In Defense of the Genre(s): A Word of Advice for Incoming Writing Students

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!

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6 thoughts on “In Defense of the Genre(s): A Word of Advice for Incoming Writing Students

  1. I wonder. Can anyone have strong female characters in a fantasy/genre novel. These characters at best are substitutes for human beings and their powers and actions don’t really tell much about female life today and how to cope, handle and work through problems.

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    1. Heck yes! There most certainly can be strong female characters in any genre! Cersei Lannister (as written by George R.R. Martin, not by the writers of the show) is just one that comes to mind (but to be fair, all of Martin’s female characters are strong); Lemony Snicket’s Violet Baudelaire is strong; so is Tauriel in The Hobbit films, and Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle from The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, and Cassandra and Aveline and Morrigan from Dragon Age, and Liara T’Soni and Tali and Miranda and Samara from Mass Effect. If male characters in genre fiction can be strong, then so can the women. We are all, in fact, human beings (some of the characters above aren’t even human beings, just humanoid, and yet they are complex and speak to the audience on an emotional level, so that’s pretty significant to note). In fact, no character, regardless of gender or genre, should be a “substitute for human beings.” If that’s what a writer thinks of their characters — whether those characters be primary or secondary, protagonist or antagonist, female or male, human or humanoid, or anything else other than completely non-human — then they need to reexamine their writing, because they’ll end up with some pretty flat, meaningless characters that the audience cannot connect with. If they write female characters into boxes, they’re likely to drive away 50% of their potential readership.

      Characters in genre fiction shouldn’t be defined by what their power is, but rather by their actions, their thoughts, their beliefs, and their words — and of course how they USE their power or lack thereof to change the story. There’s a great quote about characterization, and unfortunately I can’t remember right now where I read it, but essentially it says that each character thinks they’re the hero of the story, even minor characters. They have their own goals, needs, desires, and fears, they have flaws and attributes. Their gender does not change that, although it may affect what exactly their goals, needs, desires, and fears are (i.e. a woman might be more likely to fear rape in our world, and one of the needs of any human woman in any world would be hygiene during menstruation, although the writer does not necessarily need to tackle those issues if they don’t feel that they’re relevant to the story).

      And it’s important to remember that when a reader/writer says, “I want to see more Strong Female Characters,” we don’t necessarily mean that we want to see a woman who has awesome physical strength, a killer superpower, or a “tough girl” who can wield a sword — we have plenty of those after all. We don’t mean that we don’t want to see an “emotionally weak” woman (because emotionally weak women can be strong characters too if they’re written well enough). We just mean that we want a complex woman who isn’t written into a box (i.e. painted as the “evil seductress” or the “pure, innocent virgin”), but rather who is depicted as a fully fleshed-out human character — because that is, ultimately, what women are: human. Their presence in the story doesn’t necessarily need to speak to what it means to be a woman in our world, or even in the fictional world (although if that’s one of the themes the writer is exploring, that’s cool too, and certainly in most worlds, fictional or real, gender will affect the way a character interacts with that world — but again, if that’s not one of the themes the writer is dealing with, then they can feel free to leave it aside).

      What Strong Female Characters DO need is AGENCY. I cannot stress that enough. Agency is the ability to use whatever skills, big or small, that they have in order to affect the plot and the world and the characters around them, to form relationships, to succeed or even to fail in achieving their goals. Again, Cersei is a great example, but so is Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black, and of course Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. These female characters aren’t vessels upon which the plot acts; they are not objects. Rather, they take what the story (and author) throws at them and react to it, shaping the outcome to the best of their abilities.

      Thank you for commenting and sparking discussion! This is definitely an important topic to explore, and one I intended to post about at a later date.

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      1. Thank you for your complete thoughts and good comment. I am interested in this too. In November, 2013, I blogged on WordPress, my site, WOMEN: HALLOWEEN CHARACTERS, which fill out my paltry comments to your blog. It’s available.

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