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Tell us…

So why are ‘genre’ writers more apt to make money from their writing? Is it simply because more people read sci-fi/speculative/horror/fantasy/romance? Is it ‘easier’ reading? Is is more difficult? Does it appeal because it is not about the daily (hum-drum?) life that has come to be associated with realistic fiction?

33 thoughts on “Tell us…

  1. I think the notion of genre needs to be unpacked. This divide between sci-fi/speculative/horror/fantasy/romance (and you can add mystery and historical fiction) and “literary” fiction is largely an illusory one.

    What is The Lime Twig? What is Dhalgren? Gravity’s Rainbow ( nominated for both the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1973 and won the National Book Award in 1974.)? I remember Samuel Delany saying that he thought DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star could easily be placed in the Spec fiction section of a bookstore/library.

    Here’s part of my recent interview with Brian Evenson for Rain Taxi addressing this question:

    JM: Would you talk about the relationship between genre and literature? Also, would you talk about when you first started teaching and how your style has evolved since then? Were there any pedagogical models that you found useful? What teachers have affected your approach?

    BE: I think the clear and judgmental division between genre and literature is a 20th-century notion and is something that strikes me as very dubious. I think that different sorts of writing have always fed each other and that there’s always been a very active exchange that cuts across genre lines. That’s not to suggest there’s a free-for-all, only that the allegiances are much more complex than any categories would suggest. There are excellent books on both sides of whatever line you want to draw, and also awful books on either side of whatever line you want to draw. At a certain point I realized that my reading patterns were basically hopping across all sorts of divisions, that I was learning as much or more, say, from Dashiell Hammett or Jim Thompson or Mervyn Peake as I was from Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor.

    1. As much as my tastes and what I write are similiar to Mr. Evenson’s comment, we still live in a world of hard delineations.

      Magazines tell you in their guidelines that they do NOT want stories about elves or wizards or excessive gore or excessive sexuality. And one would be hard pressed to send a father/son reunion story to Weird Tales or Fantasy Magazine.

      We live in a ‘box’ culture. Not only our art, but even more horrible, people are put into them. “She/he’s a lawyer and you are an artist/social worker, it would never work out.” I’ve heard this and glosses on this countless times. Maybe we should look at more Kandinsky paintings to see that seemingly unrelated objects can work together as a whole in harmony.

      1. I don’t see why I should accept that we “live in a world of hard delineations” or “‘box'” culture.

        You write:
        “Magazines tell you in their guidelines that they do NOT want stories about elves or wizards or excessive gore or excessive sexuality. And one would be hard pressed to send a father/son reunion story to Weird Tales or Fantasy Magazine.”

        Yes, these are undeniable restrictions that magazines have. This is a real concern.

        Consider Steven Millhauser who just published his story “Mermaid Fever” in Harper’s as a model:

        1. John,

          You don’t have to accept it. We create our own reality. Millhauser, Saunders, Barthelme and some others are exceptions. We’ll just have to write stories as well as them. I think we can and will.


          1. The real question might be, why would genre writers, regardless of how dubious a concept “genre” is, want to give up the concept of genre? After all, as the main post here notes, genre writers make money; “literary” writers, for the most part, don’t. Prestige is nice, I guess, but if you can create art and also make a living, that’s nicer.

              1. John,

                It’s certainly complicated, but I’m not ready to call it trounced–as has been noted, at the level most of us on this site are working at, a writer’s more likely to get paid doing sf than “literary” (it’s really hard for me to write literary without scare quotes–sorry, ‘s bad habit). Not that any of us are all that likely to make a living off of it, as I perhaps too-rashly implied above.

                1. It’s great that all of the violence and sexual perversion in Cormac McCarthy’s writing, as well as all his serial killers and apocalyptic settings, have kept him firmly entrenched in the genre ghetto.

                  1. I would love to see a long critical piece on McCarthy from you. I know it has been in the comments but if you put it as a post it would have more exposure.

                    1. WHAT?!?! And have my name get added to his HIT LIST?!?!?!

                      OK, but first I have to write my epic “Why I Hate the Lord of the Rings Films” series of posts.

                    2. Well you wrote most of it in that other thread. Cut and paste. And put in the Oprah interview for good measure the part where he says he didn’t have any money and then a messenger showed up with 30K.

                    3. (I’m putting this here due to the thread limitations.)

                      I’ll post something, because I’m not really a fan of the guy’s work, and I’m especially not a fan of how it’s read these days, but I also want to say that I’m happy CM got the 30K. I don’t begrudge anyone their success.

                      …What? A hard, insistent pounding on my front door? Who can it be?

                      Oh my god!!!!! It’s the Judge!

                      I’M SORRY, CORMAC!!!!!

                      …But it was too late for A D Jameson.

  2. Before one can analyze what the reasons are behind a pay imbalance, I think one has to discuss whether or not one exists. The answer seems to be that one does, but it’s not straightforward.

    First of all, there are a number of different genres, and they pay differently for short stories. For instance, if you’re a romance writer, your short story options are few and far between.

    Tackling only science fiction and fantasy versus literary fiction, because that’s what I know (to the extent that I know it):

    Short story rates for science fiction and fantasy vary from for-the-love (no pay), to token-paying (up to 2cents/word), then semi-pro (2/cents word and up) and pro-rates (5cents/word and up). Pro rates are defined by the science fiction writers of america (SFWA) and go up slowly, without pacing inflation. There are several magazines that exceed pro rates, including Clarkesworld (10 cents/word) and Tor.com (approx 25cents/word).

    Now, I’ve never been published in one of the literary glossies, and they don’t generally seem to make their rates public. But my understanding is that the pay one receives from Tor.com (which is extremely generous and wonderful) is still not going to compare to the pay that one receives from the Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker.

    So, if you’re working at the top of your field, you’re better off being a lit writer who regularly sells to the glossies, rather than a science fiction writer who regularly sells to the best pro magazines.

    If, however, you’re a writer who regularly makes well-respected, but not exceptional, sales — then sf/f markets may make you more money.

    Now, that’s short stories — but novels are, theoretically at least, pretty different. I am not a novelist, but there is aggregated data about what sf/f novelists can expect in terms of advances. In 2005, you have median first novel advances for both science fiction and fantasy of $5,000, while later novel advances hit a median of $15,000 for fantasy and $12,500 for science fiction. Outliers go from no advance to one fantasy novel that rated an extremely unusual $600,000 advance.

    Again, I’m not a novelist, so I get a lot of this information listening to friends talk about what they get — but what I understand is, if you get your sf/f novel published with a major new york publisher who specializes in science fiction, then you’re likely to make a smaller advance than if you can manage to get your sf/f novel published by a major new york imprint that doesn’t specialize in genre work. Certainly, my friends’ agents who are dealing with cross-over work seem to be trying hard to hit the mainstream publishers first — and by doing so, have been able to make first novel advances that nicely exceed the median.

    I don’t know what happens when you start looking at smaller novel publishers.

    1. Rachel,

      I think the difference between the literary and sci-fi/fantasy writer options that you present is skewed.

      Let’s just take you and me as examples. Not Stephen King, not George Saunders. The people in this internet ‘community.’ First the Atlantic Monthly now publishes one issue a year of fiction and nobody in our internet community has ever been published in the New Yorker. They are both pipe-dreams, as is Harpers.

      That leaves the Paris Review, Missouri Review, Tin House, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Pedestal, Subtropics, Sun, Zoetrope, Shenadoah, VQR, Kenyon, Public Space, Electric Literature, Cincinnati Review and Chattahoochee Review, with maybe ten or so others. Those are the pro-payments. This may sound like a lot of journals but many of the slots go to established writers (names) and Zoetrope publishes one story by a dead writer per issue. Hemingway this time to be exact.

      The internet community is close to the small press community, there is a bunch of overlap. I think these people’s situations are what is being discussed.

      The prestige factor seems to come more into play for the so-called ‘literary writers, though I could be wrong. When people see someone has been in Glimmer Train they pay attention more to them.

      No sour grapes, of course, you write better stories, eventually you might become a name as well.

      So, how the hell do one submit to tor.com?

      1. Yeah, but if you and I both wrote a first novel, and if I went with Tor and you went with Harper Collins, I think the chances are you’ll get a higher advance. So, when you’re saying “genre writers get paid more,” we’re only talking about some situations.

        I do know people with my age and experience level who’ve been in the Atlantic Monthly. If you include the other markets you list, like the Missouri Review, then I know a lot more people who’ve published at that level. I don’t think these things are unattainable or a pipe dream. I don’t mean to minimize their difficulty; they’re very hard. But not impossible.

        Tor.com was a closed market for a while, then sort of opened by word of mouth, and now actually seems to be fully open to unsolicited submissions. According to their Ralan listing, the magazine “only accepts material of a highly professional level; if in doubt, don’t sub here,” which I think is their way of trying to stem some of the slushiest slush. Ralan also lists the email address you should send your stories to, which I’m not going to reproduce here, just in case there’s some kind of weird spam issue. The listing doesn’t say whether they want stories in the body of the email or as attachments, but I think I’ve always sent the latter.

      2. Sorry, on reread you didn’t mean to imply TMR etc were pipe dreams. I apologize for misrepresenting your position.

      3. Rachel clarified something for me elsewhere that I think is relevant to our earlier conversations abt marketing, outreach and business models (how to make independent venues sustainable, viable, etc.)

        Tor.com, Clarkesworld, and some of these that exceed pro rates are using their web-based content primarily as an advertising expense. The stories, many written by author’s with built-in followings, draw traffic to the website and hopefully contribute to book sales. The press’s book sales, then, are subsidizing the short story writers, who are drawing more attention to the press to help sell more books. The web-based content is not self-supporting, financially.

        Rachel, did I explain this right?

        1. Eh, I think I was thinking of non-debut advances in my mind, and looking at your post, you were referencing the same Tobias Bucknell survey I was thinking of. Shame, though, isn’t it?

  3. I think too that the generic expectations tend to be more defined across genres (mystery, sci-fi, romance, etc) by the publishers. It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg thing: did people start writing novels that adhere to certain conventions or rules and then the publishers caught on? Or did publishers, sensing a market for certain types of stories, forge these markets themselves? A little of both probably. And where do these sort of publisher-/culturally accepted genre conventions come from?

    The origin of fiction genres is a tricky thing–something I’m trying to get to in my own reading right now. Take a novel like the Ethiopian Story by Heliodorus. It’s a romance/adventure and reading audiences would have had certain generic expectations which the novel self-consciously plays with throughout. That’s a really old novel! (around 2nd or 3rd c. CE) I don’t know exactly what I’m getting to here except to point out that generic reader expectations have existed as long as the things we call novels have. Publishing houses have figured out how to package and market to those expectations. I don’t know it’s that genre novels are “easier” to read but maybe it’s that the concept of genre is one that has been culturally extent for a very long time–maybe this long cultural/historical attachment to genre makes genre books feel easier to read because we, as a collective reading consciousness, have been engaging with genre practically forever.

    But of course “literary” is a genre too (although I think it’s a genre in the publishing/marketing sense of the word, not in the historical, Heliodoran sense), with it’s own expectations. I think a big difference is that the literary genre is a newer market and so the readerly expectations/generic conventions are not as familiar or stable. Because “literary” doesn’t necessarily come with a collection of specific plot or narrative devices like, say, romance does. (Or maybe it does, but whenever I think of something that might be a rule, I can almost immediately think of a book that breaks it.)

    All that said, I think the question of “What is genre?” is a super-complicated and really interesting one because their are so many historical, economic, national, cultural, etc. boundaries and borders that define genre for us, in different ways, in different times, in different parts of the world, etc.

    And again, I realize I haven’t actually really answered the OP questions but I guess that’s because I can’t? Because thinking about genre wraps my brain in knots (in a good way).

    1. Susan,

      I’m for doing away with genres and types. Story or poem. I like that distinction. I think we have all the terms so we can pre-judge the aesthetic experience. Orient our mind for what we are about to see. I guess we have to, but there is a knee-jerk stimulus every time we hear ‘western’ or ‘murder mystery.’

      1. I’m for it too–used to work as a “genre” editor, now work as a “lit” writing student. I see more commonalities than differences. I was just pointing out that pre-judging aesthetic experiences is kind of “in our blood” so to speak. Also, if we didn’t have readerly expectations, we wouldn’t have those wonderful books that self-consciously play with or frustrate genre, like Heliodorus. Still, in general I’m with you. I especially dislike the high/low distinction that goes along with genre. What’s worse, I think male-dominated genres, like mystery (in the form of noir) and sci-fi, tend to begrudgingly get more respect from “high” or “literary” people than (the?) female dominated genre(s?)–romance. But this is typical in literary publishing too. “Women’s lit” is now officially a marketing genre, even though it’s opposite is not “men’s lit”. That’s where I see contemporary genre being the most harmful–in the ghettoization of women’s writing.

      2. See, I myself want to do away with the distinction between poems and stories, but I want to be very clear about whether the resulting spoemetories are sci-fi or not.

        And then I want to further divide them into hard sci-fi, and soft.

        1. “And then I want to further divide them into hard sci-fi, and soft.”

          Such phallic terms, aren’t they? I wish they weren’t used to reinforce that.

          Anyway, I think it’s… not useful to get rid of all genre distinctions. Story is not actually just story. There are actually different reading conventions. Hard sci fi — at least in the form it appears in Analog — is something of a hot house flower. I can’t imagine it surviving outside of the magazine that’s specifically set aide for it. Those 20 something thousand readers want to read Analog’s kind of hard sci fi stories… and really, apart from the few award-winning exceptions, no one else does. The genre label, in this case, allows writers and readers to match up.

          I mean, I’m all for interrogating where these things fail to be useful, and where they prevent writers and readers from matching up. Certainly, the distinctions probably do my kind of writing more harm than good. But I don’t think the solution is to ignore them entirely. Which maybe no one was saying, but I felt like I was hearing that.

          1. I’m actually all for genre distinctions. I love genre. I also love people who transcend genres, or who mix them… But I also love people who write solidly within them.

            Genre is just a categorical tool, as useful as any other tool. It can be a productive constraint (like the sonnet), it can also be a mindless limitation (like the sonnet)…

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