As I mentioned in a recent post, I just finished teaching a creative writing course. Most of my students were college sophomores. None were creative writing majors. To cut a successful swath through my class, they had to write a short story, a poem, and a short play — and then revise each one multiple times. In order to bring a proper perspective to their efforts, I forced them (at dagger point) to read a great many examples of each form.
Thus ends the exposition. Now for the drama!
At the tail end of the semester, I asked my students to rank each reading on a five point scale, with one being exceptional and five a yawner. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that without exception, it was the fantasy and horror offerings on my syllabus that drew the strongest responses.
What can account for this?
My answer: J.K. Rowling.
I suppose that’s good news, right? The group of young adults whom I just labeled “this generation” are going to keep a lot of fantasy writers employed for decades to come.
Let’s take a closer look at what they loved (and let’s also concede that this was a small class, and that I’d be the first to admit that a sample size of six does not exactly guarantee a statistical trend; even so, I find their responses remarkable).
They fell in love first with H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Eric Zann,” a creepy short in which a mad violinist beats back cosmic desolation (Cthulhu’s pals keep trying to float through the man’s garret window) by playing insane, entirely improvised solos. Five of my students gave “Zann” a one, the highest rating possible. The sixth, possibly having fallen from a high window, gave it a two.
F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth,” a trans-oceanic spookfest from 1896 that I’ve mentioned before (HERE), drew similar enthusiasm: three ratings of one, two ratings of two, and an outlier who hated it or was possibly stuck headfirst in a porthole, with a five.
Raccoona Sheldon made the team-sheet with “The Screwfly Solution.” Raccoona, of course, was really Alice Sheldon, and her tale of femicide and hormones gone wrong mimicked Lovecraft perfectly: 1,1,1,1,1,2.
Karen Russell’s “Vampires In the Lemon Grove” split the class evenly between those who adored it (scores of one) and those who liked it very much (scores of two). And yes, in this whimsical recasting of vampirism, our toothy friends can get by on lemon juice. Sort of. Worth noting: two of my students took the time to write in that this was their favorite story of the semester, hands down.
“Anda’s Game,” by Cory Doctorow, isn’t technically a fantasy, but it revolves around two girls careening their way through a World of Warcraft adventure, with political ramifications and genuinely upsetting questions about how the game’s online economy has real world impacts. The scores? 1,1,1,2,2,4.
Now compare the responses to my many strictly realistic offerings. (I’ll leave aside, for purposes of clarity, the plays and poems.) By and large, my students actively disliked Sherman Alexie and Charles Baxter, and they despised Tom Bissell. Average scores for all of these were about 4.5. They gave no credence to Tim O’Brien (average score 3) and were split by writers as diverse as Joyce Carol Oates, Donald Barthelme, and Raymond Carver. Yes, they generally gave high marks to Z.Z. Packer (“Brownies”) and Jennifer Egan (“Selling the General”), but overall the trend was clear: stories lacking an element of magic or the inexplicable were not held in high regard.
My students’ veneration of fantasy extended to their own written work, where one story involved a possessed leather biker’s jacket, while another blasted off for the stars (a piece that inspired my last Black Gate posting, HERE). One of their short plays featured a random visitation from a traipsing elephant, and that in an otherwise normal hotel lobby.
These young people interact daily, hourly, with the real-world offspring of science fiction: smart phones, tablets, and social media interfaces with extraordinary capacities and ludicrous limitations. Magic, for them, is everyday stuff. Previous generations — the folks that grew up on Enid Blyton, L. Frank Baum, Robert E. Howard, and Greek mythology — had to put their fantasies behind when their book covers closed, but now? Other worlds stream past constantly, on Youtube, Google, and elsewhere. Fantasy is never more than an icon away.
As for Harry Potter and Co., my students this semester were born, by and large, in 1994. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit London’s shelves in June of 1997, then jumped to the States in 1998. Rowling’s books have literally tracked these students through their youth, and when the books stopped coming, the Radcliffe movies filled the void. Fantasy is the milieu that speaks to this generation most strongly; it’s tied inextricably to their personal development and ongoing maturity. While it may be Joyce Carol Oates who asks, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” my students’ response will necessarily be, “Hogwarts.”
In the main, I suppose I’m encouraged. Whereas many of my generation were ostracized or at least marginalized for gravitating toward fantasy, horror, or science fiction, “genre” has now become one hundred percent mainstream. As to whether this will be a Pyrrhic victory will depend on the level of quality and depth these budding consumers demand –– or, as artists, create.
In the meantime, I’ll be looking with a critical, only somewhat jaundiced eye at my future syllabi and considering whether to add a few more “fabulous” or “slipstream” offerings. Possibly, I should do the opposite. After all, why should I give the people what they want –– the very stuff with which they’re already familiar? Better, perhaps, to force-march them through writers and styles with which they have no experience. Faulkner. Chandler. McCullers. Yann Martel.
Oh, wait. Life Of Pi is a fantasy, too.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.” In other work, Rigney is the author of “The Skates,” and its haunted sequels, “Sleeping Bear,” and Check-Out Time, forthcoming in 2014.