Coloring Between the Lines
Gregory Frost, 2004
(This is loosely based on a talk given to the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. The original, decidedly different in some details, was interrupted at various points for interstitial intrusions by the Bonzo Dog Doo–Dah Band. I've checked with the doctors and they say that everyone who was in the audience is expected to make a complete recovery.)
I'm going to talk to you tonight about a breaking down of barriers, walls, definitions within our fantasy genres and beyond. This spins off an article I recently wrote for the New York Review of Science Fiction.
I. Crayons and Order
As children, many of us here in the U.S. were given coloring books and taught to color inside the lines. This creates nice, orderly compartments of blue and red, and even Blue–Violet and Violet–Blue, which really were different colors even though they had the same components. It made parents proud to watch our motor skills develop from mad jagged slashes of color to orderly, inside–the–line work. It also helped them discern that the thing we'd drawn was in fact a cat, which let them off the hook when presented with our latest work of genius. It also programmed us to think in terms of neatly assembled parts. This helped us later when we assembled plastic models and jigsaw puzzles and had to fit pegs into holes to prove our aptitude for peg–fitting. You can probably see where I'm going here. The tendency to compartmentalize is a far–reaching one. Librarians use the Dewey Decimal System to maintain order, to fit literature into appropriate categories, to keep chaos from being the dominant theme in our libraries; and God knows, we who use those libraries to research would never want it any other way. Give me order; give me anal–retentives in charge of my library. However, don't put them in charge of what I choose to read (and I hope Mr. Ashcroft and his thugs are listening, not that it'll do me any good).
I would like for you to think of literature as a huge house. In it there are lots of rooms. One room is the Modern Room. It's full of Ernest Hemingway novels, and Jack Kerouac, and early John Updike stories about people on commuter trains. Paintings on the wall are abstract, or cubist, with sharp edges, splashes of color.
Down the hall there's another room, called the High Fantasy Room. It's full of books about Celts and dragons and hobbits, King Arthur and Conan. Murals on the wall are by Rowena and Boris.
Still another room, the Western room, has a lot of books in it, but they're all covered in cobwebs now and dusty. The walls here are painted Zane Grey. You can see, looking at the floor, that not too many people have come in here lately, either, but the cushiony furniture suggests that once upon a time they did.
We get cozy with our rooms the way we get comfortable coloring inside the lines in our coloring books. As adults we find we've been trained to see this house in this particular way. "This is SF. This is romance. This is horror."
My first three novels were arguably high fantasy, even though I think I did something more with them than produce cookie–cutter high fantasy novels. That's how they were marketed. Most of my short fiction is dark fantasy or horror. My fourth novel was science fiction and some of the short stories are, too. My story that was on the Hugo and Nebula ballots this year is science fiction. My latest novel, Fitcher's Brides, is a fantasy–horror–romance. So what am I? Into what room of this house do I fit? It's clear I haven't been staying put.
Now there's nothing wrong with staying put. Lots of us have whole careers out of it — in fact if you're looking for a secure career with a devoted following, that's probably the best way to go. Throw down your sleeping bags in the middle of one of the rooms and take up residence there. If this weren't true, there wouldn't be identifiable rooms in this house in the first place. Furthermore, some people who take up residence in one room become very uncomfortable when asked to move to another room — when a publisher, say, requests that they go work in another room for awhile because the air in this one is getting stale. These folks have gotten so comfortable there. Their readers know to look for them there. What will happen if they moved to another room? Will the readers understand and come find them? It's dark and scary out there. Better to stay with what you know, right?
However, more and more of us seem to be rejecting this option — enough that some have begun to notice us, not as individuals — not as the multi–beasted manticores we are — but as part of a larger phenomenon.
Market forces may push us: Other genres, notably romance, are marrying and producing bastard children with science fiction and fantasy and supernatural stories. As with any phenomenon like this, you can try and pin it down. You can say that this has been going on for maybe a decade. But in fact this has been going on for much more than a decade. Richard Matheson was doing it in the '50s, but that seems not to have been noteworthy; or maybe we've become more protective of our rooms, our genres, over time. We're afraid the walls might collapse now.
However, fearful or not, you can't stop movements from arising. Especially when they come at you from some other room, catching you unaware.
II. Slippery Fiction
And, lo, it came to pass that the Slipstream was born.
Slipstream. It's a word, a marker that has served a purpose the way "cyberpunk" serves to distinguish a specific point on the science fiction timeline: Way down here at the far left — this great big foot–long span — are the dinosaurs, and way up here in the last millimeter is this teeny dot. You see that? I'll get you a magnifying glass. There. That's cyberpunk. Yup, lasted just that long, too; although you'd think it was still a going concern.
Slipstream is no different. It's a term, coined by Bruce Sterling back at a Sycamore Hill Writing Workshop I happened to attend in the late 1980s. Bruce had identified something going on in what we sf philistines refer to as the "mainstream" (a term whereby we manage to ostracize ourselves from the main currents of western literature — hurrah!). He asked the workshoppers if we had noticed any books that fit his criteria of contemporary mainstream novels that had carried off fantasy, mystery and even science fiction tropes. And, boy, we sure had. It was pretty easy, really, because the publisher of most of them, Vintage Books, had created a packaging format that made them stand out as part of a line of books that was doing something different, something of superior artistry, something we should all be paying attention to. Given that we at the workshop could toss off a bunch of names that fit his definition — McInerney, Auster, Erickson — clearly we had noticed. Bruce intended the word as a marker, and by now you'd think we'd be putting it to bed. The publisher has changed their look; they seem to know that it's time to pan for gold elsewhere. Instead "slipstream" springs up all over the place as if it's identifying something new. In two weeks I'll be a guest at the World Fantasy Convention in Washington, D.C., and it's the topic of a panel there.
And once again, Bruce had identified merely the latest incarnation of a phenomenon that was not new at all.
III. "Sherman, set the wayback machine for 1965."
Rod Serling steps out of the dark into a small spotlight. He wears a black suit, and smoke from a cigarette floats up from where his hands are clasped before him. Squinting and grinning simultaneously, he intones: "Submitted for your approval, here we have the burned–out shell of a literature called 'Modernism.' Full of stories about marital infidelity, alcoholic induced rage, cultural ennui, marital infidelity, driving across country in order to have an epiphany, shopping at the A&P, and, finally, marital infidelity. What this depressed and depressing literature doesn't know is that it's about to fall down the Rabbit Hole we call The Metafiction Zone."
Metafiction means "beyond fiction." If modern American fiction was a snow globe paperweight, metafiction was a big hand shaking it all up like crazy and then depositing it back on the desk top. The plain story plainly told was flung into confetti–like pieces, and the pieces were reassembled out of order or not at all, with malice of forethought.
The Deconstructors included Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, Hawkes, Gaddis and Gass.
Meanwhile, inside the science fiction genre, we were having our own metafictional event, tagged the New Wave. Like metafiction, it was an expression of the desire to shake up hidebound traditions.
The Waveriders included: Moorcock (at the top), Ballard, Brunner, Zelazny, Delany, and Sheckley. In fact, I've concluded that if you were writing sf in the late 1960s and your name ends in "y," you were required to write New Wave fiction.
Their influence did ripple out. Wavecatchers in Europe and the USSR, such as Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, picked up on these experiments with the absurd and unnatural, because they were already writing a science fiction of the absurd — sf by way of Russian traditions, full of the mad absurdities of Mikail Bulgakov and other surrealists.
One metafictionist, Lawrence Durrell, even wrote two metafictional science fiction novels: Tunc, and Nunquam.
Meta–tinkering came with built–in limitations, however. There are a lot of ways you can reassemble "story" that don't work. It should not be surprising then that a lot of Metafiction and a lot of New Wave fiction just plain sucked. Here's a test for you — name 3 great metafictional novels of the '60s. I'll be back in a week to collect your answers or, at the very least, to cut you down from the rafters.
Prestigious writing workshops such as those at the University of Iowa, where I happened to be at the time, filled up with wannabe writers diving into metafictional experiments to show off how brilliant and clever and "important–real–soon–now" they were. The problem with the influence of such experimentation was that many of the writing students (and some of the published authors) hadn't established that they could write a story yet, and already they were taking them apart. It's like someone who's never ridden a bicycle dismantling it and then holding up the rear brake pad and saying "This, this will be my bicycle."
But the real built–in limitation with the grand experiment of deconstruction is that readers want stories. I'll repeat that. Readers. Want. Stories.
They may not want stories about the checkout boy shagging a housewife in the warehouse of the local supermarket, but they want a story. Experiments that by definition focus on only one aspect of "story" will have a very small audience; and while they might appreciate your experimental story intellectually, they won't have much or any visceral reaction to it. They will not be emotionally moved. We have been telling stories at least since we lived in caves; that's some hundreds of thousands of years of attitude about how it's done that you have to get around. So the experiments, in the end, weren't going to last, because, finally, we want our stories.
What it reminds me of, is a jazz musician I once heard explain why the fusion jazz of the 70s just faded away (yes, experiment with form was not just going on in literature — what do you think this is, a vacuum?). He said, "Nobody wanted to listen to that stuff while they were eating dinner." And he's right. I love Miles Davis, but it's going to be a rough meal conducted to the strains of "Bitches Brew." There is a comfort element missing, an invitation to participate that's absent. And so, too, in metafiction.
Each movement of this kind is a reaction against that which preceded it. So naturally, what followed reacted against metafiction. And, fortunately for us, for Bruce Sterling, and for the slipstream, the new movement embraced "story" again.
IV. Would You Like Magic with Your Fries?
Running concurrent with metafictional experimentation and deconstructionism was fiction from Mexico, Central and South America. Like Columbian cocaine, this fiction slipped across the border and began secretly altering perceptions. It was deemed "Magical Realism" and the term, as initially applied, referred specifically to this South American phenomenon. The fiction combined or conflated traditional, contemporary story–telling with surreal, fantastical, folkloric material.
The Mages included Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
As their influence spread north, these magic realists influenced such writers as T. C. Boyle, Steve Erickson, Paul Auster; and across the Atlantic, Italo Calvino. (All very much as the British New Wave had inspired North American science fiction writers in the sixties.)
You may have noticed that this list sounds a lot like Sterling's Slipstream list. Yup. Once again, Slipstream is an historical document, describing something that was already firmly entrenched by the time it was defined.
And "slipstream", like "magic realism", at one point was very specific in its application but has been watered down beyond all recognition by over–application. Both terms are now tossed off by reviewers and critics who have no idea where they came from or, really, just what they mean.
So here's Frost telling you that slipstream is now an all–but–meaningless term, regardless of how much we talk about it, and that talking about it isn't going to do any good. How are we supposed to talk about this weird non–classifiable fiction, then?
Let's go back to Frost's Big House of Literature. We still have a big house, and the rooms are still replete with all their furnishings. But you might notice now that there are tables and chairs out in the hall. There are people in the halls, too, or on the stairs, people just walking around, going into one room after another, but not taking up residence in any of them for very long. These people are NOT coloring inside the lines. They're not even coloring outside the lines. They're coloring in between the lines. They're Liminalists. They're Interstitial!
V. Enter the Artists Without Borders
There's something afoot, coming at us in response to things that are happening and have been happening for some time now (remember, every tagged movement is some manner of reaction to one preceding it). Sterling sussed out one element of this thing very early on and hung his brand name on it. Many of us have thus focused on the slipstream facet (it sounds so cool — Bruce has an unerring ear for making causes sound cool), but fewer have noticed that it's not just genre material leaking across the hall into the contemporary fiction room. Elements of that mainstream have been flowing the other way, too. Those dwellers in the halls haven't just been going into all the rooms, they've been taking stuff from one room, putting it in another, and leaving things piled on the hall tables, next to the coffee cups, ashtrays and WiFi connections. It isn't going on in the house of literature alone. It's happening next door in the photography house. In the dance studio down the block. Interstitiality is occurring simultaneously in literature, in art, in music (where it often falls into a "world music" basket, which is often the safest bet when all other forms of categorizing fail), in theater. It's difficult to categorize, because "interstitial" means "to stand between." By definition it doesn't belong in anybody's basket.
The rise of the Interstitial (I refrain from calling it a movement, because that presupposes some willful intent and I don't believe that's the case here — this isn't organized revolution, at least not until now) comprises artists who are embracing both traditional form and new experiments. They are not — like Marge Piercy with her novel He, She, and It — absconding with elements that they may not fully understand or appreciate, but are of the forms, embracing it while reconstituting it. And they have the freedom to come out of or go into any room in the house, too.
The In–betweeners include China Mieville, Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Swanwick, M. John Harrison, Neil Gaiman, A.S. Byatt, Michael Chabon, Louise Erdrich. And Auster, Erickson, Boyle and those guys from the previous lists. This inclusion is important, because it points to the key distinction between the Interstitial view of things and the categorizing approach. Fiction can be interstitial at the same time that it falls into any number of publishing categories. It may be seen as a "mystery novel" but something in the approach is exploding away from the traditional mystery and creating something more than that.
We can include the slipstream and the magic realists because IA is not a category so much as it is a modality.
Artists like Charles Vess, Yoshitaka Amano co–exist there. So do television shows such as Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Six Feet Under; theater groups who stage plays where puppetry co–exists with Shakespeare and Kabuki meets Greek tragedy; and graphic novels mixing harrowing tales of repressive Patriot–Act enabled societies with comic book illustration.
The Interstitial approach allows Italo Calvino, Amos Tutuola, Borges, Bruno Schulz, Edogawa Rampo, and Neil Gaiman to co–exist in one place, acknowledging the merit of their individual works and not trying to pretend that they're anything alike. Art that lives between the lines.
The Interstitial approach is non–threatening to traditions. Neither does it advocate giving up the tropes of science fiction or high fantasy or film noir. It doesn't call on everyone to stop doing what they're doing and write "our" way. It is saying that other ways not only exist, but that we think a lot of exciting stuff is going on there, and what's out in the hall might be more dynamic than what's inside the rooms, especially if you're tired of what you're finding in those rooms. Maybe you'd like to spend some time drinking our 100% organic coffee and checking it out.
On SFF.NET recently the question was raised whether science fiction remains the literature of Ideas or not. It produced a raging debate that was never satisfactorily answered; but many of the respondents seemed truly fearful that a way of fiction, a tradition, was vanishing — or possibly might have disappeared already while no one was watching, and mainly because of the evil influence of "the mainstream," which by this argument has corrupted the purity of the experiment. It was a curious kind of a literary xenophobia — a fear of the "other" that I found a little disconcerting coming from a genre that is all about embracing the Other. No doubt there are those in the mainstream who share that fear when looking in upon us — that all of our pulp tropes — our comic books and vampires and elves and fairy tales — are going to destroy their purity, too.
It's all ridiculous, and mostly because it's far too late. The corruption, infiltration, and mutation have already taken place. It's a constant and organic process that you couldn't stop if you tried, because you don't know where it's coming from next. We can trace an experimental form of storytelling to John Dos Passos, and Philip Dick's paranoia to Franz Kafka. What shall we do — travel back in time and stop anything that looks like it might send ripples up the literary timeline? Whoops, too late, Jasper Fforde has already made a mockery of the concept with The Eyre Affair.
Second of all, the perceived dangers are phantoms. Experiments in the hall don't deplete what's in the rooms. Interstitial art didn't kill the western genre. The western killed itself, and about the only place it still hangs on at all is in the hall now. Some of the things carried off into the hall will eventually move back in and take up residence in the room where it started. The literary influence will slide in and give us Richard Russo's Ship of Fools, and M. John Harrison's Light — works that can live comfortably inside the science fiction room while having been "corrupted" by those evil outside influences, and may or may not be judged as interstitial works at all. But Heinlein's still in there, and so are Asimov and Herbert. I see no signs of the bulkheads buckling as a result. As to whether their fiction stands the test of time — that's for time to decide. It's none of my business.
Thank you, and good night.
About the Author
Gregory Frost is the author of numerous short stories and five novels, the most current, Fitcher's Brides, is a recasting of the fairy tale of Bluebeard upon the landscape of 19th century New York in the grip of a millennialist frenzy. He has been a finalist for nearly every fantasy and horror literature award. A new novel, Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Golden Gryphon Press, 2005. For more information visit his website and to read an excellent interview, visit Strange Horizon.
Mark Wagner, MA is a digital and traditional artist and teacher. He works as a conceptual artist, art director, graphic designer, and fine artist. His paintings and illustrations have been published and shown internationally. His work can be seen online at www.heartsandbones.com.