Monday, March 12, 2012

Grad school learning, Part 2.

First this week, a little news.  (I love it when I have news to share!)

1.  SwanSong has been nominated for a Global E-book Award.  (Hence, the cool sticker you see on your right.)  Next, they pick finalists.  I don't know when the finalists are chosen, but there are only three nominees in my category (Speculative - Classic Fantasy) right now, and today's the deadline for submissions, so I'm feeling pretty hopeful that SwanSong will be a finalist. (There are approximately a blue billion nominees in the Speculative - Paranormal category.  Tell me again why my next book is an urban fantasy....)  Even if SwanSong doesn't win, it's pretty cool to be nominated.  At the very least, I hope to get a review or two out of the deal.

2.  This week, Greta Burroughs kindly posted a guest blog I wrote for her "Did You Know" feature.  It's about the genesis of both SwanSong and The Maidens' War, and about how I tend to think of them in tandem as my "heritage series".  Here's a link if you'd like to read it for yourself.

Okay, on to the meat of today's post, which first appeared, in a slightly different form, on Ritesh Kala's book blog a few weeks ago.  It's about an epiphany I had not long ago about literary fiction.


Call me slow ("Okay!  Lynne -- you're slow!"), but it did not occur to me for a long time that master’s programs in fiction writing are not interested in turning out writers who can make a living at writing.  They are focused on turning out writers who can turn out short stories that their fellow students, and their professors, like.  For one thing, short stories lend themselves much better to workshopping than novels do.  A student might be able to turn out a respectable first draft of a novel in a semester, but she cannot do it and also read and critique the novels of the other nine students in her class – not to mention keeping up with the work in her other classes and with whatever is going on at home.  So for workshops, short stories it is.  But the marketplace for short stories is miniscule compared to the amount of decent material students are turning out.  So many perfectly good stories will never be published.

For another thing, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, writing students and their professors consider themselves to be serious writers, and as such, they like to read serious fiction.  Oh, word play is fine, and maybe even humor, depending on the subject and how it’s handled.  But mostly, these serious writers want to read about people a lot like themselves – usually urban, mostly white, almost painfully introspective.  It’s okay for the characters to talk about sex, as long as they spend most of their time ruminating about it rather than doing it.  In fact, it’s almost better if nothing happens in the story at all.  The writer needs to set the scene, of course – otherwise the characters would have nothing plausible to trigger their ruminations.  But the characters are under no obligation to learn anything about themselves, or to behave any differently at the end of the story than they do at the beginning.  And in addition, everything must be as realistic as possible. 

Now, as you may have noticed, I write fantasy.  But fantasy was not what my classmates wanted to read, and when I tried to give it to them, they didn’t seem to know what to do with it.  At the same time, the professors praised the work of students who wrote realistic fiction, and had us read realistic fiction (except for a couple of works of magic realism, from which I concluded that the only difference between magic realism and fantasy is the foreign accent – but that's another blog post).  The message we all received was that realistic fiction – literary fiction – was the only kind worth writing; anybody who wrote anything else was a sellout and a hack.

Now, I knew that wasn’t true.  I had read enough speculative fiction to know that much of it was as well-crafted as any realistic novel, and it was fun to read, to boot.  But to please my fellow students and my professors, I tried writing realistic fiction anyway.  People seemed to like it, more or less, and I got good grades.  I thought, okay, maybe they’re right.  Maybe this is the best kind of writer to be.

So after graduation, I began sending stories to fiction magazines. That’s when I found out how small the marketplace for realistic fiction really is.  I began to understand why every realistic novel I’d ever read had a sentence in the author’s bio along the lines of, “[Name of author] teaches writing at [name of college].”  The only way these writers could make a living was to teach more students to write realistic fiction.

Over the next few years, I was able to put my unsatisfactory "realistic fiction" past behind me.  But then recently, a poet friend wrote something that made my brain go click (thanks, lucimay!).  What she said was this:  literary fiction is just another genre.  It’s realistic, the characters are introspective, and nothing much happens in terms of plot.  It’s just another formula, neither better nor worse than the formulas that drive mysteries and speculative fiction and all the other genres.  Oh sure, they try to convince everyone that they are the Only Serious Writers.  But they’re wrong:  every genre has literary-level writers, and even those who write realistic fiction can be hacks.

I've felt much better ever since.
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