Is Genre Writing an Endangered Species?

I’m sure you’re all getting sick of me and my comments about the publishing industry, so today I thought I’d let someone else write about it. Andrew Vachss is guest blogging here blog today, though “ghost blogging” would probably be a better word for it. He doesn’t know he’s a guest and might not be happy if he finds out, so don’t be surprised if this post disappears.

I found this bit by Vachss in the foreword of Act of Love by Joe R. Lansdale, which might be the book that started the serial killer genre. (I always thought Thomas Harris started it, but this book predates his by several years.) I wasn’t impressed by the book (sorry Joe and Andrew) but I did find Vachss’s words interesting. He wrote:

Genre writing is an endangered species . . . for all the reasons any species starts to run out of road. Overpopulation, in-breeding, lack of natural predators, limited food supply. Words don’t work as stand-alones; they gather their power from juxtaposition . . . from context, from precision placement. But, in our game, words have become de-valued currency-you can’t count on them anymore. Our field is overdosed with flab: take some gratuitous, implausible violence, throw in some unrealistic sex, splatter some guts and hair on the nearest wall, sprinkle in a touch of mystical reference . . . and you’re walking on the “dark” side.


The genres . . . horror, crime, fantasy, whatever . . . all have their built-in places to hide. Write something stupid, it’s a metaphor. Write something mean-spirited and small, it’s satire.

Getting published is pretty easy today. And that’s good. I’m all for an open admissions policy. But the sorting-out phase, the natural, organic process by which the strongest survive . . . that’s not happening. What we have instead is favor-trading, networking, and other sordid forms of insulation from the culling edge of the evolutionary razor. When the awards outnumber the candidates, we’re heading for the Wall. With no breaks and the steering locked.

Remember I told you that the genre market was in trouble? A dragon’s coming soon . . .coming down hard. It’s going to walk through the jungle, clearing out the dead vines with its breath, stomping on those that can’t get out of the way. A hard, cleansing wind is going to blow.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

17 Responses to “Is Genre Writing an Endangered Species?”

  1. Scotti Cohn Says:

    When was this book published? (Sorry for my ignorance!)

  2. A. F. Stewart Says:

    I don’t see it; genre followers are too loyal. Some of the truly bad writings might fall, but the rest I think can survive.

  3. Scotti Cohn Says:

    “…the book that started the serial killer genre” made me think it was an older book for some reason.

  4. Scotti Cohn Says:

    Ah… I see. 1995.

  5. Scotti Cohn Says:

    Sorry, you can delete those other posts if you like. So we’re talking about something written 13 years ago. Genres seem pretty strong at this point.

  6. Diane Farr Says:

    Genre writing is going strong. Genre publishing? Not so much!

    But I think that may be a reflection of the times rather than weakness in genre fiction.

    Enjoyed reading Vachss’s take on it. Thought-provoking. It’s certainly true that bestsellers are manufactured; they don’t spring up organically. For the most part. How long has that been going on?

  7. Pat Bertram Says:

    Scotti, I liked seeing your discovery of when Vachss’s remarks were written, so I’m not going to delete any of your comments. I didn’t mean for it to be a mystery, I simply forgot to mention when the book was republished. Act of Love was originally published in 1981 and republished in 1995 with the foreward by Andrew Vachss, who thinks Joe Lansdale is “the real deal. The true, blue haiku.”

    Genre does seem to be going strong, but it also seems to be eating its tail — I’m finding very little of note in the genres (at least those published by the major corporations). The same stories are being recycled, though hefty does of implausible violence and unrealistic sex make them seem fresh. I burnt out on genre years ago, which is why my books fit nowhere.

  8. Jon Nichols Says:

    Genre is not going anywhere.
    Not to get too technical, but even so-called “serious literary writing” is a genre in and of itself. So even if every single commercial genre and subgenre suddenly up and went bust, whatever we would have left would STILL be a genre.
    And mystery, science fiction, thriller, and romance? Those types of stories have been around for hundreds of years. They will always be around in one regard or another because people enjoy the same basic stories over and over.

    Where I think Vachss does have a point is that there is a fair amount of redundant and tired fiction out there. This is going to force two things to occur in my opinion.
    One, authors will hopefully have to be more and more innovative with their premises. Want to write a serial killer story? Can you top Red Dragon? Do you have a spin that’s as much or more inventive than a film like Seven? These are the questions that should be asked in pre-writing.
    Secondly, we will begin to see more specialized genres that will seem new and catch more interest. For example, the eco-thriller is coming into its own due to contemporary concerns. In science fiction, the future once seemed of cyberpunk and circuit chips. Now concerns over genetics are once more representing themselves to modern audiences (“biopunk” if you will).
    That’s just what I think. I have no crystal ball.
    If I did, my book might be published by now. 🙂

  9. joylene Says:

    Even writers make mistakes. Remember when Gates said you’ll never need more than 500 mb?

    Obviously, Mr. Vachss is wondering today what he was thinking of back then. Particularly concerning his comment: “GETTING PUBLISHED IS PRETTY EASY TODAY.”

    Genres are just as valid today as they were when he wrote that. And I’m betting they aren’t going anywhere soon.

  10. Ken Coffman Says:

    I don’t think genres are going anywhere. We humans like to categorize things and put them in the boxes. We’ll just create new definitions and new boxes. However, like you, Pat, anytime someone puts a wall around me, I’m going to do everything I can to break it down. It’s not in me to mold myself to the restrictions of an genre. Fortunately, I’m comfortable in my obscurity.

  11. Diane Farr Says:

    Diana Gabaldon told me that when her OUTLANDER series was first published, there was much sturm und drang over how to categorize it. She insisted that it wasn’t a romance, but hey, it (a) had a romance in it and (b) had been written by a woman, so guess where they shelved it in the bookstores?

    She says she made her peace with it when they told her that if they published it as a romance, her print run would be two to three times bigger than if they published it as a time-travel adventure novel.

  12. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Interesting. It sounds like the same arguments then as now. But there certain is a dragon, or an elephant, around all the markets just now.

  13. Pat Bertram Says:

    Joe R. Lansdale responded to this article! He said:

    Interesting to see Andrew’s kind words again. I have no idea who invented the serial killer novel, but my book has been cited by many as being the beginning of the type of novels that have become such a mainstay. I will also agree that it isn’t a great book. I was young when I wrote it, and I hope you’ll be kind enough to try some of the others, THE BOTTOMS, MUCHO MOJO, LEATHER MAIDEN, ETC. But the bottom line is I think it blended a lot of things that are now thought of as the serial killer novel’s back bone. Actually, when I finished that book, I moved on. I’ve written about serial killers since, but never in that way, and never in any way as the heroes of a piece. Genre writing and mainstream writing are welding together, and sometimes in good and interesting ways. But the old fashioned genre writing is disappearing. Maybe it should. All things mutate. LONESOME DOVE was a Western, and a great one. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is bestselling genre, and so on. It’s there. It won’t die, but it will mutate. As for ACT OF LOVE, I think there may be a thirty year anniversary volume, 2011, and then I retire it. The reason it doesn’t have the impact it had then is now so many people have done what I did, and better than when I did it. But it’s also dated, and probably, at this juncture, my worst novel. But man, I’m glad I wrote it. I’ve been amazed over the years at how many writers have told me it influenced them. Surprising. I was just trying to learn how to write a novel and have a good time at it and maybe discuss a few social issues, if in a superficial way. Anyway, Thanks for the space. Joe Lansdale

  14. Joe R. Lansdale’s Act of Kindness « Bertram’s Blog Says:

    […] Is Genre Writing an Endangered Species? […]

  15. Joan De La Haye Says:

    Hi Pat,
    Thanks for sharing this. I think, like all things, genre fiction will evolve and change. Like Joe said, it’ll mutate.

    Joan De La Haye

  16. joe lansdale Says:

    Just be certain, ACT OF LOVE was first published in 1981. the serial killer genre existed, but some folks have given the blend I gave it credit for the run of books in the eighties. I don’t claim this, others do. There was another novel before mine, BY REASON OF INSANITY, that plowed the same ground a year or so earlier. But for the record, this novel did not come out in the nineties. That’s a reprint. Joe Lansdale

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Joe, even though I said I wasn’t impressed by the book, the book has stuck with me, so apparently it impressed itself upon me. (If I had known you would read this article, I would have left out the editorial comment.)

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