Friday, November 5, 2010

Grimm Reading: the breadth and diversity of horror literature

24th October

This was a day of firsts for me. It was my first bookish event in Central Manchester: it was also my first visit to Cornerhouse, on Oxford Road. I moved to the Greater Manchester area earlier this year and have been delighted by the scope and vibrancy of arts-related events in the area.

Sunday’s event was centred on a subject close to my heart – horror fiction. Grimm Reading’s premise was a panel discussion on the breadth and diversity of horror literature, chaired by Ramsey Campbell who, in the horror community, is seen as a master of the genre. The panellists were Tariq Goddard, Matt Haig and Conrad Williams. An eclectic mix. Campbell and Williams are well-known and respected figures in the genre world; Goddard and Haig, less so, for reasons which would become clearer as the discussion progressed.

Having missed the first half hour of the panel (thanks a lot – GMPTE!) I arrived to catch the tail end of Ramsey’s reading. The discussion began with thoughts on how horror fiction is marketed. This is always a hot topic for horror writers so it was interesting to hear Tariq’s take on this subject. He is not known as a horror writer yet, in his latest novel The Picture Of Contented New Wealth, the bold decision was made to add the tagline A metaphysical Horror. For Tariq, the concept of genre is an afterthought, the text is all-important and writing is more powerful when the author writes without genre in mind. This may be how many authors view the process of writing but, as Tariq points out, it’s an entirely different matter when it comes to marketing a book.

Both Conrad and Ramsey noted that as established horror writers it can be difficult to push the humorous aspects of one’s writing. Horror fiction is noted for its dark humour yet, in marketing terms, this is rarely an aspect which sees the light of day on book blurbs.

This brought the panel neatly into the next point of discussion – book blurbs and covers. For Matt’s novel The Radleys, two covers were commissioned to reflect different target audiences, both adults and the YA market. In the world of book marketing, cover design is an important tool, one which can significantly expand an author’s readership. The same is true of blurbs. Both Conrad and Ramsey commented on having written their own blurbs, preferring the level of control it gives them over this essential selling point.

The conversation turned to another hot topic, Is there snobbery in horror fiction? Conrad pointed out that horror is often seen as a dirty word in the literary world yet one hundred years ago, and even further back, some of the most important writers were often seen as writers of horror fiction – Charles Dickens, M R James, Henry James. Ramsey noted that just sixty years ago, as he was discovering horror fiction, that short story anthologies and collections were very much in fashion and almost every major short story writer at that time is known to have written one or two ghost or horror short fiction pieces.

Here Tariq commented that we are very much living in a secular age: that living in an era of Dawkins perhaps makes people view horror and supernatural fiction as something childish. More controversially, he also claimed that a lot of horror writing isn’t particularly good. While I would disagree with this almost entirely, his point that some horror fiction is producing the literary equivalent of special effects may go some way toward explaining the attitude within the literary world of horror fiction being what Conrad termed a dirty word. Matt then noted that marketing itself may have much to do with the snobbery surrounding horror fiction.

The last section of the discussion was turned over to questions from the audience. Again, talk returned to matters of marketing. When asked where the difference lays in crime horror and supernatural horror, the general consensus is that how a title is labelled and marketed will determine which element is given precedence over the other.

The authors were asked about the influence of film and television on their writing: about writing stories to order: on whether they would write a book because that particular trope happened to be popular at the time: and, finally, if they had a belief in the supernatural.

As someone deeply embedded in the horror fiction community, this was a fascinating afternoon for me. Conrad and Ramsey are authors I know well: Matt and Tariq are new discoveries in my reading world. All four of them gave myself and the audience much to think about on how horror fiction has been perceived over time, how it is marketed in today’s publishing industry and how its image may change in the months and years to come.

Thanks to the Manchester Literature Festival for for playing host to such an interesting panel and giving me the chance to blog about this event.

by Sharon Ring

Sharon is a freelance editor, book blogger and podcaster. You can read her work here and here.

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