Thursday, September 8, 2011

"But is This Literature?": Reading Genre Fiction in School

Note:  If you would like to follow 407 Advanced Fiction classes as they happen, direct yourself to our hashtag #292RB or follow class intern @LaurenEBurch on Twitter for live Tweets of the class events on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 p.m. to 4:45.

Class novel presentations began on Tuesday, September 6th, starting with the first half of the discussion on Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.  On Tuesday, the novel’s group, consisting of students Ashley Ford, Lindsey LaVal, Rachel Rump, and Meredith Sims, presented their reverse storyboard of The Hunger Games, breaking down the events of each chapter.  They used various colors on the storyboards to highlight certain themes (such as hunting vs. hunted) and characters of the novel.  The class also took a quiz over the book and discussed their personal reading experiences of Collins’s work.

Today, the presentation will continue with the group’s DICE checklist of The Hunger Games protagonist Katniss, as well as further discussion of what can be learned about the process of writing from the novel.

From left to right, Lindsey LaVal, Meredith Sims, Rachel Rump, and Ashley Ford stand in front of their storyboards.

Tuesday’s storyboarding presentation went smoothly, with the class as a whole agreeing on the themes and structure that The Hunger Games group explored.  When the time came to discuss personal reading experiences and the value of the work, however, dissent emerged.

Everyone agreed that the book offered good insight on structuring and plotting a novel, as recorded in the reading quiz.  The students had to record five things they learned about writing a novel from The Hunger Games, as well as five things they liked in the book, five dislikes, and their view on certain characters’ purpose in the story.  Some of the answers regarding what could be learned from the novel included:

“Building character backgrounds and reasonings.” – Mo Smith

“Creating an unfamiliar world.” – Jennifer Perov

“The games were kind of like a novel in that they had to keep it interesting.  Katniss said that no one would really care to see her and Peeta just sitting around for a few days.” – Miranda Wuestefeld

But while all agreed there was structural soundness to the work, opinions were more varied regarding the literary merit of The Hunger Games.  Some class members were enthralled by the world and the characters, while others found the setting and inhabitants vaguely described and flatly written.  Some thought the work was shocking and original, while others found it derivative and predictable.

“I didn’t like how the protagonists were relatively absolved of the moral ambiguity inherent in their situation.  I didn’t like how overly dehumanized and “villainous” the Careers were.” – Aaron Wittwer

“Some of the language was clichéd, but it was written for young adults.” – Clay Carter

Ashley Ford wondered if the class was judging the novel by overly high standards.  Clearly, the students are past the target age for The Hunger Games, and the literature analyzed in Ball State’s English Department tends to be classic novels rather than contemporary young adult fiction.

“But is this literature?” Lindsey LaVal asked.

The storyboard for one chapter.  Red represents hunted, green hunting, blue represents Gale, and yellow is survival.

Debates about what separates literary works from genre fiction as well as the merits of genre fiction are not just taking place in the classroom.  More and more literary authors are dipping into genre fiction, as discussed in the online arts and culture magazine The Millions’s recent article, “Why Are So Many Literary Writers Shifting into Genre?”

As the article states, there are many theories as to why literary authors are undertaking genre works, from a move by the publishers to shift more works into better selling categories to an experiment in wider creative expression on the part of the writers.  Whatever the reason, it’s hard to deny that genre fiction reaches a larger range of readers, in terms of overall number, age, and other demographics.

In our class, part of the students’ expected duties, along with the Weekly Word Count for their novels, is to participate in two class blogs on the Ball State website Blackboard.  One blog details the students’ writing processes, aptly named the Process Blog.  The other blog, Noveling, assigns a different writing prompt each week based on the students’ readings in one of the class texts, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing.  Last week’s prompt asked the students to write about the books they enjoyed when they were younger.  Many of the works listed were genre fiction.

The first books I remember enjoying are The Bobbsey Twins seriesThe Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, and Agatha Christie’s Mystery books.” – Maye Ralston

“R. L. Stein was my hero throughout elementary school (well, next to Johnny Bravo). I felt his Goose Bumps series was amazing.” – Alec Brenneman

“In the beginning as long as it had bright colors I was hooked. Eric Carle was my best friend, with Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain’s following closely behind. I couldn’t read yet, which led to some pretty inaccurate stories coming out of my odd little Pre-K head, but for a time that was enough.” – Meredith Sims

More literary works also filled the entries, ranging from the philosophical works of Kant and Descartes to classic authors such as Tolkien and Alcott.  But the students here to study Literature and Creative Writing did not shy away from listing Clifford the Big Red Dog or A Series of Unfortunate Events among their favorites.

Whatever the reason behind the surge of genre fiction in the literary world, one of the goals of this semester’s 407 class is to teach the students to write the novel they want to read, not the novel they think professors and literature writers will respect.  Whether those novels are genre or literary fiction, The Hunger Games presentation demonstrated that genre fiction can teach valuable lessons about constructing a novel, even if the genre is nothing like the story a prospective author has in mind.

The code for the group's themes.

- Lauren Burch

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