Coercion & Conformity in Horror: When the Stakes Go Through the Heart


I have a confession to make: I stopped submitting work to Horror markets years ago.

Oddly, it wasn’t about rejection – or rather, it was, but not in the way you might think.

I stopped because just reading various submission guidelines and editorial rants made by what are supposed to be professional publications and publishers absolutely pissed me off.

And this got me thinking: just how many other Horror writers have had it with submitting their work to three-year-olds?

And if other such writers are out there, not-submitting their work, how do we really know that the true best Horror stories are being told?

How do we know which way the threads of the genre are being pulled?

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“This Isn’t for Us”

I can’t vouch for other English-speaking countries, but there is something insidious afoot in the United States fiction market. With the loss of so many Old and Traditional Publishing Houses, the loss of so many quality editors, so many midlist authors, and so very much print, our fiction in all genres has bottlenecked at the river Homogeny.

No one seems to know what they want (other than an author who can make a lot of people rich at the same time and as quickly as possible). No one seems able to actually use words to express real parameters, no one seems to be able to define criteria succinctly and professionally and free of insane clown tantrums.

Everywhere is the stench of a new conformity – one that suggests that the genres are dead and classification generally useless, and another one that blurs the lines of genre requirements as though the publications themselves don’t know them.

Through this house of mirrors unpublished and new writers are being pressed… through a maze of gatekeepers whose qualifications hide behind misunderstood and ill-defined MFA degrees and unclear areas of study. We are so desperate to please a Horror editor – any Horror editor – that we overlook the absence of academic expertise and allow for the belief that because someone has a title of editor, they know what they are doing.

But there is no real school for Horror editors to graduate from. There are few jobs to get on-the-job training or mentorship.

And if we are relying on our educational system to provide guidance for and the birthing of new editors (Horror editors notwithstanding), then we are living in a house of illusions. Just as with creative writers, our educational system has redirected its focus to getting graduates employed in what amounts to “vocational” jobs – graphic arts, commercial art, copywriting, technical writing, technical editing, (and sometimes) a watered down version of Journalism.

How can anyone discover the next Lovecraft or King if editors and publishers are not educated in the literal and Literary history of the genre? If starmakers can’t recognize a rip-off of Poe or appreciate the rich soil of Pulp?

Says Steven Saus in his essay “Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Ideas: Making Speculative Fiction Speculative” (Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, New York: Penguin, c2014): “Over the last decade the hard bright lines of genre have disappeared. You can lay the blame on the reduction of actual physical bookstores, literary cross-genre courageousness, or the alignment of planets – but the effect is real…The labels sci-fi, horror, and fantasy have shifted and blurred so that it is difficult to tell where the lines are anymore…” (3)

Why this is may indeed be evidence of growth in storytelling ability, simultaneously arising alongside what is most probably a healthy trend toward better Craft and technique often associated with the Literary. But it may also be why New Horror doesn’t sell as well as Classic Horror.

In the editorial quest for originality and more writers who cut their genre teeth on the voluminous writings of the 1950s to the 1980’s, we have indeed seen some concepts of originality take wing – concepts that seem to lead out of genre and into the nothingness; into the massive pool of general fiction. According to Donald Maass in his book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques For Exceptional Storytelling, “Today, genre-bending and blending is more the rule than the exception…” something which is contributing to what he calls “the death of genre” and the emergence of hard-to-classify authors. (11)

Much of this seems to be author-driven, according to Maass, who states “the first question I get in pitch sessions at writers’ conferences is, ‘What category am I?’ When I respond with the question, ‘Where do you think your readers will look for you in a physical bookstore?’ the answer is often a shrug. ‘I just write the stuff.’ [And] while that answer can be a cop-out, it may also express a genuine indifference to traditional category borders…” (11)

Or, it could be a cop-out.

As a writer I know I feel confused about this type of author. How could you not know?

Of course, maybe this perspective stems from my years working as a library cataloguer – where characteristics of a story suggested the place where the bulk of fans would find it, and additional subject headings would ensure a bit of cross-pollination for readers seeking new authors or writings that touched their reading preferences.

But personally, I feel it comes from loving story, and a story type – a genre. It comes from years of joyous reading in that genre, and cross-pollinating it with other genre’s stories that carried elements of my preferred genre. That is where the desire to become a writer should emerge – from the seed of what has gone before, not the desire to just write and be rich… to “just write the stuff” which screams a literary ignorance that is both shocking and disrespectful of literary tradition – let alone Horror tradition.

It makes me want to take names and not waste my time or money on writers with such a cavalier, superior attitude.

Because if a writer doesn’t care enough to know where his or her story is coming from, the motivation is all wrong. The “I wrote it, you fix it and make me a star” attitude is one I have read editors complaining about. And perhaps that has contributed to the Rant Guideline.

But there is absolutely no justification for what is clearly becoming an attempt to make writers conform to nongenre story. Out there in the Real World of Old Publishers and New Writing, there is a pressure to write to a new specification – one that makes an unpublished or under-published writer feel more like a pawn than a star.

C2

When you write Horror and read in submission guidelines that your story cannot be about vampires or wizards or “like Stephen King” yet that is exactly what is being published, you have to wonder what the heck is being solicited. And when they go further and state things like: “no serial killers, no tales about survival of child molestation, no ghost stories, no post-apocalypse…” we have begun to enter the territory of censorship – not only in what you will or will not write in order to get published, but what readers will or will not find published by traditional publishers…and therefore professionally endorsed.

While it is an admitted function of a qualified editor to contribute to the shaping of the contemporary genre, it is not their function to gatekeep what type of stories are being published – the quality and choices colored by their own preferences should be the only visible, moving parts. And that should be tempered by having many editors of many tastes.

In this not-so-brave new world of homogenizing genre so that it becomes (miraculously) “literature” we are also showing our blatant disregard for the study of Literature AND genre, as well as RESPECT for Literary Critics. We are all on the same side, even when our preferences are separated by creative divides.

Publications are arising from nowhere and everywhere. They are dropping young editors in at the helm thinking that only young people know what other young (and therefore potentially higher earners with deeper pockets) people want. They seem to think parking behinds in MFA classes is enough to build knowledgeable editors in the genres…that their presence may ensure the “elevating” of genre to the Literary. Yet anyone who researches MFA’s will find the old school mindset that allows writers not to write. To come to class if they choose (i.e., we have your money, we don’t care). They don’t have to be there. If they are not in the mood. If they cannot get inspired. BUT THEY COLLECT A DEGREE.

Seriously? THESE are the people the Establishment plans to put in charge of new writers without MFAs? If a writer is that temperamental, they need academic guidance in how to get past it, in how to subvert blocks and produce writing. How else can they know how to guide actual writers who hit rough patches while under contract?

And what do we know about their editing skills and education? Editing fiction is a long-term investment in study – both as a glorified copy and content editor, and as an expert in all that has gone before, and as a knowledgeable representative of Craft. That means there should be education in Craft specific to genre as well as Literature. I haven’t seen that on curriculums. I see teaching creative writing classes…the ABC’s not the in-depth detail of mechanics which new writers WILL BE rejected for because they haven’t mastered them…

And these are again, the new editors who hold the Golden Ticket for finding positions in traditional and nontraditional publication acquisition offices.

This should disturb you. It disturbs me…Because there is indeed a learning curve for new editors. And it is not about understanding grammar. It is about having extensive, hard-won knowledge in the area one is hired to edit.

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But there is also evidence that both publishers and editors in our genre are also operating on the fact of our own collective ignorance, believing that any “good” story can make a mint and do so without vetting it in the genre history because no one really reads anymore, no one really reads genre old authors, no one really reads Literature anyway, so our editors don’t need the knowledge because today’s consumers won’t be the wiser…

This is irresponsible. And it is destroying our genre – not because Horror cannot withstand an elevation to Literary styles, but because ALL GENRES have bloodlines. And without them, writers are indeed just writing “stuff.”

If there is one thing I can say in defense of having only two American editors of Horror who came from our storied, traditional past, it is that at least these ladies know the genre inside and out. They know the history and what has been done and overdone. They know good writing technique and good storytelling. They may be inclined to accept or reject based additionally on personal preferences, but they have earned the right to do so, and at least publish qualified writers in the genre – whether the rest of us like the stories or not is actually not relevant.

But it is damning when the editing stops there in our genre…when the historical tradition of Horror writing is being ignored if not denigrated everywhere else, by what appear to be unqualified editors… The kind who rant about submissions…

And writers who just “write the stuff.”

C4

Drive a Stake Through My Heart

This has really got to stop. And I think the only way it can is for Horror writers who KNOW they write Horror to take charge of their own writing. To demand or create new publications and publishing houses, to write whatever they darned well please, and to self-educate in the traditions of both the genre and Literature.

It makes me wish the Horror Writers Association was a bit more inclusive, more of a leader. And perhaps, more of a rabble-rouser, a defender of all of our genre efforts.

As it stands, they seem to represent just one more layer of posing and imposing by their membership requirements and allocation of awards – defining authoritatively just who will be who in the genre. This means they are dictating what direction they want the genre to grow in. And it is not that they don’t sometimes have good ideas. It is that genres grow in the direction of unfettered writing.

C5

We seem in this country to have put the cart before the horse. We seem determined to dictate an American style which weirdly denigrates genre by homogenizing and re-categorizing it.

It is almost as if someone is on an ego trip, secretly planning to become THE editor who makes the genre what it will be in the future…a Svengali, a magician, the power behind the throne to lead us out of the darkness…

Except we ARE the darkness. We like it in here.

As a writer I do not care if this or that publication or editor doesn’t like this or that type of writing or story. I care that those publications are held up as the only acceptable qualifiers for Horror writers to claim on their resumes.

Punishment for deviation is swift and harsh. Self-publish, or indie publish at your own risk. Publish in an “unauthorized, unapproved” publication and you have marked yourself as some kind of unqualified degenerate bent on destroying the genre.

But I can tell you I don’t “get” this tendency to maintain an exclusive club.

In my travels I have seen quite capable writers of Horror who are shut out. They have, apparently, committed some sin. And they are, however, quite good if not very promising. I can’t help but think there are indeed readers out there who would like to be reading them right now…Yet we are – all of us, readers and writers alike – separated by this wall composed of New Editors, Establishment Editors, and fewer and fewer accessible publications.

When I complain about this, Establishment editors seem to roll their eyes and list the same few publications as the solution to my “problem.” But this just proves to me that they don’t “get it.” Whether as a submitting writer or a reader, I want to walk into my book store and find three or four pulpy magazines done just for the joy of publishing Horror.

And there are consequences to not-having these types of publications.

How do we know what direction the genre is growing in if we are not reading all of the writers who write IN the genre?

I mean pulp AND Literary… Lovecraft was pulp once. So was Poe.

How can we be sure we haven’t silenced the Next Big Thing in Horror because they are now working at McDonalds for having written a story that “isn’t for us”?

How can we complain about quality when we as a genre we are doing NOTHING to ensure that writers are nurtured and trained in the art of writing – in Craft, history, and Literature, in genre? In comics, graphic novels, and pulp?

And what IS this seemingly endorsed new trend to guide writers to write for Hollywood? To create stories that are written with the rules of screenwriting so IF they are any good there won’t be too much work to repurpose novels to screenplays?

And we expect to get LITERATURE from that? Really?

Only in America.

Thank God for the British. They seem to care too much for the genre to let the poison in…

And then I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the suggestion to submit to publications that are not American. Maybe as an American writer I want to submit nationally…

Again. REALLY?

We can’t manage to have actual publications that print Horror in this country? And you are whining about the lack of diversity in the genre? About originality? Maybe we are all too busy writing to spec for the three publications that will accept our submission on a Thursday in March, for three minutes, to do something about it. Then again, maybe some of us are writing different stories. Surreptitiously. On the sly. Without permission.

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Maybe we WANT to write like Stephen King. Or about vampires. Or wizards.

Maybe we DON’T want censors in our heads.

One has to wonder why not only are we being told what not to write, but that such is coming with the blessings of our own Establishment.

What is the motivation here? Are they just ignorant? Or complicit?

The declassification of Horror and re-dissemination of our works and authors into other genres is nothing short of assassination of our genre.

The floating of rumors that our fan-base no longer reads Horror or buys Horror is only so true insofar as they cannot FIND Horror. Or diverse Horror. Or new Horror. Or Horror writers. Or BOOKS IN PRINT.

Then to be rejected – but with the eye-opening caveat that Horror has become like Children’s picture books , itself a category that accepts only a few new authors per year and favors established authors, classic authors, and celebrities – is beyond enraging. Not because of jealousy, but because of the knowledge that this small, exclusive club of writers does not include the bulk of new genre writing.

It doesn’t include the future of the genre…but it guarantees a certain homogenization…a funneling of creativity into pigeonholes.

How do we know what is out there? What might transform the genre next? And why the heck doesn’t someone in charge of the nurturing and protection of the genre in this country CARE?

Something terrible is happening in our genre in the United States. And you don’t get to blame unpublished writers for this one. Or the Horror fan-base, many of whom have fled to Manga, Dark Fantasy, comics, and graphic novels to fill the void. God bless them for doing so – for they are saving Horror artists in the process…

I firmly believe those of us locked out of the current system need to stick together. Whether we are struggling with Craft or toying with stories, writing in more than one genre or exclusive to Horror… we need to ensure our own place in the history of this new genesis. We need to take back our genre.

We need to reject these attempts to drive a stake through our hearts, to censure the stories we want to tell.

There is no room for Vampire killers and prima donnas not wearing nighties in Horror…

C7

References

Maass, Donald. Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2012.

Saus, Steven. “Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Ideas? Making Speculative Fiction Speculative.” Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Laurie Lamson, ed. New York: Penguin, c2014.

 

 

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19 thoughts on “Coercion & Conformity in Horror: When the Stakes Go Through the Heart

  1. John Bainbridge

    Very much the same here. The publishers are now often part of some vast corporate empire. The old guys who really cared about books are think on the ground. One reason why we went Indie.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am seeing the same trend toward a rising indie market –both bookstores and publishing. Sadly, our Establishment is not seeming to even notice the sea change in author thinking. So they are not indeed seeing the bulk of the writing happening in the genres. If they are not careful, they might cease to be relevant. Horrors!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. KC, once again you make excellent points in your post! There is indeed a powerful need for excellent editors and publishers of horror, in fact, of all speculative writing. Hmmm….I can think of one person who would make such a good editor, who knows horror, and who cares about literature–that would be you! I am just making a suggestion here.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Amen, KC. They can’t see the forest for the trees. Really. This is a poor analogy: the readers (agents) of children’s books are looking for that trendy story, one with a PC, popular theme. All trees, no forest. Me? As one who reads books to children, most of the recently published books are so-so (I’m being kind, here.). The bottom line is a good story is a good story. Period. Horror falls under the same umbrella. I’m not quitting, because I know good literature. And you rock, KC. Don’t let the bad guys get you down, as the saying goes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Weirdly, I don’t think it is about doing something different as much as it is about doing it differently…When we read Classic Horror, for example, we get a snapshot of the times and anxieties of the times. We have oh so much plenty in that area of modernity! The trick is to take that old scary story and make it relevant again… I am thinking a hearty tale lurks on one of your historic walks… a ghost of a Roman soldier, perhaps, or a Roman god…a timeslip story, or a wizened magician at a turnstile…Perhaps you might meet Persephone in the woods: what would she say about development around her garden? Remember that Horror is about balancing the scales of justice and revenge, and the story might well find YOU…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. John Bainbridge

        Thank you so much for that, which gives me fresh encouragement. I’d never quite thought of it like that, and it’s very true – I’ve seen some odd things in the countryside. And there are certainly anxieties in these present times! I may now well give it a go. Thank you again.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi KC, yes, as Dr. French wrote, you should be an editor. It seems like those that are agents and publishers don’t know what they are talking about. I read descriptions of books and they are horror stories and they are everywhere on amazon – but, they are not listed as horror stories. Most seem to be listed as paranormal and that is a misnomer. Has the very word, Horror gone out of style or what??? I don’t believe it has, because in reviews I see the word horror story all the time, on Goodreads, and in the movies, and books-to-movies are listed as horror movies…so what is the problem with agents and publishers? I just don’t get it. Thank you for another outstanding essay on writing in the genre of horror.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. “Horror” has become threatened as a genre title — partly because inside our genre there is discussion about the prominence and historic position of the Weird (think Lovecraft, and Blackwood most prominently) which could be interpreted by some to mean that Horror is a subgenre of Weird, and not the other way around. Worse, the Horror of the 80’s tended to degenerate into slasher concepts and jump scare blockbusters — not the slow methodical Horror many of us prefer, and which alienated many to the use of the name “Horror.”

    Mix that with publishing’s need to find more readers “somewhere/anywhere” and so the elimination of categories, plus the Critical argument of whether anything written is by the nature of its existence Literature or not, and you have a recipe for trouble. Horror is reinventing itself, and that is not a bad thing. What is bad is not settling on the name which is the most encompassing of themes and by which we can all label and FIND it…

    Furthermore, agents and publishers and editors are all being replaced as some age-out/retire or are forced out — by young people with connections and/or MFA’s which slant their thinking away from genre conventions and tell them that they are Literarily trained…so “go forth and find Literature”… We have neglected to appreciate that Great Horror editors are Great because they have spent their lifetimes reading classic Horror and have reading experience all over the genre from pulp to Literature.

    This says to me that our genre is wide open for new, opinionated agents, publishers and editors. And we may have to start in the slush of other editorial rejections in order to surface with great new works in our portfolios!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Writers of all genres should create publishing co-ops that are owned and directed by the workers (writers, editors, illustrators, managers, marketing specialists, website gurus, etc.) Organize and prioritize the business any way you like, for both mission and profit, but cut out the capitalists at the top who hoard most of the profits while dictating narrow parameters within which creative workers can operate.

    Take over some of Amazon’s ebook market share, for Pete’s sake. 🙂 Wouldn’t that be both fun and profitable?

    May artistic freedom reign!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Where have you been hiding?! OMG, YES, YES, YES!

    This is exactly what has been floating around the mire of my own mind.The Arts need each other, not more parasites siphoning off what little profit there is to be had. And we need to start dictating the price for our work instead of discounting it in the hopes of being “discovered,” protecting each other like musicians tend to, managing our own success. That is the only way we can take charge of our own fates, to be truly self-employed as professional writers.

    Let’s DO THIS CO-OP thing! Have you looked into starting one yourself? Do you need any help?

    Like

  9. This may be one of the big reasons why many authors are going independent. I know my paranormal romance didn’t fit the guidelines of many romance publishers, nor did it fit in their restricted view of paranormal romances. Therefore, I, too, am one of those independent authors. But I do categorize my writing into the genres, I just don’t deal with incompetence (except my own) and confusing guidelines anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

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