Hi, my name in Cindy Skaggs, and I write genre fiction.
As ridiculous as it may appear to readers, this kind of genre-as-vice mentality is an ongoing battle of the writers.
Having worked in a large public library system for five years while I finished my education, I know for a fact that librarians really don't care where something is shelved except as a means to connect reader to book. Booksellers, similarly, do not quantify or judge. Literati, however, are all about the judgment.
The day I graduated with my MFA, my advisor told me that I would never be an academic. I was on pain meds for kidney stones at the time, and I didn't take his assessment very well. In point of fact, I fight against elitism in all its forms, so this hit a nerve, both professionally (I'll never earn Professor rank or pay) and emotionally (yet another rejection). But business-wise, I'm good. The market is democratic in that way. Readers like genre fiction. Romance fiction is more than 1/2 of the mass market paperbacks sold. Mystery is right behind it. Literary fiction? Not so much. As an industry insider said over the weekend (RWA writing conference), "I deposited $90,000 last month. They can think what they want."
But why/where/how did the writing divide begin?
So we have an accepted hierarchy of fictional types, with "literary fiction," not defined, but consisting almost exclusively of realism, at the top. All other kinds of fiction, the "genres," are either spaced out in rapidly descending order of inferiority or simply tossed into a general garbage heap at the bottom. This judgmental system, like all arbitrary hierarchies, promotes ignorance and arrogance. It has seriously deranged the teaching and criticism of fiction for decades by short-circuiting useful critical description, comparison, and assessment. It condones imbecilities on the order of, "If it's science fiction, it can't be good; if it's good, it can't be science fiction." --Ursula K Le Guin
The statement from LeGuin is from an article entitled "Genre: A word only a Frenchman would love." I found it in a course I'm teaching for SNHU, an organization that offers one of the few MFA programs accepting of and geared toward genre fiction. I finally found my tribe!
But it wasn't always that simple. I studied craft in the same way as my fellow MFA cohort, but I had to fight the bias against genre. The first summer of my MFA residency, my first book was released. Book publication should be celebrated, especially in a writing program, but I hid it from fellow students and teachers for fear of judgment. I sat in on a workshop where a panel of instructors blasted "trash" like SciFi and Romance. YA writers were discouraged from writing YA. I had people in the program offer to review my work, and then quickly retract when they realized it wasn't literary enough. I endured people in my cohort who wanted to make sure we knew their submission wasn't romance "trash." I grew a very thick skin. And I slowly learned my second-class place in the literary world.
I believe we can write well, using the techniques we study in classic literature, and apply it to our favored genre (if we must label). I entered the MFA to become a stronger writer, and I believe I achieved that goal, but only through serious literary street fighting. I had to "prove" my stuff wasn't romance. I had to change everything from character names to plot elements because they were too "romance," and "we" (who is this "we" they speak of) should avoid.
Did the MFA make me a stronger writer? Absolutely.
Was it handled in a way that nurtured the writing spirit? Absolutely not. The only reason I survived intact was my Skaggs' family hard-headedness (it's a thing). In addition to my thesis project, I wrote 6 books, a novella, and several creative nonfiction essays while I was in the program, and only a few knew of my prolific publication schedule--and only ONE ever commended me for it.
Should a writer have to defend their choices in such a way? I don't think so.
Is literary fiction that much better? I don't think so.
I continue to believe that if writing is good, it can be genre fiction. Or to mimic LeGuin,
If it's romance, it CAN be good; if it's good, it CAN be romance.
It's not a matter for me of stooping to an occasional amusing bit of slumming in the kiddie-lit ghetto or the sci fi gutter. I live there, in the ghettos and gutters. I am a street person of the city of fiction.
If I'm to be accused of being homeless in a literary sense, at least I'm in good company!
Le Guin continues: "All judgment of literature by genre is tripe. All judgment of a category of literature as inherently superior or inferior is tripe."
She might be my new spirit animal. Because she trashes literary fiction? No, because she doesn't let the semantics of "genre" invade her writing space. It took me nearly a year to recover creatively because I did--for a time--let judgment impact the writing space in my head, but I come from strong Viking stock and a few literati complaints aren't enough to keep me down.
Now I have the pleasure of teaching creative writing in an online program that gets the connection of ALL writing. I have students who write YA, romance, and speculative fiction. We study classic and contemporary works of fiction. Not one student volunteered their allegiance to literary fiction. That's okay. If they "come out" as literary writers later in the semester, I'll accept them for who they are.
Can you do the same?
Writer Reference (Blogroll)
He for She
A Little is Enough
Writing 17 minutes at a time
The Unlisted List:
The best women nonfiction writers.
Aubrey Hirsh' Beginner's Guide to publishing with format templates and more
Agent Query 15 posts on writing query ltrs
Platform Action Plan
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.