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Genre Fiction: Wizards? Private Eyes? Space Aliens?

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This post originally appeared on the blog on 9/14/11  

We are finally—I believe—past the time of the unexamined assumption that literary fiction is automatically high art (and therefore worthy of our imaginations and ink), while genre fiction is intrinsically lowbrow or mind-wasting (and therefore not worthy of those things. Or not for academic credit, anyway).

My sense is that the past decade has seen a growing acceptance of genre writing in the workshop, or at least a growing acceptance of work that flirts with genre. And I wonder if this is because more writers who teach these workshops are themselves flirting more with genre. (Kim Wright recently published this essay about the phenomenon of literary authors jumping into the genre pool.)

Still, potential arguments remain for emphasizing literary fiction, particularly literary realism, in the workshop:

  • Literary fiction is generally more “character-based” than genre fiction.
  • Instructors are more comfortable teaching their own area of expertise, which is usually literary fiction.
  • Each genre has its own conventions that don’t necessarily cross genres or apply to literary fiction, whereas (the thinking goes) the lessons of literary fiction more readily apply across all genres.

Maybe the most compelling argument is that conventions themselves—especially character types and clichéd plots—are precisely what we teach students to resist. In a “hard-boiled” detective story, the detective is, well, hard-boiled. He also solves the crime. Always. In the romance, the couple falls in love and gets together. The genre story, particularly its outcome, is largely determined by the conventions of the genre, rather than by the particular characters and their situations. When these conventions get substantially subverted, they are not generally considered genre stories any longer. Rather, they are something else: not a crime novel, but Lolita; not a science fiction novel, but Slaughterhouse-Five. Not a ghost story, but Beloved.

Yet there are also some persuasive reasons to allow, maybe even encourage, genre writing in a workshop:

  • Genre fiction is what many of our students are reading and is what inspires some of them to pursue creative writing in the first place.
  • If the workshop dwells only in the domain of literary realism, how can we in good faith assign stories by Márquez or Barthelme or Borges (or contemporary authors like George Saunders and Kevin Brockmeier)—or anyone at all who strays from the “real”?

Although I do promote literary realism, especially in the beginning workshop, ultimately I want—and ask—students to write what they’re most driven to write—provided they are careful not to make artistic decisions based on what “always happens” in a particular genre. If a story involves time travel, there needs to be a reason why it can’t simply involve flashbacks. If a troll is guarding a bridge, he’d better not be guarding it “because that’s what trolls do.” That troll needs a history and personality every bit as fleshed out as a character in a “literary” story. In this way, I try to help students develop the habits that stay with them for their next story, and their next, regardless of genre.

A final thought: This issue seems particularly salient now, I think, because we have a whole generation of creative writing instructors who grew up on Stephen King teaching a whole generation of students who grew up on J. K. Rowling. And this is a good thing, indeed—because Stephen King and J. K. Rowling happen to know a thing or two about writing compelling stories.

Your thoughts? 

About the Author
Michael Kardos received his B.A. from Princeton University, his M.F.A. from Ohio State University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. He is the author of the novels BEFORE HE FINDS HER (Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic, 2015) and THE THREE-DAY AFFAIR (Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic, 2012), as well as the story collection ONE LAST GOOD TIME (Press 53, 2011) and the textbook THE ART AND CRAFT OF FICTION (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013/2017). His fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, and many other magazines and anthologies, and has won a Pushcart Prize. His essays about fiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle and Writer’s Digest. He lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where he co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His website is www.michaelkardos.com.