12 August 2009

Tin House Genre Fiction

A reader writes to Tin House:
I have read several issues of Tin House, including the most recent. Two vegetarians go on a hunting trip . . . enough said. I feel that I have several pieces that would fit the magazine, however, I am struggling with just one thing. This question is geared not only toward the magazine but the writing workshop as well. Do you accept genre fiction? I was also wondering how I might go about determining whether or not my piece fits into a specific genre and what general fiction is. Thank you in advance.
—Confused in LA
And Tin House responds.

Now, I happen to like Tin House very much. We've reprinted stories from the magazine in each volume of Best American Fantasy. Their "Fantastic Women" issue was awesome. Their current anniversary issue is also awesome. Just about all of their issues are awesome.

But the response to Concerned in LA is not awesome. It's disappointing.

I spend too much time, perhaps, defending writers, editors, and publishers of "literary fiction" from being maligned by writers, editors, and publishers who would never utter the term "literary fiction" without a sneer. I do this because some of my best friends happily embrace the term "literary fiction" for themselves. I don't even mind being seen in public with such people, any more than I mind being seen in public with my friends who insist the only thing they write is "science fiction". I'm all about the kumbaya.

So please, literary fiction people, STOP MAKING MY LIFE SO DIFFICULT!

Let me try to address some of the things I dislike in the three paragraphs that most annoyed me in the response, one by one:
I think you know genre fiction when you read it. My personal definition goes something like this: fiction that almost purposefully avoids the literary, in hopes of keeping the reader (or the writer, for that matter) from having to “work” too hard. It also tends to employ some stock tricks, like ending very short chapters with cliffhangers, often hopping predictably from one POV to another. Characters tend to be one-dimensional, with the kind of awkward and false-sounding dialog you’d expect.
Maybe I'll mail Tin House a copy of Peter Swirsky's useful book From Lowbrow to Nobrow, which counters some of the assumptions about certain forms that appear in "genre fiction" and are supposedly absent from "literary fiction". But I actually don't have a big problem with this paragraph on its own; it's a statement of personal taste, and there are certainly general differences that it is, generally, somewhat accurate in general about, sort of. How this paragraph moves on to the next bothers me more:
Genre writers know their audience, and it’s a large one: John Grisham sold 60,742,288 books during the 1990s. That’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, and I won’t do that here. But that audience, for reasons that sometimes seem obvious and sometimes are madly mysterious, is almost universally not interested in the same things we are.
We move from: Genre fiction is lazy, formulaic, predictable, one-dimensional, awkward, and false ... to: it's more popular than the Pope ... to: why is it so popular? huh. ... to: that's not what we're interested in.

What are they interested in? So glad you asked:
We’re interested in good stories. Contrary to what many people think, it’s not work to read them. A good story is a thing to savor, something you want to make copies of and pass around, something you might find yourself inexplicably wanting to read out loud. (Or not so inexplicably—good writers all have musicians living somewhere inside them, whether they know it or not, and have perfect pitch when it comes to the sounds of the words they use). If you read a lot of good stories, then you know what they are. If you don’t, then you should start, beginning with the summer reading titles on this blog. Sometimes it takes me days to parse out what made a good story so damned good, sometimes I never can.
Ah haaaaa! Genre fiction is not good stories! So all these writers who just want to write crap for the masses are not interested in good stories! And the fans who love cliffhangers and want good plots and hate stories about two vegetarians on a hunting trip -- they don't want good stories, either! These gazillions of people making those genre fiction lame-os rich don't savor what they read, don't pass it around, don't want to read it aloud. And why? Because they haven't read good stories and don't know what they are. (Oh, and though genre fiction makes sure you "don't 'work' too hard", "it's not work to read [litfic]". Apparently the economy has hit Tin House hard, too, because ain't nobody working around there...)

The problem here is one I've blathered on at length about many times before -- the problem of confusing descriptive and evaluative labels. (Come to think of it, in the package including From Lowbrow to Nobrow, maybe I'll include a copy of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw...) There is simply no such thing as a universal "good story", and so using a term like "good stories" as a euphemism for "stuff I like" is not useful. Replace the term "good story" in the Tin House post and much of it becomes less objectionable. Banal, but less objectionable. There are still contradictions and ignorances, but none of us could survive without contradictions and ignorances, so I'm not as upset about those.

I could go on. I don't have time or energy. (Ugh, that James Wood quote later in the post! Who is this universal "the reader" and why should that person's narrow idea of what is worth falling in love with matter for anybody else? If I think a work of fiction has taught me how to read it, am I wrong if you think otherwise? Vice versa?)

Please -- friends, Romans, countrywomen -- send your best writing to Tin House, regardless of whatever label happens to seem appropriate to it right now. It's a great magazine. The new issue even includes a poem by Stephen King. They publish all sorts of different stuff, and that eclecticism is part of what keeps me coming back to read it again and again. They publish what I think are often really good stories (and poems and essays and interviews and miscellanea...). But don't listen to what they say on their blog about "good stories". That's just crazytalk.

Update 8/13/09: Tonaya Thompson, the assistant editor at Tin House who wrote the post I criticized, responded thoughtfully in the comments section to this post, as did her friend and co-worker Tony. I wrote a comment that was way too longer for Blogger's commenting system to handle, so I'm posting it here:
Thanks to Tony and Tonaya for responding and clarifying -- I expect if we were sitting around chatting, we'd probably agree way more than we disagree, once we were able to figure out terminology, or at least show how we're using terminology, what assumptions we're bringing to it, etc. I expect, too, that we'd find our tastes in fiction even overlap a lot (I do, after all, love a lot of the fiction in Tin House).

I think it's important, though, for editors and spokespeople especially to be careful in how they talk about their perceptions of fiction -- and I mean this for editors of magazines, journals, and anthologies devoted to all sorts of fiction. We're at an exciting time, I think, in the history of short stories and novels, a time when we've all learned a lot about what this thing called "fiction" can do and be. I'm especially excited by publications such as Tin House (and Conjunctions and McSweeney's and A Public Space and One Story and LCRW and Electric Velocipede and Weird Tales and, when Gordon's feeling particularly edgy, F&SF, not to mention a plethora of wonderful webzines, anthologies, etc.) that do not have as settled a sense of what fiction is and can be as do some more conservative venues. (And honestly, I think we need both -- because there are all sorts of different types of readers and writers, but more importantly because a vital dialogue exists between cleary "core" types of writing [die-hard kitchen-sink realism; hard science fiction] and the crazier kids on the margins. It's the crazy kids at the margins that particularly excite me, but that's just me.)

And that's why I responded so vociferously to your post -- I don't question that it represents what you think you are looking for, or that it's what at least a part of the staff at Tin House thinks the magazine represents ... but as a loyal (premiere-issue owning!) reader, I'm saying I think what the magazine does is actually bigger, greater, and more complex than you've found the words for. And that the words you have found, at least in the original post, could lead to some unfortunate misperceptions and misconceptions.

I like your response here a lot, Tonaya, and so if I dig into it a little bit more, I hope my tone does not come off as that of someone trying to -- well, I don't know, but I fear that I'll sound smug and patronizing when I mean to simply offer a perspective of somebody who has enthusiastically attended both Bread Loaf and science fiction conventions.

Editors frequently say they want "good stories" and don't want "lazy writing" -- I don't know a genre editor who would say the opposite! Actually, the best response to the question I know of is one written by Nick Mamatas when he was editing the online (genre) magazine Clarkesworld. Nick's penultimate paragraph could fit Tin House, too, I suspect. And I love that!

The question of genre -- what it is, if it is, how it is -- is a huge one, and I've written tens of thousands of words about the topic over the years, with very few of those words ever really getting at what I was hoping to get at. (Thus, I keep trying...)

Take your example, a wonderful one -- Player Piano. I've got a first edition of the paperback of the book, and it's been renamed Utopia 14. You can see the cover here. Is it a science fiction novel? You betcha! Genre? That's a thornier question. By my definition, yes, because to my mind a "genre" is a set of publishing practices and reader expectations. Science fiction is, in that sense, a genre -- one that became particularly differentiated in the U.S. in the 1920s, developed its own groups of writers, editors, fans, and publishers, then history, which affected expectations that in turn affected production in a complex way.

Only the tiny minority of science fiction readers who think SF must always include complex astrophysics would not recognize that novel as a science fiction novel. Would non-SF readers recognize it as a literary novel? When it came out in hardcover, some did, sure (see the original NYT review), because it was a dystopian novel and so fit into a tradition broader than that of SF, though one which SF is generally happy to overlap with and exploit. But Bantam clearly thought the key to sales for Vonnegut was to market him as an SF writer. It didn't work all that well, for various reasons -- he was about ten years ahead of his time in the SF world (though C.M. Kornbluth, William Tenn, and Robert Sheckley were doing somewhat similar things to what he was up to) and when he did become popular, it was through a widening of his audience among the younger readers who liked the Beats, etc., but many of whom were also happy enough to read Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune. Also, Vonnegut wrote in a marvelously -- deceptively! -- simple and accessible style, which is helpful in reaching a mass audience.

You're absolutely right that what any sensitive reader would probably be tempted to identify as lazy writing gets published within certain marketing categories -- some of those categories rely on tried-and-true formulas that their audiences enjoy, and it would be self-defeating to stretch those formulas too much because then it would be something other than what it's expected to be. If Harlequin were to sell Jane Austen novels using the same packaging and marketing they use for their regular books ... well, they'd have some pretty perplexed and annoyed customers (as well as some who discovered a new favorite writer). If genre fiction is fiction that is necessarily formulaic in a particularly narrow way because the audience will not recognize it otherwise, then of course it would be foolish and silly of any of you at Tin House to say it's something you're open to reading.

But I'm betting that's not what Confused was asking. I would guess that Confused wanted to know what you emphasized in evaluating a story -- if you, for instance, like stories that are more plot than character. Or stories that are more about stuff than people. Or stories that use such things as aliens and dragons as primarily literal items within the narrative rather than primarily as metaphors.

To which I would also bet your most honest answer would be something along the lines of, "Well, it depends." What does it depend on? Language is one thing, maybe the thing -- by "not lazy writing" what I take you to mean is prose that achieves a certain deliberate effect, that is, in and of itself, a kind of music. Go ahead, put Mars in your story, but tell that story the way, for instance, Theodore Sturgeon did with "The Man Who Lost the Sea" (or, rather, don't tell it like that; find your own voice, but find a voice). After all, why publish a story that sounds just like ten thousand other stories? That's no fun!

And don't be afraid to make the reader work -- great art is demanding, and I think Tin House is in the business of seeking out great art. Why bother otherwise -- I somehow doubt the work is making you astoundingly wealthy.

"Demanding" isn't a bad thing for writing to be. Not every novel has to be Gaddis. The beauty of Vonnegut's best writing is that there's a whole lot more to it than will be perceived on a superficial reading, and, indeed, the apparent ease of reading him can conceal the complexity of what he offers (I've taught Mother Night at both the high school and college level and every time have learned something new from the book. It is a wonder.)

Perhaps really what we're talking about is readers and their expectations and desires. If I can put words in your mouth for a moment, you want readers who are seeking stories that they do not treat as disposable consumer items. Adventurous sorts of readers, ones who have neither a narrow idea that all stories must be a Raymond Carver spin-off or ones who think all stories have to have a clear plot, rising action, and "transparent" prose (prose is transparent when it is at its most conventional, and prose at its most conventional is not particularly fulfilling for readers who desire music and stories that don't sound like ten thousand other stories).

You raise an important issue (or two or three!) at the end of your response to me -- dozens of manuscripts arriving daily that are obviously inappropriate to the magazine, and the mass popularity of certain things that are not Tin House. I think these issues are significant ones, but tangential to the idea of what makes a story exciting to those of us who are excited by the sorts of stories Tin House publishes.

I can assure you that editors around the world face the same problem of receiving lots of manuscripts apparently sent to them at random. Heck, even with Best American Fantasy, a series of explicitly reprint anthologies, I inevitably receive a pile of unpublished manuscripts every year. We human beings have an extraordinary capacity for obliviousness.

If Tin House sold 60 million copies, it would no longer be the Tin House we love; it would be toilet paper. The kind of person who possesses both the interest and the skills to appreciate complex literary expression is probably roughly the size of the part of the population that possesses the interest and skills to appreciate advanced theoretical mathematics. There are lots of reasons certain books are bestsellers, and those reasons have little to do with genre -- bestsellers are their own category. Some of them are even pretty good by the standards of somebody who actually does appreciate complex literary expression (I'm in a minority that fervently believes Neil Gaiman's American Gods has been underestimated by many readers who mistake the genius of its structure for raggedness; I also think Thomas Harris's Red Dragon is among the great American novels of the 20th century, better than any of Hemingway's novels -- yeah, I'm a weirdo, and should probably burn my Literary Elitist membership card right now...)

Anyway, I'm rambling now. Thanks for the work you do, Tonaya. I hope my criticisms are of the sort that spur you on rather than bum you out.

And meanwhile, everybody should subscribe to Tin House because, as I said before, it's awesome.


  1. Wow, thanks for pointing this out. It's interesting to see this so soon after MammothFail, because the same invalidating logic is at work. If it's good, it's literary. If it's bad, it's genre. Cf.: if it's by a man it can be mind-blowing, if it's by a woman it can't, because women don't write mind-blowing stories.

    It's sad and funny to see how hard we cling to these ideas--everyone needs to shut out someone else in order to feel privileged. It's turtles all the way down...

  2. That's a real shame. I love Tin House to death.

    But now I'm really confused, 'cause I sold a kind of Dr. Moreau-ish pulp-ish horror tale to Conjunctions and my metafictional literary "Errata" to Tor.com. So I can't figure out if I'm a hack or just a displaced person.


  3. Thanks for posting this, Matt. As someone who has enjoyed Tin House in the past, I am disappointed (but not surprised, sadly) to say the least.


  4. Whoa. Wow. Poorly written response. Glad you picked it apart.

  5. This is yet another example of people not being able to distinguish tropes and writing styles. It is entirely true that a lot of genre fiction has formulaic plots and mono-dimensional characters. It is also true that a lot of genre fiction features spaceships, dragons and vampires. It does not follow from that that all books containing spaceships, dragons or vampires are badly written.

  6. A useful corrective for those of us who've been arguing that the walls are, in fact, tumbling down. Thanks.


  7. "I think you know genre fiction when you read it. My personal definition goes something like this: fiction that almost purposefully avoids the literary, in hopes of keeping the reader (or the writer, for that matter) from having to “work” too hard. It also tends to employ some stock tricks, like ending very short chapters with cliffhangers, often hopping predictably from one POV to another. Characters tend to be one-dimensional, with the kind of awkward and false-sounding dialog you’d expect."

    This is really, seriously, a bad definition of literary fiction. Take Kurt Vonnegut as the perfect example of how completely wrong the statement reads.

  8. Given I may have some bias as I'm a friend and co-worker of Tonaya, but it seemed to me that the main thrust of her argument was fair: the problem with many submissions is not "genre," but laziness.
    The language we use to categorize fiction does, however, make this a difficult conversation to have. As Karen pointed out above, using "genre" as a synonym for "shitty" is reductive and probably not useful, but it is, like it or not, the way many of these conversations are framed. As someone who also fields many questions about submissions, I hear things like "do you accept genre fiction?" quite a bit. My answer, unfortunately, is probably something equally vague and unhelpful: "If it's good." What I think I mean is that there are different levels on which a reader can engage with a text, and I think we all know it has little to do with trim size, jacket art, or where it's shelved in a bookstore...those things are about marketing, not literature. At Tin House, at the magazine and in the books division, we're looking for writing that edifies the reader, not something that distracts them (Fox's programming has that pretty-well covered). And as I think Tonaya pointed out, you can write ABOUT whatever you want, use any plot devices that serve your story, and call it by whatever name suits it, as long as it is successful in engaging the reader in that way.

  9. Matthew,

    As a Tin House reader, you are well aware that we pride ourselves on *not* applying blanket labels like "genre" on any works, except to distinguish poetry from fiction from essays.

    And with the first paragraph of my post I think I answered Confused's question pretty well. And then I kept going.

    And maybe my little train went off the tracks, because Confused didn't ask me about "good stories" or "lazy writing."

    But I do think a definition, however personal, of "genre" fiction was in order. Because what did Confused mean by it?

    I would never call Player Piano a "sci-fi" novel. Is genre what defines that book?

    I'll stand by my definition of lazy writing, as well as my comment that such writing is not likely to find its way into the pages of Tin House. However, for some reason, and I may well be proven wrong, it does seem that lazy writing often finds its way into the land of "genre."

    Why? I think because lazy writers rely on the conventions of said "genre" to drive the novel, rather than driving it themselves.

    A land of "genre" does exist, if loosely and lazily defined. It's called the Yellow Room at Powell's. It's where all so-called fantasy, sci-fi,mysteries, detective, graphic novels live. And you are just as likely to find good literature there as pulp. But if you are Joe Blow, you are not, for some reason, just as likely to buy it.

    This is still one of the most democratic magazines in the country, and please don't let my opinions convince you otherwise.

    But I have been reading dozens of manuscripts a day sent in by people who are clearly not actual readers of the magazine.

    Does any of this have anything to do with why sixty million people will buy books full of lazy writing and only ten thousand will buy Tin House?

    You tell me. I think it does.

    I must emphatically remind you, however, that I am not Tin House's sole spokesperson, nor gatekeeper. I think you'll find, in fact, that Brian Deleeuw is a reliable champion of what some call "speculative fiction."

    I dunno. I hope you get my point. If I'm guilty of anything, it's probably jumping in to the tail end of a conversation that's been going on for decades. And maybe sounding like a know-it-all.

    If there's one thing I can say with certainty, is that it's impossible to know it all about good writing, and I am here to learn, every day.

  10. Well, I was going to respond here, but Blogger is telling me my HTML can't have more than 4,096 characters. So I'll just add my response to the original post...

  11. Thanks, Matthew. My whole point with that blog post was to generate a conversation, which is exactly what happened (although, sadly, on a different blog than our own). The blog is a new tool for us, and when I received that question (BTW in case anyone is wondering, I asked "Confused" for permission to quote her) I thought it was a great opportunity to talk about genre, maybe even in a non-academic way.

    It's really hard to talk off the cuff about these things, but it is definitely good for exposing one's assumptions.

    Too bad I came off as an elitist a-hole.

    You're a mensch for sticking up for us literary types.

    BTW if you didn't get a chance to read Brian's lost and found on "Journey to the End of Taste," it does address some of the tangentials I went off on in my post.

  12. I really love Tin House and I think you've always done a great job of giving us amazing fiction. I think that means you should be given some slack re a lazy post, because when I read the mag I don't get a sense of fabulist/fantastical fiction being left out at all. Just know that there are plenty of people who by accidents of birth are largely published under the label SF/Fantasy/Horror who have no problem loving W.S. Sebald as much as we love, say, Iain M. Banks.

    Be as elitist as you want in selecting the fiction--I read Tin House because it's consistently excellent--but don't reduce your arguments in blog posts to a false binary system. In short, don't write blog posts that seem totally at odds with the thoughtfulness and depth of the fiction.

    Jeff VanderMeer

  13. Greatly appreciate the responses from the _Tin House_ folk as well as your additional comments. If I responded negatively to Tonaya's comments, it was because I saw buried in them an assumption that continues to drive me to distraction: the assumption that, once a work containing genre elements attains a certain level of aesthetic sophistication, it is no longer a genre work. By this same logic (to fall back on an analogy I've used before and will undoubtedly use again), once the United States freed the slaves and gave women the vote, it was no longer the United States. _Player Piano_ is absolutely an sf novel, and, therefore, an example of the sf genre--while at the same time being an accomplished work of literary fiction.

  14. Consider the idea or notion of science fiction simply as speculative in nature. Authors like Hienlein and Asimov wrote novels and stories that were centered on such speculation. This is genre. The story is used in order to move along the speculative future. The story is the vehicle and the speculative future is what the reader is moving through.

    What the reader is moving through as the book progresses is how the book is defined.

    Consider the idea or notion of literary fiction simply as non-speculative history. Vonnegut sometimes used a speculative future as a vehicle to move the reader through the story. Cat's Cradle is a perfect example. Player Piano is another. Siren's of Titan, another. Perhaps even the use of the uncontrollable time travel of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five is such a vehicle.

    I believe this is a good example of separating science fiction as a genre and science fiction as a vehicle in literary fiction. This is supported by the fact that there is no Vonnegut in the science fiction section at your local Borders bookstore.

  15. That's rubbish, gringo - and is mostly a tool to artificially separate writers you like from ones you don't.