Be My Victim: Maurice Broaddus on Challenging the Status Quo

[SF Signal welcomes author Lee Thomas and the launch of his new SF Signal column, Be My Victim!]

This column is meant to address issues pertaining to horror fiction and the publishing of same. Some of the installments might rub you the wrong way. Down the road, this column might even hurt some feelings. It happens. We won’t always see eye to eye. My feelings run along these lines…

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

– James A. Baldwin

This quotation describes the way I feel about horror fiction, so while there will be celebration of the genre, there will also be criticism. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section.

My first guest is Maurice Broaddus, an author, a minister, and the master of Mo*Con, an annual literary convention focusing on religion and dark fiction. We’ll be discussing the status quo, or at least, the illusion of the status quo.

Set to commence in 3… 2…


Lee Thomas: Often enough, we’ve heard that horror fiction challenges the status quo. What seems apparent is that while the status quo has shifted dramatically in the last thirty years, this shift is rarely represented in horror fiction. Maurice, why do you think this Brady Bunch sensibility is still so prevalent in modern horror fiction?

Maurice Broaddus: I think we may be seeing two things in your question. When folks say that horror “challenges the status quo” too often they mean they want to read things to fuel their masturbatory fantasies. Because the only time I hear that claim is when folks are defending the mindless parade of sex and violence in lieu of story. It usually comes at the beginning or the end of a rant about how horror is too dangerous for mainstream and that’s why no one is buying it.

But I also think there is a Brady Bunch sensibility to modern horror. Stephen King perfected the formula of Leave It to Beaver styled American families who have their worlds torn apart by the intrusion of some terror. And a whole generation of folks grew up reading those stories, loving those stories, and reproducing those stories. And folks are convinced that that is what the market wants/demands. But the status quo has shifted, both in story telling style and in the audience – there are markets that are completely underserved, for example – but folks still cling to what they think worked hoping it will work again.

LT: Which is odd when you consider an entertainment medium, which horror fiction certainly is. Music has a different feel and reflects different sensibilities than it did thirty years ago, as do television and films. For that matter, so do books from many other genres. I’m wondering if this devotion to the past undermines current titles, because they no longer feel authentic enough – real world enough – for contemporary readers.

MB: I think the bigger concern is that we’ve seen the bulk of these stories before. I find with most horror, I can’t get beyond the premise of the story. I know they certainly don’t reflect what I think about, where I come from, or reflect people I can relate to. And it’s like the genre isn’t given room to grow and experiment by its supposed fans. There is a place for common tropes. They are like comfort food: when you want it, you want to know what you’re getting, and don’t want it to stray too far from what you’re expecting.

Some would be quick to say that the romance genre adheres to a strict sense of the definitions of its genre. And while that may be true on one level, on another, that genre continues to grow and morph, having plenty of “traditional” stories for fans who are adherents to them, while constantly growing and exploring its market and storytelling possibilities.

LT: You note: “I know they certainly don’t reflect what I think about, where I come from, or reflect people I can relate to.” That strikes me as something of a double-edged sharpie thing. Some would suggest that we don’t see a lot of experimenting or exploration of diverse cultures for this very reason – the audience wants to strongly relate to the characters and situations presented. Of course, what we are seeing on the shelves suggests that the bulk of the audience for horror is comprised of straight, white folks who are still existing within some modern-day version of the Leave it to Beaver experience. If the feeling is: I’m not reading this because I can’t relate – from both sides of this equation – how do we bridge that gap and build viable audiences for work that colors outside the lines?

MB: A couple years ago, Wrath James White and I exchanged the manuscripts we were working on. Both stories took place in the heart of urban environments. Very street, very rough, very dark works. When we were done, the first thing we said was “who is going to buy these stories?” Which was why I was so excited to get hooked up with a publisher like Angry Robot whose charter is specifically to find work that colors outside of the lines, experiment with genre boundaries, and truly take chances. (I should note that Wrath’s Yacuub’s Curse also found a good home).

I think that’s what the genre truly needs: publishers with vision not afraid to take chances and explore. To see beyond what the market has done before, that ever dwindling audience for that, and move into new directions. Embracing diversity in voices and settings and finding new voices/writers who color outside the lines. For such a “dangerous” genre, it plays it safe, sticks to its formulas, and has been choking on its own mediocrity.

LT: I completely agree that publishers need to be more courageous. Currently, we’re seeing a level of conservatism across publishing that promotes stagnation and derivation, but I also believe a lot of responsibility falls to the authors. It’s easy enough to rage against the machine, but the machine isn’t going to shut down just because you make a good point. As writers I think we need to be very conscious of the market realities, and there are ways we can nuance our work so that it grabs readers who want some untilled earth, while still engaging those who prefer the more traditional, predictable ground. It doesn’t do writers a lot of good to have publishers releasing their edgy, uncompromising books if the readership won’t support it.

Further, I have grown increasingly frustrated with writers who blame the state of their careers entirely on the system, and make no concession to the fact that publishing is a profit-driven industry, and as such they have to find a way to make their “dreams” marketable and salable. I wish it weren’t that way, but the machine doesn’t care much about my wants and wishes.

MB: If they don’t want to participate in a profit-driven industry, they should write their pieces of art then stick them in a drawer somewhere. It was my fifth novel written which finally sold. It took that many tries before I produced a work that the market was ready to run with. Does that mean my other four novels were garbage? Well, in the case of two of them, yes, but I was a much different writer [undisclosed number of] years ago.

LT: Drop names. Who are some authors that are breaking new ground and pushing limits? How are they doing it? (And I’m not talking about the extremists out there who think they’ve done something new by describing a psycho, squicking a flayed woman he’s kept chained in a shed for a month. Some of the groundbreakers may include scenes like this, but the content alone isn’t particularly revolutionary.)

MB: Lavie Tidhar, Lauren Beukes, Nick Mamatas, Paul Jessup and Jennifer Pelland. They aren’t afraid to cross genre lines (some folks probably wouldn’t even label them horror). And it’s pretty evident that they’ve read more than the latest round of derivative horror novels. And when I think of Lavie and Lauren in particular, they are writing from completely different cultural perspectives. Laird Barron and Kelly Link are two of my favorite writers period, especially in terms of the power they bring to the craft. And then there are my personal role models, Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. I’ve honestly tried to pattern my career after them, especially in terms of finding my voice then finding my audience.

LT: Thank you, Maurice. We’ll chat again.


Maurice Broaddus is the author of The Knights of Breton Court series from Angry Robot books. The first installment, King Maker, is available now at booksellers everywhere.

Lee Thomas – is the award-winning author of Stained, The Dust of Wonderland, and In the Closet, Under the Bed. His next novel is The German, forthcoming from Lethe Press in March 2011.

13 thoughts on “Be My Victim: Maurice Broaddus on Challenging the Status Quo”

  1. good discussion & topic, and I hope to read more such.

    I think a huge problem with most audiences– whether in literature or film– is that they are too narrow cast in their exposure, rejecting stories because “they certainly don’t reflect what I think about, where I come from, or reflect people I can relate to.” That’s a very limiting and restricted perspective, and the reason why more innovative, experimental or unconventional works are ignored by the general public.

    which is exactly why we don’t see a lot of experimenting or exploration of diverse cultures, and why the same mediocre, cliche’ crap get recycled. why sci-fi, fantasy and horror continue to get snubbed in the mainstream.

    There is also a misguided assumption among audiences and producers and critics that literature and film are supposed to conform to some format or formula.

    The market is a poor measure of what we should do, because it caters to this lowest common denominator approach. And therefore, it is a mistake to try and make your stories marketable– able to be sold. The story is paramount, and its integrity overrides making it palatable for selling by compromising. I reject that we must adapt our story to suit “the market”. The majority tend to be idiots. Why would we want to appeal to them, just to make money? Do we really want to produce material that appeals to this audience? Also, a storyteller tells stories because he/she is compelled to, not to be selling something. Selling is incidental and secondary, perhaps even irrelevent.

    I highly respect Lee Thomas as a writer and a literary commentator, and usually agree with his insight.

    But I emphatically disagree that writers whould bear the burden of responsibility instead of the system (publishers & audience) for the state of their careers, for the these reasons.

  2. Superb interview!  It’s great to see a monthly horror column in the hallowed pages of SF Signal.  Makes me miss the old days when I was writing one for Fear Zone and The Internet Review of Science Fiction.

    I think Lee and Maurice both make excellent points.  Like them, I would love to see more originality, risk-taking and cultural explorations in the horror genre.  Many thanks to Maurice for mentioning a few authors I wasn’t familiar with as writers who are doing exactly that.

    Also, I second the shout out to Tananarive Due.  She’s one of my literary idols as well.  THE BETWEEN blew me away, as has everything I’ve read of hers since.

    Keep up the good work, SF Signal!  I can’t wait for the next installment!

    Nick Kaufmann

  3. Thanks for the responses folks.

     

    Sean – While I can see how you got to your point from what I wrote – that wasn’t what I wrote.  Ha.  I do not think writers should write down to anyone. There are a number of brilliant writers who do not pander to the LCD, yet still create “commercial” work.  What I am saying is writiing is an art/craft (define as you will).  Publishing is a business. They are not the same beast. If you put your soul to paper and are happy with it, then it doesn’t matter where the piece is published or whether it gains an audience. If you want to publish – especially with noted houses – then for many writers that requires compromise. If you are not willing to compromise you can’t blame the system.  Well, you can, but it won’t get you anywhere.  Telling readers to be smarter or publishers to be more daring, won’t make either happen. Further, I think it’s petulant and something of a cop out for a writer to stomp her foot and say, “I’m doing it my way and you’d better BUY it!”  I don’t have major publishers lining up for my gay horror titles, and I understand why. Even if they love them, they will be seen as a marketing nightmare. I accept that and publish those titles with smaller houses. I don’t demand the world change itself for my benefit.

     

    In short, writing should be all the things you said. The story comes first. The writer’s message is important. I honestly believe that.  Publishers… don’t. (Okay, some do. But mostly – they have to serve the bottom line.)

     

     

  4. Lee- thanks for responding. Didn’t mean to put words in your mouth. I know you don’t write to or encourage the LCD, or else I would not respect you. But as you saw from my “rant”, I see how what you wrote could be misinterpreted as endorsing LCD compromising to get a sale, and I needed to speak against that possibility. You are correct, and I agree that publishing is a business, usually unconcerned with art. But it doesn’t have to be. I believe that if we demand/expect readers to be smarter or publishers to be more daring– if we held them accountable for this– then eventually standards would improve.

    Just as GLBT has become more generally acceptable and legally protected. If publishers are not concerned primarily with integrity of the material (rather than sales), then they are doing a disservice to the craft and the writer. If they are not serving the craft, then why are they there? George R. Martin is not our bitch; the author should not be beholden to the audience, or what publishers think is the audience. Typically, publishers are just another gatekeeper dictating standards, telling us what we should think is good.

  5. I’m sorry but what precisely is it that you are taking issue with?

     

    a) Who says that Horror should ‘challenge the status quo’?

    b) Who says that it shouldn’t?

    c) What constitutes a challenge to the status quo?

    d) Why should this challenge be a good thing?

     

    At the moment I’m seeing a lot of preening and strutting around but no real intellectual content beyond two people getting annoyed at a slogan.  Ah hah!  Straw Man!  My oooooold Nemesis… this time you will not get away!  Have at Ye!

  6. Sorry the format doesn’t work for you J. Since I can’t tell if your post is serious in any way – the “preening and strutting” pretty much reduces it to a petty slam against both participants, and the questions exhibit a high level of willful ignorance – I have little in the way of response.We work off the assumption the readers of this site are smart enough to understand the basic concepts, and we go from there.  Should they have questions or wish to add something relevant to expand the conversation, it is encouraged.  But if they’d like a term paper on the subject I’d be more  than happy to send them your way.

  7. Lee — I’m asking you to define your terms.  What do you mean by ‘challenging the status quo’ because it is not a way of characterising the Horror genre that I have ever come across.  I’ve heard of Horror shocking people and offending public morality but I take it that that is not what you are referring to.

    Traditionally, Horror is seen as not so much a genre that challenges the status quo as gives voice to it — the genre operates by isolating the fears of the culture at large and distilling them down and presenting them through genre tropes.  For example, Dracula is all about Victorian England’s fear of not only descent into sensuality but also an un-named menace from the East.  It does not offend popular prejudice or challenge it, it gives voice to it.

    If you’re going to make a point, and make it in the colourful terms you and your friend adopt, then I think it behoves you to define your terms and make your case quite clearly.  Otherwise you look like a pseud.  Hence the strutting comment.

     

    It’s interesting that you talk about challenging the status quo but when someone challenges you, you respond by calling them an idiot.

  8. And it’s interesting to me that you would go to the trouble to make your first post insulting and essentially meaningless, when you actually had an interesting point to make. Instead of making it, you whipped out your Debate 101 checklist and set to harping. For the record, I never called you an idiot, and I didn’t feel challenged by your remarks, I simply didn’t see any point in them. Your second post asked for a clarification that might be useful to the discussion, so in response to that:

     

    Maybe you haven’t heard this old saw in your travels, but the whole “challenge the status quo” addresses the established reflection of the status quo you mention above with the Dracula reference, and uses the “monster” as the metaphor for things that can reject or destroy said status quo (a.k.a. challenge it). So, to your example, yes horror gives voice to the status quo, but it utilizes cultural fears – vice, xenophobia – presented in metaphor to create conflict. In some cases, the status quo is the monster, as we see in the recent, endless parade of zombie stories. Our launching point was the idea that the status quo being challenged in horror lit. – that of heterosexual, middle-class Caucasians – has hardly progressed in the last thirty to forty years, despite social advances in the same period. As a result, many “new” horror stories feel stagnant and out of date.

     

     

     

     

  9. until about 2 months ago, in a Back to Frank Black podcast, I’d never heard of the whole “challenge the status quo” regarding horror. not because the term it isn’t being used, but because I’m not deeply immersed in the horror genre conversation.

    Unfortunately, that status quo of heterosexual, middle-class Caucasians is not limited to horror… and inexplicably plagues all genres, in all story mediums. How and why does that cliche persist? Especially in America, where multicultural diversity is supposedly a point of pride. Look at the new TV shows presented to us this year. 8 out of 10 have hetero white mostly males in central/ dominant/ hero position. Are we to infer that the American audience does not accept, or is not interested in, more diverse characters and ensembles? Or does it mean the scriptwriters, producers or media gatekeepers are being small minded and short sighted by perpetuating the cliche?

    Why should it be considered so unusual to have an all or predominately female cast, but an all male or all white cast is not questioned? Or an all Asian cast? Or an all Gay/Lesbian cast? Or even an all or mostly alien cast instead of human in sci-fi? The BBC’s Being Human is the only show I can think of where ALL the main characters are not human. Just as we need to challenge the conventional thinking of audiences regarding publishing, they also need to be challenged in TV/Film.

    Let’s elevate the story, please.

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