Genre Genre Genre

I teach undergraduate and graduate writers. I read a lot of applicant writing samples, as writers apply to enter our grad program. Etc. More and more, I have seen the percentage of fantasy and fantasy/horror material greatly increase. It seems as the years pass, I am now getting about 25% of student writers who only want to write in a specific genre. Zombies are huge. Vampires too. Tons of Sci Fi.

None of this is done very well, but so? They are student writers; they are learning and improving. Questions:

1.) Why do I care if students write in a genre outside literary? Does genre fiction have a stigma?

2.) Those out there that read student or peer writing, have you seen the same increase?

3.) Is Kurt Vonnegut a Sci Fi writer? Is Mary Shelley horror? Back to question one…

20 thoughts on “Genre Genre Genre

  1. Yes, genre with few literary aspirations (though I think theme is in all works, though it may need to be needled out…). Basically, Zombies are cool.

    Another distressing trend is these authors can’t often answer my first questions about their work, especially this one I would think any professor would ask: “So, who are like your top ten horror writers you admire?”

    Etc.

    I’m mixed in how to approach these students. First thing, I give them literary genre work. Like with Sci Fi, I make them read Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin, etc.

    I want them to write OUTSIDE the genre. Like not write a Zombie story that has every element of a Zombie movie. Rather recognize the genre by twisting it, making it their own.

    I have decided to NOT be anti-genre writer professor guy. I think academia has this knee jerk reaction against genre, not so well thought out.

    I don’t wanna do that!

  2. Do you think many of these kids are writing genre because of influenced outside of literature? Movies, tv, comic books, etc. And if so, is that invalid? What if I’m someone who loves horror movies, but when it comes to creative output, writing is either the most enjoyable, or the most feasible, or both.

    I must say that I’m guilty of this sin. Before writing Forecast, I’d probably only read four or five books that could be considered science fiction. Much of the work I find it being compared too, for instance, I hadn’t read. I can only assume that some of my inspiration was from film.

  3. Oh, I’m sure film (and more likely anything on the computer/web) is a huge influence.

    The friction has been, for me, as a teacher, that our wriitng program and philosophy is grounded in literature. So here comes all the genres, some literary, some with a very powerful interest in entertainment only.

    I think the stories lean to the entertainment. I try to push the student to the literary and realize that THEME and ACTION are NOT mutually exclusive.

    A Cormac McCarthy “western” is about the human soul, not so much about gunplay, though, yes, there will be gunplay.

    BTW, I think film can be literary. I also think reading is reading. If my students read Sports Illustrated, I tell them great, any reading is a good idea for a writer.

  4. i noticed similar trends while serving as one of the editors of my program’s lit mag. a lot of undergrad writing seemed zombie-obsessed, or like mimicking the turn of the screw or jack ketchum novels.

    i have a personal stake in this because i really like dabbling in genre. my favorite authors are thomas ligotti and brian evenson. i’ve read everything lovecraft has ever written. but i also love woolf and faulkner and gass and my god the list goes on.

    part of the problem is necessity. students turn to writing because it’s there, you don’t have to cart around film equipment, work with a crew, learn how to talk to actors. other people still think that genre lit will make them millions of dollars (crime-writer Marcus Sakey was in my graduate program and his success seemed to warp things for a while).

    the other part of the problem is that, and not to sound lame, but there simply aren’t enough profs like you, Sean. too many people take the high-road. when i was teaching an intro class, my students loved fantasy, so we read things like nabakov’s “the dragon.” some of these students just need exposure to lit that blurs the lines a little. others will be devoted to genre forever, and that’s not necessarily such a bad things. genre has its place in the world of books. and any good program should have at least a few specialty classes dedicated to the craft.

    which brings me to a third problem: craft. i’ve noticed a lot of young writers struggling to emerge from the influence of video games, television and popular films. there seems to be a dearth of genre-craft-knowledge, a lack of emphasis on perverting form or using structure in new ways.

    i don’t know, lots of thinking out loud here.

  5. I teach composition and creative writing at a community college. And yes, I’ve seen more and more writing about vampires and zombies. I received at least one poem or story about a vampire for every assignment I gave in my multi-genre class. Part of me wanted to veto vampires as a possible “topic,” but at the same time I didn’t want to stifle any creative spark, especially in students who are struggling to succeed.

    I do think it’s because of media influence and trends. In a few years we’ll be reading about werewolves and then ghosts, etc etc. I think the challenge is getting them to really reflect on what it is they are writing, and, like Sean said, encouraging them to twist the vampire story we expect into something interesting and fresh.

  6. I’m the “genre” person at my institution because I embrace everything except fiction for/about children (I’m famous as the child hater). Yeah, I’ve seen an increase in genre writers, partly because the wizard and elf crowd are being directed to me. The domestic realism guy says, ‘hey I’m sending you a writer interested in historical fiction,’ and I just know I’m getting a time travel or vampire-in-the-civil-war novelist.

    That’s okay, though. I get good results/buy-in when Itell my students that anything goes, BUT no one should read and write just one kind of thing. I think students identify with particular genres partly because they think they need to defend their preference. When I say reading and writing narrowly, even within the literary mainstream, is not good for a writer’s development, my zombie folks tend to come clean about their wider interests. Or, if their interests are genuinely narrow, they are always willing to try something new. I’m just that awesome. Except I hate children.

  7. I forgot to mention Children’s Lit. Can’t imagine a more dismissed genre in university setting. Just what I have seen. Then again, I helped a student go to a university grad program devoted to that genre (prob wisely–filling a niche).

    And wow the history of literary “tales.”

    Grimms and etc.

  8. A few years ago, almost by a fluke, I taught a class called Speculative Fiction Writing. I’d never heard of Speculative Fiction so I did some Wikipedia “research.” I have to be honest, I thought all my students would be writing about werewolves & fairies. Much to my surprise, the writing that came out of that workshop was much stronger & smarter than the writing that came out of the traditional Fiction workshop I taught that semester. Because students did not feel constrained to “realism” (though my readings lists for both classes were definitely “fabulist” bent, my own bias, of course!), it gave them a lot more room to play. We read some cool books, many of which I felt the writing was a little lacking but the concept was fantastic (pun intended, as always): the expected names like Borges, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Ursula Le Guin, & also some unexpected like Chuck Palahniuk, Kate Bernheimer, and Steve Tomasula.

    I’ve also taught a class on Fairy Tales. This was a lit course, but students also had the freedom to write their own fairy tales. Again, I think once that constraint of expected realism is taken away, there’s just so much more room.

    I should mention these were undergrad classes, but still! Many students walk into creative writing workshops expecting to write memoir-driven (maybe this is a sign of age & the recent boom boom of memoir daziness) realist fiction. It’s also a testament to the literature these students read in English departments, where students are drilled into realist submission.

    That being said, I think writers of our generation are increasingly moving into Fabulism. There’s been a focus on the fairy tale, in particular. Here, I’m talking a lot about my own experience, but aren’t there a lot of fairy tale-ish books coming out!? Yes, there are the powerhouse fairy tale writers like Kate Bernheimer, Rikki Ducornet, etc. but we’re doing it too: me, Shane Jones, Molly Gaudry, etc etc etc. We’re not working with zombies & fairies, per se, but what’s with this urge to revisit the fairy tale form? What makes us yearn for all that magic?

  9. I think Lily’s question, “What makes us yearn for all that magic?” is an extremely good/important one.

    I just watched a Simpsons episode last night on hulu in which Lisa gets recruited to join a wiccan group, hilarity ensues yadda yadda, and at the end she has this line where she says something like “I’ve been so rational my whole life and now you’ve shown me there’s more to life.”

    Makes me wonder if our desire for magic is a way to try and re-connect with some pre-technological existence or essence. Or, maybe our desire for magic arises from our desire for something (anything) metaphysical. Something non-rational.

    Makes me also think about this whole Twilight phenomenon. My wife tells me she thinks the main vampire guy sounds like a stalker. (Neither she nor I have read the books nor seen the movies, but we both teach college freshman who tell us and write papers all about it). I suggested that maybe the reason why tween girls seem to dig it is because it recuperates chivalry.

    Maybe that’s another part of our desire for magic….it allows us to recouperate

  10. I think Lily’s question, “What makes us yearn for all that magic?” is an extremely good/important one.

    I just watched a Simpsons episode last night on hulu in which Lisa gets recruited to join a wiccan group, hilarity ensues yadda yadda, and at the end she has this line where she says something like “I’ve been so rational my whole life and now you’ve shown me there’s more to life.”

    Makes me wonder if our desire for magic is a way to try and re-connect with some pre-technological existence or essence. Or, maybe our desire for magic arises from our desire for something (anything) metaphysical. Something non-rational.

    Makes me also think about this whole Twilight phenomenon. My wife tells me she thinks the main vampire guy sounds like a stalker. (Neither she nor I have read the books nor seen the movies, but we both teach college freshman who tell us and write papers all about it). I suggested that maybe the reason why tween girls seem to dig it is not because they secret desire being stalked, but rather because it recuperates chivalry.

    Maybe that’s another part of our desire for magic….it allows us — for better or worse — to recuperate aspects of the human condition that have fallen out of vogue or fallen by the wayside of progress.

  11. Pingback: Genre and Its Discontents « BIG OTHER

  12. Distinctions between genre fiction and literary fiction are relatively contemporary. Most early fiction has elements of what we would consider, in contemporary mindsets, to be the unreal. Gothic lit, etc.

    There are a few concerns:

    1) Is the writing formulaic? Some people write genre fiction with brainless imitation of other people’s writing, formula, and tropes. This is obnoxious and bad writing (and although there are still publishing venues for it, it’s largely out of favor). There are certainly beginning lit writers who do this as well.

    2) There are slightly different pitfalls for spec writers than for lit writers. Exposition is an enormous problem for spec writers, particularly ones just starting out. A dedicated teacher who hasn’t ever had to deal with writing that kind of stuff would do well to look up some of the many essays that have been written on how to deal with it. Beginning spec writers are especially likely to have bad prose, purple prose, or no idea that prose is important. They may have to be poked with large and sharp sticks so that they can be convinced that characterization is A) important and B) not well-accomplished by some of their favorite genre authors.

    3) There are huge online resources for spec writers. You can point interested students to places like the Online Writers Workshop where they can deal with issues specifically related to speculative fiction that you may not be aware of and/or may not want to deal with.

    4) There are virtues to beginning writers who come in with a spec perspective. They are more likely to be worried about being boring or confusing, and to be interested in plot. (Unfortunately, they may be grouchy about more modern plot constructions.) They’re also generally interested in philosophy and presenting new ideas through fiction. As a teacher, if I’m going to have to read really bad student stories, I generally prefer to read ones about the meaning of heaven and hell, than ones about drunk, disaffected frat students who go to bars. (In my experience, default story content for beginning lit writers is drunk frat student has sex and/or sad girl has been left by her boyfriend.)

    5) Assign good speculative stories so that new spec writers can see where the possibilities are. They may be reading Laurel K. Hamilton and Piers Anthony. Give them Kelly Link and Octavia Butler instead.

    6) In my experience — and I did get an MFA at Iowa — most people are more than happy to pretend that really good spec work isn’t part of genre at all. OK, yes, it’s in the future, and sure, that was a robot over there, but it’s not really sci fi, is it? I remember my MFA interview at USF where I told the guy I wrote science fiction as well as lit fiction, and he said they couldn’t take it in the program because they wouldn’t know how to critique it. “Really?” I said. “OK, what if I told you I write like Margaret Atwood?” “Oh, *feminist SF,*” he replied, “That’s not really like science fiction at all.” Whatever. Of course it is. But the point is that while there are some differences between spec writing and lit writing, there are also wide swaths of sameness.

  13. Rachel’s comment kicks the donkey out of my original post. Certainly made me think, big (maybe even Big Other).

    I liked all her ideas (even if she did get an MFA at Iowa).

    I wonder if all Sci Fi, speculative stories, fantasy shouldn’t have to read poetry for 5 full years before they are allowed to write a story.

    Then again, I suggest the same for all my “literary” students.

    S

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