In September 2012, City University in London will launch the UK’s first MA in crime thriller writing. The school already offers a master’s in creative writing, which traditionally translates as “a focus on literary fiction,” but now they’re branching out to explore one of the most popular genres in publishing. According to their website:
Sales of crime thriller fiction rose by 80% in the UK alone in the last decade. There is much talk that we are entering a second golden age of crime writing. Though this time the country house has been replaced by the inner city estate. Social relevance is a major factor, as too is the quality and craftsmanship of the writing. […]
The course will look at all the key sub-genres from police procedurals to psychological thrillers, concentrating on how to craft a convincing plot, what creates contemporary suspense, and new ways to tackle new crimes.
There are two key factors addressed here that are lacking in most MFA programs.
First, genre is an acceptable form of creative writing; Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have already proven that point.
Second, while film schools regularly discuss the formal characteristics among various types of stories, English departments like to explore this vague notion of literature v. non-literature. It’s important that ideas such as plot and suspense—topics normally reserved for screenwriting and playwriting—are addressed in fiction workshops since all stories should incorporate both to keep readers engaged. The thriller simply heightens those factors.
I can already see detractors of City’s proposal saying, “If writers only learn how to write thrillers, then how can they learn the tools of crafting compelling stories?” The implied bias here is that crime fiction is ranked below “real” writing. (See point number one above.) In actuality, writing is writing; it’s distracting to get hung up on categorization.
Also, the inherent misunderstanding regarding literary fiction is that “literary” is actually a genre. That’s right. The same way indie films have become their own category, the so-called “serious” writing commonly considered the basis for the Great American Novel, is just another genre, not the default prose setting.
City’s new crime-thriller program is definitely not for everybody. If your genre is romance, you’re best served elsewhere. But if you want to write those types of stories, specializing is a good route to take.
Whatever your chosen genre, read everything. You might actually learn something where you least expect.