Tips from the MFA Pit, Part 7 – Author or Writer?

Welcome to the Fall Semester! A little bit late, but excuse me, I’ve been a bit preoccupied teaching actual students! For this edition, we look at one of my students who is studying classic sci-fi and fantasy novels. One of their readings is a Jules Verne, and they had noticed that much of the writing is a bit cliched and dog-earred. Perhaps, but crossing two centuries into 2019, we’re still reading him. That led me to thinking what made this author so popular? Why does his writing still resonate? My observations on that were thus…

We tend to forget, in our sophisticated world of writing and reading, that all writing and reading had to start somewhere. What seemed dated and clichéd was at one time innovative. Jules Verne, when he wrote his tales of (then) high-tech and science was prescient for the times. His stories were forward-thinking as well as fantastic to readers, and the Victorians ate them up. The times were also rife with innovation—think about the technology that emanated from the period. Railroads, telegraph, telephones, automobiles, sanitary medicine, vaccines—and the novel, which was considered the scourge of the masses at the time. But the era that spawned Jules Verne also gave us Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain—all masterly writers whose wit and wisdom and style are still the standard for excellence in prose. So where does that put Verne? Well, think about it. There are writers and there are authors. 

What’s the difference? Think about the books that top the bestseller list. Many are non-fiction, celebrity bios, people caught up in historic events or scandals, chefs pushing their recipes, diet books, exercise books, or the latest self-help craze. Fiction follows many trends like the ever-popular YA dystopian saga or the once-popular chick lit, or the reliably formulaic genres of mystery, romance, sci-fi, or horror. (Okay, I hear the screaming, but I’m NOT slamming on genre fiction. There’s good, there’s bad, and there’s memorable and there’s horrible. I should know. I’ve written them and I’ve loved them like an old sweater. They’re meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes-cozy, and the reading world would be a dim place indeed without them). There’s the latest fiction craze that everyone’s following, there’s serials and sequels and authors we can’t get enough of. But just because someone manages to squeeze out a bestseller on a hot selling topic or storyline, it doesn’t make them a writer. It just makes them the originator—the author—of that particular piece of information we all want to hear about.
Writers—real ones that stand the test of time—touch a core of use that goes deeper than topic or storyline. They paint pictures with words, invoke emotional reactions, create memorable characters that we can identify with, empathize with, love, cherish, loathe. The settings of their stories invoke another world, they inspire us, leave feelings that linger within in us long after we read the last word. We become invested in the milieus they create, we pass on their books to friends. We study these writers, learn from them, their words and wisdom last longer than they do. So was Jules Verne, with his sometimes “pedestrian” prose, his formulaic writing, a writer or an author? Hmm…well over a century removed we’re still reading him. That’s got to mean something. We writers should all be so lucky!

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