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.
I’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.
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.
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
 Or should have been forgotten.
 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.