The Educational Value of Genre Fiction

Cover to Writers Workshop of Horror

This week I’ll be teaching in our weeklong, intensive graduate creative writing workshops for the MA in Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill U. It’s always a great experience, and I particularly enjoy getting to teach and work with students and colleagues in my favorite literary genre: horror. Indeed, I’m rather fortunate to be able to do this, since the majority of creative writing programs in this country not only eschew genre labels, but also would likely eschew horror even if they didn’t. Genre, most assume, is too formulaic, too emotional, too popular (and therefore too oriented to the lowest common denominator).

Obviously, such hierarchical distinctions are usually an expression of “highbrow” class politics, or a culture which reifies the individual over the collective in the creative arts — but I won’t repeat the lessons of cultural studies here right now. Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how genre fiction — and particularly horror fiction, as I recently argued in a pedagogical essay on “Horror and Responsibilities of the Liberal Educator” — may actually be more “educational” than many literary academics realize.

Often “literary” fiction and canonical literature is considered of higher educational value because it has historical lessons to teach us about culture, or because it addresses universal issues pertinent to mankind. But this is no less true of genre fiction (and many genre stories are in the canon, actually). Genre fiction is castigated because it focuses more often on emotional payoffs than intellectual ones, but this is not all that genre fiction seeks. Horror stories, for instance, are often “cautionary” in nature, and therefore teach lessons. Readers of romances and children’s fiction often turn to these books for models of behavior in human relationships. Science fiction rewards knowledge of the sciences and often teaches readers about emergent research; mystery, likewise, teaches readers about criminalistics and is predicated on the notion that reader and detective alike will be engage fully in critical thinking as crimes are solved.

Thus, I’m mulling over the notion that the writers who create these stories have to be “teacherly” in their approach to the reader, to some degree. I’ve often heard the notion that the bestsellers of any given period not only catch the interest of the masses, but often teach readers something new — this draw to discover and learn is a large part of popular genre fiction. It assuages curiosity about “what everyone is talking about.” Yet at the same time, writers who seek to educate (usually) cannot be didactic or preachy or dogmatic about some ideological belief. As with “literary” fiction, good authors of popular fiction should raise issues of import (and often they pull these issues from the headlines, which ties them to time at the cost of being ‘timeless’) while keeping their own biases out of the story and lead readers to think critically about these issues on their own. The characters in a story often are models for such ways of thinking.

For the writers, however, their models are often each other. They read each others’ books, or find each other at conventions, or — for the dedicated — encounter each other in workshops like the program we host at SHU, or the less-academic-but-more-deeply-focused-on-genre groups like Odyssey, Clarion, Borderlands Boot Camp, Alpha, and the various workshops held in meeting rooms at genre conventions. I’ve taught at these, and they are not nearly as “amateur” or “commercial” as one might assume. Fan and genre communities are perhaps more critical and knowledgeable about their own genre than anyone else, as the work of Henry Jenkins and others have taught us.

I have the good fortune to appear in a new instructional book for writers in the horror genre, The Writer’s Workshop of Horror (ed. Michael Knost, Woodland Press, Aug 2009). Like the Horror Writer’s Association guidebook, On Writing Horror, this is an example of how the creative community of genre authors “teaches” within that community. What I like about these books is that they are not just written by a single author, but a gathering together of multiple views and voices in anthology form.

For those reading this who might have the opportunity to teach horror writing, and are looking for resources, you can order The Writer’s Workshop of Horror early from Woodland Press; it will be out in August, just in time for school.

I’ll end with a small excerpt from my contribution, called “Stripping Away the Mask: Scene and Structure in Horror Fiction,” which deals with issues regarding the pleasures of the taboo in horror, and how these are embedded into the structure (not necessarily the content) of horror narratives:

…horror is a striptease of suspense. It is an inherently exhibitionist genre, as much as it is the genre of fear. And this may very well be why horror gets a bum rap from the literati: horror can make a reader feel dirty, because it refuses to obey the inner censor that tells us that such-and-such is morally wrong, that such-and-such is ugly or grotesque, that such-and-such is perverse or unhealthy, that such-and-such is unreasonable or irrational, that such-and-such is dangerous or inhumane. Horror writers seek truth in the darkness. They remove the mask, to peer unabashedly at what it hides, horrendous warts and all….

If you wish to write horror stories, it is imperative that you understand this aesthetic. There are no “rules,” really, because readers only expect the unexpected when they pick up a work of horror. In place of rules, we just have a worldview that says: “Readers peek between their fingers. I refuse to look away.” We remove the mask.

I got the idea for this essay from the late author Robert Bloch, who defined horror in passing during an interview once as “the removal of masks.”
Is this not also the mission of liberal education?

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Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.