If you’ve been to a brick-and-mortar bookstore of late, you might have noticed something: the genres seem to be shrinking. They are also combining: Science Fiction is now married to Fantasy, and tucked into their shadows is Horror. What is a writer to make of this? Have the hard lines of genre definitions been blurred? Or is this the fault of writers themselves?
Further we have to wonder if this weird consolidation of fiction is for a greater, Literary good, or whether this comes at the expense of genre. I have noticed one thing: Horror is being suffocated by the isolation of its authors on the bookshelf. Authors need the proximity of each other’s works because genre is not an anathema but a formula; readers who are fans or want to become fans need that marketing boost that comes with grouping sections together. It makes it easier to find accomplished authors that represent the canon, new authors who represent (hopefully) the new directions of the genre, and unknown, forgotten, or international authors who represent contrast that will feed the next generations of writers.
But all is not well in genre-land. And Horror is one of those increasingly sad examples of what appears to be a tenacious marketing trend: the ruthless dissemination of our authors. This is not good for our genre, not good for our authors.
Renowned sometimes-Horror/Gothic author Tanith Lee is a perfect example. In the United States, most of the time her outstanding works can only be found in used book stores – yet this phenomenal British author is still publishing – (although less often) over 70 novels later, and albeit in multi-genre-ational ways and with less publishing support than one would think. Moreover, she is one of the premier vampire-writing novelists (adult Stephenie Meyer fans need to read her Blood Opera Trilogy Dark Dance, Personal Darkness, and Darkness) and is untouchable in her Secret Books of Paradys series; she is also one of the few authors I will eagerly read any work by. Her prose is wondrously lush and dark – sure to connect with Anne Rice fans. Currently classified as “a science fiction, fantasy and horror writer” who really does write in multiple genres, she is oddly easily found in none of those genres today. Her fans even reputedly thought her mistakenly dead for a time, leaving the lesser published and unpublished authors wondering what to think. How many other authors has this happened to? Is she the victim of this new way of thinking? Was she disseminated to the backlist? Or are we to believe that all of her fans died instead?
O Amazon, My Amazon…
When Horror was Horror I knew where to find Tanith Lee. She was right next to Stephen King and around the corner from Anne Rice. Now I see a handful of authors scattered among the many genres – including general fiction, and only a chosen few exhibiting every book they ever wrote.
Not a problem, you say, just go to Amazon…
But as a Horror fan and a writer of Horror, I argue that Horror is a tradition which requires generations of readers to maintain its place in the minds of publishers. Sure, we could do as Science Fiction has and wait for rogue editors to take their “lush retirement checks” and start Horror publishing houses… Or we could say it’s not Horror if Arkham House says it isn’t… Or we could say Horror writers should publish their work online for free…But I am thinking none of that will fly, and certainly none of that is a quick and sure fix to Horror’s current problem of sublimation.
I grew up in the era of Pure Horror. We had our own section, a vibrant and productive stable of writers, our highly anticipated summer movie blockbusters… We even had our category stamped proudly on the spines of paperbacks. Yet slowly and surely this clear classification of genre writing began to erode as publishing began to lose its formerly sure-footing and as Horror fans grew up – and away – from the genre. Are we as writers responsible for the watering down of the standards Horror is judged by? Or was this a necessary survival technique imposed by publishers? Worse, was this a marketing angle designed to rip Horror from the hands of slasher-fans and gore-mongers which had alienated so many readers, or just a subversive maneuver to bury the fact that less books were being published in print altogether?
Dividing and Conquering the Genres
The truth may not be so simple or pleasant to acknowledge. At the risk of starting a cosmic war, an example is the argument by some that all science fiction is horror….or all horror is science fiction.
If that doesn’t raise the hackles on a werewolf, I don’t know what does….
It would appear that marketing departments and publishers have been listening in on some intra-genre conversations and arguments… maybe entertaining different positions in a strange attempt to settle genre trope and formula questions once and for all. But I say this conversation belongs to the genres themselves…. and maybe professional Literary Critics. For every person who believes a given author is not a “pure” Sci Fi or Horror author, there are ten more who want to find that author, read his or her work, and make the decision for themselves. If that author is filed in another category, the other category won’t like that title and those who would can’t “accidentally” discover it…
Doesn’t this mean publishers and editors would start doing the same thing to authors that happens to singers and songwriters – that they would be discouraged or threatened with eviction from their label for deviating from The Brand? Haven’t we matured past the Age of Pseudonyms for all but the obvious (and I am thinking most folks would not read a children’s book by Clive Barker to their toddler)?
But it is natural for those who do such things as create and define categories to try to argue such genre points. Is all Science Fiction really Horror, or vice versa? Does it matter? As writers and readers, we get to carry the outrage or nod quietly in assent…but we don’t generally get a vote in what label gets hung on the work. Some of those deciding the issue are editors, some are publishers, some are publishers who are former editors, some are bookstore owners, some are marketing agents, some are critics and academic students of film or literature…. Fans cast about somewhere in the middle, defending their genres with claw and fang; but the interesting point has been the discovery that the argument over classification of genres has been going on a very long time.
And as entangled in the argument as we are, we have a lot to learn from Science Fiction’s identity crisis…
Lessons From Science Fiction
One could base the argument of which genre is the parent genre on a theory of “which came first?” But that in itself is hardly fair. We had irrational fears long before we found science; yet Science Fiction is a genre extraordinaire… its ability and determination to struggle for self-definition is nothing short of admirable, its fan loyalty a miracle of publishing. Still, its own self-classification has been a point of argument for some time. Says editor John Silbersack in his essay titled “Editing the Science Fiction and Fantasy Novel” (Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do, Gerald Gross, Ed. , New York: Grove Press, c1962, 1985, 1993):
“What SF offers is the freedom of a genre that seems peculiarly unable to define itself…I think of Science Fiction, or SF, as embracing fantasy as well. Though it actually might be more accurate to claim that fantasy embraces SF… (292-293)….But science fiction is not ‘pure and simple’ according to its critics and not a few of its fans” (297).
In other words, the same moment we start appreciating the innovation of a Science Fiction story, we tend to see in high relief the elements of other genres that intrude and shape it. Giving a writer latitude in creating the story sometimes leads the story right out of the genre, or at least complicates the act of classification – something not unfamiliar to today’s Horror writers. But if editors and publishers cannot define our genres, how does the writer? Maybe it does not matter in the creation of the work, but it sure bodes ill for the decision on where to submit it…
Does classification mean setting, or biology, or the main thrust of the plot? If you take the Horror elements out of Alien, will the story still work? If you replace the Alien with a traditional monster or bad humanity, will the story still work? Does it then change genres?
This is the quandary. Because as Silbersack states, “Everyone in and out of publishing seems to understand just how SF and fantasy stand apart without quite being able to put it into words…” (295). Horror is no different: we all know when we have been horrified. But we might have difficulty in deciding if the story belongs to another genre first.
Lo, The Magic of Marketing
The upside of all of this for Horror writers and fans is that the smokescreen of genre confusion gives Horror a “safe” place to hide during the slash-and-burn era of publishing. We can ride on the coat tails of our Science Fiction cohorts and remain embedded in their solidly selling category; we might even pirate a few of their fans on occasion (well one can dream, right?), tapping into their strong sense of author-loyalty and benefitting from their sales momentum.
But does this deplete our genre more?
If readers cannot find their authors, or have not yet discovered their authors in our genre, how can we make them stand out?
Unfortunately if we remain ensconced in the Science Fiction and Fantasy category, the reader will have to do most of the work. This means the reader will have to research Horror writers online or in annual Best Of collections and thematic anthologies, or rely on other fans to clue them in. This is not only unfortunate, it is not expedient. It is the one reason I dislike the idea of an all-internet bookstore environment that limits real browsing in the first place. And as a Horror writer, I want readers to find our genre easily, to be able to compare and contrast, to see the full spectrum of what genre has to offer. If we are disseminated among the many Science Fiction and Fantasy authors, what are our chances of random and happy discovery? Did the marketing teams even think about where they were putting us?
All Hail the Sci Fi/Fantasy Fandom
I ask this because Science Fiction and Fantasy fans are a breed apart in the genres. They are author-oriented and adventurous, but they love their genre(s) passionately. How likely is it that Horror writers would lure hard core Sci Fi fans away from their beloved genre and into our dark realms by the simple proximity of book spines? How long could we keep a High Fantasy fan mesmerized between our dark and brooding book covers? I am thinking not too long. We might have a better chance if our itinerant Horror tale is made into a summer blockbuster first – but overall, I am thinking that while we may snarf the occasional Sci Fi or Fantasy fan for a story or two, we will not convert them. So why make it harder for the choir to hear the preacher?
Part of our problem may be that Horror is indeed rediscovering its multi-colored roots, one of which is the short story format. It is a boon to writers – especially new writers – to be able to break into the genre with a lot less work than a novel requires. There are more markets for short stories than for unpublished author’s novels, and maybe better exposure for the moment by finding oneself in the same anthology as one’s Horror heroes. However, it also means that we have at least temporarily lost our reader’s attention spans. We will have to re-convince them that they can and should read a full-length Horror novel along with that anthology…that there are those other than our beloved Stephen King who can pull the rabbit out of the hat.
But this means re-convincing publishers of the same thing, and body-blocking marketing departments which obviously don’t really understand Science Fiction fans.
So how do we survive this marketing trend and publishing viewpoint? Do we really want to go back to an environment of Pure Horror and the categorization it would require? Would that stunt the innovative growth we are currently seeing in Horror plotlines?
What would our own category of Pure Horror look like? Probably a lot less like the 1980’s than you think…
The Price of Pure Horror
We’ve lost a lot of writers in Horror. Back in the late 80’s we began losing our thundering herd of midlist writers, our mass market paperback shelf space, and our identities. It hasn’t helped that in order to just survive as a writer during the downturn of publishing, many former Horror writers were left no choice but to abandon the genre for “greener” pastures and defected to Mystery, Thriller/Suspense and yes – Science Fiction and Fantasy. As a reader, I miss them and want them back. As a writer I want the inspiration and the competition and production volume.
Is the fact of our multi-tasked literature the problem here? Are we asking too much of writers to “mainstream” their genres for the sake of easy shelving? I think to some degree the answer is yes. Many genre writers would love to have their work considered Literature as well as genre work – but most genre writers write genre because they love their genres…. I for one don’t like to see Horror deconstructed into a sum of its parts. Of course there is Science Fiction and Fantasy and Mystery and Suspense in our genre…It’s kind of hard to generate fear without using parts of those other categories to shore up the story-telling. But like Sci Fi writers and fans, we know Horror we see it… and we like it.
So if we were to redefine the genre, would demanding purer standards help?
Again, we have to look at Science Fiction to see clearly, because Science Fiction has already had the argument that we see mirrored in Horror… I return to the wisdom of John Silbersack to explain:
“Books that don’t deliver, or don’t deliver completely, are routinely published. What, anyone might ask, does the SF editor see in the trash that we all acknowledge is sometimes published? The answer is, as any editor might answer, a combination of optimism, stupidity, honest mistake, and in the SF arena something further – a devotion to something sometimes called ‘the novel of ideas’… there are still plenty of writers, novels and what passes as genre classics that offer little but an Idea with a capital I, while relegating character, plot, and style to far more subordinate roles. To go further, the border between fiction and polemic can be hairline thin and is notoriously treacherous, but no one disputes the fact that SF, under the guise of entertainment, often offers a message as well. SF is the only genre I know where authors are remembered, blurbed, and praised for their predictions, even the invention of spacecraft and satellites, nuclear piles and solar sails….” (298).
Those who have been to Horror movies recently can identify with the sublimation and subverting of quality for “ideas” and everyone has pondered at the plethora of less-than-our-best Horror writing that is occasionally caught running down the legs of the genre… Maybe we are caught up in publishing’s desperate and wild abandon hoping to mimic the success of Science Fiction with this whole Idea Novel concept…But then Science Fiction is about future potential and possibilities – themselves still very much ideas… How could anything less than a watering down of craft happen in other genres where “ideas” need much more development to support the genre framework? How much fire is lit if the only idea is a little girl getting possessed or a ghost haunting a house? Tah dah….
(and I admit I own a copy. But that is beside the point. Where’s the beef????)
Horror is not an Idea genre…at least in its written form. Our formula has hearty requirements in setting, mood, and character. Once again, even if we snag a Sci Fi fan or two, how likely is it that we will win their hearts? Do we want our genre to adopt conventions that lesser writers will make two-dimensional treatises? I’m not saying Sci Fi is shallow…far from it. Again I believe that Sci Fi floats on tremendously rich idea concepts that entangle themselves with the imagination in tentacular ways. I am saying that Sci Fi can get away with it and still produce some good and iconic work. Horror will be just another boneless chicken in the bucket.
Yet restricting our genre to specific criteria is not probably the easy solution either; with strict criteria comes a reigning in of creativity, and a stifling of – yes – ideas. No genre can totally afford that. In fact, Susan Bell, author of The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, c 2007, states, “Purists are people who create ideas, not art” (168), an important point for a genre that aspires to be recognized by Literary Critics.
Nor do we want to see Horror finish its 80’s migration into visceral fiction that is all slash and no class. If a person hell-bent on categorizing the Horror genre decides that only pure horror is Pure Horror, we might well lose our claim to the Gothic and all things Lovecraft. I say there has to be something in the middle – because Horror is in the middle. We are cross-genre writers whose first love is the emotion of Horror. Maybe it is time we showed a united front as writers and readers, as authors and editors. Maybe we need to take a lesson from those feisty Sci Fi and Fantasy fans and once again demand our own section …
Grab a tentacle. This is war. Let’s go get our authors back!