The PhD in my blog title is a bit of nom de plume, in actuality I have my MFA in creative writing. (Moxie Furious, MFA as a derby name just did not flow as well.) As a graduate student, and in the writing workshops I took as an undergrad, I was strictly forbidden from writing “genre” fiction for class. Of course, in grad school, I did anyway. I was accepted to my program based on a writing sample that was the first chapter of a book about a young superhero named Firefly. Very genre. Not only genre, but it could be classified as YA (young adult) fiction. Oooooohhhh scary stuff for Literary folks. I had mainstream fiction I could have applied with, but I figured if I was going to commit to three years of busting my butt in workshops, they’d better know who they were accepting. Professors didn’t want to read genre in class because they felt they couldn’t comment on it, because there are conventions and rules that must be followed for genre. Nobody could tell me what they were, because they don’t read that stuff, but by god those rules exist. And anyway scifi/fantasy is junk stuff, and they were looking to turn out capital L Literature students. And of course, scifi/fantasy can never be Literature. Which… bullshit. And I’ve gone round and round on this so many times. But I can’t sleep, so I’m giving it one more go.
I got my BA in English from a fairly highly ranked school. And by fairly highly ranked, I mean number one in our area for a lot of years. I mean we’re sort of a big deal. And really, who cares, but obviously this stuff is important because the big program names do get thrown around. (It’s Trinity University in San Antonio. Go Tigers!) So, like I said, our fiction professor (who has since retired) banned genre writing in our undergrad workshops. But at the time I didn’t have a problem with it. His reasoning was that we were just starting out as writers, and he wanted us to have a feel for developing plot and character and all that without the added stress of world building. No judgement calls on validity or anything, just we were undergrads. (Though you did have to be a junior to get into Intro to Fiction Writing, and he was very very strict on that.) And honestly, I still don’t have a problem with it. We were learning a lot, not just about writing, but about the critiquing process. (Which getting to grad school and having to spend the first couple of months waiting on people learning to write effective critiques was
fairly extremely infuriating.) And world building is hard, man. So sure, for undergrad just starting out baby writers, fine. But I would never say our department didn’t value genre writing. We had courses entirely devoted to science fiction and to spy novels. The German literature in translation I took focused on fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm to Hesse. The only bits of Intro to Comparative Literature that really stuck with me were reading Hoffman and The Cyborg Manifesto. My senior seminar was entirely on Tolkien. That’s us. Obviously valuing genre as Literature. What about other schools?
Everyone wants to be the Harvard of their bit of the country, so what’s Harvard up to? Oh, just offering a course called Epic: From Homer to Star Wars. Okay. Oh and a Science Fiction course. And what are they doing in there? “High points, innovations, and explorations in science fiction as a prose genre from the late 19th century to the present: likely readings include Mark Twain, H. G. Wells, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Robert A. Heinlein, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), Octavia Butler, William Gibson, Cordwainer Smith, Richard Powers, and more.” Hmmm those are some capital L Literature looking names in there. Oh and a freshman seminar on Theatre and Magic “Both the pleasure of theatricality and its dangers have long been linked to ideas about the power of the magus, the witch, the wizard, and the arts of illusion. This seminar will focus on two key historical moments: the English Renaissance and the contemporary theater. We will read plays like Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, and several works of Shakespeare, together with a consideration of magic on the modern stage. The seminar will culminate in a discussion of an upcoming version of The Tempest at the American Repertory Theater, directed by Aaron Posner and by Teller, the magician and illusionist.” Why… that sounds an awful lot like they’re looking at early fantasy works. Interesting.
Well, Harvard isn’t everything, right? I mean sure they consider genre writing to be Literature. But pfft, Harvard. Let’s see what Yale is up to. Oh, offering a science fiction course this semester. “A survey of twentieth- and twenty-first-century science fiction, focusing on how changing technologies produce new ideas about human identity. Emphasis on innovations in science and engineering as well as new forms of social, political, and economic life. Works by Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, and William Gibson.” Okay, well that’s just Yale. PFFFT I say. East coast shenanigans is what this is. Stanford is where it’s at! With their course Graphic Novels Asian American Style “Though genre fiction has occasionally been castigated as a lowbrow form only pandering to the uneducated masses, this course reveals how Asian American writers transform the genre to speak to issues of racial difference and social inequality.” Surely an outlier, oh they also offer a course called Detective Fiction; and then also Contemporary Science Fictions and Technofutures; and The Graphic Novel. Stanford, obviously founded by hippies and weirdos and shouldn’t matter, am I right?
What this is is just America trying to destroy literature by allowing students to study genre. They’d never stand for this at Oxford. Except I have on my shelf the Oxford Book of Science Fiction. Oops. So Tolkien and CS Lewis taught there. What do foreigners know anyway?
We’re talking about writing Literature. The good stuff. Writing the important stuff, not studying it. I mean it’s not like Neil Gaiman is going to be teaching at Bard starting this fall. … Well Patrick Rothfuss isn’t going to be allowed in a classroom, surely… at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Welp. Okay. Whatever, Wisconsin. Iowa’s what’s important. The be all, end all Iowa Workshop. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. taught there, you know. Of course, the only time I’ve had Vonnegut on a syllabus was in the scifi class I took, but you know, whatever. That’s not relevant, I’m sure. And neither is the course at University of Iowa titled “Victorian Fantasies: From Fairy Tales to Science Fiction” or this creative writing course “Writing and Reading Science Fiction.” Surely they were hacked or someone held hostage or something. Iowa would never do something so low as to consort with genre. Corn addled hooligans. Let’s turn to the system of my own MFA alma mater, University of Texas. Specifically, let’s talk about UT Austin with their fancy New Writers Project. Surely they would never allow themselves to infiltrated by dirty genre writers… except for Peter LaSalle, whose work has in fact appeared in Best American Fantasy.
Weird. It’s almost like science fiction and fantasy, along with the other “genres” which get looked down on so often, are valid areas of Literary study. Like perhaps they are worth looking at by people who may not be into that sort of thing normally. Just like I am not into Early American Literature, but I sure did have to study it. Huh. Like maybe if we read things outside of our comfort levels we are enriched by them, whether we actually like them or not.
All of the above aside, I am so incredibly frustrated by this attitude within the academic creative writing community that the answer to bad scifi/fantasy writing is not to make it better, but to discourage students from writing it. And often that results in those students being discouraged from writing anything at all. I edit a literary magazine that focuses on scifi, fantasy, and all the other dirty words you can’t use in writing workshops. I am invested in these writers writing well. And I have gotten some writing that is, from a technical standpoint, a damn sight better than a lot of mainstream fiction that I saw in graduate workshops. (Don’t get me wrong, I was in with some very incredibly talented writers whose names you will know here pretty soon, if you don’t already, but not everyone was a star.) We genre writers have made our own spaces with Clarion and the like, but dammit! These are good, important stories, and I am so sick of everyone looking down on us while simultaneously refusing to learn about what we’re doing.