I admit it: I am an awful blogger. I’ve been terribly inactive and I have all of zero ideas when it comes to topics I can write about here at The Sword and the Keyboard. I know it’s probably just laziness on my part, and maybe a little bit of fear because it’s intimidating having any size audience, but I also blame undergrad for sucking all the creativity out of me over the past four years. Excuses, excuses.
Now that I’ve finished undergrad, only work at my part-time job a few days a week, took a week and a half to recuperate (and read for fun for once in my life!), and generally have more free time on my hands, I’m making a “Summer Resolution” to post more regularly here. I hope to post at least twice a week, if not more. My goal is not only to help myself through the writing process by blogging about problems I encounter, but also to help other writers who may be having the same issues. And, of course, if any readers want me to talk about specific subjects, I’m open to suggestions! A part of me wants to start some sort of online book club or monthly book reviews, so if anyone is interested, please let me know.
The last month or so of undergrad was a busy mess, between exams, final research papers, the Creative Writing department’s Senior Reading event, and graduation itself. Since this is partially a personal blog, I’d like to set aside a moment to say some thank yous before diving into today’s topic. Of course, thanks to my parents and family and boyfriend and friends for supporting me all four years of college, and for encouraging me to go onto grad school to pursue a degree in Library Sciences. Also thank you to our capstone professor, Eric Gansworth, for organizing an awesome Senior Reading event. It was a great success. The audience was much smaller than the one at the Quadrangle Magazine unveiling back in April, but it was still a great turnout, and my classmates did a great job reading their work. It was easy to tell that we all loved being up there at the podium, that we were all proud of our stories and poems — even though we were shaking in our boots the whole time. I also want to thank the Canisius English department, full of some of the most encouraging, inspiring professors I’ve ever met, and the Classics department as well, which welcomed with open arms even those of us who only minored in the subject.
And thanks to the Canisius College Creative Writing department as a whole (even though I would often butt heads with my professors over the issue of Serious Literature vs. Genre) for not only giving me a valuable education, but also for (sort of) opening their minds a little bit by my last year there and accepting that genre writers can indeed be “literary” writers too.
Which brings me to today’s topic: The Genre and “Literary” Fiction.
Right now, I’m playing with this idea of a story about an apocalypse (cue accusations of “jumping on the bandwagon,” blahblahblah, but I believe the zombie/apocalypse genre is severely lacking in Strong Female Characters, so I want to contribute). The problem is, I’m struggling to decide between doing a “quiet”/”literary” story or a “loud”/”genre” story. The former would be about a woman whose husband leaves her to fend for herself (because she understandably becomes agoraphobic once the dead start walking), thus forcing her to either face the new world as it is, step up and survive, or die. The “loud”/”genre” story would probably focus on the woman who caused the apocalypse (with a magic spell, because I’m sick of seeing the apocalypse caused by viruses or the government or science) and her friend/antagonist.
A year ago, I would’ve been all over the genre story. But after four years of Academia conditioning me to scorn genre fiction, a part of me is leaning towards the “literary” story. I’m hoping I’ll somehow be able to combine the two.
See, in case you didn’t know, there’s this belief in Academia that genre fiction can’t be “serious” fiction. Of course, if you’re already in a writing program at some college, you’re probably aware of this prejudice.
I’ve written on this topic SO many times, especially back when I had a Tumblr blog where I could feel free to vent about how evil the Canisius Creative Writing department was. Every single first day of classes, at the beginning of each semester, my writing professors would begin by saying, “We write literary fiction here. No dragons, no witches, no wizards, no magic, no zombies, no aliens or spaceships, no space travel. We stick to realistic fiction.” Once, in my very first creative writing class, someone asked, “Why?” My professor answered, “Well, because all that stuff just seems so silly. We write serious literature, not children’s literature.” (If you’re anything like me, your blood just boiled reading that.) Later, in my junior year when another student asked the same question, a different professor said, “Well, because genre places limits on characterization and focuses much more on plot. Most characters in genre novels are tropes, and the plots are recycled and unoriginal. Our goal in this program is to create realistic characters and explore the depth of human emotion in original ways.” (Again, if you’re anything like me, your blood is practically on fire at this point.)
Granted, there are now countless genres — Young Adult, Horror, Dystopian, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance, and Adventure to name a few — not to mention subgenres like Urban Fantasy, Psychological Horror, etc. It would be an incredible feat to cover them all in one writing program. And, yes, there’s some terrible stuff out there that gives genres a bad name (*cough* Twilight *cough*). But there was always this snide tone in my professors’ voices when they told us not to write genre fiction. And instead of sounding intellectual, they just came off sounding a little snooty. They clearly didn’t know the first thing about genre.
What I found ironic was that all three of our main professors in the department used certain genre elements in their writing. One professor wrote poems that retold fairy tales, the other wrote Young Adult fiction (granted, realistic Young Adult, but still Young Adult), and the other “dabbled” in horror because he reads it so regularly (although most of his published work deals with realistic fiction about Native Americans). So why all the hate?
I still have no answer to this. A part of me thinks it just stems from some desire to scorn what’s popular, as if once something makes it to the Bestseller’s list, it instantly loses any “literary” merit. Academia’s writers are like the hipsters of the world of literature.
Whatever the case, as an avid reader of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, I know that what those professors think about genre fiction is far from the truth. Many characters in genre are often based around tropes, yes, but with the right skills, the writer can put their own spin on those tropes. I can think of a handful of well-known and beloved examples right off the top of my head: many of the characters in Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle (*spoiler alert* where the “bad guys” aren’t just the “evil army in black,” and the female warrior/love interest has her own agency and chooses not to be with Eragon in the end); pretty much all of George R.R. Martin’s characters (Brienne, with her love of passion and romance despite being a “manly-looking” warrior woman, is my favorite example); Dumbledore, who isn’t just a recycled Gandalf, but who is actually a complex character with a murky past and ambiguous morals; Cole and Morrigan and Vivienne and Leliana from BioWare’s Dragon Age series, and Liara T’Soni and Wrex and Samara from their Mass Effect trilogy (granted, these are video games, not books, but they’re still genre-based stories). These characters may be tropes, but they feel real. They speak to us in such a way that they stick with readers their whole lives. If that isn’t meaningful, if that doesn’t bear some human truth, I don’t know what does.
And genre can certainly be literary — just look at writers like Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Clive Barker, and the likes. These writers were all largely ignored in the program I attended, although I certainly feel that at least one course studying how genre and “literary” fiction overlap would have been incredibly useful, not only to myself but to other classmates I know who preferred writing sci-fi and fantasy to realistic fiction.
There’s also this belief that genre fiction can only be epic in scope (see this article from The Guardian). This misunderstanding makes it hard for professors to allow students to write genre stories, because obviously a 15 week course won’t be enough time to write an epic-length novel. But writers like Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman who write collections of short genre stories, and magazines such as Clarkesworld and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which publish short fantasy and sci-fi stories on a monthly basis, clearly disprove this myth. So that’s another one of Academia’s anti-genre excuses knocked down.
Finally, by my senior year, one professor just admitted, “I don’t know enough about genre fiction to teach it, and we don’t have the budget to hire someone who does.” Our writing department at Canisius is very small, so I accepted that as a valid excuse. Personally, if I were a professor though, I would want to study a genre I’m unfamiliar with and learn, along with my students, how genre fiction works. After all, the students are paying a huge amount of money to learn about writing, so why not offer them something they want to learn instead of requiring them to learn what you prefer to teach?
But that’s just me.
I have a word of advice for high school students who are considering a degree in Creative Writing: Please, PLEASE find the webpage that lists the course descriptions of your college(s)-of-choice, and see whether they include topics you’re interested in, or if they only write realistic/”literary” fiction — especially if you think you’re going to attend college and learn all about world-building and such. In high school, I was always told, “Once you get to college, you’ll be able to learn whatever you want.” That’s not entirely true. Not only will there be General Education courses that you have to take, but the program may not offer classes in the subject you’re particularly hoping to learn about.
I’m not saying there’s zero value in learning about literary/realistic fiction, even if that’s not your style of choice. I certainly learned a lot about creating characters, about critiquing my classmates’ (and thus my own) work, and about packing an emotional punch without being overly sentimental. These were all very useful lessons which, no matter my genre of choice, will certainly impact my writing for the better. But for four years I was forced to set aside my love of genre fiction and write only realistic fiction, when I would’ve loved more than anything to take a class or two that centered around the way genre fiction and literary fiction overlap.
So I encourage you, as you look for colleges, to look into the writing programs in detail. I wasn’t aware when I entered “Academia” that genre fiction was largely scorned by the academic world. It won’t be easy to find a program that does offer anything about genre fiction; if you can’t find one that does, or you’re already stuck in a program and don’t wish to transfer like I was, I encourage you to start a genre writer’s club, or something along those lines. (A few friends of mine tried to start one at Canisius, but were discouraged when they could find no professor to sponsor them, so keep that in mind.) For four years, I felt creatively stifled because I had to fulfill certain guidelines and I couldn’t write what I wanted to write, since I was so busy writing for class. I wouldn’t wish the same to happen to future writing students. Above all, don’t be quiet; voice your concerns to your professors and let yourself be heard. Maybe someday Academia’s hipster ‘tude will change.
Good luck, happy learning, and happy writing!