Wednesday, January 23, 2013

for the writers among us

Since I know at least half a dozen of you are writers, I thought you might be interested in the discussion we had on the last day of one of my seminars last spring.  Yup, that's how long this post has been floating around in my head.  I was in the Literature program, but our English department also has a quite well-regarded MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program for creative writers. The MFA students have to take at least 3-4 literature courses during their program, so in almost every seminar I took, there were at least a few, and sometimes a bunch, of MFA students.

I loved having them in class because first of all, they're a talkative bunch, so they always generated lively discussion, and secondly, they often had different and interesting perspectives on what we were discussing because they focused less on literary theory and more on how the work was put together, how the author achieved certain effects.

So anyway, the very last day the professor opened up a free-for-all discussion about the state of fiction today.  In a graduate level classroom, this meant that we were going to discuss literary fiction.  No one had to say that.  Serious literary types do not read genre fiction.  MFA students are the ones that are learning to write literary fiction-- which means that they can be quite snobbish about genre fiction.  I see literary fiction as a genre, but not many do.

We had a discussion here about literary vs. genre fiction awhile back (try this one or this one if you're interested, and on that second one, read the comments).  So most of you know that I am a fan of genre fiction.  I love mysteries and science fiction and fantasy and romance novels.  In fact, literary fiction has become so dismally, drearily despairing (or so weird), that in the past couple of years, when I've wanted a break from my reading for school, I've read genre fiction.  So this is not intended to be a defense of literary fiction. I'm just reporting what they said.

Mostly the MFA students see literary fiction as "real" writing, while genre fiction is just about taking a set of genre conventions and coming up with a new version of them-- sort of like painting on blank canvas compared to paint-by-numbers.  (Genre conventions are the elements that always appear in a work of a particular genre.  In a mystery novel, there will always be a murder, and an investigator, and clues that include red herrings, and a denouement where all is revealed.  You can do some pretty creative things with that set of guidelines, but it's rare to read a mystery novel that doesn't use most of those conventions.)

So here are these kids, who have landed highly sought-after positions at a good MFA program (it was even in the Top 10 a few years ago), discussing the state of fiction today.  I was fascinated.  I was madly scribbling down notes.  The main thing I noted was the changing emphasis on why they write.  Twenty-five years ago, the last time I was in school, the argument for literary fiction would have included something along the lines of "art for art's sake," writing what was in your soul no matter what was popular, ignoring commercial success to stay true to Your Art.

But these kids want their work to be read.  It's not so much that they're after commercial success (although a few of them were unabashedly interested in making money), it was more that they wanted to write stuff that people would read.  "We're trained to write plotless stories," one of them said, "but that's not what people want to read."  (And also, that's not what gets published.)  "You can't ignore readability," another said-- which was a near astonishing assertion coming from someone in an MFA program.  MFA students write lean, spare, elegant prose that captures a particular moment in time.  "The moment after which nothing is the same," one of them described it during another discussion.  They do not worry about whether or not their work is readable.

But they also couldn't understand the attraction of genre fiction.  "In a typical thriller or suspense novel, the conflict is resolved by action," one of them noted.  "What's interesting about that?"  "Why would you want to write something where most of the decisions are made before you sit down to write?" said another (which almost made me laugh, knowing how some of you have struggled to write good, intelligent genre fiction).

It seemed to me that they were describing something of a crossroads in fiction writing-- a new willingness to consider fiction as something that a reader should enjoy reading.  (A willingness to consider the reader, period, I might cycnically add, something literary authors of the past have not really felt they needed to do.)  If they are typical of MFA students in other places, I suspect that literary fiction may be shaken up a bit in the next few years.  Probably few of them have ever read genre fiction, but I would love to hand them some of the books we've described as the good stuff and see what they would do with it.

So, not much else to say, just thought it might be food for thought for some of you.  There were surprisingly few authors they were willing to recommend-- Franzen was pretty universally admired, but all the other names that came up were disputed-- Froer, Eugenides, Paul Auster, A.S. Byatt, Lydia Davis, and Nick Flynn were mentioned.  And that was about it.


  1. This is a discussion I don't tend to enter into very often because of the way people view genre fiction. I have trouble categorizing genre because so much is a cross-over: mystery with romance, romance or chick lit? sci-fi, fantasy, alternative reality? I also get irritated with the convention that "good" literature, the literary stuff, is the writing I find uninteresting, uninspiring, depressing or all of the above.

    Setting aside purely formulaic genre, which I don't enjoy, the interesting thing about genre is that it is like writing a sonnet as opposed to free verse. There are constraints but within those constraints the author is free to write their own story. In some ways, it makes the author have to work harder because of those constraints.

    Food for thought . . .

    1. love the sonnet analogy, thanks. And I agree about the crossover- the lines become more blurred every day.

  2. What Karen said. There are so many mash-ups, I'm not sure genre conventions matter that much anymore. Well, apart from romance. Those romance folks really like their HEAs. :) I read for plot. I find fiction that doesn't have one meanders to the point of absurdity at times. I like action. I like suspense. I like a good swoon now and then. I can and do study nonfiction to think. When I read fiction, I look for something that makes me feel.

    Still, I do read literary work at times, but when I do, I prefer the Richard Russos of the world over the Salman Rushdies. I mean, three pages describing a valley? Really Salman? If I want a perfectly captured moment in time, I'll read poetry. At least it's more concise. ;)

    That said, those MFA students like what they like and are fully entitled to do so. I don't disparage the existence of literary fiction (which I also believe to be a genre with it's own conventions...hmm, bet that would be an interesting subject to study, genre conventions of literary works) or their taste for it. I would expect the same grown-up attitude from them about my love of "genre" fiction. Good topic.

    1. Yes, for those of us who read genre fiction and are aware of how good some of it is, the conventions don't matter much anymore. But having spent the last three years hanging out with academic literary types, believe me, it matters to THEM. They have no use for genre fiction. My very first day of class the professor apologized for having read Lord of the Rings over the summer (I just needed something mindless and stupid, she said). And the same professor who started the discussion in this post made a number of snide remarks about genre fiction (although I happen to know that his wife--also a lit professor-- reads mystery novels).

      I read a discussion of literary fiction as a genre a couple of years ago, maybe I'll see if I can find it and report back.

  3. OK, I don't know if Clayton is around this week or not, but I'm apologizing for the subject-verb disagreement in the penultimate paragraph anyway. Just caught it this morning. oops.