“Genre isn’t what we do in this program” said the professor for my fiction workshop class who also happens to be the director of my program.
I can’t even begin to describe the emotions that smacked me in the face when I heard that.
I started crying in the middle of my class, in front of everyone. Usually I don’t have a problem crying in front of other people, but I’m sure most of my fellow MFA students thought I was crying because my short story was getting ripped apart. In reality I was crying because I felt like what I write in general was getting ripped apart and I’m sure plenty of other people have felt that.
Let me start off by saying that I think fiction should be a wide association that includes fantasy, sci-fi, historical and more realistic fiction. The MFA program I’m in only wants me to write realistic fiction, maybe historical fiction if I’m lucky.
The piece I wrote was set in Victorian England and I didn’t think it had any fantasy aspects. It wasn’t set in another world, it didn’t have magic, or vampires or anything that doesn’t exist in this world. It was just about a secret society that operated outside of the notice of most people and wanted to shape the world in their image.
With the current state of the world that didn’t seem like much of a stretch.
My classmates barely had enough time to tell me what they enjoyed about the short story before my professor was jumping in and telling me that my story was “genre writing”. I was confused for two reasons:
- I didn’t feel like the story was genre
- She was saying genre writing like it was a bad thing that her MFA students shouldn’t deign to waste their time on.
I don’t understand why “Literary fiction” just includes authors like John Green or Nicholas Sparks. Story lines that seem to be these thinly veiled wish fulfillment stories where the author can insert themselves into the life they always wanted.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written those pieces.
When I was in middle school, maybe a freshman in high school, I started to write a story called ‘Love in the Rainbow’ (points to me for worst title ever while unknowingly also foreshadowing my own gayness). It was a story about a quirky girl who was exactly my age and who had the dog I dreamed of getting and the car I wanted, and was much better off financially than my family, she even had a name I liked better than my own. She had the older sister I had always wanted, a father who was always there for her and her mother had passed away. She had amazing friends, was popular and pretty and eventually fell in love.
Meanwhile I was a young girl who had a horrible relationship with her own mother, felt betrayed by my father always taking her side, had an older brother who I couldn’t connect with and a family that was always worried about money. I barely had any friends, I was bullied and made fun of and no guy had ever showed even the slightest interest in anything having to do with me.
I hated the real world. I hated being reminded of it by books. I didn’t want to read something about an awkward young girl learning to love herself, I wanted to escape.
I wanted to travel through Moria with the Fellowship because fighting goblins felt like less of a battle than the fights I had with my mother.
I wanted to go to Hogwarts where I might be able to make friends with people who were as unique as I was.
I wanted to go through the looking glass because maybe in Wonderland I would be able to find someone who was backward enough to look at me and see someone beautiful.
When my professor told me that genre writing wasn’t welcome in the program I have been pouring my wit, words and ideas into I just felt like quitting.
I’m putting my time, effort and money into a program that doesn’t even allow me to write what I am passionate about. Why should I stay?
Of course the practical side of my brain reminded me that I want my MFA to be able to teach at the college level, so I don’t plan on quitting.
Still I wish I could make some of my professors understand what fantasy novels have done for me.
They helped a girl who felt alone and wrong find a place in the world, they helped her find something she is passionate about, something that she can live for.
How can that be unworthy of anyone’s time and attention?