In Which I Repost an E-Mail. Or: A Lame Excuse for a Blog Post

An e-mail thread was going around the graduate student list-serv about teaching creative writing, and the issue of whether or not people allowed students to write “genre” was raised.  Here is, I think, an excellent argument as to why someone does not allow their students to submit genre stories:

I take issue with the idea that the creative writing class should be different than any other class students take at the university.   Most of the classes we teach (and take) could be accused of the same kind of elitism – none of us would (I think?) seriously walk into a Shakespeare class, for example, and complain that we weren’t reading Twilight.  Nobody complains (loudly, at least) about not getting to read the books they want to read in a class, rather than what’s on the syllabus.  Nobody goes into a beginning computer science class and complains that they really don’t need to know the fundamentals because all they’re interested in is artificial intelligence.  Nobody reasonably asks to replace an Argument paper with an epic poem about snowboarding.

So, I don’t get why the creative writing classroom should be any different, that creative writing instructors should be expected to be able to critique *any* kind of writing – meaning, if I don’t know jack shit about the vampire genre, and I’m teaching a class focusing on the elements of the short story, why it should be elitist to say, “hey, it’s great that you’ve written your 800 pg take on the vampire genre, complete with werewolves, amber eyes, and prose CGI, but this is a class on the fundamentals of writing fiction through the short story – sure, what you learn in here can help you with your vampires down the road, but as an instructor, I’m best equipped to help you with a particular kind of writing – think of these as math problems – you might not like them, but it’ll help you get where you want to go; you might not like that you aren’t able to workshop your werewolves today, but what we do in here will certainly help you with that later.”

You know what?  I totally agree.  I mean I really, completely understand his point, and do not in the least begrudge him this opinion.  But I still wrote the following reply:

So, the first story I ever turned in to a workshop was science fiction.  The story I submitted for my application here was about a robot.  As a guy who never stopped writing and submitting to workshop stories with strong genre elements, I feel the need to disagree.

Writing in any genre should not be exempt from considerations of craft.  If you know craft, you can critique any story from any genre.  Whatever genre tropes are included should never obscure meaning.  Genre’s not a “club” that requires a lifetime of submersion in its back-catalogue.  While people do build off of what’s been done before, a story cannot be expected to stand on the merits of its references.  What’s more, if even you – who are not readers of the genre – know that what the student is writing is cliche, then the student really needs to take note.

Are we really not just as accustomed to seeing cliches in “non-genre” storytelling?  How many times have you read about cancer or discovering sexuality or a murder or rape?  Beginning writers lean on cliches, that’s just how it goes.  Maybe you’ve all been lucky and had “realist” writers in your class who started writing long enough ago that they’ve moved beyond that crutch, but when I taught undergrad creative writing the cliche load was just about even among the genres.  They write what they love to read, and no matter how good or bad their taste may be their first efforts are going to be mimetic at best.

True, lit-fic is often better written than other genres, but to me that just means it has something it can teach other genres.

And let’s face it, lit-fic is as much a genre as sci-fi.  It’s embroiled in all the same wall building and xenophobia, it clings just as readily to its definition and identity as any other genre.  I would think that here, where the word “experimental” gets bandied about so often I feel I could lock in a definition of it as a genre, that would be clear.  Iowa can get up its own ass about teaching the “one true writing,” but I had to read goddamn Mulligan Stew here – a text that is just as prohibitive to “outside” readers as the worst sort of fantasy.

In fact, in my classroom I was more concerned to see beginning writers attempting experimental fiction than horror fiction.  The writer of a vampire story and the writer of a cancer story are starting from the same point and need essentially the same guidance.  A kid writing experimental fiction for their first story feels to me like Picasso going straight to cubism without bothering to learn how to draw a bowl of fruit first.  That kid needs a firm grasp of all the instruction I could offer the first two writers before he even starts.

My pet peeve is literary writers who dismiss genre as inherently poorly written and unworthy of attention, because that reinforces the notion genre writers have that their work doesn’t need to live up to literary standards.

I know I’m in danger of repeating myself (or disagreeing with myself…hmm), but I do love beating this horse.  My favorite part of this exchange is how willing we are to slip into casual usage – both of us would have docked students points for being so lazy about capitalization and punctuation and grammar.

Well, more the first guy than me, but I’m really superficial and wanted to make a good impression.

Anyway, what do you think of all this?


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One Response to “In Which I Repost an E-Mail. Or: A Lame Excuse for a Blog Post”

  1. Dan Says:

    I agree with this:

    “Writing in any genre should not be exempt from considerations of craft. If you know craft, you can critique any story from any genre. Whatever genre tropes are included should never obscure meaning.”

    This seems to be similar to something that comes up in my Visual Studies program. Just because I don’t consider myself a “painter” (though sometimes I do, admittedly, make paintings) I still should be able to (and can, props) talk about painting, and whether or not the work presented is effective. It essentially just comes down to language (whether that be visual language or written language) and how well it’s being utilized. We all have tools, mostly pretty similar tools, and its a matter of learning how to use them to our best advantage, whether we’re painting pictures of rocks or writing stories about robots.

    Learn your craft, and then learn how to use it.

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