28 December 2009

Christmas Repost: Genre Literacy

Reposted from August 5, 2009.

So, most of you will know by now that I'm training to be a teacher. By the end of the year (the Australian academic year lines up with the calendar year) I will be qualified to teach, and will hopefully have a contract for a full time job ;)

Well. Hopefully from the financial point of view. Wouldn't I LOVE to have nothing to do but sit at home and write :D

As part of my course this semester, I have to keep a blog (you can read my uni blog here). The subject that I'm keeping the blog for is about literacy, and more specifically, about the idea that it shouldn't just be English teachers that are responsible for teaching literacy.

An interesting corollary to this idea is that there are multiple forms of literacy. Literacy is expanded to mean not just 'how to read', but 'how to read x in the context y'. Reading novels requires one kind of literacy; reading mathematical word problems requires another kind. One of my uni friends wrote an insightful post about how that means that all of us, in some areas, are totally illiterate.

Does that scare you?

It scares me a little; but mostly, I think, because I'm one of those insane people that really truly does want to know everything about everything.

How does this apply to writing?

Well I got thinking about it, you see. I've just started editing Jesscapades (would have started last week but have been busy catching up with uni); Liana Brooks has been running a series of editing posts for a while; Michelle ran into problems a few months ago with conflicting crits on her novel.

Most of us, you see, write in one or a small handful of genres, often related to each other. Most of us also read primarily in that genre/those few related genres, although our reading taste is usually wider than our writing taste. Often, we crit in those same genres.

So all in all, we know our own genres pretty well. We know the tropes, the values, the expectations and the guidelines without even having to think hard about them.

But what about a genre you're not familiar with?

I have no idea, for example, what's really expected from a horror novel. Length, pattern, rhythm, tropes - I have none of this background information. I'm ignorant about the history, the expectations; I'm illiterate.

Does this mean I can't read in this genre? Well, no. I can read anything I like, and if you're venturing into a new genre, reading's probably the safest aspect to approach it from. But don't expect to get everything right away. Don't expect to understand the rich history of tropes and expectations that have been set up, and to be able to see the connections to earlier, influential works.

Does this mean I can't crit in this genre? Absolutely not. Writing is writing is writing, and so long as you're not trying to make every story you read into a clone of something you'd write yourself, you can always find something to say in a crit. Well-formed characters, rules of punctuation, the structure of a scene - these things all transcend genre boundaries.

Does this mean I can't write in this genre? Let's say it once and for all: You can write in whatever the heck genre you want! Such is the beauty and freedom of writing. But don't expect to be an expert in your first story. Do your research. Know what's expected of the genre first. Become literate.

You don't give a two month old a chapter book and expect them to figure out how to read. You don't give a six year old Pride and Prejudice and expect them to understand it. You don't give struggling English students raw Shakespeare, at least not without a lot of structure and support. Why? Because there's no point. They're not literate in that area yet; it's meaningless to them.

I'm a pretty literate person. But I can't make the mistake of assuming that just because I'm literate in one area, I'll be literate in all. I know I'm not. But I want to become literate. I want to become literate in as many areas as is humanly possible.

And so, I'm going to make the goal: by the end of the year, I'm going to be literate in another genre. And because I know how insanely busy my final semester of uni will be, I'll be kind to myself: I'm going to pick science fiction. I've got a bit of a handle on sci fi, so I'm not starting out completely in the dark. But it's something I know I could stand to learn more about - and given some important factors in my universe of stories, it's something I think I need to know more about.

So. That's it for today.

How about you? What are you illiterate in? What would you like to be literate in? And does anyone want to join me in learning a new genre by the end of the year? :D (Yes, I have some techniques etc in mind. There Will Be Posts %-))

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