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Looking Past the Ivy to See the Writers

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What do Diana Peterfreund, Lauren Willig, Julia Quinn, and Eloisa James have in common? They are all Ivy League educated authors. Peterfreund is a graduate of Yale University. Willig, Quinn and James are Harvard educated. They are all, to varying degrees, commercially successful writers.

At the both ends of the reading industry spectrum, from the publishers to the readers, the Ivy League pedigree can matter. It is believed, I am certain, that Ivy Leaguers know how to write it better. Slap Harvard, Yale, Princeton on the biography of the author and the books are instantly viewed to be of a certain quality. I think its like a dog whistle. We readers see that and have a certain instinctual response.

Maybe it’s because for most of us, an Ivy League education was simply not in the cards whether it was because of lack of funds, not high enough test scores, or not being able to write a good enough entrance essay. Because the Ivy League education seems unattainable, the ones who attend and graduate are afforded some instant literary god like status. And that works, initially, but over time, a writer’s success with a reader depends more upon the words on the page and not the letters behind their names, no matter where they come from.

Famously, Eloisa James debuted on the romance market in hardcover with Potent Pleasures, a book replete with historical inaccuracies. The story is set in 1799. Lady Jersey made a cameo appearance even though she was a child in 1799. The guests danced a quadrille two decades before its introduction. The duke’s daughter made her London debut in August when the season ended in June. There is a scene called the Hooker’s Ball in reference to a ball thrown to introduce prostitutes to titled men. Hooker as it relates to prostitutes, however, wasn’t used until the US Civil War. Ms James rewrote some of the passages to Potent Pleasures to eliminate the historical inaccuracies when the work was republished in mass market.

The topic of education and writing arose a couple of months ago upon a blog post by fantasy author Marie Brennan. Ms. Brennan (whose book, Midnight Never Come is released today) wrote “So my studies have taught me nothing at all about writing, but a great deal regarding what to write about.” There was a variety of opinions about what was the best degree to obtain. Yasmine Galenorn said that college is vital:

College is vital, IMO–not just to become a writer, but to expand horizons, to meet new people, to listen and learn new ideas. I think it can open up the world for some–not all–people.

Yet, three commenters spoke up about their lack of education: Jill Myles (Pocket author 2009); Stacia Kane (Juno Books); and Ilona Andrews (Magic Bites, Magic Burns).

I think education can provide you with the skill to get into the granular level of writing and assist one in relating the story, but some people just have a gift. Education isn’t determinative of who will be a good writer. But it can’t necessarily mean that when you extrude the education, it will come out in the a palatable form.

Education can train someone in the paradigm of writing but then again, not all education is equal. Robin and I have alot of discussions about the law paradigm versus the higher education paradigm. My emails are full of bullet points and timelines. (yes, I am possibly the most boring email correspondent). It makes for good explanation of the legal points to clients, but its not very good creative writing. Robin’s training, on the hand, is more suited toward creative writing and creative thinking.

I would argue an astute roadside waitress would be able to tell as good or better of a story than an ivory towered academic. Because that astute roadside waitress could see the visual clues of people’s interaction with each other and if she was gifted, could articulate those things. A very romance famous author, Edna Buchanan, Dorothy Parker all lack the academic credentials that others have but they tell brilliant stories. Lora Leigh, for all her writing faults, connects to some deep core inside a reader. When you can connect to people, you’ve got a gift. Of course, we readers might accuse authors of squandering the gift (*cough* Laurell K Hamilton *cough*) but it’s there nonetheless.

Successful writing requires a gift and it requires grit and maybe part of the grit can be taught in a classroom. As for me, I’m going to try to be more like Warren Buffett and not be swayed by an author’s credentials when choosing a book, but the book itself.

“I don’t care where someone went to school, and that never caused me to hire anyone or buy a business,” says Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, who graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


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