Are we writing tofu or hamburger?

Having spent many years in the newspaper business, I straddle the world of journalism and the world of MFA grads who teach college classes and write for literary magazines. I know about journals like Ploughshares, Poetry, the Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, Crazyhorse, and other such publications that publish poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. These are wonderful journals, books really, thick with good work, but I suspect the only people who read them are writers and English teachers.  These writers also produce books, thousands of wonderful books that the workaday world never reads.

Why don’t they read them? The same reason my stack of to-read books grows while I grab bestsellers from the library. It’s like eating tofu instead of hamburgers. Literature can be boring and hard to understand, and you can’t buy it everywhere. Hamburgers may not be as healthy, but they taste good, and you can get them anywhere. As a writer, I appreciate the tofu books. I even strive to write them. I want to be published in all of the above-named journals, but if I want my friends to see my work, if I want my sister-in-law or my cousin to read it, I need to look elsewhere. My years in community newspapers taught me that if you publish in Snowy Egret (I did), that’s nice but no one reads it. If I publish a piece in the local daily or weekly, everybody sees it.

It’s a bit like popular music versus Beethoven’s symphonies. Music teachers love the Beethoven, but most of us are more likely to buy CDs by Sugarland or Lady Gaga. When I’m looking for something to read strictly for pleasure, I look for reasonable-sized books with pretty covers and an engaging voice that pulls me in right away. I want books that help me forget my problems, not books that make me feel worse about them.

We need to think about writing for real people. What do our friends and relatives read? What are they looking for when they read a book, magazine, newspaper article or blog? I know what I’m looking for. I seek writing that feels good to read, helps me with a problem or question in my life, and/or gives me stuff to do, such as travel, follow a recipe or sing a song. The rest is tofu.

Write whatever you want. Don’t let marketing frighten away your muse, but when you decide to publish something, think about who will want to read it and whether they like tofu or hamburger. It’s important for writers to find ways to attract as many readers as possible without writing junk. I believe it’s possible to combine the excellence of literature with the approachability of commercial writing. I aim to keep trying until my cold, dead fingers fall off the keyboard.

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