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Criticism, Dark Fiction, Fiction, Genre Fiction, Horror, Publishing, Ruminations, Speculative Fiction, The Writer's Life, Writings

A Turn to the Dark Side

While the gender count in literature continues, some thoughts about the state of short fiction in the U.S.

A few nights ago, at writers group, I was ranting about the sameness I find in many stories published in literary journals. If you read these, you are likely familiar with the tropes: my parent/sibling/friend died, why doesn’t this relationship work, I don’t understand my family, my parent/sibling/friend has cancer, and the ever-popular learning-to-understand-my-lover-while-we’re-traveling-through-a-rural-town-where-the-inhabitants-seem-unfriendly. There are others, but many adhere to some variant of these nauseatingly common themes.

I happened to have some copies of lit journals I picked up at a writers’ conference, and as an experiment, to prove my point, I opened a well-regarded journal to a random short story, and read the first paragraph aloud: “‘This is Sylvie,’ I say to my aunt, who smiles at her like Sylvie doesn’t know, like I had kept it a secret somehow. My father has just died, and now I must introduce to his family a girl I have loved for an entire year.”

Gag me. The author got three of those themes in the first two sentences. (Not to mention the pomposity of the writing is sleep-inducing in itself.)

The prevalence of these themes may help explain why my attempts at lit fiction have yielded less-than-stunning results, because, frankly, I can’t stand to read, let alone write this kind of regurgitated sentimentality.*

But if this is what most lit editors want to print, then who am I to ask journals to change what they offer? So I seek an alternative.

Recently I joined a “genre” group. Heavens, you say. Is Joe now writing that wizards and warlords nonsense? Oh, far from it. I admit I was a touch anxious before my first meeting that my literary style would be met with zombie-like derision. But I found that the primary concern of these writers of sci-fi, fantasy and YA was (surprise!) good writing and character development. Several members liked a piece of dark fiction I submitted, and some said it qualified as horror. I was encouraged.

Yes, there are plenty of overdone themes in genre writing too. And sometimes the writing isn’t nearly as good as in lit journals. But perhaps I’ve found a new path to explore—a narrow path, but one that may offer a chance to indulge my imagination. There are some lit journals that indulge in dark fiction, as well as some genre journals that like a lit style. Those will be my targets as I turn now to include the dark side of literature in my compendium.

*or maybe I’m just not a very good writer, but if I thought that, I wouldn’t write at all.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


3 thoughts on “A Turn to the Dark Side

  1. Wow…I am quite impressed! I mean this sincerely as a writer of Fantasy, thank you! I work very, VERY hard to approach each character with a fresh look and to break the conventional themes of most genre works. From my point of view, Fantasy MUST be rooted in familiar themes the audience can relate to in order to be appreciated. I don’t mean the overdone theme of a “Merlinesque” Wizard with bushy eyebrows who takes on an apprentice with the line, “You show great potential, my boy!”

    Gag me.

    I was just at a writer’s conference and I pitched my book idea like this: “Tanree Dinton (Heroine) is a lady of low nobility caught in the middle of a brewing religious and social civil war. Think Zena, Warrior Princess without the brawn, orphaned in a masculine dominated feudal society that she was not even supposed to participate in, let alone dominate. It would be like Taylor Swift asked to sit at a round table filled with vulgar knights.”

    Ok, enough of my elevator pitch. My point is, I’m very passionate about this. I wanted to write a story that was fantasy, but something close to so many people as it looks at themes of separation of church and state, marriage, relationships, responsibility and even feminism. So many fantasy characters are men, or Amazon type warrior women. I wanted to write a story about a woman who kept her femininity in the middle of a brutal world.

    *climbing down from my soap box now*

    Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for your open mind when it comes to genre fiction and I would love to hear more of your thoughts of what you like, and what you don’t like.

    Posted by aarongraham | March 4, 2011, 5:23 PM
  2. Thank you, Aaron, for your kind comments. I will certainly blog more about my foray into the genre world as I write and submit stories. Best of luck with your novel.

    BTW, I don’t mean to imply that all lit journals run sentimental stories exclusively. There are some fabulous genre works in top literary journals like Cincinnati Review, Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s Ferry and others. But still the percentage of hand-wringing, emotional laments in many lit journals is staggering.

    Posted by jpon | March 4, 2011, 6:38 PM
  3. *heavy breathing* “Give in to the Dark Side.” I’m seriously glad you’re exploring the genre side of the force. Except that now I have the competition of another talented writer for the same markets.

    Posted by cpurcel1 | March 5, 2011, 11:27 PM

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