Oh, the Horror of it all! Genre Fiction Inside the Ivy Walls

Pardon this post if it is not quite as polished. It’s late and I wanted to get a couple thoughts out before sleep beckons.

In many graduate creative writing programs writers, like so many cows, find themselves herded toward creating literary fiction. Perhaps it is so a program can say, “Look, there’s proof that our graduates can write a capable story. Sure, nothing happens, but look at that prose! Pretty, huh?”

Or more likely it is because teachers find themselves in the same boat as one of my undergraduate professors who banned anyone from submitting science fiction or fantasy in his workshop. He never read it, never understood it, and wouldn’t begin to know how to critique it. If you have a limitation, well hey, then I suppose that’s fair enough.

But art and artists tend to have a dash if not a dollup of chaotic in their nature. The assignment says, “Write a five-paragraph essay with X number of sources,” and the creative writer’s mind tends to spin out that in a million different directions.

Take me for example–I hadn’t written a true horror story in years. Yet in the past four months, in addition to working on my literary novel, The Sugarmaker, three or four different horror short stories have taken root. It’s like that urge to craft polished work has been overtaken by a sneaky little genre gnome who wants nothing more than to dabble and play, just make stories that play out like roller coasters.

“Want to write about family drama?” he asks. “Well, then I want to read a story that scares you. I want a story that tosses you into a situation and world where anything, even magic or monsters or robots can happen. And I’m not going to let you go back to your pretty sentences until you do it for me.”

The beautiful thing about Rosemont College, where I received my MFA, was all writers, no matter the genre or interest, were welcome. They populated the same workshops, swapped stories, challenged each other to find a way to critique a story that adhered to conventions unknown. Genre writers were treated as equals to people who wrote nothing but realism.

The program director did this by design.And this is what I learned in my time at Rosemont: Genre fiction in the hands of a capable writer can be every bit as beautiful and significant as any piece of literature in the canon.

So actually in my current writing I’m more than willing to indulge this urge to write the stories that he’s demanded I finish. At the same time, he’s giving me space to go back and work on my longer, more literary project. A good bargain actually.

Here’s hoping that writers everywhere have enjoyed this same freedom. Genre shouldn’t be a separate shelf with separate writers. Stephen King and Neil Gaiman should mingle nearby Faulkner and Hemmingway. Because writing is more than an art or an act of self discovery. It’s the willingness to play, to risk being silly, and to boldly create whatever story feels most compelling to you.

Best wishes on amazing successes in 2009.

Shawn Proctor

2 thoughts on “Oh, the Horror of it all! Genre Fiction Inside the Ivy Walls

  1. stofoleez

    Relevant anecdote: I wrote a paper for an American Lit class a few semesters ago. I’m fuzzy on the details now, but I’m pretty sure the assignment was to take two American authors, look at their bodies of work, and compare the themes in their writing with the images evoked in the Man Thinking. I chose Frank Herbert, because I love Dune and he’s American. I spent days rigorously re-reading important passages, taking notes, citing sources, researching secondary sources. Then, when I finished 3/4 of the paper focused on Herbert, I tacked some stuff about Chuck Palahniuk onto the end because it seemed easy and safe.

    I got a C on the paper, but only because the professor liked the slapdash parts about Palahniuk. He had never heard of Dune or its author and took two letter grades off, explicitly stating that science-fiction was unacceptable for the assignment.

    (He only said we needed to use American authors.)

  2. Hey, Shawn.

    For me, there are two things we need to remember about genre fiction: that it CAN be Literature with the capital L, and also that it doesn’t HAVE to be Literature with a capital L.

    We’ve got Nineteen Eighty-Four, Frankenstein, Brave New World and so on that are all considered part of the canon. Plus so many that are arguably just as good (and I might include Dune).

    And at the same time, sometimes a gripping story’s just the thing you’re looking for. Some days I don’t feel like wrestling with Nabokov, so I go for something that’s pure entertainment and I think that writing is just as valuable.

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