One Monday, during the spring semester of my junior year in college, I got an email from my advisor. She was informing me, and another two dozen or so students, that later on that week we would be meeting to discuss our senior theses and the steps we should and would be taking over the next couple of months to proactively move forward.
Even now, looking back, that moment gives me a deep, scorching, gassy feeling in darkest pits of my body–my thesis was an agonizing affair that took, from the date of that email until I was finished, just over a year to complete, and if ever there was a part of me that missed college life, that part of me still would want nothing to do with that baneful piece of annoyance. What the thesis did accomplish in me, though, despite the aggravation, was something I never expected: an opinion.
Most people are done, checked out, by the time they finish school–they go head down and bulldoze through everything before them, shedding the discerned eye they once had for one that is a bit more accepting: of their work, of the flaws within their work, and of their effort (or lack thereof) in regards to everything before them.
That was me.
In my mind, the thesis was another paper. It was an essay designed to make a point, to please a professor, to stand in the way of here and adulthood and all of the (hopefully) great things within it; I was convinced. So imagine my surprise when my thesis was not that, when it actually became something more.
During that meeting, we skimmed through the steps we would be taking to erect our scholarly magnum opus. There would be outlines, reviews, more outlines, drafts, meetings upon meetings to discuss what was wrong and how to make everything right, and for the entirety of that meeting, I was fearful. Knowing what I had coming up the next year (I became an English major going into my junior year so I had a lot of catching up to do. But I graduated in four years–go me) I could not have been less excited for something like this to be weighing me down. It wasn’t until we began discussing topics that that feeling changed in me.
We were to pick anything (within reason) that we were passionate enough about that we could then speak on for 25 pages, something on which we could rally an argument that we would then actually want to stand behind. Some ideas were less inspired than others–”Why We Should Embrace Twilight as a Work of Great Fiction” is one I remember most that was about as exciting as it sounds. Some were extremely interesting. A friend of mine wrote her thesis on Appalachian literature–I can’t remember the point she was trying to make, but I do remember it being one of the most interesting to read.
Mine was an idea that, from that meeting forward, I was excited to stand behind. In theory, it was simple: Why genre fiction (fiction that could be categorized into fantasy, western, horror, what have you) should be regarded on the same plane of merit as the fiction that fell under the literary umbrella. It was my desire to prove that the fiction that strove to tell stories, to weave tales, were as important to the literary world as Flannery O’Connor’s religious examinations or Hemingway’s stories of masculinity.
What began as a simple idea, one I thought was interesting enough to write about, evolved into something else, something more.
Through my research I began to realize that the point I was trying to make, the opinion I had, wasn’t just mine alone (my professor believed this point to be too shallow, that not many people felt this way, and there wouldn’t be a lot of research available to support the argument I was trying to make). There was a split in the literary community, from your casual reader to your celebrated author–people had an opinion and the opinions were vastly different. One group believed that genre fiction was–similarly to what I was positing–worthy of higher acknowledgement. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Cormac McCarthy being among some of the greatest writers of the last 20 years, were celebrated by those who loved them, but not by those who didn’t.
Hemingway for example is one of my least favorite authors, but I can still acknowledge that he is one of the greatest of all time. The argument was that genre authors weren’t receiving the same treatment. They were lesser.
And then there was the other side of the aisle, people who believed literary was everything, that stories were more fluff than anything else, and that the true value of fiction was in making you think about some of the deeper issues in life, whether that be mortality, spirituality, classism, or whatever else. Characters, and word pictures were secondary. The themes were most important.
It’s something I truly rallied behind. Defending my opinion against my professor for a year was exhausting, but it taught me to stand up for what I thought. I didn’t care about my grade. I cared about what I thought and wanted to accurately portray that. Until recently, however, I haven’t really thought about my thesis. As an individual interested in being an author, it pops up time to time–I think about my favorite authors and their incredible ability to straddle that line between the literary academic and the entertainer. I think about the place I would ultimately fall should I be published one day. I think about it, but not as often as I did then.
But recently, for whatever reason, I began seeing something familiar: people I’m familiar with (“familiar with” ranging from those I know to those I know the name of and have met that one time) making similar points, speaking not only to the validity or invalidity of genre or literary fiction, but to the merits of fiction as a whole in comparison to its nonfiction counterpart. And it’s fascinating to see.
For me, the most interesting part of my thesis was the fact that my opinion, while shared among a number of well-spoken individuals, was not the overwhelming majority. People believed something different. Crazy, right? And the most interesting part of the ideas I’m hearing now is the same.
There are people who love stories. They love being sung to through the words from some fictional world. They love to escape, to take on the lives of someone who has never lived, but has the definite possibility to be living right next door. They love the wonder, the imagination, the far-flung parts of what we can think of coming to be in front of them.
On the other side, are those who also love stories, but who love the ones based in history, not in the minds of one sole person. They love the information, the application to life, the way it is able to influence the everyday to make tomorrow even better. And I don’t share the same sentiments of these people. I love history, I love learning, I find that some of the most interesting stories ever told are the ones that have already happened, but I’ve never understood the singular draw to nonfiction and nonfiction alone.
That’s what’s fascinating. That’s what made me write this.
My thesis is something that marked a distinct point in my life. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t enjoyable–at times it was downright torturous–but it gave me an opinion. It had me think about the way that I read, the way that I thought, what I loved and why I loved it, and allowed me to be sympathetic toward other’s views no matter what they are. That’s applicable to not only whether or not someone loves fiction or nonfiction, but also to someone’s political views, their religious views and their general views about life.
One way of thinking, one way of reading, one way of entertainment is not better than another. You or I may like it more than another, but the same can and will be said about another thing entirely. The key is to value everything. To value Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling and, yes, even Stephenie Meyer, the same as you may value Emerson, or Hemingway, or Faulkner, or Thoreau–not because one is better than the other, but because one of those authors, one of those books, one of those styles of writing is someone’s favorite and that, itself, is of value.