Friday, September 07, 2007

Magical Realism, Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy in an MFA Program

shivaloka writes:

I'm a writer based in New York who hopes to establish a career in Speculative Fiction (magical realism, science fiction, horror, fantasy). At thirty-three years of age, I've decided to apply for an MFA; I was an English major at Fordham University. How seriously do the writing committees at universities respond to this particular genre? What MFA programs would help a writer achieve their goals in this area? I plan on applying to three schools, one being Columbia University. It is hard to follow professors and see which ones are teaching at any given semester, because they often go away on sabbaticals or other business related to their writing. I know well how competitive these programs are and I feel I'm prepared to attend one. However, if schools are interested in only focusing on students who want to write "traditional literature", then where should the post-modernist go?

I'm sorry I've taken such a long time to put this question up--the reason is that it's very difficult to answer. I've looked through my blog for such programs as fit your taste; if you're looking for programs that specifically cater to science fiction, horror, fantasy--or, as they put it, "genre" fiction--I know not a one. This coming from someone who's sized up the basic facts for 130-ish of the 160-something MFA programs in the country, and if you were to look through the other 30 I doubt that you'd find what you needed.

There are some programs that cater to children's literature, which of course has such elements, but I doubt that's what you're looking for. You might also want to try a creative MPW (Master's in Professional Writing) program; I had one or two in my database but I deleted them because they didn't strike me as being very art-oriented; all they seemed to do was to teach you plot/character gimmicks that would help you sell. I doubt that's what you're looking for, either, since you strike me as someone who wants to study craft in more depth than just that.

Sadly, magical realism, science fiction, horror, and fantasy are genres that have been taken over by hacks and pulp writers to such an extent that colleges and universities are generally suspicious of a writer who professes to write such material; in fact they may expect the work to be bad before they even look at it. This is, of course, unfair and unfortunate, and if you can show them that you can produce something ORIGINAL that demonstrates a high standard of imagination, skill, and intellectual/emotional depth--I don't think they'll count it against you. There is a lot of literary fiction floating around that incorporates magical, fantastical, or science-fiction elements that MFA instructors would applaud, and even include in their workshops (in 3 or 4 of my undergrad fiction workshops we've read a mix of realist and fantastical stuff).

In short, although I think MFA programs in general don't like genre fiction, if they come across the rare writer who can pull it off excellently and appeal to a wide and general audience (not just the professed fans of a particular genre) you've got your fighting chance. Good luck. And please proofread everything you send: though I made corrections to your question before posting it, I've noticed, without meaning to be a bitch, that you misspelled "fiction," "university," "committees," "genre," both words in "Columbia University," "competitive," and both words in "traditional literature."


NJ said...

"though I made corrections to your question before posting it"

Anna, what's the point of making the corrections if you're going to post a humiliating laundry list of her mistakes in your response?

Something they don't teach in school: you praise in public, and criticize in private. Clipping someone off at the knees like that embarrasses her, makes you look mean (whether the intention is there our not,) and makes me want to keep my questions to myself. said...

why don't you look at University of British Columbia's program? It's considered the best in Canada. They, like UT-Austin, prefer students with more than one concentration and offer workshops in genres like children's fiction and literary translation. They also encourage individual programs of study.

Q. said...

Iowa's Writer's Workshop has had a few of their graduates move on to careers in sci-fi/fantasy.
Also, the University of Georgia is open to genre writing. But I wouldn't send off a genre-ish writing sample in my application to either program. I'm just saying that once you get there you can work it.


"without meaning to be a bitch" That's hilarious. Seems to come naturally, eh? Or at least without "meaning". That you add that disclaimer shows that you know what your doing.
Clearly internet content is held to a no or low standard, since you can continuelly write snarky comments and be supported in doing so. That being the case, I'd rather read some typos then someone actively spreading ill-will.
I was going to respond to the question without saying anything to you - take the high road, not sink to your level - but I've read far too many nasty remarks - especially the comments to the person asking about PhD's - coming out of your comments.
Your attitude is quite unhelpful and unneccesary. Unfortunately you'll probably continue to post nastiness here since you're being supported in it.
The people who never grow up are the people who have no insentive to do so.


I'm to the point where I'm just going to look at the question, then check to see who posted it, is the initial responder. If the name Anna is there, I'm skipping over the content and going straight to the comments - that will hopefully come from people with actual first hand experience in an MFA program.

Vince said...

i would do as q suggested. get into the program and then introduce those elements of sci-fi and fantasy within the workshops. i see no reason why that this writing cannot be counted as a different aesthetic--and there has already been a discussion on T.K.'s blog about the value of aesthetic diversity. Don't set yourself apart so drastically that you are not--first and foremost--in fact a writer.

Lincoln said...

Since Columbia was mentioned, I'll say that the program is indeed very open to different aesthetics. Its one of its big strengths I think. I've seen people doing literary work that could be called magical realism, horror and sci fi in all my workshops (along with plenty of people doing traditional literary fiction as well).

However, one thing I would say is that for any program the key here is probably going to be word literary. If your idea of magical realism is Borges or Marquez, your idea of Sci-Fi is Jonathan Lethem or George Saunders, your idea of Horror is Cormac McCarthy or Brian Evenson and your idea of fantasy is Aimee Bender, then you probably won't have too hard of a time workshoping your work anywhere and will probably have a great time at a program that fosters aesthetic diversity (I made a thread on that here: aesthetic diversity in MFA programs

All that said, I don't believe there are many if any MFA programs that will be helpful to someone who wants to write horror like stephen king, fantasy like robert jordan or sci-fi like Asimov.

Also, I'd keep in mind that there are a lot of programs that have pretty narrow aesthetics. Iowa is a great program, maybe the best, but it is known for having a pretty specific aesthetic and I doubt that workshop would be very helpful to someone turning in a magical realism piece, whether or not some iowa grads later went on to be sci-fi writers or not.

Lincoln said...

In fact, I think I'm going to disagree with Vince and Q.'s advice to sneak into a program with non-genre work and then once you've been accepted break out the post-modern sci-fi horror series of prose-poems you've been writing.

I doubt any program would be mad at you for not doing something in their aesthetic, but would you really WANT to be at a program where everyone writes one way and you write another? It simply isn't going to be helpful to you. A room of Raymond Carver followers isn't going to be the best group of peers for your Infinite Jest sequel.

I think it is a good idea to tailor your application manuscript to each program a little bit. ie if you have 4 great stories I'd send the two more traditional ones to iowa and the weirder ones to brown, but I definitly wouldn't send two traditional stories I wrote 5 years ago to Iowa when they aren't representative of the work I do today.

The program that accepts you based on the work you want to be doing is likely to be the most helpful program for, well, the work you want to be doing.

Vince said...

Well...Seton Hill in P.A. has a masters program for writers interested in writing for popular fiction. The site lists science fiction as one of its areas of interest.

Nan said...

A quick recommendation to shivaloka to investigate USC's MPW program, which embraces multiple genres. I am to begin teaching poetry there in 2008, so don't feel qualified to speak authoritatively about the program yet, but my understanding is that the program is certainly "art-oriented," to use Anna's phrase (with poetry, playwriting and literary fiction represented along with screenwriting, magazine writing, biography, etc.). Have a look:

Nan said...

Let me try to turn that into a live link (I hope): USC MPW Program

--Nan Cohen

Todd said...

Stonecoast Writers Workshop, a low residency MFA program offers genre fiction program. It's held in Maine through the University of Southern Maine.

Ana said...

NJ and Q,

I wasn't going to say anything either about the spelling comments, but thank God someone said it. Anna, please use a little common sense in the future. I was mortified for the poster of the comment. I can't imagine responses like that will help prospective applicants feel welcome asking questions. I like reading this blog (even though I will soon graduate from an MFA program), but if I cringe like that one more time, I may have to stop visiting for a while.

jaywalke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leslie said...

Noting the typos is a good lesson for us all, Anna: in the real world, an employer/editor/creative writing teacher/evaluator of MFA applications will not be so kind. In fact, I wouldn't be able to take someone seriously who couldn't properly spell the name of the school he/she is applying to. One or two might be typos...but that list suggests someone who is uncaring about details, hardly a person I would want in my creative writing program.

James Aach said...

Very interesting - I had no idea there was any MFA support at all for "genre" writing. Thanks for the tip.

One item of caution though - my experience is that incorporating science into one's writing tends to be a bit of a no-no if you are thinking of publishing fiction. See my essay at and other commentary at the LabLit site as well.

K.T. Ace said...

Just to offer another comment. I too write Fiction Fantasy (ie: genre fiction). I know what I write isn't going to make me the next Proust and I don't want to be. That being said, I applied to thirteen programs, and have been rejected from twelve and am still waiting to hear from number thirteen. I could, honestly, just not be MFA material, but I suspect that a lot of it has to do with what my genre is. I went with the idea that I don't want to go to school somewhere that doesn't want me for what I love to write. The problem with that idea is that -no one- seems to want me as is. It's up to you what you value more. Unfortunately, genre writing is the mime of the writing world.

Keely H. said...

It isn't a full on MFA program, but if you want to study sci-fi or fantasy the place to go is the Clarion Summer Workshop.

Here's the link for anyone interested:

P Brat said...

I say look around, but MFAs are not known for being genre-friendly!

I have been neck-deep in this problem for years. I write both "literary" and speculative fiction. I did an MFA at Columbia - getting in as a "literary" writer and then, once I was in, occasionally submitting more genre-type stuff to workshops. It was unhelpful and sometimes extremely discouraging. I often encountered the bias of "literary" writers against genre fiction.

The truth is, I've learned SO MUCH MORE about genre writing from the film industry. It just seems that they're more interested - by and large - in talking about STORY. My MFA program focused so intensely on language, style, voice, and what's trendy in modern fiction. I really wanted one class - just one class! - to sit people down and explain the basics of plotting and structure. But it never happened. These days I'm reading Robert McKee and Howard Suber and various other books about screenwriting, and it has helped my genre writing develop enormously - NOT by making it more formulaic, but by giving me the tools to avoid the formulas and really take it to a new level. Maybe consider a screenwriting class instead?

Jimmy Elens said...

I'll likely be attending Florida International's MFA program in the fall, and they are known for being a more 'genre-friendly' program with a strong emphasis on story that also touches more on the business aspects of writing and publishing. They have an entire 4-credit course on Plot. They are certainly focused on language and style, but they also seem more open to different types of writing and they don't look down on genre work.

Very successful mystery and crime fiction writers like Dennis Lehane and Barbara Parker came out of the program, and their 'genre' debut works were actually their MFA theses, so their work was encouraged by the faculty, who are pretty much all still there. It's a good mix.

So if you're interesting in a ranked, quality program that is less 'snobby' toward genre work, definitely consider FIU's program.

abass said...

Affiliate Marketing is a performance based sales technique used by companies to expand their reach into the internet at low costs. This commission based program allows affiliate marketers to place ads on their websites or other advertising efforts such as email distribution in exchange for payment of a small commission when a sale results.

RantWhore said...

I'm joining in late.

Skip the MFA if you want to write genre. Most schools have this attitude (that is shown in the initial response to the question) that genre is "lower" and "lesser," that it's full of hack writers who have "ruined" the genre.

I'm just astounded at the narrow-mindedness in that response, but I'm not surprised. As someone who is currently in an MFA program, we get weekly lectures on why genre is bad and why people who write genre are "terrible writers."

Most of the students join the collective to find acceptance among faculty. Case in point: in a workshop (recently), one of the students turned in a science fiction story. It was beautifully written--something I would find in Sci-Fi/Fantasy magazine (which is extremely difficult to get into). While in their written/personal comments, they did not "hate it" as much as expected, they were absolute wolves in the class itself, jumping onto the teacher's every little quibble.

The teacher said (at some point), I found this story very hard and I was reluctant to read it because it was science fiction. She didn't even "understand" what happened in the end of the story--whereas the rest of the class "got it."

Yet, because these fellow students decided to "put up a good front" to the instructor, they were absolutely terrible to this writer. Furthermore, they carried this attitude over outside of class and this writer has pretty much become a pariah within her group. It doesn't matter that she spent the last 2 years writing with these people, they've turned on her because of genre.

My theory is that they're simply too small-minded and obtuse to workshop a genre story. Here's something of a hint:

1. Are the characters well-rounded?
2. Is the narrative cohesive?
3. How's the voice?
4. How's the line-by-line syntax, grammar, etc?

The list goes in. Oddly (gasp) it's exactly like the list one might use to workshop a "literary" story.

So, while most of us in workshop are forced to suffer through the latest "girlfriend/boyfriend breaking up" story that a 25 year old writes (due to having little to no life experience outside the suburban home), God forbid we actually exercise our imaginations a bit.

There's a lot of bad genre out there.

There is also a lot of bad "literary fiction" out there.

The mentality that genre is somehow a lower form of writing is an ignorant notion.

I certainly hope that some of these people can make up for their lack of imagination and creativity with excellent spelling and grammar because they're seriously lacking the yin-chip in their "balanced education."

I guess they could always write non-fiction . . . or teach rhet-comp.

Either way: final response to the question. Don't bother. You'll continue to meet idiots who can't think their way out of a paper bag.

Get into a good writing group that writes genre.

Attend conventions.

The only thing the MFA program wants from you is for you to starve for your art--to write material that sells for pennies and, when you're done, to continue to starve for them so they can claim your pushcart was all a result of their fine teaching.

Skip it.

Or, if you must . . . find a good low-residency program that is open to building up YOUR work (you're the customer here, why give your money to people who are going to treat you and your work like caca?)

Do your research beforehand. Email faculty to ask specific/pointed questions about what they will accept. Or, you'll be stuck in a program where you have to write the next "dead dog" or "edgy drug-addict" piece for 2 years straight.

For some of us, we'd rather be buried alive in Nicholas Sparks novels then endure such a thing.

每当遇见你 said...

Here’s a list of tools you will need to start: Jewelers’ pandora jewellery wire cutters - If you can only afford one pair, get memory wire shears. pandora charms These are designed to make clean cuts on tough memory wire, so can also be used for pandora charms uk softer wires. Chain-nose pliers sometimes called cheap pandora charms needle-nose pliers – Very versatile for picking up and grasping small items, pandora charms sale bending eye pins, closing jumps rings, even closing crimp beads. discount pandora charms Round-nose pliers – Used for creating loops on beaded head and eye pins. Can also be used for winding your own jump rings and as the second pliers you’cheap pandora ll need for closing jump rings. Optional pliers – Wire-looping pliers which have several graduated circumferences to allow you to form perfectly uniform jump rings and loops in place of the pandora discount uk round-nose pliers mentioned above. Crimping pliers which have little notches to allow you to both flatten a crimp bead and then bend it to form a rounded finished look instead of the flat crimp you pandora uk get using the chain-nose pliers. As for materials, I recommend some assortment packs of beads in coordinating colors, some decorative metal spacers, seed beads in both silver and gold These can serve as spacers and beautifully set off pandora sale your other beads., tube-shaped crimp beads Buy the best you can find – these are what hold it all together!, head and eye pins. Other than that, let your choice of project be your guide. You might want some silver or pewter charms.

Erin Wildermuth said...

The University of Kansas has a Center for the study of Science Fiction and supports the English Department's MFA students