It’s coincidental that they came out so close together, but two recently-published interviews, one with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, and the other with William Shatner, present an interesting portrait of the odd institutional bias against genre fiction. Chabon, in an interview with Wired, talked about the way he’d been discouraged from writing genre fiction, even though it was one of his first loves, in his MFA program:
I had been taught early on in college and graduate school that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I wrote genre fiction, and not only would I not be taken seriously, but people just really didn’t want to read it, like, my workshop mates and my workshop leaders. I had workshop leaders who just out-and-out said, “Please do not turn science fiction in to this workshop.” That was discouraging, obviously, and if I had had more courage and more integrity, I might have stood up to it more than I did, but I wanted to be read, and I wanted to receive whatever benefits there were to be received from the people I was in workshop with, and the teachers I was studying from.
And, you know, I wasn’t looking for a fight, and it wasn’t like I don’t love F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Cheever, and Vladimir Nabokov, and Eudora Welty, and all those people. I love their work just as much — if not more in some cases — as Arthur C. Clarke, or Frank Herbert, or whoever it might have been. So I had just sort of allowed myself to fall into this channel as a writer that at some point I realized I didn’t want to be limited to anymore.
And William Shatner, talking with Terry Gross, explains how, though he took his work on Star Trek extremely seriously while he was acting on the show—” I applied every talent I had to making it valid and working on story and fighting management and doing the best I could”—he came to feel ashamed of it afterwards, and was bucked up by Patrick Stewart’s commitment to the work:
When I left “Star Trek,” I left it with pride and went on to other things. And then “Star Trek” started to become popular about six years afterwards, as it went into syndication. And then people started talking about, hey, there’s – beam me up, Scotty. And there’s Captain Kirk. And, you know, and then somebody would say: Do you really go where no man has gone before – in that sort of semi-mocking tone that I thought, well, all right. Maybe it wasn’t as good as I thought it was. And maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. And I held myself up defensively.
It was only watching Patrick Stewart – and I have great respect for Patrick, both as an actor and as man. I love him. And the gravitas that this great Shakespearean actor gave to his role, that I suddenly realized that this guy is taking Captain Picard every bit as seriously as Macbeth. And I used to. And I stopped. And what the hell’s the matter with me? It was a great piece of work. Everybody contributed to three years that has lasted 50. It’s a phenomenon. Why aren’t I proud of it? And that’s when I had that moment.
I’ve never really understood the bias against genre fiction. It’s not as if there’s something inherently more praiseworthy about contemplating the present in an entirely realistic way than about considering the possibilities future or the norms of the past. It’s not actually less self-indulgent to revisit and fetishize, say, the sixties or the eighties than to imagine what it would be like to live under an interplanetary government, to settle Mars, or to fight the War of the Roses with powerful metaphors for uncertainty and danger thrown in the mix. That MFA programs and critics have managed to convince people otherwise is evidence that they’re good at preserving the privilege awarded certain kinds of work, not that they’re correct.