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Adam Pottle on how the CanLit establishment’s preference for literary realism downplays the value of horror writing

“CanLit’s habit of privileging realistic literary fiction has become – and, really, has always been – enormously frustrating.” (Photo courtesy of the author)

Saskatoon writer Adam Pottle is the author of the novels Mantis Dreams and The Bus, the nonfiction work Voice: On Writing with Deafness, the poetry collection Beautiful Mutants, as well as plays and essays. He earned his PhD from the University of Saskatchewan in 2016. In today’s guest post, Pottle argues that a fixation on literary realism has ignored the importance and power of horror writing – especially its extreme offshoots – in Canadian literature.

I recently came across a short story contest run by a well-known Canadian platform. Great prizes, excellent exposure, glittering list of prior winners. I hadn’t submitted a short story anywhere for at least a year, so I thought I might give it a shot.

But before I could sort through my unpublished stories, or scan through my files for unused ideas, I hesitated. For the last three or four years, I’ve been edging away from literary fiction and writing horror and gothic stories. One of my last short stories was a surrealistic tale involving a funeral, a rottweiler, a black goop monster, and a carnival filled with squirrels. Was this prestigious, nationally recognized contest open to genre fare? Would the judges take a horror story seriously?

I checked the guidelines. “There are no restrictions on subject matter,” it said.

That was encouraging. But then I read last year’s winning story. Realistic literary fiction. Then I read the 2019 winner. Same thing. Then 2018. Same thing. Each prior winner had won with a story that fit CanLit’s mould of realistic fiction. Although the website says, “no restrictions on subject matter,” the subtext seemed clear: horror wasn’t welcome.

I get the same feeling of unease whenever I think of submitting to a literary journal. Like many other genres in Canadian writing, horror is an outlier. CanLit’s habit of privileging realistic literary fiction has become – and, really, always has been – enormously frustrating, especially considering the incredible, award-winning international literary works which creatively cross genres. The Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Award, provincial book prizes, major publishing conglomerates – all of them routinely reward conventional literary fiction and, in doing so, set certain expectations for writing in this country.

A writer friend kindly spoke to me about this situation, saying, “The use of the book by the awards organization is as a promotional tool to help determine what books would be shortlisted and ultimately win. And to a certain extent, all awards are like this. All awards are interested in cultivating the identity of the award and the award organization first, and they use the books they nominate and reward in order to further that identity.”

Genre fiction, especially horror, does not fit the mould of a Giller or GG nominee because it’s “not Canadian” and because it doesn’t qualify as a potential member of the prizewinners’ club. A horror novel with a cover full of skulls or blood dripping off a knife or some unholy monster reaching through a crack in the pavement would clash with the prize’s established aesthetic, like a demon sitting in a tearoom. Even though, as a recent Globe and Mail piece hints, literary fiction doesn’t sell well outside Canada (or even inside), literary fiction remains CanLit’s go-to genre, while horror and other genres are typically dismissed as niche at best, and schlock at worst.

Why is this?

A few reasons, or rather speculations. First, CanLit – that is, the literary establishment composed of writers, professors, reviewers, and editors – exercises its power through prizes, festival appearances, publishing contracts, and reviews to impose an expectation of respectability, an expectation born out of Canadian literary tradition. “The Canadian literary novel,” my writer friend reminded me, “is part of a larger cultural project designed to create a distinctive Canadian identity along white, colonial, upper-class lines and in accordance with middlebrow British values.” The expectation of respectability is “designed to impart the values of our colonial forbears into our psyches.” To get into the CanLit club, one must either avoid genre or look at it sideways. No gore. No trolls. No dragons. No explicit sex (except with bears). No monsters. No excessive cursing. No sustained brutality. No black comedy. Violence must be written so artfully as to diminish its impact. Terrifying horror fiction, therefore, seldom finds the spotlight.

This situation puzzles me, at least at the level of craft. Horror fiction features some of the best-written and most imaginative stories ever told, yet creative writing instructors, particularly in MFA programs across the country, tend to avoid discussing genre work because it’s thought to be inferior. They privilege conventional literary fiction because of its supposedly superior craft. This is a huge mistake that has stunted the continuing growth, enrichment, and renewal of Canadian writing. Students in MFA programs have become disillusioned because their instructors discouraged them from writing horror, fantasy, science fiction, or romance. What meaning does craft have unless it serves an exciting story? Often, the only thing separating literary fiction from genre fiction is that genre fiction has a pronounced emphasis on story instead of incident, on characters driven with purpose rather than searching aimlessly for it. Both types of fiction feature excellent writing, but genre fiction has plot and clear character arcs. Things happen to people we care about. Literary fiction privileges voice over story. Often, not much happens, and sometimes not much worth reading.

Nick Cutter’s The Troop is a rare example of a full-throttle Canadian horror novel

In 2016, I completed my PhD at the University of Saskatchewan. Because my dissertation focused on Canadian novels, I had to read virtually the entire Canadian canon for my comprehensive exam. I nearly failed the exam – my understanding of CanLit, apparently, was too limited. (In actuality, I preferred more exciting stories to what I’d been asked to read, so by the time my exam rolled around, I wasn’t as prepared as I should’ve been.) I was given a pass as long as I audited a second-year CanLit course, which amounted to a term-long migraine.

As I worked my way through my degree, a pall settled over my mind – a pall so gentle I didn’t even notice it until after I graduated. This pall jammed my imagination, preventing me from following story ideas down paths lined with sharp, black trees and glowing red eyes. The pall of respectability that CanLit demands, the pall that turns stories into fragile artifacts to be admired, rather than sturdy engines that growl and screech and yank us up the street. Since I discovered that pall about four years ago, I’ve worked hard to pull it off and launch uninhibitedly into horror.

The problem is not literary fiction itself. It’s how we privilege it in this country, for it promotes exclusivity and prevents writers whose works cross genres from developing or sharing their writing with wider audiences. Literary fiction took up almost the entire canon of books that I had to read for my exam, and I chafed against it. All these writers in love with their own voices. I used Atwood’s Surfacing, one of the most boring books ever written, to prop up a table. I wished Susanna Moodie had been eaten by wolves. Northrop Frye could shove the garrison mentality up his ass. I imagined Michael Ondaatje in front of a mirror, falling in love with his image as he wrote. Few of our foundational works comprise horror, fantasy, or science fiction. (True, Atwood has written books that could be considered genre fiction, though she herself has dismissed genre labels, preferring “speculative fiction” to “science fiction.”) Anything approaching genre fiction had to be filtered through the lens of postmodern self-awareness, so as to “legitimize” the text, diminish the pleasures of the genre, and excise any camp value, terror, or emotional depth.

My second speculation: our raucous neighbour to the south regularly produces excellent popular horror fiction; in contrast, we, giving in to our natural inclination toward politeness and deference in the face of American bluntness, appear to have chosen a more boring route. I recently read two Jack Ketchum novels: The Girl Next Door and Off Season. Both of them are terrifying, gory, excellently crafted books, and their violence appears to grow out of the American psyche: the spectre of Vietnam, the harshness of the landscape, the violence of American history. After I finished Off Season, a novel in which a group of young people are horrifically murdered and eaten, I asked myself, “Why don’t we have these kinds of books in Canada? Books so overwhelmingly horrific that their content gets expunged by their own publisher?” I can’t think of a single Canadian author whose books were so gruesome they had to be sold in plastic wrapping, like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho was in Australia. Few Canadian authors take up space on lists of the most violent or disturbing books, alongside the likes of Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Shirley Jackson, and V.C. Andrews. Nick Cutter, author of the fantastic novel The Troop, is one example, but even that is mitigated by the impact of literary fiction: “Nick Cutter” is a pseudonym for literary author Craig Davidson. The two must be kept separate.

The more I think about it, the more that politeness excuse falls apart. Our country has just as much evil and violence as any other developed nation, so what is it about Canada that prevents us from writing these kinds of books? Why can’t we write with the gory gusto of a Friday the 13th special effect? Why can’t we conjure the same brutality as Iain Banks or Jack Ketchum? Why don’t we have the literary equivalents of Martyrs or Possession, two of the most polarizing horror films in existence? Hatred and cruelty are as much a part of Canadian life as they are American life. We fear many of the same things; we just prefer not to admit it. As a result, we’ve grown comfortable with the banality of evil. We prefer to keep things polite and respectable.

Well, fuck that.

Jack Ketchum’s original publisher, Ballantine, required multiple cuts to his first novel, which was deemed too horrific for publication in its unexpurgated form.

That veneer, that pall of respectability has tricked us into thinking we’re a friendly nation, and that pall, it appears, has crept into our fiction. To paraphrase Alicia Elliott, Canada is a nation built on horrors. “An entire citizenry is implicated,” Billy-Ray Belcourt writes in his poem “Canadian Horror Story.” Colonialism, residential schools, hate crimes, poverty, racism, along with ableism, homophobia, transphobia, systemic violence – we must confront all of these things as directly as possible.

Horror is the ideal vehicle for that.

Horror is perhaps the most open and welcoming genre of all. We can pair horror with any other genre, install any kind of protagonist, and make it work. Romance with zombies? Warm Bodies. Western with vampires and undead cowboys? Preacher. Mystery with ghosts? The Ring. Science fiction? Frankenstein, Alien, The Thing, The Fly, and a thousand others. Horror shows the absolute extremes of human behaviour. That is one of the most beautiful things about it. Our brutality, pettiness, kindness, and generosity are on full display, which makes horror perfect for exploring the gruesome impacts of social injustice.

Canada has many brilliant horror writers: David Demchuk, Iain Reid, Amber Dawn, Nick Cutter, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Waubgeshig Rice are just a few examples who deserve much, much more attention than they’ve received. The problem is that the gatekeepers of the publishing industry – reviewers, editors, prize juries, festival board members, book club organizers – prefer not to engage with horror. They are, in essence, scaredy cats. Horror doesn’t gel with those who’ve propped up CanLit respectability – that is, chiefly cishet, nondisabled white people. My writer friend commented on this issue: “We need to bring marginalized stories into the centre without compelling them to conform to the styles and structures and content of their colonial predecessors.”  This focus on literary fiction prevents us from experiencing new stories told in innovative ways. Because horror directly grapples with social tensions – horror has always been political, despite what some half-assed pundits may think – it discomforts those readers.

They should be discomforted.

Not only have they propped up a brand of CanLit that is so dull it leaves the taste of dust in one’s mouth, they, like those instructors in MFA programs, have stunted the growth of Canadian writing by privileging a certain kind of writer and ignoring the more daring authors working within genre fiction. If Canadian writing is to make a leap forward, we must collectively embrace genre fiction, especially horror, and we must support underrepresented voices experimenting and producing shocking and beautiful work. There’s no better way to get comfortable with discomfort than with a horror story.

Even though I suspected the readers of that short story contest would likely chuck it after the first two paragraphs, I submitted my story nevertheless. I’d rather try to open the door to change than watch from the sidelines.

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