Years ago while staying at a friend’s house, I picked up a hardcover novel by Jennifer Crusie. I’m not usually a romance reader, but this book was good. Really good. It had smart, vivid writing, with a strong feminist protagonist (and a great dog). I’ve been reading her — and wanting to be her friend — ever since.
Crusie is not a scholar, but she started out intending to become one, and is now a New York Times best-selling novelist. In doing this series talking to scholars about their writing, it occurred to me that there are writers with academic chops who might be able to offer good counsel to scholars. So I contacted Crusie and hectored her into becoming my new BFF. There’s nothing better than when a person you love on the page turns out to be exactly who you thought they were.
Genre writers tend to get knocked around by the literati. Before my young adult novel was published two years ago, a friend sent me a 2008 piece from the Times that included a quote from Sherman Alexie: "I thought I’d been condescended to as an Indian — that was nothing compared to the condescension for writing Y.A." The point is: There are great writers working in every genre. The best ones are scary smart, like my new friend Jenny Smith, who writes under the pen name Jennifer Crusie.
You originally set out on an academic career path.
Crusie: I actually started in my first master’s program analyzing women’s roles in mystery fiction. The antifeminism there was pretty strong, even though women writers were hugely successful in the genre. That made me look at the differences in male and female writing, which led me to folklore and storytelling and the differences in the way men and women craft stories when they’re sitting on the porch talking about what happened that day.
It was eye-opening. I realized that most women have been writing in a foreign language because the story tradition is linear. So I decided to take that theory apart by reading 100 men’s adventure novels, and 100 romance novels. I started with the romance novels because I was so damn sick of the patriarchy (this was the ’80s, although I’m still damn sick of the patriarchy).
And this amazing thing happened: At the end of the month I wasn’t depressed anymore. I thought I could do anything. And I realized that it was because I’d read 100 narratives where the female protagonist fought for what she needed and won. She owned her story, she wasn’t propping up some guy. She had great sex and lived. And I realized why romance was so wildly popular: It told the truth that the culture denied: Women are the centers of their stories. My head pretty much exploded because this reviled genre was the most subversively feminist thing I’d ever read. So I decided to write it.
What did you learn in graduate school that helped you as a fiction writer, and what do you think graduate students and academics could benefit from learning when it comes to writing books?
Crusie: One of the smartest questions I had to answer in an academic job interview was, "What does the writer owe the reader; what does the reader owe the writer?" It really nailed a fact that is so often overlooked: Writers and readers are very different species with very different needs, caught in a symbiotic relationship.
All writing begins with the need to communicate, even if all it communicates is "Please accept this dissertation so I can graduate." We’re all grabbing people by the arm and saying, "Listen to this," because we have something we need to say.
Readers, on the other hand, want to be entertained and informed. They pretty much put themselves in our hands, offering up their time and their money so they can listen. And while they listen, they read their own experiences, biases, and conclusions into what we’ve written. They insert their own worldviews into the white spaces. And very often they judge the success of a piece of writing by how much space the author has left them in the text.
Scholars Talk Writing
In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.
I don’t think that consideration comes up often enough in academic writing. It may be because audience assumptions are baked in: The audience will not be large and it will consist of academics in this discipline who speak this language. I think a lot of professional writing in all disciplines falls into that trap and becomes very difficult reading because the writers assume that everyone speaks the same language.
What happened to pull you away from the academic fold?
Crusie: Five years after I did my coursework, I went back to finish my dissertation (when I began, I was a single mother; when I went back, my daughter was in college). I ran into Lee K. Abbott in the hall of the English department, who said, "You should be in the M.F.A. program."
So I switched over and spent two years studying with Lee, who was an amazing teacher who had studied with a genre writer and so had no prejudices against romance fiction. (The first day I was in his workshop, he said, "Anybody who makes fun of romance fiction is making fun of Jane Austen, and anybody who makes fun of Jane Austen answers to me.")
Lee kept me in academe longer than anybody because he taught me so much, but it was never a great fit for me. I did some adjunct teaching at Wright State, Ohio State, and Antioch, and I did the online romance-writing program for McDaniel College for two years, but mostly, I just write novels. I didn’t get a job in academe because: (a) I’m a terrible interview, (b) colleges look askance on a CV that says "writes romance novels," and (c) no one gets a job in academe.
How does it feel to have become the subject of what you once studied?
Crusie: It’s a good news/bad news kind of thing. It’s lovely to get attention, of course, but sometimes there are insights that make me take another look at what I’m doing. I have to be very, very careful about those insights or I’ll start writing to them — or, much worse, writing to avoid them, even though that’s where the story wants to go.
I have this theory that all storytellers are trying to answer a question buried deep within themselves, and that once they recognize the question and answer it, they’re done. The last thing I need is some brilliant academic pinpointing my question for me or, God forbid, answering it.
Do you have advice for academics on how to make their work more engaging?
Crusie: Audience, audience, audience, audience.
Once you get past your first completed draft of whatever it is you’re writing (you get to do anything you damn well please in the first draft, it’s for you), you have to think about who will be reading it. And I don’t care if your readers are all academics; academics love clear, insightful, focused prose as much as anybody.
It’s important in the revision process to look at your work through the eyes of your readers. Are they going to feel that your essay is just one more damn slog after a day full of slog? Or are they going to be refreshed by its insights and the way you’ve communicated them?
So look at a sentence you just wrote. Is it as clear as it possibly could be, written in good old Anglo-Saxon English? And is the idea it contains worth the trees that will die to print it, not to mention the minutes it will steal from your reader’s life? Because this piece of writing is not about you anymore, Sparky. Now it’s about you and the reader.
Lee, my mentor, used to talk about the woman on the bus, exhausted after a full working day, coming home to read what you’d written. I’ve never forgotten her. Before I send anything off to be published, I do a woman-on-the-bus read-through because I owe her everything I’ve got to give. We ask so much from our readers: Give up a chunk of their lives they’ll never get back, give up a chunk of their incomes they’ll never see again, and all to read what we have to say.
It’s an incredibly arrogant act to publish anything. Our only saving grace is to always remember that we’re doing it to serve the reader.
You are a best-selling author. What does success look like for you?
Crusie: It looks like writing a good book I’m proud of.
The thing to remember about writing and success is that writing is not publishing. We have no control over publishing — whether a book makes the best-seller lists or sells a lot of copies (which are not the same things). If we define success as publishing success, most of us are going to be very, very unhappy.
But writing, that’s a different world altogether. We control the writing, we make the choices, we suffer the doubts, we relish the praise from readers and reviewers. Writing belongs to us, and if it’s important to us, then success is writing a book that tells a story we needed to tell and tells it beautifully.
Your real name is Jennifer Smith. Why didn’t you publish the novels under your own name?
Crusie: I started with Silhouette/Harlequin and they made you take a pseudonym so they could own it when you left. Also I was teaching high-school English and I didn’t want my students reading my sex scenes aloud from the back of the classroom. I took my grandmother’s maiden name, which was dumb because nobody can spell it. On the other hand, nobody else uses it and it starts with "C" which means I’m usually at the top of the book rack, right about eye level. These things matter.