The importance of a life outside genre

Umberto EcoI have often talked about what being an editor and publisher means, mostly in terms of the mechanics involved in the job and the prerequisites needed. A good command of English, an understanding of narrative and how stories work, as well as a huge dollop of good old common sense, are absolute necessities, as are organisational skills and a fair amount of business flair. In addition, there’s a need to keep an ear to the ground, listening out for the buzz of excitement generated by new and exciting writers. But there are other aspects to being both an editor and publisher, irrespective of whether you publish literary or genre material. And this equally applies to writers as well.

Many mistakenly believe that I and my fellow denizens of the particular corner of the literary world we inhabit are singularly devoted/obsessed with the horror genre to the exclusion of all else. I am sure that there are those on the outside who imagine that I live, breathe, eat and sleep publishing, for instance. However, nothing could be further from the truth: the publishing and editing constitute a narrow strip of the bandwidth that is my life. Just like a great many of my compatriots, I am a family man plus I have interests that are, well, exterior to the narrow confines of genre publishing. The important point to make here is not just that I am an average person, albeit one who is earning a small living from a vocation which I enjoy and love, but also that a lot of what I do feeds into my activities.

If I was to admit to an obsession of any species, I would characterise it as one involving the written word. I’ve been reading books for a very long time, roughly forty-five years, and that’s where the root of it all lies. I used to devour one or two books a week, a rate which I maintained right through until the year I started Spectral (oh the irony!). No one who has read as much as I have over the years can fail to have absorbed the intangible facets that compose stories, seeping by a process of mental osmosis into one’s own aesthetics and thereby informing taste. It’s not only writers who find that innate knowledge useful: it proves invaluable when it comes to an editor choosing stories or novellas, as well as helping to shape those works at the editing stage.

The importance of reading outside the genre

To go even further, here’s something else that’s an absolute must – reading outside the genre. Just because I currently only publish books and stories in the horror/supernatural vein, does not mean that I am blind to anything else. In fact, my reading extends far, far beyond horror, even beyond genre: science fiction and horror represent only a tiny slice of my reading spectrum, my library embracing everything from non-fiction (especially history, in particular that of the Byzantine Empire) to contemporary fantasy and magical realism. One of my all-time favourite authors is Umberto Eco – his facility with language and ideas is astounding, unsurprising as he is a semiotician (semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation), philosopher and literary critic. For me, Eco satisfies my obsession with the shape and feel of language, his prose an absolute joy to read. Moreover, that deep interest in words means I can appreciate a finely written piece of work even if I don’t normally read that particular kind of material or what it’s putting forward. Let’s face it, being devoted to a single interest and ignoring everything else is a little limiting, resulting in an extremely narrow view.

In other words, this reading outside of your comfort zone is essential as an editor (and writer, too): not only does it aid understanding of story mechanics, but it also broadens perceptions of what’s possible within your own line of work. Each category of fiction has its own rules and parameters, and so does non-fiction, meaning that what you take from your reading, even if subconsciously, subtly shapes and colours your own work. I sometimes get the feeling that, with certain authors at least and from the sheer amount of works within particular sub-genres, the inspirations have been too narrowly adhered to and defined.

Broad experience is the lifeblood of writers and editors

It’s not only the written word which can help an editor – let’s not forget the strength of influence that cinema and drama can have. Admittedly, I very rarely watch film these days because of a lack of time: some years back, however, there was a period when I pretty much filled entire days by watching film after film and nothing else. Again, through a subtle intellectual osmosis, I’ve learned things like pacing, what is superfluous in a story or where more could be added. In some ways these aforementioned attributes are ‘intangibles’ that one gets a feeling for – yes, they can be taught but, as renowned editor Stephen Jones told me once, “the only way to learn editing is by doing it.” A lot of the ‘just doing it’ means drawing on all one’s experiences, from reading and watching, and observing life.

Broad experience is the lifeblood of both writers and editors – in fact, any editor/writer/publisher worth his/her salt is the sum of a considerable number of parts. And at least one of those parts is exploring all avenues of expression, both written and visual, both high- and low-brow. Undoubtedly some of it will infuriate and annoy: goodness knows I’ve come across literature which has been highly lauded and praised only to discover that it’s badly written and rambling, or abstruse simply for the sake of being so. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having a plotless or even rambling novel, as long as there’s some underlying philosophy holding it all together, or there’s a point to it. Intellectual wordplay is also fine, provided it’s more than a form of self-aggrandisement or ego masturbation, which some of it is.

To round this month’s column off then (as I have ignored my own advice and again rambled on more than a bit myself), if you want to become an editor I heartily recommend that you read and watch as widely as possible. I truly believe that you’ll be a better and more rounded editor – and surely that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thisishorror.co.uk/columns/read-letter-day/importance-life-genre/

2 comments

  1. Lee Thompson

    Great post, Simon! I’m saddened by how many people viciously defend their genre but think all other genres have no purpose, or are just inferior. It’s fucking stupid; like these asshole parents who tell their kids that there is only one way to think, or believe, or only one kind of music that’s acceptable. The more we experience, the more we learn, and the more we can give to someone else and actually connect with people.

  2. Julie Travis

    Good post. Life in any kind of bubble is stifling. And how can any writer hope to tell stories about life in all its glory and misery (which is what we do, whatever the genre) without living it?

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