Preface to Volume XXXIII
Years ago, I wrote a short essay about creative writing pedagogy that provoked a startling amount and intensity of response. Authors never write headlines, and “No More Zombies” would not have been my choice. It was about my frustration in a creative writing class where all that any of the students wanted to do was engage in alt-world building. The email flood consistently and strategically mischaracterized my approach as forbidding students to write fantasy, or demanding that they limit themselves to kitchen-sink realism. I did find that they were completely avoiding connecting with problems that real adult humans encounter, and increasingly convinced that this was precisely the purpose for their flight into genre – to avoid, to escape exactly the chores that serious literature tackles.
A maybe subtle point here: the writing of escape literature I acknowledge a craft, not an unworthy one (but I won’t pretend to think reading and writing for escape is as high and human a calling as doing these things for engagement). Writing for escape – as with the student who shows up in class and says “I write only to please myself” — that’s nothing I can help with. Some of the less glowering emails pointed out that it is perfectly possible to write fantasy that engages real human needs and concerns, Yes, that had occurred to me. Perhaps a better teacher could’ve gotten them to do just what so many letter-writers, and I myself, knew was needed: to get them to do the work of literature within the genre.
But that is exactly what the fantasists didn’t want to do, and in just the same way, the science fiction writers didn’t want to be held accountable to actual physics or credible biology. They wanted merely to operate the machinery of the genre. All longtime teachers know that a given class can take on a collective personality. This one just wanted to dream – and its reveries were sometimes disturbing. Too many wanted to seek out new worlds, and new civilizations – in order, evidently, to exterminate them. But even those didn’t have the genuinely transgressive feel that made have lent interest. They were just narrative logs of first-person shooter sessions. Derivative of derivations. That is what was driving my classroom despair.
That semester passed, and was followed by different classes with different personalities. No, dear correspondents, there was never a ban on zombies. And GHLL has never had a rule against speculative fiction. There was just very little good spec-fic coming in, in the sense of a world constructed to provide a space for human problems and experiences to be explored in novel ways. Fully ninety percent of over-the-transom manuscripts in general are not right for us, and for all kinds of reasons that can’t be characterized as issues of quality (for instance, we don’t have a lot of use for religious inspiration or nostalgia-work or political polemic – all of which can be fine in their own way, but the taco stand isn’t selling egg rolls, just isn’t).
Well, this cycle brought a different mix, and we got some really good stuff. I asked our interns this year to study back issues of the journal, and to formulate, empirically, what we seem to like. They were firm in saying that GHLL is about real human beings, real experiences, real problems, processed within recognizable literary craft. I agree, whether we’re talking about the poetry that Joe Benevento has once again so astutely selected, or the nonfiction which has been a steadily increasing proportion of the magazine in recent years, or the fiction. We are glad this time to include Susan Taylor Chehack’s “Ursine” – it has a carefully wrought arc from realism into dream. And Wayne McCray’s uncanny “Meeting Homeless,” which takes place not exactly in a constructed world, but it’s a little sideways from the one we inhabit, and in ways that make its explorations of emphatically contemporary concerns both appealing and unsettling. Ann Vandenberg’s “SOL 3013” is, to my best recollection, the first piece we’ve published that I’d characterize as SF.
We haven’t changed. We are fortunate again to channel solidly crafted, deeply felt poetry and prose. Zombies welcome.
ABD, Kirksville, July 2022