What's in the Wind
Gregory Frost, 2003
Originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Number 180, Vol. 15: No. 12, August 2003. Pages 6–7.
I recently participated in two annual events: The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and WisCon. The former is an academic conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida that's filled with professors, writers and critics; the latter a genre–focused regional convention in Madison, Wisconsin that seems to attract a more literary than media–driven crowd. What I found interesting was a common thread running through the programming, the discussions, and over–dinner conversations at both ICFA and WisCon regarding how we approach and discuss fantasy. Something is in the wind.
In his essay at back of Conjunctions:39, Gary K. Wolfe tags the thing as "wire–cutting that's going on these days among writers." To use a more science–fictional analogy, I think a whole lot of our genetically modified products have escaped from the fantasy orchard and blown onto that really big field across the (often self–imposed) road, and some of it in turn has settled over our field; for some while now, we within the orchard have been trying to describe to ourselves all that cross–pollinated mutant stuff.
About a decade ago at a Sycamore Hill Writing Workshop I attended, Bruce Sterling asked the participants to name books and stories that they thought might fit into a category of fiction Bruce had invented — "slipstream fiction." This term was intended by him as a temporary marker in the forever evolving literary world to reference works that were specifically extra–genre, but which were borrowing shape, voice, tropes, and structures from inside the genre while continuing to be recognized and published on the far side of that road. The list included Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson, some of the works of Paul Auster and Don DeLillo, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, etc. It was an interesting list and made a compelling case that what had been regarded as very specifically fantasy fiction had indeed escaped. No doubt this was due in part to the arrival in North America in the '70s of a strain of fictive virus from South America called magical realism, which fairly dripped with fantastic elements, was in spite of this regarded as important literature in the world of academia, and thus made it perfectly legitimate for "important" writers to use fantastic elements without having to feel as if they were slumming. Borges, Cortazar, Fuentes, et. al, allowed for the acknowledgment of impossible things. But the wind that blew magical realism into the field picked up some of the pollens of genre fantasy and science fiction. Alongside the works of magical realism by Auster, Erickson, Boyle and so forth we suddenly found ourselves with works of science fiction by Atwood, Lessing, and even Updike. And that was how Sterling's slipstream appeared.
However, as invariably happens, winds blow from more than one direction. While the huge literary field was being contaminated by fantasy, so, too, was the genre orchard being sprinkled with stuff coming the other way — in effect, that "wire cutting" that Wolfe describes.
The concerns of literary fiction (a term I still find nearly redundant), which had perhaps bled into the genre during the New Wave period of the 1960s, had been digested by some writers working in the period, but even more so by writers coming up in the aftermath, and who had read both in and out of the genres with assurance, understanding, and interest, who were willing to be equally informed by Zelazny and Nabokov: Michael Swanwick, John Kessel, James Patrick Kelly, Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, and so on (I will make no attempt at a definitive list, in the certainty that I would leave off someone important, who would later seek me out with intent to do bodily harm).
None of any of this sprang into being overnight, and none of it can ever finally be defined, because fiction like technology does not ever have a solid, final shape, and wherever you stop and say "here," you can be certain that the subject itself has already moved past you by the time you utter the word.
So, this cross–fertilization is not new and I'm hardly the first to identify it. Instead, what I'm reporting on — what I believe I am seeing now — is a variety of approaches to describe the wild mutating shapes growing on both sides of the road (and growing in such a way that the road itself is being erased) and which showed up on my radar at both ICFA and WisCon. Interestingly, these approaches are working independent of each other.
The first was presented in Volume 13, Issue 2 of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, in an essay entitled "Toward a Taxonomy of Fantasy" by Farah Mendlesohn. "A successful mapping of fantasy," she tells us, "should create an interlocking structure." Referencing numerous other academic approaches to assembling definitions of fantasy, Ms. Mendlesohn makes a critical leap, a kind of paradigm shift in the methodology of identifying separate aspects of fantasy, and one she admits is only a first step that will require further analysis and polishing before she's satisfied with it.
She points out right away that this is not an attempt to define fantasy — there are already far too many conflicting studies which attempt that. Rather, she is taking a leap into identifying the texts by the use of categories that are themselves simultaneously modes of working with fantasy, and as such are open–ended; that is, any given work can move through or incorporate multiple modes without doing damage to itself or to the system of identification, and that recognizing the modal shift can aid the writer as well as the analyst in determining what must be sought, claimed, and utilized within the framework of the story to make that mode work.
This may sound abstract, but her categorization is specific. Briefly, it comprises Portal fantasies, wherein we readers (and the characters) enter the fantastic world through a portal, an entrance, a point of reference or demarcation; Immersive fantasies, in which we find ourselves from the beginning in and of the fantastic world; Intrusive fantasy, where more often than not the fantastical element has entered our world in violation of the world's "natural laws" (most horror fiction dwells comfortably within this category); and the Estranged fantasy, which takes place in our world, save that fantastic elements co–exist with us as natural, accepted elements — enter magical realism, stage left.
The modes express the needs of the fictive category as well as the expectations of the reader and, as such, point the way to understanding what a work of that mode requires. And her categories would seem to satisfy her requirement that they be interlocking: an example she refers to throughout is China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, which is an immersive fantasy that successfully incorporates within itself an intrusive fantasy. The structure of her system suggests the possibility of purely liminal texts, flowing along the borders where the modes meet.
To me what's most remarkable about Farah Mendlesohn's taxonomy is how it seems to complement the second approach at establishing a new language within the fantastic universe.
The second is what Terri Windling, Charles Vess, Delia Sherman and a collective of other writers and artists are calling the "Interstitial Arts." Their first public attempt at defining what they mean by this occurred at ICFA 2003. It was apparent at that point that the descriptive language itself was yet nascent and unresolved. John Clute, who was on hand, put forth numerous challenges that required better definition from the Interstitialists. These challenges are answered in Delia Sherman's essay on the topic.
Ms. Sherman defines interstitial fiction as follows: "Interstitial fiction defies categories and laughs at expectation; Interstitial fiction breaks the rules. Interstitial novels lurk near or on the borders of two, three, or more genres, owing allegiance to no single genre or set of conventions."
So while John Crowley's Little, Big would clearly represent interstitial fiction, Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire would not because, while one might (I wouldn't) argue it has literary merit as well as being a horror novel, it in no way breaks any rules or crosses any lines to accomplish this. It would, by Mendlesohn's taxonomy, lie smack in the middle of the intrusive fantasy category.
On the face of it, this looks like just another way of defining the fantasy novel, but the intent here again is to do away with traditional compartmentalizing. What the interstitialists are proposing is that we dispense even with terms such as "slipstream," which finally can only attempt to create a new shelf in the bookstore — and instead look at interstitial works as coming from myriad directions, from any starting point that arrives someplace new. By this approach, it doesn't matter whether the winds blow NNE (from mysteries into mainstream) or SSW (from science fiction into metafiction); It isn't, then, a matter of what shelf it's placed upon, but rather that it can exist on more than one at once. Bookstores can put the work in whatever category they deem fit without affecting the interstitial qualities of the work, which by its nature becomes what Ms. Sherman identifies as "border" fiction. Its very potency is the result of diabolical mixing. And it expresses in a different way, I think, the interlocking element that's the goal for Ms. Mendlesohn.
However, the Interstitialists part company with her taxonomy in that they are not concerned with defining texts. For them, as for literature, so it is for painting, music, and performance art. What's liminal does not have to be literature. It could also be a kabuki performance of Homer's The Iliad. The interstitial approach identifies material that has defied categorization through traditional definitions because of the cross–pollinating, and it encourages the collaboration. The final works don't have to share any particular aesthetic, as such, save their resistance to easy pigeonholing.
By now you get the idea or you have a headache, or perhaps both.
These are, I think, a recasting of the runes that we've used in the past — both descriptively and qualitatively — new attempts to respond to mutations that have been happening for quite some time now. If they work, they will grow along with the thing described. If not, they become as Ms. Mendlesohn says, "an investigative cul–de–sac." It's too early to tell if both of these approaches will survive the test of time; but there's no question that these writers and academics have identified something real and on–going, and growing, in our field.
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.
Want more? Read Gregory Frost's essay "Coloring Between the Lines".