Vampire by Vampire: Genre Writing and the Creative Writing Workshop

by Salvatore Pane

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be part of the “Vampire by Vampire: Genre Writing and the Creative Writing Workshop” panel at AWP with Jeffrey Condran, Alissa Nutting, Elizabeth Weber, and B.J. Hollars. It went so much better than I hoped for and lots of interesting–and frustrated–students asked questions and stopped to talk with us even after the panel ended. A few days later, Matt Bell asked me to share my opening statement from the panel, and I figured I might as well put it here so that anyone who missed the panel interested in genre and the writing workshop could check it out. I’ve also included B.J. Hollars’ opening statement below, and if anyone else wants to contribute–from the panel or otherwise–please e-mail me and I’d be happy to publish them here on my website. I’d love to continue the amazing discussion we began at AWP. So, without further adieu, here’s B.J.

Genre fiction can be a colossal failure in the creative writing classroom, but so can more conventional fiction.  ‘Failed’ attempts are not monopolized by any one genre.  There’s a grand tradition of ‘failure’ in the workshop, none more so because a vampire makes an appearance in the prose.  In short, ‘failure’ takes on many forms.

Yet the workshop’s ‘successes’ are diverse as well.  The ability for students to give birth to multiple characters in less than a nine-month gestation period is a feat that not even nature can top.  And so when undergraduates do this, it’s something to be admired, regardless of whether these characters have razor-sharp canines or black capes or a B.A. in blood transfusion from the University of Transylvania.

Placing too many restrictions on genre—telling students what they can and cannot do—is almost like asking them to write stories with half the alphabet.  And writing is hard enough.

When a student leaves my classroom, I hope for two things.

1.)   That the student has a greater exuberance to write than when she first stepped through the door.

2.)   That the student has a greater exposure to the many genre possibilities available to her.

As such, in my creative writing classroom, students have few restrictions other than that I encourage them to write in more than one genre.  I call this my ‘shoe shopping theory.’  After all, how many of us walk into a shoe store and find the perfect pair of shoes on the first try?  Sometimes we need to walk in them for awhile, break them in, earn a few blisters.  By toying with genre, out students have more tools at their disposal, more opportunities for success, a greater versatility.

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I am ‘pro’ genre fiction in the workshop for three reasons.

1.)   Genre fiction adds much needed diversity into the creative writing classroom.

2.)   It gives students the opportunity to write what they love, though it also encourages them to discover new loves as well.

3.)   In the end, the class is about the student, and I am only one person in it.  And frankly, I don’t want to be the teacher that told a seventeen-year-old Stephen King to knock it off with the horror, informed a young Nora Roberts that romance has no place in the world, asked Louis L’amour to holster his six shooters.  Sometimes a student has already found her niche, and I don’t want to ‘unfind’ it.

However, I acknowledge three ‘cons’ as well.

1.)   When workshopping genre fiction, I’ve observed the occasional pushback from other students.  They’re forced to recalibrate beyond a ‘normal’ aesthetic, which can be difficult.

2.)   For sci-fi and fantasy, it’s quite hard to create an entire world and its people in twelve double-spaced pages.  Similarly, it’s hard to workshop these pieces.

3.)   Finally, many professors feel that since they aren’t experts on genre fiction, they’re uncomfortable providing feedback to students that may lead the students in the wrong direction.  This seems fair.  However, I don’t want my own ignorance to stifle anyone else’s creativity.  Arguable, every story—regardless of genre—has a plot and characters and a setting.  All of these skills can be easily transferrable.  To quite Robert F. Kennedy (who may or may not have been talking about genre fiction), ‘That which unites us is far greater than that which divides us.’  And I think this applies quite well to genre fiction in the workshop setting as well. “

And now my statement:

My experience with genre writing is a little different than most in that I not only write literary fiction, but I also write very genre heavy comic books. Even my prose is varied in style. Sometimes I’ll write really realistic stories and other times there will be ghosts and haunted Nintendos. The schools I’ve taught at so far have been resistant to allowing student writers to produce genre fiction. On one hand I see their point. My experience with students who come into writing workshops who only want to write genre hasn’t been super positive. They’re often frustrated by the outside readings that are so unlike what they’re attempting to create, and their stories usually focus 100% on plot and often ignore characterization or any attempt at emotional complexity. On the flip side, I understand their frustration. They recognize that the university doesn’t value the kind of writing they most admire, and in so many ways, we’re discouraging them from producing the type of work they most care about. I can definitely relate to that as an undergrad. Whenever I brought in something to workshop that was slightly left of realism, the students and professor would essentially spend the entire workshop reconstructing the story minus those elements. That type of environment can be pretty demoralizing.

So far, I’ve mostly taught intermediate and advanced levels of creative writing, and one of my biggest concerns about genre fiction is that it sometimes isn’t allowed in senior and cap stone classes. Am I doing a disservice to students by allowing them to write in a mode that’s deemed totally unacceptable in upper-level classes? The best solution I’ve come up with so far is to first make it very clear that students can’t critique a story simply because it’s realism and they hate realism, or on the flip side, because it’s fantastic and they hate the fantastic. Then, I try right from the outset to include a lot of writers who are experimenting with genre elements in literary fiction. We read Etgar Keret’s “Fatso”, essentially a reworking of a traditional werewolf story. We read Matt Bell’s “His Last Great Gift”, about a 19th century minister building a techno robot savior. We read the ghost-laden craziness of George Saunders. And we read “Porn Star” by Alissa which involves anal sex on the moon. The key for me with genre students has been to show them that character still matters in genre writing and is the most important element of all writing. I ask them to think about any story they like, be it a movie, comic, novel, whatever. They always have memorable, interesting characters even if they’re not likable. I tell them that literary fiction is the ultimate umbrella genre. It can include elements from realism, sci-fi, western, horror, you name it. When students begin to understand that they hopefully start to see the university’s focus on literary fiction as an opportunity to experiment and not as some kind of arbitrary restriction meant to guilt them for liking what they like. When students put up straight genre for workshop, I’ll often discuss the differences between the original Star Wars trilogy and the prequels. One has memorable characters doing interesting things with emotional consequences. The other has one-dimensional names moving around in a video game. I ask them to aspire to the former, and I think they respect that.

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