Friday, September 30, 2011


By Kim

When I was in graduate school, a little book called The Bridges of Madison County was huge, and trashing it was one of the most popular sports in the English department. Professors and creative writing students alike could not find a single thing to like about the plot, the writing, the characters, or even the setting which, seeing that the school was located less than an hour away from those famed ‘bridges,’ seemed odd.

As fifty million copies of this “pretentious fluff” (as professors repeatedly called it) sold, the nastiness escalated, and I began to dread going to class. I had picked up the novel the previous summer because it looked like an entertaining love story– something I was certain not to have time to read once I started school. I got exactly what I paid for–two hours of entertainment.

Kim and her mom at one of the "bridges" in 1994
I enjoyed the book. I even visited Madison County because I happen to like covered bridges. Clearly there was something wrong with me. Maybe I didn’t recognize good writing. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to make it in academia. I sunk lower into my seat and kept my mouth shut, not wanting to announce my ignorance to the brilliant masses.

And then I realized something. The most vocal of my professors was an author, too. An author whose book didn’t sell so well. In fact, the only place it could be found ( days) was at a local bookstore. I read it. I could not have named a single character or plot point a week later.

Those students who bashed Waller the most violently were the same ones who had nothing good to say about anyone else’s work in critique sessions. They read their own work aloud with a smirk, laughed at their own jokes and paused at key areas to make sure everyone listening had time to appreciate their clever turns of phrase. They ignored all feedback, so I never offered any.

I lacked the courage at twenty-one to speak up and say I thought the bashing stemmed from jealousy or insecurity, but I made up my mind not fall victim to that poison. I don’t bash. Not even among friends. Not even in my own mind.

The way I look at it, if a book has become a runaway bestseller, there must be a reason behind it. It may not be the writing. How many non-writers focus on that? The plot may have been done thousands of times before, but the formula clearly worked. Maybe there’s something in the story that hits an emotional chord with millions in 2001 but would mean little in 2011. I read those books writers love to hate, looking for that element that sets those stories apart from the crowd. Is it something that I can identify? Can I use it to make my own work more compelling?

Tearing another author down won’t make anyone a better writer. Learning from the mistakes and successes of others will. Envying another writer’s dream book deal (Julie Kibler!) won’t help anyone secure one of their own. Viewing that book deal as evidence that dreams can come true, even for debut authors? I call that motivation.


  1. There you go...... A great attitude and absolutely correct!

    Love, Dad

  2. GREAT Perspective, Kim. I LOVED this book too. Robert Waller wrote from his soul....That's why that book was SSSSooo Loved! WOW...SOooo you and your mom at the 'Bridges' preceded the book? It's nice to know that they REALLY exist! Take care, B.

  3. Hi Betty,

    It's been a long time since I read it, but that may be what I liked about the book. It was just pure raw emotion. Yes, the bridges do really exist. We only found a couple of them, but you can (or at least could) buy maps to all of them.

  4. Cindy Keeling01 October, 2011

    Great post, Kim. I love your perspective. One can never go wrong by taking the higher road...or bridge!

  5. I agree, Cindy, and thank you for stopping by!

  6. A post with a truthful punch, Kim. I loved that book and the movie based on it, because both grabbed my heart. BTW, that photo of the two of us sure brought back memories:)

  7. I agree but there are times when everyone raves about a book then I read it and say, "Eh." Whether it is the high expectations going into it or I wasn't in the right frame of mind because of outside factors in my life, I'm not sure.

    But I have felt the same way you have. When I like a book and it gets bashed by big wig book reviewers, I've learned to shrug my shoulders and get over it. I like what I like and that is that. :)

  8. That's a good way to look at it, Hallie. There have been many books critics love and I just don't get, or hate and I enjoy them.

  9. Nice post. I never read the book or saw the movie, but I do remember the bashing of it!

    I spent a lot of years looking for a good supportive writing group, or a writing program. It's hard to decide, if you're new, whether someone (i.e. teacher) really knows what they're talking about, or is just a bitter writer. I ended up learning & doing everything on my own. It's tough for writers; not only do you have to have a thick skin against editors/agents/public rejection, but against the people who are supposed to be kind of supporting you.

  10. Hi Margaret,

    Thank you so much for stopping by!

    I must say I have learned a lot more on my own, and with my What Women Write colleagues, than I ever did in a formal writing program. I did not find most of the professors or other students helpful at all. The exact opposite is true, however, of most of the novelists I've met on Facebook and Twitter. It seems that there is a pay-it-forward sort of attitude with many of them. I certainly intend to adopt that myself when I'm in a position to help a deserving newbie.


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