Old Possum’s, Paula Guran, and Quality

The Old Possum’s Writing Group met tonight, and for the first time in recent memory, no female members showed up. That was a little strange, and slightly changed the dynamic of the group, I think. It wasn’t a significant change, but it did have a bit more of a locker room feel to me. Maybe I’m just being hypersensitive, though.

After the critiques were done, we discussed Paula Guran’s article “Tribal Stand” on the Locus Magazine website. In short, the article laments the current state of the horror genre, pinpointing incestuous webzines and “miniscule press” magazines as being at fault for the large volume of substandard writing being published. Basically, because anyone can now be publisher on the Internet or use print-on-demand and self-publishing services to create a work of fiction, no one has to enforce industry standards or pay respects to the masters of the genre.

This is interesting, since Paula Guran is, herself, editor of a genre magazine, Horror Garage, and has also produced an electronic newsletter, Dark Echo, for many years. A quick look at the Horror Garage submission guidelines shows that Guran is not being hypocritical, though. Horror Garage, in its early issues, published a wide variety of quality writers in a wide variety of styles; Paula wasn’t just printing articles by her friends. Also, the guidelines make it clear that literary quality is a requirement for stories published in Horror Garage. The article also has a great quote: “Real writing happens when your blood meets the bayonet, when your bone is nicked with the blade.” It sounds to me like Guran thinks there are too many rubber bayonets out there right now.

So where do I stand on this? Certainly, by posting this journal and by linking to writers, magazines and bloggers on the Internet, I’m participating in the sort of networking that enabled many of the Buddy Publishing cabals to come into existence. However, I also believe in writing standards, and I do my best to adhere to them. To me, the most basic of these standards is the proper use of grammar, spelling, and punctuation in a submitted manuscript. Occasionally, I come into conflict with people in my writing groups because of this. Their argument is that those little things really don’t matter much; what matters is the story structure, plot and characterization. Ultimately, I agree with them.

However, I also find it very distracting to wade through an unclean manuscript, and though I try not to focus on the mechanical problems, I am never successful in doing so. As a result, I sometimes miss the point of a story, or I miss clues in the text that illuminate why what’s-his-name did such-and-such. I feel more like a copy editor than an evaluator, and I’m sure that reflects in my critiques. The guideline I use is this: If I’m submitting a manuscript to a critique group, I pretend that every member is an Ellen Datlow, a Gardner Dozois, a Gordon Van Gelder, a Paula Guran. I want to make the best impression I can on these “editors,” so they will give me good feedback on the story, rather than just reject it out of hand or focus on mechanical faults.

If I succeed in turning in a presentable manuscript, I am much more likely to get meaningful critiques of the important things, the things that are the most difficult to learn: structure, plot, word choice, characterization. To me, these are the aspects of writing that really determine whether or not a story has literary quality.

I guess this puts me pretty firmly on the side of Paula Guran and other “tribe” members. Some may see this viewpoint as elitist or snobbish; that’s unfortunate, but it won’t make me change what I believe, and it won’t keep me from doing my best when I critique a manuscript. If doing my best means copy-editing a manuscript so that it’s readable and then re-reading it for content, that’s what I’ll have to do. But rest assured that I will tell the writer that the amount of mechanical problems distracted me from focusing on the main story elements, and that I probably could have given a more fair critique if the manuscript had been cleaner.

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