October 13th, 2011 / 1:00 pm
Craft Notes

Regarding Genre by John Warner

Traditionally, the approach to genre in the university-based creative writing classroom has been to ban it outright, arguing that as long as we’re pursuing a degree in a traditional academic setting, we should be in the literature business, which is obviously something different from genre writing.


We declare fantasy off limits, but magic realism is okay. Kelly Link is fine, but Ursula K. LeGuin only sometimes. Science fiction is no good, unless its Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick, or some of Ray Bradbury, in which case, right on! Everyone loves Lord of the Rings, or now, Game of Thrones, but don’t do that. Why? Because.

Harry Potter? Probably not. Chronicles of Narnia? You’re good. Twilight? Don’t make me laugh.

These restrictions never felt comfortable to me, particularly when I used to enforce them in my own classroom while devouring Patricia Highsmith novels at night. The core of my teaching philosophy, regardless of subject, is “freedom.” Students learn more when they’re given the latitude to explore the material in the ways they find most interesting and compelling. This has certainly been my experience in my own learning.

Additionally, most of the previous experience an introductory-level college student has with narrative likely comes from television, film, or video games, all of which rely firmly on genre conventions. Literary fiction is a distant contender at best, and often viewed as that dead and embalmed thing they used to try to “figure out” in English class, not something to aspire to. To deny them any access to the storytelling language and forms they may already know is a recipe for some pretty boring-ass stories.

On the other hand, throwing open the doors to any and all genres leaves very little common ground on which to discuss the effects (be they successful or not) of a particular narrative. While the traditional craft discussion of character, voice, point of view, atmosphere, etc… tends to privilege a fairly narrow slice of realism, at least it’s something to talk about. Not having some kind of concern for what the imaginative work might be trying to do, and how it tries to do it punts entirely on questions of aesthetics, one of the thorny concepts any writer must battle as part of their education and development.

In protest against my previous, reactionary self, I spent one semester declaring “anything goes” when it came to genre. The results were predictably unsatisfactory for everyone. While the story of R2D2 and C-3PO as a domestically-partnered gay droid couple on Tatooine has its pleasures, I’m not sure we advanced the discussion of creative writing even a fraction of a parsec.

I wanted my students to write “literature,” but I also wanted to make sure my definition was sufficiently broad. In trying to define literature in a way that included post-apocalyptic settings (like in The Road) or the fantastic (Chris Adrian, Judy Budnitz, Aimee Bender, Kevin Brockmeier), I only created more confusion and frustration.

My definition soon resembled Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it,” except that my students couldn’t see it.

Eventually, in a kind of desperation, I turned to metaphor. Maybe I could explain what we’re looking for in writing, by explaining how it works in music?

I now tell my students that yes, they may write any kind of story they like, as long as they aim for “non-disposable” writing. The next question is, naturally, “what the hell do you mean by ‘non-disposable’ writing?”

To answer that question, I use a series of analogies I share in my syllabus:

Analogy 1. Playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero is great fun, but it is only an imitation of making music, the equivalent of taking a great book off the shelves and retyping it, not much different from lip-synching in front of the mirror with a hairbrush for a microphone. Clearly, the act of playing Rock Band or retyping someone else’s work is disposable.

Analogy 2. I went to high school with a guy named Rick Hubbins. Rick Hubbins played guitar, practiced every single day and one day he came to school and said he could play the solo from Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile’” note for note. “Bullshit, Rick Hubbins,” we said. “Hendrix was a genius. You are a doofus. There’s no way you could play Hendrix.”

But Rick Hubbins said, “I can play Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile’, I can.”

The challenge joined, we gathered in Rick Hubbins’s basement seated atop the washer and dryer and some old paint cans and forgotten steamer trunks and watched him twist the knobs on his 50-watt Marshall amp and crack his knuckles over the fretboard and then we listened to him play “Voodoo Chile’” note for note. I mean it sounded exactly like Jimi Hendrix. Exactly.

“Do that again,” we said. And he did, exactly like the first time.

“Play something else,” we said, in awe of this genius before us.

He couldn’t. He’d learned how to play the solo by listening to the original and looking at tablature, sheet music that tells you what fret and string to play when. Disappointed, we watched him play “Voodoo Chile’” a couple of more times with decreasing amounts of pleasure, and then we filed up the basement stairs to go do something more interesting and never gave Rick Hubbins another thought. In the end, Rick Hubbins was a mimic, not a guitar player or musician. He hadn’t added anything into the mix. In writing, this is the equivalent to something like fan fiction or genre work that merely repeats or recycles the elements of the genre in ways we’ve seen many times before. Once again, it is work that is disposable. Enjoyable, perhaps, but disposable. If this sort of writing shows up in the workshop, there’s very little for us to discuss other than how it compares to and falls short of the original. By definition and intent, it is a “failure.” For this reason, this sort of writing is discouraged in the workshop and often receives a lower grade, not because it could be labeled as “genre,” but because it is unoriginal and dull.

Analogy 3. Summers while I was in college, my friends and I would go out once or twice a month to see a Grateful Dead cover band, The Freddie Jones Band. At the time, the Freddie Jones Band exclusively played Grateful Dead songs or songs that the Grateful Dead covered. They didn’t play them note for note because there is no such thing as a note-for-note Grateful Dead song, but they attempted to sound very much like The Grateful Dead, to recreate the experience of seeing the Grateful Dead inside a bar that held maybe 150 people and sold pitchers of beer for $3. If you drank enough beer and closed your eyes, you almost might think you were listening to The Dead, but it was always a little different, a little original, something that maybe wasn’t going to endure for all time, but something that wasn’t disposable. That’s why we went month after month. (Or it may have been the $3 pitchers of beer.) I actually encourage the writing equivalent of this in the workshop. Maybe you are in the thrall of a particular writer or style or school of writing. Do your best to write an “original” version of that kind of work and you very well might have something interesting on your hands. You are not copying, or pretending, but working within a particular tradition. (Eventually, the Freddy Jones Band went on to record some original music and even had a minor hit, “In a Daydream.”)

Analogy 4. Stevie Ray Vaughan was the greatest guitar player I’ve ever seen in person. He primarily played original music, but Stevie Ray also liked to cover Jimi Hendrix songs (including “Voodoo Chile’”) and while Stevie Ray’s playing was reminiscent of Jimi, if you listened to each, you could easily tell them apart. Stevie Ray was influenced by Jimi, but he was a musical artist in his own right, the sum of his influences, the largest of which was Jimi Hendrix. If we translate this into the world of writing, someone who is reminiscent of those that came before them, but is also definitely themselves, then we are most definitely in the “non-disposable” territory. Now, Stevie Ray Vaughan was no Jimi Hendrix as an artist, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be plenty glad he was around. We don’t need to aspire to a place on the Mt. Rushmore of our given field. We just have to try to do the best we can.

When you’re writing, or after you have written your story, ask yourself if you are in there somewhere. If you have done something more than just pushed the colored buttons at the right time or learned someone else’s solo, you’re probably on the right track.

However, let’s not confuse putting something of yourself in there with merely “adding a twist.” Kid Rock’s song, “All Summer Long,” is not Kid Rock putting himself into his music. It is him smashing the  “Werewolves of London” verse with the “Sweet Home Alabama,” chorus. To the extent that that song is any good we have Warren Zevon and Lynyrd Skynyrd to thank, not Mr. Rock.

*   *   *

Don’t get me wrong, even after sharing these analogies, my students often look as confused as before, perhaps even more so, but what we now have is a framework for discussing narrative. We can discuss the differences between works that are wholly derivative and those that are non-disposable, and those that might fall somewhere in-between, how Kid Rock is a hack, but Girl Talk is genius.

When a story ripped from CSI shows up in the workshop (as it almost inevitably does), rather than being praised for its fidelity to the form, we’re able to open up the discussion to questions of narrative and structure and how episodic television doesn’t translate well into prose fiction. Learning commences. When that epic World of Warcraft battle is transcribed onto the page, we thrash out the necessity of investment in characters and their fates to balance all that sword-wielding and spell-casting so we have a compelling reason to keep reading.

We have a common goal (non-disposability) that is flexible enough to accommodate any range of subjects or interests. If a student wants to write romance, we can discuss how to make the romance indelible instead of predictable, perhaps via an unconventional voice or point of view. Stabs at twist endings turn into discussions of structure, what has to happen to make the twist satisfy, rather than frustrate.

I don’t know that the stories produced under these guidelines are objectively “better” than any other workshop, but what I have experienced is a greater enthusiasm for the task of writing among the students, and a greater enthusiasm for the task of reading their stories in myself. The discussion also demonstrates deeper engagement with the critical process, an enthusiasm that carries well beyond the confines of my classroom.

“Empowerment” is a buzzword when it comes to students, but that’s what I see, the belief that they can teach themselves to be better writers who will leave a mark on their readers. If they’re working towards that, I don’t much care what they’re writing about.


John Warner is the author of the recently released novel, The Funny Man. Currently, he is not teaching creative writing, though he has done so in the past.


  1. Christopher Lirette

      I have similar inclinations when I teach Intro to Creative Writing. We have exercises where we work on “literary” fiction, but in one exercise, I divide the class into different genres such as sci fi, romance, horror, whatever. It’s really their choice. Then they research and present on each genre and we discuss archetypes and cliches. Ultimately, I let the students outside of a particular genre group decide what genre elements that group cannot use in their stories. Everyone has a lot of fun and the stories tend to be interesting. 

      The students write in a mode that’s familiar to them, but are forced to accommodate required limitations to that form. And not only that, it gives them practice with plot structure and pacing. Before I did this exercise, I’d get (sometimes) interesting voices that did nothing or characters that went nowhere or ten pages of happiness. Because the genres have built-in conflicts, the new stories have conflicts, the characters are forced to go through something. Then later, when the students aren’t required to write in genre, they have a better understanding of how to make things happen to their characters–I think. This semester at least, the stories are more engaging.

  2. Michael Filippone

      Hey John, thanks for sharing this. I think it is a good way to challenge the non-genre conventions of academia. Non-disposable makes sense.

  3. John Warner

      If I ever get some kind of curricular power, I’ve thought about teaching a entire creative writing class along the lines of what you describe here, where students MUST write genre stories. I actually think they’d learn a lot about storytelling that would serve them well as they find the content and stories that are most urgent to them

  4. John Warner

      Glad you liked it. For me, it’s all about charting a path I’m comfortable with. I never felt good about saying no genre stories when there’s all kinds of genre works that I not only like, but are as “worthy” as any other kind of literature.

  5. Roxane

      I would be interested in teaching such a class too. I have a couple students in my current workshop who wrote genre stories for their first stories, and it was a great opportunity for both the students and their peers to talk about those stories.

  6. John Minichillo

      I’ve gone both ways with genre, but inevitably it will be handed in, so we spend A LOT of time talking about genre. I try to make it clear that each has flaws literary might not (as being about discovery, as character-centric and/ or logo centric) but then if you can do that too…sometimes there’s something genre-like that surprises, often it falls short of the expectations within the genre. And always they are trickier to workshop. A zombie story comes in, basically a film genre that relies on the camera and effects, and the writer loves zombies but a fair critique is “I don’t nor would I ever read a zombie story.” Or: “I might watch this if it came on TV on a Saturday night but I’m not shelling out for the paperback.” and then we try to discuss it within the conventions of the genre, which means first identifying the
      conventions, which generally a handful will be familiar with. So we press on.

      But most of these genres are novelistic, which is it’s own set of problems for the workshop. We often hear, “I wanted X, but probably you give that in a later chapter.” And the writer is thinking, “Yes, X is definitely covered in chapter seven.” So the reader is expressing dissatisfaction with the chapter but the writer doesn’t really take it seriously enough because of what was withheld.

      My sense is that, for writers in workshops, handing in genre work is about what is familiar. And inevitably, after a lukewarm workshopping of their genre work they’ll announce, “this one is something different for me,” and they’ll turn in something literary that shows great promise. And that’s what it’s supposed to be about, right?

      So you can hand in whatever you want, but we’ll be honest with you about it. If we think Harry Potter is kind of stupid, and that’s what your doing, we’ll be kind about it, but also tell you what you wrote was in the realm of kind of stupid. But then maybe one day you’ll get good at and make more money than any of us, and good for you. If that’s what you like, what you want to do, then show all of us snobs in the academy. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised or too down about our snobbish reading tastes, because it’s a slice of something larger – genre readers or not, readers are picky as hell.

  7. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      when reading/writing genre fiction (especially sci-fi) in a workshop setting, it feels like there’s never enough time.
      for instance, a classmate wrote a sci-fi piece. the world they created was different from the one we claim to know. the same laws of physics didn’t apply. it took forever to figure out the way this world was supposed to operate. it was another layer of sludge that we as readers had to wade through in order to critique the work. i’m not saying this wasn’t a direct result of bad writing, but. the extra layers–the odd world the author created–overshadowed the lessons the teacher was trying to teach. here it was characters should drive the narrative. good writing is good writing. whatever the genre. right. but in a workshop setting, where we all need to get in and get out, genre fiction tends to become a distraction no one has the time work through. sad it is, but that’s the way it is. by limiting students to realism, teachers are attempting, in my opinion, to keep it economical for everyone involved. and i feel there is nothing wrong with learning how to write realism. when i was twenty i would have killed myself for thinking this. 

      and the freddy jones band was the first concert i ever went to. for real.

  8. Nick Mamatas

      I’m against barring genre stories from workshops and other types of classes, of course, but there is one level where it makes sense—an instructor unfamiliar with a genre won’t know how to properly critique an example of the genre. This is especially deadly with something like SF or fantasy. The sort of stories one read as a kid are not necessarily current anymore.

  9. andrew

      i like how you got the two Ks to line up vertically

  10. JScap

      Such great ideas.  Thanks for sharing these thoughts, John and Christopher.  Although I haven’t tried what you’re talking about here, I always try to include a handful of pieces that are either a.) very consciously close to genre or b.) “arguably” genre (as in, we can have a fruitful argument about whether they’re genre or not, about how drawing the line does or doesn’t matter). 

      It’s lots of fun to collectively list the conventions on the board, to talk about how the writer engages them.  And as you note, the takeaway lesson for me and my students is usually, “Look, things can HAPPEN in fiction!”

      Saying that can sometimes give my students the permission they need to bravely explore action.  (And it’s nice to be reminded, myself.)

  11. sm

      So useful, thank you! I mean, I identify with this in the extreme, right down to reading Highsmith at night. I’ve been struggling with a way to invite/disinvite genre into the workshop in the exact ways you’re talking about. 

  12. Joe Bunting

      Good article. What about literature that is informed by genre? Which is what Mr. Lirette might be getting at, I think. I think of Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx who wrote sort-of Westerns that were informed by the genre but went beyond them.

  13. michael

      Cracks me up how workshops that are ostensibly “how to write fiction” are actually “how not to write genre fiction.” If one of my students were to write a decent genre story, I’d shit a brick of happiness, because what it would mean would be that the student had actually mastered a form, which is more than I can say for a whole lot of literary fiction writers. What usually happens is a student writes something BAD, and the teacher labels it GENRE, when the student’s fiction actually fails even as genre fiction (usually by failing to make me want to turn to the next page).

      An adept genre writer is more equipped to write something literary than a writer who only sees ‘literary’ writing as worthy of study, because literary fiction is none other than hackneyed fiction seen through a glass darkly. The difference between a literary description of someone’s eyes and a genre description of same is that a literary description doesn’t use the words ‘piercing’ or ‘limpid.’ You’re still talking about eyeballs.

      Sorry to break it to you dudes, but Joyce’s “Araby” is just romance novel drama without the romance novel plot. It’s not disturbing because it’s not a kitty, it’s disturbing because it’s a Bonsai Kitty (DO NOT GOOGLE THIS IF YOU ARE SQUEAMISH).

      Your Jimi Hendrix analogy strikes me as sort of silly, because OODLES of great guitarists got their start playing the solos they admired note for note (pretty much every guitarist without a jazz/classical background got started this way). Yeah, the kid wasn’t playing ‘literary guitar’ back then, but I’d be shocked if he isn’t a pretty damn good guitarist now. If he gave it up before becoming good, it’s probably because you guys were assholes to him when he played Voodoo Chile for you. But he was well on his way.

      All this is just to say that genre fiction is not a bad thing to learn, and that I’d argue that every writer capable of writing good literary fiction is also capable of writing genre fiction—whether they arrived at that ability by studying genre conventions directly or by going the roundabout way of intuiting genre conventions through seeing those conventions subverted/corrupted over and over in literary fiction. Most students do not have remotely enough life perspective/self-awareness to write consistently decent fiction, so you might as well teach them the forms they need to have mastered to begin to write ‘literature.’

      P.S. A parsec is 19 trillion miles. Just FYI.

      P.P.S. For the record, I admire the thought and energy you’re putting into this, and I appreciate your willingness to discuss it on an open forum where semianonymous dudes like me can give you a hard time about the way you used the word ‘parsec.’

  14. Lilzed

      I like thinking about genre. I think genres exist to satisfy emotional needs. All good stories do this. With genre, the promise is more explicit. Perhaps this approach to discussing fiction would enliven the whole class.

  15. barry

      i dont know, i mean, this article doesnt address, for me, what i consider to be the fundamental shortcoming of writing workshops. that not once was it even mentioned here that the primary function of a writing workshop should be to identify the authors intentions and help them achieve their goal. so many times, in workshops, people are so busy “fixing mistakes” or telling people “how it should be done” or how such and such a writer does it or how they themselves would do it. or what you call 

      “We can discuss the differences between works that are wholly derivative and those that are non-disposable, and those that might fall somewhere in-between, how Kid Rock is a hack, but Girl Talk is genius.”

      what seemed to be lacking for me in your discussion of the gay star wars story, is trying to identify what the reader hoped to accomplish. people dont do this because they are so busy judging, “is this art, isnt this art” or “is this shit” or “does this contain literary merit” blah blah blah, all questions and discussions, including the one you focuses on is bullshit. its whats wrong with the system. 

      when will people just look at a piece of writing for what it is, no labels, no prejudice, no bs value based judgements, and just help the writer get down on paper whats in their head, help them say what they want to say and how they want to say it without judging whether or not you think its shit. our own opinions are just that. our own opinions. nothing more, nothing less. 

  16. John Warner

      While I definitely think that the workshop needs to direct itself towards being helpful to the writer (as opposed to trying to tug the story toward’s the reader’s aesthetic), my experience as a writer and a reader and a teacher is that it isn’t really the reader’s job to suss out the author’s intentions.

      The reader’s most valuable job is to provide an honest, well-articulated response that reflects their experience of reading the story. I think it’s then the author’s job to take this feedback and either use it or reject it as they try to get the story closer to their intentions.

      The discussions I encourage in my classes isn’t “is it art,” or “is it not art,” but instead focuses on the reader’s response to the story as they were reading it. Only after that do we get into discussions of where that response might be rooted.

      And indeed, opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got one, and they often stink.

  17. John Warner

      I’ll often have to cop to some degree of ignorance for certain genres in workshop, particularly fantasy, because I’m not current at all, but I also think that serves a kind of pedagogical purpose in that I signal to the students that they’re also capable in making their own aesthetic judgments where they have confidence in their knowledge. I’ve often left class with a reading list generated by my students.

  18. John Warner

      I have indeed shit bricks of happiness when students turn in good genre stories. They smelled like rainbows.

      And that’s a good point about the Hendrix copying analogy. I might be blinded by my real-world knowledge of this guy and how he never did get beyond that song. He never seemed to develop an interest in the instrument overall, but it’s entirely possible that was a particular quirk to this guy. I think I need an addendum to that analogy on how that initial slavish copying can be a good starting point, but can never be the end.