I edit a lit journal/blog–that line is thin these days–and I am a reader for UK imprint on radical theory and literature. I read a lot on my own and as a teacher. I see tons of writing: many good ideas from people who can’t really write as a teacher, but equally bothersome are good writers who don’t have many ideas. One of the things that has gotten to me is that there are some trends that have existed in literary fiction since the 1960s, and, definitely since the development of MFAs but also the New Yorker’s taste for fiction has something to do with it, is the banality of the domestic short story. Small scenes, minor conflict, hopefully rendered meaningful by character or quirk. I get a lot of that in fiction in literary magazine, where as to contrast that, as a book reader, I primarily specialize in non-fiction, but what I tend to see there is Young Adult style dystopian novels.
One seems to be life in minimalism and the other in maximalism, but they almost seem to have genre tropes that now override the author. Many of these authors I reject are quite good writers, but under the spell of a genre–and I fear literary fiction has ceded so much to the genres that its primary genre concern in short stories is quirk and banality–the work subsumes to that genre. It is a subsumption of art to marketing.
It is completely understandable as a reader, I must sometimes suggest publish things that I think aren’t saying anything new because I know that confirmation bias plays into the publishing world: we have to make money. I refuse to suggest we publishi anything bad or totally obscurantist though. I stand behind my suggestions at a level of basic quality, but innovation or original insight is often harder. People like familiarity. They also like novelty, but one is safer than the other. We talk about this all the time in movies, but I rarely see people willing to be honest that this trend has effected books: the dominance of YA dystopia is not different than the dominance of comic book movies. As a teacher, I understand this, there is a focus on “high engagement, low ability books.” IN short, books that are entertaining, but easy to read. Some of these books are substantive: Tony Morrison, for example, is thematically very hard but her lexile score puts her at 7th grade reading level on a sentence-by-sentence bias. I doubt a 7th grader can understand Beloved thematically, but they can past the words.
But reading tastes are reinforced by this, and you do see a decline in the complexity of books. Several authors I respect, including Ian McEwan has said the complex, multiple re-read demanding novel, is effectively dead in literary publishing. Time crunches and competition from the internet as well as a glut in the market and market imperatives mean that people have to get the novel quickly. Ironically, this has let to a lot of innovation on the margins of genre fiction, which has a more devoted reading base because of sub-cultural commitments. The idea that consumer choices can make an identity disturbs me, but that is what music genre and nerd culture identity have always been.
One is inclined to fight these trends, but it hard to do. It is would be inappropriate to me as an editor to write to each short story author who sends me another piece of the “banality of everyday life” or “character with X quirk fucks up things and story ends unresolved and say, “I want you write a story completely unlike this with all the talent you cultivated into this.” Now, I could do that as a reader for publishing house, but there I must consider clickbait culture and trying to balance bringing new ideas to an audience, with audiences that seem to increasingly just want their world view confirmed.
All this banality leads to another one: the writing of rejection letters. Something I neither hate nor enjoy. It is mostly just tedium. Sometimes it does bug me to write even nice and personalize rejection letters to good writers though who have subsumed themselves into genres that are running out of things to say.
4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the distortions of genre from an editor, teacher, and reader:”
Those most dedicated to the writing craft as a high quality art form, especially that of ideas, tend to be found in small press publishing. Some of the most interesting small press authors I’m familiar with can to some extent be categorized in genres or rather sub-genres, but they tend to defy simplistic categorization (Quentin S. Crisp has said he hates being put into a genre). I’m a fan of fiction that gets labeled as cross-genre, slipstream, weird, philosophical horror, etc.
A few of those authors are able to maintain a unique voice while getting mainstreamm attention. Specialized anthologies have been helpful for authors seeking larger audiences. Thomas Ligotti has often been anthologized, but it still took him a while to gain mainstream attention for entirely other reasons. I think he recently had one of his works republished by a major publishing house. Other authors, like Ligotti’s friend, Thomas Wiloch, have nearly been lost to obscurity, despite the quality of their writing.
I’ve talked to some of the small press authors. Most of them barely make a living or have to hold down a normal job. I’m not sure even Ligotti ever made a living as a writer, and he is the best in his sub-genre (some even go so far as to say he is one of the greatest living writers). I suppose one has to decide why one is writing, whether to pay the bills or for the love of writing itself. I don’t judge someone for writing what will sell (there is nothing inherently noble about being a starving artist), but such a person should be honest with themselves that is what they are doing and so be intentional about it.
I respect writers who simply can tell a good story that draws the reader in. That is what makes Stephen King so popular. Even some loyal followers of small press authors will give King credit for his craft, in his making it seem so simple and easy. Still, centuries from now, Stephen King probably won’t be remembered as an innovative writer, deep thinker, and great visionary, if he is remembered at all. He is just a highly successful mainstream writer and there is nothing wrong with that, although I’m sure most writers hope their writings will have lasting power.
King is like Dickens. Dickens was not particularly deep or original, or even a strong writer word-by-word wise even by the standards of his day, but he was interesting enough, smart enough, and good craftsman enough. He set up many myths even that we still have. So we still read him. I see King as possibly the same.
But even small presses got to make the money to survive, and don’t be fooled by that. Both the things I work at are by definition small presses, one is tiny.
I was wondering which past writers that Stephen King could be compared to. Dickens did come to mind.
I know. Small presses have to make enough money to get buy, but I doubt many people go into that business primarily for the reason of profit. There are are better ways to make a living than small press publishing, especially consider the amount of work involved.
My closest friend is into small press writers a lot more than I am. He keeps me informed about what is going on in that world. He is also a book dealer like his father, when he isn’t working his day job as a baker.
As a dealer, he buys lots of books from small press publishers and so interacts with the owners quite a bit. He sometimes makes requests to see if they will publish particular authors he enjoys.
One author he asked about was Wiloch. He was asking this of a publisher who had previously published some small works by Wiloch. The problem is all of Wiloch’s works are out of print and hard to find. This small press publisher said he wasn’t planning on publishing a collection of Wiloch’s writings right now, and I suspect the reason is that there wouldn’t be much profit in it, even if he could get an introduction from Ligotti.
What are some of the authors published by the small presses you work at? Is there any I might have heard of? I’m not extremely knowledgeable about the small presses, but I have a passing familiarity of one area of small press publishing.
Mostly theorists, I work for Zero books, and while I do get paid per diem, my day job as a teacher pays the bills.