Monday, August 17, 2009

Literary Snobbery

A long time ago, when I got my first book published, I hurried to tell a few people whom I thought would be excited over a friend and colleague's first book. When I told them, they seemed happy for me, but then they asked what I wrote.

"Horror!" I exclaimed.
"Oh," they said. "You write genre fiction." Then they turned up their noses and walked away.

A few months later, one of these same people said to me "Y'know, I should just write some stupid horror novel so I can be published. It's not like it real art or hard or anything."

It took every ounce of control I had to not strangle him on the spot. Not art? Not hard? Horror is not literature? Horror is not good enough? Bollocks, I say! And here's why.

For those of you who write, you know how hard it is to get ANYTHING published. You know how hard it is to keep your audience enthralled. You know how hard it is to pull those emotions out of your reader. Lovecraft said, to paraphrase, that the oldest and most powerful emotion is fear. To wit, we have become such a desensitized society that finding things that truly pull a sense of dread out of an audience is damned near impossible, doubly so for a person trying to accomplish the goal with words on paper. If I, as a writer, can give a person a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, then what does that make me? A hack? Is it easy to do? No. And I dare say, there is something of an art to scaring the crap out of people. Anyone with a loud noisemaker can hide behind a door and shout "BOO," but it takes real effort to unsettle, to unhinge, to make them see things that may not be there. Horror is damned hard, and it is an art form unto itself.

Not literature? Again, I cry Bollocks! What is Frankenstien, which is taught in every college? Dracula, if it is not horror and a love story to boot? There are so many cases of horror in literature that listing them would be an exhaustive and futile effort. It also wouldn't change a thing. Walk into most MFA programs proclaiming to write any of the genres and you'll likely be treated with the same response. In fact, I was told by at least one MFA program that genre fiction wasn't welcome. Why?

What it boils down to is this: Good writing is good writing. What is our goal as writers? To make our readers feel one way or another, to love, to hate, to cringe, to cry, and to do it with nothing more than our words on the printed page. That's pretty damned hard, don't you think?

While this post isn't by any means a commercial for Seton Hill's Masters in Writing Popular Fiction program, I can't let this rant continue without mentioning them as the one bastion of literary acceptance in the world. That's right, popular fiction. Which means fiction that people read. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance, and blessed Horror, all nurtured. Why aren't more schools like them? I don't know.

But I do know this: Nine books later, and I'm damned proud to say that I write horror. It's my website (, it's my passion, and it is my life. And for anyone else out there reading this who has been laughed at, picked on, put down, or generally been the target of literary snobbery, I say to hold your head high. Literary fiction, genre fiction, they're really the same thing. It's a false distinction. Be proud of what you write, and keep writing it. And know that you are not alone, know that greatness comes in many forms, and know that if you can make your readers feel, you've done your job.

My name is Scott A. Johnson, and I'm a horror writer. And I'm damned proud of it.


  1. Well put. I boggles the mind how marginalized horror is when so much of it has permeated both mainstream and "elite" art.

  2. I'm convinced that horror and romance/erotica are the most mistreated genres out there. Think about it: they're the two genres that evoke the strongest, most powerful emotions of love and fear. And Lord knows love and fear are often closely entertwined. I think literary fiction snobs just have a thing against any emotion that doesn't require Prozac after turning the last page.

  3. I was looking into a creative writing PhD program at Georgia State. Because of the "learned" bias of English department faculty, before I wasted time applying, I decided to e-mail the head of the English grad studies dept and ask whether urban fantasy/suspense would be welcome there. It took a week to get a response and the response I got came from an underling. And it said, "Here at GSU, we look for character-driven fiction and I don't think urban fantasy or suspense would satisfy the admissions review board."

    And, of course, in my head I translated this to: "We don't want students who want to actually make money with their writing."

    Looking over the faculty "publications," of the ones that weren't simply journal articles (ie - research), every fiction/poetry "book" looked as though it were a self-published title, though I'm guessing most of them are university press published. Not one was anything you'd pick up at B&N.

    I really think it comes down to people not knowing what the hell they're talking about. They like to *think* they know what they're talking about, but they don't. Just statistically, it's much, much more difficult to get published commercially than by a university press. I mean, who submits to university presses? Not the masses. So proportionally speaking, getting published there is a piece of cake compared to getting a deal with Random House.

    It's difficult to remain steadfast in the face of arrogance like that. I just take comfort in the fact that some day a 747 is going to mistake their upturned nose for a runway and land in their sinus cavity.

  4. I'm also taken aback at some of the condescension handed down to fans of horror and dark literature. At least there is good company to be kept on the outskirts of literary inclusion.

  5. Sir,

    These words have become more of an inspiration for me than you think. I am a fledgling writer, and I have been scoffed for throwing my hat in the ring of "genre" fiction. Why waste your talents? I am asked again and again. I now have the ammunition to counter these direct missiles. Thank you.