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The Positive Side of Envy

Flickr Creative Commons: Bruce Krasting

Trashing a little book called The Bridges of Madison County was a popular sport in the English department when I was in graduate school. Professors and creative writing students alike could not find a single thing to praise about the plot, the writing, the characters, or even the setting. My school was located less than an hour away from those famed bridges and most Iowans I knew revered anything associated with their beloved home state, so this extreme loathing seemed strange.

As fifty million copies of this “pretentious fluff” (as one professor repeatedly called it) sold, the nastiness escalated.

I had picked up the novel the previous summer because it looked like an entertaining love story – something I was certain not to have time to read once I became both a grad student and a composition teacher. I got exactly what I paid for – three hours of entertainment. Would I read it again? Probably not. Had I enjoyed it the first time? Sure. Clearly there was something wrong with me. Maybe I didn’t recognize good writing. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to make it in academia. I sunk lower into my seat each time “that book” was mentioned in class and kept my mouth shut, not wanting to announce my ignorance to the brilliant masses.

And then one day, while meeting with the most vocal of my professors, I happened to glance at the bookshelf in her office. Her name appeared on the spine of a book I’d never heard of, a book I later sought out and could only find tucked away on a forgotten shelf in a local bookstore. (This was in the pre-Amazon days.) I could not have named a single character or plot point a week after reading it.

Those students who bashed Waller the most violently were the same ones who had nothing good to say about anyone else’s work in critique sessions. They read their own work aloud with a smirk, laughed at their own jokes, and paused at key areas to make sure everyone listening had time to appreciate a clever turn of phrase. They ignored all feedback.

At twenty-two I lacked the courage to suggest that the bashing stemmed from jealousy or insecurity, but I certainly thought it. I also made up my mind not to fall victim to that poison. I still don’t bash. Not publicly. Not among other writer friends. Rarely even in my own mind.

If a book becomes a runaway bestseller, there must be a reason behind it. It’s probably not the writing. How many non-writers pay any attention to that? An original premise will garner notice even if its execution is sloppy. A formulaic plot with a subtle twist may become popular if it hits that sweet spot between freshness and a predictable happy ending. Maybe there’s something in the story that hits an emotional chord with millions in 2010 but would fall flat in 2018. A lot can be learned by reading those books writers love to hate and searching for that element that sets the story apart from the crowd. Is it timely? Is it controversial? Experimental?  Is there some golden nugget there that can be used to make our own work more compelling?

It is human to envy someone else’s dream book deal or sudden catapult to fame. We’ve all done it, I’m sure. (I know I have.) Whenever I feel that green ogre’s shadow darkening my thoughts, I remind myself that book deals happen every day. That there was a time when even the most successful writers were unpublished and in the query trenches. If the dream came true for them, it can come true for me, too.

I call that motivation.

Is there a book critics hated but you enjoyed? Have you read a book that taught you something even if it fell short of anyone’s idea of great literature? If you are published and have contended with public bashing of your own work, how did you deal with it?

About Kim Bullock [1]

Kim has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [2], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.

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