Genrealities: Five Honest-to-Goodness True Stories of Everyday Humiliations

Genrealities: Five Honest-to-Goodness True Stories of Everyday Humiliations

Author’s note:  This essay exposes the dirty underbelly of my life in genre. From Bread Loaf to porn to my urologist’s literary agent, every word is true. Or nearly. Above all, I hope you’ll still be my friend after reading it. The magazine that solicited it, Canadian Notes & Queries, is not quite as highfalutin as the name suggests. CNQ is a frequent thorn in the butt of the CanLit establishment. Even so, genre is hardly its mainstay. Full credit goes to then-editor Alex Good, for his innovation and courage in the ongoing commission of cultural heresy . . . and allowing me to destroy my career by publishing this.

1: A naïf in Vermont

He seemed like a nice enough guy, but so did Ted Bundy from all accounts. And it wasn’t like Bread Loaf was short on desperadoes. It was a writers’ conference, after all. Charlie Manson could have hidden in plain sight. Still, here I was, following this guy across campus in the middle of the night to see something he just had to show me.

It started after dinner, up at the gathering place they call the Barn. Wine flowed for a buck a cup and jangled enthusiasm a whole lot cheaper. Even people who didn’t know each other seemed to know each other, their shared exuberance as contagious as it was creepy.

I retreated to the sidelines, fell in with the wallflowers. We swapped credentials, chronicled the despair, rejection, hope and colorful brochures that had brought each of us to Bread Loaf. Before you knew it, our exuberance was as contagious and creepy as the best of them.

I was quick to mention how I’d studied with Mordecai Richler and Clark Blaise, but the name-dropping got me nowhere. Screw that. I switched to Plan B: paraded my short-story sales to magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing Stories and Realms of Fantasy, capping the rundown with consecutive appearances in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Hardcover, yet! My newfound writing pals were not unimpressed, especially Lyle, an IT manager from Georgia. No, I may not have been the stuff of Kirkus or Kenyon, but at least I’d been paid for my fiction. Not just in contributors’ copies either, but real bucks. Checks! Cash you could buy things with. Toaster ovens, iPods, organic bananas. Yup, these eleven days at Bread Loaf were shaping up to be mighty swell. The self-doubt. The loathing. The chronic schadenfreude . . . All would be left behind. Unlike most of these wannabes, I was a published author and way ahead of the game, even if I’d yet to sell a novel. That’s when Lyle patted me on the knee, invited me to step outside. “I gotta show you something,” he said, his words a tad too moist upon my ear. “It’s in my car. Over at the lot.”

“Huh?” The last time a man had patted my knee and invited me into his car had been in the ’70s, during my hitchhiking days in Vancouver. It had not gone well.

It was dark, the moon nowhere near as bright as I expected on a summer night among the Green Hills of Vermont. Robert Frost had exaggerated, if not outright lied.

Regrets surfaced. If only I’d listened to my mother, memorized the Reader’s Digest article she had clipped for me: “How to Escape from the Trunk of a Car.”

Lyle popped the rear of his Civic. A pair of Joe Boxers flopped onto the gravel. Jeez! If this doesn’t bear the earmarks of a nut job, what does? Sweatpants, shirts, underwear, socks and assorted flip-flops mushroomed from the trunk, side to side and top to bottom. It was enough to give an FBI profiler a case of the giggles.

“I left in a hurry,” Lyle explained.

He kneeled on the bumper, dove into his wardrobe. Whatever he needed to show me was well-buried.

I braced, waffling as to how I might handle the assault, deflect the blade of his combat Bowie, neutralize his TEC‑9. Damn! Why hadn’t I listened to David Morrell, not only a professor of English at the University of Iowa, but author of First Blood and creator of Rambo too. His Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing had stressed the importance of learning stuff outside your comfort zone, the need to make summer vacations meaningful. He’d gone to the G. Gordon Liddy Academy, for God’s sake: “The instructors were ex‑CIA, ex‑FBI, ex‑DEA, and numerous other ex-operatives of various high-level alphabet-soup government agencies.” Had I followed his lead, I wouldn’t be in this fix to begin with, wasting vacation time at some panty-ass writers’ conference, that was for damn sure.

“Yes!” Lyle cried. “Got it!”

His feet hit the gravel.

Can I buy him off? Is my life worth the ninety bucks in my wallet? Sure, forty of it is Canadian, but . . .

Distant laughter from the Barn. I became nostalgic for my life of ten minutes before.

Lyle surveyed the parking lot. There could be no witnesses.

I shifted position, frantic to identify the object he kept concealed behind him. Suddenly, his fists flew toward my face, rocked me onto my heels. And there, held aloft before me, mere inches from unbelieving eyes, illuminated by the penlight on his keychain, was the September issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Mouth dry, hoarse, he whispered, “I subscribe.”

That was it? “Yeah. Well. Great.”

“You don’t get it, man. Once they know you’re into genre, you’re toast.”

2: The first genre writer I ever met

He turned up one day in the middle of the term, asked if he could sit in. As creative writing classes go, I guess we weren’t all that creative. We dubbed him the obvious—Old Guy. Seventy, easy. Maybe seventy-five. Blue suit. Legion pin on lapel. Striped tie, silver clip. Boxcar mustache. Hair slicked straight back like shoestring licorice. It was a seminar class. No shortage of seats. Richler shrugged, circumspect behind his Schim­mel­pen­ninck smokescreen. “I guess.”

Old Guy hoisted his briefcase onto the conference table. “You know,” he said, drawing our attention to Richler’s cigarillo, “in The Big One, we called them coffin nails.” Some of us laughed; it was the respectful thing to do. Richler inhaled, exhaled, proceeded to the week’s readings.

Old Guy did not speak again. He listened and observed. Until the end of class.

He raised the lid of his briefcase. “I wonder, Mr. Richler, if you might be so kind as to read mine now?”

We froze, attention riveted to our renowned mentor.

You knew for sure Richler had seen it coming. The moment the old man tapped the door, he’d seen it coming. Hell, he sensed it before the geezer showed his face. So, you figure he might’ve been better prepared. “Um—uh—”

There’d be no denying him. Not this day. Old Guy served up a slab of manuscripts as thick as a butcher block, Duo-Tang plies of red and yellow, pink and green, brown and blue, black and orange.

Richler shifted his tin of Schim­mel­pen­nincks from his right hand to his left. “Not all of them.”

“How many then?”

“I dunno. A couple.”





“Two.” Old Guy shook his head in a manner to suggest the loss would be Richler’s and fanned out the options. “Mystery? Science fiction? Western? South Seas adventure? Romance? Erotica? Comedy? War? Horror? Crime—”

Richler plucked a yellow and a green.

A week went by.

Old Guy showed up early. He didn’t wait for Richler to take his seat, put it right to him: “So, what did you think?” He was pretty much foaming at the mouth, spazzing with joy. This was the moment the Mordecai Richler would forever change his life.

Richler pulled the manuscripts from his satchel, handed them over. “Well, they’re not very good.”

“Wha—?” It was like Dementia had dropped in for a quickie. He stood uncomprehending, let the critiqued Duo-Tangs fall into his briefcase. “Oh.”

We couldn’t look at him. We couldn’t look at Richler.

Head down, Old Guy gathered up his belongings and crossed to the door, stopped, hesitated, turned. “Well,” he said to Richler, “what do you know, anyways?”

3: Some genre writers are not born

This is the ill-advised part. This is where I blow any chance of winning a Hugo, Nebula or Stoker, never mind a Booker or Giller.

I was the first of my father’s family to graduate university. His pride was short-lived. I let slip I wanted to write. I might as well have told him I’d booked a ticket to Bangkok for sex-reassignment surgery. “Gottenyu! A writer? A writer? Who’s going to hire you as a writer? Tell me who, goddammit! Who?”

He worried I’d end up like him. Frustrated. Disappointed. Penniless. Not tired of living so much, just tired of being the subplot of a Jolson movie.

My mother, meanwhile, urged me to give optometry a try. “Look how well your cousin Jerry does.”

Neither knew to ask whether I’d be pursuing literary or genre. Not that I would have had the answer. Despite the formidable influences of Richler and Blaise, I believed writing was writing. Literary or genre did not matter; I’d skip between the two as inspiration dictated. I could be Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon one week, Richard Matheson, Robert Silverberg and Ray Bradbury the next.

And so I begin to write. Short stories. Novels. An apocalyptic SF novel. A porn novel. A coming-of-age novel. Pieces for Mad and Harpoon. All are rejected.

I roll carpets at Eaton’s warehouse. Cut broadloom. Drive a lift truck.

I write gag lines for cartoonists and make my first pro sale to an illustrator in Puerto Rico. He sends me a check for $1.50. The bank charges me $10.00 when it bounces.

I write university term papers for seven bucks a page. Engineering. Law. English. Philosophy. I sell short features to the Montreal Star and Vancouver Sun.

I get married. Have kids. Take a fulltime job as a copywriter at an advertising agency. But it’s temporary, you understand. Only temporary.

Career highlights are many, especially the personalized rejections. A personalized rejection is almost as good as an acceptance.

The editor of Harpoon returns “Know Your Asshole Better” with an encouraging note: “We’re doing a farting issue next if you’d care to contribute.”

My porn novel, The Mammary Recordings, earns a handwritten reply: “While we found your novel amusing, our readers will not. Please limit the plot of any future submissions to the main character hopping from bedroom to bedroom, sex scene to sex scene. Please, no humor.” Wow! They found it AMUSING—enough to keep me going for months.

Rejection, of course, is not limited to publishers and editors. The Lemons is my tragicomic coming-of-age epic. It is about growing up in a functionally dysfunctional family in a small town in the late ’50s, early ’60s. I give the manuscript to my older sister to read. She had wanted to be a writer, but eloped at eighteen and had babies instead. She is both concise and incisive: “What am I supposed to write about now?” I decide it best to write a serial-killer novel next.

Wait! It gets worse. I’m at my urologist. Yeah, urologist. Cripes! Even he has published a book—Private Parts by Yosh Taguchi, M.D. And midpoint of my digital rectal examination I hit rock bottom: I ask if he might put a good word in for me with his agent.

My urologist’s agent does not reply. No Canadian agent does. And I accept, at last, that my father was correct. Who would want to hire me as a writer?

Until one Christmas Eve. The phone rings. The caller is Virginia Kidd, an American literary agent, and she loves The Lemons and she wants to represent me and I’m thinking maybe there’s more to this Baby Jesus thing than I’ve been led to believe. She wants every damn piece of fiction I’ve ever written. And within a month, she sells one story to a UK fantasy anthology, Destination Unknown, and another to Fantasy & Science Fiction. And soon word comes down that a major publisher is about to put an offer in on The Lemons and my wife and I stay up the entire night, excited by the prospect of dream becoming reality . . . Alas, the offer never happens. The editor is apologetic. Virginia is angry. And I proceed to write a short story about a boy who finds a tiny human skeleton in a bug jar. A few months later, Ellen Datlow selects it for The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.

The science fiction, fantasy and horror writers I know were passionate readers of the genres before they began to write in the genres. They were fans. Huge fans. And still are. I read a lot of SF growing up, but I never lived and breathed the stuff. I still don’t. That’s not to say I don’t like to write it; I simply didn’t set out to write it.

So why did I become a writer of genre? Isn’t it clear?

Because nobody else would have me.

4: A painful truth

I have a wife and three daughters. All are avid readers. Literary, big-name stuff. In Canada, at least. Ishiguro. Munro. MacLeod. Franzen. Roth. Atwood. Mistry. Shields.

They often discuss the books they read. And love.

The only genre fiction they read is mine.

I have never heard them discuss anything I have written. Never.

I have requested they stop talking about books and authors when I am around. They laugh. They think I am kidding.

5: Stranger in a strange land

Have I gone about this the right way? What does CNQ expect of me? Why did its editor, Alex Good, contact me? I do not write essays. I am a not a literary deep-thinker. I do not belong in CNQ. This is a prank, right? CanLit Punk’d.

I’ve gone through the last issue. The short-story one. The erudition intimidates me. Worse, I now find myself using erudition in a sentence. Jeez, two sentences.

I have never read CanLit superstars Alexander MacLeod, Guy Vanderhaeghe or Michael Ondaatje. I have never heard of CanLit heroes Mark Anthony Jarman, Audrey Thomas or Douglas Glover. Not that I expect they’ve heard of me. Do they read Fantasy & Science Fiction? Occasionally? Ever? Stephen King called the magazine “the gold standard for short fiction in America,” though it’s unlikely he garners much respect in these pages. Kirkus claimed it “eloquent, scintillating, often sublime.” I know Margaret Atwood isn’t a fan, otherwise she’d abandon her crusade to sever speculative fiction from science fiction. Is anyone buying that load? She’s a savvy marketer, sure. Still, I resent how her defensiveness puts me on the defensive. Kurt Vonnegut never made me feel this way.

CNQ is wordy. Does literary critique demand no less than fifteen sentences per paragraph? Where is the pacing? The white space? The exclamation marks!!?? Would a larger font kill them?

Nasty, too. Like some high-school clique. Mutual admiration society one sec, mutual denigration the next. They rip into their peers like it’s Black Friday at Walmart. There’s so much nitpicking going down, it’s a wonder the pages don’t scab over. What am I doing here? I fear for myself.

“I know it sounds whiny, but if you’ve never gotten a bad review before, you have no idea what a unique kind of heartbreak it is. And I’m not talking about getting constructive criticism from your seventh grade English teacher. . . . I’m talking about a complete stranger telling other complete strangers that something you’ve been carrying inside you for months is stillborn.”
—Brian K. Vaughan, The Escapists (2007)

The Escapists? It’s a graphic novel. Okay, a comic book. Oh, that’s going to go over well around here. The point is, you’d never catch a critic of genre fiction behaving the way your CNQ piranhas do. Is genre, as a group, not more humane, empathetic and respectful of one another’s craft?

“Of the three slightly longer, independent short stories, Michael Libling’s ‘Pheromitey Glad’ I found to be a sophomoric, unfocused and an ambling attempt at arch cuteness, which failed miserably. It just didn’t make any sense on any real level, and was difficult to read with all of the cUTe spellings. . . . Sometimes literary experiments work, sometimes they don’t. This one totally failed for me.”
—Dave Truesdale, SF Site (1998)

Oh, man. Is that what I’ve done? Delivered another “sophomoric, unfocused and ambling attempt at arch cuteness”? Perhaps if I say something nice . . .

With a name like Canadian Notes & Queries, I expect it to be about as action-packed and provocative as Stephen Harper’s sex life. But the irreverence surprises me. The frequent shots at the Giller Prize are fun. So, I’m not the only one who finds CanLit stultifying. “Murder, stillbirth, war, suicide, scalding, genocide, another stillbirth” (as critic Ryan Bigge sums it up) have a place in genre, too. A big place. But we do not as a matter of course take the angst-ridden poems we wrote as teenagers and expand them into novels. We do not ramble on all mopey-dreary about our pain for four hundred frigging pages without throwing a little action into the mix, an appealing character or two, and a plot. (Come to think of it, there’s not much difference between literary fiction and porn; plot is secondary to both.) Most of all, we do not measure the quality of our writing by the extent of its inaccessibility.

Still, if I stick around for an issue or two, I might even learn something here. Maybe I have more in common with these CNQ guys than I think. Perhaps I do belong in these pages. Well, once every forty-two years, anyhow.

I wonder. Has CNQ done a genre issue before? What’s that about? Are they slumming it? A My Man Godfrey sort of deal? Should I expect to be rolling my eyes?

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have brought up that Margaret Atwood thing. Is it too late to take that part out? I mean, who am I to—  




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