While trying to make it as a writer, I took a day job at a small bookstore on a college campus. Being surrounded by books all day was an absolute joy, and working on a college campus put me in touch with those creating, instructing, and learning literature. I spent my time selling books to customers, hosting author events and readings, chatting with English professors and their creative writing students, and speaking to classes as a published author.
Across all of these audiences, I found a common roadblock for those of us who love genre fiction. As a bookseller, I watched as new science fiction and fantasy releases were shelved spine-out in distant aisles while anything more literary was displayed front and center. From the creative writing majors, I heard how they weren't allowed to write in the genres they preferred reading. And of the 30 or 40 visiting writers we hosted and whose talks I sat in on, not a single one of them wrote genre fiction — all of this, despite the fact that genre fiction routinely outsells literary fiction by a wide margin.
As someone who was writing genre fiction and finding some success, I often was asked by creative writing majors what I thought about this systematic marginalization. My response was usually to take them on a tour of our bookstore. Here in the fiction section, we have Margaret Atwood and Aldous Huxley. We have Stephen King and Mary Shelley. We have Gulliver's Travels, Interview with a Vampire, 1984, and all of Michael Crichton. Anything deemed worthy, in other words, we take out and classify as fiction. Anything with too many dragons, lasers, or aliens in it, we leave in the ghetto of SF/F.
I believe this fear of genre fiction stunts the widespread enjoyment of literature. The most enlightened English teacher I ever met worked at a middle school in Mt. Airy, N.C. Her bookshelves were full of the most popular titles for kids: The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter series, Maze Runner, Eragon, and so on. I spoke with her class several times, as the Molly Fyde books had made the rounds amongst her kids, and what I found was a gaggle of youth geeking out over all things book-related. It was a jarring experience after speaking to dozens of other classrooms where reading was drudgery. Here, it was all they cared about. Why? Because they were allowed to read the works they enjoyed.
As adults, we tend to forget that our palates change over time. Our tastes do not remain the same. We learn to love a variety of healthy foods later in life and can't figure out why our kids won't take a second bite. We do the same with reading and writing, I fear. And it goes right through our college years. If we want kids to read the classics, the best thing we can do is teach them to love books in general. Get them hooked on reading from the earliest age possible and trust that they'll branch out as they grow older. Even if they don't, at least they are reading! Forcing kids to read a dozen works they aren't ready for — practically setting them up to never read another book for the rest of their lives — is the wrong way to go about this. The answer is to embrace all genres throughout a child's education.
The same goes for writing. We live in the most literate age in the history of mankind, if you measure it by the amount of reading and writing we do. I'm sure that will seem heretical to some, but a study out of Stanford found that we are generating and consuming the written word at an unparalleled rate. Of course, this often comes in the form of texts, emails, Facebook updates, tweets, blog posts, forums, and websites. Like genre fiction, people will engage in an activity if it's something they enjoy. And I think if we want kids to enjoy writing, we should embrace the things they want to write. We should teach them the value of writing well since they are writing as much as anyone in human history.
You can learn the rules of grammar while writing about dragons, fairies, and aliens. I think you are more likely to learn them, in fact. And I think more kids will learn that they enjoy writing and go on to do more of it. More of them will pursue creative writing in college. And if they are allowed to write genre fiction there, perhaps they will achieve escape velocity and go on to have writing careers, penning the sort of stories that people purchase and enjoy in droves. Some of them will decide to become university professors who don't just allow genre fiction in their classes but encourage it. Or they might become middle school English teachers who instill a love of reading in an entire generation of young minds by stocking classroom bookshelves with high-demand rather than high-art literature. Or like me, they might work in a bookstore where they fight to keep the best representations of a genre shelved within that genre. Together, we might learn to celebrate what's fun about reading and writing as well as what's great. Until those two distinctions become impossible to make.
Hugh Howey is the best-selling self-published author of the WOOL series. Find his books and learn more at hughhowey.com.