Thursday, February 3, 2011

Aliens vs Academia: A Look Into the Literary/Genre Debate, Part 1

I hated my fiction writing classes in college. No really, I did.

I remember starting my introduction to fiction writing class in my sophomore year with the startings of a fantasy novel in tow from high school, looking forward to learning how to make it into a best seller. What I did not realize, or even know of at the time, was that most fiction professors subscribe to the conventions of the literary fiction genre.

What is the literary fiction genre, you ask? Ever have to read anything by Woolf, Joyce, Updike, or Proust? You know, the books you were told to read and try to find meaning out of with no context because it was "good for you", had "beautiful language and imagery", or even (god-willing!) was "inventive and exploring of some"? That is what is referred to as "literary fiction". They would often be constructed of beautiful sentences, complex images, intense themes, and realistic* characters. The catch, however, is that they often also have very little to no plot, the characters other than the main are prone to be underdeveloped and used as devices or symbols rather than having minds of their own, and the language is sometimes so cryptic that only a certain reader can understand what is actually being said.

Types of fiction outside of this are often referred to by the literary community as "genre" or "popular" fiction. Speculative fiction such as fantasy and science fiction fall into this category. Genre can also be rife with a host of problems of their own. There often tends to be too much plot for the sake of being unique from others in the genre, or sloppy world building (like "drop[ping] a half-ton of unfamiliar details on the reader like a piano onto a cartoon coyote"(Editorial Anonymous)), or characters that are nothing more than talking heads to move the plot.

As you can probably tell, these genres tend to be the polar opposites of literary fiction. The trouble is that they both hold their merit, but most often what happens is that the literary-minded instructor is unfamiliar with the conventions of and what works for popular fiction and either tries to strip the student's work of everything that put it in its respective genre to begin with, or discourages/bans it completely. As a common result, the student does exactly what they are told and learns to write entirely in a style that they have no love for, and loses their love of writing. Or more likely, the writer defies their instructor the entire way through and learns nothing, except to not listen to criticism. Sad to say, for awhile, I was of the latter category.

No one understands me!
It is really a shame that this does happen because it really divides the differing camps into not seeing the true merit of both sides of the spectrum. The literary-minded dismiss all genre fiction as poorly-written crap for the uneducated masses, that also makes more money in royalties than theirs do.

I can read books, hurr!

The genre-writers get resentful of hearing high-brow whining and being told that their work isn't worth much more than the paper that it is printed on, and thus roll their eyes and dismiss the literary camp as a bunch of plot-less naval gazers that don't like anything unless it resembles their own works.

Don't look into it too long or you'll start hearing voices!

This divide is unacceptable, and so many potentially excellent writers have lost an opportunity to enhance their skills because of such poor, elitist presentation. So over the next two posts, I will explain what instructors and students of both camps need to do to get the heck over this polarity, and begin to create exciting, interesting stories that are ALSO well written and executed.

So faithful readers (all THREE of whom have made themselves known at this point), I will leave you with this homework until then. Read this article by Mary Lynn Mercer. It's a pretty good introduction into one of the aspects I'll be talking about in the following posts (don't worry, it's pretty short!).


  1. I finished my homework! Can I get a gold star?

    Great post and a great article. I'm working on my detective novel and am excited to break down the scenes I have so far to see how they fall out in the action/reaction classification system.

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