GENREALITIES exposes the dirty underbelly of my life in genre. From Bread Loaf to porn to my urologist’s literary agent, every word is true. Or nearly. Above all, I hope you’ll still be my friend after reading it. The essay appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Canadian Notes and Queries, a magazine that’s not quite as highfalutin as the name suggests. GENREALITIES exposes the dirty underbelly of my life as a writer of genre fiction. From Bread Loaf to porn to my urologist’s literary agent, every word is true. Or nearly. Above all, I hope you’ll still be my friend after reading it. The essay appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Canadian Notes and Queries, a magazine that’s not quite as highfalutin as the name suggests. In fact, CNQ is a frequent thorn in the butt of the CanLit establishment. Even so, genre is hardly its mainstay. Full credit goes to editor Alex Good, for his innovation and courage in the ongoing commission of cultural heresy…
Genrealities: Five honest-to-goodness true stories of everyday humiliations
by Michael Libling
1: A naïf in Vermont
He seemed like a nice enough guy, but so did Ted Bundy from all accounts. And it wasn’t like Bread Loaf was short on desperadoes. It was a writers’ conference, after all. Charlie Manson could have hidden in plain sight. Still, here I was, following this guy across campus in the middle of the night to see something he just had to show me.
It started after dinner, up at the gathering place they call the Barn. Wine flowed for a buck a cup and jangled enthusiasm a whole lot cheaper. Even people who didn’t know each other seemed to know each other, their shared exuberance as contagious as it was creepy.
I retreated to the sidelines, fell in with the wallflowers. We swapped credentials, chronicled the despair, rejection, hope and colourful brochures that had brought each of us to Bread Loaf. Before you knew it, our exuberance was as contagious and creepy as the best of them.
I was quick to mention how I’d studied with Mordecai Richler and Clark Blaise, but the name-dropping got me nowhere. Screw that. I switched to Plan B: Paraded my short story sales to magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing Stories and Realms of Fantasy, capping the rundown with consecutive appearances in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Hardcover, yet! My newfound writing pals appeared not unimpressed, especially Lyle, an IT manager from Georgia. No, I may not have been the stuff of Kirkus or Kenyon, but at least I’d been paid for my fiction. Not just in contributors’ copies either, but real bucks. Cheques! Cash you could buy things with. Toaster ovens, iPods, organic bananas. Yup, these eleven days at Bread Loaf were shaping up to be mighty swell. The self-doubt. The loathing. The chronic schadenfreude… All would be left behind. Unlike most of these wannabes, I was a published author and way ahead of the game, even if I’d yet to sell a novel. That’s when Lyle patted me on the knee, invited me to step outside. “I gotta show you something,” he said, his words a tad too moist upon my ear. “It’s in my car. Over at the lot.”
“Huh?” The last time a man had patted my knee and invited me into his car had been in the 70s, during my hitchhiking days in Vancouver. It had not gone well.
It was dark, the moon nowhere near as bright as I expected on a summer night among the Green Hills of Vermont. Robert Frost had exaggerated, if not outright lied.
Regrets surfaced. If only I’d listened to my mother, memorized the Reader’s Digest article she had clipped for me: How to Escape from the Trunk of a Car.
Lyle popped the rear of his Civic. A pair of Joe Boxers flopped onto the gravel. Jeez! If this didn’t bear the earmarks of a nut job, what did? Sweatpants, shirts, underwear, socks and assorted flip-flops mushroomed from the trunk, side to side and top to bottom. It was enough to give an FBI profiler a case of the giggles.
“I left in a hurry,” Lyle explained.
He kneeled on the bumper, dove into his wardrobe. Whatever he needed to show me was well buried.
I braced, waffling as to how I might handle the assault, deflect the blade of his combat Bowie, neutralize his TEC-9. Damn! Why hadn’t I listened to David Morrell, not only a professor of English at the University of Iowa, but author of First Blood and creator of Rambo, too. His Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing had stressed the importance of learning stuff outside your comfort zone, the need to make summer vacations meaningful. He’d gone to the G. Gordon Liddy Academy, for God’s sake: “The instructors were ex-CIA, ex-FBI, ex-DEA, and numerous other ex-operatives of various high-level alphabet-soup government agencies.” Had I followed his lead, I wouldn’t be in this fix to begin with, wasting vacation time at some panty-ass writers’ conference, that was for damn sure.
“Yes!” Lyle cried. “Got it!”
His feet hit the gravel.
Could I buy him off? Would my life be worth the ninety bucks in my wallet? Sure, forty of it was Canadian, but…
Distant laughter from the Barn. I became nostalgic for my life of ten minutes before.
Lyle surveyed the parking lot. There could be no witnesses.
I shifted position, frantic to identify the object he kept concealed behind him. Suddenly, his fists flew toward my face, rocked me onto my heels. And there, held aloft before me, mere inches from unbelieving eyes, illuminated by the penlight on his keychain, was the September issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Mouth dry, hoarse, he whispered, “I subscribe.”
That was it? “Yeah. Well. Great.”
“You don’t get it, man. Once they know you’re into genre, you’re toast.”
2: The first genre writer I ever met
He turned up one day in the middle of term, asked if he could sit in. As creative writing classes go, I guess we weren’t all that creative. We dubbed him the obvious, Old Guy. Seventy, easy. Maybe seventy-five. Blue suit. Legion pin on lapel. Striped tie, silver clip. Boxcar moustache. Hair slicked straight back like shoestring licorice. It was a seminar class. No shortage of seats. Richler shrugged, circumspect behind his Schimmelpenninck smokescreen. “I guess.”
Old Guy hoisted his briefcase onto the conference table. “You know,” he said, drawing our attention to Richler’s cigarillo, “in The Big One, we called them coffin nails.” Some of us laughed; it was the respectful thing to do. Richler inhaled, exhaled, proceeded to the week’s readings.
Old Guy did not speak again. He listened and observed. Until the end of class.
He raised the lid of his briefcase. “I wonder, Mr. Richler, if you might be so kind as to read mine now?”
We froze, attention riveted to our renowned mentor.
You knew for sure Richler had seen it coming. The moment the old man tapped the door, he’d seen it coming. Hell, he sensed it before the geezer showed his face. So, you figure he might’ve been better prepared. “Um—uh—”
There’d be no denying him. Not this day. Old Guy served up a slab of manuscripts as thick as a butcher block, Duo-Tang plies of red and yellow, pink and green, brown and blue, black and orange.
Richler shifted his tin of Schimmelpennincks from his right hand to his left. “Not all of them.”
“How many then?”
“I dunno. A couple.”
“Two.” Old Guy shook his head in a manner to suggest the loss would be Richler’s and fanned out the options. “Mystery? Science fiction? Western? South seas adventure? Romance? Erotica? Comedy? War? Horror? Crime—”
Richler plucked a yellow and a green.
A week went by.
Old Guy showed up early. He didn’t wait for Richler to take his seat, put it right to him: “So, what did you think?” He was pretty much foaming at the mouth, spazzing with joy. This was the moment the Mordecai Richler would forever change his life.
Richler pulled the manuscripts from his satchel, handed them over. “Well, they’re not very good.”
“Wha—?” It was like Dementia had dropped in for a quickie. He stood uncomprehending, let the critiqued Duo-Tangs fall into his briefcase. “Oh.”
We couldn’t look at him. We couldn’t look at Richler.
Head down, Old Guy gathered up his belongings and crossed to the door, stopped, hesitated, turned. “Well,” he said to Richler, “what do you know, anyways?”