The Importance of Teaching Genre Fiction

When I was in college, I thought about getting a minor in Creative Writing. I’d been writing stories since I was a kid, both original and fanfiction, and so it occurred to me that maybe my school’s English department could help me get better at it. In the end I decided not to pursue it and I think it’s important that I tell you why.

Veronica Roth, world famous author of the Divergent series, wrote her first book in a creative writing class at Northwestern. Her college encouraged her to explore an idea and in Veronica’s case that resulted in a three book series and movie deal. I applaud her success, but mostly I admire the support provided to her by her university. My own university did not provide it.

Before I go any further, let me be clear: the English Department staff was amazing and they all meant well in terms of educating their students. But there was a pervasive misconception amongst the professors and administrators that genre fiction was somehow less valuable or thought provoking than high concept literature. So it wasn’t taught and thats a big part of the reason I decided not to get a minor. (The other part was my dislike of poetry, though that’s an entirely different story.). But anyone who reads as pervasively between genres as I do, understands exactly how untrue that idea is. Genre fiction actually has a lot to say; it’s just subtle about it.

Take the Hunger Games for example. On the surface its just about a girl fighting against the Big Bad and falling in love with two boys, right? But if you dig a little deeper you’ll realize that Collins’ work is also a commentary on society and repressive government. (Generally speaking, anyway. There’s even a bit more to it than that.) Yet no one teaches us to write books like that in school.

Despite that, I tried my hand at dystopian fiction when I was a senior in an Advanced Fiction writing class. I thought that at least my classmates, if not my professors, would understand where I was coming from and I was right. By and large, their feedback was supportive and curious about the content I had written. But I felt very shut down by my teacher’s comments. I could tell he was looking for something in the piece that wasn’t there, that he thought my ideas were plebeian compared to the high concept work he himself wrote.

That experience didn’t stifle me, though. I still write daily and ultimately it forced me to explore writing styles beyond my comfort zone. But I think it’s a shame that genre fiction is so ignored because it’s what draws most people into writing in the first place. They think about all the books they’ve read that have influenced their reading experiences and then that in turn sparks a desire to imagine worlds and characters of their own. I’m not saying that people aren’t inspired by great works of literature – they certainly are – but how many teenagers honestly walk around saying they want to be the next Charles Dickens or Ralph Waldo Emerson? Most writers I’ve met would rather be the next JK Rowling or John Green. They want to put their imagination and experiences into fiction, their emotions into words. They want to write the next Fault in Our Stars or piece together a brand new world like in Game of Thrones.

Writers write “what if” moments and “how about instead” moments or “what would it be like this way” moments. Some use their minds to write scenarios and stories without a Faulkner level of authorial intention and that’s just as beautiful. Schools and universities need to encourage that curiosity, not break it down trying to look for deeper meaning and substance. They need to just appreciate the skill it takes to create a complex character out of thin air, to imagine a whole new person or world and not wonder what it means. Sometimes the sole intention of an author is to convey a story and there’s nothing low-brow or unremarkable about that. It’s beautiful writing and I honestly believe that it is in the best interest of universities to champion their students’ pursuit of it instead of shutting them down.

Because in the end, genre fiction reflects the nuances of our lives and societies as much as literature. It shows people in contemporary scenarios of everyday living and demonstrates the furthest stretches of our imaginations and I don’t know where we’d be without that.


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