I recently finished teaching an 8-week, introductory fiction and intensive writing class–a course I’ve taught six times as the instructor of record, including three times during the regular semester. The course aims to teach non-majors how to read and discuss fiction, including its formal elements.
Each time I taught the course, I used the post-apocalyptic narrative to teach genre and convention. (I also imagine that a mini-unit on generic conventions of post-apocalyptic stories would complement a first-year composition course nicely, but that’s a different post!)
Needless to say, introductory fiction courses should expose students to a variety of literary styles and sub-genres, and mine (I’m hoping!) was no exception. My course, in other words, was not organized around the post-apocalyptic narrative. Moreover, the post-apocalyptic unit was positioned at the end of the course, for reasons I’ll get to a little later in this post.
In fact, because the introductory fiction course I teach is geared towards non-majors, we begin by thinking about what constitutes “good” literature: How did our novels and short stories make it onto the syllabus? Would Harry Potter and The Hunger Games qualify? We wind up having a spirited debate about what qualifies a fictional text as “worthy of study,” and I even introduce students to some of Harold Bloom’s claims about the literary canon. Thankfully, many are not convinced by his argument in The Western Canon. This discussion of “good” literature eventually opens up into an exploration of what constitutes a story as well as how and to what ends stories are told.
We conclude the course by discussing genre, or categories of stories, as well as convention, or the traditional, distinguishing elements of certain genres. In doing so, we revisit some of our original questions about the merits, components, and purpose of stories/storytelling, but we do so from a different perspective. Instead of only analyzing a singular text and its cultural/historical context, we also think about how a specific text text fits into a larger narrative pattern or tradition.
This is genre analysis, and while some consider it to be outmoded, it has a place in introductory literature courses. The tendency to tell a particular kind of story in a certain way indicates volumes about the larger world. For one, these patterns reflect a text’s historical moment as well as the social and political forces that are acting on us now. Secondly, generic conventions, and especially departures from them, are dynamic. They represent attempts to confront or remake the larger world—if only in spirit. Indeed, if literature is a site of reinvention and remaking, then studying genre unearths trends in this process as well as the motivations that underlie them.
I’ve found that the post-apocalyptic narrative particularly lends itself to teaching genre and convention to those just embarking on literary studies. Why? I find that many students are familiar with this kind of story, particularly as it is told cinematically. (Check out Filmophilia’s list of “Ten Best Post-Apocalyptic Films” for some examples. Also, students might have equal familiarity and interest in other genres, such as contemporary, American horror.) Because students already are steeped in the post-apocalyptic genre, they using can easily and without prompting discuss:
- typical plot-lines of post-apocalyptic narratives
- patterns in the presentation of this material
- departures from the standard ways in which these stories are imagined and conveyed
Their familiarity with the post-apocalyptic genre creates a firm foundation from which we can examine just one or two “case-study” texts—that is, texts actually assigned on the syllabus. To what extent is the case study representative of the genre, and what is significant about its degree of participation?
In the past, I’ve used Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as our “case-study” text. This semester, at the suggestion of a colleague and friend, I swapped The Road for the first six issues of the graphic novel series The Walking Dead, which is now a TV show on AMC. I was excited to include a new graphic novel on the syllabus; in the past, I’ve assigned Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus. Still, I was reluctant to leave The Road behind. It is a compelling story, despite its nihilism and frequent references to cannibalism. Moreover, it works really well as a case study in the post-apocalyptic narrative. So, I decided to split the difference, and I screened clips from the film version of the novel after students read Volume I of The Walking Dead.
If you’re interested in knowing more about how I taught The Road as a “case study” in the post-apocalyptic narrative, I’m posting on that topic shortly.