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Paul Guran:
Tribal Stand

E-mail Locus

September 2002

Posted 25 September:

Posted 16 September:

Note: Return e-mail addresses will be posted only if you include it in your closing, or your subject matter specifically requests some sort of response; otherwise it will be omitted. Letters may be edited for length.

Dear Locus Online,
     Just a brief note, here. Yes, I'm dying to see Spirited Away and I am much buoyed by John Shirley's positive (to say the least) review. But I wanted to add a vote for one American animated film that I'd put up against the best of Miyazaki (which is very, very good).
     And that film is The Iron Giant.
     I thought that one was a wonderful film. Visually sophisticated, great script, surprisingly good voices with a sympathetic evocation of the "good" parts of an era (wonderful re-creation of a low-budget monster movie that Hogarth watches on TV in one scene, and his comic books), with a sober assessment of the not-so-good parts (the Cold War was not a "fun" thing).
     The filmmakers responsible for The Iron Giant may not be as gifted as Miyazaki's crew, and frame-for-frame Princess Mononoke may be a better film (or, my personal favorite is still My Neighbor Totoro), but it's as good as anything American animators have produced in the last couple of decades. It was overlooked when it first came out, but I think it will be remembered in the long run.
     Very best wishes to you all,

Richard Chwedyk
23 September

[ John Shirley replies: You're quite right, The Iron Giant was very good and it slipped my mind. Its story is a great one and the art was good. ]

Dear Locus Online,
     Horror *is* in an awful state. It is always in a awful state and so are fantasy and science fiction, mainstream writing, poetry, and probably storytelling among the more remote tribes of the Amazon Basin. We tend to forget that the past looks so much better because so much of it goes quietly into well-deserved oblivion.
     As to the problem of who is a professional writer, that has become a knottier question than it once was, for publishing -- if you count the web and I think you must -- is much easier than it ever was before and fewer writers meet the traditional criteria of earning all, or most, of their income from writing.
     "Don't Give Up the Day Job!" has become the slogan of a whole generation of writers who have had to adapt to the vanishing midlist. If you want do comfortable things, like live in your own home, support a family, and have health insurance, you will be amateur by the old standard for a long time: perhaps forever.
     I doubt that the recently-departed Professor Robert L. Forward ever derived most of his income from writing, and yet he gave us some of the best hard science fiction we have. Labeling him an amateur would provoke laughter, unless one made it clear one meant it in the most old-fashioned sense of someone who does a thing for the joy of doing it.
     Obviously who is professional is a matter of importance to writers' organizations, who must decide who gets their golden spurs and the right to pay dues. A strong professional organization can help new writers by increasing their chances of meeting people who can positively affect their careers, but the final choice of who is a real writer is going to be made by the readers, as it always has been and always will be.

Catherine Mintz
23 September

Dear Locus Online,
     Regarding Guran's commentary: the Internet has offered the same grace to hundreds, maybe thousands (I haven't counted) of cartoonists who find that publishing their work is as simple as writing a check. It's unsettling to wade, if you have the inclination, through so many ill-formed panels and strips, but I imagine it's a sensation that legions of editorial assistants know well.
     I'm not dismissing these public creations -- normally walled off in the artist's home, as the embryo is housed with its yolk until the first cracking -- only noting that before the internet, most were private creations, a secret exchanged between the artist and the rejecting editor.
     Writers who self-publish aren't alone in using that trick secret panel between their desk and an audience.

Mark Heath
22 September

Dear Locus Online,
     Regarding Paula Guran's recent essay, could it be that the "tribal stand" is a problem in itself? The problem with most modern horror is that it's too self-aware. The innocence has gone. You have many writers, fans and editors interacting in a small, tidy but suffocating atmosphere. The imaginative impulse reaches its greatest heights when we have no allegiance to any tradition but the tale itself.

John Thompson Jr.
18 September

Dear Locus Online,
     While I agree with Ms. Guran's analysis of many of the problems with the current horror genre, I'm not sure I detect in her essay any seeds of a solution. The "wannabes" in the miniscule press to whom she seems to be directing the essay will never recognize themselves as such. No one nods when they are accused and says, "My God, I'm a hack! Thanks for the intervention!" Unfortunate, too.
     Perhaps as a follow-up to her first essay she'd be willing to elaborate on what she sees as a way to remedy the situation. From what I've seen of her description here, it seems like we have the same problem we've had in many areas of human endeavor for eons: some people know what the hell they're talking about, and some people don't. The Standard of quality has been applied to every genre by those most qualified to apply it: discerning readers, critics, and other writers.
     I read widely in the major genres and I've seen my share of plugs and reviews. I discount 90% of them out of hand, choosing to trust about ten critics and writers who seem to have a handle on the history and direction of the genre. People who enjoy quality have always been guerillas afield behind enemy lines. This is, after all, a culture in which "American Idol" passes for entertainment.
     My personal solution to the problem of overrated hack writers with a gift for self-promotion? To not read them. This is very similar to my strategy when given a bad meal at a restaurant: why bemoan the declining standards of the restaurant industry when there's a great Chinese place across the street?
     Seekers of quality will find it where they always do: somewhere quiet, humility, and passion can flourish. Personally, I'm satisfied with a small cadre of writers who attain my "Standard" and with teeming dozens who don't. I'm even happy to see that our Standards may only barely overlap. Why? If everyone in the horror genre was a genius, I'd be too busy reading to get any writing done myself.

Will Ludwigsen
17 September

Dear Locus Online,
     Having read Ms. Guran's essay, the responses pro and con and having read a great deal of work over the last 30+ years, I have a few comments.
     I'm a reader, never been published, though I do write and have observed some things in general over the last few years, not just in horror, but everywhere. But it is markedly more noticeable in horror than elsewhere. So that's why I choose to comment.
     I stopped reading first novels completely a few years ago, because I kept getting burned more often than not. The last really good one I read was Silk by Caitlin R. Keirnan. Too many others I've read were poorly written and indifferently edited (if edited at all) and it's a case of too few dollars chasing too many goods. So I stopped reading first novels. I also don't read POD books from publishers I've never heard of by writers I've never read or even heard of, because I've read too many that would make good evidence in a suit brought by the Sierra Club as an egregious waste of trees. To be brutally honest, too many of the ones I've seen strike me as the publishing equivalent of the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" movies, only with less visible talent, little to no critical vetting of the work, minimal investment of time and capital and no indication to me, the reader, that the book is remotely worth reading. I've read entirely too many manuscripts from unpublished writers who couldn't write a coherent sentence, let alone a paragraph, with their life in the balance. I refuse to pay for that "privilege".
     Look, with the advent of desktop publishing and the Internet, opportunities to get "published" increased exponentially. But the basic rules of writing haven't changed. Bad writing is bad writing and, like it or not, when even established publishers are letting stuff through with little to no apparent editing, chances are a vanity press will do even less. That's what a lot of these self-publishing houses are, whether you care to admit it or not. Face it, if I have to choose between the new Robert McCammon or Dan Simmons and a self-published book by a newbie writer I've never heard of, it's an easy choice. The Internet makes it simple for anyone to get "published". The sad fact is, not everyone can write something worth reading.
     One of the letter writers taking Guran to task quoted Theodore Sturgeon, and in doing so proved her point: 90% of everything is crud. That holds for on-line publishing. But there are standards and anyone who denies there are (or that there should be) is only kidding themselves. Democratization of the arts may give you a warm and fuzzy feeling, but doesn't make everyone a talented writer; it just kicks Sturgeon's Law up to 95% instead of 90%. Listen to the lyrics of "Paperback Writer" — they are really quite interesting. One last comment: Guran's essay was a good deal better-written and less mean-spirited than some of the letters trying to dispute her arguments.
     Thank you for your time.

Robert Reynolds
Tucson AZ
16 September

Dear Locus Online,
     Rich Horton's note about "Mau Mau" borrowing from Mark Clifton reminds me that I heard at the time that a line from another of their songs, "In loyalty to their kind, they cannot tolerate our minds. In loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstructions," comes from a John Wyndham book, maybe The Chrysalids. Anyone know about that?

Arthur D. Hlavaty
18 September

Dear Locus Online,
     Rich Horton cites an instance where Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane lifted a lyric line almost verbatim from an sf story (by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley).
     That may be scratching the surface. The bridge of the Airplane's sizable FM radio hit "Crown of Creation" is a verbatim quote from the climactic scene of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. "In loyalty to their kind / They cannot tolerate our minds / In loyalty to our kind / We cannot tolerate their obstruction." Hippies as homo superior. I'd be surprised if the rest of the song's lyrics aren't also quotes, but I haven't been able to make the identifications.

Eric M. Van
17 September

Dear Locus Online,
     Thank you so much for running Paula Guran's excellent essay, Tribal Stand, about the problems in the horror field today. I couldn't agree more. The essay is not only spot-on, it's a brave stand. It says what needs to be said. This kind of thing occurs in all genres, all types of writing, to some extent. However, it seems endemic and intrinsic to Horror circa 2002.

Jeff VanderMeer
9 September

Dear Locus Online,
     You go, Paula!
     Horor IS in trouble. Thank you for kicking the hornet's nest. (I hope you're wearing your bee suit & veil).

Wendy Hays
10 September

Dear Locus Online,
     In response to Paula Guran's new diatribe about the collapse of the horror field due to self-appointed bottomfeeders taking over, I can only make one comment: "Physician, heal thyself." That is, if the person who plasters "Edited by Paula Guran" on the front cover of her zine as if it means a damn thing finds that "the pot calling the kettle black" is too subtle for her sensibilities. Either way, to bowdlerize Thomas Jefferson, horror readers and writers are getting precisely the environment they deserve.

Paul T. Riddell
9 September

Dear Locus Online,
     Paula Guran's Tribal Stand is positively Shakespearean! In the sense that "It's a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
     First of all, Paula Guran has never written a horror novel, so she's got no room to talk. Secondly, she heaps ridicule on horror writers for creating the current 'state' of horror fiction, when it is actually publishers who have created it (note how EVERY author she mentions identifies horror trends as publishing trends). Third, she's a hypocrite, condemning horror writers for promoting each other's work when she herself relentlessly promotes John Shirley every chance she gets. She also condemns e-publishing for everyone else EXCEPT herself. Fourth, she's flat-out obnoxious, rudely generalizing hundreds of artists she knows nothing about with labels like 'wannabe', 'mud-whiner' and 'bottom-feeder'.
     Fifth, she's useless, offering no solution to this imagined 'horror crisis', she's just bitching. (Hey, Paula! You don't like Horror? It doesn't like you! So start reading Harlequin Romances or something.)
     Besides all that, it was a fascinating read.

Ken Kupstis
12 September

Dear Locus Online,
     Paula Guran's article is a self-serving, elitist diatribe that is destructive to the very genre she claims to support.
     She provides an interesting bit of history of the horror field in the first part of her article. There's nothing new here and nothing that those of us who have been around for the past fifteen or twenty years, or who have done a little research into the genre do not already know, but what she says is mostly accurate.
     Unfortunately, she attempts to use this well-known trivia to establish herself as an expert in the field before launching into an attack that can only be seen as mean-spirited and derisive against newer writers — all writers, in fact, who do not measure up to her Standard.
     And just who sets this Standard? According to Ms. Guran, Andy Griffith does: "You're a writer when a Writer says you're one."
     I think not. Rather, a more accurate measure is, you're a writer when the reading public says you're one. The market place is the proving ground for writers. And a writer must prove himself or herself anew with each effort. We learn from our elders, but we succeed or fail through our own merits — or lack of them.
     Ms. Guran is correct in saying that the horror boom of the 1980s attracted far too many writers who cared nothing for the genre, who were out to make quick profits and who produced one bad book after another flooding the market with drivel and almost destroying it. When the markets dried up, those opportunists moved on to greener pastures. But horror was far from dead, as some predicted. It still had its solid base of aficionados, but they had to search harder to find the stories they loved.
     Rising costs and dwindling subscriber lists forced numerous magazines out of business. Book publishers, who had to make a profit to stay in business, became wary of the horror label. The "name" writers like King and Koontz still fared well, but few publishers were willing to take a chance on new, unproven writers in the field.
     But then something happened, as Ms. Guran so dramatically points out. Something that changed everything: The Internet.
     Now the newer writers, those hacks, bottom-feeders and lemmings, as Ms. Guran calls them, spawned in an abyss and one more generation removed from true feeling (?), "a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox," were able to bail out of the shrinking pond of horror and find new life on the web.
     (Of course, Ms. Guran admits, she herself "benefited directly and to a far greater degree than most from becoming a 'Web-writer.'" But that, she is quick to point out "is another subject."
     In other words, in her opinion, it was fine for her to use the Internet to promote her own publications, but not for others to use the same methods.
     "Just grind it out, accumulate approbation from your similarly ranked pals, and vigorously ignore the Standard."
     Her Standard. Yet it is precisely through the approbation of her pals that she garnered awards for DarkEcho, her own publication. She is guilty of the same self-promotion and all the other things she condemns others for doing, and even worse, her attack against newer writers and the small press is vicious and unfounded.
     The Internet has proved to be a revitalizing force for horror, but even before its prominence, small press was filling the gap left by the departure of many of the major markets in the field. Small press kept horror alive and available during the lean years, proving itself vital to the industry and providing a training ground for many of today's writers.
     Contrary to Ms. Guran's allegations, not all new writers are "happy to tread water in an eddy that is 90% pointless, derivative crap, appearing in dreadfully conceived anthologies full of amateurs, or excreting another novel-length waste of time about vampire cockroaches."
     All writers are beginning, unproven novices at first. All writers must learn their craft before they can climb the ladder toward professionalism. How do they learn? By writing and, at first, emulating their favorite authors. Then little by little they develop their own styles and move ahead.
     Of course, some are unwilling to exert the effort required to develop their talent, and many will never make it into the professional ranks. But others will. They work hard to learn and improve; they challenge themselves to do better and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to succeed. They are the new blood that will rejuvenate horror, that will give it new life. And many of them are here already.
     If Ms. Guran will stop looking back and longing for a past and a Standard that no longer exists (if in fact it ever did outside Andy Griffith's idealistic scripts); if she will look at the new generation of writers with unbiased eyes rather than stereotyping the entire group of newcomers and judging them on the shortcomings of a few, then perhaps she will see that horror is yet alive and the outlook is bright.
     We can't turn back the clock, but we can build upon the past. We can use the new technology to produce better publications and promote the finest our field has to offer. And we can make the horror genre strong again, not by tearing each other down, but by working together.

Mary J. Turner (aka Shannon Riley)
11 September

Dear Locus Online,
     Paula Guran's recent attempt at an essay, Tribal Stand, has sparked a lot of discussion and debate. Unsurprisingly, many of the people who made their bones in horror in the mid-'90s objected strenuously, while some more prominent writers and editors agreed with Guran's claims while distancing themselves from her venom.
     I'm quite surprised that anyone would line up behind this essay, as it offers a self-undermining argument. Leaving aside the fact that her extended metaphor of the tribe is hopelessly garbled (apparently, horror is a tribe made up of both human beings and bottom-feeding fish) her three claims seem to be:

  1. When large publishers controlled much of the horror output, most of it was awful


  2. now that small publishers using a variety of alternative media control much of the horror output, most of it is awful

    and yet,

  3. somehow a Standard that used to exist is only now being attacked.

     Clearly if her first two claims are true, the third and most important claim is false or trivial. The Standard never mattered, even when the 'tribal elders' ruled, because crap was the end result back then as well. And all these elders managed to do was to give birth to the current generation of slime-suckers and drive away their own readerships. So much for good example.
     Guran also stacks the deck — the writers she likes get to be human beings, the ones she does not are introduced as subhuman, muck-dwelling whiners. Horror may well be full of whiners, but honestly, I've not met any. I've met plenty of folks who can't write and who think they can, but in my limited experience at least, people in the horror community are warm, friendly, generous, sometimes hot-tempered, and always ready to lay their names and reputations on the line for their writing, even when it isn't any good. That's laudable. Guran's poison pen letter against enemies unnamed and unseen is not. Even the new wave of commentators and op-ed writers who are better known for their bombast than their facts at least name their enemies. Ann Coulter doesn't hide behind analogy; when she complains about the competition, she does so by saying she'd like to blow up the New York Times.
     Guran's failure to demonstrate her point through specific example isn't just a weakness in her rhetoric, it is a weakness in her position, as it leaves it unfalsifiable. Does she mean That's online! Yard Dog Press? That's tiny! Lone Wolf Publications? That's on CD-Rom! Kelly Link's short story collection? That was self-published! We don't know! Of course, I doubt she means any of these venues or authors, because all are high quality, but we can't say for sure because she lacks the simple courage to name names. Hey, maybe 90% of everything is always crud, just like Theodore Sturgeon said.
     Not only do we not know who Guran is talking about, her failure to name names doesn't allow us to determine the mechanism through which the quality of horror remains low. She seems to be claiming that the personalities of the people in the field are to blame, and that the economics of publishing aren't, even though the opposite set of conditions (fine upstanding elders and a fluctuating paperback market) led to the identical result of low quality in the 1980s.
     And this is important. Some people like putting up websites and the like as a lark, for fun. Writing and publishing is legitimate fanac, and it isn't appropriate to hold these projects to the standards of professionally funded publication. She may not be targeting fan websites or chapbooks, of course, but we don't know if she is because she refused to tell us.
     This isn't all Guran's fault of course. A fair amount of feuding happens in horror, just as in any other field where the stakes are low and the rewards are few and far between. People get carried away. Locus Online however, has no such excuse. As it stands, is just one more site on the Web for people to shout "Ca-ca poo-poo on your head!" at one another.

Nick Mamatas
16 September

Dear Locus Online,
     Allen Steele's recent letter notes the influence of SF upon the work of the Jefferson Airplane, in particular on Paul Kantner. I thought to add a footnote to this. The album Blows Against the Empire (as Steele notes, nominated for a Hugo) includes (in the song "Mau Mau (Amerikon)") the lyric "Hide witch, hide,/ the good folks come to burn thee/ their keen enjoyment hid behind/ a gothic mask of duty". This is taken nearly verbatim (and uncredited) from the Mark Clifton/Alex Apostolides story "Hide! Hide! Witch!" (Astounding, December 1953), one of the precursor stories to the Mark Clifton/Frank Riley Hugo-winner "They'd Rather Be Right".

Rich Horton
30 August

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