The Great Genre Debate

Several months before our new Master of Fine Arts program launched, a writer e-mailed me to inquire about teaching opportunities. But when I explained that our fiction track focused on mainstream and popular genres, she responded, “Oh! I wouldn’t be interested in teaching that!” (The italics are mine, but I could hear the connotation loud and clear.)

Her comment served as a reminder of just how wide the gap remains between the so-called “literary” fiction offered by almost all MFA programs, and writing intended for more mainstream audiences.

Not that I was surprised. I’d researched the range of established creative writing programs when we decided to put together our own offerings at Western State College of Colorado, and had found that formal training in writing popular fiction wasn’t just underrepresented, it was rare. Given my personal passion for genre writing, the prospect of helping to fill this gap was an exciting one. Of close to 200 MFA programs encamped across the country, a mere handful offers programs dedicated to popular fiction: Stonecoast in Maine, Seton Hill in Pennsylvania, and now our program, launching just this year. That’s less than 2 percent.

So why the divide—and when did this academic trend of shunning forms of writing that target larger audiences begin? As far as I can tell, it goes back as far as the 1940s’ ascendancy of the “New Critics,” a scholarly group determined to champion writing that placed a premium on intellectuality. About this time, the trend toward free-verse poetry found allies among these same intellectuals—
outspoken critics, writers and poets like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford. The movement also had tremendous effect in shaping perceptions for a growing new cottage industry during the 1960s: the creative writing program.

The result both for poetry and for MFAs was to push studies toward the insular intellectuality of the academic world. In a scathing essay called “Can Poetry Matter?” Dana Gioia, who recently stepped down as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, drops the blame for the popular decline of poetry squarely in the laps of institutions of higher learning: “Over the past half-century, as American poetry’s specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined. … [N]one of it matters very much to readers, publishers and advertisers—to anyone, that is, except other poets.”

The reason? Many poets simply turned their backs to audiences and began writing for one another.

I see this as a cautionary tale for fiction-focused MFA programs, many perplexingly determined to follow the same path academic poets trampled down over the past five decades. Writers should be able to attend graduate programs to improve their work without abandoning hope of succeeding in popular markets. With this in mind, our program took Gioia’s advice in framing our poetry concentration to reassert elements that make verse appeal to the ear as well as the eye. We did the same for our screenwriting track by emphasizing production values, and we certainly took the implications for fiction just as seriously.

Of course, that’s not to say you can’t pursue dreams of writing pop fiction in other programs. It just takes determination. It’s not unheard of for aspiring writers to earn MFAs while staying true to genre writing goals. Aspiring science-fiction author Tristan Palmgren writes of his Midwest MFA experience, “My program was friendlier than I could have expected.” He says his professors were supportive of his writing objectives.

My research reveals that a number of MFA professors write and publish in mainstream markets and, yes, even in popular genre categories. Yet few programs where these same professors teach seem to offer more than an occasional class in such areas.

For Palmgren, the biggest “road bumps” came from other students in his workshops who didn’t intimately understand the form. “Every once in a while,” he says, “someone would spot science-fictional ideas that they’d also seen in a popular movie and assume I’d taken the idea from that movie, rather than the movie taking the idea from the broad and deep well of already-existing SF literature.”

Another MFA grad, John Steele, reports a similar tale from his Spalding University experience, during which he wrote almost exclusively genre short stories (Westerns and horror) as well as a Western novel. “These genre stories were sometimes treated with less seriousness,” he says, “because they weren’t perceived as being important or weighty, even if they dealt with important or weighty issues. It was as if by writing a Western or horror story, it somehow didn’t ‘matter’ as much as a story that was a so-called literary story.”

Steele’s next comment hits the mark even closer: “It’s as if some writers in MFA programs are only writing to impress other MFA writers.”

If such a mindset is indeed endemic, it risks turning into the sort of literary arrogance that has reduced the audience for poetry. Such a narrowing of focus amounts to training fiction writers for an ever-narrowing reception.

Russell Davis, currently completing his MFA at National University in San Diego, is no newcomer to writing—he’s just finished his term as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and has sold numerous books. Yet his desire to continue to improve his craft prompted him to seek more formal education in writing. His experience at his program has been mixed, though he sees promise for the future: “People are willing to consider genre fiction as more legitimate than they were even back in the mid-’90s,” he says. “There is, however, still a sense and a perception that unless you’re writing ‘literary’ fiction, you’re somehow writing lesser work. I think because money is generally better writing for genres, the perception comes off that you’re a sellout or you aren’t concerned with the art and craft of it.”

His final comment resonates with what I hope to communicate: “In their days, Dickens and Poe were sellouts, writing what was popular and trying to make a living.”

Davis could have just as easily cited contemporary authors who write popular work that is also well crafted: Hugo-winner Neil Gaiman’s American Gods comes immediately to mind for fantasy, as does Dan Simmons’ Drood for historical mystery. Fill in the blanks with your own examples; it’s an easy list to expand.

I believe in the craft that MFA programs offer students who want to become better writers. In fact, attention to craft can’t fail to make a difference to any serious agent or acquisitions editor in the publishing industry today.

Still, the gap between the genre fiction crowd and the MFA community hasn’t narrowed as much as it should. It’s not unwarranted that one passionate blogger I uncovered during my Internet research dubbed graduate creative programs the “MaFiA.” MFAs have to shoulder some responsibility for that moniker. But good writing is good writing, regardless of the intended market, and MFAs should be raising the bar—not just for the literary elite but also for expectations by the larger reading public.

At Western State, we’ve tried to encourage the trend by offering low-residency concentrations in mainstream and genre fiction, poetry for wider audiences, and screenwriting for the independent film. The good news for writers who want formal training in their chosen field is that the success of such programs won’t go unnoticed by other schools across the country. Aspiring writers can expect to see more varied offerings in coming years. It’s a sea change whose time has come, and forward-thinking institutions need to read the market barometers and adjust their tacks.

Don’t have the time or money to enroll in an MFA program but still want the benefits? Consider:
The Portable MFA In Creative Writing

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