Writer Talk: My First and Last Word on Genre vs. Lit

I was in Roanoke, Virginia last week for the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop, a six day extravaganza of the writerly sort. Workshops, readings, tasty food, scintillating conversation and, yes, okay, a few late-night beer chats. Good fun all around!

The title of my Thursday Craft Seminar was “Writing Genre–Will They Respect Me in the Morning?” I’ll let you in on the secret I shared with the nice folks who came to hear me hold forth: The short answer is, “No.” The long answer is “No, but who really cares?”

Much seminar and workshop time at commercial fiction conferences (TMWW is not one) is wasted on the debate as to whether or not commercial fiction can be literary. But, believe me, one rarely hears similar discussions in university classrooms and workshops. Most universities, MFA programs and writers’ workshops teach people to write a rarified version of fiction–and it has little to do with what most folks are picking up at their local Barnes & Noble.

My friend CJ Lyons describes literary fiction as “writing that is good for you.” Ugh. Who wants that? Brussell Sprouts anyone?I spent a long time trying to write what I imagined to be “literary fiction.” I had assumed that the post-grad writing classes I was taking would simply teach me to write. And I did learn something about story structure and working with other writers. But I learned far more from reading hundreds of books from ALL genres: Biography, Memoir, History and other non-fiction, Graphic Novels, Poetry, Mystery, Suspense, Chick-Lit, Romance, Sci-Fi, Thriller, Inspirational, and, yes, plenty of Literary Fiction.

I think we need to just call Literary Fiction a genre. Label it as such and move on with our lives.

But it seems a darned shame to me that our academic institutions limit themselves to teaching people how to write in just a few genres: Literary Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, and Poetry. Why aren’t they teaching people to write well in a wider selection of genres? How many bestselling novelists could benefit from a season of ritual shaping-up in the editing and dialogue departments? Seriously. They have fabulous, brilliant, intricately plotted novels that often leave one a little, well, cold, when it comes to style. Conversely, how much could a number of mid-list lit folks benefit from a few seminars on how to inject plot into their work?

A friend who teaches in an MFA program told me that they are just serving the market–teaching people how to write what they’re looking to learn. I don’t agree with this. I think most people enroll in writing programs to learn how to write–not just how to write in a few genres that, frankly, don’t offer a graduate much hope of making any sort of living. There are, of course, teachers who are able to transcend this rather sad academic situation–but they’re priceless and rare.

Here’s the message I hope I left with the seminar attendees: If you’re a writer, be proud of your choice of genre and apply the best skill to it that you can. And if you’re a reader, enjoy the richness of all the genres available to you without being self-conscious about your choices. Let your freak flag fly!

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