Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Thou Shalt Not Commit Genre

Academic prejudice and the reasons college professors ban genre fiction in graduate writing workshops. 

Graduate writing programs have a lot to offer: the advanced workshop experience, the chance to learn the craft from accomplished authors, and assistantship opportunities that bestow stipends and tuition waivers. For would-be wordsmiths, academia can be a paradise, but...
Thou Shalt Not Commit Genre
Guidelines from an MFA workshop:
[N]o romance, no scifi, no horror, no vampire/zombie, 
and no speculative or meta fiction…

Course description from a MA/PhD novel writing workshop:
But please: no fantasy or science fiction.

Introductory email from a MA/PhD workshop professor:
Just as a heads-up: we don't work with genre fiction in this program,
so make sure you send something "literary." 
(emphasis added)

To be fair, none of the professors quoted above enforced their restrictions when approached privately in advance, but that’s not the point. That these policies exist at all sends a clear message: genre fiction is intrinsically inferior, unscholarly and unworthy. For those of us who ask “what if,’’ this kind of literary prejudice can be a constant companion, the voice of a judgmental deity that threatens to expel us from the garden if we defy its mandates.

This deity is outdated, elitist, and counterproductive. It stifles the creativity that its temples were built to cultivate, it turns away supplicants based on subjective taste and preconceived superiority, and it calls into question the very legitimacy of speculative fiction as an art form. To the acolytes of this paradigm, Henry James is an archangel while Neil Gaiman slithers around apple trees. Perhaps most insidious of all, this deity is self-propagating: professors imprint these biases on the students who will become the next generation of teachers. 

Rodney Dangerfield: 
The spirit animal of genre 
writers in academia.
To write speculative fiction under such auspices, you need more than just a thick skin. You need be confrontational. And no, I don't mean being belligerent, although I've had exchanges that went there on both sides (So, my graduate course on young adult literature won't count toward my degree because you consider it a "bullshit course?"). You have to be assertive. Approach professors, ask for their reasons, and be prepared to articulately challenge those reasons, but remember: these are the people who'll be grading your comprehensive exams and judging your thesis or dissertation. They're also the ones who'll decide if you'll get funding via assistantship. 

Is it unfair and demeaning to be forced to jump through these hoops? Hell yes, but when you have to kill a god, it costs nothing to be polite. Be a diplomatic deicistSo, what are some of those reasons to ban genre fiction in collegiate fiction workshops? The deity has many mouths, but here are a few of the things I've heard from its avatars:

1. We just want to screen formulaic, cliche stories about zombies, dragons, and buxom women in bikini armor.
"Nothing happens for 400 pages
followed by an unsatisfying, 
esoteric ending? Awesome!" 
said nobody. Ever.
Graduate creative writing programs have audition-based admission procedures, and most can only accept a limited number of new students each semester. For example, my MFA program turned away over sixty applicants during my final semester alone. To get in, applicants must submit a portfolio of their work for faculty review. If you've gotten your foot in the door, you should have already passed enough of a screening processes to be trusted with your craft.

Not that admission standards matter. Any kind of story can be cliched and formulaic, even ones about dying loved ones, sexual awakenings, or aging academics seducing younger women at cocktail parties. Creative writing programs are supposed to help writers identify and overcome their weaknesses. If that weakness happens to be writing predictable, tropetastic epics, the problem is one of craft elements, not genre--but even this argument falls short of the addressing the real problem: how can you tell that a story will be formulaic or cliche without reading it? 

So the little man with furry
feet needed the help of his
 best friend and his worst 
enemy to destroy the ring?
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN!?
2. I have no experience with genre fiction. I don't know how to evaluate it.

Ah, the old "it's not you, baby; it's me" line. This argument politely hides its subjective bias behind a diaphanous veneer of professional credibility. It's an excuse, not a reason. While a given professor may be unfamiliar with the sensibilities of a particular target audience, s/he will be well versed in narrative fundamentals such as voice, plotting, dialogue, character arc, pacing, foreshadowing, POV, and theme--all of which are equally present in both literary and genre fiction. 

To loosely paraphrase one of my better MFA instructors, "Good stories are good. Bad ones are bad. In that, genre is irrelevant." Claiming an inability to evaluate genre fiction is tantamount claiming an inability to evaluate fiction at all, and "I don't like speculative fiction" is not valid reason to limit the options of students who, lest we forget, are paying for these services.

3. Speculative/Genre fiction is a disposable, for-profit commodity.  

Publishers probably aren't going to buy your manuscript because they like you. They're expecting to turn a profit on it, and anyone who sells their work is inherently part of the for-profit industry. Regardless, how disposable are Shelley's Frankenstein or Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Huxley's Brave New World or Stoker's Dracula or... You get the idea.
Sorry. I can't hear your artsy 
rage over the sound of how
 goddamn rich I am.

I've also heard this sentiment expressed as, "We're creating art here, not entertainment." These things are not mutually exclusive, and if you want your work to be read outside of academia's echo chamber, you can't afford for them to be. Remember: Shakespeare's plays were pop culture when he wrote them. Oh, and he wrote to pay the bills, too.

One of my MFA professors described genre authors as: "profit-motivated writers who crank out serial novels in which the same characters do the same things over and over." Even if we pretend this inanely inaccurate portrayal is true, is there something wrong with making a living through your craft? Are you somehow inferior to starving artists if you can afford to put your kids through college? Why is success something to scorn?

4. Writing literary fiction teaches you to focus on character interactions.

"This has dragons in it! 
Bring me something with 
complicated characters
 instead."
This argument employs the following logic: literary fiction focuses on complex characters having nuanced, real-life human experiences, and since these elements are the core of most stories, students should master them before experimenting with "distractions" like fantastical settings, magical creatures, or alien perspectives. The director of my MFA department explained it this way: "Even Picasso had to start by learning to paint still lifes."

 To answer my MFA professor's painting analogy, I'll offer another one made during a class with my week five instructor at Clarion West, Samuel Delaney: "Novices tend to paint the subject first, but skilled painters typically start with th background." Elevating one craft element over another ignores the complex codependency they share. Writers develop their craft along unique trajectories; no two are the same. There is no universal formula that, if followed in the proper order, will produce mastery. 

Of course, proponents of this anti-genre argument are also presuming that genre fiction will inherently involve underdeveloped characters and/or generic character dynamics. So, here’s an idea: professors should actually read a student's work prior to making decisions about that student's strengths and weaknesses. It makes a lot more sense than issuing anti-genre mandates based on insulting assumptions. After all, not every literary writer is a master of existential abstractions, and not every fantasy writer has a protagonist named He-Man.  

Your god is too small!

The predisposition against speculative/genre fiction is a pretentious and dogmatic contagion. Spreading it sustains the literary claim to some imagined intellectual high ground, but at what cost? How many aspiring writers are discouraged by this poisonous atmosphere and give up (especially considering the thousands of dollars it costs to experience being treated like a second class artist)?

Okay, so it's a rainy day, but can MFA programs still be Eden for speculative fiction writers?

Yes.


Not every member of the literati is beholden to the frowning deity. Nestled in among the enforcers of banality are open-minded cherubs who embrace creative writing in whatever form it takes, who sincerely seek to help developing authors hone their craft even when their stories involve steam-powered spaceships, regenerating time travelers, gender-bending zombie romances, or radioactive dragons. 

On occasion, the genre-averse can be converted, and some turn out to be completely accepting and supportive in practice. The professor for my first PhD workshop had a no-genre policy. After sharing some of my work with her, she exempted me from that rule. In the ensuing (entirely pleasant) conversation, I learned that she was completely unfamiliar with William Gibson and the genre he informed. After hearing it explained, she invited me to submit a cyberpunk story. During that story's workshopping session, she drew parallels between the thematic elements of cyberpunk and the gritty, irredeemable casts that populate Flannery O'Conner stories--and O'Conner is her favorite author. There is common ground, and it's worth finding it when you can.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of institutions are openly courting genre writers. For instance, Brandon Sanderson teaches a class on writing genre novels at BYU (you can enjoy his awesome lectures for free here) and Bard College boasts Neil Gaiman among its faculty. 

In addition to the professors, creative writing programs provide an opportunity to network and build professional relationships with other students of the craft. Yes, some are literary zealots, eager to malign genre fiction and those who write it, but not all of them are that way. Not even most. You might also get lucky and meet a fellow deicist or two along the way. 

In academia, speculative fiction writers start with something to prove. It's bullshit, and it's infuriating, but it's also something we can work to change. Baby steps may be small, but they're still steps. Every professor we convert, and every bridge we build, makes the path that much easier for the genre artists who'll come in our wake. So, be a deicist, be proud of your passions, erode the prejudice, and above all, as Neil Gaiman says, make good art, because good art puts the lie to all of the genre-banning arguments. 

2 comments :

  1. Excellent. Your experience generally mirrors mine at UT in the 90s with a couple of minor exceptions. The biggest difference is that two of the creative writing profs just flat refused to allow me in their classes. I was an English major, thinking about switching over to the MFA program. I managed to convince three of the professors to give me a shot, even though two of them initially made many of the same excuses you cite here. The exception was Zulfikar Ghose, a writer known for his works of magic realism. The two who refused to even read my samples were quite convinced of the artistic superiority of their works.

    At the time, I was quite confused by the literary label. It seemed odd to me that the short story was essentially invented by a writer of horror and detective fiction, but a hundred years later, such works had become ghettoized and labeled non-art. I think Michael Chabon isolated the problem quite well in his 2005 McSweeney's article "Trickster in a Suit of Lights." Somewhere in the 1950s, the New Critics began to get their way on defining literary aesthetics. Thenceforth, only what Chabon calls "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" could be considered art. All other fiction has since been relegated to the lesser classification of "entertainment": SF, fantasy, horror, true crime, whodunits, war stories, und so weiter. What was once the stuff of literature has become "guilty pleasures."

    Ultimately, I think this literary model, tales in which ambiguity is prized above clarity and epiphany above action, is dying out. Every year sees more universities including genre fiction writers among their creative writing faculty. It also helps that writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Robert Olen Butler are willing to play for both sides. I look forward to the day when aspiring creative writing students will look back on articles like your blog post or Chabon's "Trickster" and wonder how such arbitrary boundaries could have survived so long in academia.

    Thank you for your post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I can think of Adam Roberts and Paul Magrs in the UK who teach creative writing courses, both of them acclaimed genre writers. I'm sure there are more.

    The thing that's cheeky on the part of literary fiction writers is that lit fic is itself a genre. But I think that you should pick your teachers carefully. It doesn't matter what kind of academic credentials they have, if they're deliberately blind to whole swathes of modern literature, and that's the kind of thing you want to write. You need to have someone familiar with your genre so they can recognise what's derivative and tired.

    ReplyDelete