The Bridges of Madison County was huge, and trashing it was one of the most popular sports in the English department. Professors and creative writing students alike could not find a single thing to like about the plot, the writing, the characters, or even the setting which, seeing that the school was located less than an hour away from those famed ‘bridges,’ seemed odd.
As fifty million copies of this “pretentious fluff” (as professors repeatedly called it) sold, the nastiness escalated, and I began to dread going to class. 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 started school. I got exactly what I paid for–two hours of entertainment.
|Kim and her mom at one of the "bridges" in 1994|
And then I realized something. The most vocal of my professors was an author, too. An author whose book didn’t sell so well. In fact, the only place it could be found (pre-amazon.com days) was at a local bookstore. I read it. I could not have named a single character or plot point a week later.
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 their clever turns of phrase. They ignored all feedback, so I never offered any.
I lacked the courage at twenty-one to speak up and say I thought the bashing stemmed from jealousy or insecurity, but I made up my mind not fall victim to that poison. I don’t bash. Not even among friends. Not even in my own mind.
The way I look at it, if a book has become a runaway bestseller, there must be a reason behind it. It may not be the writing. How many non-writers focus on that? The plot may have been done thousands of times before, but the formula clearly worked. Maybe there’s something in the story that hits an emotional chord with millions in 2001 but would mean little in 2011. I read those books writers love to hate, looking for that element that sets those stories apart from the crowd. Is it something that I can identify? Can I use it to make my own work more compelling?
Tearing another author down won’t make anyone a better writer. Learning from the mistakes and successes of others will. Envying another writer’s dream book deal (Julie Kibler!) won’t help anyone secure one of their own. Viewing that book deal as evidence that dreams can come true, even for debut authors? I call that motivation.