The Not-So-Lonely Path: Sci-fi in the MFA

When I decided to get an MFA, I knew that writing genre could be a challenge. As an undergrad I was discouraged from writing science fiction, enough so that I took more nonfiction workshops than fiction and didn’t write for a year following graduation. (My realistic contemporary fiction was uninspired, but I wasn’t “supposed” to write science fiction—mentally rectifying that disconnect took some time.) I didn’t want a repeat of that experience, but also in the eleven years between my degrees I had learned a lot about fighting for myself.

After I was accepted to the MFA program—following an application that was basically plastered in warnings that I would be writing science fiction—I still thought I might have a battle. After all, even I, future science fiction writer, had left my undergraduate days brainwashed that science fiction didn’t belong in an MFA program. Even if the faculty accepted me, I could still face challenges from the students.

In my first workshop, I was surprised by the overwhelming support I received. There were a handful of dismissive critiques, but the majority of my classmates treated me like a peer and not like I was an inferior sci-fi writer. One memorable critique recommended that I not be “constrained by the genre” while another student restrained his urge to critique my story using the rigorous standards he would apply to literary fiction (that is a paraphrase, but is fairly close to the actual quote that appeared in his critique). These were the comments I had prepared for and the attitude I thought I’d have to fight. I had thought I would have to demand to be taken seriously, to argue that I was in the MFA program to make myself a better writer—which meant developing the craft of writing as it applied to characterization, description, narrative, world building, and plot. “Literary” is a just word that defines the quality of the writing, not the content, I would argue. It applies to work by Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Nnendi Okorafor, just the same as it does to David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, and Donna Tartt. I was ready for this fight!

But it never came. The handful of dismissive and confused critiques in my first workshop were the main confrontation. My classmates were curious and supportive. At a party, a student pulled me aside and quizzed me for an hour about steampunk and alternate history, just because he’d never heard of it before. Basically, my MFA classmates blew away my expectations and set a tone of acceptance not only for me, but for other students who wanted to try their hand at workshopping science fiction and fantasy.

I knew I wanted to approach the MFA on my own terms, and that I would have to work to get what I needed from it. I am lucky that the professors not only welcomed me into the program, but encouraged me to forge my own path. I still read a lot of realistic contemporary fiction for class assignments, but if I was willing to put in extra work, they were willing to let me write papers exploring point of view from robot narrators and examine the differences in structure between Victorian and Neo-Victorian literature. I always say “you get out what you put in,” and that was very much the case for me in the MFA program.

Before the MFA, I was concerned that the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction was too great. I felt like only my echo chamber understood the overlap, but the students and faculty in my program helped me see that we’ve come a long way and that when it comes to accepting science fiction as literature, I am not alone.

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