Thursday, August 21, 2008

Genre and Experimental Writing at MFA Programs?

Recently there have been several comments and questions about genre-friendly and experimental-friendly MFA programs. Do they exist? Which ones are known for promoting that type of work? Etc. So I thought I would create a thread to open this up for discussion.

Experimental writing is a no-brainer, Brown and many other schools promote it, but I often see people wonder if “genre writing” is accepted at MFA programs. In my experience, it is. I’ve had sci-fi, horror and crime novels in workshop. Of course, maybe there is a question of what we mean by “genre writing.” Are we talking about Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Robert Jordan or are we talking about Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Lethem and Aimee Bender? The latter is certainly welcome in many programs, but what about the former?

My one piece of advice would be to look at the faculty and recent alumni of a program. If your program has produced writers in the realm you want to be in, that is a very good sign. If your program has faculty writing things similar to what you want to write then there is a good chance many your classmates will be familiar with what you are aiming for.

Other advice? Thoughts?

25 comments:

Lincoln said...

Here is one poster's comments from before:

adam jk gallardo said...

Hi, I'm new to your blog, which I think will become a valuable resource for me. I do have a question that I couldn't answer by doing searches:

I am interested in writing genre fiction (SF) and am looking for programs that offer concentrations in it. I know that Southern Maine's Stonehouse program offer a pop literature program. Are there any other programs you know of that encourage (or tolerate) students writing genres?

Thanks.




I don't know of any programs that offer a concentration in sci-fi writing... does anyone else?

alex said...

Experimental writing is a no-brainer, Brown and many other schools promote it

-----------------------


Please tell me what other schools promote experimental writing besides Brown.

Monica said...

Thank you so much for beginning this thread! A lot of my writing has fantastical or surreal elements (my favorite writers are Le Guin and Borges). So I'm also really interested in input about various programs' openness to "experimental" writing.

What I can contribute is this: Kelly Link, a writer of fantastical literary fiction, is a graduate of UNC-Greensboro. She also teaches at Stone Coast, along with Nalo Hopkinson and Jim Kelly. All three of these writers were instructors at Clarion, which I just attended this past summer, and I can personally attest that they're fantastic. Same goes for Mary Anne Mohanraj, who just began teaching at University of Illinois-Chicago, and Geoff Ryman at the University of Manchester.

Lincoln said...

I guess we will see how long this takes to turn into a debate over what is experimental... but from how I think of the term, while Brown might be the only program known to be basically only experimental (although I don't know how true that is), there are other programs that are said to friendly to experimental fiction along with more traditional fiction: Cal-Arts, Columbia, Syracuse and UC-Irvine are names I often hear.

Luke said...

I'd mention Alabama as well, where Michael Martone teaches, although certainly they have a great history in more traditional modes, too. I would also consider the creative writing PhD at University of Denver to have an "experimental" lean. Maybe Utah, maybe Notre Dame, maybe University of Washington (Heather McHugh), again, all of this depending on what your definition of experiemental is. Hope this is helpful.
-LJ

alex said...

here's what brown's website says, (which i'm sure most people who are interested in the program have already read):

For nearly 40 years, the Brown University Program in Literary Arts has been a creative and intellectual center for the U.S. literary avant-garde. Along with only a handful of other writing programs nationwide, Brown’s Program in Literary Arts provides a home for innovative writers of fiction, poetry, playwriting, electronic writing (hypertext) and mixed media.


They themselves use the term 'avant-garde' which in my opinion is way less ambiguous or undefinable than 'experimental'. but who knows. anyway, just thought i'd post it for anyone who hasn't been to browns site.

also, anyone know of any successful writers who came out of brown? I'd like to look up some of the work. i'm a poet but i'd be open to reading up on fiction writers too.

Monica said...

Edwidge Danticat went to Brown. Haitian-American. Her MFA thesis was the basis for the novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (which was really amazing) and also The Dewbreaker, which I haven't read.

Lincoln said...

I'm not sure who graduated from Brown on the poetry side. On the fiction side Brian Evenson, Ben Marcus and Edwidge Danticat come to mind.

Luke said...

The main poet who comes to mind when I think of Brown is Kevin Young, who went on to do a Stegner after he finished in Providence.

Lizzy said...

I'll second UC-Irvine and Alabama as places where one hears "experimental" writing takes place.

I have to wonder about Houston, Donald Barthelme having been founding faculty there. I wonder how lasting his influence there has been.

deadninjahorse said...

Laynie Browne is a poet from Brown. If you've never heard of/read her, check out her book The Scented Fox.

Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

It seems muddling to conflate 'genre fiction' with experimental writing, especially given that much of genre writing is emphatically not experimental.

it seemed like your original poster was asking about speculative fiction, work that is clearly not in the realist mode. That would cover the range from Tolkien to Poe to Chabon to Marquez to Le Guin (who, incidentally, is both a New Yorker author and a famous genre author). See: http://www.speclit.org/SLF_faq.php for more on 'speculative literature.'

In my experience, writing traditional sword and sorcery fantasy or rocket ship sci-fi is welcome at very few programs (Stone Coast may be an exception). Primarily due to the faculty's a) suffering through far too many terrible Robert Jordan homages, b) their unfamiliarity with the best of genre writing -- they only know the schlock, and c) their perception of genre writing as automatically bad writing, which triggers anxiety that allowing such material would weaken the public impression of their program.

Whereas well-written slipstream, surrealist, and other similar variations are very welcome almost anywhere. If you're in a program and want to persuade your faculty to allow you to write spec fic, I've found that it helps to a) mention Le Guin and Chabon and Marquez a lot, and if necessary, b) remind them of Sturgeon's rule -- yes, 90% of science fiction is crap, but 90% of everything is crap. :-)

- Mary Anne -- MFA at Mills College, Ph.D. at Utah, taught at Vermont College low-residency MFA, Roosevelt U. MFA, Northwestern U.'s MA/MFA and Center for the Writing Arts, and at Clarion 2008. Now starting teaching at UIC's creative writing Ph.D. this fall. http://www.mamohanraj.com

Lizzy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth said...

This is actually something I asked many of the places I was looking at last year, because I'm very interested in writing fantasy/sci-fi fiction. I sent the program directors an e-mail asking (among a few other things) whether they felt the workshop was at all supportive of genre fiction. Virginia Commonwealth and Hollins both mentioned that there was some support for genre fiction, though it was likely to gain better support if it was more magical realism or in that between fiction and genre realm. The University of Michigan pointed out that Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian, was an alum, so there was some support there. North Carolina State mentioned that they have John Kessel, a sci-fi author on staff, so there's support there too. The other schools either said "no, we don't support that," or gave an answer that suggested genre really wasn't too welcome. Now granted, I only talked to about 12 schools overall, but my general impression is that you'll be lucky to find a place that will put up with it. While I can understand why they take that view, it's a shame, because there's no place for people who really want to learn to write that to turn, except to more or less teach themselves. And there's an awful lot of high quality literature that is also genre fiction.

Jenny said...

Sarah Lawrence, where it may not necessarily list genre-specific writing courses, was -- in my experience in undergraduate fiction -- very accepting and supportive of experimental writing. The plus side is that you have to interview with each teacher before you register for classes, so you can really get a sense of whether or not they will be interested in/helpful with your experimental writing.

The One said...

FIU is not open to all genres (SF and Fantasy seem to be the bottom of the tolerance ladder, unfortunately), but could never shake crime/police/thrillers from its DNA if it tried. Les Standiford's fiction is mostly genre (though his nonfiction is really his more spectacular side, I think), and their most famous alum is Dennis Lehane, for godsake. While they teach the Burroway mantras about true literature overcoming genre norms, they cannot deny genre as a whole without devaluing themselves.

Roger said...

One of the stories I recently submitted as a writing sample to several different programs had some sci-fi underpinnings. I'll let you all know how that turns out.

To add to Mary Anne's helpful comments:

The trouble with space opera or sword & sorcery is not that they feature fantastical elements, it's that they're adventure stories, meant to excite and titillate rather than... well, rather than do all the stuff literary stories are meant to do.

If you just want to write something surreal or futuristic or tech-focused or magical-realist, my recommendation is simply not to frame it as genre fiction, or yourself as a genre writer. If questioned, I would follow Mary Anne's advice and mention some of those wonderful writers (or, if you're feeling particularly brazen, Shakespeare and Kafka). But I see no reason to be meek or defensive about it from the start. Submit your sci-fi or fantasy like you would any other story. I hope I'm not being too optimistic when I imagine that all but the most curmudgeonly sticks-in-the-mud will, if it's a good story, respond well.

thcburnham said...

This has been very useful. I am attending the U. of Montana at the moment. I knew going into the program, bachelors that is, that it focused of realism. I had some professors show their utter disdain for the speculative fiction genre when emailing them and then others showed support and encouragement. The head of the program encouraged me to go for both realism and fantasy-fiction. The advisor also told me to dismiss the rantings of the few professors as they view fantasy as sword and sorcery. They don't have an understanding of epic fantasy like tolkien, lewis and brooks. So it was encouraging, but I know I don't want to get my masters here. So this post has been extremely helpful. Thank you.

Annie Madison said...

Check out the MFA program at Seton Hill University--all genre, all the time. Your thesis is a mystery, SFF, horror or romance novel; you also must complete either a novella or several short works in one or more genres.

Very little if any funding, but it's low-residency so you can keep your current job.

http://www.setonhill.edu/academics/fiction/curriculum.cfm

Tantra said...

Thank you so much for this page, which is going onto my site, http://experimentalwriting.weebly.com/ which is a resource for all things about Experimental Fiction, etc.

I'm teaching an online class, which people are signing up for deliciously now, in Experimental Fiction Writing, through UCLA Extension Writing Program. The site I mentioned tells about it. I'd love to see more people study and teach this, as there is a serious dearth of even acknowledgement of the experimental options in education.

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L.Scribe Harris said...

I have to disagree with what Monica said. I did my undergraduate degree at UNC-Greensboro and since Fred Chapel left the school, the program has been extremely un-friendly to genre writers.

I would recommend NC-State University's MFA program. There's actually a track for genre writers, and a graduate course devoted to the study of genre fiction.

Sammi Soutar said...

Seton Hill offers an MFA program in popular fiction, including genre fiction, such as romance, sci-fi/fantasy, horror, among others. Here's the link:

http://www.setonhill.edu/academics/fiction/

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