Does an MFA Make Sense for a Paranormal Writer?
by Barbara Jolie
Paranormal books are thriving, not only as a commercial genre but also as a devoted subculture. This fan world has always existed but now benefits from online opportunities for publishing and distribution that could only have been dreamed of even a decade ago.
Meanwhile, the mainstream has been conquered, with the reading habits of an entire generation having been formed around franchises with paranormal themes, the most far-reaching being the Harry Potter series, of course, but also Twilight, which crossed over into the romance market and revolutionized it overnight. Scads of imitators soon flooded the market, until now it seems like you'd be hard pressed to find anything without a glossy cover photo of some shirtless boy-creature on a YA shelf.
At the same time, the highbrow world of literature has never been more institutionalized. Writers who command serious critical attention nearly always come through the feeder system of writer's workshops and MFA programs (and though the MFA was for years considered the terminal degree in creative writing, now there's even a kind of degree inflation taking place, with PhD programs popping up all over). This state of affairs would have been entirely alien to Henry James or Mark Twain 100 years ago, but it's now pretty much expected.
This huge divergence between mass-market tastes and the academically trained elite is not as impermeable as it sounds; genre fiction is more accepted than ever in the ivory tower, as both a subject for serious study and, increasingly, a legitimate artistic pursuit. A hardcore old guard of literary purists does exist, but generationally, most of the people in these programs at this point have grown up with sci-fi, comic books, magic realism, and unclassifiable cult writers like Kurt Vonnegut. Nerd culture is now everyone's culture, like it or not.
Maybe you've taken some writing classes, whether it's an online correspondence course or even an in-person workshop for hobbyists, and you're wondering: should I take it to the next level? Will my work be accepted for what it is? What will I even get out of this expensive, difficult experience?
Well, you would become a better writer, is just about the only reason to do it. You would want to immediately start diversifying your portfolio – and I'm not talking about stocks here. If you were to apply with all-paranormal material, it'd be a really tough sell. Try writing a few short stories in a strict realist mode. Not to say that you couldn't also include some genre stuff, but they'll want to know you can do more.
Should you be lucky enough to find yourself accepted, you'll need to maintain that balanced attitude: don't feel bad about what you love to write, but be prepared to be open-minded and have your limits tested. Not all of your colleagues and teachers will be into the same stuff. Many of them will have an outright antipathy for fantasy. Roll with it. You will probably have moments (in classes, while writing, or even just over your morning cup of coffee) where you break down and question your own most deeply held dreams. But you'll be stronger for having gone through the struggle, the lessons you learn will be worth it, and you will be able to bring them back into your paranormal world.
Barbara Jolie is a full time freelance writer and blogger in the Houston area. She enjoys writing about education and the advantages of online classes for all students. If you have any questions email Barbara at barbara.jolie876 [at] gmail [dot] com.