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On the Net: Storming the Academy
by James Patrick Kelly
 

 

sin

 

Time for a confession: my career as a short story writer began in sin.

As a sophomore in high school, I delighted in my Honors English class. At the end of the year the teacher, Mr. G, announced that our final project was not to be yet another paper, but rather an original short story. I was so excited I could hardly keep my seat as he explained that my first story must be typed and double spaced and not more than ten pages and that I could write about whatever I wanted.

With one exception.

“No science fiction,” said the teacher whom I regarded at the time as a demigod.

Regular consumers of this column have read all too many nostalgic reminiscences of the science fiction I loved as a boy. I was a voracious consumer of all writing, but SF spoke to my soul. And yet, I accepted Mr. G’s prohibition without question. Of course, science fiction was trash. Certainly not literature, barely even writing.

This was in 1967, the year Dangerous Visions <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dangerous_Visions> was published.

If I could go back in time, I would give my timid sophomore self a hard shake and say, “Write a god damn science fiction story, Jim. Take a D, or even an F. You’ll be a better person for it!” But alas, I have to live with my original sin. What I did write was a flaccid story about a kid trying marijuana for the first time—which caused him to commit suicide! I got a well-deserved C and was demoted from Honors English in my junior year.

 

 

beyond prejudice

 

The prejudice in academic circles against genre has been deep-seated and pervasive throughout much of my career. In college, I was pretty much forced to abjure the stuff I had been reading for pleasure as being too fantastic. Never mind those annoying Shakespeare plays in which witches and ghosts helped shape Western Literature’s classic tragedies. Somehow Borges < kirjaso.sci.fi/jlborges.htm > and García Márquez < kirjaso.sci.fi/marquez.htm > and Calvino <italo-calvino.com> got passes into the canon; maybe it was because they were from elsewhere. And by the way, where exactly were they waiting for Godot? I can’t explain this prejudice and I don’t think anyone who harbors it can justify it. No doubt the post-war guardians of the Fortress of Lit perceived science fiction as being perpetrated by an unwashed army of hacks writing to formula, but that hasn’t been the case for seventy years and probably wasn’t even true back in Hugo Gernsback’s day.

Happily, holding a know-nothing opinion of the fantastic genres has been revealed to be intellectually bankrupt. Those who cling to such a view are in retreat, although they are still among us, more is the pity. Writers have been leaping the genre divide for decades. Consider the glittering literary reputations of Margaret Atwood <owtoad.com>, Michael Chabon <michaelchabon.com> , Philip K. Dick <philipkdick.com>, Ursula K. Le Guin <ursulakleguin.com>, Doris Lessing <dorislessing.org>, Jonathan Lethem <jonathanlethem.com>, Kelly Link <kellylink.net>, Thomas Pynchon <hyperarts.com/Pynchon>, J.R.R. Tolkein <tolkiensociety.org>, and Kurt Vonnegut <vonnegut.com> , to rattle off just ten pretty much at random. Lit chauvinists used to claim that these writers aren’t tainted by their genre content because they’re good, but that’s clearly a specious argument, not to be taken seriously.

One sign of the respectability of genre is that science fiction and fantasy studies have taken the Academy by storm in the past twenty years. The first for-credit science fiction courses were introduced in the sixties, and soon scholars around the world got busy exploring space and faery. In 1970 they formed professional organizations on both sides of the Pond: The Science Fiction Research Association <sfra.org> in America and The Science Fiction Foundation <sf-foundation.org> in the U.K. In 1982, The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts <iafa.org> came into being, in part to sponsor the yearly International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. It drew upon the membership of both the SFRA and the SFF as well as students, librarians, futurologists, readers, authors, booksellers, editors, publishers, archivists, and scholars of the fantastic from around the world. Although many of the members of these organizations are academics, you do not have to be one to join and participate. These organizations promote a Big Tent view of the fantastic as it appears in literature, film, and other arts. The SFRA holds an annual conference and publishes a lively journal, the SFRAReview, which offers essays, reviews, and interviews. Issues dating back to 2001 are available online. Members also receive Extrapolation <fp.dl.kent.edu/extrap>, which is available only in print. Founded in 1959 by Thomas D. Clareson, it was the first journal to publish academic work on science fiction and fantasy. The SFF’s flagship publication, Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, is also only available in print; however, its claim to be “the essential critical review of science fiction” is certainly defensible. Another print journal, The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, affiliated with the IAFA, is well worth a subscription.

After they gather together at the ICFA conference in the spring or the SFRA conference in the summer, academics head back to their institutions to give the fantastic arts the critical scrutiny they deserve and to celebrate the achievements of our writers, artists, and filmmakers in the classroom. One university, in particular, has made a major commitment to sf. The Center for the Study of Science Fiction <ku.edu/~sfcenter/index.html> is at the University of Kansas. The driving force behind the Center is James Gunn <ku.edu/~sfcenter/bio.htm>, who has had as complete a career in science fiction as it is possible to have. He has served as President of the Science Fiction Writers of America <SFWA.org> and the SFRA. He has won a Hugo and last year was named an SFWA Grand Master. His Center is busy with many projects centering around the annual Campbell Conference <ku.edu/~sfcenter/campbell-conference.htm>. This includes an Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction <ku.edu/~sfcenter/SFinstitute.htm> and the presentation of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award <ku.edu/~sfcenter/campbell.htm> for the best science fiction novel of the year and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award <ku.edu/~sfcenter/sturgeon.htm> for the best short SF of the year. During the week prior to the Campbell Conference, workshops for aspiring short story and novel writers are held.

 

 

don’t bother

 

Paradoxically, even as the scholars of the fantastic have found their proper place in the Academy, writers who would like to hone their skills at writing science fiction and fantasy at a university are all too often turned away.

So what? We have writers’ workshops of our own and they are among the best in the world at what they do. Clarion <clarion.ucsd.edu> in San Diego, California, Clarion West <clarionwest.org> in Seattle, Washington, and Odyssey <sff.net/odyssey> in Manchester, New Hampshire, are grueling six-week programs of writing and instruction and writing and critiquing and writing, writing, and more writing. They are sometimes referred to as writing boot camps; the description is apt. I know, because I went to Clarion myself and have taught at all three of these programs. And without having seen the table of contents of this issue, I would nonetheless be prepared to bet that a significant fraction of the writers you are about to read are also grads of one or the other of them.

But for those who might also like to teach writing at the university level to supplement their lucrative income selling short stories to ’Mov’s (not!), a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing is a must. And here we find the Mr. G’s of the world are still pretty much in charge.

In January 2005, The Writer <writermag.com> published an article by Linda Formichelli aimed at prospective MFA students. “We spoke with representatives of MFA programs across the country to get the scoop on how you can ace your writing sample, essay, and application, and then we boiled down their advice. Here’s what they had to say . . .” There followed some wise counsel on researching programs, getting recommendations, preparing applications, and the like. And then there was this: “Avoid genre writing samples. Generally, we’d advise applicants to avoid genres (i.e., science fiction, romance, epic poems, etc.) and to choose work that represents their best efforts.”

Gulp. At least this advice is relatively polite, if chilling in its implications that sf could never possibly be anyone’s best work. But the gloves came off in a post which appeared last September on The MFA Blog <creative-writing-mfa-handbook.blogspot.com>: “Sadly, magical realism, science fiction, horror, and fantasy are genres that have been taken over by hacks and pulp writers to such an extent that colleges and universities are generally suspicious of a writer who professes to write such material; in fact they may expect the work to be bad before they even look at it.” Admittedly this calumny was typed by a callow undergrad at Bryn Mawr, but I’m afraid it accurately represents the opinion of the literary bigots who are yet among us.

However, I have been able to ferret out a handful of MFA programs that do welcome writers in the fantastic genres. This list may not be exhaustive, but the criteria I used in assembling it was that someone on the faculty had to be published in our field. Here is what I found: Goddard College <goddard.edu/masterfinearts_writing>, North Carolina State University <english.chass.ncsu.edu/creativewriting/>, Pacific University <pacificu.edu/as/mfa/index.cfm>, Seton Hill University <setonhill.edu/o/index.cfm?PID=13>, University of Southern Maine Stonecoast MFA <usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa>, and Western Connecticut State University <wcsu.edu/writing/mfa>.

A quick note about Seton Hill: it offers an MA in Writing Popular Fiction, not an MFA, although I’m not quite sure what the functional difference is between these two degrees.

 

 

exit

 

Do we have time for one more confession? I am not a disinterested observer of MFA programs, since I am on the Popular Fiction faculty of the Stonecoast MFA. If you had told me ten years ago that I’d be teaching graduate students to write science fiction and fantasy someday, I would have wondered what alternate reality you had wandered in from. The fact is that I don’t have an MFA and, before I saw for myself how these programs helped new writers find their voices, I was not an advocate of this degree. So I had to overcome a prejudice of my own.

It must be acknowledged that most genre writers don’t have MFAs. Many of your favorite authors didn’t go to Clarion, or Odyssey either. They hauled themselves into print by their own bootstraps—the good old-fashioned way.

But if you believe, as I do, that science fiction is important, that it is a literature uniquely suited to define the culture of the twenty-first century, then we need to secure our place in the Academy.

And the thing is, I don’t want Mr. G to have the last word.

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"On the Net: Storming the Academy" By James Patrick Kelly, copyright © 2008, with permission of the author.

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