Monday, October 31, 2016

Reducing Genre to the Point of Offense or Betraying One's Ignorance

I had a very limited view of what 'horror' meant for a long time. To me, it was the slasher/scare-me-to-death films of the 80s. Jason. Freddy. The stuff we watched at sleepovers that was probably a subconscious ploy to ensure we would stay up all night, because we couldn't sleep, not just because we wanted to.

In truth, I have to credit my husband for expanding my understanding of some genres. I'd make some remark about horror or another genre and he'd round up a stack of anthologies related to the topic and tell me to start reading.

The result was that my understanding of horror as a genre expanded. The Cabin in the Woods isn't Nightmare on Elm Street, although I may or may not* have still jumped when the title sequence started.

Now, I recently noted some submission guidelines from a publisher, and I took offense to them. There's been a long-standing argument between literary and genre fiction that involves the perception that literary writers look down on genre writers as being beneath them, and that genre fiction isn't seen as having the same quality as literary fiction. (I'm sure J.K. Rowling is crying over how she doesn't sell like literary writers.)

One of the perceived differences between literary fiction and genre fiction is that genre fiction is driven by a plot, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Things build up to a climax with resolution. Things happen.

Literary fiction can be more introspective, with less focus on events and actions than on the impact events have on the main characters.

I was reading a set of submission guidelines, and the publisher was pretty detailed about what they wanted. That can be a very good thing for writers, because it can help them figure out if they're a good fit with that publisher. There's nothing worse than skipping to a set of submission guidelines and seeing a generic, "Only send us material that's similar to what we publish." That can be very ambiguous because over time a publication may evolve. What Spinetingler publishes today in terms of fiction is different than what it published initially. I always go back to the story, "Jessie's Toothbrush," which we published very early on. The mystery was why the guy was so enamored with that toothbrush, but it certainly wasn't crime fiction. It was memorable, though. However, if a comparable story was submitted today it would probably get rejected because the focus has narrowed over time, and also it can be determined by the preferences of the editor, and our editorial staff has changed over time.

Specific details can be good. When a publisher has identifiable genres or subgenres they publish, it's great to know this. However, when the publisher states that they are more interested in character growth than plot and then says that's why they aren't interested in any manuscripts about characters who are in law enforcement, they've demonstrated a prejudice.

Now, those aren't the exact words that I read. I've been reading a lot of submission guidelines lately, because when I do manuscript reviews I don't always stay within one genre. I've been working on an assessment of a non-fiction manuscript, and the one before that was some sort of horror/speculative fiction piece that didn't fit easily in one box. I'm rarely hired to review crime fiction manuscripts, which means I'm often researching different genres and publishing categories so that I can provide up-to-date examples to illustrate a point I'm making to the writer I'm working with.

As I read this set of submission guidelines, I felt my blood boil. I was offended and annoyed.

It's remarkably presumptive to assume that a character who happens to work in law enforcement doesn't have the capacity for self growth, or that their journey isn't worth reading about. It also suggests a certain level of ignorance. My mind automatically went to the brilliant works of James Sallis, and the John Turner and Lew Griffin books. Those books are the definition of a personal journey for the central character. The mystery in any Lew Griffin book isn't a case but is the man himself, and what prompts his limitations and relationships.

I clicked off of that site with cheeks burning and some inappropriate words mixed in with a vow to never read a dang thing by that publisher if they were so biased against a genre I love.  

I'm not sure if it's an entirely fair response. Perhaps in another week or two I'll forget about it and even forget who said it. I understand if an editorial team has had a hefty percentage of their books be police procedurals and they want to see something else. Just say you aren't accepting police procedurals at this time. There's no need to piss on the whole genre in the process and suggest that it's so fucking beneath you that it can't say anything significant about the human equation or contribute any depth to our understanding about humanity, a person's motivations, or how it can prompt character growth.

My husband may or may not have been tired of hearing me rant about the subject, so I may or may not have needed to work this out of my system here. I also know that when I approached my latest manuscript, I wanted it to push deeper than a formulaic procedural, while still having a solid story. I don't believe the two are mutually exclusive. I don't want to live in a publishing era that suggests that's the case. I have always felt that what's more compelling about a Rebus book is the man himself than the specific crimes being investigated, and while those crimes may open the door for an examination of politics and personal views, they work best when everything from the crime to the investigation to the characters mirror the central theme of the story and amplify what the protagonist is working through.

It may be that a high number of police procedurals fall short on this account, but to suggest they all do is wrong, and the publisher could have picked a more tactful way to talk about what they wanted to see from writers, rather than making such a sweeping judgment against a whole subgenre... and I have to be honest, while I've only addressed the law enforcement restriction, that was just one of a number of careers that were excluded from submissions.

* I'm a jumper, so nobody questions when I have a strong fear reaction. This is also why I prefer to lie on the couch rather than sit.


Dana King said...

I have just one thing to say to this publisher: Joseph Wambaugh.

Along these lines, I watched an interview with Dennis Lehane last week where he was asked why he writes crime stories. Lehane said (paraphrasing) that he was trained as a literary short story writer, but that to him, Conflict 101 is to place the person in n extreme situation: a fire, for example. Crime situations do that quite well, as an inherent part of the story. He said he was tired of reading about vaguely dissatisfied people in Connecticut.

Sandra Ruttan said...

He's another example of a writer who is every bit as talented as the best writers today and would be excluded by these guidelines.