Guest contributor: Nina de Gramont

Bad Advice Wednesday: Don’t Be a Snob!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour



Dave is on a trip this week and I promised him that while he was gone I would read Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, Angle of Repose.  Instead I’ve been reading Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture by Andy Cohen.  There are several reasons I could feel guilty about this, the most obvious being a broken promise, or at least a delayed one.  The others involve a kind of intellectual guilt – the nagging, unfinished-homework voice inside your head that believes every moment should involve edification, enlightenment, and improving the mind through High Art.  “Nina,” my voice has a way of asking.  “Is this really how you want to spend your time?”

Well, I’m sorry to tell you, snobby-voice-inside-my-head, but yes:  sometimes that’s exactly how I want to spend my time.   For one thing, Andy Cohen?  Love him!  He is hilarious and original and inspiring.    (For those of you who are too high falutin to know, Andy Cohen is the Bravo producer behind The Real Housewives, and the host of the insanely entertaining Watch What Happens Live).  For another thing?  The voice I am using to write this paragraph, parenthetical included?  Stolen!  Directly from Andy Cohen himself.

Columnist Crawford Kilian calls it the “Kids, Don’t Try This at Home Effect.”  Narrative styles are contagious.   In an article for the on-line Canadian daily The Tyee, Kilian lists “The Ten Most Harmful Novels for Aspiring Writers.”  With the exception of Erich Segal’s Love Story, Killian doesn’t prohibit the books based on quality, but imitability.  Catcher in the Rye, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Atlas Shrugged, Blood Meridian —  Kilian doesn’t think the books are harmful to readers, but to writers.  “They are often well-written, but their effects have generally been disastrous: they inspired younger writers to imitate them, they created awful new genres that debased readers’ tastes, or they promoted literary or social values that we could very much do without.”

If you’ve taught Creative Writing, you’ve seen the effects of these all too imitable voices.  Students who haven’t even read Cather in the Rye turn in stories narrated by Holden Caulfield sound-alikes because they’ve grown up reading Salinger’s disciples.  On a more fundamental level, I see this in my nine-year-old daughter, who has been dictating stories and books to me for years.  Because I’m also in tune with what she reads, I can see the direct and immediate influence of not only her subject matter, but the style in which she narrates, as well as her themes and characters.  I have seen her shamelessly rip off Peter Howe’s Waggit series, down to the plotlines and sometimes even the chapter titles.  Then Harry Potter was thrown into the mix, and elements of Rowling’s magic and anti-authority sentiments appeared.  Lately we’ve been reading Kathryn Lasky’s beautiful Wolves of the Beyond series, and Hadley has begun borrowing the attention to language and a preoccupation with the spiritual and supernatural.  It’s a fascinating evolution to watch, my own young writer, and the way she’s weaving the styles of her favorite authors into one that is becoming more and more her own.

When I was a kid, I came to classics early.  In my pre and early teens I read Jane Austen and the Brontes.  I read Tender is the Night.  I read lots of Vonnegut and Updike, and lots of Hemingway.  I also ordered Archie comics from bubblegum wrappers, and devoured Danielle Steele and V.C. Andrews.    Jacqueline Briskin’s The California Generation remains one of the most important books of my life, and Crawford Kilian would be horrified to know that I read Love Story at least a hundred times.  The truth is, as an adult I sometimes felt embarrassed about my continuing lapses in what many would consider quality.  At home I may have been re-reading Valley of the Dolls, but if I needed a book for the waiting room I’d trot out my well-loved copy of Stones for Ibarra – the grownup version of hiding my Archie comic inside of Wuthering Heights. 

It was no less a literary luminary than Donna Tartt who gave me permission to come out of the closet as an eclectic (not undiscerning) reader.  In grad school, I was lucky enough to take Tartt’s class when she came to UNCW as a visiting writer.  On the first day she asked us to list our favorite authors.    Leafing through our anonymous cards, it wasn’t the students who’d noted Dostoyevsky or Paula Fox whom she praised, but the ones who’d written down several writers of diverse sensibility.  Even though the cards were anonymous, I hadn’t been brave enough to list Erich Segal as an influence, but I had noted George Eliot and Tom Robbins.  Donna Tartt waved my card in the air, noting it would be hard to find two more different writers.  She is a formidable person, and I don’t dare quote her without remembering the exact words she said.  But the general idea was, if you want to be a writer, read everything.  The more varied the voices, themes, quality, and intent, the better.

Listen, as Andy Cohen might say.  Have you read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend?  Because every sentence in that novel is a mini-masterpiece.  If she offers you advice?  TAKE IT.

Don’t worry.  I’ m almost done with Most Talkative, after which I really will read Angle of Repose.  The consecutive voices of Cohen and Stegner will find a way to reconcile and hopefully elevate my own ever-progressing narrative style.

Which books do you love that are on opposite ends of the literary spectrum?  Do you notice their styles converging in your own writing?  Now that I’ve come clean, you can too!


  1. Carol de Gramont writes:

    What a wonderful hodgepodge of writers! But you forgot to add the Old Testament,
    which you quietly removed from my bookcase and pored over–“Psalms” and “Song of Songs”–when you were a young teenager. I didn’t even know about it until one of your friends told me you were considered an expert on the Psalms. A funny version of a kid secretly reading an adult book with a flashlight under the covers.

    Well, many of our greatest writers grew up reading the bible–and it famously influenced their work…

  2. Shelley Burbank writes:

    This week I picked up a novel by Alice Hoffman, a Stephen King collection of novellas, a Grace Paley collection of short stories, three “Best Magazine Writing of 200__’s,” THE DIRTY LIFE: A MEMOIR OF FARMING, FOOD, AND LOVE by Kristin Kimball, and a PEOPLE magazine. I read the Hoffman, part of the King, haven’t started the Paley or the Best-of’s, dipped a toe into the memoir, and am saving the magazine for a trip to the beach or out on the lake in the canoe while my husband fishes for bass. Sorry, can’t read Danielle Steel anymore. Read too much of her in my teens and twenties. But there is Nora Roberts…

    One last thing: before Fifty Shades of Gray, there was Anne Rice (who has written a werewolf novel now that vampires are about as common as cockroaches) writing as Anne Rampling. Nothin’ new under the sun…or between the covers (books or bedsheets, either one).

    Great guest post!

  3. Eve Ness writes:

    I’ve spent the last few weeks dashing through some of my favorite women writers: Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Berg, Julia Glass. Also two charming books by Joe Coomer and Charles Baxter, and Joseph Mitchell’s “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.” Then, my favorite book for comfort reading: “Suds in Your Eye” by Mary Lasswell. Written in the 40s, about a trio of old ladies who drink beer and fix people’s lives in WWII San Diego. I foundered on “Swamplandia!” but have had fun ambling through a weird little book called “Images in the Margins,” by M.M. Nishimura, about the strange and wonderful creatures who turn up in the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts. I plan on taking on some intellectual challenges soon. Pretty soon.

  4. daisy writes:

    Oh God. I really hope that my inner writing goddess isn’t being tied up, spanked, and influenced against my will by “Shades of Grey.”


  5. john lane writes:

    Good column Nina! I was just sailing with the family last week and they kidded me the whole time because I was reading a heavy lit crit tome called “The Meaning of Rivers” by T.S. McMillan and the only other books I had with me for “pleasure reading” on the week-long trip was a book of poetry and “The Social Conquest of Earth” by E.O. Wilson. Betsy read widely and wildly in several novels all week (she freaked out in the airport on the way back because she’d finished all her fiction!) The boys were reading light and middle brow fiction too. They all kidded me all week, as in “Well John, your job today is to find meaning… What could the ocean possibly mean, and the boat? And the wind?” So I ignored them and continued to underline and annotate! But on a serious side, it reminded me that I do read very very little for what I would call pleasure and never have. I love to read, but for very different reasons than Betsy. I’m always reading for other reasons– understanding, “enlightenment,” looking for “art,” etc. Betsy says she reads almost entirely for entertainment and “to find something about a book that knocks me out.” PS: Love Angle of Repose. Have read it twice and also have on my ipod, so I go back and listen to sections of it over and over… Still not sure what it “means” but I’m working on it!

  6. Abby writes:

    I hesitated about a second before buying the Enquirer last week. How else would I find out about John Travolta’s cross dressing without a tv? Also reading ‘The Trouble With Tom, the strange afterlife and times of Thomas Paine” by Paul Collins.

    • nina writes:

      If you don’t have a TV you get to read anything you want, period. How else are you supposed to prune brain cells?

  7. Kerry Headley writes:

    This is a public service announcement. Thank you!

    I will now describe my tastes as “eclectic” also. I’ve read three books connected to the TV show “What Not to Wear.” I just finished “Game Change”–the sort of tawdry behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 presidential election. I own two books by Jacqueline Susann, two by Stephen King, and a great one called “How to Spot a Bastard by His Star Sign.”

  8. George de Gramont writes:

    I am definitely not a snob! Currently reading “Dropped Names” by Frank Langella,which is total “schadenfreude” about 60 famous men & women he knows (Want me to send it to you after I finish).Anyway now I am guilt free about it. And my next book is “Huckleberry Finn”.