I once had a disagreement with the (now former) head of my department. The crux of the matter was this: He didn’t think that a graduate level course on adolescent literature should count toward my degree. In his eyes, adolescent (ie: YA) literature didn’t count as “real literature.”
The new head of my department has the following policy in her workshops: first year MFA students aren’t allowed to submit speculative fiction. Her argument is, “You have to learn the basics before you can experiment." And by "learn the basics" she means "write literary fiction" (ie: existential realism).
Being a genre writer in my program was like being an unnamed orphan in Annie: it’s a hard knock life.
Yesterday, I faced the last major obstacle of my MFA career: the dreaded thesis defense. For the purposes of my program, a thesis consists of a complete novel or a collection of short stories with no fewer than 100 pages. I went with the latter, submitting a work comprised of 4 shorts (136 pages).
The purpose of a thesis defense is to make an author explain his or her choices (and thus demonstrate a conceptual mastery of the craft). If you’ve ever been in a workshop environment, it’s a little like that--only with a savage twist: you have to talk back. Three professors sat around a table and discussed every possible shortcoming of my stories, punctuating each observation with, “Why did you do it this way?”
They honed in on my weaknesses with the seasoned ruthlessness of carnivorous pack animals.
“Your protagonists need more distinctive voices.”
“Your balance between characterization and plot is lopsided.”
As a bonus, none of the members of my thesis committee are readers/fans of speculative fiction. I only write speculative fiction. As a result, I fielded questions like:
“Most genre stories seem to be precautionary tales. What is this story telling us to avoid?”
“Your story didn’t explain the world as fully as (insert full-length novel here).”
The latter was a particular sticking point for me. It didn’t seem fair to compare the depth of world building in a 26 page short to that in 400 page novels. Of course, to some extent, that’s the point of the exercise. Because speculative fiction was such an unfamiliar medium to my committee, I had to work that much harder to explain my choices.
Q: Why didn’t I explain more of the world?
A: There’s a balance between the details that a story needs and the details that are cool but unnecessary. How did Panem come to be? Suzanne Collins doesn't tell us because it isn’t germane to the story.
Q: Is this supposed be to art or entertainment?
A: Both, by necessity. If it isn’t art, it won’t be worth reading. If it doesn't entertain, it won’t be read.
These are abbreviated examples, but you get the idea.
I was interrogated for a full hour. Afterwards, I waited in an adjoining chamber while the committee deliberated my fate. A few minutes later, the head of the committee opened the door and congratulated me. My strategy had worked.
So, what was my strategy?
The thesis committee is made up of three professors. One acts as an adviser, providing feedback during the thesis revision process. The other two professors only come in at the end to help assess the final draft and its defense. The most important thing is that the student picks which three professors to invite.
Since none of the professors in my program write (or particularly enjoy) speculative fiction, I sought out open-minded educators that looked past antiquated labels and literary prejudices. The members of my committee didn’t necessarily “get” genre fiction, but that didn’t matter. I’d picked people that would focus on universal craft elements and my ability to soundly articulate the reasoning behind my choices. As one member of my committee put it, “I don’t care about what genre a story falls under. I only care about how good it is.” Amen.
So, I guess my thesis defense strategy is twofold. First, be deliberate in writing. If something is in your story, know why. If something isn’t, know why that is, too. Second, choose your audience wisely.