What College Creative Writing Programs Are Sympathetic to Non-Realist Fiction?

One question that came up a couple of times at Shared Worlds from the older students was: What creative writing programs would you recommend?

The answer isn’t as easy as you might think, because for those writers whose work veers toward non-realist fiction–whether you call it fantasy/SF, surreal, magic realism, or whatever–the best programs may or may not be those traditionally thought of as “elite”.

Why? Because not every creative writing program is sympathetic to non-realist writers or to the idea of “genre fiction”. I know, for example, that Brian Evenson and Robert Coover at Brown University almost certainly have to be sympathetic to such writers–the same for the program that John Kessel is part of at North Carolina State University. Seton Hill is another example.

So my question is: Based on your own personal experience or other information, which creative writing programs in North America and the United Kingdom (in particular) are supportive of all kinds of fiction, not just realism?

I phrase the question in this manner because I am not necessarily looking to compile a list of programs that skew toward non-realist fiction, either. (The best, most healthy environment is probably one in which non-realist fiction is no more or less exhalted than any other kind of fiction, especially since many writers, like myself, write in both a fantastical and non-fantastical vein–there’s a lot of cross-pollination that’s aided by a holistic approach.)

Nor can this be anything approaching a scientific study. Nor does a program not being mentioned mean it is hostile to non-realist fiction. But, in a loose and disorganized way, I’d love feedback on this question. If there’s no current resource online (and if there is, I’m sure Cheryl Morgan will guide me to it), then I might even codify some of the results on a webpage.

At the very least, you will be helping us provide information to Shared Worlds students who are making that very important decision about the next step in their lives…

(If you’re coming here from Facebook, please comment here, on the blog, not on the Facebook status message–much easier to collate answers.)

42 comments on “What College Creative Writing Programs Are Sympathetic to Non-Realist Fiction?

  1. On the UK front, China Mieville teaches at Warwick. I think he offers a course on weird fiction (?) as part of the undergraduate English & Creative Writing degree, and is definitely core staff for their MA Writing programme.

  2. Terry Martin says:

    I’ve completed two OU Creative Writing course in the UK and while most other writers on the course haven’t been writers of speculative fiction the tutors have been very encouraging. Similarly a Creative Writing course at Lancaster University was also very supportive of my subject.

  3. Victoria University (Wellington, NZ) where I study has, by reputation, one of the best Creative Writing MA programmes in the country. Unfortunately, they are geared toward ‘literary’ writing, and seem very confused by the notion that genre can be literary. The English Lit Dept on the other hand, have some of the best papers I’ve come across which … Read morerelates to genre work. Thus far, I’ve done Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy, Huxley, Orwell, Wells, Lewis, Buffy, Le Guin,and a few others I don;t recall now. One of my HONS papers next year (Literature and Technology) has set texts by Italo Calvino, Jean Baudrillard, P.K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, Pat Cadigan, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Can’t wait.

  4. Joe says:

    Sam Kelly and David Bishop (former 2000 AD editor) have a new MA course starting this autumn at Napier University in Edinburgh with special modules in genre fiction, mostly SF&F and crime and also taking in working in graphic fiction should the students choose, or screenwriting etc, basic idea apparently not just to hone writing skills but to make them vocational so the students can adapt to and find paid work (important while waiting for a publisher to realise how astonishing your Great Novel is!). There’s a Q&A with Sam and Dave on here talking about the course: http://ebooks.epicauthors.com/?p=57.

  5. Matt Peckham says:

    At Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, genre fiction was tolerated but generally discouraged, though “acceptable” writers like Calvino, Borges, Barth, Marquez, etc. were celebrated.

  6. University of Kansas–Lawrence. James Gunn’s Center for the Study of Science Fiction has three degrees in Popular Fiction.

    University of Southern Maine-Stonecoast MFA in CW (Popular Fiction option)

    and University of Colorado at Boulder would have to have Popular Fiction okayed–they just hired Stephen Graham Jones and he promoted spec fic writing at Texas Tech U when he was there. I know he’ll do the same wherever he is.

    Thanks Jeff for compiling this! Whether or not it is complete, it will be helpful to know where popular fiction is accepted as an option.

  7. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I use realist/non-realist fiction for a reason: I don’t believe in traditional ideas of division between “literary” and “commercial” fiction, since realist fiction and non-realist fiction can fit either descriptor.

  8. But, of course, Jeff, only realist commercial fic and non-realist literary fic are any good! (Let’s see if we can bring back the brawl!!!)

  9. Cheryl says:

    Another new UK course is the one at Middlesex University, which is run by David Rain (Tom Arden) and Farah Mendlesohn.

    I don’t know of any such list online, but it occurs to me that the IAFA would be good people to point at this. Don’t expect any sense out of anyone until after Worldcon, though. Bug me when I have had a chance to decompress and I’ll see if i can connect people.

  10. Kit Reed says:

    In the UK, Geoff Ryman at Manchester and Keith Brooke at the Univ. of Essex, fershure.

  11. During my time as an undergraduate at the University of Houston, I can say with certainty that genre fiction was actively frowned upon and discouraged. It was realist or nothing. That was years ago, but judging just from the hired faculty I’ve heard about, I doubt that’s changed.

    As mentioned above, Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine is taught by James Patrick Kelly, David Anthony Durham, and Nancy Holder, among others.

    Where does Maureen McHugh teach? Doesn’t she teach at UT-Austin?

  12. That’s one valuable approach–identify genre writers who teach in programs. Also interested in just general programs that whether there are genre writers there or not seem to be just fine with fantasy etc.

  13. Kevin Toth says:

    James P. Blaylock and Tim Powers both teach at Chapman University. Some past & current Chapman professors (Gordon McAlpine, Rachel Resnick) supported non-realist fiction, while others (Martin Nakell, Mark Axelrod) actively discouraged traditional realism.

    It’s a safe place. I had a great time.

  14. Dan Chaon says:

    Hi, Jeff,

    Oberlin College creative writing program is very sympathetic to non-realist writers. Among writers we’ve had visit recently: Kelly Link, Brian Evenson, Nalo Hopkinson and George Saunders. It’s an undergraduate-only program, though.

  15. Christian Moody says:

    In addition to Brown, these are all good schools for non-realist/fantastic/etc. fiction:

    Syracuse University (I went there for grad): George Saunders teaches there and Brian Evenson was a visiting professor for a few years. Salvador Plascencia wrote “The People of Paper” as his thesis. Plenty of realist writers there too.

    University of Alabama: Kate Bernheimer and the Fairy Tale Review

    University of Cincinnati and The Cincinnati Review: This is where I am now, and non-realist fiction is very accepted (it’s what I write most of the time).

    University of Denver: Laird Hunt and Selah Saterstrom are very open-minded, and Brian Evenson and Rikki Ducornet used to teach here.

    UMass Amherst: Chris Bachelder is innovative, and Jedediah Berry wrote The Manual of Detection for a thesis here (I’m pretty sure but not 100%).

    Univ of Southern CA: Aimee Bender

    Bard: Conjunctions (as you’d know) is housed here and Bradford Morrow.

    Naropa: In the summers, both Chip Delany and Brian Evenson teach here. Sometimes Rikki Ducornet. And I think chip is at Temple during the regular year.

    I’m pretty sure that Kelly Link went to UNC Greensboro and that Shelly Jackson teaches at The New School in NYC.

    Ten or so years ago non-realist fiction was frowned upon (in my experience), but now it has made some serious headway at quite a few schools. Still, I bet there are plenty of curmudgeonly, exclusively realist programs still out there.

    Oh, and Steve Erickson and Black Clock (again, as you’d know) are out at CCA

    There are probably more–but that’s what springs immediately to mind.

    Wait–a lot of younger writers in the fantastic vein have been coming out of Bowling Green in OH too.

  16. Christian Moody says:

    Just remembered that Steven Millhauser is at Skidmore. Junot Diaz at MIT would work too. Lance Olson at university of Utah. Where does Marina Warner teach in the UK?

    A list on the web would be great, Jeff. I sometimes teach undergrad fiction and keep getting the same question.

  17. Christian: That’s a great list–thanks!

  18. The wonderful Marina Warner is at the University of Essex with Keith Brooke where they have a picture of Jorge Luis Borges on their Creative Writing page:

    The Creative Writing teaching team has a unique breadth of experience in the literature of different cultures and different forms, including novels, short stories, poetry, translation, theatre writing and science fiction. Current teaching staff include the internationally acclaimed novelist and critic Marina Warner, poet and short story writer Philip Terry, lyric writer Adrian May, science fiction writer-in-residence and children’s writer Keith Brooke and award-winning playwrights Elizabeth Kuti and Jonathan Lichtenstein.

  19. Nick Mamatas says:

    Western Connecticut State University is genre-friendly.

  20. YetiStomper says:

    I took Writing Speculative Fiction at the University of Notre Dame as taught by Fantasy author Sarah Micklem. That whole class was geared toward genre fiction and ND’s creative writing program isn’t that large.

  21. Tim says:

    U Maine Farmington has a well-respected writing program, which is unfortunately openly hostile to ‘genre’ fiction. On the other hand, it has a Lit department that offers courses on science fiction, horror, and mystery… go fig.

  22. John Kessel says:

    The MFA program at NC State University in Raleigh is indeed open and encouraging of speculative fiction. I have taught there since 1982 and helped write the proposal for the MFA (which began in 2004). The other core fiction writers on the faculty are Jill McCorkle and Wilton Barnhardt (MFA director, author of the historical fantasia GOSPEL which I think will appeal to most genre readers.

    We don’t focus exclusively on spec fic, and most of our students are doing the normal lit fic with a strong subset of writers doing regional fiction, but we try to treat it all with respect. Our first MFA graduate, William Conescu, last year published his thesis novel BEING WRITTEN (whose main character is convinced he is a character in a novel, and attempts to seize hold of the plot) with Harper Perennial. Andy Duncan and Mike Jasper are earlier graduates of our MA program. Last semester I directed to completion the theses of Dan Reade, whose novel concerns an immortal who kills random human beings at the command of god, and Elisabeth Hegmann, author of an unclassifiable series of stories and a novella set in an alternate contemporary reality. We see a lot of slipstream and I address the issues of popular fiction and literary fiction in my workshops.

    Check us out.

  23. John Kessel says:

    PS: NCSU Website: http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/graduate/mfa/mfaprogram.php

    Among recent visiting writers: Jim Shepard, Nalo Hopkinson, Karen Joy Fowler, Michael Swanwick, Samuel Delany (coming in November), in addition to Amy Hempel, Jayne Anne Phillips, Judith Grossman, John Barth, not to mention the poets!

  24. I went to the University of Windsor (Canada), and they were fairly accepting of genre. Wouldn’t say they push it, but they were fine if that was your choice. They have an undergraduate program and a M.A. Program (Note the lacking “F” on the last bit: it’s not an M.F.A. but rather a combined creative writing and academic graduate degree. You do the creative writing workshops and a book-length creative writing thesis, but you also do the Literature coursework. Sort of combined MA and MFA – you get the writing, but you can still pursue a Literature PhD afterward if so inclined. Keeps you on your toes, at the least).

  25. If a writer can’t go to NCSU (and they really oughta consider it)… and they need to wait a few years and try a low-residency program b/c of family or job committments…. might want to check out Warren Wilson College’s MFA PRogram for Writers.

    Victoria Blake (Underland Press) and Robert V. S. Redick (author of The Red Wolf Conspiracy) both went there. Like many low-residency programs, WWC has a core faculty as well as a rotating faculty, so you have to watch and wait for someone genre-friendly.

    A number of the folks John Kessel mentions above also rotate through Warren Wilson’s faculty–Wilton Barnhardt, Judith Grossman, JIm Shepard. Charles Baxter (The Art of Subtext) cycles through, too.

    And the director, Pete Truchi wrote Maps of the Imagination. Here is a link to Pete Turchi’s website: http://www.peterturchi.com/wwMFA.html… After reading about the Warren Wilson program there, check out the section called “Resources for Writers.”

  26. Hi Jeff. The Northeast Ohio MFA Program (NEOMFA), where I teach on the MFA faculty, is receptive to non-realist writing. I would say that many of the students are writing what is generally referred to as literary realism, but quite a few have been feeling their way into other veins of writing. And I was on a thesis committee for a student who wrote a YA fantasy novel, and on another for a student who wrote a collection of very slipstream-ish, weird short stories. So it’s a receptive program to add alongside the others. Thanks.

  27. Interesting to see where people are…

    One that hasn’t popped up: Amanda Cockrell runs the graduate Children’s Literature program at Hollins, one of the very oldest writing programs (founded by Louis Rubin), and she has written a lot of mythic fiction… Writers of science fiction and speculative fiction are on the faculty. The M. F. A. in writing seems reasonably genre-friendly. Jeanne Larsen’s China novels (AvalokiteÅ›vara trilogy) mix myth and history, and ramble around in the heavenly spheres.

  28. Matt Cheney says:

    Great stuff — this information will become a really valuable resource.

    The “realist/nonrealist” dichotomy may need a bit more nuance when it comes to writing programs, because there are some important practical differences that it obscures. Students will find more programs and faculty that are accepting of what might generally be thought of as literary fabulism than they will find programs and faculty that are accepting of hard science fiction and epic fantasy. Nowadays, a writing workshop instructor who isn’t familiar with the work of Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, et al. is rare; ones unfamiliar with or, if they are familiar, contemptuous of Greg Egan and Robert Jordan are more common.

    A lot depends, too, on what specific faculty members themselves know and read rather than a particular program’s mission, because teachers do generally try to teach what they know best. In the U.S. at least, there can be a generational divide in that sense; younger writing faculty sometimes have more varied experience as readers than do people who got their own MFAs in the ’70s and ’80s when workshop protocol was frequently based on a specific preference for the most kitchen-sink realism sort of writing. (I once had a workshop with the most realism-or-nothing-else instructor I’ve ever encountered, who seemed truly despondent that his most famous and successful former students were David Foster Wallace, Mark Leyner, and Dan Brown.)

    There’s often a big divide between writing programs and English department literature courses — I’ve talked with various people over the years about how open and accepting of various types of writing many lit departments are in comparison with more narrow writing programs. Lots of reasons for this, but it’s worth keeping in mind that if you see fun lit classes in popular writing, specific genres, etc., that doesn’t necessarily mean the writing program is as broad and eclectic. (Doesn’t mean it’s not, either — check out the faculty and ask questions.)

  29. I attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst MFA Program, and I wrote a weird detective novel while I was there. I’d say my work was considered on the same terms as everything else submitted to the workshops—which ranged broadly in style and approach—and that the experience was a positive one.

  30. bigtop says:

    At Johns Hopkins, Tristan Davies taught (and probably still teaches) a great course called Forms of Fiction, which trafficked entirely in non-realist fiction. JHU also had Stephen Dixon on staff until recently and the ghost of John Barth still hangs over the Writing Seminars, though Alice McDermott and Jean McGarry lend some excellent realist counterbalance to the place.

  31. Just looked up and saw Christian Moody’s excellent list. Yes, Chris Bachelder’s presence at UMass is a great boon, and they also have Sabina Murray, who’s written literary thrillers—she and Noy Holland are both excellent members of the faculty there. And I can vouch for Bard College’s undergraduate program as well. Bradford Morrow—as a writer, teacher, and editor—is one of the most versatile and open-minded people I know.

  32. I’m the Director of Creative Writing for Southwest Minnesota State University (ours is an undergrad program), and I’m a crime novelist. I have no problem with non-realist and genre work in the workshop, although I want our undergrads to have expereince with writing realist stories too. The more believable they are with those, then the more rich and complex the genre work becomes, too. Some of my best students over the past few years have been into non-realist, magical realism, urban fantasy, horror, and epic sci-fi. And zombies. Plus, I teach a screenwriting class that many of our fiction writers take, which allows them a lot of freedom.

    I saw Stephen Graham Jones mentioned already. One of the greats.

    Also, Tod Goldberg’s UC Riverside Palm Desert program is definitely non-realist/genre friendly.

    Seth Harwood, out on the West Coast, is an adjunct at a couple of places (UCLA Extension, maybe).

    Kyle Minor (somewhere in Ohio this fall) and Pinckney Benedict (Southern Illinois U @ Carbondale) should be open to non-realist work as well.

    And while I was pretty thoroughly schooled in realism at Univ. of Southern Mississippi, Frederick Barthelme also really supported my crime fiction work, and I’ve seen him be very open to some of the newer experimental and non-realist work in his classes.

  33. Mr. Kessel–I’ve sent you more than a few emails and gotten no response. Maybe they’re going into your spam filter?

  34. Thanks for all of this. I’m going to compile all of this for a page on the Shared Worlds site. And anything else that comes in over the next couple of days.

  35. Matt–Yeah–epic fantasy definitely won’t be accepted a lot of places. I still like realist/non-realist but I take your point.

  36. Lee Rogers says:

    Kyle Minor is at the University of Toledo. They don’t have a graduate program, though.

  37. John Crowley teaches creative writing at Yale.

  38. Hey Jeff, what’s the link to the List on the Shared Worlds Site so we can permanently link to it on our blogs. Thanks!

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