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Business of Writing, Craft of Writing, Genre Fiction, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Pay the Writer, Part 2: Genre v Literary—Clash of the Cultures

Most of you who read this blog probably have never looked over the wall that separates literary writing from genre—that murky universe that encompasses such categories as science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery, romance and others. But one of the writing groups of which I’m a member specializes in genre—I don’t, but most of these people really know their craft; plus it’s a fun group to be a part of—the members are also immersed in a variety of subjects besides writing and our conversations are intense and often hilarious.

And since I’ve been attending these meetings I occasionally think about trying my hand at a little psychological horror. I’ve actually written four or five stories of varying effectiveness, and even submitted a couple. Which has led me to a literary revelation—many genre pubs pay! Somewhere in the insanity that is the writing game the pay structure got turned upside down. A magnificent literary tale can be published for little or no remuneration, while a genre piece filled with zombies and gore gets pro pay.

cthuu book cvr copyI’ve checked Ralan’s Extravaganza, the Duotrope of the genre world (an abysmally designed web site by the way) to get a feel for the genre journals out there. A much higher percentage of them pay, and many pay five cents a word, which qualifies them as professional journals, even if the stories they contain are sometimes little more than a series of genre tropes or paeans to H.P. Lovecraft or some other forgotten writer.[1]

How do you figure?

First, apparently there is a market for this stuff. Anyone who ever sat through Economics 101 knows that demand drives prices. People like to read genre work, and they will pay for the journals in which it appears.

So if enough journals pay for stories, then any new magazine trying to establish itself had also better pay writers if it wants to feature decent work. But there’s an even more important aspect, called institutional backing. For example, both the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and the Horror Writers Association (HWA) require that writers who wish to become members be previously published in journals that pay professional rates (five cents or more per word). No wonder so many journals in the genre world pay! By doing so they not only attract the best stories, they also get recognized by the industry’s largest organizations.

Why do they do this in genre and not the literary field?

A large part of the answer revolves around the segment of the literary world that includes college or university published journals. The journals and the people who publish them have tremendous influence on the state and practices of literary writing.

Creative writing professors are almost exclusively literary writers. They draw decent salaries and have far more free time than most people who work for a living to spend on writing. True, they endure pressure to continue to publish, but since they already have a good income related to writing, there is less incentive on their part to seek payment. Sure, they probably would like to be paid well for their stories and poems, but the bottom line is they can afford to not be. Believe me, I’ve seen the CVs of many college/university writing teachers—they’re loaded with publications in obscure lit journals, most of which do not pay. The message is clear: payment for work is secondary. Okay, fine.

But on the other side of the wall, there are virtually no teaching jobs for genre writers. That means they must either make a living from writing, or make a living doing something else and then fit writing in. Or give up writing.

Literary writing teachers are fond of telling students they should write for the love of writing itself. But I wonder what they would tell their charges if the university wasn’t sponsoring that philosophy; if they had to work eight hours in a cubicle or on an assembly line.

That attitude also conditions writers to believe they don’t deserve to make money from their writing, and helps make it easier for publishing companies to keep straight faces while offering today’s Draconian contract terms.

The economic realities of writing literary essentially preclude those who are not ensconced in a university environment or of sufficient affluence from pursuing a career as a literary writer (unless you don’t mind being dirt poor). And just as an aside, it’s no wonder literary writing is filled with so many bourgeois tales of woe[2].

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t begrudge writing professors their positions or prestige. But what I do say is that those talented, fortunate souls ought to look beyond the tree-lined paths and stately bell towers of their worlds and realize that the industry model they’ve created keeps many potentially great authors from pursuing serious writing, simply because they can’t afford to do it. One might think that a group of people so admittedly liberal in their social beliefs might want to create more opportunities for the less fortunate to participate in the writing life. One way to do that is to insist that published writers be paid for their efforts.

Writers need to realize that while writing is an art, it is also a profession, not a hobby.

The genre world has it right. Pay the writer.

Next week: Changes in the writing industry and how they affect a writer’s economics

[1] Or should have been forgotten.

[2] Oh, I’m so glad you asked. By bourgeois I mean pretentious, sentimental, navel-gazing stories that lack any curiosity about the universe beyond the writer’s own life. Stories about sexual dysfunction, confused childhoods, parents with cancer/dementia/alcoholism, children trying to understand the strange neighbor child down the street. Essays by women about their periods and by first-time fathers about the joys of dealing with poop. As a book review editor I have seen more than my share of this stuff. And I’ll be talking about my transition from it in Part 4 of this series.


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.


24 thoughts on “Pay the Writer, Part 2: Genre v Literary—Clash of the Cultures

  1. You’ve got to wonder how this is all going to pan out for future literary books, having so many writing teachers who went to school to be writers and writing teachers. Naval gazing run amok. Think of all the books you’ve read where the main character is a professor — this is only gong to get worse.

    A few years ago I was in a really good writing group. We met every Friday night, to read our work out loud and to critique. One of our members invited a girl, 17 years old, to join. We were worried. Turns out she put us all to shame. She’d been home-schooled and her parents encouraged her writing, so she was already publishing fantasy and getting paid. Sometimes, on those Friday nights, she’d read a piece she’d just written that afternoon — a real live first draft — and it would sound almost ready for publication.

    Posted by Teri | May 4, 2013, 1:18 PM
    • Some of the story or essay collections I’ve read recently really have my head spinning, and my heart questioning whether I want to continue to try to find a place in this writing world.

      Posted by jpon | May 5, 2013, 1:41 AM
      • One of the worst books I read last year was by the Director of a very famous MFA program. This writer has always been in academia with a long list of credentials and fellowships and grants and teaching positions and Macdowell and Yaddo, etc…. The book was well-marketed and there was a big speaking tour, and it was about, guess what?, being amongst other professors and students. I just don’t get it.

        Posted by Teri | May 5, 2013, 7:28 PM
      • A cloistered little world, isn’t it? Another wall people like me can only look over.

        Posted by jpon | May 6, 2013, 1:07 AM
  2. Thanks for giving us a glimpse over the wall, Joe. You pose some interesting questions and much food for thought.

    Posted by Lori Eaton | May 4, 2013, 1:39 PM
    • It’s all about trying to get people to think about things they might not ordinarily. Thanks.

      Posted by jpon | May 5, 2013, 1:42 AM
  3. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t looks like it, right? And as to the “supposedly liberal” outlook of a lot of the professional literary world, read some of Stanley Fish’s essays on liberal intelligentsia in “Doing What Comes Naturally” and “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech (And It’s a Good Thing, Too).” He’s got the goods on a lot of liberals in his good old argumentative fashion.

    Posted by shadowoperator | May 4, 2013, 1:53 PM
    • I look forward to reading his work. Although I’m fairly liberal on social issues myself, I do find that many people involved in political, literary or other debates have a personal agenda that overshadows their public statements. I do too, but at least I admit it.

      Posted by jpon | May 5, 2013, 1:45 AM
  4. “…the industry model they’ve created keeps many potentially great authors from pursuing serious writing, simply because they can’t afford to do it.”

    Come on, Joe. Anyone can afford to write. Would it really be a game-changer to have journals paying whatever genre publications pay? Great writers would then emerge from the ether?

    Posted by Averil Dean | May 4, 2013, 1:57 PM
    • Anyone can afford to write. But can they afford to keep writing?

      Posted by jpon | May 5, 2013, 1:45 AM
      • Sure. What’s to stop a person from writing, assuming of course that he can afford a notebook and pen?

        Even if a writer were able to collect a reasonable payment from short work in literary journals, there’s no way he’d come close to earning a living at it. Not these days. So it had better not be money that motivates the writer—or if it is, he’d better be writing longer works to have any hope of being paid enough to quit the day job.

        I agree, by the way, that writers should be paid. Always. But I think your point needs to be made on societal and ethical grounds; I don’t see a practical side to the argument. Writing may be a passion and an art form, and it sure as hell MATTERS, but where the IRS is concerned it’s rarely going to be more than a hobby.

        Posted by Averil Dean | May 5, 2013, 5:24 AM
      • You’re right about this being more of a philosophical argument than a pragmatic one. But we have to start it somewhere.

        As for the IRS, they actually do recognize writing-related deductions as legitimate business expenses if the taxpayer can prove the intent to make the activity a regular source of income. It’s kind of like the old movie “Miracle on 34th Street.” Since a branch of the United States government recognizes creative writing as a bona-fide occupation, this court will not dispute it. Case dismissed.

        Posted by jpon | May 5, 2013, 12:50 PM
  5. I think you’re onto something here, Joe. Raymond Chandler figured it out a long time ago. He started cranking out detective short stories for money. He made some, and then he wrote and sold novels, which were made into movies. He’s one of my favorites with great lines such as “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” There are websites devoted to Chanderlisms because he had a smart, original voice. Good writing is good writing.

    Ray Bradbury did it, too, with science fiction. The list goes on and on. And so do their legacies and great bodies of work for us to learn from and enjoy for the rest of our lives. And, I for one, am thrilled they were able to make a good living. And I would love to see the same success for you and hardworking writers devoted to their craft.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | May 4, 2013, 3:39 PM
    • If more people cared about reading as a form of entertainment that success might actually happen. Thanks for the good wishes.

      Posted by jpon | May 5, 2013, 1:50 AM
  6. There’s a lot of great genre writing out there! For my money, The Hunger Games trilogy is better written and more compelling than much of what I’ve read in literary journals and the like. On the other hand, Lovecraft makes Stephanie Meyer look like Nabokov.

    Posted by Maria G | May 4, 2013, 4:06 PM
    • I make a little fun of Lovecraft, but his influence on literature cannot be denied. In fact, the genre writers group I’m in discussed it a few nights ago, since his style is, by today’s standards, quite ponderous and purple. But his ideas about the nature of humanity are what made and keep him popular.

      Posted by jpon | May 5, 2013, 1:52 AM
  7. Markets are not magazines or journals. Markets are readers, and readers want to be entertained. If they no longer find literary fiction entertaining, they won’t read it. And they don’t.
    Blame whomever you want: schools, parents, television. The fact is that a brilliant war story will never compete with Call of Duty II, a war game. A finely crafted story about the personal relationships and conflicts of an Olympic diver will not draw one per cent of the audience of the simplistic TV show, Splash.
    Why? Why is this so? Why will a child choose a marshmallow over a brussels sprout? We are attracted to the sweet, the flash, the easily digested. Appreciation for anything complex is an aquired taste. It is learned. And we not longer teach it.
    So rail against the Big Six publishers and pulp romance and the literary collegiate elite, but they are not the roadblock. The reader, the ultimate consumer of words, simply is no longer willing to make the effort to chew on what we offer on our menu.

    Posted by Jon Zech | May 4, 2013, 4:11 PM
    • Personally, I think all children should be taken out of the home at age 3 and enrolled in an intense learning academy-type school until they turn 21. Then we wouldn’t have these problems.

      Posted by jpon | May 5, 2013, 1:56 AM
  8. As a writer of genre fiction, I feel as though I should respond.

    First, let me point out that your post reads as looking down your nose at genre fiction. I’m kind of amazed that you could have studied under Kathleen, Wayne, and especially Bruce and still seem to come away with this literary chip on your shoulder. But I figure you may not realize how this is coming across, so I want to break it down for you.

    Before I start on the details here, let me point out for your readers who don’t know me that I have an M.F.A. too, and I got it from the same place Joe did. I’ve published short stories, poetry, and nonfiction essays. I also write genre almost exclusively.

    Now then. Let’s start with a basic truth: genre is not about quality. Genre is about type of story. Fantasy involves the impossible, like “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Science Fiction involves the improbable, but possible (often based on technology), such as “1984” or “The Left Hand of Darkness.” I could go on, but the point is there. The essential distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is that genre fiction is distinguished by its trappings (SF/Fantasy/Horror/etc.) or its plots (Mystery/Thriller/Romance/etc). If something doesn’t fit into one or more of those categories, it gets called literary or contemporary fiction.

    Oh, there’s another distinguishing point in literary fiction, exemplified by the stories I listed in the previous paragraph: critics like it. Once critics like a novel or short story, they fight like hell to keep it from getting “lumped” in with genre fiction because “everyone knows” you can’t find quality writing in genre fiction.

    If this distinguishing point appeared in fiction, readers would hate it because it’s cliché and not necessarily true. But clichés in the real world are treated as truisms and therefore somehow worthy of repeating and treating as having value.

    Is there crap in genre fiction? Hell yes. But is there crap in literary fiction? Hell yes.

    But I’m getting away from my point here. I’m not here to offer an apologetic for genre fiction because I don’t believe there’s anything to apologize for. I want to respond to some of the points in your post.

    “many genre pubs pay!”

    There are paying literary journals too. And just like the genre publications, they get exponentially more submissions than their nonpaying brethren. And just like genre publications, some of them only take paper submissions. Do a higher percentage of genre publications pay than literary publications? Probably, but for a very practical reason: genre publications can advertise. If a literary journal took ads the way genre publications do, they’d lose their literary cred and get accused of being “commercial.”

    That’s another word for genre, by the way, although it also gets applied to those contemporary novels that dare not maintain their literary street cred: commercial. Works with your theme, really, that somehow the desire to be paid for one’s work renders the work less artistically pure. As though any of the great writers, poets and artists of the past didn’t try to live on their work, either through sales or patronage.

    “Somewhere in the insanity that is the writing game the pay structure got turned upside down.”

    To say that “somewhere” the “pay structure got turned upside down” implies that the situation used to be different, that genre didn’t pay but literary fiction did. That’s not true.

    The first magazines I know of that exclusively published fiction (certainly the first independent magazines) were all genre all the time: the pulps like Weird Tales, even the old penny dreadfuls. And they paid. Literary fiction stories that paid were generally featured in magazines and newspapers that didn’t focus on fiction. They included it as an extra. What happened to them? They decided they liked earning advertising money for that space more than paying for fiction. That consigned literary fiction to the journals, which appear to exist more for prestige than for profit.

    “A magnificent literary tale can be published for little or no remuneration, while a genre piece filled with zombies and gore gets pro pay.”

    Check out the submission guidelines and the “what we don’t want” section of a few of those pro-paying genre publications. They don’t take excessive gore, and most of them are sick of zombies. What they want are good stories. If it’s a horror story, there may be blood, but if it’s blood for blood’s sake, that rejection slip will come as fast as it would have from a literary journal. (Faster, probably, because the response time from most pro-paying genre pubs is *much* faster than literary journals.)

    Now it could be that you intended to exaggerate for effect, but I have a basic problem with that. Your readers might not know you’re exaggerating, and the truth is that a lot of “literary” writers have espoused just that sentiment for a long time. They deride genre fiction as always being the worst possible example of writing and ignoring the possibility that some of those “genre” stories reflect damned good writing.

    The more people who say these things, whether exaggerating or not, the more people who actually believe them. And that results in the “wall” you mentioned in your very first sentence. That wall isn’t real. Writing is writing and stories and stories. All of us who write just want to tell the stories that are ours to tell, whatever form they take.

    “I’ve checked Ralan’s Extravaganza, the Duotrope of the genre world”

    Actually, Duotrope covers genre pretty darn well, and better than Writer’s Market does.

    “even if the stories they contain are sometimes little more than a series of genre tropes or paeans to H.P. Lovecraft or some other forgotten writer. [footnote here reads: Or should have been forgotten.]”

    I’m going to take as written that I’ve already covered the first part well enough. Plenty of crap available out there in both genre and literary fiction.

    But that second part. Oh, that second part.

    I’m amused by the way Lovecraft’s popularity has exploded these days. I can remember when most people hadn’t head of him. These days his Cthulhu Mythos has become so popular that it supports roleplaying games, novels, magazines, movies, podcasts, and more. Lovecraft has influenced some of the most popular writers on the planet, such as Stephen King, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Charles Stross, and others. I think it’s the Horror Writers of America whose award is called “the Howard” and is shaped like a bust of Lovecraft. His work is everywhere.

    And here you dismiss him as a writer who is or should be forgotten.

    Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. But it is by no means a foregone conclusion or a simple matter of fact. His work persists for a reason.

    “For example, both the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and the Horror Writers Association (HWA) require that writers who wish to become members be previously published in journals that pay professional rates (five cents or more per word).”

    I seem to recall Vonda N. McIntyre (SFWA member who spoke at the August residency) mentioning that the SFWA set its standards in the 1970s and hasn’t raised them. The cost of living has gone way up in the last forty years, but the SFWA still treats professional payment as $.05/word for a short story or $5,000 advance for a novel.

    Just a fun fact. The genre associations want their writers to get paid, but aren’t doing nearly enough to help them make living wages.

    “there are virtually no teaching jobs for genre writers”

    Actually, plenty of genre writers have teaching jobs — in History departments, Science departments, Economics departments, and so on. It’s only the English departments that might object to their genre publications. I have to say, though, that it wasn’t their publishing creds that got those genre writers their jobs.

    “Literary writing teachers are fond of telling students they should write for the love of writing itself. But I wonder what they would tell their charges if the university wasn’t sponsoring that philosophy; if they had to work eight hours in a cubicle or on an assembly line.”

    This isn’t just in literary fiction. The publishing industry has tried hard to get writers to believe that they do not deserve to earn a living from their work, even if everyone else in the publishing chain does so. That’s one reason the rallying cry of the self-publishers is so seductive.

    Posted by Stefon Mears | May 4, 2013, 11:09 PM
    • I asked a mutual acquaintance to read my post to see how it came across.

      She thought some of it verged on personal attack. I did not intend any of it to. If I let it slip that far, then I apologize for any offense I have given.

      She thought I came across as implying that I know more about literary fiction than you do. I absolutely did not intend that, and I don’t believe it in the least. I fully expect that you are more knowledgeable of literary fiction and its history than I am. Any statement I made that could be interpreted that way was only intended to give context for a statement about genre fiction, about which I do believe I know more.

      She also felt that my response should have come on my own blog and not in your comments, which could be seen as hijacking. I considered that, but commented instead because I felt that writing my own blog post would seem a more public statement, and therefore more likely come across as an attack, while a comment would be responding to a statement you made, closer to conversation. If you disagree and feel that I should have responded on my own blog, then I will keep that in mind in the future.

      I may disagree with you about a few things, Joe, but I do like and respect you.

      Posted by Stefon Mears | May 5, 2013, 12:30 AM
      • No need to apologize, my friend. I didn’t take any of it personally. Part of this blog business is based on pushing people’s buttons occasionally to elicit responses. I admit I played a little loose with my comments about the quality of genre fiction. I know quite well the caliber of some of the finer pieces of genre writing both today and throughout its history (see my response to Maria, above, regarding Lovecraft). And in fact, I’ve been working on a large number of magical realism short stories, which I hope to turn into a collection within the next year. The influence for that comes directly from my time at Whidbey, studying with Bruce, Kathleen and Wayne. I also have a novel that is quite speculative in some aspects, and some beta readers have encouraged me to query it as such (although it is equally literary, which makes it tough to decide–so far, though, agents from both areas have been reluctant to take it on).

        I appreciate your knowledge and experience on the genre side, and thank you for clarifying some the issues raised by my post. I was especially interested in the fact that SFWA and HWA haven’t adjusted their pay standards since the 1970s–most literary writers would faint if they got five cents a word. Even more interesting was the English Dept bias against genre writers, forcing them to teach Economics, Science, History, etc.

        And finally, I have to congratulate you on being the first commenter in the history of my blog to write a response that was longer than the actual post.

        Posted by jpon | May 5, 2013, 2:14 AM
    • Your point about how few general interest magazines publish fiction now is interesting. I think it is a reflection of how people are less likely to read fiction for entertainment. They’re more likely to read another type of fiction–gossip–than regular fiction. It’s hard to believe someone like Sylvia Plath got her start at Mademoiselle magazine.
      I remember Mademoiselle as a magazine aimed at college women, but it was widely read by teenage girls.

      Posted by michelle morouse | May 5, 2013, 12:32 PM
  9. Heh. I did run on a bit, didn’t I? Guess you found a button. I’m glad I didn’t create a problem.

    I read your take on Lovecraft above and it’s almost the same as mine. The difference, I suspect, being that I enjoy his stories more, but then I’ve been reading him since I was about nine. Funny though – I’ve never written any serious stories in his style or based around his Cthulhu Mythos. The closest I’ve come is a reference to the Mad Arab in my WIP and the occasional joke snippet. I could write seriously with his themes, but never in his style.

    Oh, and about English departments and genre writers – I always think of Bruce talking about one job he got. The dean sat him down and clarified that Bruce was getting this job on the strength of his *literary* credits and that he wouldn’t stand for Bruce teaching his students to write genre stories.

    And if agents aren’t biting on the literary/speculative novel, I say pick a likely press and submit it directly. Most of them will accept unagented queries, if not manuscripts.

    Posted by Stefon Mears | May 5, 2013, 4:50 AM

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