[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.
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.