Saturday, May 22, 2010

When Every Genre is a Mystery

On the bad days, and there are many, it feels as though my work in publishing is little more than the meaningless toil of a miner, extracting salt from lightless, haunted caverns to rub in authors' wounds. The goals of the industry are not the goals of literature; this should be plainly apparent to anyone with a working knowledge of capitalist economics and a local Barnes & Noble, yet somehow it continues to surprise me almost daily. At these moments, it comforts me to think on academia, that faraway Elysium to which publishing's deserving works one day ascend. I turn my thoughts especially to creative writing programs, where, in my rosy recollection, aspiring wordsmiths read and engage with the works of both classmates and published writers whose books challenge their preconceptions and push the boundaries of their imaginations. (I also fondly remember donut holes in the student lounge.)

At these rhapsodic moments, it's easy for me to forget that, like celeb-courting publishing houses (OMG Sarah Silverman!), academia can present its own set of arbitrary biases -- a fact that was brought to my renewed attention today in a conversation with a friend who's currently attending a graduate program elsewhere in these United States. He mentioned that there's been an ongoing debate in his department, ever since a graduate teaching colleague piped up in a group discussion about the writing "don'ts" she offers students in her creative writing class. Horrified by an onslaught of Twilight copycats (aren't we all), this teacher added a note specifying that she does not allow "vampire fiction" in the workshop she's teaching. Many others promptly chimed in, agreeing that they specify that their students are not allowed to turn in, variously, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and even, most vaguely, "genre" fiction in their work for the courses. Their arguments in favor of this strategy seemed to fall into a certain pattern: I don't know enough about this genre to teach it; I can only help my students if they write in the genre I know.

This is the kind of anecdote that makes me want to crawl into bed with a copy of Gun With Occasional Music and a bottle of bourbon, in hopes that I will awake in a more just world. Because this teacher and others like her are committing not just one grave injustice but two.

The first and more obvious injustice these teachers are committing is against the writers of, variously, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and anything else that could be considered a "genre." When I say "writers" here I mean both the student writers who have the misfortune to study under them, and in a larger sense, the published writers working in these genres who are established masters of their craft. Dismissing an author's work sight unseen, on the basis of subject matter alone is, to put it plainly, stupid. It means discounting novels by Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Susannah Clarke, Jonathan Lethem, and Lev Grossman, just to name a few whose work I've specifically discussed on this blog. But even when the work in question isn't artistically ambitious, the knee-jerk treatment is deeply unfair. If the issue is that student writers are transparently copying the work of another (bad) author, why is it worse for them to copy Stephanie Meyers than the knock-down drag-out wretchedness of, say, Nicholas Sparks?

Put some fangs on this bad boy and you're good to go.

Isn't the teachable moment here a) that a story should be original, inspired by some unique combination of multiple literary influences and the author's imagination/personal experience, and b) that these kids should go on reading stuff that excites them, but maybe better stuff? I'd be thrilled to be the first to shove a Kelly Link collection into their nimbly texting little hands. You want monsters? I'll give you monsters like you've never seen.

The second, and perhaps graver injustice perpetrated by these teachers, though, is against "literary writers" like themselves. Because here's the thing: when a teacher (any kind of teacher) says, "I have nothing to teach someone like you," students tend to believe him. Saying, "I don't know nothing about writing no vampires" implies -- in fact states -- that the realm of literary fiction is so narrow, so impoverished, that its techniques and practices cannot address anything outside of almost cartoonishly limited parameters. It implies that literary fiction is an endless repetition of scenarios and characters that must fall within certain pre-defined categories, again and again and again; that any departure from the familiar will be met with discomfort and distaste. It suggests that literary fiction is itself a mere genre, not an organic, evolving art.

And it suggests that the practitioners of this Literary genre, as represented by the teacher, are in fact even dumber than the vampire-writing student himself. After all, in order to reach the college writing workshop the student in question has no doubt had to read and at least partially comprehend works of literature in the teacher's "genre." The teacher claims that he has been unable to do the same toward the student's. But unlike the student, who is busily perusing the syllabus for a brand new course, the teacher is unwilling to learn.

This paradigm is all messed up, for a lot of reasons, but what bugs me the most is the deep confusion it fosters. "Literary" is not a genre. "Literary" is a term of approbation, a way of suggesting that the work in question aspires to the condition of art, of "literature." And a work of fiction in any so-called "genre" can achieve this, so long as it rigorously pursues its own peculiar aims. Books and stories that fail to be literary fail because they fall into lazy postures, blindly following set conventions without questioning or exploring them. I understand that it must be frustrating to read dozens of stories that exemplify this laziness in the exact same way ("The sparkly vampire gently caressed her boob..."). But if a teacher wants to educate young writers about alternatives to writerly laziness, I don't think pedagogical laziness is the answer.

1 comment:

Eric Taxier said...

At some point you have to respond to Orson Scott Card, who's interested enough in the subject to have written about it again and again for the last 30 years. There are more than two sides to every argument, and I have found his side at times attractive, absurdly simple, and bitter in a way only possible with a writer who sees himself as a victim of the literary establishment. He's definitely guilty of many of the assumptions and dismissals you mention in this post. For him, literary writers (he actually gives the word literary scare quotes to redefine it as yet-another-genre, or at least deflate whatever meaning it has) "are often more deeply bound to the expectations of their audience than writers whose work brings in a noticeable income."

Maybe the choice is between dragging literary fiction down into the democratic "muck" of genre (makes sense to a "genre" writer from an older generation), or raising genre up to the potential prestige of literary writing. I know many people find the whole thing tiring and would do away with the word "genre" altogether -- but that's just another kind of vague dismissal.