This last quarter, I had the extremely awesome privilege of teaching an Intro to Creative Writing course here at EWU. For the class, my students completed assignments in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and at the end of the quarter picked one of those pieces to workshop and then revise for their final project. After the last day of workshopping, I asked my students to vote on which of their peers’ pieces was their favorite. I thought they’d balk at this request – they were, as a group, extremely supportive of one another’s work, hesitant to even give criticism without first offering praise, and seemed to have adopted a “we’re all in this together” attitude. I was very very pleased by all this. I thought (and maybe also hoped), when I asked them to pick favorites, they would call me out for trying to insight unnecessary competition among them. They would accuse me of destroying their writerly comradely. They would refuse to take part in such a charade.
(If I didn’t want them to feel competitive, why did I ask them to vote in the first place? Well, I guess because there’s this balance in the classroom between doing what’s helpful/beneficial/education and doing what’s entertaining/attention grabbing. Sometimes I err toward the latter.)
This, however, was not the case. Instead, they eagerly tore out scraps of notebook paper and cast their anonymous ballots. They wanted to know what they’d get if they won. Nothing wrong with a little healthy competition after all, I guess.
Anyway, my students had workshopped a wide variety of pieces in terms of topic, style, tone, POV, etc., but when I tallied the votes, the winners were all of a certain type of writing. First off, they were all fiction pieces. From one workshop group, the favorite was a story about a guy who, while exploring the morgue of a condemned hospital, gets attacked by amorphous monsters. From the other workshop group, it was a tie between a story about a dead man who is in love with a necromancer and a story about a 20-something slacker who befriends a demon.
So, even though they didn’t shy away from writing realism, it turns out what my students wanted to read most were stories with magical elements. Tyler and Seth have both recently written about the appeal (and challenges) of writing fiction with a fantastical bent. For so long, realism has reigned supreme in the world of literary fiction, and stories outside of that often get labeled as “genre writing” and are dismissed as somehow less-than.
And I think it would be easy to do just that with my students’ tastes. With a couple exceptions, the bulk of my class were freshmen and sophomores. So I could see how it would be tempting to write off a roomful of kids in their late teens when it comes to matters of aesthetics. What do they know? They’re just kids. They’re the ones who make Twilight popular. And zombies. All those dumb kids like are vampires and zombies.
Except that’s totally not true at all. I’ve found my students to be very good readers with good taste. When talking in class about professional, published work, they knew what they liked and were able to articulate why they liked it. They talked about the same stuff we grad students talk about as being most important in stories – fully developed characters, lots of energy, etc. They just happen to overwhelmingly prefer Aimee Bender to Ernest Hemingway.
I don’t know why, but the kids like the weird stuff. They like the magical, the fantastical, the otherworldly, the bizarre. I’m sure there are whole teams of social scientists and American culture theorists working around the clock to figure out how and why this shift away from realism is occurring. I don’t really have a hypothesis of my own. But it’s clear that Tyler isn’t the only guy out there who prefers his fiction with a side of monsters.
It’s true that popular culture has taken a turn toward the magical. Twilight, Harry Potter, the whole zombie thing, the whole apocalypse thing – the popularity of this stuff is indicative of something. And I was warned before the quarter started that all my students were going to write was “genre,” that I should probably put something in my syllabus discouraging “genre writing.” I didn’t. After all, creative writing is something people do (or should do) first and foremost for themselves. So why restrict what they write about? I don’t like sci-fi or fantasy much myself, but I figured if my students wanted to write about dragons and creatures from outer space, I could live with that. It’s their thing, why not just let them do it? But by the end of the quarter, I’d only received one piece that read to me as genre-y. The rest of their work, including the winners of the workshop vote, felt literary, or at least edging toward literary. All the pieces with monsters, necromancers, demons, soldiers who live forever, kids who can fly, robot wolves, more monsters, etc., utilized elements of craft that make good stories good, regardless of what world they take place in.
So I guess my point is, don’t worry about the kids. They like writing that’s weird. But they also still, first and foremost, like writing that’s good.