Why a Course in Genre Fiction?
Genre fiction, just like literary fiction, requires (with exceptions!) a compelling plot, believable characters, coherent and sometimes even clever sentences, and thoughtful themes. So, surely literary fiction writers should accept genre-writing students into their classes and MFA programs, right?
No, but not for the reasons you might have already heard. Anyone who has spent any time with creative writing instructors, especially of undergraduates has heard the horror stories—often about horror stories. “It was this nice story of a boy and a girl exploring a beach, and then they found a cave full of gargoyles and were torn to pieces!” I heard someone at the AWP conference wail once. Such a story is apparently so awful that it cannot be improved. Literary fiction writers also complain that genre fiction is formulaic—quick, what is the formula for a science fiction story? Many would say: It doesn’t deal with serious themes or issues, and it is just so poorly written.
Basically, there is a bundle of fallacies to unpack. Literary fiction can be just as formulaic as genre fiction: Are the protagonists middle-class whites? Is mere infidelity or loss a primary theme? Does the first paragraph of a literary story introduce a moment, the next couple include some backstory, and is the epiphany at the very end and often connected to the beginning via an objective correlative?
The only difference between literary fiction and genre, at its worst, is who kills the teens on the beach: a murderer makes it a crime story, gargoyles fantasy-horror, and if they just walked into the ocean together because life is futile and empty, well then it’s literary fiction. As far as the quality of writing goes, I find that literary writers often make the mistake of comparing the best of their lot—say, Faulkner—with the covers of whatever lurid and forgettable novel they happened to walk past in the airport one day. One could just as fruitfully compare the best novels of Dashiell Hammett or Gene Wolfe with the worst short story about a cancer diagnosis in the latest issue of The Podunk Review.
The problem with the arguments of literary fiction writers, and the real reason why they don’t wish to teach genre fiction writing in their classes is this: they don’t read genre fiction and don’t know anything about it, but as a class refuse to simply come out and say that they are ignorant of the topic and thus incompetent to teach it.
Honestly, it’s worse when they try. I’ve had to “fix” several students of easily impressed literary fiction writers. One student was trying to write a dystopia, but the only advice his prior teacher could give him was to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, as if there is nothing new to say since the 1940s. (Here’s a big theme for dystopia: environmental degradation.) Another teacher congratulated a student on writing “weird, creative” fiction—except that this student’s ideas were all ancient. The first story of hers we read for my workshop was virtually a scene-by-scene reenactment of the first episode of the Twilight Zone, and the concept was old then.
All the genres have similar issues: I’ve seen noir stories set in the 2000s, but involve everyone speaking and acting as though they live in the 1950s—not one cell phone! Not one open marriage! Romance stories that take place in a lily white Oakland, California. If you’ve never actually read the genre, as literary fiction writers and sometimes even students have not (movies are a common student inspiration), you will only end up recreating the memories of a childhood sitting in front of the television set.
I used to share the annoyance of many aspiring genre fiction writers with the barring of science fiction, mystery, romance, in creative writing classes, but now I understand it. Why try to teach what you don’t know? Why demand to learn from someone who hasn’t read and doesn’t like what the sort of thing you’re writing?
But really, literary fiction writers who bar genre fiction from their classrooms should at least admit why they do it. Until such time, I am pleased to create a relatively open space for fiction of all sorts in my classes. We’ll even read some of that literary stuff. Even “li-fi” needs a compelling plot, after all.
Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Mysteries, Young Adult, Magical Realism, Chick Lit & More.
In this course, we’ll workshop your short stories and novel chapters, explore the history of the genres, perform writing and idea-generating exercises, and discuss the magazines and publishers looking for your sort of fiction. The goal is to give you a solid grounding in the demands of popular fiction from an editorial point of view, and a better understanding of your favorite genres.
“Nick’s lectures are funny and his critiques are honest. He brings a unique perspective to the classroom as both a professional writer and editor. His classes are dense with thought-provoking material and he has a lot to offer writers at all levels of experience. I’m so glad I signed up.”
Nick Mamatas is the author of seven novels, over one hundred short stories, and dozens of essays and articles.
His books include the novels Love is the Law and The Last Weekend, the short fiction collection The Nickronomicon, and the how-to guide for writing short fiction and non-fiction, Starve Better. Nick’s short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Asimov’s Science Fiction, New Haven Review, and many other anthologies and journals. He has written about writing for The Writer, Fine Books & Collections, and Wonderbook. His anthologies include the award-winning Haunted Legends (co-edited with Ellen Datlow) and The Future Is Japanese (co-edited with Masumi Washington.)
Sign up for Nick’s Class here.
At the Inkwell Reading Series
Come to our reading:
Monday, October 19 7pm *free*
Alexandra Naughton is a problem. Alexandra Naughton has a problem. Alexandra Naughton is probably the Courtney Love of Bay Area poetry. An Oakland-based writer, she combines the mundane and the existential in her life experience in both poetry and memoir. With a prominent internet persona and following, she is the founder of the BE ABOUT IT reading series, zine, and small press. She is the author ofI Will Always Be Your Whore: Love Songs for Billy Corgan , and YOU COULD NEVER OBJECTIFY ME MORE THAN I’VE ALREADY OBJECTIFIED MYSELF both on Punk Hostage Press. You can find out more about her here: http://thetsaritsa.tumblr.com
John W. Evans is the author of two books, Young Widower: A Memoir (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) and The Consolations: Poems (Trio House Press, 2014). His poems and essays appear in Slate, The Missouri Review, Boston Review, ZYZZYVA, The Rumpus, and Poetry Daily, as well as the chapbooks, No Season (FWQ, 2011) and Zugzwang (RockSaw, 2009). He teaches at Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow.
Carrie Visintainer is the author of WILD MAMA and the founder of of Free Your Wild, empowering people to unlock and embrace their personal “wild.” Her articles and essays have appeared in Outside, Backpacker, The Huffington Post, and several Travelers’ Tales “The Best Women’s Travel Writing” volumes. When not off the grid, she writes in a tiny shed in her Colorado backyard, where she lives with her husband and two young kids. Visit her and share your insights at www.freeyourwild.com.
Giovanna Capone is a poet, fiction writer, and playwright. She was raised in an Italian American
neighborhood in New York, whose strong immigrant influence still resonates in her life. She has been living in California for over 20 years, but she will always be a New York Italian. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Curaggia: Writing by Women of Italian Descent, Bless Me Father: Stories of Catholic Childhood, Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, Avanti Popolo: Italian-American Writers Sail Beyond Columbus, Queer View Mirror 2, Lesbian & Gay Short Short Fiction, andFuori: Essays by Italian/American Lesbians and Gays. Her recent fiction has appeared in The Paterson Literary Review. Her current project is an anthology of short fiction and memoir by lesbian writers, which she’s co-editing with two other women. It’s tentatively entitled: Dispatches from Lesbian America. Giovanna lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works as a public librarian.
was fun, and eclectic and our best one yet! Thank you to all of our readers. Here are a few highlights and photos sent in by Zoe Christopher, student of the Jack Grapes METHOD WRITING Program.
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“Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.”― Stephen DeStaebler
“I write for the same reason I breathe – because if I didn’t, I would die.”