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Monday, June 23, 2008

The Literary Ghetto
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Recently, I saw a blurb for "The Wicker Man" written by a professional reviewer named Jeff Shannon:
Typically categorized as a horror film, The Wicker Man is actually a serious and literate thriller about modern paganism, written by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) with a deft combination of cool subjectivity and escalating dread.
Shannon seems to think that horror by its definition cannot be "serious" or "literate". Unfortunately, he has plenty of company. And I have seen countless instances of others -- readers and reviewers alike -- who dismiss science fiction, mysteries, and fantasy on the same grounds: that genre fiction is somehow not "real" literature.

And so writers and readers of genre fiction get shoved off into their own literary ghetto, where "discerning" readers of lit-rah-chure deign not tread.

Even within the various streets of the literary ghetto, residents dismiss their neighbors: science fiction writers dismiss horror as "trash", and horror writers dismiss romance as "fluff", and on and on without any of the self-styled lit snobs taking the time to actually become familiar with the work they scorn.

(I'm going to talk about horror fiction from here on out, because it's near and dear to my heart.)

Unfortunately these attitudes are something that I see us being stuck with. Horror fiction--regardless of how well-crafted, well-written, thoughtful, literate, and serious-of-intent any number of individual works may be--will always, always be given at-best second-class citizenship treatment in the literary world, and I maintain that a lot of this (especially over the last 30 years) is due in part to horror movies--make that bad horror movies.

People assume that any work labelled "horror" will have something in common with the Freddy/Jason/Pinhead/Candyman/what-have-you ouvre; it's got to have blood, guts, sex, death, torture, sadism, all the visceral elements that are right in your face and up your nose and down your throat.

While it may be true that even many of the more literate and serious works have a smattering of these elements, necessary for advancement of the story, it's those very elements that people tend to focus on and assume that they and they alone constitute horror.

Two quick examples: If I say to you, "Deliverance", 9 out of 10 people will immediately respond with "Squeal like a pig!"

I want to hit these people.

Yes, that rape scene is brutal, but it is not gratuitous, and in the cases of both the film and the novel, if you look beyond the brutality itself to what the act says about the men committing it and those suffering it--not to mention the spiritual, psychological, and thematic ramifications of the act--it adds a depth, a seriousness, if you will, to what follows that otherwise would not be there. In fact, if you watch or read closely (not all that closely, now that I think of it), you'll realize that the main characters would not have been able to survive what happens to them later had the attack not happened.

But most people will say, "Squeal like a pig!" and think they get it.

Same goes for the original The Exorcist; most people remember only the little girl's cussing and spitting up pea soup. Forget that both the movie and novel have a core of emotional pain that has rarely been equaled, and that both ask very serious, very smart questions about the nature of human goodness and decency--nah; let's talk about the vomit and a little girl saying "Your mother sucks cocks in hell!"

Yeah, that's what it's about. Right.

Paul Schrader's version of The Exorcist: The Beginning, gets shelved because it was "...too cerebral and not nearly violent and bloody enough", yet Freddy vs. Jason--an idiotic, sloppy, sadistic, hollow-cored piece of cinematic afterbirth that not only celebrated everything that is wrong with modern horror, but wallowed in it--was a box-office smash.

And the majority of people assume that horror fiction is exactly like horror movies. Or that it's all a regurgitating of Stephen King--because, after all, nothing in the field was done before King did it, right? (Not a slam against King--I'm impatiently awaiting the seventh installment of The Dark Tower just like millions of other readers.)

It's just that King--more than Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Anne Rice, any of the giants--has been the most visible and the most popular, so naturally he has amassed the largest and most fiercely loyal readership; unfortunately, a part of that readership is a bit tunnel-visioned: everything and everybody is just (in their eyes) copying the master (untrue) and riding on King's coattails.

(Which, in an important way, we all are, like it or not; the man bulldozed and widened the road on which we've all traveled the past 30 years, so you know what? If part of the toll we have to pay for all he's done for modern horror writers is answer questions like, "Oh, so you write stuff like Stephen King?"...ultimately, isn't that a small price for still having the field of modern horror? I digress.)

Take another look at T.M. Wright's Cold House; this was, is, and will always be a f*cking brilliant piece of work; it's moody, eerie, thoughtful, scary, poignant, smart, and challenging--everything good, literate horror fiction should be. Do you honestly think this novel would gain the wider mass-market readership it deserves were it to be picked up by a bigger publishing house?

I don't think so (though I would fervently hope for it).

Why? because it forces the reader to think along the way; it forces them to pay attention; it's not the type of novel that presents everything in clear, graphic, spoon-fed terms so that readers aren't challenged in the least and can easily lay it aside for a game of beach volleyball and be able to pick it right back up where they left off without blowing a single brain cell.

And I maintain that at least part of the reason for this is because people have become too spoiled by a steady diet of bad, stupid, by-the-numbers horror movies. The two things ain't mutually exclusive; one of these things isn't like the other.

What it comes down to is this:

  1. Horror will always be given at-best second-class citizenship in the literary world, and our only defense against this is to continually produce, read, support, and buy work that is of the highest caliber we are capable;

  2. Horror fiction will always be judged--at least, in large (if not total) part--by the quality or lack thereof of the majority of horror films, because it's easier for people to judge a field on the basis of something they can watch than something that they have to take hours (if not days) out of their lives to read;

  3. Writers in the field are going to have to answer the "Stephen King"-type questions for at least another 20 years, so we'd save ourselves a lot of time, energy, and frustration if we quit complaining about it because--face it--most of us who've emerged in the field in the past 2 decades wouldn't have careers if King hadn't widened the road for us to follow;

  4. There are always going to be those who want to distance a work from horror by calling it something like "...a serious, literate thriller" or somesuch happy horseshit, because (and I speak from experience here) whenever you link "horror" with "serious" and "literate", the two words that emerge most often in describing the works in question are "pretentious" and "depressing".
I am not saying that I look down on writers and filmmakers whose work has a more visceral core; I think Jack Ketchum and Martin Scorsese would be a match made in heaven ("Closing Time", anyone?); nor am I disdaining work that succeeds in giving you the out-and-out creeps (like the work of Hugh Cave, great stuff); I like to think I embrace all aspects of the horror field when they are done well. And if that makes me a snob or an elitist--demanding that work be done well--then guilty as charged.

So join me here among the rest of the second-class citizens in the literary cul-de-sac, won't you?



Dave W. says A couple years ago I heard a literary critic describe Connie Willis as "sort of a science fiction writer" because she couldn't imagine SF writers as being able to write. What would she do with Gene Wolfe?

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