Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Trends of College Writing

So this semester I am taking my second fiction writing class since starting college. These classes have worked on a workshop type system, where the whole class reads a person's work and then discusses it as a group with the author present. I love these classes, but I've noticed something - there are very distinct trends in the topics being written about by my peers. I thought showing these trends might make for an interesting blog post, so here we go!

TOP FIVE TOPICS FEATURED IN COLLEGE FICTION
(*please note, many stories feature a combo of these)

5. Writers Write Writers

I guess it's part of that write-what-you-know mentality, but I am seeing a lot of stories about people who write. Some characters are writers, some are aspiring writers, and some just turn to poetry at random to get out their emotions. Whatever the case, our workshops have many-a-time featured writing protagonists.

4. Dream A Little Dream
We've had A LOT of stories that involve dreams in my writing workshops. And of all those dream related stories, only one was supernatural. All of the others were contemporary, using dreams as a plot device. No matter how many times our professor lectures us about the use of dreams, they still keep popping up. Is Inception to blame for this? Let's ponder this, shall we?

3. A Bad Childhood
Countless stories have cropped up this semester about protagonists who've been through tough childhoods. Most often, this was parental abuse. We've seen lots of these, all full of angst. Almost every character's backstory deals with abuse of some sort. I'm wondering why this topic is on my generation's mind?

2. The Not-Always-Virgin Suicides
This hasn't cropped up as much this semester as last, but we've had tons of stories in class about suicide. Murder, too, but those usually end in suicide. We've had attempted suicides and successful suicides. Just a ton of characters who want to off themselves! Some of these stories have been AMAZING, but wow, between this and the abuse, some heavy subject matter going down in these workshops.

1. Drugs, Drugs, Drugs
Oh, yes. This was probably a no brainer, though, right? But it seems like almost every story workshopped in my classes involves drugs in some way. Maybe its only a little pot in one story, or a full blown cocaine addiction in another. Whatever the case, these characters are getting high. In some it ends badly, and in others it's glorified. But I feel like this subject matter is less generational and more transcendent. College kids will be writing about drugs fifty years from now, just as they were writing about drugs fifty years ago.


To be clear, I am not saying any of these are bad. Not in the least. I'm just pointing out some very common themes in college writing classes and raising a general question of "Why are these particular themes so common?"

That said, there is one other theme I've noticed that worries me, and since it relates to my post yesterday, I'll mention it here.

In the past three weeks, I've read two different stories with two different plots, both by young men in my class. Both featured one thing and one thing only in common. A male protagonist sleeping with a sexually aware, sexually aggressive female who the protagonist painted for the reader as "shallow" or "disgusting" in some way.

I mentioned yesterday the double standard in the media, but noticing this today took it a bit farther from me. These are not the only stories I've seen in our classes that feature women in this light, just the most recent. And while the writing was beautiful in both and the stories were both wonderful, I was taken out of the plot by the offensive way the men viewed their sexual partners.

I was often left wondering this: if the women are so "shallow" or "disgusting" for having/wanting so much sex, why isn't the main character just as shallow or disgusting for sleeping with them?

I won't go into another rant on the double standard here, since yesterday's post talked about my opinions in full detail. I am happy to say that, in our workshop today, other female members of my class spoke up about this and stated their offense. The author later said he intended it to be a parody, a way of criticizing his main character, but the consensus was that this needed to be made clearer.

I'm proud of my peers for standing up and expressing the offensiveness of this topic today, but I still worry. Two stories in three weeks with this same portrayal of sexually aggressive women? I don't like those numbers. And I really, really hope this isn't the mentality of the males in my generation.

8 comments:

Ariana said...

I'm in a really great creative writing workshop in my class, and I've noticed many common themes as well - most people write "dark" subjects, who deal with drugs or prostitution or psychological problems.

I only have three boys in my class so I can't offer more insight on their pieces. Any girls that have been written by them have been relatively normal and well-rounded. But your observations are very interesting. I hope that isn't the dominating mentality either.

Ashley Hastings said...

Oh, the writing workshop--such a strange and wonderful experience.

I always find it interesting how most of my classmates seem to think they have to write such dark and depressing stories. (Some compelling, others not so much.) If it's not about the general suckiness of life in your 20s (2 stories in my current class) then it's cancer (2 stories), children being abused or dying (3 stories), or some kind of self harm (one suicide and one eating disorder). I gotta say it starts to wear on you week after week.

(Of course, maybe I'm just biased since my story was about a 16 year old spy sent to a public school to infiltrate the popular group. Lol.)

Shaun Hutchinson said...

Kody - This whole "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma has been going on for ages. It's a common theme that men want to have sex with women but no longer respect them once they get what they want. Girls are slutty if they do but prudish if they don't, and men are awesome if they do and weak if they don't. It's a terrible worldview and I can't wait for the paradigm shift that carries that kind of thinking away.

However, it's not only the boys who are propagating this frame of mind. One of the common themes I see in books (especially of the paranormal romance variety) is the pedestalization of the badboy while the genuine, good guy is pushed to the side. I think this is so prominent in paranormals because things like sucking blood or curses or the awakening of powers can be strong metaphors for sex and sexual exploration. But clearly there is a market for the type of guy who can and will hurt a girl if given the chance. Girls can argue that the value in such stories isn't in the badboy himself, but in the redemptive powers of love, but the point is that so long as girl value a "badboy" over the more sensitive type of guy who is often left rotting in the friend zone, men will continue to feel that they should BE this type of guy.

I don't want you to think I'm holding guys blameless. Because we're far from blameless. But it's a far more complex issue than most people are willing to consider.

Can't wait to read SHUT OUT :)

Kody Keplinger said...

I actually COMPLETELY agree with you Shaun.

I won't lie, I am a sucker for a "badboy." But I think there is a difference between a damaged, brooding, misunderstood male lead and an abusive or chauvinistic asshole. While I"m a HUGE fan of redemption stories, I do think it is unfair that good guys are always in the dust. I'll admit, THE DUFF features a "badboy" getting the girl, and I love my own ending. But I think the problem arises when EVERY book has this ending.

We're sending bad messages on both sides, in my opinion.

thebloodfiend said...

As Shaun said, double standards are a problem for both genders. It's why I don't read chick-lit or anything written by Brett Easton Ellis. On the one hand, we have women being portrayed as dirty and disgusting, and on the other, our female protagonists always get with the attractive well off man, leaving the nicer, somewhat geeky guy in the dust.

As you can tell, I think Ducky should have gotten the girl, and I can't list one John Hughes movie that had a decent romance. I like redemption stories just as much as the next guy, but I can't stand when the good guy is ignored so the girl can fix the bad guy. BTW, I don't think that's exactly the case in the Duff, I just wish the situation with Toby Tucker had been handled a little better because I liked Wesley and Toby.

On the topic of repetitive themes. One teacher at UCLA said that the majority of first time plays have the entire cast dying in the end, a la Hamlet. Morbidity, drugs, and sex are on the minds of many teenagers. But I don't get the writers write writers bit. None of my characters write, or want to be writers. But I guess that's because, unlike Stephen King and co, I never wanted to be a writer when I was a kid.

Phoebe said...

Having taught undergrads creative writing, I can tell you that this post is spot-on. My theory has always been that, for a lot of young writers (my former-self included!), a creative writing class is a venue to try to say something about yourself as a writer, rather than to really explore one's creativity. Hence a lot of dark stuff, or a lot of sexual stuff, or a lot of stuff about drugs. Since college is a time to try on different personas, it's easy for young writers to use a workshop as a venue to take a new personality for a test drive.

I, for one, will never forget the pink-clad sorority girl in my undergrad poetry workshop whose poems were all send-ups of Plath's "Daddy." :)

Shaun Hutchinson said...

Kody - Totally agree! I'm just not sure everyone knows how to tell the difference. I've dated enough assholes to know that there's a fine line between a guy who's damaged and a guy who's a jerk.

But yeah, I think there's a place for all these types of characters but sometimes the narrative seems so one-sided that people forget that there are other types of characters. KNow what I mean?

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