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Are Colleges Friendly to Fantasy Writers? It’s Complicated

29 June 2019

From Wired:

In an increasingly competitive publishing environment, more and more fantasy and science fiction writers are going back to school to get an MFA in creative writing. College writing classes have traditionally been hostile to fantasy and sci-fi, but author Chandler Klang Smith says that’s no longer the case.

“I definitely don’t think the landscape out there is hostile toward speculative writing,” Smith says in Episode 365 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “If anything I think it’s seen as being kind of exciting and sexy and new, which is something these programs want.”

But science fiction author John Kessel, who helped found the creative writing MFA program at North Carolina State University, says it really depends on the type of speculative fiction. Slipstream and magical realism may have acquired a certain cachet, but epic fantasy and space opera definitely haven’t.

“The more it seems like traditional science fiction, the less comfortable programs will be with it,” he says. “Basically if the story is set in the present and has some really odd thing in it, then I think you won’t raise as many eyebrows. But I think that traditional science fiction—anything that resembles Star Wars or Star Trek, or even Philip K. Dick—I think some places would look a little sideways at it.”

That uncertainty can put aspiring fantasy and science fiction writers in a tough spot, as writer Steph Grossmandiscovered when she was applying to MFA programs. “As an applicant—and even though I did a ton of research—it’s really hard to find which schools are going to be accepting of it and which schools aren’t,” she says. “The majority of them will be accepting of some aspect of it—especially if you’re writing things in the slipstream genre—but besides Sarah Lawrence College and Stonecoast, when I was looking, most of the schools don’t really touch on whether they’re accepting of it or not.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley warns that writing fantasy and science fiction requires specialized skills and knowledge that most MFA programs simply aren’t equipped to teach.

“I would say that if you’re writing epic fantasy or sword and sorcery or space opera and things like that, I think you’d probably be much happier going to Clarion or Odyssey, these six week summer workshops where you’re going to be surrounded by more hardcore science fiction and fantasy fans,” he says. “And definitely do your research. Don’t just apply to your local MFA program and expect that you’re going to get helpful feedback on work like that.”

Link to the rest at Wired

Fantasy/SciFi

16 Comments to “Are Colleges Friendly to Fantasy Writers? It’s Complicated”

  1. I graduated from Purdue with a BA in History and Creative Writing in 1998, and I can tell you THAT program was openly hostile to epic fantasy. I was able to get away with a tiny bit of magical realism, but one of my professors actually told me that fantasy was “polluting my lexicon” and I couldn’t always “pawn things off on an elf.”

    Honestly, I learned more about story structure in Mary Robinette Kowal’s 3-day Short Story Intensive than I did in 4 years of writing classes at Purdue.

  2. Basically if the story is set in the present and has some really odd thing in it, then I think you won’t raise as many eyebrows

    I hate those subgenres of fantasy and sci-fi, so I feel the students’ pain. I’m not sure there’s a point to getting an MFA in fiction, but you could get one at Columbia College in Chicago. Their fiction program when I went there (don’t know about now) had working writers, one of whom wrote science fiction and fantasy. She taught science fiction, too. She didn’t write slipstream or magical realism, but fantasy with sorcerers and their demon servants, and sci-fi with space ships with aliens. The fun stuff.

    When one student suggested he might submit his WIP novel to Baen when he finished it, our teacher advised us that Baen was welcoming to newer writers. Her having such knowledge was useful. If I were one of these MFA kids, I’d just look for a program that had working novelists, so they could get business and craft advice. If the teachers aren’t working writers, then the students are just going to be wasting their time. I’d be curious if the teachers in these programs are advising students on the business of writing, per Kris Rusch’s post.

    warns that writing fantasy and science fiction requires specialized skills and knowledge that most MFA programs simply aren’t equipped to teach.

    Eh, you have an excellent foundation if you just have a solid liberal arts education.** If you went to a decent K-12 school system you’re probably good. If not, brush up: History, astronomy, biology, economics, basic physics, all that stuff. After that, read your canons, including folklore and mythology.

    **Some stories I’ve beta read strongly indicate that the writer(s) don’t have such an education. The story and plots suffer on account of it.

  3. “Eh, you have an excellent foundation if you just have a solid liberal arts education.** If you went to a decent K-12 school system you’re probably good. If not, brush up: History, astronomy, biology, economics, basic physics, all that stuff. After that, read your canons, including folklore and mythology.”

    Absolutely to the latter, meh to the first.

    Most of the great SF writers came from the STEM world and/or the school of hard knocks. A few from the history/archaeology fields.

    Lots of adequate ones come hampered with litfic expectations.

    Job one in the genres is “entertain me”.

    • Mmmm, just for the sheer heck of it, take up beta reading as a hobby. Trust me, you’ll see that “You, too, can prevent bad science fiction” /Smokey the Bear voice.

      The stories I’m reading, the writers don’t have a basic liberal arts foundation. And I really just mean at the K-12 level, not college. I typically have to correct the science stuff, and I never formally went past the college 101 level. The errors are that basic, but they screw up the story the writer is trying to tell. The same is the case with historical or economic factors. Trade routes? Natural resources? Order of Precedence in the nobility? “Castle” and “palace” aren’t interchangeable? The writers don’t know this.

      There’s a value in at least knowing where to begin doing the research. In the stories I’m reading, the writers truly don’t know that there’s a difference between a theory and a hypothesis, which is literally elementary school territory, not even rocket science.

      Their scientist characters become implausible by the second paragraph, and the premises of the stories collapse by page one. There’s no entertainment because I’m thinking, “No. That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.” And that’s before we even get to the writers’ lack of familiarity with the tropes and conventions of sci-fi, e.g., not knowing the difference in usage of wormholes vs. FTL for space travel.

      • Beta reader?
        Sorry. I don’t do facepalms…
        Don’t have the time or stomach for it.

        (I’d send them all to google/bing/whatever. Aka, DO.YOUR.HOMEWORK.)

    • Job one in the genres is “entertain me”.

      Exactly so.

  4. That was an unremarkably fact-free article. No facts underlying the writer’s assertion that more and more science-fiction and fantasy writers are applying to MFA programs. Just the opinions of a couple of writers, one of whom is promoting his podcast through Wired.

    The idea of going into five-figure debt to get an MFA stamp on your resume in hopes of a Tor publishing contract is so ludicrous that it shouldn’t be seriously considered.

    • Casting back through my (admittedly imperfect) mind, I can only recall two decent and successful writers with an advanced literary degree. (Definitely imperfect, as it was remembering John Lange, aka John Norman, as an English professor).

      The first is John Morressy, my college English Lit professor. Quite readable, although a bit “literary” – and successful for certain values of success (certainly not enough to quit his day job).

      The second is Jack Williamson, who did not have a Masters – he had a Doctorate. And, although he taught science fiction / fantasy writing for many years, Doctor Williamson had a rather jaundiced view of the intrusion by the academy into the genre.

      (Reminder to self: look into replacing my Legion of Space collection, lost in a cross-country move lo, these many years ago.)

      • Williamson is an interesting one.
        A very good writer that “wrote to market” in his own way. When the market (read: editors) wanted space opera, he wrote space opera. And some of the best in LEGION OF SPACE. When the market wanted idea fiction, he complied with HUMANOIDS and SEETEE. When it wanted horror, he gave us DARKER THAN YOU THINK.
        He really understood the genre.

        His signature quite:

        “I am opposed, however, to literary tricks that tend towards obscurity or artificial difficulty, though I can see arguments for that kind of approach. My own experience as a teacher of writing confirms my sense that new authors with artistic ambitions may find themselves scorning too many of the old forms and patterns simply because they blindly associate them with hack work. The point is that these patterns and structures form the basic vocabulary through which all SF writers must speak. That’s one reason I’m not completely sympathetic with contemporary writers like Silverberg and Chip Delany and Tom Disch, who are clearly aiming to get themselves recognized as “serious” or mainstream authors. ”

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Williamson

        • Shades of Walter Campbell, aka Stanley Vestal. His “day job” was teaching English at the University of Oklahoma, where he scandalized the rest of the department by teaching a non-fiction writing class. In order to pass the class, you had to sell an article to a magazine or journal. In the 1920s-30s. And his students did quite well. The horror, the horror!

          As Stanley Vestal, he wrote popular histories of the American west that are still in print. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=VE006

      • Stephen R. Donaldson has an M.A. in English. (M.F.A. programs were not a widespread thing at the time.) When he wrote The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, the idea of having his protagonist reject the fantasy world as a dream came partly from the extreme hostility to fantasy that Donaldson found in his M.A. program.

        Of course, J.R.R.T. had an M.A. and did pretty well, but that was in philology, not literature.

      • I believe Brandon Sanderson earned an M.F.A. in creative writing. I assume he thinks writing classes are useful, because he teaches them. However, he also said that the extra years of grad school were useful for keeping his parents from wondering when he was going to get a real job.

        https://writingexcuses.com/2009/02/16/writing-excuses-season-2-episode-19-do-creative-writing-classes-help/

  5. A MFA is only valuable if you intend to teach writing at a university or community college, or if you write literary fiction and can find a MFA program that’s currently “fashionable” to NY publishers. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time and money. Plus, you’ll have to unlearn all the crap they will teach you about the use of language, lack of plot, and character types which is totally different from most popular fiction.

    These days, you can find reasonably priced online writing courses taught by writers who write what you write. That’s where you should start. Later, if you write sf or fantasy you can try to get into Clarion Writers School which may get you a bit of a leg up if you are aiming toward NY traditional publishers.

  6. Williamson is an interesting one.
    A very good writer that “wrote to market” in his own way. When the market (read: editors) wanted space opera, he wrote space opera. And some of the best in LEGION OF SPACE. When the market wanted idea fiction, he complied with HUMANOIDS and SEETEE. When it wanted horror, he gave us DARKER THAN YOU THINK.
    He really understood the genre and always satisfied.

    His signature quote:

    “I am opposed, however, to literary tricks that tend towards obscurity or artificial difficulty, though I can see arguments for that kind of approach. My own experience as a teacher of writing confirms my sense that new authors with artistic ambitions may find themselves scorning too many of the old forms and patterns simply because they blindly associate them with hack work. The point is that these patterns and structures form the basic vocabulary through which all SF writers must speak. That’s one reason I’m not completely sympathetic with contemporary writers like Silverberg and Chip Delany and Tom Disch, who are clearly aiming to get themselves recognized as “serious” or mainstream authors. ”

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Williamson

  7. Another name for the list: Phillip Klass (aka William Tenn). I’ve no idea whether he had an advanced literary degree but he taught English and comparative literature at Penn State University for 22 years. I suspect that his courses were friendly – and useful – to SF/fantasy writers (and genre fiction writers in general) at a time when most universities would have been unwelcoming at best and more typically hostile.

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