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The Two Worlds of Literature:
What Serious Writers Can Learn from Genre Comrades in Arms

By Richard Curtis

When I went into the publishing business after graduating from college, I discovered a literary culture so lastly different from the ones I had studied that I could scarcely find any common ground between them. This world was populated by romance, science fiction and fantasy, and male action-adventure writers, by pulpsters, pornographers, and countless others who earn their living producing genre books.


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Since then, I have become a citizen of that world, both as a writer and as a literary agent representing other writers of category fiction. I have come to know and respect, to admire and even love this world and its denizens and have had the privilege of attending the birth of some works that have come to be regarded as masterpieces of their genres. But I have also become increasingly concerned about how little is known about this world by the writers and critics who dominate the world of serious literature. And I've concluded that we are all a little poorer for these gaps in awareness, appreciation, and communication.

The belletristic establishment regards the world of popular literature as a subculture, but one could seriously argue that it is really the other way around. Very few "serious"
writers make enough money from their writing to support themselves without having to moonlight. Their audiences are often modest in size and elitist in taste. Their work is frequently inaccessible, intellectual, experimental, and sometimes incomprehensible. Literary authors are often isolated from their fellow writers both physically and artistically, so that they have little sense of community or opportunities for intellectual cross-pollination.

The Professional World

Now look at the world of genre literature. Is purveyors are professional authors most of whom earn a comfortable living and many of whom earn a substantial one, all without having to rely on non-writing jobs to supplement their incomes. These authors reach a wide audience: Because many write original paperbacks, they can count on a minimum readership numbering in the hundreds of thousands and even millions. Their prose style
and craftsmanship range from competent (they must at least be competent to sell their work to publishers) to superb; I will stake my career on the assertion that the craftsmanship and prose to be found in the best genre books matches or exceeds that found in the work of manv so-called literary stars.

Professional writers enjoy a strong sense of cohesiveness and mutual support that is lacking in the world of belles-lettres. Professional science fiction, western, romance, and mystery writers belong to guild like organizations that publish newsletters, hold conventions, and lobby for improvement of terms and conditions for their constituent authors. Taken altogether, these factors suggest that the life of the professional writer is far better integrated into the social fabric than that of the literary author. Genre writers might be likened to the guild arti sans of medieval times, with the exception that the
Medieval craftsmen had the respect of their peers and patrons and were completely integrated into the community.

I have frequently pondered what it is that separates these two worlds of literary endeavor, and can think of a number of elements. One is ideas. The world of serious literature stresses the primacy of ideas, and the format of serious literature is designed to express those ideas. Another critical element is viewpoint: the serious author's viewpoint, or vision, is what makes those ideas fresh and special. And then there is style, the unique garb in which the author's ideas are dressed. The most interesting authors are able to identify themselves after a page or two because of what they have to say and how they say it. All too often, however, that format is not accessible to the mass reader because it doesn't follow the universal verities that, as Aristotle contended, humankind supposedly responds to. It is sometimes remote, dislocated, overly stylized, tedious, or just plain badly constructed and expressed. But the authors, and presumably their audiences, don't necessarily care as long as the essential idea is conveyed in a stimulating way.

The Story Element

Few professional authors approach their work this way; not, at least, if they want to stay in business. In the value system of the professional author, the most important element is story, for stories are what pros are paid to write, and those who are paid the most are the ones who write the best stories and write stories best. Ideas may be articulated, certainly, but only insofar as they help delineate the viewpoint of the characters themselves. Professional authors never allow their own ideas or viewpoint to override those of the characters who people their books, and the idea of calling attention to themselves through
unique stylistic techniques are totally alien to them. Indeed, if a professional novelist slows the pace of his or her book to express some personal viewpoint, or distracts the reader's involvement with the story by employing stylistic gimmicks, he or she can expect the editor to come down very hard on the offending passage with a blue pencil. Totally unlike serious literature, it is often impossible, upon reading a popular novel, to guess who the author is, so well disguised is he or she behind the excellence of the tale itself. And that is the way that they, their publishers and their readers like it.

The lives of professional genre writers differ in many significant ways from those of their more literary brothers and sisters, and indeed from the romantic image so many people have of the way writers are supposed to live. They are, for example, extremely businesslike, or at least extremely concerned with the business of writing. They study
the provisions of their publishing contracts carefully and actively consult with their agents in the negotiating dialogues with publishers. They know the market value of their work before they sell it, sometimes within $500 or $1,000, and in fact, most of them sell their work before they write it, lining up contracts (often for more than one book at a time) in advance. They approach the work at hand in a businesslike fashion as well. Because genre book lines have specific word-length requirements to fit them into the publishers' rigid price and marketing structures, writers have to design their manuscripts to those lengths and to pace the development and dramatic flow of their books so that all is resolved within 60.000, 75,000 or 100,000 words.

The Importance of Discipline

Which leads us to another quality of the professional writer: discipline. Inspiration as it is commonly understood plays little part in the life of the genre author, for, as we have seen, ideas are subordinate to story in his value system. Having selected a milieu or location, outlined a story, and sketched the cast of characters, the writer then tackles the job the way a skilled carpenter might approach the building of a piece of furniture, day by day, piece by piece. Of paramount importance is the outline. The synopsis of genre books are often highly detailed and broken down chapter by chapter scene by scene, so that every day, when writers sit down at their desks. They know precisely what work is cut out for them. It is here, in the daily task of writing the book itself, that inspiration plays a role. As the author follows his or her outline, the nuances of character, the details of time and place, the fine points of story and complications of plot flow endlessly onto the page from a source that is wondrous and mystifying. Characters take on lives and wills of their own. Struggling with the author for control of the work (and sometimes, to the writer's astonishment, winning).

This day-to-day grind with its little pleasures, epiphanies, and triumphs not be as romantic as the Big Bang variety of inspiration we usually associate with art, but does enable professional writers to get their work done no matter how ill, rotten, depressed, exhausted, or bereft of spirit they may feel on any given day: "You turn it on," they will tell you, "and out it comes."  Writer's block is therefore seldom a problem for professional authors, and besides, it’s a luxury they cannot afford. These writers know pretty much to the word how much they can write daily before growing fatigued: two thousand words, say, or twenty manuscript pages or three chapters of work that is consistently good, often good enough to be acceptable in a single draft. They can therefore predict almost to the day when they will be turning their manuscripts in to their publishers. This is critically important in order for the author to project income flow.  It is equally important for the publisher to be able to count on reliable production in order to schedule books far in advance with relative confidence. Because covers and monthly catalogues are produced by paperback publishers before manuscripts are actually in hand and sales people solicit orders months before publication, the failure of an author to deliver a book on schedule is a nightmare that haunts editors. Reliability therefore becomes the prime virtue of professional writers.

Demands of the Marketplace

Unlike so many literary authors, professional writers are intensely attuned to the demands of the literary marketplace, because their lives and livings depend on its fluctuations. Genres go in and out of style, and heaven help the author who doesn't adapt to a trend. As I write, science fiction is holding steady but fantasy is booming, westerns and horror are weak, cozy mysteries are strong and paranormal romance are huge. Authors working in these genres are expected to know about such cycles, indeed to know about nuances within the cycles: that within the fantasy genre, for example, the subspecies known as sword-and-sorcery is not very much in demand (as I write this, at any rate).

Like professionals in other fields of endeavor, professional writers exchange information with each other about the state of their fields. They belong to organizations devoted specifically to their genres, such as The Science Fiction Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Western Writers of America, International Thriller Writers and Romance Writers of America. These organizations have websites and regularly publish newsletters profiling leading writers in their field, offering market reports about which publishers are buying what material, how much they're paying, and whom to contact. Annual national conventions (and frequent regional ones as well) are held. There, organization members exchange information, conduct seminars, meet agents and editors, and honor their own for achievements in various categories. These meetings are usually well attended by representatives of the publishing industry and offer writers and editors an opportunity to conduct business on a less formal basis than is customary.

While I realize I’ve painted a black and white picture, discussions I've had with countless writers in all fields strongly suggest that the polarity of admiration and emulation runs from genre writers to mainstream ones but not vice versa. Oh, from time to time, a mainstream author will confess a secret passion for genre fiction that can be likened to a craving for junk food, and on occasion a mainstream author will cross over into genre fiction by writing a science fiction or mystery novel, a sort of literary equivalent of slumming. But these are exceptions that play up the rule that most literary authors don't feel genre writers have anything to say to them. That this is arrant snobbery goes without saying. I also happen to feel it is bad thinking.

The time has come for serious writers to pay far more attention to their genre colleagues than they have done up to now. The increasingly monolithic publishing industry now concentrates such power that the livelihoods and freedom of expression of writers of every kind are seriously threatened. As publishers focus more intently each year on producing blockbuster bestsellers to carry their bottom lines, the time and space in which writers can develop shrinks, meaning they are being forced to mature far too early. As the spawning grounds for writers get squeezed harder and harder by economic exigencies,
the pressure on tenderly budding talents to turn out commercial successes becomes more and more intense. This disease has spread from giant bookstore chains to publishing
conglomerates and has now infected the thinking of authors of every stripe, who feel their only choices are to hit the pot of gold on the first shot or become computer programmers or insurance salesmen.

When I entered the publishing business in 1959, a writer could still cherish - and achieve - the fantasy of a quiet life of literary accomplishment, a life in which one could be content with a modest living and the admiration of a small but dedicated audience. Today, this notion is so laughably out of date that I cannot imagine anyone seriously harboring it. More to the point is that if anybody did, it would be impossible to achieve it. And I believe there is worse ahead: as the conglomeratization of the publishing industry continues, it is possible that literature will no longer be a place in which writers achieve any dreams at all save that of getting rich writing stuff they don't give a damn about. If this vision seems excessively dark, you have only to listen to the complaints of television writers in order to foresee the future.

The Publishing Ecosystem

It is vital for the writing establishment to realize that literature is far more than a ladder with junk at the bottom and art at the top. Rather, it is an ecosystem in which the esoteric and the popular commingle, fertilize one another, and interdepend. Principally, if it were not for the immense revenues generated by science fiction, romance, male action-adventure, and other types of popular fiction at which so many literary authors and critics
look down their noses, there would be no money for publishers to risk on first novels, experimental fiction, and other types of serious but commercially marginal literary
enterprises. Furthermore, from the aspect of the writing craft itself, there are many extremely important lessons for literati to learn from their genre comrades in arms, if
only the former would take the trouble to study them. Although serious writers tend to reject formula plotting, for instance, they sooner or later realize that if they wish to reach any kind of audience at all, they will have to construct at least a minimum of formula skeleton for their works. When they do realize it, they have but to visit the
popular literature departments of their local bookstores to discover a trove of skillfully fashioned works to teach them about creating sympathetic heroes and heroines,
daunting conflicts and antagonists, masterful pacing, and the building of dramatic tension to a thrilling climax and a satisfying ending.

And there is more: pride and professionalism, skill and discipline, reliability, attention to the business aspects of the writer's trade, a healthy respect for publishers and for the vast audiences that publishers speak for - these are among the lessons waiting to be learned by those on the other side of the gulf that separates the two worlds. Above all, serious writers stand to discover that they by no means have a monopoly on integrity. And because the integrity of all writers is now in jeopardy, it is incumbent on those of both worlds to talk and listen to each other to read each other, and, above all, to respect each other.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field and reprinted in the Winter1992 issue of the Writers Guild Bulletin. I’ve made a few modifications to bring it up to date, at least as of 2008. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis

All the best,

Richard Curtis

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