From the Classroom

This month’s theme is Literary Suspense. So we got to wondering, “What, exactly, is considered ‘literature?’” The debate concerning the merits of literary works vs. those of genre/popular fiction is one as old as the chicken and its infamous egg. The folks in literature’s corner are often considered hifalutin—their work, inaccessible. Genre writers are often called formulaic, predictable. It can get almost as nasty as debates over fonts and the Oxford Comma (see Erik Deckers over in our “Marketing 101” column for more on that fight).

So who’s right, if anyone? What are the merits of both writing forms? Must popular fiction and “the literary” be considered mutually exclusive?

We reached out to Wayne Thomas—writer, editor, and creative writing teacher—to see if he could help us clear some of these questions up by sharing his thoughts on pedagogy and writing.

Oprah, High-Art, and Harry Potter: Can Literary and Genre Fiction Be Reconciled?

By Wayne Thomas

Just before 9-11, Oprah Winfrey selected novelist Jonathan Franzen and his The Corrections for her book club. The club wasn’t then noted for what it’d become. Certainly, we understood it to be an immediate in for commercial success, but—despite Oprah’s National Book Awards recognition two years prior for contributions to reading and literature—doubts lingered for many. Many of us waited for the endeavor to inevitably get swallowed into a venture to market pulp, and many couldn’t put our heads around the notion that talking books had staying power on a daytime talk show, that the scheme would somehow inevitably find a way to embarrass us believers in the written word.

Then, Oprah hadn’t yet established herself as an absolute champion of literature with one impressive literary selection followed by thoughtful discussion after another, the sort of reputation 15 years and 70 titles earns a person. She rarely missed the mark, and, consequently, when she did, it hardly mattered. She had viewers totaling in the millions reading and talking about the likes of Song of Solomon, A Lesson Before Dying, The Poisonwood Bible, House of Sand and Fog, East of Eden, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and Anna Karenina. She put the likes of Bret Lott, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Elie Wiesel, and Cormac McCarthy on bestseller lists. It’s time to admit, if we haven’t already, that Oprah’s more than a capable scholar. And we did eventually begin to notice and appreciate, as evidenced by a Time magazine write up in 2008. Indeed, it was a losing day for literature when her show ended May 25, 2011.

But just before 9-11, Oprah to Franzen wasn’t that. Franzen suggested an appearance on the talk show risked offending “the high-art literary tradition.” Though many purveyors of “high-art” rightfully went on to dismiss Franzen’s comments as ass-hattery, the debacle stirred conversations in the creative writing MFA program I’d just begun. So much brashness in an MFA program. Some of us didn’t mind agreeing with Franzen straight up, some wanted to disagree in ways that felt a whole lot like agreeing. A peer described a story I’d submitted to workshop as what might be considered on Oprah, and she didn’t intend for that to be construed as a compliment. My peer did counsel with a heavy, disappointed sigh that “a lot of people would probably read that stuff.” And there’s the rub: a constant assertion that being widely read means you sold out, that great art can really only exist for the select few. How dare Oprah try to prove otherwise?

I’ve long believed there are self-serving delusions involved in hiring “big name” writers to draw students to creative writing programs. Being able to intuit how to write well doesn’t mean you can teach how to write well, and I think most students, especially the graduate school candidates, make their decisions mostly based on who’s decided on them. On Writing, to my estimation, is the best craft book I’ve read. I suspect Stephen King would be a great teacher. It’d certainly be great to tell your friends how he showed up drunk and embarrassed you in workshop. But what if he has no time for your work because of his own. Believe me, friends, there are too many teachers like this. (Not Stephen King; On Writing is truly spectacular.)

In fact, the best creative writing programs are facilitated by teachers who realize the import of making pedagogical decisions. Instead of worrying about a “big name,” students would be better served to investigate the philosophy of the programs they’re considering. It starts with finding answers to two fundamental concerns. Will distinctions be made between literary and genre writing? And—especially if so—will students be allowed or required to produce genre/popular writing? It’s true that most quality programs say yes to the former and no to the latter. The reason should be obvious: writing the literary can only help write in genre should you’ve a hankering later in life, and the opposite isn’t necessarily true. One can see, then, how MFA programs lead so many in their early and mid-twenties—most who, according to all statistical data, will never write much after the institution has finished properly molding them—to poo poo all things not “high-art.”

I never really understood how you don’t distinguish between genre and literary. Penning a Jason Bourne flick requires different muscles than a Mario Puzo adaptation. Perhaps it’s the acknowledgement that’s disconcerting. I’ve colleagues who won’t let their students write in genre. Fair enough, I suppose, but some won’t even entertain the notion that anything genre can also be literary. Such always strikes me as a pretension to validates one’s own worth, and I always wonder what one sacrifices when one works so hard to validate one’s own worth. King will tell you he’s written more than his fair share of crap, but there are a number of King titles we’ll read in a hundred years, solitude or not. Shirley Jackson can write literary horror. Anne Rice can pen a sentence so well the sentence itself transcends genre. Can anyone really deny the brilliance of J. two R Tolkien? What fool will try? Sci-fi is full of masters: Octavia Butler, Angela Carter, and Arthur C. Clarke. Can anyone really question the brilliance of the two middle K’s, Philip Dick and Ursula Le Guin? I adore a Michael Chabon mystery. I adore a Larry McMurtry western. I adore Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. Yes: children’s literature can be literary, too. 

But one more thing before moving on: Does the fantastic or magical immediately disqualify the literary? Are we mistaken, then, to hold in the highest regard the likes of Margaret Atwood and Gabriel García Márquez? Nonsense. And one more thing: Read Kate Bernheimer’s Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale.”

I’ve noticed so many of the “high-art” teachers rarely address the literary. Seriously. Of all the conversations in creative writing programs about why one writes and one’s voice and what one has to say, there aren’t enough about what actually makes something literary. And, believe it or not, there isn’t a seminal definition of what makes something literary. Again, would-be students, learn the philosophy before saying “yes.” Otherwise, you risk being summarily dispatched because you got a goblin in your story. It shouldn’t be too much to ask your teachers what they demand of your writing. If it’s literary, know what that means—at least what they think it means.

What’s it, then? Best to begin with the more definable “genre” as one must understand it to understand the other. Genre, of course, identifies form: drama, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. More importantly for these purposes, genre writing subscribes to the conventions of categorization (sci-fi, mystery, romance, western, and so forth). Genre, then, aims to unearth new ways to tell familiar stories that are inhabited by familiar characters. Successful genre writing gets us to anticipate another showdown at sunrise, to want redemption for the hardened P.I. whose goodness was broken by betrayal, to yearn for Fabio’s sweat-matted hair to fall like a canopy across our faces as we stare into his lion eyes.

Literary writing more often than not doesn’t subscribe to conventions because literary writing is, more often than not, about real people in real predicaments. It’s the difference between a movie and a film, if you will. In the movies, as in genre, people tend to be exceptional, affluent, and beautiful. In films, as in literature, they’re often pedestrian, poor, and ugly. For me—my own philosophy here—the literary must challenge the human condition. I used to say “must speak to the human condition” or “must be about the human condition,” but I no longer find those words satisfying or true. Genre writing can speak to the human condition, but genre doesn’t aim to challenge as much as confirm. Genre writers titillate before giving us what we want, and they accomplish this by knowing and forming what we expect. Literary writers tend to titillate by taking us to task for what we expect, and they accomplish this by rarely giving us what we want.

There’s one absolute marked difference between literary and genre writing. Literary writers must be overly concerned with craft, which isn’t a prerequisite for genre writers. Literary writers must wonder over the possibilities of language and structure. They must tend to the rhythms and sounds and music of sentences. They’ve to make magic of imagery and voice and persona. Even the minimalists. Even those who write books for children. The prose must be rich, the poetry must be evident. Our best literary writers understand this, even if they work in genre.

So you may want to ask, as my students constantly do, why I’m resistant to let young writers work in genre. I teach undergraduates. If I taught MFA-ers, I don’t think I’d mind at all. One can assume graduate students come to the table with some experience. But the temptation is too great for young writers to simply put a twist to what Stephenie Meyer and J. K. Rowling already wrote and call it a day. The aim is to push young writers to new comfort zones, to challenge their already perceived conceptions of what humanity is capable of and explore those developing conceptions through their work. The best way to really navigate the possibilities of craft is to request they write of what they didn’t realize they’re capable.

If you didn’t before, you might now see why writing the literary can only help write in genre. Still, no need for the pretense that only one holds value. In fact, is it even arguable that genre writing has impacted more people for a longer time and seems destined that it always will? If you’re in the market for a creative writing program, see what your would-be teachers have to say about it.

Just before 9-11, Jonathan Franzen was an ass-hat and everybody but me had started reading Harry Potter. It was something to behold. My boyhood was the sort in which I didn’t read in front of people for fear of being ridiculed. I joined a creative writing program thinking it’d be nice to meet folks who were openly readers, and now everyone in the world but me had started reading Harry Potter. Openly. And cautioning one another to be careful not to ruin any surprises. I’ve never been a fan of fantasy. My lot was with Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot. In graduate school, I didn’t have much time even for a detective yarn with all the literature being stuffed down my throat, but everyone else in the program seemed to have time to read Harry Potter. And they were having a ball.

And I thought: Well, this is pretty great, too.

20160302Wayne Lee ThomasHeadshotWayne Thomas is currently working on a novel, Birth of the Okefenokees, for which he was awarded the Baltic Writing Residency. He co-edited Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature (Sarabande), which was awarded the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Literature. He is the former Managing Editor of Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture and former Editor of The Tusculum Review. He teaches creative writing at Tusculum College, where he currently serves as the Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences.

Read more of Thomas’s thoughts on pedagogy in his interview with West Virginia University.

You can check out his micro fiction pieces “The Contract” and “The Black Bear” published at Spittoon.

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