Erika Johansen on being proud of The Kingdom of Sweets and being a genre writer

Not everyone needs to read or write Great Literature.

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Erika Johansen penned The Queen of the Tearling trilogy, an amazing fantasy series that was supposed to be adapted into a movie, with Emma Watson playing the lead character. And while Erika studied literature herself, she never found the need to write literature. In fact, she is very proud of her latest work, The Kingdom of Sweets, and for continuing to be a genre writer. To celebrate the release of The Kingdom of Sweets, we have the honour of inviting Erika Johansen to write a guest post for us:

Why I Would Rather Read a Great Yarn than Great Literature

11th grade, and I am in trouble in American Literature. I can’t stop picking fights with the teacher over why we read such dull-ass work: Kate Chopin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Philip Roth. Yes, Faulkner and Morrison are great. O’Connor and Steinbeck are great. But where’s the good stuff, the compelling stuff, the juice? Where is Tom Wolfe? Where is Marion Zimmer Bradley? And where, oh where, is Stephen King?

Of course I was only sixteen, too young to appreciate the inveterate snobbery of my chosen field. In the next ten years I would major in English Literature and attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and thus gain an education. In my first year at Iowa, my favorite author, Stephen King, won the National Book Foundation Medal, an award given for lifetime achievement, and I found myself at a table of fifteen indignant students – and one very indignant professor – trying to explain why King deserved it. What surprised me most was how few of my fellow students had actually read King’s work before deciding he was a hack. There are certainly authors one can safely snap-judge, but in 2003 Stephen King was the ubiquitous worldwide-bestselling author of the past three decades, a span that encompassed the publication of nearly forty novels and short-story collections. Surely his longevity alone suggested that serious and aspiring writers owed him more than a glance?

How innocent I was! Stephen King was a “genre author,” a damning phrase that implied not only hackery but a fundamental laziness of artistic ambition. Sisyphus had more success with his boulder than I did at that table, for it turned out that King’s very popularity (not to mention prolificacy) made him suspect in this crowd. The workshop degenerated into a group therapy session, writers bewailing how the National Book Foundation had sold out, how all anyone cared about these days were bestsellers, how real literature was being shunted aside. There was an implied criticism of me in all this, for idolizing not just a popular author, but the popular author. My pedestrian taste in literature had clearly revealed me as a lightweight.

That was a hard day, but instructive. Gradually, I began to realize that I might have taken the wrong track for someone who just wanted to read (or write) a great yarn. Everyone at Iowa secretly dreamed of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I finally had to admit to myself that I actually didn’t much like Literature. What I liked were stories. And, for my money, nothing I had been forced to read throughout my academic career could hold a candle to Misery or Pet Sematary. Literature has lofty goals – to expose injustice, move us deeply, drill right down to the heart of the human condition – but I find that it too often accomplishes these goals at the expense of momentum, thus breaking the first rule of storytelling: keep the reader spellbound. On the rare occasions when I give award-winning books a try (Stoker and Hugo Awards excepted), I end up reading them just before bed, because ten pages are usually enough to put me to sleep. As an advertisement for literary academia, I am sorry indeed; I spent years training to appreciate great literature, and simply can’t do it.

So I embrace my pedestrian palate. I try to write the sort of stuff I would like to read, and read the sort of stuff I would be proud to write. After publishing five novels that veer wildly between fantasy and horror, I am thrilled to be known as a genre author, and if my work will never win awards, my readers at least seem generally entertained. This past year, I gave away all of the great literature I had been meaning to force myself to slog through and settled down to reread Stephen King’s first twenty-five years of published work. It was the best decision I ever made.

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

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