But, I don’t write [blank].

I think I’ve just had an epiphany about the writers who are clearly writing SF but say, “I don’t write SF.”

Allow me to explain. My last couple of sales have been stories which can be called horror to varying degrees. Now if you ask me what I’ve written, I’ll tell you that I write SF and Fantasy. The word “horror” will not cross my lips, not because I’m ashamed, but because I don’t think about it because that’s really not what I’m focused on writing. I was having this conversation and someone said, “You should join HWA.”

I laughed and said, “I’m not a horror writer…”

Except, I sort of am, at least as much as I’m an SF or a fantasy writer. But the difference for me is that I don’t read horror. It scares me. No joke. I like stories that make me all weepy, but not the ones that make me afraid to turn off the lights.

So, the horror stories that I write are ones that deal with stuff I want to read which tend to be, um, love stories. Yeah, I know… there’s a little incongruity there. That said, these are stories in which I do really, really bad things to people and, with the stories for Apex, am deliberately trying to write visceral horror. But when I’m doing it, I’m also trying to make sure that every bad thing that happens to my character reflects on her and on her relationships. At the end, I want you to know more about the character than you did at the beginning, because that’s the kind of story I like reading.

I know that I am writing horror, but I don’t think of myself as a horror writer.

Which makes me think that the people who say, “But I don’t write sci-fi,” really mean, “but I don’t read sci-fi.” Whatever SF tropes and tools show up in their stories, that’s part of the toolbox that they are using to tell the kinds of stories they are interested in. So, yeah, I’ll bite. They aren’t writing SF. When they read their own stories, they aren’t reading SF either.

But that doesn’t mean you or I aren’t reading SF when we read the same story.

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7 Responses

  1. momk

    Interesting insight, Mary. It is why I believe you could write anything you want. Your talent and skills combined make that so. I keep thinking about the fact that John Steinbeck was a fantasy fiction writer before he wrote GRAPES OF WRATH. Have you ever read any thing by Louise Erdrich?

  2. Livia Llewellyn

    You may not be a horror writer if you compare it to more popular definitions of horror (which tends to take cues from gross-out torture-porn movies), but then I wouldn’t be a horror writer by those definitions as well. I wouldn’t want to be. However, the characters you write about often face horrific emotional choices and are put in situations that test the limits of their capacity to act in moral and rational ways, and then to make those choices despite the terrible sacrifices they will have to make – or to not choose well, which brings on sorrows of its own. It’s a very subtle and refined form of horror that you should be proud of having mastered so well. (The best visual definition of this, IMO, is the movie “The Sixth Sense”, which is horror, but also a love story, if you think about it…)

  3. Elizabeth Barrette

    That’s a useful insight. However, I also believe that some writers do that simply because non-genre literature tends to pay better than genre literature and attract a bigger audience. For someone who isn’t a fan of SF, there’s no incentive to join the genre, and at least two to fight it. That’s depressing.

  4. -e-

    Funny, I like to think of you as a horror writer, because as genres go, I tend to prefer (good)horror over sci-fi, and I
    enjoy your stuff. I am a reader of horror, and I read you, therefore, you are a horror writer.(?)

    Of course, you are complex and subtle and so well realize your worlds that genre becomes almost irrelevant… your stories tap into the good parts of many genres…

    congratulations are in order for the recent swell of recognition you have received.

  5. Chris Billett

    Interesting post, Mary. I often remember that Bradbury claimed the only sci-fi he ever wrote was Fahrenheit 451 (I’m pretty sure that’s the quote, and he didn’t specify that it was the only sci-f novel), which makes me think that even the best writers can just be wrong in categorising themselves. Perhaps it’s ultimately up to the public/critics to define what you are. Some (particularly journalists) might say it’s the critics’ job in particular, although I’m not sure I’d entirely agree as I find things like The Sirens of Titan in General Fiction in Borders, and it pisses me off. Haha. I think that’s where conflicts of interest come in, though. I want people to buy it from sci-fi, and know that not all sci-fi is what they think, but bookshops want people to know it’s not a book full of long names and space ships.

    Vonnegut should have his own genre anyway. Ha.

  6. Michele Lee

    Funny thing that, because for years I thought I wanted to be a horror writer. But my thing is supernatural and I’ve come to realize that I like my horror as I like my romance, as aspects of something else. So I guess, to be honest, I’m really a fantasy writer who tends to write darker and urban fantasy. But then, that’s just my long fiction. My short fiction runs the span of speculative fiction from straight horror, to straight fantasy, but still mostly a mix of genres. I think I’ve also just answered my own musing of which WA I should join…

  7. Nathan Ballingrud

    I felt a crash of recognition as I read this post. So far every story I’ve published has been classified as horror, yet I still maintain that I am not a horror writer. Furthermore, I think that most of the best horror stories are written by people who do not compartmentalize themselves in that way. Horror is just one tool in the toolbox.