If you’re interested in or pondering a Masters of Fine Arts degree but write genre, it can often feel like the odds are stacked against you. This can be disheartening which can then lead to the titular question of this blog—“Is the MFA useless for genre writers?” I’ll do my best, using my experience and what I’ve heard from others, to answer it as much as I can but, in the end, it’s always an individual’s decision.
Firstly, if you’re not already aware there is a bit of a divide, especially in the academy, between genre (commercial) and literary fiction. Perhaps if you did some work in an undergrad writing workshop where vampires, spaceships, and magic were outlawed you’ll already understand some of this. Genres can span from fantasy (high or low), romance, mystery, horror, science fiction, and—in some programs—may even include audiences such as young adult. Literary fiction, on the other hand, often focuses on realism, which can still be dramatic, but often doesn’t include speculative elements.
The problem a lot of people have in their search for MFA programs is finding schools where genre is obviously welcome. The unwritten rule of the degree in the past is that it has been for literary fiction. This is why the University of Nevada, Reno (my alma mater) makes it so painstakingly clear that we are “genre-friendly.” We want genre writers to know they are more than welcome to apply and would be able to write weird stuff to their heart’s content. Other programs may be less clear, but one clue may be in the faculty. Look at the ratio of those who have published genre or upmarket books compared to more traditional literary fiction, even on a smaller scale. You can also see if any of authors of popular fiction have earned MFAs and from where. For example, more than a few recent horror writers have earned their degrees from Seton Hill University’s low-residency MFA. So, even finding a program that won’t mind genre writing will require some research and patience.
One of the options then, if applying or choosing more general programs, is to write without genre. Now, hear me out: the worst case scenario is you have a short story collection or novel that goes in the cupboard and never sees the light of day. Or, you revise and make it speculative later. Writing a thesis during an MFA doesn’t necessarily guarantee publication of that project. What is more important are the skills you gain during the process—reading critically, giving and receiving feedback in workshop, sharpening you writing on a global and local level, learning about the industry, etc. Would it be helpful to use this time to sharpen your genre skills? Yes, but if you can’t then you’ll still be learning something. Think of how many authors don’t earn MFAs or how many switch into genre later in their careers. Spending time on something else now doesn’t mean you can’t write high fantasy later.
Now, once you’ve entered the MFA program, assuming you can write genre, it won’t all be easy. The best and worst aspect of workshop is the variety of readers and feedback that is brought to the table. In a program focused solely on literary fiction, what this might entail is less a focus on genre elements and more detail on the key elements of fiction (character, plot, setting, etc.). However, when you workshop a genre story or novel, there will be so much discussion and sometimes confusion about what is and isn’t working. How is your world-building? How does the magic system work? Does the invented language make sense? How do you pronounce this name? The beats of suspense, horror, and revulsion didn’t quite work here but did work here. It wasn’t scary for one person but worked for another. They’re not sure if this is really YA. Is this realistic to the time period? The relationship wasn’t built enough for the ending to feel earned…And so on.
Not everyone at the table will read your genre. I was the first exclusively horror writer in my program. Others had written here or there prior and after, but it was all I wrote. Which meant I was an “expert” in the genre but others, many of whom maybe only read what I submitted to workshop, didn’t know the genre much. The same could be said for me and other genres, too. So be prepared for that. On the other side of the table, be prepared to read and give attention to literary fiction with the same attention and enthusiasm as genre. Just because it doesn’t have a space battle doesn’t mean the ensuing divorce between husband and wife isn’t less serious in context. As with all MFA programs, you will find your critics, the people in your workshop who give you the best feedback and understand what you’re trying to do. For example, the historical fiction writers and I usually clicked well because we were research and detail-obsessed.
When looking for an advisor for your thesis, try to find a faculty member who either will allow or understands your genre. I was lucky that mine was fairly passionate about horror and pushed me toward some titles I hadn’t considered and was open to those I wanted to include. You want a good enough relationship with your advisor so they can understand what you’re trying to do. The same, perhaps, can apply for your committee. I was lucky my outside department committee member was also fond of horror films, which then made them knowledgeable of the genre in a different way from the English professors. So, find people who you connect with on that basis, if possible.
Lastly, understand that the larger professional writing world sometimes isn’t quite built for genre, or maybe not all of them. The AWP Conference is one of the largest gatherings of writers, academics, programs, and journals of its kind. When I attended in 2019, I noticed how others’ eyes glazed when I said I wrote horror (with the exception of Clash Publishing, the only horror-oriented booth). So, in 2020, I just said I wrote fiction and poetry and the answers were far more neutral. Other genres may be a bit more welcome, but, overall, that conference is aimed more at literary fiction and poetry. So, if possible or required, I’d recommend finding conferences aimed at your specific genre. There’s WorldCon, Boskone, StokerCon, RWA Conference, Nebula Con, etc. I’ve found that the panels and people at the genre conference were more helpful to me, personally, than the ones geared at more general writing.
In the end, it can be an interesting and, at times, difficult journey writing genre during an MFA. The degree on its own is challenging, but why else would you be doing it? If you want to come out of it with well-polished skills, familiarity with the industry and genre (past and present ideally), and maybe even a kick ass thesis then it just may be worth giving it a shot. However, it is still, at its most basic, a commitment of time, money, effort, and—sometimes—your sanity. Whatever your decision, know that it is possible, but it doesn’t guarantee success.
Overall, an MFA is as useful as you want it to be.