For decades aspiring fantasy writers have been subjected to dismissive behavior from college professors who disparage genre literature, even though such professors often admit they’ve never actually read any fantasy or science fiction. This sort of hostility is unfortunately alive and well today, as college freshman Alina Sichevaya can attest.
“I’d heard everyone else’s horror stories, because occasionally this comes up on Twitter, and people will talk about their college experience,” Sichevaya says in Episode 257 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “But I definitely wasn’t expecting such a strong response from my professor about genre fiction.”
Sichevaya says she attempted to defend fantasy, and to recommend high-quality examples to her professor, but she’s not optimistic it’ll do much good. In the face of that sort of opposition, a student’s best option is often to write fantasy outside of class, and to band together with like-minded classmates. That’s what fantasy author Jameyanne Fuller did a few years ago at Kenyon College.
“We got together and formed a student organization, and we basically created a creative writing group,” she says. “We probably had 10 to 15 people who came to the regular meetings to write, but we would get up to a hundred people for NaNoWriMo or special events.”
The university took note of the group’s popularity, and subsequently launched a fantasy and science fiction literature course at the school. Author Emma Clark has a similar success story from her time at Knox College. When she learned that the school literary magazine didn’t accept fantasy, she embarked on a seven-year mission to launch Quiver, a school-sanctioned print magazine that publishes a broad range of genres.
“Now it’s at the point where there are people who go to Knox College because Quiver is there,” she says. “And the admissions people were very supportive of that, because there are lots of young kids who want to write this, and there aren’t a lot of places that do it.”
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley has encountered plenty of rude and clueless professors, and he hopes that more schools will start hiring faculty who can treat fantasy and science fiction with respect, or even enthusiasm.
“I don’t have any problem with people not being experts in fantasy and science fiction, but I feel like if everybody in the department is not an expert in fantasy and science fiction, they really ought to think about hiring somebody who is,” he says. “Because if there are people who are interested in this, it seems like they’re not serving their students very well by not having someone who’s knowledgeable about it.”
Listen to our complete interview with Alina Sichevaya, Jameyanne Fuller, and Emma Clark in Episode 257 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Alina Sichivaya on recommending fantasy stories:
“I recommended [that my professor read] “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu and “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong. The first one I picked just to make a point about his statement on nonhuman main characters, because in “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” most of the story is actually told from the point of view of these insects. … He got back to me about [the story], and one of his main points concerning it was that he didn’t understand why the wasps and the bees couldn’t have just been people, which to me sort of misses the point of the story. I don’t know if the writer intended it this way, but I saw it as a commentary on the way that humans colonized—and still, to an extent, colonize—other humans. It’s sort of an abstraction of that type of cultural violence.”
Jameyanne Fuller on critiques:
“I had submitted a short story, and this is full-on secondary world fantasy, and the class sort of tore it apart. It was a first draft, I’m not going to say that it was a beautiful, perfect story by any stretch of the imagination. It probably needed to be critiqued. But at the close of my time being critiqued, the professor basically said straight-up, ‘I don’t understand why you’re telling this story. This story isn’t worth telling, to me.’ I’d put a lot of work into the story, and that hurt a lot. … [The story] was published last year in Abyss & Apex—and it had been revised significantly since that day—but it was a moment of, it just goes to show that maybe this professor didn’t know exactly what she was talking about.”
Jameyanne Fuller on writing groups:
“The creative writing group that we started as a response to what had happened to me the previous semester, we didn’t necessarily say, ‘This is only a speculative fiction group,’ we said, ‘This is a group for all genres.’ Anyone was welcome, but you had to be accepting of all genres. And pretty quickly the people who weren’t accepting of all genres left, because they were outnumbered, and they had a spot in the English department and the rest of us really didn’t feel like we had a place in the English department to write what we wanted to write. So it very quickly became more of a haven for fantasy and sci-fi and just generally genre fiction because of that. But it was really good. It’s about finding a spot on campus, and if you can’t find a spot that already exists, make your own.”
Emma Clark on writing popular fiction:
“Even as accepting as Knox was, this was an issue I ran into, where professors who wanted to accept genre fiction would still try to turn it into literary fantasy fiction or something like magical realism. Even if it was a secondary world, there wouldn’t be that focus on how do you do world-building, how do you create tension, how do you do a three-act structure. And so I think there is still, even in places that are accepting, a lot of room for growth for people understanding what are the elements of genre fiction that you don’t have in literary fiction, and that you have to have down if you want to get published. And I would say that I did sort of end up taking that [more literary] track, but the result was that I graduated from college without really understanding those fundamental pieces of popular fiction, and have now had to sort of fill them in a bit on the back end.”