In class on Thursday, we discussed our final projects. A classmate of mine had written one of her short exercises (the one about books) on her “odd shelf.” Now, an “odd shelf” just means that part of your library contains something unexpected or surprising with regard to who you happen to be or what you do. My classmate is a student of fiction in the MFA program at George Mason. Her “odd shelf” is packed with fantasy novels.
In her paper, she reflects on the fact that genre fiction is no place for a Serious Writer. If you are in an MFA program you must never admit to owning and enjoying genre fiction much less ever actually consider writing it. And she’s right. I mean, I’m not paying thousands of dollars and spending three years of my life trying to get better at Greeting Card Verse. Not that that’s even really the same thing I’m talking about here.
But the fact of the matter is that genre fiction, just like any writing at all, deserves to be taken seriously if it’s written well. I know that a lot of sci-fi, horror and romance books are trash. But you know what? So is a lot of so-called “literary fiction.”
I think what bothered me the most about the discussion of my classmate’s paper was when my professor jumped in to say that OF COURSE as a teacher of fiction writing at a graduate level, she would never accept a sci-fi or fantasy story for one of her classes, because making up a whole imaginary world is TOO EASY, and that to write a character-driven story without much action is much more challenging and worthwhile. I totally disagree. There are plenty of science fiction or fantasy stories that are character-driven in a setting where different rules apply. And it’s usually the action of such stories that reveals characters’ weaknesses and strengths. In fact, I’ve actually read a few novels from the “literature” section with very little plot and also very little character. And when I read those books I usually end up getting really pissed off that I wasted my time on them.
Now, I think that the MFA program is a good place to hone your character-development and narrative skills. It’s not really the place for drawing maps and reworking physics so that you can make sure your characters wouldn’t really die in whatever situation. But I honestly respect a lot of these hard-working and talented genre writers out there because to me, writing a character is easy. Plot and setting is tough enough here on my own little earth in my own little America. It takes serious commitment and a damn fine imagination to come up with some of those alternate universes and space-age situations. Sure, the MFA might not want anything to do with all of that, but just because it’s not a part of academia doesn’t mean that academics need to be so snobby about it.