Magic (might be) where you find it


I have been ruminating about Lynnell Edwards’ question on the Red Hen Press blog, and wanted to post my thoughts here.

I don’t have a policy on vampires. I have read beautiful, strong, amazing prose in a variety of genres, including “literary realism.” I haven’t read Twilight or Harry Potter, but I have read Lord of the Rings. And though I don’t want to compare a television show to a novel, I do love “Buffy,” because the writing is excellent, the characters rich and complicated, and the issues they deal with (ethical, moral, metaphysical) are important and paradoxically what I would consider “real.” These are some of the same characteristics I would look for in a good novel or story.

Different genres have different sets of expectations from the readers, and publishers. It can be hard to run a workshop or a class with a mix of genres–if only because other writers, leaders or teachers aren’t necessarily familiar with all genres. That can make things tricky, especially when students are just learning how to operate within a workshop setting.

One problem is that writing students (and readers in general) may be reacting to having been fed more visual media or media tie-in books than original books within the fantasy and science fiction genres. But as small children, most of us read plenty of fantastical things. Dr. Seuss, Harold and the Purple Crayon are a couple things that come to mind. It makes me sad that so many adult readers lose access to what is magical in literature by way of shedding childhood and heading into the “real world.”

Ursula LeGuin has some interesting things to say about the genre silos, and the “literary” biases against fantasy. If this problem interests you, check out her essay collection, Cheek By Jowl. I find a lot of bias in academe against work that is other than literary realism. Magical realism is acceptable, usually, and a few other lucky or pushy writers who have slipped with their novels into the list of acceptable, despite the fact that they write science fiction. I am thinking of Margaret Atwood. She has protested long and loudly enough to have convinced many readers (who might disdain other works of “science fiction”) that she’s not writing it. If something can be translated or packaged as allegorical, it “transcends” the genre. (Even the word “transcend” bothers me here.)

Overall, I don’t care where my students aim to publish their work. If it’s good, it’s good. I strive to help students learn about what I think makes fiction work, what makes it strong, what might make it transcend whichever box it ends up being placed in by a publisher.

Or, to quote Shakespeare’s Juliet:
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet…”

And: There’s a Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick’s novels. So I guess he is another who slipped through the cracks.

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2 responses to “Magic (might be) where you find it

  1. Philip K. Dick was only discovered by literary America after he was dead and, ironically, because his stories were made into successful movies. In his lifetime, he was just this rather crazy guy who wrote pulp fiction. Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, is considered a major literary writer even though she is very good at creating works that even science fiction purists will recognize as real SF.

    I looked at the post you referenced, and found myself wondering why a clearly derivative fantasy quest story by a beginning writer is any worse than the typical writing workshop beginner’s angsty short story about a young person with a creative bent who is misunderstood. Me, I started out writing adventure stories in which women got to be the Saint or Philip Marlowe or D’Artagnan.

    • Nancy, I agree about any beginning angsty story… great point. Your early stories sound fabulous, in every sense of the word. :)

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