Sunday, April 10, 2011

Justin Morrill, Land Grant Colleges, and, Oh Yes, Writing: A Rant

Justin Morrill
by Libby Sternberg

When I lived in Vermont, I provided occasional commentary for Vermont Public Radio. As part of that gig, I ended up delivering a three-minute piece on Justin Morrill during a series about Vermont contributions to the country and the world.

Morrill was a Vermont Representative and Senator who introduced legislation in the mid-1800s establishing and funding colleges that combined "liberal and practical" education. "Land grant" colleges wouldn't just be devoted to studying theory. They'd combine classic liberal education with practical instruction in agriculture and "the mechanic arts."

Today, all states have institutions that originated as land-grant colleges. They range from Rutgers in New Jersey to the University of California and include anything with an "A&M" after the name. Most are public, but two elite private institutions got their starts as recipients of land-grants -- Cornell and MIT.

Okay, what does this have to do with writing? I'm getting there.

Morrill might not have realized it, but he was starting a quiet revolution with his land-grant idea. Land grant colleges eventually became the model for virtually all American colleges and universities, combining practical with theoretical, shaking off a stuffy, elitist approach to higher learning and opening it up to people who wanted to do as well as think. What a quintessential American idea!

This doing-and-thinking approach plays out across the curriculum of most colleges, with students availing themselves of highly practical majors--everything from hotel management to engineering--while still studying the humanities. Even majors that might not be considered practical (well, to parents, at least) often include some useful component -- internships and research projects that push students to think about how to use their humanities background to earn a living.

And then there's writing...

You knew I'd get to it eventually.

I wasn't an English or writing major myself. No, I studied the highly practical field of voice performance at a music conservatory. But I've had numerous occasions to encounter writing students and programs over the past several years. And here's what my window on that world has led me to believe:

While the history professor might be helping her students learn history and learn how to apply that knowledge to future aspirations (whether they lead to becoming a historian or a lawyer), writing programs--their fiction components, at least--seem to focus almost entirely on what I will call Academic Fiction. That is, prose and poetry that is celebrated, talked about, discussed and enjoyed almost exclusively by other academics.

That's fine. There's a place for that. Huzzah for those who are successful in that field!

Literary fiction that is also commercial
But there's a world of fiction beyond the edge of the campus, and most of it is found in bookstores and on e-shelves. It's called commercial fiction. Yes, it can include literary fiction. But it also includes genre fiction--romance, mystery, sci-fi, horror, young adult, historical.

I've come across outright disdain for some of these genres among some academics. (Uh, like the professor who sneered that writing historicals was cheating because the sepia tones that permeate the work make it too easy to....well, whatever. I don't even remember the rest of it.)

But generally, there's a sort of cluelessness about commercial fiction. How many college writing workshops and series don't feature a single commercial artist?

Let me pause here to celebrate two local colleges where writing profs did see the value of introducing their students to commercial fiction. Millersville University and Elizabethtown College professors both invited yours truly to talk to writing students on their campuses, and I wasn't talking about Academic Fiction.

Those two colleges and their writing professors, sadly, are often the exception and not the rule.

So, while today's music major might graduate with an understanding of music theory and some practical knowledge of the music world--how to audition, what the market is, how to get gigs--many writing/literature students graduate appreciating and admiring Academic Fiction but with no clue as to how to get an agent, what a book contract should look like, what editors in New York are looking for, what small presses are respected and which ones don't show up on anyone's radar screen, how to get reviewed, how to promote your books (which, yes, often falls to the author).

It bugs me that commercial fiction has somehow been excluded from the gated community we know as the Ivory Tower. As I've pointed out on these pages before, it bugs people like Stephen King, too, who said (it bears repeating) in his acceptance of the National Book Award:

"I have (no) patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they've never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.

"What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture? Never in life, as Capt. Lucky Jack Aubrey would say. And if your only point of reference for Jack Aubrey is the Australian actor, Russell Crowe, shame on you..."

As I said before, bravo to those who succeed in the world of Academic Fiction. But even if that's the world of letters that lights the fire in the belly of writing instructors, they shouldn't cut their students off from the rest of the writing world. Those students might not be interested in feeding their writer's soul by penning tomes they read aloud to college students as part of a writing series. They might be more interested in making enough money at writing to literally feed themselves and their families. They might want to take the theoretical and combine it with the practical, just as Senator Morrill envisioned with his land-grant college idea a century and a half ago.

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated author of a bunch of books ranging from young adult to historical to humorous women's fiction. She also writes under the name Libby Malin. She is Editor-in-Chief of Istoria Books.

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  1. Oh, I agree, Libby. There a place for both. I've never had any patience with those who curl their lip at modern fiction. I've read and enjoyed both.

    I was lucky with high school teachers who introduce both to our literature classes.

    I took a couple of writing classes in college. One of our assignments was to take a classic and do fan-fiction. There were two of us who made it a romance. Oh my goodness. We had to read parts of it aloud. We both had a very few falling asleep or yawning. They were entertained.

    One of the critics given was from the class said something about it being good for being a trashy romance. HUH? I was flabbergasted. My teacher stepped up and reminded the class that Hemingway, Steinbeck, Louisa May Alcott, and Jules Vernon weren't always classics. At the time they were written they were consider commercial fiction.

    I learned a lot from her about emotional impact. Both classes I took were about modern fiction writing although we didn't get into how to make a living by it.

  2. Thanks, Sia, for the comment and taking the time to read this. I posted a link to this on a Kindle email group, and it generated a lively discussion!

  3. When I posted a link to this blog entry at a Kindle email group, the discussion was quite lively, with some folks confused over my use of the term "academic fiction" and one or two offended by Stephen King's remarks. Here was my response:

    I used the phrase "academic fiction" not to describe the entire field of literary fiction but, rather, certain books of prose (short story collections, for example, published by a professor's university press) and poetry that have few readers outside of academe. Yes, these books can also be classified as literary fiction, but I think of them as a subset of lit fic, which actually can attract a broad readership, depending on the book. Literary fiction can also be commercial fiction in that the intent of publishing it is to....make money (for the author, the publishing house). "Academic fiction's" goal seems to be to earn the admiration and discussion of academic peers. Just my observation.

    As to literary fiction itself, I believe agents and editors would say that it tends to be more character-driven (as someone pointed out) whereas genre fiction can be more plot-driven. Those are broad descriptions, though, and obviously, there are exceptions and books that blend both well in lit fic and genre fic. Literary fiction can also be popular--Marilynne Robinson's GILEAD comes to mind (what a beautiful book). I read both literary and genre fiction. I listen to both classical and pop music, too.

    As to Stephen King's comments (specifically when he said "you think you get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?"): I can understand how this might seem offensive to those who don't enjoy a lot of popular culture offerings, but I don't believe he meant it that way. The key word is "deliberately" and the phrase that went before. King was referring to people who boast of not reading popular authors, making a deliberate choice to ignore them simply because they ARE popular. I've known people like this. As soon as something has the whiff of general popularity, they turn up their noses and walk away because, in their mind, if the general populace likes it, it's not good enough for them. King is talking about snobs, in other words, not connoiseurs.

    So, to review, my points are:

    Academic fiction, as I was using it, is a subset of literary fiction. Literary fiction can be commercial fiction. Academic fiction usually is not.

    Stephen King was admonishing snobs with his comments, not denigrating any reader's preference for literary over genre fiction.