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

Horror site: http://www.thisishorror.co.uk/category/columns/

 

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/

Embrace the Horror: Life After the English BA


So I was walking around my bookstore, straightening shelves and adjusting product when a customer suddenly approached me and confessed regretting every English degree she had achieved – right up through the Ph.D.

Nothing had turned out like she planned. People got in the way, had foiled her at every turn, and now she was questioning every move she’d made professionally. Never, she’d said, would she allow her children to major in the Arts and waste their time. Never.

Know what my thought was? (Prepare for irreverence…)

Then you’re not using it right.

What IS an English Degree?

An English BA is a wild, carefree trip through the Humanities. It allows the student to explore their undecided side… perhaps fiction, or philosophy, journalism, or psychology, religion or art, history or politics, law or logic. It allows the student to try on a few hats, test their interests and abilities, see if anything “calls” to them.

The problem is, sometimes something does. And in today’s world, there is nothing like a degree in the Arts that translates into poverty for most of its graduates.

Why is that? Because we no longer value people who critically think in this world. Thinkers are dangerous people. When they see something that is wrong they are wont to try and change things. And there is usually Big Money and wanton Power attached to things done wrong.

If you want to kill an army, you need to cut off the supply train. (See? I was paying attention in history class!)

Arts people are the canaries in the mines. Often times we make bold, scary-to-parents statements. We rattle cages and in some countries we risk our freedom or our lives just to make a statement.

Nothing scares people who love you more. Because they want you to have a nice, cushy life in the suburbs, and hope that you will be (in better ways) a nice little carbon copy of themselves to carry on the magic and fairy glamour of American Life.

And Technology is out there promising you that you too, can be smarter than everyone else and with the right career choices in math and science, can live in the Big House, safe and away from those huddled masses of unemployed, trouble-making Arts people.

But getting a degree in a Tech field as an Arts person really solves nothing. Tech people know their own, and if you are an Arts person in Wolf’s clothing, you will not be embraced even if you get the job.

Today’s world does not want thinkers, it wants drones. Like the bee kind… That work to death and are tossed out of the hive at Christmas (only they will call them lay-offs).

An English Degree then is a degree in Critical Thinking. You will be taught how to and be required to dissect everything you read and everything you think. You may find out you don’t think like you thought you did. You may discover something deeply important about yourself by what you dislike or prefer, in hearing a tone of voice in your own verbal arguments.

It also teaches you how to express those thoughts and opinions – graciously to not offend, or disguised as metaphor for your secret audience, or angry as a polemic. It shows you how to use words or pictures or cultural beliefs to communicate….anything.

And it teaches you that people are complex biological factories of precarious thought and driven by powerful, life-altering emotions; that we are subject to our neurobiology and our psychological quirks, religious views or lack thereof, limits or expanse of geographical and economic horizons…

A degree in English is a degree in seeing, describing, illustrating, comprehending and communicating with…people.

No wonder the tech world dislikes us. No one abhors the vacuum of html space like an English major.

(Why? Because it’s not the troll online you have to worry about. It’s the radical terrorist invading your country and condemning your right to speak freely, to converse, argue, condemn, endorse, explore and experiment… because if your words, your actions, or your ambivalence made him or her feel justified, then to reduce the number of terror candidates you better know it and know how to unmake him or her and whether or not you should…a task that is not on a computer game.)

An English major will teach you that words matter. They have the capacity to incite, to wound, to inform, to heal. It will teach you to see and recreate the difference.

How You Know You’re An English Major

You know you’re an English major when you’re just standing on the street corner and you see things. You see poverty, injustice, inequality, and homelessness in the richest country in the world – when you work forty hours and can still see homelessness from your back porch and bank account. You know you’re an English major when you can’t wait to read something for yourself – whether it is a novel, a political treatise, or the Trial of Socrates. You know you’re an English major when you’d rather read Dickens or Austen or Morrison than the latest Star Trek novel (even though you have an extensive Star Trek novel collection).

You know you’re an English major when you’ve tried not to be and you keep running screaming back to the English department, breathing a sigh of relief when you are finally seated in a rhetoric class because you know the definition of rhetoric.

You know you’re an English major when you love language, the way it works and sounds and looks on the page, when linguistics excites you, when you read dictionaries and thesauri. When you love saying “thesauri.”

You know you’re an English major when you can read and appreciate an opposing viewpoint because it is well stated and well argued. And especially if it changes your mind.

You know you’re an English major when you know you are nothing else. So stop letting other people make you feel ashamed. Own it. Do what you were meant to do and stop looking for wealth (Most of us aren’t going to get it anyway: you might as well be happy.)

How You Know Doing Something Else is Worse Than Everyone Else’s Disappointment in You

One thing the world has taught me is that for every job out there, there is someone who has made it their dream and life’s purpose.

And there is nothing worse than living someone else’s dream… Unless it is applying for the job that you don’t get (no matter how much it means to you) because someone who’d rather be doing something else gets the job instead. Or maybe it is working with that person

But work – when it is done right – takes a lot out of you. What you will have left at the end of the day will determine what kind of life YOU have…family? Kids? Career plans? House? Decent car? Best-selling novel?

The sad truth is that if you are an Arts person, the economic deck is stacked against you. Not only has the American economy morphed into a tech-loving, art-stomping beast, but it has lost its middle class and that necessary plateau of jobs needed to support people who kind of don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. In this economy, you either “have it” or you “don’t”… and there is a good chance that if you are an Arts person with an English degree, you will be not in the right category. Who knows how long this will last? How many shifts flipping burgers have your name on them with or without a degree?

However one thing is for sure: happiness is the only way you’re going to survive whatever lies ahead. Dreams are the pathway to finding that happiness. I’ve gotten a lot of forty-hour mileage out of dreams.

Maybe there aren’t enough jobs in publishing right now, or enough opportunities to support all of the writers already out there. How do the rest of us fellow-writers and English majors know you aren’t The One who will shock it all back into sense? How do we know WE aren’t?

The only thing we DO know, is that when and if the world ever comes back to its senses, if there is any chance at all that you can make a living writing or with your English degree…you will need to be prepared. Do it now.

Really. The Zombie Apocalypse could happen at any moment. Wouldn’t you rather have your English degree when it does?

What You Can Do About It

Number One: Stop listening to other people who want you to be as professionally miserable as they are.

Number Two: Trust that somewhere out there is your ideal job and that your English Degree is required for it.

Number Three: Don’t stop until you FIND it.

Number Four: If you don’t find it, consider creating it.

Why You Should

The Arts are not dead.

And while you are toiling away at that data entry job, or trying convince yourself that you can do I.T. better than a person whose dream it is to be an I.T. person… other people out there have been honing their Art…and making money at it…working their way to some measure of fame. You – on the other hand – are still waiting to write in your spare time, hope that by Divine Intervention instead of practice you will do as good or better with your one offering to the world (if you finish it), and still believe in the myth that even one published book equates to a lifetime of riches.

The hard fact is, any career in the Arts requires years of study (not necessarily academic study, although that can help make you a better student of the Arts). There is no free lunch, and prodigies are indeed a rarity (contrary to the message of social media).

You may have talent, or you may not. You may have more talent than people getting published or not. Success in the Arts is shaped like the very same pyramid you find in the regular workplace, sometimes with plenty of cult priests with butts to kiss perched on the steep slopes, sometimes with rare Oracles you can barely hear dangling off a brick, and sometimes there is that pebble in the sand – the editor who likes your style and talent enough to gamble on you and approach their boss on your behalf. But you must always remember it is a pyramid, because not everyone is going to wind up on top – even if they climb over you to get there.

So you must have faith in your goal and your plan for getting there. Stop waiting for angels to descend and carry you topside. You are going to have to work harder than you’ve ever worked before, and probably do a lot of self-education to grow professionally.

A good start is always a BA in anything. But the BA in English is a nice, round humanities degree. It is the perfect base degree for many Master’s degrees, and thereafter for Ph.D. degrees. Getting a BA in English for a writer is boot camp. It will help you decide how far you want to go with your education (in any field), while teaching you about your passion and your ability to listen to and apply criticism – something you will need even as a novice writer submitting stories to magazines, book editors, or agents.

Keep in mind there are actual jobs out there that require a BA in English – such as those still remaining in publishing, Library, retail bookstores, technical writing, journalism, education, Literary Criticism – and many of which do require higher education thereafter.

But also keep in mind there are a lot of English majors applying for those, and there is the same kind of (let’s call it “competition”) for those positions as there are for other jobs.

So you need to know you. What do you want? Because it should never involve a single other person’s interests. Because you are going to have to live with yourself no matter what you choose.

Choose wisely. Choose what makes you happy, even if you have to struggle against the tide the rest of your life. Trust me, the tide is elsewhere too. Pick your own tidewater. If you’re going to make it up that salmon ladder or get eaten by bears trying, it might as well be for what’s in it for you.

How do I know this? It took me thirty years to get my BA in English. And I don’t regret a minute of it.

What I do regret is all of the time I lost following other people’s suggestions for how to make myself less of an English major and more of a cog in someone else’s money machine.

Would I still be working at the same retail bookstore for lower than stellar wages? Probably. Only now I would be a manager with a retirement plan instead of an economic refugee with a lost retirement and no chance of strolling about my own bookstore with a coffee cup and a wry sense of humor.

I am sorry I did not have the courage when I was young to be what I am – a writer. Of Horror fiction. Who works in a bookstore. I am sorry I didn’t have the courage to seek out teachers of fiction and fellow writers in workshops and conventions. I might still not be big-published, but I bet I’d be writing better fiction, and that would make me happy no matter how many shifts I worked.

No, I would never discourage anyone – especially a young person – from a life in the Arts. That IS life. Gritty, poor, honest. What could be a better inheritance than a life well-lived – the one that leaves YOU loving YOU.

So yep, I told this lady wandering my bookstore I had not a single regret about going back to college for my English BA. I told her why.

She asked if we had any openings…

Monsters in the Nude: Unzipping Better Horror Fiction


Sometimes I think the whole Horror genre has become like Godzilla: no matter how much CG we can muster, no matter how many explosions and special effects decorate the modern stuff, the best version was the absolute first – the one from 1956, starring Haruo Nakajima , AKA the guy in the 200 pound, unventilated Godzilla costume, stomping all of rubber Tokyo…

How is it that a monster with floppy feet and an exposed zipper has more cachet than most modern Horror fiction? What have the monsters of old got over today’s competitors?

Stripping Down

Call me crazy, but I believe it has to do with “originality.”

It’s become that dirty word we all dread… because it seems we are all aiming for it, but like drooling dogs to ringing bells we find ourselves mesmerized, repeating what’s already been done (and we know it’s true because we often read it ourselves, and we read it ourselves because it is successful).

Everyone buys into the mythology…even publishers. So why is the quickest route to rejection so relentlessly tempting?

It’s that darn “pablum” of Louisa May Alcott’s own words… that formula stuff everyone says everyone else wants an endless, brainless supply of… talk about your Horrors…yet we buy into (if not succumb to) these interminable repeat performances.

Some writers “handle” the problem by simply not reading other writers. They think if they don’t read it, it can’t color their imaginations. But this is often a much worse mistake in the end, because not only is writing is a long term investment of time and creative energy, it’s essence and ideas also tend to run in synchronistic packs. How horrible to spend years writing a book only to discover another writer has already cashed the check for it…

The Muse is a fickle, fickle girl. It doesn’t matter that your version is perhaps better…the frisson necessary for successful scaring in Horror has already been spent, the cigarette smoked.

It happened to me… imagine my own Horror to discover a freshly published version of my synchronistical-channeled tale by another, now-successful author… After meat-slapping the plot for years, having purchased and read more books on medieval French history than any Horror writer should ever have to… I can only gloat that it didn’t do particularly well. (Or perhaps there but for the Grace of God…)

Anyway…shaking it off…

A writer who wants to be genre-changing has to know what is being changed… And many an editor would be profoundly grateful for the effort; in fact, (surprisingly perhaps) many a Literary Critic is rooting for that exact scenario.

So it got me wondering: what has happened to us?

The answer appears to be that we are being herded that way…we are being coached – no, tasked – to find the next Big Thing among the rubber rubble.

The realization came just as Godzilla crested the horizon overlooking the city of Tokyo. I was watching one of the newer film versions and I couldn’t see the zipper anymore. And it got me thinking… what’s Godzilla got under that suit? Cuz if it ain’t a short Japanese actor, the thrill is gone.

And that means the zipper was crucial…it means the underlying truth is what propels the fiction…

(Ooooh…a Literary Moment, would you look at that…)

Clearly, to reanimate our fiction we need to unzip the monster. Reveal a truth. Let him run free – naked as the day he was born, innocent as a hippie at Woodstock.

Who drove our monsters from the Garden? Shamed them into wearing flawless CG suits? And WHY oh WHY do we try to write them this new way?

Today’s Horror fiction has this homogenized feel, like it is constructed of recycled, over-processed parts, weary conventions, and predictable plots. It’s like we keep writing the same stories over and over again – a crazed monster trying to claw its way out of a box.

“Welcome to genre writing,” perhaps some would say… But that is not it. That is not it at all.

Because occasionally I see examples of fresh Horror fiction where the monsters run unencumbered (Ray Cluley’s Probably Monsters, Christopher Golden’s Snowblind, Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter, Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s I Remember You)…

Works like these restore the faith. They are fresh air in an enclosed, rubber room. Read them and see what I mean. They suspend reality, take you on a tour of Tokyo, remind you to notice things…

There are so many of these fresh works out there…just sadly not classified in our genre…Nor are they promoted heavily…by anyone it seems. So allow me: Don’t wait for marketing machinery. Try new or unknown authors. Try these authors. Fresh fiction is a wake-up call that will set your own writing on fire. Atomic fire. Spewing-from-Godzilla’s-mouth fire…

The best part is when you read something fresh, it loosens the fetters on your own mind. Each one of these titles I mentioned reminded me that good Horror comes from taking the mundane and commonplace and seeing it differently…Honestly. Naked.

It’s like wearing Top Secret X-ray monster-seeing glasses. Or like looking through a hole in a fairy stone…

Yet today we seem hell-bent on writing for an audience we let others specifically conjure, and not the one that is out there waiting for our stories.

Writing is such an individual sport. It’s easy to forget there are real, thinking people on the other end of our product. It’s easier to take the word of others about that audience. But it’s worth putting everything on pause for a few moments or a few days…reset our thinking. A writer should never be absorbed with projections of what others might think…no matter who those others might be.

We conveniently forget we write first for ourselves. Instead we convince ourselves that we must write what is wanted – like we are filling a donut order – when what is wanted is fresh fiction. We write hoping to catch the eye of traditional Big House editors – and Hollywood, we tempt with open-ended tales designed to create options for sequels…We let ourselves be dazzled by the promised wealth and fairy glamour of what we ourselves despise when we read it.

It’s not our fault, really – not initially. We see a lot of mixed messages down here in the trenches. We read the how-to libraries, the author biographies, the magazine articles and professor’s comments. Everywhere the focus is the same: How to sell your fiction.

Isn’t that why we’re all here? Isn’t that why we write?

The Real Cost of Pimping Out Your Fiction

Funny you should ask.

Because as writers of Horror fiction (even largely unsuccessful Horror fiction), we are also students of the genre. I like to look (Critic-like) at why a classic is a classic, at how it scares and the language a writer chooses to utilize…which is how I came to be a fan of Literature and Literary Critics. Poking prose to see what it does is fascinating.

But it also leads to respecting the writers that have gone before – especially ones that are the founding authors of what will become our genre canon (because for now, it is merely theoretical and no canon list exists, as our genre is currently in the early stages of Literary Criticism – which formulates and finalizes The List comprised of Literary-quality works). (Phew.)

…And respecting the writers that have gone before comes when they haunt the edges of your own prose, making you want to write something equally as innovative and scary.

The mistake seems to happen when we start taking advice from other writers without knowing who the heck they are or realizing that we are in the midst of a writer’s revolution of sorts (and yet another argument FOR the necessity of dead authors in Criticism).

There are passionate arguments afoot:

  • Genres are/aren’t relevant anymore
  • All fiction is/is not Literature
  • Readers want/don’t want watered down prose
  • Action does/doesn’t trump plot or characterization
  • Fat tomes do/don’t sell
  • Horror is not Weird and Weird is not Horror. Or it is.

Unfortunately, who wrote that how-to book and his or her beliefs may be relevant to your developing style and future success. And it’s important that as a writer you understand which side of the divide you write on, because there are sides and these are not editors whispering in our ears; there will be consequences to decisions made. And most importantly, there is no promise of publication because you did what those books said. And maybe that is why (because you did what they said).

(I didn’t say I wasn’t paranoid. It was a LOT of French medieval history…)

The question becomes, who is ultimately in charge of your writing? Who has their hand on the zipper?

Lap Dances Are Extra

This is also why Horror needs an occasional sightseeing trip through pulp: the best in our genre never wrote to spec… They were outside the box, zippers exposed.

Remember pulp? The days of the Penny Dreadful? The days of Sensation Fiction and newspaper installments? The cheap mass market paperback designed to fit in your pocket and be abandoned in airports? The magnificent and often cheesy cover art and comics? The really great stuff that terrorized kids and lasted a lifetime in therapy?

Those monsters seem to reside in another, pulpy world, drifting earthward just long enough for the tentacles to brush our cheeks, like angel’s wings before departing at the ring of a telephone.

As I sit in front of the computer, massaging a high-centered story, or sacrificing chickens over my keyboard, I wonder why there is a kind of automatic reset…a reversion to a false belief that a story should lurch this way instead of that. Why, specifically with an interruption, the unwelcome Editor comes back on in raging default mode, whispering what “should be done in modern fiction” and how Godzilla should look.

Why does a story go from liquid ooze to a coagulated mess once the The Thinking starts… Who exactly controls the zipper?

So the mind begins to wander. Have I read one too many how-to’s? Am I writing for an audience that is nothing less than a prefab manifestation of someone else’s reader? Have I forgotten why I started the story in the first place? Am I worried about being politically correct? About my parents reading what I write?

And I have begun to realize that maybe it is because with all of the upheaval in publishing and the comings and goings of markets, publishing venues, editors, and options… maybe there is too much reliance on everyone else’s theories, too much thinking going on and not enough writing from instinct. There are no short cuts…no REAL formulas…Getting published is an accomplishment, not an entitlement.

Maybe we zip it in fear because we are too afraid of WHAT we are thinking. Maybe we are grateful for the interruption…the derailment of self-sabotage because to keep on going takes courage that might just guarantee a lifetime of rejections.

The moment the phone rings, the kid next door begins pounding on the walls, the potheads light up their skunkweed… well, that THINKING begins. And it’s like wrestling an alligator – he who has the most teeth wins.

(The next thing I know I’m in another room, fuming instead of writing. The spell is broken. The tentacles lift skyward…I start mentally second-guessing, trying to re-write to spec. What I’d give to uncork a monster and let him run his giganto rubber feet all over my neighbors… may they rot in Tokyo.)

But even then the hint is there…that germ of an idea on how to get the mojo back:

PULP IT.

Pulp was meant to be thrown away, a temporary thrill, to not-last. And there is something creatively freeing to think that what one writes is simply for fun, a spontaneous and joyful madcap run through a field of tall grass… a brief moment of thrills…nude monsters running free…

Best of all, no one recommends it today. Pulp is for REBELS.

The very idea of pulp is liberating… No critics to please. Fits in a file drawer. Devours wicked neighbors… The realization that you can write in the privacy of your own imagination – ANYTHING you want, accountable to no one – stirs the cauldron, summons the unseen.

The truth is golden:

If one can slip into the rubber suit one can squash Tokyo.

So why are we pimping out our fiction? Is getting published that important?

Well, I can say having had it happen once, it is validating. But it is also temporary. Validation by publication is fleeting…because even after it hits print all you see are the glaring errors.

Sure money matters. It helps to have a roof over your head while you pound out that novel. But to manufacture a work as pretense… well let’s face it, to do something for the money may or may not make you a professional, but it may also make you a prostitute. Choose wisely.

Myself, I am going for the zipper. It would be great if something good comes of it. Greater if something Literary comes of it. But for now, I’m happy to just let the monsters frolic. Nude. The way they were meant to be…