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Through this house of mirrors unpublished and new writers are being pressed… through a maze of gatekeepers whose qualifications hide behind misunderstood and ill-defined MFA degrees and unclear areas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.

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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.”

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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.

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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…

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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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Crisis on the Leng Plateau: the Struggle for the Soul of American Horror


Maybe it’s Lovecraft’s fault… After all, he did it so well.

But lately I figure somewhere there must be an explanation as to why in contemporary American Horror, the weakest point of the story tends to be the monster. I’ve fallen for blurbs, for cover art, for Famous Horror Writer recommendations. Yet time and again the monster just isn’t scary, or eerie, or haunting. If I come away with any manner of emotional displacement, the author (or the concept) tends to be from an earlier period of Horror history, or not to be American at all.

Could it be that we are so excited about what we hope to write that we forget WHAT we are writing? Are we that ignorant of our own genre history? Is it possible that we don’t even know what genre writing is anymore?

Monsters – By ANY Other Name

The genre of Horror has actual history… it has a bloodline and a marked route of exploration and developmental growth. During its earlier years when the term “Gothic” or “ghost story” would no longer adequately encompass what was being written, writers and editors and publishers began calling what was being produced by new and confusing names – Supernatural Fiction, Spectral Fiction, Strange tales, Weird tales, Terror, and Horror.

True to form, everyone had a different interpretation of definitions and definition boundaries even then. And this confusion continues a bit to this day, but now more in the Critical quarter – because remember that it is the Literary Critic whose job it is to decide how to categorize Literature for the sake of Literary analysis. And we now have actual Critics in our genre corner…

With changing times, the former discourse between writers of subgenre fiction seems broken, its writers (new and seasoned) now scattered about in genre isolation with less publication venues to offer dedicated subgenre havens, fewer informed editors and actual examples of subgenre fiction. So the rest of us just tend to pronounce ourselves as writing this or that with no real forethought or thorough Literary understanding of the definitions we use.

But today we are blessed to have S.T. Joshi and China Mieville in our genre corner. And it is the coming of these two Literary Critics that has lifted our genre from the stage of Literary argument (is Horror Literature) to the stage of Literary analysis (which Horror is Literature and why). Of the two, I find the most useful published Criticism by S.T. Joshi (although I really would like to see something more and intense by Mieville). And it is Joshi who has started me thinking – well, Weird.

As part of his job as a Critic, and one of the first in our genre, Joshi has taken the necessary step of attempting to tackle the definitions of genre and subgenre work in Horror and to nail them down. In his book The Weird Tale, he takes the opportunity to present an argument to clarify his rationale for chosen categories in the genre, and to open the discussion on how the genre should be Literarily argued. What is exceptional here, is Mr. Joshi’s attempt to include the modern Horror reader and writers in this discussion.

He does not “talk down” to genre fans and writers; he simply explains how he sees the parsing of the genre for Literary analysis and –most importantly – why he believes his rationalizations are either correct or ripe for discussion. Yet isn’t it awkward that most of us have no idea what Joshi is talking about? Or know that he is talking? This ignorance of our own literary progression has left our imaginations (replete with monsters) high centered on a plateau of mediocre fiction…a Leng Plateau…

I’m saying that the reason we don’t know is exactly why our monsters are in crisis, why our writing has lost its authoritative voice, why the British seem to have a strong sense of place in their fiction and we seem to be nomads. We have disconnected with the past; we are balloon writers floating above the plains of Leng…

It is also why we have lost our Horror section.

We have allowed ourselves as writers (sadly, sometimes innocently enough) to be led by the public, by publishers’ guesstimates of what the public wants, by editors who might be coerced into finding the next Stephen King instead of the next genre-changer. Worse, we have allowed ourselves to be led by the promise of Hollywood and merchandising. We have committed the greatest sin in Lovecraft’s eyes: writing for money…

Okay, so let’s be clear: Lovecraft desired publication, he submitted stories, he was occasionally paid for them, he lived off an inheritance and a wife as long as he could, then was reduced to editing other authors for a living. Lovecraft was not saying he was against publication. He was saying one doesn’t change the story to get it published. He was saying a writer needs to pursue the higher art offered by the story, no matter how many rejections that equates to; that a writer should be true to his or her vision. In this case, he is firmly in alignment with the Literary Critic.

Yet how many of us actually have cultivated a vision for our writing? How many of us think in terms of legacy instead of simple solvency?

The problem is, no one is out there teaching us about the history and mechanics of Horror. No one except our very own Critics right now. We need to read them. We have artistic decisions to make.

Golden Age writers knew what they were writing, where it could find an audience, what publications were their choices… Today, we just write, and submit to any publication that we can find. Most of us cannot categorize ourselves, let alone our fiction, because to categorize our work would be to narrow our choices, our sense of opportunity.

Example: I recently visited a website for a regional writer’s group, looking for Horror writers. What I found was the comment “is willing to write Horror.” WILLING to write Horror?! Where is the writer who unabashedly is PROUD to write Horror?

Sometimes I think we lost our own section in Horror because many of us have lost the understanding of what we are intending to write. And marketing departments are only too happy to pronounce the demise of genre writing.

So why does the very thought cause us an instinctive knee-jerk reaction? Is it because the meandering away from genre conventions is an accidental misstep and that we never meant to abandon genre? Yet is that also why our monsters have lost their teeth and grown human appendages where tentacles should be? Do we know how to get back into formula?

My Weird Tales Epiphany

Maybe it’s time we listened to our elders – the genre greats who started a conversation that just seemed to evaporate in the 1990’s altogether, and which has been resuscitated in part by S.T. Joshi. Have we forgotten the rabid dedication many authors and editors once had to the argument over terms and subgenres?

Today if a writer doesn’t research the genre personally or trip over key essays chances are he or she just hasn’t a clue what has gone before and where we are now. For instance, since the genre began to grow in popularity in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there have been arguers and defenders of the usage of the terms Horror, Terror, Supernatural, Strange and Weird to define the many types of writing we may do.

Did you even know that there has been an internal unrest about what our genre should in fact be calling itself for quite some time?

This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Because if you write Horror, you are on the battlefield up to your Muse. Shouldn’t you be at least aware of your place in the tradition? The British (our main competitors) seem ever to be…

While a large part of writing – most specifically drafting – is drenched in magic and mystery and wonder, in the end we need to know as ­authors of a story exactly what we are trying to say. Then we need to revise to be sure we are saying it. Only then can we be certain that the genre is worthy of its name – whichever one is ultimately chosen.

The name “Horror” has taken a beating for a while now. It and “Terror” in its turn has been commandeered by current events to the point that many are reluctant to use it. It has driven genre fans in droves back to more “antiquated” terms like “Weird” and “Strange” to defend and salvage the genre. But I think we shouldn’t be letting “world events” distort our genre to that effect. I think the conversation of what we are writing is germane to what we choose to call it. And I don’t think we can call it something if we don’t know the definitions of those terms.

Horror itself has been keelhauled for being an emotion. Why, ask its detractors, do we want to name our genre with an emotion when almost all other genres are described by nouns or adjectives? I believe that the word – emotion or not – encompasses all that the genre tries to inflict upon the reader – an emotional response. In that capacity, it is like Thrillers, Suspense, and Romance. It is asking the brain to explore dark corners, to revisit the primal place of fear, terror, revulsion, disgust, dread – you know – horror.

But some genre experts (those who have duly earned their stripes as writers, editors, and Critics of the genre) sometimes feel otherwise, that Horror is more about gore and dismemberment – fear of our fellow man or human-ness than that which merely disturbs. They will argue for other terms – like Weird. I’m thinking we are arguing over semantics here, over connotation and denotation... But what is important is agreeing on what our genre is and should be called, what its conventions and formulas should include or exclude. There should not be any question in a writer’s mind.

Enter S.T. Joshi, Literary Critic and the best friend Horror has in Literature right now. Joshi, perhaps the world’s greatest contemporary expert on all things H.P. Lovecraft, has embraced the Weird. Like his object of research, he has come to believe that Horror is more a subgenre of Weird fiction than the other way around. And he uses Lovecraft to explain why. Whereas according to Lovecraft “The crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen” (Joshi 6), Joshi states, “I begin my own study with a rather odd assertion: the weird tale, in the period … (generally 1880 -1940) did not (and perhaps does not now) exist as a genre but as the consequence of a world view…” [his emphasis] (xiii).

Most assuredly, that is the Literary Critic in Joshi talking… because it is the presence, the omniscience of a world view that elevates a work from genre to Literature. And if Weird fiction is more commonly Literature than average Horror fiction, then is it not the tree from which the apple falls?

You can see how quickly this conversation becomes interesting and relevant to all genre writers and fans. It is why Joshi has put his work out there. Discussion is the key to movement… to breathing life into the Critical process.

But it is also integral to creating new Lovecrafts. We all have to be on the same page. And at a time when we seem to have lost our national genre compass, shouldn’t we get on board with this very basic Critical idea – the naming of parts, the re-establishment of genre, the enforcement of boundaries and celebrating rebellions against the very same? How else can we commit to writing a story we can encapsulate with a category name if we don’t know the terms of surrender?

Believe it or not, many of us as Horror writers have never really considered this, and it may be the deserving reason we get rejected.

Here’s a thought based on that statement: to elevate a story beyond the genre, to be genre-changing we must first be able to write genre.

Can you? Can you structure a monster based on a subgenre? Do you know what that means? I am not so sure we do, because I don’t see any establishment figures laying out the formula they claim is criteria. I see allusions to formula, partial lists of conventions, scattered tropes…I do not see a book or website or rule guide dedicated to defining the genre as only this and never that. A writer should not have to piece genre formula together like a quilt, over decades of rejections and gleaning gems from essays and editorial forwards and interviews. Yet only the subgenres of Weird (pardon me for the classification liberty) and ghost story/Spectral fiction have easIER guidlelines to find…

Editors have pronounced themselves too busy. Universities are teaching and preaching against genre. Workshops are a gamble, writers groups may “accept” but don’t generally specialize in genre writing, how-to’s have Gone Hollywood. What’s a genre purist to do?

If you want technical assistance, you need a Critic: read Joshi.

If you want written examples, read Golden Age genre writers – read Weird Tales from the day.

That’s right. Under the scales and leathery wings of the greatest of all Literary Horror monsters (Horror being the overarching term I am predisposed to), beats a heart of pulp.

Get thee to a collection of early Weird Tales… I recently found a copy at a used book shop, one edited by famed genre editor Marvin Kaye, who back in the 1990’s also edited several anthologies of the subgenres including Terror, the Supernatural, the Unknown, Ghosts, Witches, Devils and Demons… I remembered having read many of the stories when I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I assumed I would read them, smile in remembrance, and move on.

Wrong.

I was awed. Stunned. My imagination was RE-filled with the passion that started my love affair with the Horror genre. How did we lose this? I wondered aloud. How did we lose this awesome ability to tell tales that in mere pages can keep us up and night and hungering for more?

Is it because authors in those days had a bevy of magazines whose “bar” was set a bit lower to acquiring and keeping a basic readership – not set to making an author’s or an editor’s Big Break, not set to doubling its subscription base annually or it is a “business failure,” not reliant on burying writing among ads just to stay in print… not set to the equivalent of tossing a bottle out on the ocean so it could be “discovered in its excellence” by the masses who would theoretically spend lavishly to keep it on the internet ocean?

Is it because it was “just pulp” and not overreaching to call itself high Literature, its writers happy to just spill its monsters into cheap prose to see what else might hatch? Is it because no matter how poorly writers were paid, writers could by being prolific, actually make a poor living doing it?

Who knows? But those very circumstances led to some of the absolute greatest writing of our genre – some of it now admittedly Literature…

It also inspired contemporary writers – like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell – our current models of success with totally different styles. It set the standard for Horror in Literature by revisiting Poe and Lovecraft, Machen and Blackwood, Dunsany and Bierce. It made all of us want to be Horror writers…

Calling Central Casting

To perform at our best, to exercise the boundaries of genre and flirt with the meaning and power of Literature, we cannot be trying to manipulate our fiction so Hollywood can use it. We cannot be motivated by fame and fortune. We cannot allow ourselves to be told we either “write for Hollywood or for Critics.”

It’s not about starving. It’s about producing ART, not mass producing drivel. Because if that is what we are teaching ourselves to write, then we roundly deserve the stinging criticisms of editors and Critics. We are rolling our monsters out on a rack time after time and expecting a different result.

Stop the insanity!

We need to write for ourselves. For our genre. For our audience.

When you read fiction written for you, there is no doubt; you are sitting next to the campfire, the storyteller is looking at you right in the eye, and the monster is drooling just at the edge of the darkness. You can feel his breath on your neck, imagine his fangs tearing at your flesh…and anything is possible…even the impossible.

So are you writing Weird or Horror fiction? Or are you perhaps writing in the subgenre of Terror or Strange tales?

And if you don’t know, shouldn’t you be finding out? Because right now our monsters are suffering from a clear identity crisis. We don’t seem able to write them without it looking like we are attempting a parody or poking fun. American monsters leap, crawl, and ooze onto our literary theater with the impact of a stage magician pulling a very tired old rabbit out of the hat. We have lost something besides the element of surprise.

Surprise! Storytelling is an art that has its own rules. I say again…look at pulp.

Stories fail for so many different reasons. They should not be failing because we glimpse the monster, or we rolled him out on a rack. That should be a moment of pure Terror. Horror. Weirdness. FEAR.

Surely, we can still manage that…

 

References

Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, c 1990.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft:the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Weird Tales. Marvin Kaye, ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, c1988.

Recommended Websites:

Weird site: http://greydogtales.com/blog/?p=1336

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Horror and the MFA in Creative Writing: Vanity Degree or Elevation of Genre?


I’ll be the first to admit my head was turned.

I was about to graduate, drunk with ambition and that sense of promise a newly minted college degree inserts into the psyche. It had been a long and perilous journey – the muse had almost drowned in other peoples’ opinions and swamps of guilt trips. But I had finally realized that writing wasn’t a dream – it was a vital part of who I am. Several professors had suggested I seriously consider pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. And I found myself seriously considering it.

At the precise moment a person realizes that they are a writer because they are a writer and not because someone else gives them permission, an insatiable hunger forms – the hunger for craft.

I know, I know. Most writing elitists would never believe it: the proof is in the pudding, they would say, most novice writing stinks — genre or otherwise. But amazingly enough, when a person starts to write they inevitably become part of a very old argument:

Can great writing be taught, and if so, should it?

Born This Way (or Not)

Believe it or not, this is actually part of an argument tossed about by Literary Critics – those crazy fiction fanatics whose job it is to dissect prose in the academic pursuit of the secrets of invention. They have ignited a firestorm of passionate discussion about what makes a writer a Writer of Literary standard – are they born with it? Is the birth of a Literary Work a spontaneous act of innate factors valued above the talents of a common writer who needs to be taught?

Critics are indeed Purists…the High Priests of Prose. They love and protect Literature, and see themselves as the most likely to find that answer.

But I wonder sometimes how far they think about what they are really saying.

If one looks at author biographies for Literary works, what one finds consistently is a group of  elite writers who grow up in some kind of informed community – other established Literary Writers, teachers, activists, printers and publishers, poets, religious groups, artists, philosophers…critical thinkers of their time.

In those groups the young writer is nurtured, mentored, emotionally supported. And being raised around the humanities boosts the moral imperative to create and to create powerful vehicles of communication and thought.

A far cry from what we offer young writers today. Or old ones, for that matter.

Today, we expect Literature By Divine Intervention… prodigies only are the real artistes… Everyone else is a hack.

No wonder most of us have fled to the genres. Why bother to try if your pedigree is going to be a factor?

Arts – of which writing is one – flourish in community more than in isolation. We learn from each other — successes and mistakes. We learn and share technique, we withdraw from the world and hang in enclaves that carry us through the creative doldrums and celebrate our victories as part of a community. We mentor each other, experiment with the limits of craft.

Except that today, most writers don’t. We get ‘A’s on papers early on, mystifyingly amazed looks from teachers, vague comments that encourage but tell us nothing, and are left to fantasize about writing…not to learn about it. We wind up eventually believing the myths created by people who either do not understand the tidal pull of the arts on the soul, or who (for our own good) wish to kill it. We work in jobs that eviscerate our imaginations, and use us up until there is nothing left to use to write – not even in our “spare time.”

We spend years trying to understand whether we are writers because we need to write, or whether we are writers only if we sell $20’s worth of fiction… Which sounds easy until you can’t find $20’s worth of magazines to submit to (i.e., that are accepting submissions and/or accepting them from unknowns). Just sayin’…

And that conundrum pushes us further into private hells that have no exit except in writing…so we do. We continue to write and practice writing badly because no one teaches us how to write well. No one teaches us how to properly construct a story, develop character, follow arcs, adjust tension, manage dialogue, or even defines what Literature IS and what it DOES.

We spend hours trying desperately to be in awe of The Classics and Literature Reading Lists, trying to scry from oceans of antiquated prose why everyone thinks this is GOOD…to figure out what teachers are REALLY looking for in term papers and literary analysis assignments….

We don’t know because none of this is taught.

In the Big Rush to not contaminate the “pool” of possible prodigies, we have thrown away generations of writers who just needed sustenance and common instruction in technique.

How sad is that?

But amazingly, we have the CIA to thank for considering education to be the key. In fact, the story is that if it weren’t for the paranoia of government officials about the Soviet Union outperforming the U.S. in the development of national Literature, we would never have gotten the Iowa Writers Workshop and its illustrious and original MFA program (number one in the country, mind you).

Literary-worthy Writers were examined, allegedly three were chosen, and their styles became the models for American Literature to emulate.

And it was exactly that discovery about style that began to un-turn my head about the MFA.

Yet this MFA position has taken the pendulum to the other side of the argument… Given enough money, ANYONE can be a writer by learning to write.

Maybe we just need rescue from these particular academics for a few moments…

Because after all of my research – and I did a lot of research – I was left with the question for MFA programs nationally: why are you teaching style instead of technique?

Writers come in various sizes of style. But we all have to learn technique.

Not so, think Critics… talent is innate. Yep, it is. But if no one ever taught me to hold a pencil and shape letters, how to form noun + verb + adjective, where and when to place a comma… So go ahead. Take away the crayons from your prodigies and let’s see how much Art you get.

Good or bad, I already have a style, thank you, and young writers deserve to find their own within and between the ghosts of the whole and entire scope of Literary choices. I don’t mind learning about a successful Literary Style, but I don’t want to be identifiable as a certain MFA program graduate – like I was a suit rolled out on a rack. I don’t want to write like someone famous….I want to write like me.

Needless to say… doubt began to erode my MFA dreams. I found myself stalling my old professors who kept asking where I had applied for an MFA.

The Assault on Speculative Fiction in MFA Programs (or Why I Remain a Genre Writer)

For me, part of the problem is that I love and write genre…maybe not strict genre, but genre nonetheless, which I discovered begets yet another complication for MFA students: one of the other kind of style. I am fine with being a genre writer. I like genre writing, although I also like Literature and enjoy my genres with the occasional Literary overtones. I am certainly not ashamed of writing Horror – at least, not anymore.

For years I found myself apologizing for what I do and who I am (“I’m sorry…I write Horror”) watching hopeful enthusiasm turn into crestfallen faces that had a serious similarity to the expression of disappointment. But these are people who don’t understand the genre, and worse – who seriously underestimate the Literary contributions of Horror. For centuries, Horror has been a constant driver of Feminist/Gender Literature and what used to be called Freudian but is now called Psychoanalytic Literature. It lurked throughout the Gothic Romances, exquisitely tortured the Victorians, exploded all manner of social issues using monsters and ghost stories.

Horror – even modern Literary Critics finally acknowledge, has the occasional work that exhibits the highest Literary merit. It is a genre with tremendous Literary potential, even as it produces the most generic and luxuriously sloppy pulp. Horror has range. And it has writers that ride that range.

Yet academia – being a product of government-style structure – moves ever so slowly. Educators (like MFA instructors) often spend their entire lives in the system, sometimes self-reinforcing their personal beliefs and rejecting new ideas that challenge their own. So instead of arguing the merits of both, they dismiss and insult…and most of the MFA program graduates who have shared their experiences in recent books reviewing MFA programs have stated repeatedly that instructors and mentor and professors had belittled, trashed, forbidden and condemned genre writing as…crap.

While it is admittedly not always Literature – sometimes joyously so – it is not “crap.” It is genre. It is formula. It is common at worst. It is also storytelling, albeit sometimes bad storytelling. But then, pulp writers are not trying to write Literature. Venom needs to be reserved for those who might roundly deserve it – and that most certainly is not a genre writer sitting in an MFA class hoping to learn better craft and Literary Technique.

So why do we have this abyss between Literature and Genre? What should be a peaceful and tolerant co-existence has been fanned into a Style War. And maybe there is so much genre-writing because writers can figure out genre writing a heckuva lot faster than they can figure out Literature and Literary Criticism.

Imagine if Literature and Literary Criticism were actually taught in high schools? Wouldn’t that education automatically bleed over into the genres? Up everyone’s game?

Is THAT what Literature Purists are afraid of? A little competition?

Well wheel out your prodigies then. It’s Junior Rodeo on…

The current environment of genre-bashing that seems rampant (if not bragged upon) by MFA programs is off-putting to say the least. And while many programs may prefer that it be thus and prefer to communicate that folks like me are not welcome unless I am willing to join in the genre-bashing and convert to Literature… I have to question their motives.

And that made me wonder if I DID set aside genre — just for the duration of the degree, just to learn craft – would it ruin my voice and inject the ghosts of dead American Literary Greats into my prose which I might not be able to exorcise? In other words, would it ruin writing for me?

Ultimately, I chose not to take the chance. Wrongly or rightly, I don’t want Raymond Carver in my head…Or any spark of the alleged other two (again, the rumor being that all MFA programs are modelled after three preselected American Literary giants, and the helpful application hint being that a writer needs to understand which writer which program emulates in order to find the best “match”).

I mean I’m sorry but all of a sudden we are talking about idols and how to mimic them – and not about craft, technique, LITERATURE. THEORY…. All after fielding a cost of some $35-50,000 for the privilege of sitting in a classroom…you know – where open-minded learning is supposed to take place…

How can I possibly be a rebel if you are teaching me to be a conformist? Even if we are talking style?

Again, I chose NOT to take the chance. Even when I found ONE program that proudly announced it supports Speculative fiction writers. Because it proudly denounced LITERATURE.

It’s like watching a tennis game. And all I wanted to do is learn better craft. To infuse my genre writing with Literary elements and improve as a writer. Silly me.

Silly Critics if they think that this academic solution is any kind of solution. We don’t need more polarizing thoughts and behaviors.

We writers – genre and Literary – need to be on the same side as the Literary Critic, who needs to be on the same side as writers who want to learn to be better writers.

We can’t help each other if we set up schools to teach novices how to insult each other in some giant argument from ignorance.

Proof in the Pudding (or, You Get the Monster You Create)

So I had begun to think that the authors of The Portable MFA were right: a writer just might be better off saving the money one would use for an MFA in Creative Writing and buy a better computer, more printer ink, more 20-lb white bond paper.

And such thinking was further reinforced when I tried an experiment of my own – reading the published works of MFA graduates. (Here, working in a retail bookstore became an advantage. And I purposely read “first” books by MFA grads whose programs I neither knew nor researched.)

The result was shocking. Shockingly disappointing. Sometimes even…bad. It was like reading genre fiction without the “spark” of genre…watered down, lackluster yet eerily “perfect” in construct…I couldn’t really argue with structure… But most of the time characters didn’t “pop,” prose didn’t engage, and I had to force myself to finish even ghost stories. Ghost stories for Poe’s sake! I mean didn’t these people read the British canon of Literature?

Like the Critic I am starting to wonder if we are doomed…

And I was left wondering how these writers managed a publishing contract. Perhaps it was one of those “networking” sessions with agents and other publishing professionals so heavily promoted as a benefit to MFA program participation. Maybe it is the high influx of MFA grads who (thereby) get jobs in publishing who “grease the wheels” for fellow MFA grads… Several books I used for research made mention of exactly that sad possibility, and which in turn in my mind further tarnishes just such a degree.

Doesn’t that reduce the lofty intention of the MFA from one of increasing our Literary output to a sad paper mill for a vanity degree?

And shouldn’t it matter to the writer IN an MFA Program that what gets published gets DESERVEDLY published?

I admit that I did not research the published fiction of MFA grads who went back to the genres… But if what I am seeing on the bookstore general fiction shelves is any indication of what MFA programs are churning out, then I am FINALLY glad that so much Horror has been re-disseminated into other genres. Because I don’t want any association with what I am seeing – not as a Horror writer. And no worries about Literature, either…one course in university –level Literary Criticism taught me that most of that MFA-produced stuff isn’t going anywhere but the remainders pile. One INTRODUCTORY COURSE in Literary Criticism, mind you…

No harm, no foul? I think differently. Because that was the final nail in the MFA coffin for me.

Maybe I should have title this essay “How I Decided Against Pursuing an MFA in Fiction…”

I only know I don’t want to be published at any cost. I want to be proud of what I write and be satisfied that it was good enough to pass the muster of traditional editing (from line to content). What I don’t need is an albatross hanging around my neck…an albatross that should have stayed in a drawer somewhere.

If that means no fame and fortune for me, at least I won’t live my life in embarrassment. Because there is a LOT to be said for the value of the editorial talents of the old major publishing houses. Especially if we have now simply created yet another Good Old Boy’s –type system that has nothing to do with Literary value.

Ironically, a lot of us unwashed masses laboring in the genres have THAT in common with Literary Critics. Isn’t it time we joined forces? Isn’t it time we got our game back?

I mean… not to be inflammatory, but in the name of healthy competition…The British have…

Just sayin’…

 

References

Affording the MFA [blog} https://affordingthemfa.wordpress.com/

The Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Writing Fiction: the Practical Guide From New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School. New York: Bloomsbury, c2003.

Kealey, Tom. The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: a Guide for Prospective Graduate Students. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., c2008, 2005.

McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c2009.

MFA vs NYC: the Two Culture of American Fiction. Chad Harbach, ed. New York: n+1 /Faber and Faber, c2014.

The MFA Blog. http://creative-writing-mfa-handbook.blogspot.com/

The New York Writer’s Workshop. The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Cinncinati, OH: Writers Digest Books, c2006.

Olsen, Eric and Glenn Schaeffer. We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, c2011.

Wiedbrauk, Eileen. Speak Coffee to Me [blog] http://speakcoffeetome.blogspot.com/