As anyone who has spent any amount of time writing fiction at the college level will tell you, genre bias is rampant in academia. As a recent graduate from a state university, I experienced this bias firsthand. Repeatedly.
While some professors remain open-minded, others turn their noses up at the first sign of science fiction or fantasy in their workshop classes. Many have never heard of your favorite horror or romance writer, nor do they care what your idols have written or what awards they have won. A select few ban genre fiction from their classes altogether, highlighting such clauses in their syllabi.
Some of you are probably nodding in agreement, thinking back to the times when you also hit these roadblocks. I tip my hat to you, brothers and sisters in arms. However, this article is not aimed at you. Rather, this article is aimed at those still wandering academia’s halls, as well as those about to enter them for the first time. College may not welcome genre writers with open arms, but that doesn’t mean they can’t thrive there, provided they know how to go about studying the craft in such an environment.
It is also important to note that I do not support the division of so-called “literary” and “genre” fiction. I am merely using such terms for the sake of clarity as well as to properly represent the division as it exists within academia.
The first and perhaps most important thing undergraduate genre writers need to realize is that the instructors are not their enemies, even if a few of them do ban any manuscripts containing zombies or elves. In my experience, this tends to be one of the hardest lessons for students to learn. In order to understand this, one needs to first examine the situation from the point of view of the instructors. Most professors do not read or write anything that could be considered genre fiction. They are literary through and through. They don’t know the tropes. They don’t know the shorthand. Writing that kind of thing is simply out of their element.
That being the case, would it be responsible of them to try to teach an aspect of writing they have little to no experience with? No, it wouldn’t, so they don’t. Instead they teach you what they do know, which is a lot. Lucky for you, this is mostly stuff you don’t already know, the stuff from the other side of the fence, which is great because you’ve got your side covered, or will with enough practice. Let them pass on the skills they’ve mastered. Read those James Joyce stories. Do those John Gardner exercises. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
The second thing, which is really just an extension of knowing instructors are not the enemy, is that genre writers need to let others know they are there to play ball. Work hard, get assignments in on time, and step up when it comes to commenting on the work of others, especially in class. If the instructors know you care, they will be more likely to take your genre of choice seriously. Instructors can be skeptical of students in general, and rightfully so. I find that most undergraduate writers, even most creative writing majors, are nowhere near as serious about the craft as they think they are.
Another thing to realize is that you are likely working against a history of garbage genre fiction that has flooded their classrooms for years. I can’t even recall the number of manuscripts I had to read about teen mermaid romance or two-dimensional, clichéd vampires. I mean really terrible, awful, wouldn’t-wish-it-on-your-worst-enemy fiction. It can take some time to navigate through all that debris and gain an instructor’s trust, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Early on in my college career, I was waiting for one of my writing classes to start when a fellow student began complaining about comments she had received for a piece of fiction in a different class. Apparently the instructor told her the story was riddled with clichés. This upset the student because, as she explained to the rest of us early arrivals, genre fiction was supposed to be full of clichés. Wrong. This is what instructors are seeing, what you are working against. Bring the heat. Show them you can offer up originality with style.
Another way to gain the respect of instructors is to find the middle ground. Find the bridges between your world and theirs and use them to the fullest. One of the easiest ways to do this is to read writers whose work most closely rides the line between your genre of choice and the literary world. Instructors may not know who Richard Matheson was, but they’ve read Cormac McCarthy, and they’ll be more than happy to discuss horror elements when you put them in the context of The Road.
When I was attending classes, several of them used The Anchor Book of New Short Stories, edited by Ben Marcus. If you’re taking college writing courses, buy this book immediately as it will give plenty of examples of authors I’m talking about. There’s a story in the book called “Two Brothers,” by Brian Evenson, which features a religious fanatic who attempts to cut off his own leg with a kitchen knife, people eating birds, and other strange elements. Another story, “The Paperhanger”, deals with the disappearance of a child. Both are straight-up horror. In fact, the former is one of my all-time favorite horror stories. However, they are also literary stories featured alongside a host of stories by other literary authors.
While Stephen King’s fiction may have a stigma in the college classroom, the bloody antics of Brian Evenson’s work does not. That same anthology contains a story by Aimee Bender, who focuses primarily on magical realism. Bender is often spoken of in the same breath as Kelly Link (I actually heard them both mentioned no less than a dozen times at a writing festival at the university a few years ago when all the grad students were experimenting with that kind of thing). Kelly Link edited the fantasy half of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for years. Bridges. Use them.
The third thing current and prospective students need to know is they should be doing as much learning outside of the classroom as inside of it. I’m not just talking about reading and writing on your own either, although you absolutely need to do those things. What I’m talking about is creating your own learning environments. The easiest way to do this is to start or join a creative writing workshop. As someone who has run a workshop for the last five years (it’s still going despite the fact that many of its members have graduated), I can honestly say you’ll learn just as much, if not more, about writing from a private workshop as you will from a workshop class—if you do it right.
How does one go about creating an effective workshop? The biggest thing is that you don’t let just anyone join. That may sound elitist, but believe me when I say it’s necessary. From my experience, the average writing class of 20 people contains anywhere from three to five students who actually know what they are doing and are dedicated to writing. These are the people you listen to in class, the people whose comments you read first when you get a manuscript back. Unfortunately, the rest of the class is usually more obsessed with the idea of being a writer more than they are actually interested in writing.
Pull aside the go-to people and ask them if they’re interested in a private workshop. Odds are, they’ll have some go-to people themselves. After you have a core group, only bring in people that ask to join. This makes sure you’re getting people who take the initiative. However, always remember to say no when the need arises. If the girl from class who is constantly checking Facebook while everyone else discusses manuscripts asks to join, tell her no, you’re full. If the guy who always turns in assignments two days late wants in, tell him no, you’re full. Often these people like the idea of being part of a workshop, but don’t actually do any real work.
“No workshop forda you!”
I also recommend focusing on the level of commitment people have rather than their current skill level, though it’s important to have at least a few people in the group that are better writers than yourself for the sake of growth. Ideally your workshop should contain no more than seven people. Any more than that and things get unwieldy.
In addition to seeking out like-minded individuals on campus, connecting with other writers via the Internet is hugely beneficial. The wonderful thing about the writing community is that people are so willing to help others. I find this to be particularly true when it comes to veterans wanting to pass on their knowledge to the new blood. Join a forum. Join a Facebook group. Drop another author an email. Build connections. Be a part of the online writing community. Aside from interning at Shock Totem, I’ve recently been given the opportunity to do some freelance work in the game industry. Both of these developments evolved out of meeting awesome people on forums. I can’t stress enough the importance of making connections with those who share the passion for the craft.
So if academia has got you down, fear not. There are plenty of wonderful resources waiting to change your college experience for the better. Connect with the instructors. Connect with other students. Connect with fellow writers online. Writing genre work at the college level needn’t be painful or alienating. In fact, surviving as an undergraduate genre writer can be remarkably easy, provided you know how.