Okay, here’s what set me off: I was on a message board (mistake number one. I really keep learning that the main board I need to be visiting is my own) and a writer was extolling the need to write irregardless to “artsy” things like grammar. That was then coupled with the idea that we should be concerned only with the story, not with pretensions to “high art”.

This is exactly the attitude I’m really tired of encountering. It’d be one thing if I just heard it from the occasional newbie writer (mind you, it’s not like I’m swelling the ranks of the mid-listers), but it seems to be a fairly tenacious thought among too many writers (and even more fans) of the genre. This idea that we write solely to entertain, with the intimation that we aren’t creating art because art is the realm of snooty critics.

It’s almost like the take home message is that one’s devotion to one’s craft is a bad thing.

It’s typically perpetuated by those who love the genre, so it’s hard to be too mad at them. They’ve embraced horror as a community and are protective of it. I get that. However, it’s that same slavish fan devotion that can threaten the health of the genre. It reminds me of the panel I was on at Necon: “KICKING HORROR TO THE CURB: Why genre horror deserves a quick and nasty death, and how every one of us can help!” aka “KILLING THE GENRE IN TEN EASY STEPS: Why Category Horror Deserves to Die a Brutal, Messy Death and How You Can Help!”

[Aside #1: I’m all about “transcending the genre”. Here’s how I look at it: I’m a casual sports fan at best. The kind of fan drawn in by the Tiger Woods, Michael Jordans, and Danica Patricks of the world. If you’re a sports franchise and you aim your product at your hardest core fans, you’re going to lose me. If you can give something for the casual folks to latch onto, you do so, knowing that you’ll get most of your hardcore fans to come along anyway.]

Anyway, these brand loyal horror fans have gone out, seen a bunch of movies or read some Stephen King, Clive Barker or whatever author drew them to horror and then end up writing stuff that mimics them. They end up creating derivative stories, never as good as the stories they’re imitating, trying to rekindle the feelings evoked from the first stories that inspired them. In short, they are like a drug addict chasing a high: always trying to repeat the experience of the first high (not appreciating the diminishing returns with each attempt).

[Me, it was Poe. And I kept churning out Poe pastiches and re-hashes until I found my own voice. After that, I started turning out a new brand of dreck, but at least it was dreck unique to me until I was good enough to start getting some stories published. Actually, I received one of the best compliments the other day. A fellow writer said “Let me say how impressed I am with how much you’ve grown as a writer …Your storytelling has always been strong, but you have, for me, stepped across that threshold that separates writers and artists.” I hope to keep living up to those words.]

These are the same folks who get hyper defensive when critics take works seriously and discuss their merits seriously in terms of language use, theme, characterization – standards by which we can judge what is good. I think when folks here critics talk, they confuse matters of taste with standards, confusing good with entertaining. Look, I Rocky 4. Yeah, I admit it. It entertained me to no end. I could probably sit down and watch that movie right now. But I know that it wasn’t a good movie. If the movie’s sole job was to entertain me, then it accomplished that. If the creators strove to do something … good (and we can measure that in terms of coherency/depth of story, characters, acting, direction, and the avoidance of, say, every boxing/sports movie cliché in the book), then there was a massive fail.

The debate about being a writer vs. being an artist is a false one. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to tell the best story possible, without “writing to impress the critics” (if by that you mean writing for their approval). You write for yourself (the artist) or for you audience (to be commercial, again, not a pejorative); those are the only two targets worth aiming for (and their aren’t an either/or proposition).

There’s nothing wrong with being original. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring for more. You respect your audience by respecting your craft. By giving your stories theme, strong characterization, and depth, in addition to your plot – that’s the “high art” of the craft.

Look, you’re going to fail readers as you experiment and stretch … but you’ll fail yourself (and eventually them anyway) if you don’t.

If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say “hi”, feel free to stop by my message board. We always welcome new voices to the conversation.