You’re Writing What? by Katherine Sanger

College Students

I’m one of those people who feels like I can never learn enough or get enough education. Whenever I can, I attend any workshops or events that are local. I get to as many conventions as possible. And I have gone to school for far too long now.

My last degree was an MFA in Creative Writing.

I selected the program carefully, making sure that it didn’t have dismissive language or didn’t specify that it only wanted ‘literary’ fiction. From research, I knew that many programs looked down on genre writing, and I saw no reason to make myself suffer for two years by writing things I had no interest in.

I’d heard, many times over, that “good writing is good writing.” That genre shouldn’t count in determining if something is good or bad. Writing should stand on its own, regardless of what type of writing it is.

Yet still, during my MFA, when we had a presentation on genre work one day, the “literary” authors giving the talk trashed genre work and mocked it. But then, ten minutes later, they used examples from “Carrie” by Stephen King to show us how passive voice can be used successfully in fiction writing.

Something was clearly wrong.

Later that day, I was in a student-led workshop, and talk turned to the third-term papers that we had to write. They had to be serious research papers, ones that could potentially get published. I brought up the fact that I intended to write one about horror. Another student told me that I couldn’t possibly do that – horror was not “academic enough.” Apparently, the fact that I had actually taken classes in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and gothic fiction while working on a previous Master’s degree didn’t count. Clearly, to him, there was no value to anything that fell into a “genre.”

My frustration level was high during that residency period. High enough that I eventually talked to the director of the program. I asked him flat out if genre fiction was considered “not good enough” for the program, and I told him of the discouragement that I’d encountered so far. He was not happy. He assured me – and re-assured me – that what I had always heard was right: good writing was good writing. He saw no reason why my paper on the use of humor in horror would be rejected by a faculty member, and he wondered if I had misunderstood the presentation. I hadn’t, but it was encouraging that he thought that way.

Throughout my MFA, I ran into the same problem again and again. However, I finally figured it out. The biggest problem was that the people who felt that genre fiction was a lesser form were just not familiar with it. It sold well, and so, in their minds, it was “commercial” fiction and had no value from a literature standpoint. Of course, these same people were all trying to write the next great American novel which, as far as I could tell, would also have to sell well. Didn’t that count as a commercial writing project?

I got lucky during my final semester. My mentor, who happened to be completely unfamiliar with anything genre, was extremely open to learning. When I told her my intent was to write a short story collection of stories that centered around Cthulhu eating people who were staying in a basement apartment over time, she asked me to send her reading material so that she could learn about Lovecraft and Cthulhu. She may not be able to pronounce Cthulhu, but she could read it, and she happily (it seemed to me, anyway), critiqued my stories. She would note where she was unsure if something I had included would be known by my intended audience, but otherwise, she focused on writing. Because good writing is, after all, good writing.

Katherine SangerKatherine Sanger was a Jersey Girl before getting smart and moving to Texas. She’s been published in various e-zines and print, including Baen’s Universe, Black Chaos, Wandering Weeds, Spacesports & Spidersilk, Black Petals, Star*Line, Anotherealm, Lost in the Dark, Bewildering Stories, Aphelion, and RevolutionSF, edited From the Asylum, an e-zine of fiction and poetry, and is the current editor of “Serial Flasher,” a flash fiction e-zine. She’s a member of HWA and SFWA. She taught English for over 10 years at various online and local community and technical colleges. You can check out links to her many, many blogs at or find her at Facebook or twitter.

6 thoughts on “You’re Writing What? by Katherine Sanger”

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights into literary versus genre fiction, and their respective supporters. I encountered some of the same things (albeit to a lesser degree) when I was getting my B.A. in creative writing. I write mostly fantasy, and most of the other students and all of the teachers wrote literary or historical.

    I agree that “good writing is good writing,” and I appreciate a reader or writer who is attentive and open-minded enough to see that. Currently I’m in a writing critique group where I’m submitting installments of a fantasy novel. Half of the group reads (and sometimes writes) fantasy, and the other half has zero experience with fantasy. But I get equally useful feedback from both sides because the non-fantasy folks often can see elements to my writing that the genre-lovers miss because they’re so caught up in the magic and fantastical adventures. Likewise, I try to give objective critiques on their literary fiction or poetry without judging it based on whether I’d pick it for a summer beach read or not.

    Great post!

  2. Wonderful guest blog entry! I had all sorts of emotions while reading it ranging from anger at smug students to relief at the teacher who assured you “good writing is good writing.”

    I find that when I try to be profound, I never am. When I just let go and write for fun, my best writing stares back at me. Setting oneself up to write “The Great American Novel” is daunting (and such a cliche!) I want to say to those students, where did you learn that? And why is genre bad? What guidelines are you blindly obeying? What writer myths are you perpetuating?

    Great post!

  3. Loved your post. Fortunately,I was never placed in your position. I grew up in a lower middle class Southern family and just loved reading genre stuff – mostly sf and fantasy, and horror,and epic fantasy. I took writing classes at UF, where I was fortunate enough to meet and know slightly the late HARRY Crews. He was an original. Idon’t think there was a genre bone in his body, but he wrote great novels about guys eating cars and others that simply can’t be described. I knew I could more easily lift myself up by my shoelaces than write his kind of fiction so I didn’t even try. I wrote what I liked, which resulted in my selling a novel to Doubleday and Robert Hale in England. And later a dozen or so pro short sales in the horror, sf and fantasy genres. Now to the point of this comment. I never wrote or for that matter read more than a handful of mainstream lit books for most of my life. And then in my early 60s I started reading romance, mainstream male/female stories, some erotic some not. And I wound up beginning a mainstream epic of a modern American marriage that blows up in a cataclysmic divorce and family rupture. It’s up to three novels,more than 500,000 words and it has a long way to go. And is nothing like anything I;ve ever written or wanted to write. Whether it’s good or not, it has loyal followers literally around the world. Which only goes to show that what you write, what drives you to write, comes from your gut. You can’t make yourself want to write what’s popular or esteemed or what you SHOULD write. It’s really more like falling in love than anything else. You love what you love and you write what you write, regardless of how much trouble either decision can get you into.

  4. Yes. And…plus ca change… When I was in graduate school — back in the Dark Ages we didn’t have MFA programs, so my PhD was in 16th- & early 17th-century English lit & history — one member of the faculty took to writing about genre fiction. OMG, the scandal, the horror!

    To boil the controversy down, he was told that it was not possible to write a serious piece of academic research on any aspect of any kind of genre fiction. What a fine flap ensued.

    He persisted, though. As it develops, it is possible to write a serious piece of academic research on genre fiction.

  5. Ahh Katherine….I am going through a very similar experience to yours now in my MFA program. Will be blogging about too for Wendy here in January! Like they say, birds of a feather….
    Hope you read my post and find it as interesting as I found yours!

    Happy holidays!

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