Guest post by Jennifer Pullen
Once upon a time there was a little girl in Washington State with hippie scientist parents dismayed by their local school district’s choice to teach only creationism. Thus, they chose to homeschool their daughter. While she took state standardized tests to prove she was learning, she otherwise escaped the conformity of public schools. She became a half feral woods and library child, prying open buttercups to look for faeries, and checking out piles of books. Grimms fairytales, Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, Issac Asimov, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, T.H. White, Shirley Jackson, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Peter. S. Beagle, and some weird shit about King Arthur in space written by a member of a druidic order, and more. Neither her parents nor the librarians ever tried to censor her reading.
If you haven’t guessed, this bookish fairy tale is about me. This story is central to understanding why I wrote Fantasy Fiction: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology. Because of the freedom of my reading, I never had an inkling that the k-12 system and universities were mostly averse to novels populated by dragons, druids, faeries, unicorns, and spaceships. I hadn’t even heard the phrase “genre fiction” used dismissively until I was 16 years old, in a literature class at a community college, after I called 1984 science fiction. The professor said it wasn’t an appropriate label because Orwell “rose above mere genre fiction.” In a creative writing class, I was told that my retelling of the Thomas the Rhymer ballad was unacceptable because it was genre fiction. While my undergraduate institution wouldn’t display hostility, fantasy was still an elusive beast. My childhood, where I was allowed to read with magpie acquisitiveness, was a state of innocence. I had learned to judge what books were Literature with a capital L based upon if the prose was lovely, the characters were engaging, the ideas interesting, and the plot made me want to turn the page, not based upon what kind of story it was. I possessed principles of aesthetics formed independent of the culturally situated value judgements that declared categories of fiction not Art, but “mere genre fiction.”
I grew up in the 90s and 2000s before nerd culture’s broad social acceptance. I was accustomed to being one of a very few nerds. Plus, I had always loved ALL kinds of fiction, so lack of fantasy and sci-fi in classes didn’t impair my enjoyment. Yet, when faculty bemoaned the lack of queer representation in literature, I would agree, and then point out that such representation had been happening in science fiction and fantasy for decades, from Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to Samuel Delaney’s body of work. No one knew what I was talking about.
By the time I began my PhD, I longed to understand the source of the bias against genre-fiction. If Octavia Butler could be mostly ignored even after a McArthur, if frankly MOST of fiction, could be treated as essentially ignorable but for a few writers who managed to hop the boundary into literary acceptability, I had to understand why. When intelligent, educated people make judgements in ignorance, there is something deeper at the root of that judgment.
During my PhD, I found my answer in the history of the novel in English itself, as well as the founding of creative writing as an academic discipline. At the start of the 19th century, fiction wasn’t a prestige genre. Fiction writers roamed all over what would become fenced off preserves. Dickens blithely mixed social commentary with spontaneous human combustion and ghosts. George Eliot, who has since been turned into a patron saint of realism, wrote a novella called The Lifted Veil about a man with psychic powers. Sci-fi and fantasy coalesced. No one had yet decided that respectable writers should confine themselves to stories about bad marriages.
As mass-printed material increased in availability, class divisions within the novel began, driven by ideas about who was reading what. 20th-century pulps contributed to the disparagement of genre fiction, similarly to the penny dreadful in the 19th century, that came to be associated with the working poor, the dirtiness of city slums, loose sexuality, and alcoholism. [i]
In 19th-century Britain, with its emergent middle class, the idea of childhood as a protected time took hold as a crucial divide between the classes. [ii] As a result, the middle class began to decide what constituted children’s literature. [iii] By the late 19th century, fantasies were consigned to the realm of children, [iv] prefiguring recent debates about fantasy in schools.
The 19th-century cultural concerns surrounding the novel and early genre fiction are directly connected to the way that creative writing is taught in America. Henry James, a transition figure between the 19th and 20th century, wrote “The Art of Fiction,” still widely assigned in MFA programs. He claimed that novels rise above low-class entertainment and become art only when realistic. [v]
In Workshops of Empire, Eric Bennett describes the founding conditions of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (the first academic creative writing program). America was a nation afraid of cultural reform, utopianism, or collectivist ideas of any kind. Such ideas smacked of fascism and/or communism. [vi] New tax regulations made it incumbent on the wealthy to find tax breaks. Resultantly, much of the funding for the Iowa Writers Workshop came from John D. Rockefeller. Crucial motivators for Rockefeller came from the argument that the new discipline would be housed in the Midwest, away from the liberal East Coast intelligentsia, untainted by communism, socialism, or collectivist reforms. [vii] The founders of Iowa believed literature should focus on the growth of the individual. This was explicitly used as the definition of literary high culture, and a defense against the glorification of the common people seen in communism. [viii] This fear, as well as the fear of decreasing class boundaries through the influx of GIs into universities and the influence of popular culture, incentivized founding and funding the Iowa Writers Workshop [ix] and solidified its foundational ideology.
Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926. Amazing Stories lead to the propagation of the pulps, an entire industry of cheaply printed and mass-produced magazines with lurid covers, primarily marketed at young men. [x] They came to be deeply associated with the WWII GI. [xi] Ray Bradbury was one of the first pulp writers to get a hardback edition in the US. This successful transition earned him the label “The Poet of the Pulps”.[xii]While intended as a compliment, it implies that he is an exception.
The 19th century followed by the GI Bill in the 20th century created the cultural conditions and aesthetic assumptions that have alienated the literary and genre fiction communities within academia. The bias against genre fiction is rooted in issues of classism and politics.
All throughout my PhD I preached on my soapbox about the vital work being done in so-called genre fiction. I researched. I wrote my own strange and magical stories. I looked and looked for textbooks on creative writing that were focused on fantasy or did more than gesture to it. Thus, in 2017 when I was approached by Bloomsbury to write a proposal for a creative writing textbook and anthology on fantasy fiction, much like a heroine in a romantic comedy, I said yes, a thousand times yes.
With Fantasy Fiction: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, I have written the book I’ve wished existed for my entire life. I’m so lucky that I’ve been allowed to bring this book into the world, so that I can contribute to the work of breaking down walls and releasing the dragons.
[i] Flanders, Judith. “Discovering Literature, The Romantics and the Victorians: The Penny Dreadful.” The British Library. May 15 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/penny-dreadfuls.
[ii] Knoepflmacher, U.C. “The Balancing of Child and Adult: An Approach to Victorian Fantasies for Children.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37.3 (1983). 497-530. JSTOR.
[iii] Knoepflmacher, 498.
[iv] Hughes, 544.
[v] James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” Longman’s Magazine (1884). Washington State University. May 16 2019, https://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/artfiction.html.
[vi] Bennett, Eric. Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War. U of Iowa P., 2015. 32-33
[vii] Bennett, 10-13.
[viii] Bennett, 46.
[ix] Bennett, 33.
[x] Menand, Louis. “Pulp’s Big Moment.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker.com. January 5 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/05/pulps-big-moment.
[xi] Roberts, Robin. A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction. U of Illinois P., 1993. 40-65. [xii] Enns, Anthony. “The Poet of the Pulps: Ray Bradbury and the Struggle for Prestige in Postwar Science Fiction.” Distinctions that Matter: Popular Literature and Material Culture 13.1 (2015). https://journals.openedition.org/belphegor/615
Jennifer Pullen, author of Fantasy Fiction: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Ohio Northern University. During her decade of teaching, she has also taught at Eastern Washington University and Ohio University. She has worked on the editorial team of journals including The New Ohio Review (NOR), and Willow Springs, where she was the Assistant Fiction editor. Her research interests include fantasy fiction, fairy tales and mythology, gender studies, science fiction, 19th century literature, environmental writing, and creative writing pedagogy. She is a founding member of the Creative Writing Studies organization. Her chapbook of fabulist fiction A Bead of Amber on Her Tongue, feminist retellings of Greek myths, won the Omnidawn fabulist fiction award, selected by Lily Hoang. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in journals and anthologies including, but not limited to: Off the Coast, Cleaver, Phantom Drift Limited, Clockhouse, Behind the Mask, Lunch Ticket, and F(r)iction. She has won multiple awards for her teaching.