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Livin’ on the Edge

In January 2005, Quill & Quire ran a piece in which Helen Reeves, editor at Penguin Canada, said she had been appointed to seek out “cutting edge” writers. Seven months later, she said the term “cutting edge” is still the thing she’s asked most about in interviews.

“The whole thing about ‘cutting edge,’” Reeves says, “is that it was a way of pointing out that we want to keep Penguin’s list fresh, that we’re looking for new, interesting voices. Material that comes from a very unusual place.” She believes that the bigger the market, the more room there is for experimentation. “I’m looking for more than just the literal detail of everyday life.”

In 2004, Penguin acquired the rights to new author Craig Davidson’s first short story collection (Rust and Bone) and first novel (The Fighter). Reeves says the thing about Davidson’s writing that appeals to her is that he brings genre influences to his literary writing. His background in dark fiction colours the tone of his work, with more attention being paid to plot and character than is typically the case in a lot of Canadian fiction.

Davidson says of his previous writing, “That’s one thing I’ve learned from writing horror: You’ve got to have strong characters, so that when something awful happens to them, it really hits home.”

Reeves and Davidson agree that when it comes to genre, there’s a certain stigma attached to the term, but both say it’s important to read outside of your comfort zone, to read as much as you can in as many styles and types of writing as possible—especially if you want to be a writer.

Though Davidson says it’s great to be considered “cutting edge,” because the term implies an unwillingness to compromise to the mainstream, there’s a downside to the label, too—from both the author’s and the publisher’s points of view.

“The problem with saying you’re going to be publishing cutting edge books,” Reeves explains, “is that it really sets you up for a fall in some respects. It’s hard enough for a first-time author to deal with the whole process of being a new writer, being reviewed, and having critics going out of their way to find what’s wrong with these books. Saying, ‘This is cutting edge, this is the future of fiction,’ just gives another reason for everyone to rip the books apart.”

Davidson doesn’t consider his writing particularly cutting edge, because the term implies that it’s somehow ahead of the pack. He says of his short story collection, “They’re simply stories about people and their relationships, but it takes a more visceral look at them.”

You wouldn’t know it by reading The Kite Runner, but, like Davidson, internationally bestselling author Khaled Hosseini wrote and sold horror stories, too. It’s this inherent edginess that gives both writers’ work a gritty clarity. But it’s a grittiness that caused Davidson to run into a wall of rejections when he first started submitting to Canadian literary journals. But rather than acquiesce to their conventions, he kept writing the edgier material that would eventually make up Rust and Bone. Of the experience, Davidson says, “In the Canadian pantheon, yes, my work might be cutting edge, because it was written aggressively against the work being published in most Canadian literary journals.”

Davidson’s grateful to be mentioned in the same breath as writers like Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves), and Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho). And with blurbs for his first book from Ellis, as well as Thom Jones, Peter Straub, Joseph Boyden, and Clive Barker, it’s clear that he’s following his own advice about reading and taking influences from every genre.

In the end, though, Davidson would prefer to be called just “edgy.”

“There’s cutting edge, then there’s edgy. Saying ‘cutting edge’ puts you at a whole different level, like you’re somehow beyond the curve. Whereas edgy just implies that the work has some rough edges,” Davidson says with a wry grin. “And that it may not be your mother’s reading material.”

*Originally published in Quill & Quire

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