Colson Whitehead, Gentleman Lit and 11 Rules on How to Write

Colson Whitehead has written one of my favorite novels.  In fact, much like Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin and Terry McMillan, he has the honor of having a book in my banner photo (can you find it?).  True, he doesn’t write Lady Lit, but he is an African American writer who sometimes writes about that (like in the the fave, entitled “Sag Harbor”) and other times he writes…Gentleman Lit? That is, the male analog of Lady Lit NOT of chick lit (because if you follow this blog, you know that the term “chick lit” has been so disparaged and belittled that I had to come up with a whole new term for what I’m trying to do here).

Brace yourself, I’m about to apply some logical reasoning to my made up terms:  If novels that are somewhat reflective of the male experience could be described as Gentleman Lit, then I might argue that Whitehead writes that.  “Sag Harbor,” for sure, qualifies. It was essentially a male coming of age story (in fact, I keep telling my brother to read it, but he says he lived it, whatevs).

Whitehead’s latest book, “Zone One,” is about zombies, but I still think it’s Gentleman Lit.  First, the topic is pretty  male (ladies, if you read zombie novels, I’d love to hear about it–seriously) and the book is literary.  In fact,  I read the New York Times review of the novel, which begins by stating that a literary novelist writing a genre novel (i.e., zombie novel) is “like an intellectual dating a porn star.”   I THINK they mean that a very smart, educated person (Whitehead) applied his skills toward a topic (targeted at men) that has typically been exploited to the point that many people believe its not salvageable?  What I’m saying is, zombie novels are usually geared toward men and a little trashy, but “Zone One” is Gentleman Lit.  Similarly, chick lit is usually geared toward women and a little trashy, but my future novel is Lady Lit! 🙂 That took me way too long to write. Did any of that even make sense?

UPDATE ON GENTLEMAN LIT: A member of my writer’s group is forcing me to think about this for more than 30 minutes (this is what happens when you blog about something other than what you did over the weekend).  Check out the comments and let me know what you think…

Anyway, Gentleman Lit was NOT supposed to be the point of this blog post.  I’m writing about Whitehead because the one and a half of his books that I’ve read have been delicious.*  He has a wonderful voice, and I was so happy that a brilliant, award-winning writer wrote a novel about my favorite place in the world.  He also published in the New York Times about “How to Write” on Friday.

Below are Whitehead’s 11 Rules on writing, which he expands in the article.  Personally, I found Rule # 2 and # 7 the most useful.  What do you think?

  1. Show AND Tell (as opposed to show, don’t tell).
  2. Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you.
  3. Write what you know.
  4. Never use three words when one will do.
  5. Keep a dream diary.
  6. What isn’t said is as important as what is said.
  7. Writer’s block is a tool—use it.  (Specifically he says “when asked why you haven’t produced anything lately, just say, ‘I’m blocked.’”)
  8. Number 8 is a secret.
  9. Have adventures.
  10. Revise, revise, revise.
  11. There are no rules.

(In case you’re wondering why my blog is progressing so much more nicely than my novel, it’s because I’m busy having adventures and letting my subject find me.  I’m also blocked. ) Hollllerrr.

<– That’s Colson.

* In addition to “Sag Harbor,” I read half of the Intuitionist, about an elevator inspector. The reason I didn’t finish it is NOT because I didn’t enjoy it; rather I think I just left at home then went to college, then years passed and I forgot what I had already read.  Now it’s on my to-read list.

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2 thoughts on “Colson Whitehead, Gentleman Lit and 11 Rules on How to Write

  1. Calling Colson Whitehead’s work “Gentleman Lit” does a disservice to his work. The difference between a writer like Colson Whitehead, who writes what is generally categorized as ‘Literary Fiction’, and a most of what is called ‘Lady (Chick) Lit’, is wider than the Grand Canyon. There is an attention to craft, voice, and the finer details of the art of writing that are inherent to literary fiction that aren’t present in the vast majority of genre ficiton (including ‘chick lit’). Compare ‘The Intuitionist’, ‘Zone One’, or any of Colson Whitehead’s other books to, say, ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’, or the stock work of Nora Roberts. Can we call all those books good? Yes, but in different ways. One challenges the mind and struggles with expressing some greater truth about the world, while the other deals in the facile everyday.

    Better yet, take a novel that centers on a female character, and deals with her issues of growing up in the world and the unique experience of herself as a female in the world (the supposed subject matter of some Lady Lit), but that also includes the aspects of Whitehead’s work that elevate it above Gentleman Lit, and you get a story like ‘Salvage The Bones’–what Lady Lit would be if it cared more about art and less about easy stories.

    That’s where the ‘Intellectual dating a porn star’ comes from. An intellectual interacts with the world in a much different way than a porn star. A porn star represents base instincts and easy, trite solutions to a specific desire, much as the worst (and majority) of genre literature (including zombie lit) does…whereas an intellectual generally searches, however esoterically (and potentially self-indulgently) for the greater meaning of life, or some aspect of life, much the way literary fiction does…at least in its best moments.

    That’s the difference between Lady Lit and Literary Fiction. It’s the difference between ‘Beloved’ and ‘Waiting to Exhale’.

    • Thanks for adding some legitimate literary analysis to Colson Whitehead’s books. I can tell that this blog is on the verge upsetting people who take a more intellectual approach to writing (as opposed to my approach, which is NOT to dumb it down, although it is to produce something people want to read). But seriously, your analysis of the “intellectual dating a porn star” line has forced me to think about this on a slightly deeper level, and I’m glad that you posted it. My goal, of course, wasn’t to devalue Whitehead, but to simply make a point that he wrote about the male experience in a thoughtful way; HOWEVER, I see what you’re saying because Gentleman/Lady Lit is probably somewhere between an intellectual’s take on the world and a porn star’s take, whereas Whitehead is clearly on the intellectual/genius side of the spectrum. So maybe his books aren’t Gentleman Lit after all. I’ll think about this some more and blog about it later. 🙂

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