Regarding Genre by John Warner

Posted by @ 1:00 pm on October 13th, 2011

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.

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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.