The kids know what they like

Any short story can be immediately improved by adding aliens from outer space.

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.

17 Comments

  • Deana Krow says:

    Nice recognition of the talent, taste and creativity of your students. You’re the kind of instructor that motivates her students to love to write.

  • Rosie says:

    I like this post. It makes me and my own aliens feel better about ourselves.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    Great post, man. And I think it’s so valuable that you don’t dismiss their love of tentacles/aliens/monsters/ghosts..etc etc. There’s a lot of energy there that needs to be cultivated slash used for entertainment value. I love the idea of having them vote for their favorite — gives a lot of insight into the course.

    ps where in the hell did you find that picture?? I love it!

    • Leyna Krow says:

      Thanks! The pic I took at the visitors center for the Grand Coulee Dam. Robin and I were carrying the alien with us at the time.

  • Melissa says:

    Cool post, Leyna. As your mom said, good insight into what a good teacher you are. I wonder if a contributing factor toward your students being excited about those kind of stories is that you’re a teacher who’s open-minded and doesn’t lay down a no-genre rule from the get-go. Know what I mean? I don’t know anything about what sort of background your students have, as far as the number of CW or English classes they may have taken and what those were like, but if you were the first professor they had who encouraged the idea that sophisticated literary writing could also be…cool? Is that too reductive? I’m betting that a lot of them have taken some pretty dry English classes in high school and college, so if they show up to your class never having read Bender and that’s new and different and interesting to them, and opens up their thinking about what writing can be/do…that’s really, really cool.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Am I the only person in the world bored shitless by vampires, werewolves, zombies, and yet another post apocalyptic story?

    I never, ever want to read another one of the above.

    • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

      Don’t we have Scooby Doo for in-depth exploration of all that stuff?

      • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

        I’m not talking about Bender or Link. I’m talking about monsters, for Christ’s sake. I’m talking about formula. People are so much more interesting and terrifying than monsters.

        • Melissa says:

          It’d be really disappointing to me if the main result of the zombies-vampires-werewolves craze was that all post-apocalyptic fiction has to be about those things. The Road isn’t about those things. Can’t post-apocalyptic be a separate thing than monsters? Or is that gone forever?

          • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

            Melissa, I think post-apocalyptic can be separate from monsters. But there’s so much PA stuff lately. And monsters. At the moment, I’m far more interested in pre-apocalyptic fiction.

        • Kathryn says:

          “People are so much more interesting and terrifying than monsters.” This. A hundred times, this. Fox news reminds us of this on a daily basis, or perhaps that’s just me.

  • Jess Walter says:

    Ha! Scoobie Doo. Sam’s right: last thing the world needs is another zombie story. Especially one that costs 99 cents:

    http://byliner.com/jess-walter/stories/don-t-eat-cat-excerpt

    But does the world need another detective story? Another coming-of-age story? Another baseball novel? Another lyrical depiction of despair? Another sonnet? The trick is to transcend genre, rework and subvert and remodel. And finally, what young reader (or writer) ever started with Beckett and Borges? Don’t we always start with cowboys or pirates or wizards or Scoobie Doo?

    • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

      I think we start with Pat the Bunny. Then we might graduate to Go Dog Go and other talking animals, then cowboys/pirates/wizards/Scoobie Doo. Then Beckett. Maybe some Faulkner and Woolf. Maybe Coetzee. Then Zombie stories. Lots of them. And a sonnet. Next comes a vampire trilogy, which can also satisfy the lyrical depiction of despair. And finally we arrive at something having to do with Jane Austen and shopping. Or Jane Austen and zombies. They can pretty much come into anything.

      But, really, I think it’s so true that “the trick is to transcend genre, rework and subvert and remodel.” I also wonder, though, if we’ve reached a kind of saturation point with zombies. And I think there’s a false gravity that comes with a lot of post apocalyptic/zombie stories — like, Hey, man, the whole world’s gone and it’s just us and these undead zombies and isn’t that, like, intense? It reminds me a little of the false gravity that arose from those suicide stories we wrote between our Scooby Doo and Beckett phases.

      • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

        Also, I think Don’t Eat Cat does transcend the form — or, like a sonnet, it succeeds in spite of the form. I also think it’s playing with the form and the whole zombie craze, winking at that craze, creating a kind of challenge — like, can I get a story out of all this zombie stuff that isn’t really a zombie story at all? And maybe all the best zombie stories do exactly that, and are much larger than zombie stories as a result. I just wonder, though, if the zombies need a little rest.

  • Jess Walter says:

    At work now on Pat the Zombie (you know … for the kids, the reason I do everything, except drink vodka, which is the one thing I do for me.)

    And here’s a thought: aren’t post-apocalyptic stories just the Westerns of the 1950s and ’60s? Was a genre ever more played out than the cowboy-and-Indian story (on-screen, especially, a fatigue that is similar, I think, to our fatigue with zombies and vampires and post-apocs … I honestly don’t read that many zombie stories, but I now they’re everywhere) … I imagine there are even brilliant, highly-esteemed writers of literary fiction whose top-secret genre-reading weakness is, say, Lonesome Dove. There’s the villain parallel, too. You can’t have your hero go riding against the Comanche … really, there are only two choices in the stock-villain dollar store: Nazis and zombies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *