Genre Snobbery

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.

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5 thoughts on “Genre Snobbery

  1. That’s my girl.

    That’s also why I don’t think I’m going back to academia. A prof tells me all fantasy/sci-fi is trash, he gets put through a table. And then I leave a copy of Watchmen on him.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Has this girl written anything best-selling recently? Have her scintillating character-driven writing skills saved her from obscurity? Has she heard of Lord of the Rings (second best selling set of books next to the BIBLE) or, I don’t know, SHAKESPEARE?

    The anti-fanstasy thing is so two decades ago.

  3. Anonymous says:

    That was me, by the way

    –Wi//ow

  4. Brighty18 says:

    Ah, genre fiction… we do the same thing at Borders, do we not? There is “Literature” and then there is the “ghetto” of genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, etc.) The irony of the whole thing is that if you are considered “good” enough – or, more to the point, if your publisher pushes enough, you can work your way out of that ghetto and into the bright, sunshine that is “Literature”. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Ann Rice.)

    I took exception to your prof.’s comment about it being “too easy” to make-up a world of fantasy. In fact, I think that it would be rather the opposite – at least if you’re careful, as Tolkein always was. That being said, I think it IS terribly difficult to combine the two, but it can be done. Ursula K. Le Guin? The new Michael Cunningham?

  5. falwyn says:

    Forever and ever amen, sistah. I’m so glad to hear that the grad students don’t have to believe what the (all too often) elitist professors so often preach about genres. This very issue makes me more than reluctant to try for an MFA myself. We shall see.

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