School · Writing

Are Creative Writing degrees really worth it for aspiring genre writers?

Originally posted Jan 26th, 2015 7:18:40pm @

Today I made a phone call to what used to be my dream school. (Note: the phone call did not deprecate the school from “dream” status; it’s just that another strong contender came out of nowhere recently.) Said school is lovely: gorgeous campus with a delicious climate, awesome arts scene, only a handful of miles from the beach, only two hours or so from home (which is close enough, but also far enough, for comfort). Everybody there is weirdly gorgeous, and there’s no football team, which is a personal plus. The tuition is more than affordable, the Honors College accepted me, and the school has the only public Creative Writing BFA program in my state. It also has something called a Publishing Certificate exclusive to its Creative Writing program, which I’ve never seen anywhere else, and which I have always felt would be an extremely competitive, marketable, and interesting way to prepare myself for a career in publishing.

I made a phone call today to the director of the Creative Writing BFA program to ask a few questions that I hoped would aid my decision-making process. One of the first ones I asked was how the BFA program received genre pieces.

The answer, to my disappointment but not my surprise, was an emphatic “not well.” If I wanted to write genre fiction for class assignments, the amicable-but-firm professor told me, I would meet significant resistance. Thus is the case in most Creative Writing programs, both BFA and MFA, which I did not realize when I first contemplated the idea of majoring in Creative Writing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love literary fiction as much as any book nerd does. I am well aware that I could be happy reading from the wide selection of excellent literary fiction that exists in this world for the rest of my life, without ever picking up Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or Narnia again.

The point is that I don’t want to. I have loved genre fiction for as long as I have been reading. My leisure reading consists almost exclusively of young adult fiction, and within that category, of science fiction and fantasy young adult fiction. My AP Literature teacher told my class at the beginning of this year that she analyzes literary works with us during the day, but stays up late at night reading dime-a-dozen Christian romances. Genre fiction has value, and just because it is genre fiction does not mean it will be devoid of the things that make literary fiction “significant”–characters with depth, well-developed themes, allegorical discussions of social, ideological, and political issues, and beautiful writing are all characteristics of good genre fiction just as they are of good literary fiction.

I am of the opinion that good writing is good writing, and that stories written for entertainment are just as valid as art forms as stories written for literary merit and social criticism.

Someday, I want to write genre fiction, not literary fiction.

So then–what about that BFA program, whose director flat-out told me that the thing I am passionate about is frowned upon inside it?

“Don’t do it,” some people might say. “You don’t need to go to school for writing–do what you love and don’t let anyone tell you what art to make.” Which is a valid point. However, I have several reasons to consider a lit-fic-centric BFA program, anyway.

  1. Practice makes perfect. This year, I am in the middle of my second year-long AP English class. As you can imagine, we do a lot of writing. What you might not imagine is that writing literary analyses about hundred-year-old works of literature improved both my analytical writing and my creative writing in ways I never could have imagined. Taking a writing-intensive class forced me to practice and hone my craft, regardless of whether the subject material was my favorite (although I did enjoy it). Likewise, the amount of writing required to pursue a Creative Writing BFA, regardless of subject matter, would give me huge amounts of motivation, practice, and opportunity to improve my writing.
  2. There are some things that apply to all kinds of creative writing. A curriculum that teaches the development of voice, theme, plot, characterization, language, and setting is beneficial to anyone who wants to write well, regardless of whether one is the principles to a genre-fic high fantasy epic or a lit-fic small-town intrigue. I may be discovering the depth in a suddenly-disabled violinist instead of a heartsick shapeshifting dragon, but I’m still discovering depth and learning how to craft a great story.
  3. Discipline. There is merit in questioning the value in going to school for creative writing at all–plenty of writers have been successful without formal training. For me, the answer to this question is discipline: a quality I am good at applying to academia, but bad at applying to my creative pursuits. I have had near-perfect grades for most of my schooling career; I have turned out thousands of A-grade projects and test scores. Conversely, I have only turned out a handful of short stories, novels, and poems that I feel have value. Going to school for creative writing will apply my proliferate, diligent academic practices to my not-so-disciplined creative pursuits. It will give me a background in sitting my ass down, pumping out a piece of work, and polishing it to the point where is suitable for the public eye (be that eye a teacher’s or a literary agent’s). That discipline will serve me well as a genre writer and as an artist in general.
  4. It will train me for the career I want, regardless of subject matter. Before the eyerolls commence, no, I do not plan to make my living as an instant best-selling author. I want to work in book publishing, specifically in the editing of manuscripts. Formal training in the editing and improvement of pieces is (I feel) an important skill for the career I want. Combined with training in marketing or advertising, or the Publishing Certificate offered by the college I am speaking of, I feel that my choice of higher education paths will make me a competitive and valuable candidate in the publishing market. Or, if I decide that I want to teach, a Creative Writing major (alongside an English major and licensure) will allow me to develop the knowledge and skills to teach a subject I am passionate about to young people, like me, who are passionate about it. In a second vein of teaching, a Creative Writing MFA is the terminal degree in its field, and in procuring it I would be eligible to teach at the collegiate level and perhaps change the way that genre fiction is viewed in academia.
  5. I can always write genre fiction for funsies, outside of assignments. As a Creative Writing major I will be surrounded by talented writers, and I’m sure I will not be the only one interested in genre fiction.

So–will I end up at this school as a Creative Writing major?

A lit-fic-centered BFA program isn’t going to stop me from pursuing my dreams, but only time will tell.

Well–time, and an answer from my other contending school about whether their Creative Writing curriculum is genre-tolerant. And possibly scholarship offers.

Featured image courtesy of Florian Klauer.


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