Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Every once and awhile I get kinda bored with crime fiction. It usually happens after I finish a mediocre, or worse, absolutely horrible, crime fiction novel. It seems that all the good books are unique, but the mediocre ones are all the same. While I'm sure it won't take me long to get out of this funk, this latest crisis of faith (OK, that's a bit exaggerated, but you get the idea) has taken me to the point where I'm tired of defending the lowest common denominator in our genre so that the best writers get a little bit of respect.

I come from an MFA background. Rather than starting from scratch by myself, I went to school to learn how to write - if anyone can really learn how to write, but I digress. Being a genre writer in an MFA program is fucking hard because you need to constantly defend genre writing. You can't let on that you think there is plenty of horrible shit sitting on the mystery and speculative fiction (or alternative fiction) shelves because that will only give these nimrod idiots grounds to prove their prejudices. Well, if you think it's crap, why should I even care? I think this is where I should mention that most of the literary fiction MFA students out there are complete dolts who are so lacking in their reading knowledge that it isn't funny. They can be quite ignorant.

Now you're saying to yourself, but Steve didn't you come from the only MFA program in the country with a popular fiction track? Why yes I did, in fact The Atlantic even pointed out the uniqueness of this particular program; but just because one of the leading magazines in the country managed to focus on this characteristic doesn't necessarily mean that the majority of students from the other genres, some of the faculty or the administration understands and appreciates this.

So why am I in this funk? Two reasons that happened to intersect over the past couple of days. The first was reading, well not a bad book, but a plainly average one. It had all the elements of good mystery/crime/thriller books from the past, but it just didn't do it for me. I finally sped read through the last third of the book to finish it. After I put it back on the shelf, I went to find another book, but I didn't want to discover another average book. (I finally read through the first 30 pages of Don Delillo's Underworld, which had been sitting on the shelf since it was published 10 years ago.)

This reading misadventure came on top of the perennial pop fiction student push to hire useful faculty for the MFA program I attended. Now you're thinking, why must the pop fic student body continually suggest and push for appropriate faculty while the other genres are taken care of? Good question. They shouldn't. That should be up to the people who actually run the damn thing, because that's their fucking job. The task of finding faculty and recruiting them has constantly been deferred to the pop fic students and the pop fic faculty. Truthfully, if any influence outside of the administration whose responsibilty it is to suggest and push for pop fic faculty it is the alumni, of which I am apart of, however almost all the popfic alumni have been so burned by the administration while we were students doing exactly the same thing current students are doing, that there is a part of us that doesn't really give a fuck. Well, that's not entirely true - we care about the current students getting a good education, we care that the faculty may be rundown by the struggle and we care about the reputation of the program, if only as a selfish consideration of the worth of our degrees.

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of the current director of the program (however, I am a fan of most of the faculty who do an incredible job), but it's not because I'm an asshole, despite what other alums have called me because of my vocal criticism (this is usually from the ones dangling out of the director's ass anyway). This reason for my displeasure is that I can see what this program can become. It is the only pop fiction MFA out there. Can you imagine what it would be under the right guidence? This could be the place where genre fiction scholars and teachers could congregate and push popular fiction into an incredible new direction. Imagine a truly academic pursuit of genre writing. But that's being squandered, actually it's being completely ignored. After The Atlantic pointed out that this was the only pop fic program in the country, and was what made our MFA program standout from the rest, do you know how many references the administrations made to the article? How many ads were created to promote this? How many e-mails went out to students and alumni and donators? ZERO. None. Nil.

So, instead of continually fighting the unwinable fight of proving that genre writing is worthy of study by defending all genre writing, I'm going to revert to a much higher ground. Instead of saying that all genre writing is deserving (it's not), I'm going to call a spade a spade. I'm going to promote my idea of good genre writing and stop letting others push me into deferring to the lowest sludge when I talk about it. There are some in genre writing who will disagree with me, and that's OK, but I can't stop myself from saying what is good, what is bad and what isn't deserving of academic or artistic respect.

I have no idea if what I wrote makes any sense, and I'm too busy taking care of a semi-sick kid to go back and review it; but I hope you get my meaning.

Here endith the rant.


Lyman Feero said...

99% of what you wrote I agree with. You know as well as I do that I'm one of those tired alums. Where we diverge is our view of bad genre fiction. Every book that is published, every short story printed has a value. Granted for a good read... no. For good writing... no. However, where all pop fiction shines is in its reflection of society. Popular Fiction like no other dares to cut to the quick of the joys and ills of what is happening in our world. Take the recent glut in horror films and fiction. We're at war. Horror fiction has always thrived during times of war. Even the worst sludge at the bottom of the barrel plays off the desparation and frustration of living in wartime, an unupopular war at that. The fiction of the Vietnam era is a prime example. There is something to be learned through every book. As writers we are unable to filter current cultural attitudes from our writing. Whether it is conscious or not, our words are mirrors and though maybe not revealing now, they will be useful to understanding the culture of the turn of the millenium.

Steve Allan said...

I know exactly where you are coming from in regards to what all genre fiction is - I did take that course on cult horor movies you helped Welch develop; but in terms of teaching the literary equivalent of DEATH BED; THE BED THAT EASTS PEOPLE as a writing lesson, it simply shouldn't happen. What you're talking about is genre theory, which, as you are painfully aware, is very lacking at Stonecoast. This is the one of the things I'm talking about. Imagine a program that incorporates actual academic thought into genre writing.

I know we've talked about this before, but how great it would be if there were a popular fiction MFA program that had the understanding and backing of sympathetic administration. I'm afraid that the good faculty we have there now is getting too weary to carry on. They leave, whatever pop people who are left over are sucked up into general fiction and soon the notion of popular ficiton will be entirely erased. You and I both know that has always been a very real possibility.

Steve Allan said...

That was supposed to be THE BED THAT EATS PEOPLE.

pattinase (abbott) said...

At my university they don't even have an MFA in writing. You have to do an MA with a emphasis on writing, which means you take 75% of your courses in lit and you have to show proficiency in a language. Plus you have to take GREs and score at the level you need to enter the Ph.D program. It really sucks.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

"That was supposed to be THE BED THAT EATS PEOPLE."

Oh, thank god. For a second, I thought you were talking about a horror movie sponsored by Vagisil.

I agree with you and Lyman about theory. Yes, all of the genre fiction out there helps define, for good or ill, the underlying events that shape a culture. I eat that shit up. Y'all wouldn't happen to have a reading list from that class, would ya?

Whether bad genre fiction further undermines the strength of it in an MFA program, I have no idea. I'm an uneducated prole. But bad writing is bad writing, and even if it adds to the historical analysis of a culture, it still detracts from the culture as a whole. At least from the elitist perch I'm standing on. It's all relative after all, isn't it?

What makes Halloween (The first one) better than Manos: Hands of Fate? I mean, besides acting, lighting, cinematography, writing, budget and lac of gratuitous nudity. I'm a fan of gratuitous nudity.

Popular fiction gets a bad rap simply by dint of what it is. It's undervalued in academia, and it's always appeared to me that the bulk of MFA programs out there are run by elitist swine. And not my kind of elitist swine, either.

Lyman Feero said...

There's something else to consider here. How does bad writing get to the shelves? Yes some of it is political string pulling between agents and houses. But I put forth it deals with demand vs. supply. As the demand grows greater and publishing houses scramble to put out more novels (I know... this trend is starting to reverse) the publishers have to dig deeper into the slush pile to meet their own quotas. Such was the fate of the horror genre. Currently horror is just starting to get off the respirator. The late eighties and early nineties saw a glut. The houses dug into their piles to meet the demand. Bad novels were published. The genre lost credibility and the whole thing fell to shit. The cry rose that the death of horror was nigh. The best writers sought higher ground, ditching the genre for greener pastures.

This dynamic should be heartening to those of us writing genre fiction. If we're good, there's a place for us. If we're not we can still get published and screw up our genres.

Stephen B., if you're serious about a genre theory reading list I have a few good sources.