A rant on genre (AWP-flavored)

4:30 PM on Saturday—last timeslot of the AWP 2016 Conference in LA, attendees roundly exhausted and over-saturated with literary brilliance from three days of intense and nearly non-stop wording. I roll into a panel called “Speculative Fiction: Defining the Rules” a couple minutes late to find it’s not only full but overflowing into the hallway. Even this late into the conference, the audience is engaged. Verbal laughs at the right moments. Considering introspection at others. It doesn’t empty out as it goes on, either—if anything, the longer it goes on, the fuller the room gets.

I leave a couple minutes early to meet a friend and in my passage back towards the heart of the convention I pass the open doors to three more conventional literary panels. They all have larger rooms dedicated to their cause. They’re populated by maybe a dozen (if I’m being generous) attendees each.

I’m well aware popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to significance. Some stupid shit is wildly popular; some great shit is unreasonably ignored. The thing is, we’re not talking about the vast sea of humanity. We’re talking MFA students and teachers, working professionals, editors and publishers—people who consider themselves part of the literary community. These people turned out in droves to hear about speculative fiction even at the point in the conference when batteries are most depleted. This is a vote from the community that speculative fiction is something worth paying attention to.

The question is: When is the literary establishment going to listen?

A common theme in the backstories of the panelists was that they entered MFA programs and felt like they had to write realistic fiction. One of them told a story about George Saunders, who entered MFA already writing in his trademark style but felt compelled during his program to write “the great American novel.” His “great American novel” sucked, and he left MFA and started writing like himself again, and thank fucking god.

I won’t deny the chip on my own shoulder. My MFA program was more open than many; no one ever directly told me I couldn’t write genre while I went there. But I could see the rolled eyes and disrespect the genre writers got from the “legit” writers in the program. I felt compelled to write realistic fiction if I wanted to be taken seriously. The few times I had the guts to bring in spec works it was an exercise in futility; the vast majority of comments started with “I don’t read fantasy, but…” and the workshopping was never as intense, like people didn’t think they had to read as carefully. Like the work didn’t matter on the same level.

It took me years post-graduation to feel comfortable in my own speculative skin and to stop apologizing for my writing. Telling a fantasy writer they have to write realistic fiction is like telling a poet they have to write essays. Some people do both well but that doesn’t make them the same thing—and it doesn’t make one any less legitimate than the other.

The most vastly unfair thing, in my estimation: writing spec fiction is exponentially more difficult than writing a literary book of equal quality. You have to worry about all the same shit—character development, theme, emotional resonance, etc—but also have to build the world in a way literary writers never think about. Despite this, there are extremely limited opportunities in academia to hone the craft of the genres. I’m an MFA-trained writer, but when it comes to sci-fi, I’m self-taught by necessity. I’d say most genre writers are in this situation; they’ve developed skill not because of MFA training but despite it.

The myth, of course, is that there aren’t genre works of the same quality, that fantasy is by default fluff. This is the most pervasive form of bullshit I’ve encountered in literary academia. The establishment is all too happy to adopt the “good” genre writers (Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, George Orwell, etc) or to gloss over the genre aspects of “accepted” writers’ catalogues (Mark Twain wrote spec but you might not know it), letting them simultaneously acknowledge that there are good writers in spec fiction while still dismissing the genre as a whole. Of course there are shitty sci-fi books out there. There’s shitty literary writing, too. I don’t like Hemingway but I’m not going to tell you anything he wrote is worthless because it doesn’t suit my tastes—and if you write like Hemingway, I would never dream of telling you you’re not a real writer, or your voice doesn’t matter, or that you shouldn’t be taken as seriously as someone else solely because of that.

So this is one spec writer calling academia on its bullshit. Speculative fiction examines the flaws and foibles of our world just as effectively as realistic fiction. The characters are just as made up and just as painfully real. The emotions can be just as deep; the writers have spent just as long honing their craft. To reference Data from Star Trek: TNG (“The Naked Now” episode 1.2) who was referencing Shylock (Merchant of Venice): We are more alike than unlike, dear academia. Our aliens may have pores, and fingerprints, and blood. If you prick our robots, do they not…leak?

(BTW: Shakespeare wrote about fairies. Just fucking saying.)


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