Learning from other genres

Screencapture, Book Talkers, Enokson, 2013, Flickr
Enokson, "Book Talkers," Flickr, 2013.

Though some genre writers assume that “literary” writers are prejudiced against popular fiction, genre writers can be just as prejudiced against other popular genres too, with stereotype assumptions that science fiction is too scientific, fantasy too unrealistic, horror too bloody, and romance too florid, emotional, or sweet.

The MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University focuses exclusively on popular genres: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, children’s, YA, and romance. But we don’t want students to become too limited to one chosen genre, or to foster narrow assumptions about others. Though we encourage mastering the skills and assumptions of one genre, we want students to gain narrative advantages by learning from other genres too—techies sharing with fantasists, scientists getting tips from romantics, and tea-drinking cozies meeting with hard-boiled private eyes.

A working professional writer must be flexible—productive, facing deadlines, and always willing to respond to changing markets. So along with the necessary work in one’s genre, we require classes in other genres too. Students can select which genres they most want, and write exclusively in one, but they still need to sample and explore outside the boundaries of any one area.

We also started the practice of reading a genre work for every Residency (the week-long period when the students are on campus, twice a year) and focusing on the needs of that particular genre. In the course of completing six required residencies, students get at least one sample novel from each addressed genre: romance, horror, SF, fantasy, mystery, YA/children’s. The Residency opens with discussion on a student-voted genre work—Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me (romance), John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (SF), Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman (mystery), Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (YA), and horror with Joe Hill’s NOS4ATU. The discussion always addresses “How does one critique this genre?” “What do the readers of this genre expect?” “What are the main characters usually like?” “Is there a common plot structure?”

Not only does this help students understand what other students are doing, thus building a community of writers in not just one genre but in all genres, it allows students to see that crossing genres can bring new life to traditional categories (as romance did to fantasy in paranormal romance, as SF has done to contemporary thrillers, and as historicals have blended with speculative fiction in alternate history and steampunk). This breaking down of barriers helps not only a writer’s career, it rejuvenates genre markets and even creates new ones.

Finally, it emphasizes “good writing” itself, since we argue in all these discussions that any genre work can be critiqued based on the requirements of strong fiction: characterization, plot, style, setting, point of view. In the end, not only do we learn genre, we learn about making genre writing better, critiquing it in workshops and producing it more effectively. Writers and readers of genre thus benefit.

Albert Wendland

Albert Wendland is Director of the Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University. He has published several articles, poems, and a book on science fiction, and he's taught courses in popular fiction, Romanticism, film aesthetics, the sublime in literature, and the graphic novel. He also maintains an interest in astronomy and geology. Find out more about Albert Wendland.

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