All posts by Nicole Jankov

Genre Writing in the Classroom

By: Christine Schott

When I was an undergraduate, my fiction workshop professor banned genre writing in our class: no fantasy, no sci-fi, no romance, no detective stories.  Years later, when I started teaching my own creative writing classes, and I was faced with the same decision as my former professor: do I force my undergraduates to write only literary realism, or do I open the floodgates to whatever they want to bring in?

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of explanations for why genre writing is often banned in fiction workshops, and they are legitimate concerns expressed by people who care very much about their art.  Most of these concerns, discussed below, have to do with the legitimate desire to teach the principles of good writing and avoid the habits of bad writing: the problem with these objections is that they tend to assume you can’t have good writing that’s also genre.  In fact, I have come to the conclusion that banning genre writing is directly counterproductive to my aims as a teacher and as a writer.

The reason my own professor gave for banning genre writing was that she herself was not a reader of genre fiction, and so she couldn’t give us feedback that was consistent with the genre’s conventions.  That was a fair point: she couldn’t give us good feedback about world-building conventions in a sci-fi piece because she didn’t read sci-fi.  But one of the most powerful aspects of the writing workshop is that the professor is not the only voice in the room.  That means the students can be equally valuable in critique as their teachers, particularly because each comes in with their own area of interest and, indeed, expertise.  I have never had a student come to class with a piece in a genre so obscure not a single other student in the room is familiar with it.  When I don’t know much about stories based on video games, I can almost guarantee that at least a couple other students know more than enough to steer our discussion.  And those other students, then, are the intended audience for the story; the fact that I’m not part of that audience doesn’t mean the genre is without value.

The other main reason I’ve heard for banning genre writing is that it is poor in quality, as though subject matter determines how well one can write.  A good example of this bias is  Janet Burroway’s description of fantasy in her chapter “Form, Plot, and Structure” in Writing Fiction.  I love everything else about Burroway’s textbook, but when I teach that chapter, I make my students read Ursula Le Guin’s defense of genre writing alongside it (https://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2012/06/18/le-guin-s-hypothesis/).  Her argument breaking down the literary fiction/genre divide is a simple one: “Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it. […] Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, [and] realism.”  That is, genres do exist, but literary realism is one of them.

If we accept Le Guin’s premise, we don’t have to dispense with the distinction between good and bad writing, but we have to acknowledge that they are not the exclusive purview of one genre or another.  Because in the end, isn’t good writing recognizable as good writing in any genre?  Doesn’t a good speculative fiction author show instead of tell, use significant detail, create internal conflict, and avoid clichés?  Maybe we’re describing a colony on Mars instead of a neighborhood in Charleston, but good description is good description regardless of the subject.

I think we can teach genre writing the same way we teach any kind of writing: we get our students to read books similar to what they’re working on that are well-written and innovative.  When we want students to write good literary realist fiction, we don’t give them O. Henry anymore: we give them the best of Raymond Carver or Dennis Johnson.  When we want students to write good fantasy, we don’t give them Christopher Paolini or Stephenie Meyer; we give them the best of Diana Wynne Jones or Susanna Clarke.  It may mean we have to spend some time reading a book or two in a genre we don’t usually read, but the result is our students having models to emulate.

Fiction teachers object that there is a lot of terrible writing in genre and that their students only absorb and reproduce the tropes of their chosen genre—because, let’s face it: our students come to us having read a lot more Stephenie Meyer than Diana Wynne Jones.  I don’t deny it.  I only deny the implication that if we make them write literary realism, they will somehow magically become capable of avoiding tropes and clichés.  Isn’t the disenchanted middle-class husband a cliché at this point too?  And yet we’re still writing literary realist novels about him.  I for one would rather read a clichéd story about a dragon than one about a disenchanted middle-class husband.

It’s true that my students writing their first fantasy novel or their first detective story will produce terrible stuff, full of bad writing and tropes I’ve seen a hundred times before.  But they would do the exact same thing if I made them write literary realism, only they wouldn’t have any fun doing it.  They’re beginning writers: they haven’t yet gained the skills or the range of experience that professionals have.  And if I make them write stories about disenchanted middle-class husbands, the risk is that they will lose interest in writing and never gain either one.

My goal as a teacher is not to produce the next Nobel laureate: my goal is to produce writers who have fallen in love with telling stories and who want to improve their skills—not because I tell them that’s what they should aspire to but because they want to become the best storytellers they can.  And if that means my students bring in-progress zombie novels to class, well, I’m going to try to help them write the most dazzlingly lyrical, most profoundly meaningful zombie novel that can possibly be written.

Christine Schott teaches literature and creative writing at Erskine College.  Her work has appeared in Dappled Things and Casino and is forthcoming in the Gettysburg Review.  She holds a PhD in medieval literature from the University of Virginia and an MFA in creative writing from Converse College.

Billy Collins and the Pandemic Haiku

By: B.A. France

I was talking with a friend recently, when she told me that she couldn’t. Couldn’t what, I asked? I rolled into searching for the problem and looking for solutions, living my own cliché, when she stopped me. Anything. I can’t do anything right now, she said. The stay-at-home orders, the constant crawl of news and binging notifications on our smartphones, the steady specter of death, the protests, the fires, the storms, all adds up. I just feel like I can’t do anything creative, she said. I think for many of us, more often than not, she’s right. We can’t. Whatever it is. Not right now.

There was something about the way she phrased it that made me think of Billy Collins. I know, that’s quite a leap from pandemic to poet laureate without even a Kevin Bacon in between. But, there’s a discussion with Marie Howe toward the end of his recent MasterClass on reading and writing poetry when he mentions writing haiku. Collins writes the deceptively simple, but mysteriously complex poems most of us learned about in our early school years. He even published a book of them with Modern Haiku Press a few years ago. He tells Marie and his students that he often treats haiku like a musician playing scales. For him there’s something about the simplicity combined with the strictness of form that is appealing. He tells his viewers that “the haiku doesn’t care about your feelings.”  It’s just a moment.

In this time when many of us feel like nothing creative can happen, the simplicity of the haiku and its grounding in the moment might liberate us from the real oppression of COVID19. I’m not talking about political oppression or cultural, but instead the unrelenting and quiet pressure on our souls. Maybe the haiku is exactly the poetry we need right now. Not just some of the poetry we need to be reading, which surely it is, but also the poetry we should be writing.

In addition to Japanese masters like Basho and Issa, Collins is only one of many western poets who have adopted the haiku or its cousin the senryu. Jack Kerouac and the Beats (rather famously, and where Collins first picked up the form), ee cummings, Seamus Heaney, and many others have mixed writing haiku with other forms of poetic expression. You don’t have to consider yourself a haikuist (Or is it haijin? That’s a whole other discussion.) to write haiku.

Collins mentions in his Paris Review interview Art of Poetry No. 83 that one of the key elements of poetry is gratitude.  He singles out haiku in particular, saying: “Almost every haiku says the same thing: it’s amazing to be alive here.” And while in our present, pandemic times we may not quite feel that way, as the blue light of our phones and laptops saps our attention away, gratitude is something we still need. Haiku’s focus on the world around us gives us a chance for that gratitude to return, for us to ignore our feelings about the pandemic and our dread or worry. Because, as Billy said, the haiku doesn’t care how you feel. Focused on a moment, finding a juxtaposition right in front of you, the time composing a haiku brings observation, art, and gratitude all together. Collins reminds us that poetry and poets are supposed to make us better attuned to “feel grateful just for being alive.”

It is this idea of “the moment” that draws me deeper into haiku during this, our shared moment. In his introduction to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, Collins describes finding a “haiku moment” nearly anywhere or at any time. For him, it was during walks with his dog along the shore of a nearby lake. But what he describes as the “world of sense impressions that envelops our every waking hour” is the kernel of grit that can result in a haiku pearl, if we are able to inhabit that moment. I know that sounds like the “mindfulness” stuff that today’s meditation gurus seem to be hocking endlessly, but I promise I’m not selling anything.  It shouldn’t surprise us, since Basho studied Zen deeply and the haiku springs from the same historical and spiritual roots as “mindfulness.” Collins admits that there are “many people who don’t get haiku,” and that’s ok. There is a lot of poetry that “many people” don’t get, and that doesn’t tend to stop us from writing. He reminds readers that the little poems are “powerful little assertions of the poet’s very existence.” And that sounds like an assertion we should all be making right now.

We all learned the haiku as children and the 5-7-5 structure has undoubtedly stuck with most of us.  And yes, there is plenty of discussion about form among practitioners. Most modern English-language haikuists don’t ascribe to strict syllable count. Some would insist that I point out the differences between haiku (focused on nature) and senryu (focused on human behavior, often sarcastic). Some would want me to discuss the unique poetic turn of juxtaposition, the kireji or “cutting word” and use of punctuation, or the need for a “season word.” All of these are elements that well versed haiku readers appreciate.

In my way of thinking, for the “pandemic haiku” none of this really matters. As often as we find those details of good form in a haiku, we are just as often struck by verses that do not follow the traditions or which play with them a bit. What matters is being in the moment. What matters is stretching our observational muscles. What matters is finding a moment, just a single moment, to be grateful for. What matters is finding our creativity again.  And during this time, working simply with seventeen syllables or less, maybe we will find that we can.

social distancing

     waking quietly alone

wind in treetops

B.A. France is a poet and writer living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed whose poetry has appeared in Akitsu Quarterly and cattails.