Is Genre Writing an Endangered Species?

I’m sure you’re all getting sick of me and my comments about the publishing industry, so today I thought I’d let someone else write about it. Andrew Vachss is guest blogging here blog today, though “ghost blogging” would probably be a better word for it. He doesn’t know he’s a guest and might not be happy if he finds out, so don’t be surprised if this post disappears.

I found this bit by Vachss in the foreword of Act of Love by Joe R. Lansdale, which might be the book that started the serial killer genre. (I always thought Thomas Harris started it, but this book predates his by several years.) I wasn’t impressed by the book (sorry Joe and Andrew) but I did find Vachss’s words interesting. He wrote:

Genre writing is an endangered species . . . for all the reasons any species starts to run out of road. Overpopulation, in-breeding, lack of natural predators, limited food supply. Words don’t work as stand-alones; they gather their power from juxtaposition . . . from context, from precision placement. But, in our game, words have become de-valued currency-you can’t count on them anymore. Our field is overdosed with flab: take some gratuitous, implausible violence, throw in some unrealistic sex, splatter some guts and hair on the nearest wall, sprinkle in a touch of mystical reference . . . and you’re walking on the “dark” side.

Sure.

The genres . . . horror, crime, fantasy, whatever . . . all have their built-in places to hide. Write something stupid, it’s a metaphor. Write something mean-spirited and small, it’s satire.

Getting published is pretty easy today. And that’s good. I’m all for an open admissions policy. But the sorting-out phase, the natural, organic process by which the strongest survive . . . that’s not happening. What we have instead is favor-trading, networking, and other sordid forms of insulation from the culling edge of the evolutionary razor. When the awards outnumber the candidates, we’re heading for the Wall. With no breaks and the steering locked.

Remember I told you that the genre market was in trouble? A dragon’s coming soon . . .coming down hard. It’s going to walk through the jungle, clearing out the dead vines with its breath, stomping on those that can’t get out of the way. A hard, cleansing wind is going to blow.

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Stories, Cliches, and Finding the Truth

We are steeped in story. From birth to death, story forms our lives. For some people — writers, quasi-hermits, employees of the publishing, movie, and television industries — story is their life. More stories are available to us in more media than ever before in history, including the stories we share with each other and ourselves. What is a daydream if not a story of the future we tell ourselves? And at night, while sleeping, our dreams tell us other stories. No wonder we have such a hard time finding a story that is not clichéd.

But they do exist. In fact, anyone can write a non-clichéd story if he or she does the work to find the truth of the story, but all too often writers with nothing to say look to books and movies for the truth and end up with rehashed forgeries.

Stories of pattern killers (serial killers by another name) became clichéd very quickly. How many times have we heard or read that same bit about the killer being a white male between the ages of . . . Never mind. You probably know it better than I do. Because so many writers borrowed their truths from previous stories about pattern killers, the only thing new they had to add was the grisly murder pattern, each one more gruesome than the last. The way to tell a non-clichéd serial killer story is to find the truth: in a bizarre sort of way, a pattern killer story is romance between the killer and the hunter. Their relationship forms the story, not the murders. And, on a deeper level, it is the story of the hunter finding the killer within himself. Thomas Harris portrayed this brilliantly in The Red Dragon, but when he wrote Hannibal, he chose grisliness over truth. You may not agree with me about the truth of the pattern killer story, but that is my truth. It is up to you to find your own truth.

So how do we do we find the truth for our stories, not just pattern killer stories? By going small, by knowing everything possible about our characters, the streets they walk, the way they think, the places and people that make up their world. David Morrell traveled to get the feel of his settings, and he took survival courses to find out what his characters would experience in wild, but not all of us have the time, money, or inclination to travel to distant places or to take physically taxing courses. Nor is it necessary. We can find the truth in our own neighborhoods. We can walk the streets and take note of everything we see. How do those streets differ from any other we have traveled? By being true to character and place, we find the small bits of action that tell the story’s truth. We are used to thinking of action scenes as car chases, fights, and other horrifying events, but an action scene can be as subtle as a look or a touch of a hand. That is where the truth lies, in the unexpected details.

A story, when set in a particular place with a particular character, will have a truth that no other story has. If we have the patience and skill to find the story’s truth, our truth, we can tell it without reducing it to cliché.

Sex in Books is Like Serial Killing

Thomas Harris’s book Red Dragon really blew me away when I read it years ago. It was the first book of its type, or at least the first of its type that I read. Since then, hundreds of books about serial killers have been published, each one more grotesque than the last in an effort to excite the interest of a jaded public. Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, written years after the Red Dragon, was so bizarre it was almost ridiculous.

Sex in books in like serial killing in books. In an effort to make what is essentially a reproductive act ever more interesting, authors keep coming up with different positions, different euphemisms, different ways to describe the act and the necessary anatomy. At times, the descriptions are more gruesome than titillating.

Maybe I’m jaded, too, but I find myself skipping over the sex scenes in books. And, since I have a strict rule not to write what I don’t read, each book I write has less sex in it than the last. In fact, in Light Bringer the characters didn’t have sex at all. But what can you expect from aliens? Still, it never occurred to me that I left off any mention of sex until it was pointed out to me. (I also left out the violence. Hmmm. No sex or violence. Is this a clue as to why I can’t find a publisher?)

Last night I had the hero of my work-in-progress, Chip, go out on a date and they ended up at his place. (His mother was finally gone, hallelujah! I was getting a bit bored with her. She really wasn’t nice.) Chip and the girl weren’t in love, though they knew each other; so without the love/romance angle all that was left was sex. And since I couldn’t think of a single thing new to say about it, I closed the door and left them alone.

Maybe when Chip does meet his life mate, I will let them be intimate, make love, copulate, possess each other, sleep together, but until then, poor Chip will need his strength. The world is about to come to an end.

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