When I explained the class “ENG 210: Princeton University Reads” to my mom over the phone after registering for courses, she responded, “That sounds like an expensive book club.” And in a sense, she’s right. Each week we are assigned a different contemporary novel and Professor Sophie Gee lectures about the author and important moments in the book. The author then visits the class for an interview, conducted by Gee.
More than just speaking about theme and characters, however, the authors who visit discuss the role that writing plays within the marketing world, and how writing novels is not always an enchanting process. Instead of only looking at what’s written in the book, we’ve started to examine why authors include certain stylistic choices.
While typical book clubs usually center on discussing the emotions readers experience while reading a story, Gee emphasizes what writers intend to do with certain elements of their writing, and how this transfers to what readers pick up from the work. Being a commercial writer has a large impact on the story, sometimes creating a strange divide between the writing and the selling sides of a book.
On the first day of lecture, Gee taught us how to read. According to Gee, the way we read a book — either for pleasure, as an analyst, or as a potential writer — greatly affects how we understand it. Though the required texts in the course vary greatly, Gee connects all of them with the concept of reading using these different approaches. We’ve learned through lecture and from the authors themselves that there are certain tricks that writers employ, sometimes for the sake of marketing or appealing to a certain audience.
A few weeks ago we read The Magician’s Land, the third book in Lev Grossman’s trilogy, The Magicians. Grossman said he didn’t anticipate becoming a fantasy novelist— though he had always enjoyed reading the genre, he pictured himself as a literary fiction writer. In fact, Grossman didn’t begin writing fantasy until age 35. And though his trilogy is widely categorized as fantasy, he incorporates many elements of literary fiction.
For Grossman, it’s obvious when you’re reading a fantasy novel, but literary fiction is much more diverse— the language, attention to one’s interior life, and the emphasis on psychology are open to more possibilities. In The Magicians trilogy, he tried to create something of a cross between the two genres by keeping the plot in the realm of fantasy, but exploring common literary fiction themes as well.
“What excites me about writing is taking the tropes and conventions in literary fiction and moving them over the border,” Grossman told the class.
I think most readers would not jump to say that Grossman’s book is in the same category as other works of literary fiction. But I also wouldn’t omit that genre completely when describing this book. The characters struggle with many internal, domestic issues that Gee has characterized as being elements of literary fiction pieces. Though they encounter talking animals and have to defend themselves against magical creatures, as in traditional fantasy novels, the characters also undergo profound emotional changes.
During the interview, several students questioned whether readers years from now would recognize and appreciate the modern language he choses to use. I was also thrown off by some of the casual, text message-language; It seemed out of place in the intricate narratives about magic and the characters’ backgrounds.
Grossman answered that he “wanted to violate the convention” of writing fantasy in an English tradition. His characters speak like American teenagers and are also aware of current technology, popular culture and of other fantasy stories like Harry Potter while still experiencing magic for themselves. This probably reflects his intention to appeal to a certain crowd of readers, aware that the success of a book is closely related to how an author executes a book.
For me, the casual language seemed forced at times, which I think is a result of Grossman trying to introduce a different voice to the fantasy novel. I recognize that he probably intended the language to appeal to teenagers and readers who understand certain pop culture references, but it often got in the way of the storyline and the potentially more profound aspects of the book.
This technique reveals his unique approach to the fantasy novel. As a marketing approach, this language might be helpful with hooking young people who are reading purely for pleasure. The conversational language provides an entertaining edge to the plot, and entertainment sells.
But for an object of study in an English class, this commercial technique seemed to clash with the more serious parts of the book. Hearing Grossman explain his atypical approach to fantasy caused me to appreciate his style, but also question the relevance it had within his novel. I can’t make the assumption that his style is a complete reflection of the marketing world, but I do think that it played a role in trying to attract fantasy readers while simultaneously giving them an innovative book unlike other fantasy they’ve read before.
For a long time (and maybe even a little now) I considered writing books a highly mysterious and grand accomplishment reserved to a select group of people. Although I’ll probably always want to think this, writing books is a business too.
Grossman’s experience as the critical book reviewer for Time Magazine has allowed him to see books from a critic’s point of view, allowing him to realize that writing is less of a mystical thing than he first thought it was; that writing is less about talent and more about putting in time and practice.
Listening to Grossman and other authors recount their experiences about both writing books and packaging them with certain intentions has opened my eyes to a side of the writing and publishing that both other English classes, and book clubs, rarely acknowledge. Although his book is technically considered magic, the strategies Grossman uses aren’t merely a coincidence.