Friday afternoon, I took part in a panel on horror writing organized by the Manitoba Writers’ Guild and hosted by the Arts and Cultural Industries Association of Manitoba. Chaired by Maurice Mierau, the panel consisted of Chadwick Ginther (author of the Norse urban fantasies Thunder Road and the recently-launched Tombstone Blues), Michael Rowe (in Winnipeg as part of the book tour for his ghost story Wild Fell) and myself. It was a very cozy setting to talk horror while a -30 C windchill howled outside, and while the event is fresh in my mind, I thought I’d touch on a couple points that came up in the discussion (and I thank Chris Borster for the idea of doing so). So here we go; any misrepresentations in the paraphrasing that follow are entirely the fault of my increasingly ragged memory.
Towards the beginning, Maurice asked us how we felt about the term “genre fiction.” I said that I embraced it as an umbrella term for those forms of fiction that establish a sort of contract with the reader (“I am promising you a particular sort of story”), but that problems arise as soon as one tries to establish firm definitions of a particular genre (which I’ve gone on about in this space before, and likely will again). Chadwick, who is also a bookseller, talked about the usefulness of genre labels for bookstores, but also as a means for readers to find the authors and books they might enjoy. Michael made the point that though he understands the use of genre terminology in a bookkeeping sense, he is also wary of it because of the baggage that comes with any sort of label.
I think that last is worth underscoring. This point does have some connections with what I’ve discussed here before regarding the relationship between horror and fantasy, but the baggage Michael refers to also has immediate, real-world consequences to the authors whose work is designated as X and not Y. This can be very limiting, as one sees with depressing regularity when novels by women are given a label that misrepresents them and denied an accurate genre description precisely because the writers are women.
Towards the end of the session, in answer to an audience member’s question about how one knows when one’s idea for a story is sufficiently original, Michael talked about the need to know the traditions, conventions and tropes of the genre in order to understand what one is doing with them. I found myself nodding vigorously (and here I hope that I am not putting words into Michael’s mouth) when he talked about the need to respect the genre. This, I believe, does not mean blindly following rules, sticking to the same well-worn narrative paths, and otherwise refusing to challenge the boundaries of the form. But what I do think it means is that, if you are writing in a given field, you’d better have real respect and love for that field (even if it’s a love frustrated by something that might not be all that it could).
On this last point, I am tempted start in on the subject of literary slumming and “transcending the genre” (an expression that I regard with the same fondness as say, “carrier of the plague”), but that would be for another time.
———————————————————–: And then there’s the also depressing, also frequent phenomenon of an entire genre or subgenre being dismissed as lesser because its writers and readers are primarily women.