The Protagonist Next Door: Where Horror’s Best Critic Says We’re Going Wrong


The question of how American Horror lost its scariness is a daunting one.

So if you are one of the many who are baffled by how we wound up in this unscary place, rest assured that even the Critics are mystified. There are speculations, of course; I myself have made several. But when it comes to really looking at the problem, we have to get into the technical issues – everything from tropes to convention and the literal execution of story.

Because Horror as a genre is just beginning its official Literary Critical journey, we are also at the beginning of the kind of intense excavations literary analysis will bring – along with its insights and – yes – opinions. So for those of us pondering the mystery of missing horror in Horror, we can and should look at the earliest of Critical argument as the hunt for the scary expands – in this case, an interesting theory put forth by one of our first and foremost Literary Critics in the genre, S.T. Joshi:

That our choice to write our protagonists as everyday people has undermined the potent power of Horror.

 

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Literary Critic, and imminent Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi

 

The Premise

In his absolute admiration for the fathers of Weird fiction – Lovecraft, Blackwood, Dunsany, James, Machan and Bierce in particular – S.T. Joshi has become a major authority on the subject of Weird fiction, especially where Lovecraft is concerned. His intense study has taken him interesting places, and as he has Critically begun to document the structure of Weird fiction (defining what makes Weird, Weird), he was quick to notice an interesting point about our protagonists: we have made them increasingly ordinary.

Is this, Joshi ponders, the vehicle by which we have lost our way? And are we simply writing bad Weird fiction (and not Horror at all) because we have broken a cardinal rule of it? Does great Horror require a certain type of protagonist?

There is one thing we can all agree upon: one of biggest differences separating contemporary Horror writing from that which up until now defined the irregular but interesting shape of the genre is the choices we make in characterization. Specifically, it is the rise of the “common” protagonist in modern fiction – our embrace of the everyman or woman who is just like us, caught doing nothing out of the ordinary, and who is suddenly faced with Horrors we are doing an equally bad or inconsistent job of revealing.

Joshi theorizes that this is in fact “a” (if not “the”) fatal flaw resulting in declining scariness.

The most easily recognized ring leader of this newer perspective has been Stephen King. And many would argue justifiably, that this is precisely why we like him. So it is ironic that at least for one Critic, the ordinariness of King’s characters is a pointed reason why Critics in general have developed an equally passionate and opposite opinion of his work.

This is also an example of our communication gap – revealing that fans, writers, and Critics often do not share the same values system.

Where Joshi’s position about the common-person-as-protagonist is clear, we often disagree about its importance in scaring. What, we wonder, is so bad about creating or reading about a main character based upon ourselves?

And aren’t we as writers creating a new, modern influence on writing conventions not so very different than the rise of the first person narrative?

Or are Critics right that we are (by creating ordinary protagonists) causing our own stories to flatline?

And what about style? Have we as readers and writers mistaken King’s style for a convention change – one we should not be imitating?

We tend to defend our choices: such characters have jobs and dysfunctions like us, speak like us, have the same nagging worries like us; we identify with them. In fact, we often pay a great deal of lip service to those carefully crafted similarities, mistakenly thinking we are showing our World View hand, creating a literary element that roots our fiction in this precise moment of time.

But what we are actually doing – according to Joshi – is making our Horror banal, our monsters underinflated, and our protagonists just plain boring…

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The Critic and Criticism (at Fifty Paces)

What is important is that we remember we are all on the same side, suffering the same frustrations when we curl up with a Horror story that promises us the kind of fright that will pry our eyelids open for endless nights of residual terror, only to find ourselves distracted by the promise made on yet another book cover blurb…

Critics are equally baffled at how precisely we got here. But there is little work actually having been done with regard to exploring the problem (in case you are interested) because of two major reasons: one is that older Critics never really looked at Horror as its own established genre – so there is a messy thing happening when works are compared with no set criteria – complicated by the constant repurposing of terms and ideology in the genre even by our own writers. And this subsequent lack of established and agreed upon rules for the genre is our inheritance because up until this point (second reason) in the field of Literary Criticism, we have had no cadre of dedicated Critics analyzing our genre.

Analyzing the genre means setting up agreed upon definitions and rules. Then arguing about them. Then deciding after all of the arguments, which argument was right and balances all future arguments…all before we can name our Canon works and authors.

(English majors wondering what you can do with your degree, this is your chance to get in on the ground floor of a once-in-a-lifetime event: the official establishment of a genre in Literary Criticism…from the bottom up. Have at it…)

We need our own Literary Critics dedicated specifically to the Horror genre, whose job it is to establish these perimeters and definitions that will set the accepted criteria for the genre…including what it should be rightfully CALLED.

Whenever a Critic tries to begin the Critical process on a work or an author today, he or she immediately collides with the kinds of contradictions in terms that happens when a genre has been growing wild like so many weeds – but with actual roots and flowers that are intrinsic to a real, established genre all mixed in. There is research, reading, study, sorting and discussion to be done. And all of that is going to lead to serious debate.

These include arguments over even what basic conventions and tropes will be deemed acceptable, expected execution of Craft, as well as deciding which authors and which works are seminal to the genre and therefore Canon works – establishing in turn our own very first actual genre Canon.

(Because yes, Virginia, we have NO HORROR CANON until the Literary Critics establish one – Because that is their job; that is what they DO. If you want in on that action, you need to get your BA, your Masters, and a Ph.D. Period. All other discussions are secular and moot.)

And there are some very interesting questions to be resolved….many of which come to light when we ask the simple question why isn’t modern Horror scary anymore?

Are we looking at different types of Horror? Is it about subgenre? Is it about modern times versus the past and our technological differences? About our religious ones? Our regional ones? Our geography? Our culture? Is it about short story versus novels and word counts? Is it about the narrative we now abbreviate? About word choice? The length of our sentences? The backstory we edit out? The monster we edit in? Or is it something as basic as the building blocks of perceived convention? Is it about the characters we design?

S.T. Joshi started his probing by comparing what he considers the most successful of Horror – Weird Fiction – with the stuff we write now. And what he found is thought-provoking, especially because his research is thus far more comprehensive and/or available for laypeople to read and contemplate. This is a contributing factor to my referring to him as the “best” Critic in the genre.

So I mean no disrespect to China Mieville (who I genuinely wish would write a Critical tome about the genre and his Critical interpretations, if only for the sake of comparison and contrast)… or to Noel Carroll, whose work in the area of philosophy within the genre is equally thought-provoking.

However, because Joshi (himself a former fiction writer in the genre) is a world-renowned authority on Lovecraft who has published at least four seminal Literary Critical works on Horror and Supernatural Fiction (The Weird Tale, The Modern Weird Tale, Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction in two volumes) which have made him a foundational Critic for the genre, there is more accessible information to study and consider with respect to the genre for future Critics, writers, and fans of Horror.

But I also appreciate his honesty, and his tendency to write for the layperson if not to the layperson.

Joshi has opened a window for those of us who always wondered what Critics do and how they do it, even if it means he disagrees with those of us who appreciate other facets of the genre; at least he explains his process.

Joshi readily admits to us a favoritism towards the Weird and Lovecraft, and to having a professional and personal aversion to most modern writers, of which Stephen King takes the brunt of his angst. And like all other Critics, his frustration about what is going wrong in modern Horror also remains ours: not only is Joshi perplexed at what is causing so thorough a failure of modern writing to produce actual horror, terror, dread, or fear in the manner to which readers of older genre works have become accustomed, but why is writing that is so much like King’s all that remains of our formerly vibrant genre? Where is the creative diversity?

Yet also, how is it that so many fans are adamantly enjoying King if King is doing something Critically wrong in his writing? Are we all simply uneducated or undereducated in the ways of Literature, or is King doing something not even Critics have figured out the value of yet? Are Critics biased? Or are we?

This brings us back to characterization – the most noticeable change in Horror since the Weird writers wowed us all. For Joshi, the first complaint is laid at the feet of the modern protagonist. And nobody does the modern protagonist as ordinarily as King.

(Keep in mind this is for the moment okay: it is by virtue of his success and popularity that Critics cannot choose to ignore King. But they do have to understand why whatever works with King works better with him than with anyone else writing modern Horror…Kind of a complement, really…)

 

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The Argument

In reading Joshi, one has always to remember that being among the first Literary Critics looking professionally at the Horror genre, he is overwhelmed with the need to constantly create definitions for terms he needs to use to do his job. One of those terms, for example, is the actual name of the genre, and the hierarchy of subgenres. Joshi admits that he is not certain yet as to whether what we call Horror is not just badly done Weird Fiction, or if one is a subgenre of the other. So when we read Joshi, we have to think laterally – accepting that he is also discussing Horror when he uses the term Weird, as he is sorting out criteria as he observes them. Naming the genre officially, then, could take a while.

But this has no effect on the point he makes about our newest interpretation of protagonists and the level of ordinariness we have layered them with. Keep in mind also, that commercial success is to most Critical thinking an anathema to all that is holy in Literature: sales figures simply do not correlate to the Literary “soundness” of a work. Commercial success is about the attractive outer clothing; Literature is about the hidden, academically derived technical soul of the work.

Says Joshi:

“One reason why the weird tale has become both commercially successful and, in my view, literarily problematical, is what Stephan Dziemianowicz has termed the ‘banalization’ of horror. This means the increasing concern of weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy (most of us are, after all, pretty ordinary) and to lay the groundwork for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm.” (Joshi 6-7)

It is hard to not interpret this as Joshi thinking writers have become lazy in devising ways to create relevant fiction that should instead connect through its Weird I.V… over-relying on characterization and distracting details in the place of building a better “monster” or monstrous epiphany.

I get what he is saying here, and I agree but only up to a point, and this is why I say Weird fiction is in fact different… I agree that in Horror we are relying too heavily on extraneous details – complex relationships, distracting backstory…all in a strange attempt to disguise the elephant in the room we all paid to see… It does not make sense, it does seem superfluous and pointless – except in the writer’s desire to connect the story to the audience. By its proximity and our miseducation about the genre in general and the Weird in particular, our Horror “sins” have dirtied the face of all subgenres – including Weird fiction. Not seeing boundaries, not understanding boundaries, we have overrun them; we have contaminated Lovecraft’s perfect child.

But are we wrong in the rest of the genre – in the Petrie dish of new genre fiction – to be attempting to make our characters and our entry point of Horror ordinary?

And here I have to question the condemnation. Is this desire to connect more deeply with a modern audience we are told does not connect with old-style narrative reflected by a natural growth of the genre narrative?

In other words, are we legitimately responding to the needs of our audience in order to be read?

Is this as natural a “change” in narrative style as transitioning to the first person was in its day?

If not, why not?

Continues Joshi:

“In the end this technique is not so different in approach from Lovecraft’s brand of realism, although he emphasized topographical over psychological realism. Although this dwelling on issues that are of concern to most normal people – relationships between husband, wife, and children; difficulties on the job; problems of modern urban life – is a very large reason for the success of writers like King and Straub, it does not seem to me as if this should be the primary focus of weird fiction. This is not what Winfield Townley Scott meant by touching ‘the depths of human significance,” especially since most weird writers treat these issues superficially and sentimentally, and without sufficiently integrating them the weird scenario.” (7)

Well when you say it like that…

It would appear to me then that the issue is not ordinariness, but our ineptitude in turning that ordinariness into a vehicle to introduce, engage, and surrender to the Weird (or…Horror).

It implies that we are clumsy and do not thoroughly recognize the tool we have in our hands as a tool…we are chimpanzees at a canvas.

A little insulting, I know. But is it true?

Is underdeveloping the full complement of story why we are writing superficial Horror? Maybe we see the importance of the job loss, the World View impact of our modern Technology Revolution…but if we leave it a dangling modifier on the page…it is still bad grammar. It is still awkward usage. It is still lacking the full impact even we as writers wanted it to have…

So maybe Joshi is onto something here. Let’s go further. Joshi continues:

“Many modern weird writers do not appear to have taken much notice of Lovecraft’s words on this matter: ‘I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos – to the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.’

“Weird fiction should never be about ordinary people. Even if one does not ‘adopt’ the cosmic attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary.” (7)

So Joshi reveals that it is not only our technical faults, but a misdirection of focus.

And this is true…we most certainly do retain the focus on our characters – not the monster or the monstrous. We seem to do this like babies reach for blankets – mistaking their soft warmth for mom. And that action is reinforced by the motivation for money and sequels. We don’t just leave the door open – we remove it from its hinges.

Yet It is so easy to hear arrogance in both the Critical voice and Lovecraft’s voice, we tend to react from the gut… it feels like classism – something that rattles us to our primal cores. We first interpret those words “ordinary people” as “common” in the vernacular of upper classes and inescapable caste systems, the concerns about family, food, and shelter as “incapable of captivating fancy” when most of us lose so much of our lives in the struggle to support those concerns, fancy never enters into it. It is a “how-dare-you” moment that prevents us from hearing what is being said. From hearing each other.

Lovecraft, for all his petty arrogances and bigotries, is saying something important about writing. About story.

Lovecraft is saying there is an elephant in the room and we are talking drapes and wallpaper.

Granted, in some cases that may be the Horror of it… But when we were clearly aiming for something else and didn’t deliver it, we have to admit it is time to take a hard look at how, where, and why we failed.

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A Rebuttal (Still Not Scary, Now Paranoid About Writing Protagonists)

Maybe we have to stop opening doors…maybe we need to let the monster – like Schrodinger’s cat – both be and not-be behind the door…to be dead and not-dead at the same time…

We can’t do that if the happy couple goes off thinking the Horror is over…even if we leave teasers suggesting it might be otherwise. I think we have to do more than suggest it: I think we have to communicate that because it is far bigger than us, older than us, more supernatural than us…we are blips on its radar, mere morsels to be snacked upon on the way to world domination, to the annihilation of humanity…Cthulhu sleeping at the bottom of the sea…

But I don’t think it means our protagonist cannot be the guy or gal next door. I don’t think it doesn’t mean we can have him get mugged, or laid off, or be a drug addict. But I do think that details that affirm those character supports cannot be left to overgrow the rest of the monster garden…they are backstory and must remain backstory; the monster must be front-and-center, even when he is just offstage.

Which makes me then ask…are we really talking about emphasizing the wrong character arc?

And if we choose the monster’s beginning, middle and end…will we be dinged for failing to show properly dimensional characters?

Of course this is a matter for Critics to discuss. That’s why we need more Critics.

We also cannot pretend that our religious orientations might not color our views of detail like what the differences are between Weird and nonWeird fiction and why we have lost the scary gene; indeed, both Joshi and Lovecraft come at Weird from atheistic angles. That in turn potentially colors Criticisms that Joshi might find a work as far too saccharine or silly for its author’s attempts to infuse religious messaging or morals into a work, yet too shallow if it didn’t offer something…but then it might also mean he has made a point. It might mean we have limited our audience and made our story trite instead of “touching the depths of the human experience…”

It might just mean that whether we are talking Horror as Weird or Weird as Horror that where we have gone wrong is not in how we see the protagonist at all…but how we see the monster.

Maybe Joshi and Lovecraft are right.

Maybe our modern Horror disappoints because we really want to think ourselves far more interesting than monsters dreamt of. Maybe we really do believe that Cthulhu can’t get us if we see him first; that we are smarter, and more worthy of survival.

Because after all, there really is nothing scary about that…

 

References

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2001.

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Late-Breaking, Horror-Shaking News: Editor Paula Guran Inches Toward Retirement


If you don’t know who Paua Guran is, you aren’t reading enough Horror…

Guran has been one of the three major contemporary editorial contributors to the genre, most recognized for her excellent work on the Prime Books annual “Best of ” collection, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, but also for her prolific work on countless anthologies that for decades have served up some of the more interesting and innovative Horror anthologies – often with a delicious side of Dark Fantasy and fairy tale influence.

She is, by far, my favorite American Horror editor. And in times when it is increasingly hard to get our hands on British Horror, her collections have offered a complimentary creative contrast to Ellen Datlow, whose influence continues to showcase better constructed Horror with Literary inclinations, but without that feel of adventure. Guran has been the “heart” of the genre, going for the emotional center.

In her latest annual Best collection for 2018—her forty fifth anthology – she announces in the About the Editor note that “after more than a decade of full-time editing, she’s now freelancing..” having downsized her life and her work to more relaxed levels with “mixed feelings.” (Year’s 511)

She is not alone in those feelings… American Horror is taking a hit.

And I have one thing to say:

Noooooooooooooooo!!!!!

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Say It Isn’t So…

The rise of the anthology in Horror fiction has done several very important things: it has provided a forum not unlike early Horror magazines in which readers have a chance to “discover” writers they could not find anywhere else, to “discover” new writers in the genre, and to get a feel for what Horror writers are writing about. But they also have provided a unique opportunity to understand what the field of editing is all about – not the sweat and grit of proof-reading or slush-pile skiing, but the kind of work editors used to do – back when they discovered writers and nurtured them a bit, guiding them into other publishing and awards territory – in essence, contributing to the genre an editorial style – not so much as a star-maker, but as a representative of chosen stories, subgenres, and “accent”…

In the Olden Days, readers read books curated by certain editors. Editors had fan-bases. We seem to have lost that connection with editors. And it is a shame.

Datlow, I think, will always be underestimated by readers for the work she has done for the genre – because her anthologies carry less obvious “voice” and because of her own preference for what I see as literary artistry. But Guran will be equally obviously missed for the solid sense of presence and voice in her selections. Where Datlow to me represents refined technique, Guran is just plain fun. With Datlow, I see something of the intended editorial future of the genre; with Guran I see the pulp roots of yesteryear bleeding through. Between them both, we had a fine balancing act doling out tradition and inspiring different aspects of our Horror future.

Now it feels like the wheels are coming off…

We are losing a highly representative voice of “accessible” and “achievable” Horror goals, leaving some of us to feel we are being refined right out of our own genre.

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Guran has been around the genre for some time…quietly rattling the cages of some pretty awesome beasts. According to http://paulaguran.com/about/:

“In an earlier life she produced DarkEcho, a weekly email newsletter for horror writers and others, for over six years (1994-2001) and was recognized with two unprecedented back-to-back Bram Stoker Awards for Nonfiction from the Horror Writers Association (1998 and 1999) as well as an International Horror Guild Award (1999) and a World Fantasy nomination (1997). She began producing the horror portion of the pioneering professional Web publication OMNI Online in 1996 and became the Literature Editor of Universal Studios’ HorrorOnline in October 1998. (Many of the now-outdated interviews, articles, and reviews she produced from 1995-2006 are archived on DarkEcho website—which she will, someday, cleanup and sort out—she hopes.)”

Do you realize what an awesome resume that is? All before she became the Senior Editor for Prime Books…

Yet there is more to Guran’s impact upon the Horror genre.

Ultimately, a major part of her legacy-in-progress will be her own contribution to the “shading” and gender-blending of Horror. She has been integral along with Datlow in the decisive attempt to bring more diversity to the ranks of published authors. Between the two of them, we see far more women being published and being awarded in the genre, far more minority voices, helping to eradicate that myth that only white males write great Horror.

But we have so much farther to go… I hope Guran has an understudy…. somewhere out there…

Someone who will rise in the genre to become the kind of editor she has been – one with eyes in the back of her head and at least one of them focused sharply on the future.

But editing is not something that publishers seem interested in grooming. They seem product-focused, not genre-focused… seeking what sells, not what shapes.

And our educational system is conducting itself in very similar ways. Editing tends to be one course in all of the university writing or classics undergraduate major courses, too-often about nonfiction, and it often isn’t required. No one talks about how to edit fiction. No one teaches it. No one really writes about it.

In fact, the only way one can learn it is by teaching oneself – reading other writers’ work, reading how-to’s written for writers on how to “fix” flawed fiction, reading essays on the emotional and etheric experience of editing. Nothing is out there offering a blow-by-blow instruction or introduction. And there are just not enough established and reputable publications out there who will hire an editor-wannabe for the purpose of mentoring into a powerhouse editor of a single genre.

This is slipshod and irresponsible. And it is all we have. The field of editing has become crowded with MFA folk who know no more about editing than I do, who are also writers who would rather be writing than editing, who “fall into” editing opportunities without any particular credentials or training, and often who appear to be some kind of network hire, a “connected” person instead of a proven editorial savant.

How can we get great editors if we are treating them the same way we are treating writers in our genre? Staring out over an open field of wildflowers with a glassy-eyed shrug, and deciding to judge only those who make it into a special-delivered vase on our desk?

We need editors who are trained….Like it needs to be its own DEGREE…. supported by study in classic Literature, Literary Criticism, and training in Craft.

We also need more flexibility in how academics look at the genres. Sure, genre writing is rarely Literary. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be capably executed or that its editors should not be very well-read in the genre they intend to edit.

Between training writers and training editors in mechanical basics and academic Criticism in and around the foundation of Classic Literature – how can we help but grow a few Literary writers and better readers? How can we miss creating better editors who create better books, which create better sales and better Publishers?

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Eclectic is Good. And It is Necessary.

As much as an editor like Datlow is to be appreciated, editors like Paula Guran become beloved. The only predictable thing in her anthologies is the unpredictable… There will be tales that are offbeat, unique in protagonist or setting… clear roots to the better traditions of Horror no matter how campy or Literary. And that is important.

Eclectic is good.

Eclectic is necessary.

And we cannot let our Establishment ever forget that, because in the rush to Literary style we have started to lose some serious essence.

It has often felt as though in our genre we are so focused on elevating our Craft, of impressing dead Literary Critics that we are totally forgetting the fan out there – the reader of Horror who wants some fun along with that technique, who wants more than anything to be scared – if only for a moment.

Everything in Horror does not have to be perfect.

Perfection is what we aspire to…It is for the Poes and Lovecrafts among us… even if those unknown writers are outside the field of current favoritism, as Poe and Lovecraft once were.

We cannot and should not denigrate writers of lesser genre fiction – those reckless storytellers of urban myth and trite, overused plots, nor those writers whose voices speak from outside our comfortable norm. From those places we might just see a writer take off on jets of inspiration and innovation. And it is those writers who need to read the work of other chance-takers. It is those writers who need to feel the recoil when the patterns of poor technique or overdone plots become obvious – but like with new and would-be editors – who can’t if they don’t read enough of all of that lesser-regarded writing for creative comparison to the Greats of the genre – past, present, or future…

This is what an editor like Guran offers: diversity from the roots up: from who is writing to what is being written about…

For example, in the 2018 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror are works and writers such as  “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse, a Pueblo/African American Writer…”The Lamentation of Their Women” by Kai Ashante Wilson, African American writer, “Little Digs” by Lisa L. Hannett, Australian National Science Fiction Award Winner…”Moon, and Memory, and Muchness” by Katherine Vaz, a Portuguese- American writer. This is genre diversity long over-due.

Guran’s anthologies remind me of the old Weekly Readers we used to get in elementary school – along with the book selections at the end that shaped the reading I do today. Her work is that “box of chocolates”… in no way the “Best” of Horror as much as it is the Year’s Great Horror Stories… Tales to inspire, to unsettle, to tease…

I slipped into a funk when I read Paula Guran’s note about pulling back from her editorial proliference… Now what will I do? I thought….maybe I should go back and collect the anthologies I missed that she edited… prolong the withdrawal a little longer…

I realize she is still working… at reduced volume, at reduced pace…

But I think this is a canary -in- the-coal-mine moment for Horror…

We need to do something, because how long we have Datlow is another pending question….And then what?

What, Horror gods, will we do to stop the editorial hemorrhaging? Because great editors are as rare as great writers: they deserve discovery and mentoring… They deserve educating.

How do we fix this without making an actual effort to do so? And how do we look our fans in the eye if we just stand around blowing up inflatable monsters instead of making a decisive effort to properly seat our genre at the academic table at just the moment when Literary Critics are beginning their work to define and establish our genre as the legitimate Literary entity we have all long known it is?

Paula Guran is scooching toward retirement. Fans like me are screaming into pillows. We better do something…before we lose everything we have worked for…

We better start caring about how great editors are made. Because I know we have other editors editing out there, but we all come with expiration dates. And for fans like me, they will never be Paula Guran.

 

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“Interested in writing and/or editing? Here’s a link to a unique Editors’ Roundtable that features general and specific comments on a promising story from some of the most respected editors in the field: Paula Guran, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Liz Gorinsky, James Patrick Kelly, Nick Mamatas, Ann VanderMeer, and Sheila Williams.” http://paulaguran.com/

 

 

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.

C3

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.

C6

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.