Sunday, February 26, 2012

In Defense of Teaching Fantasy Writing

Speculative fiction is big in Utah. Writers Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, Stephanie Meyer, and many, many others have all called Utah home, and most of my Advanced Fiction writers are working on fantasy novels of their own, so perhaps it is unsurprising that in my first year here, I find myself teaching a course devoted exclusively to writers of Speculative Fiction.

I'll be bold and venture this generalization: most creative writing programs in the country look down on genre fiction in general and spec fiction in particular. Most graduate programs and many undergraduate programs will discourage their young writers from "wasting their talent" on writing sci fi or fantasy novels, and they have some good reasons for this, the best being that many writing students fall back on writing flat, stereotypical characters who follow expected plot points. Teachers argue that writers of genre fiction aren't challenging their imaginative abilities by creating something wholly new.

The problem with this argument is that it ignores the same pitfalls in literary fiction. I've heard agents complain about "MFA fiction," for example, by which I suppose they mean the beautifully written novel about nothing in particular. I've heard others complain that all MFA writers write about is cancer patients or self-absorbed twenty-somethings, the stock characters of literary fiction. I don't want to denigrate my peers by implying that these stereotypes are just; they may have some grounding in fact, but they overgeneralize. However, the best literary writers break from these stereotypes to write moving stories that get at core human truths. And therein lies the problem with the argument against allowing students to write genre fiction, because I would argue that the best spec fic aspires to the same purpose of illuminating what's best and worst about humanity.

When I began prepping my spec fic writing class, I was the first to admit that I'd shunned SF for quite some time and that I had quite a lot of reading to catch up on. I had read The Hobbit, LOTR, and waaaaaay back in my youth, the original Dragonlance trilogy, but I had no idea what SF looked like now. I asked my students, friends, and colleagues to help me generate a reading list, which included Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens, George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, etc., etc., and what I quickly discovered was that my own assumptions about fantasy--and those of my colleagues--were well and truly out-moded. The best fantasy novels had long moved on from the stock character types of Dragonlance and into political dystopias with keen attention to plot. Good Omens was a romp, the voice of which kept me engaged from page one to the end. Gaiman's American Gods paired and inventive premise with an engaging literary writing style. The characters in Joe Abercrombie's Heroes were as complex and nuanced as any I'd read in literary fiction, and while I have some issues with George R.R. Martin's love of the word jackanapes and his need to cling to the phrase "game of thrones" once he'd discovered it, I can't fault his ability to offer compelling imagery or his deft juggling of multiple viewpoints over a sustained narrative.

I quickly realized too that I had read far more SF than I thought I had. Because Margaret Atwood and Neil Stephenson are often housed in the literary shelf at the bookstore, I hadn't thought of Oryx and Crake or Snowcrash when I assessed my own reading tastes as strictly literary. Acknowledging that the boundaries are far more permeable than we sometimes imagine, I quickly listed other spec fic novels: Gulliver's Travels, The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolfo, Frankenstein, Dracula, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and so on. I realized that my friend Kirsten Kaschock's brilliant novel Sleight was speculative, as were the works of Italo Calvino, Aimee Bender, Anne Carson, and Franz Kafka. In short, I realized that "speculative fiction" is a false label wrongly associated with escapism and a sort of childishness, when many current SF writers are doing far more politically and artistically important work than is commonly acknowledged.Yes, there is still a good deal of bad writing out there, but the genre is deep with quality writers and writing.

Whether the average MFA program acknowledges it or not, speculative fiction is becoming a dominant literary form, not merely a pop genre. (Perhaps I should say "again becoming" since critics now acknowledge some of the best gothic fiction as literary.) The problems students encounter in trying to write spec fiction (hackneyed characters, insufficient attention to plot structure, etc) are common to all genres of writing including literary fiction, and the world building spec fic writers must do deepens their awareness of the necessity of setting and its affect on character and plot in ways that are deeply educational. There's enough to say on this point to write a whole post, but I'll stop there for now.

Thankfully, some writing programs, such as the one I teach in, are starting to be more open-minded and accepting, but the bias is still all too present. I had it myself. I'm glad to say, my students have educated me, and I have come to know better.


  1. Fantastic post. I'm going to start pointing people to this when they look down on me for writing fantasy. >:D

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