Stefan Ekman: Writing Sui Generis

Stefan Ekman has a Ph.D. in English Literature with a dissertation on fantasy settings. He teaches creative writing at Lund University and Kristianstad University (Sweden). He also teaches fantasy and sf on various levels.

The most challenging – and the most rewarding – class I teach each year is the science fiction and fantasy unit of the Creative Writing Program. There, I have two ninety-minute lectures to teach thirty or so students how to write genre fiction. Many of them have no idea what sf and fantasy are.

When I started teaching there, I was convinced that in order to write genre fiction, you had to read genre fiction. I thus expected to see the wheel re-invented, whether in hi-tech or magical form. The best I could hope for, I believed, was a wheel painted in some interesting, new colour.

Every single year, I have been proven wrong.

Now, let’s make this clear: I’m not an author. My background is one where I work with other people’s texts rather than produce fiction myself. I have a degree in English Literature and have worked as genre specialist for a publishing house. But I usually don’t see the need for any definition of fantasy or sf other than “I know it when I see it”. (I have been forced to produce definitions on occasion, but that’s a different matter. It always seemed to me that any definition a critic presented would invariably lead to another critic, or writer, saying, “Yes, but what about …”)

With ninety minutes and no chance to set more reading than would fit on a handout or two– they have little enough time for their writing without having to read stuff, too – an “I know it when I see it” approach simply doesn’t work. A number of students will invariably ask: “What is sf? What is fantasy? I’ve never read any.” The reason for this is that the Creative Writing Program includes a number of compulsory units on writing in a wide variety of genres, from popular science to computer games, from TV drama to, well, sf. Only a couple of students in each year want to become genre writers. A definition, I realised my first year, was necessary.

The hard part was finding a definition of each genre which is specific enough to make sure that if they write according to it, sf (or fantasy) comes out. It cannot be fuzzy or vague, but must offer fairly concrete guidelines. On the other hand, it must offer maximum freedom and cover as much of each genre as is at all possible. Explaining the definitions I now use takes up almost half of the ninety minutes. The rest is dedicated to rules and questions (I provide the rules; they provide the questions). At the end, I feel as if I have chained up whatever creativity they might have had.

And a week later, when I read their texts, I marvel at how people who claimed no prior knowledge of the genre managed to produce texts that are not only well-written but also highly original. And when I see them, I know what they are. (OK, there are also some who are mediocre. Others produce highly derivative work – but they are generally familiar with the genres.) Some of these short stories or opening chapters have stayed with me over the years, small pearls of fiction that only a handful of people will ever have read.

After several years of this, I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ve been mistaken. Are science fiction and fantasy genres that really do not require you to have read widely in them before you write? Is it enough to be told what they “are” and to be given a handful of rules to follow? Can all you need to know about writing genre fiction be summarised in two lectures. I didn’t think so.

I’m not so sure any more.

5 thoughts on “Stefan Ekman: Writing Sui Generis

  • March 21, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    Maybe this is a case where a would-be SF writer should either drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring. It sounds like the ones producing derivative work are the ones familiar with the genre–but not exhaustively familiar, or they’d know they were being derivative.

  • March 21, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Stefan may be in transit from Florida to Sweden right now. I’m hoping he’ll drop by to comment either before he leaves or once he gets home.

  • March 23, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Thank you for your comments! Karen is, as always, correct: I spent Monday and Tuesday in the limbo (or purgatory) of planes and airports that exists between Orlando and Gothenburg.

    Jon: These are the bare bones, which are obviously fleshed out, especially through numerous literary examples. The basic definition I use for sf is Wolfe’s summary in *Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy* of what “most definitions” of sf include: elements of scientific (and I add technological) content; social extrapolation; and some cognitive or nonmetaphorical link to “our” world (in time and/or space). This allows for a discussion of the novum as well as of various typical tropes, and I usually gring up some of the “icons” discussed in Mendlesohn/James *The Cambridge Book of Science Fiction*.

    For fantasy, I note that the genre requires the introduction of a fantastic element which in our world is considered impossible, and that author and reader must both accept that within the story, this element is possible. I then use the four categories of fantasy that Mendlesohn proposes in *Rhetorics of Fantasy* to illustrate how fantastic elements can be introduced in different ways and how that affects the structure of the text.

    In both cases, I stress how the genres can be seen as “fuzzy sets” (along the lines of Attebery in *Strategies of Fantasy*).

    150: You are certainly right to some extent, especially in the case of the fantasy writers, but even students fairly well-versed in the genres seem to uncritically “borrow” themes. In other words, I’m not certain how exhaustively you must have read in order to avoid being derivative; it may be that it is a question of mindset rather than experience. Maybe being non-derivative is a very active skill, rather than just having read a lot.

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