Rahul Kanakia is an SF writer in an MFA program at Johns Hopkins, and in a recent blogpost, he contrasts the people and attitudes he has seen in creative writing workshops in academia and in genreland (e.g., Clarion). And as is typically the case in graduate school, he observes class signifiers at work:
I’ve been to both an MFA program and to the Clarion Writer’s workshop*, and met very different types of people. At my MFA, most of us are very young–rare is the person who is over 30–and most of us didn’t have careers before coming here. And almost all of us went to an elite college: Stanford and Yale are overrepresented; most others either went to a top 10 public university or top 10 liberal arts college. Almost all of us have degrees in English.
Furthermore, despite our actual class background, everyone I’ve met in the creative writing world has had that upper-class polish. It’s something I noticed at Stanford: no matter your class, race, or country, within a few semesters we all started sounding the same and acting the same and operating according to the same values and principles. Top colleges whitewash you by teaching you how to ape the mannerisms of the managerial (note, I didn’t say ruling) class—it’s pretty much the main thing you’re buying with your $50k a year.
Additionally, the people in the creative writing world tend to be very good-looking (also a class marker!).
Whereas if you meet science fiction writers who are at the same level of their careers as us, there’s something very different about them. They always have jobs: often career-track jobs. Their degrees are generally not in English. They tend to be older. Oftentimes, they didn’t pursue writing seriously when they were in college. They’re not as polished and don’t seem to be from as affluent of a background.
And as a genre writer who lived outside of academia for a time, I have to admit a certain fondness for this bit as well:
if we gave even a moment of thought to it, we’d realize that the insurance claims adjuster who finally hits it big with their novel where Bigfoot falls in love with Dracula is a much more—one hundred times more—heroic figure than the Stegner Fellow who uses $43,000 a year from Stanford University to pen a sensitive novel about what it was like to be a sensitive kid who grew up in insensitive surroundings. For the latter person, their travails were substantially decreased once they got to college. Whereas the insurance adjuster’s struggles increased day by day—as everything in their life conspired to pull them away from their writing—and it was only through major force of will that they persevered and kept going.
But here’s the worst part!
No one is even willing to admit that the claims adjuster has it harder.
One of my closest friends during my M.A. years was (as I was) writing genre fiction. I remember the disdain our fiction prof (the one of the “stupid-people music” incident) showed for our work, and the general vibe of “Not Quite Our Class, Dear” that permeated the workshop. Because I was the kind of person I was, I faced it with a bit of punk rock/Clan Mondo stubbornness, referring to myself as the class hack. The discomfort was occasionally palpable. And I got a B, which in Grad School Creative Writing Workshops terms, is maybe a D. Maybe.
I’m glad to see someone else noticing the tension.
A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to Court Merrigan, via Facebook.