Penned to the page
Waiting for us to admire.
It is only a lonely thought
Caught by tears on fire.

Silent Echoes
A quiet rhyme upon a page
Is what a poet gives;
Some gentle words whispered in trust
To see if memory lives.

Bard From Deadlines
What makes a poem finally work
Is not the time it takes;
It’s how the poet used the muse
To prophet from mistakes.

Be Mused
The art and craft of poetry
Are not so far apart;
The craft comes from the cunning,
The rest comes from the heart.

Fine Vintage
Don’t plant your poem on the page
As though you’re hanging drapes;
It’s shape and flow should come and grow
Like wild summer grapes.

Getting It Write
Writers write what they know best,
Their passions, fears, and dreams;
Writers rarely write about
What other call their “themes.”

Double Vision
A writer’s life is paradox,
It’s more than what it seems;
We write of our reality,
The one inside our dreams.

The echo of a promise,
The thunder of a sigh,
The music of a memory,
A child asking why.

Letter Perfect
Twenty six symbols arranged on a page
Can send a soul to heaven or torment it with rage,
Can free a fragile world or hold it in its net--
The power and the magic of the mighty alphabet.

The Write of Passage
The jump from writing just for fun
To getting paid for it
Begins when you first realize
You know you’ll never quit.

It is not the magic of his wings
That sets us free from our bond.
It is the muse within ourselves
That lets our words lift us beyond.

Photo Poet
Consider your mind the darkroom,
Consider your life the lens,
Consider your eye the camera
On whose focus the poem depends.

Rising Moon
A poem is a rising moon
Shining on the sea,
An afterglow of all we know,
Of all we hope to be.

Star Light
Writing a poem,
Reaching a star,
In making good art
We find who we are.

Spider Web
A poem is a spider web
Spun with words of wonder,
Woven lace held in place
By whispers made of thunder.

The final draft upon the screen,
At last my poem’s through;
A verse of only four short lines--
I rewrote twenty-two!

Read All Of Charles Ghigna's Poetry at

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