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Erika Johansen: Why I would rather read a great yarn than great literature

Erika Johansen: Why I would rather read a great yarn than great literature

I always wanted to be a writer. But you can’t really specialize in creative writing in America until the graduate level; studying English is as close as you can get. So I did. I took almost every literature course my high school offered, then majored in English Literature at college. But I never quite fit in. Most of the literature that was touted as “great”, either explicitly or by selection, bored me half to death.

Oh, there were exceptions. I loved Faulkner and Steinbeck, those two American Lit. stalwarts, as well as Toni Morrison. But the rest of the time I was half-asleep, writing required essays by rote, faking my way through a parade of “classics” by authors that I considered dull as dirt. Thomas Hardy; Philip Roth; Eudora Welty; Nathaniel Hawthorne; James Joyce; it went on and on. I couldn’t even appreciate Dickens the way I was supposed to. My fellow English majors would go into rhapsodies over the assigned reading, but I was too busy arguing with the professor, demanding better (or at least more exciting) fare: Stephen King; Tom Wolfe; Marion Zimmer Bradley; Agatha Christie; Richard Matheson; Alice Hoffman; Frank Herbert; Tolkien. These were the writers who lit me up inside, and they were wholly absent from the curriculum. My professor was unimpressed.

In my mid-twenties, I went off to pursue an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with hope in my heart; here, at least, I assumed that the focus would be on contemporary writing, all stodginess discouraged. Well…yes and no. The focus was indeed on contemporary writing, but I quickly discovered that there was an entire field of contemporary authors, revered by the literati, whom I found just as boring as the old set. Haruki Murakami was a god. So was Lorrie Moore. I couldn’t bring myself to learn from revered writers who put me to sleep. Worrying about the reader – as opposed to Seeking Truth – while writing was considered a sign of mediocrity in Iowa, but I worried about the reader constantly. The whole experience left me with such diminished confidence that I abandoned all dreams of writing for a living and went to law school, working on my first fantasy novel late at night, like a dirty secret. Yet that’s the book that sold.

It took me years to understand that it’s okay to want to write (and read) the fun stuff, the stuff that lights us up. Literature can illuminate us, certainly, but first it needs to do what I consider its real job and entertain. It’s good to have somestandards; there are bestselling authors out there who can’t even write a proper English sentence, and I try to steer clear of those. Likewise, every once in a while I will be blown away by a critical darling like Hilary Mantel. But in general, I’m guided by a single standard: do I need to turn the pages? If so, that’s good enough for me.

The Kingdom of Sweets by Erika Johansen is published by Bantam (£18.99)

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