Writing within a specific genre is never the problem

When I entered my MFA program in Creative Writing, I expected to be inundated with references to books and stories of which I’d never heard. I expected to be told the writing I liked was not of a quality worthy of discussion in the program. In truth, I figured this was the trade-off I would have to make to become a better writer: discuss stories that I felt lacked a plot entirely but fell neatly within the “literary fiction” genre (or lack thereof) and grit my teeth while improving my own craft.

Turns out, I got lucky.

There is certainly a fair amount of focus placed on stories and novels that fall outside the traditional genres, but at Arcadia University’s Creative Writing Program, genre is welcome. It’s refreshing to see MFA candidates and undergraduate students and professors able to discuss genre with freedom. But I’ve also learned a little bit of pretension is part of the growth as a writer and a reader.

Stephen King helped illustrate this. I’m in the second semester of my MFA program, and my professor and I had a conversation about certain books being ruined to me now. These were books and these were authors I had been reading for a number of years. Since the program began, I’ve gone back to re-read them, and I’ve started similar books only to find that they don’t hold up.

Let me explain the difference between pretension for the sake of exclusion and pretension as a means for elevating the best to the top. While other writer’s workshops might discuss a mainstream author with their nose turned up in disgust, I had the opportunity to discuss mainstream quality versus mainstream trash with my professor. The conversation was likely similar to ones held at MFA programs far and wide, but it was different too. There is a certain population of readers who will never be able to identify a poorly written sentence in a book filled with great plot. They won’t be able to point out the flaws in a character’s development if the story is entertaining. And that’s fine. But it doesn’t mean such topics are without merit.

The difference in a conversation like this versus the conversation that simply looks to attack books that neatly fall into a genre is that a story falling into a genre is not the problem. The writing is. I can think of no better living author to illustrate this point than Stephen King.

King is an institution. He’s an author everyone know. And his stories tend to fall into the straight-up genre categories. He’s the perfect author to attack in a pretentious MFA program.

Only, he’s not.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m quite certain there are programs out there that use King as an example of what writing should not be. And that’s a shame. The simple fact is, King is a great writer. Ignore the commercial success. Set aside your prejudice against genre. Read his novels. Read his stories. Actually fucking read them. Every line is crafted with intent. Every word is typed to benefit the reader, not the author.

The interesting thing is I’ve taken to reading some old and new Stephen King since starting my program — having, of course, read plenty of King before the program. And while in other “mainstream” authors, I’ve found the flaws that hurt the case for genre in the literary community, I have found no such flaws in King’s writing. In fact, his prose, his characters, his plot, it all works together to create exactly the type of experience MFA students are learning to create. I’ve been able to pick out the moments when a character becomes fully developed, I’ve been able to find sentences that I’m sure were painstakingly edited so as not to waste the reader’s time.

Because I now find myself thumbing my nose at other mainstream authors, I’m still willing to call this pretension. But it’s the right kind of pretension. There are three things every author must get right:

Character, plot, and style.

You can miss one and still find commercial success. You can miss two and still have the framework for something worthwhile. But if you get them all right, you’re Stephen King.

via Justin Hunter http://ift.tt/1MMPbYa