My entire life I’ve been gobbling down stories of worlds hidden under ordinary staircases, or distant planets with rich cultures or anything involving fairy tales. There’s a rich culture of storytellers morphing reality by introducing fantastical elements to highlight certain aspects or problems within our society. The Graveyard Book calls attention to unconventional families. A Monster Calls shows the difficulties of living with and caring for a sick relative. And, yet, I’ve noticed that a large amount of these stories are discounted in academia because of the exact thing that makes them so special—their fantastical elements. They are given a brand—genre fiction—and they are not seen as worthy of study and, I have to be honest, this baffles me.
In MFA programs, we are encouraged to write literary fiction. As any Creative Writing student knows, this means that our stories must be able to take place in the real world. Our stories must reflect the real world back to the reader and make them think about their own lives. I understand the merits of this teaching, especially at the beginner level. After all, Picasso created realism paintings before diving into his Blue Period. But does that necessarily call for the erasure of a long tradition of balls-to-the-wall, imagination-exploding storytelling?
Was Frankenstein not a classic that sent an entirely new form of stories—science fiction—screaming into existence? Mary Shelley crafted that wonderful monster-of-a-novel because of a silly ghost story competition with her friends, and the novel inspired millions of writers over centuries to craft and send their stories out into the world. We are able to chart her influence and document how others have changed and contributed to her legacy. Yet, if a writing student wishes to contribute, they are discouraged because of a long list of reasons that academics have seemed to agree on; “you’re not ready” or “it’ll be really hard to pull off” seem to be chief among those reasons. So when will writers be ready? Aren’t we supposed to be teaching students the skills to pull off really hard stories? What’s wrong with students taking risks, even if those risks rest outside of literary fiction?
I see nothing wrong with genre fiction. It’s about the hope that genre fiction brings to us when we allow our problems to exist on a different planet, in an underground society, in a different time, or in a boarding school halfway across the world. It’s the knowledge that any number of people from any background imaginable can solve these problems. Genre fiction is about diversity in stories. Student writers are the writers of the future. Don’t we want them to influence ALL fiction, both genre and literary, for the better?
There are literally an infinite number of stories in the world for us to create and consume. I want us to teach our future writers to create and consume as many as possible. No limits. No worries about this genre or that. We, as writers, all come from a long line of storytellers, and I would like to see all of their traditions continued.
Lucy Sneeringer is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida.