IV. In the Interstitial DMZ
I've discussed liminality at length above so that it may serve as a starting point for elaborating on the Interstitial. (Turner is a good point of reference because he developed his idea of liminality in part by observing stage performances.)
There is a major difference between liminality and interstitiality. Unlike the liminal, the Interstitial is not implicitly transitory — that is to say, it is not on its way toward becoming something else. The liminal state in a rite of passage precedes the final phase, which is reintegration, but an interstitial work does not require reintegration — it already has its own being in a willfully transgressive or noncategorical way. Interstitial works maintain a consciousness of the boundaries they have crossed or disengaged with; they present a clear awareness of the kinds of subtexts which might be their closest classifiable counterparts.
The problem with an interstitial work is in its relationship with the audience — both its initial audience (which we may construe, for economy's sake, as the publisher) and its eventual audience, the readers. The relationship between reader and text, as we all know, is integral because each separate reader of the same text creates a unique work in his or her mind. Our general agreements about the plot or theme of a work are essentially the same as our agreements about the "real" world, which is actually determined by cultural consensus. Interstitial works have a special relationship with the reader because they have a higher degree of indeterminacy (or one could say a greater range of potentialities) than a typical work.
For example, if an interstitial novel is unfortunately determined to be Fantasy by its publisher, a reader, having the parameters of initial engagement with the text predetermined, might experience it as a Fantasy novel exhibiting odd dissonances or interesting novelties in relation to that genre. Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds is a novel that did well in its genre classification, winning the World Fantasy Award in 1985 (tied with Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock). Fantasy readers found the work uniquely vivid and full of a sharp and lively humor. The backdrop, a "China that never was," proved the novel feature and all of the representations of that mythic China (a collage of different historical periods and literary sensibilities) was the thing that made the book unique in the genre. But read outside the genre by a reader unfamiliar with the built-in expectations of Fantasy, say, a reader of Mystery novels, Bridge of Birds presents an updated twist on an old tradition started by the Dutch diplomat, Robert Van Gulik, with the Judge Dee series, set in T'ang Dynasty China. Yet another category of reader — say, one with background in Asian Studies — might appreciate Hughart's mixing of history and fiction, something Van Gulik's could not do as brilliantly after the initial Judge Dee novel (which happened to be a translation of an eighteenth-century Chinese novel set against a T'ang Dynasty backdrop).
Each of the above readers experiences a novel with a different configuration of subtexts. Furthermore, a reader may change categories over time. The adolescent Fantasy fan goes to college and majors in Asian Studies and then finds that the work s/he read has changed in retrospect. In this hypothetical case, the reader's memory of the work has taken on a different meaning after the reader's own transformation.
To give another example, consider Kirsty Gunn's second novel, The Keepsake. Gunn's first novel, Rain, was universally hailed by critics as the work of a prodigious new talent. But The Keepsake generally received disappointing reviews because its critics did not properly perceive its subtexts. To a mainstream reader, the novel, despite its beautiful language, is opaque, confusing, violent, perverse, and hallucinatory — all in frustrating ways. But to a reader of Revisionary Fairytales, Gunn's weaving of subtexts (ranging from Bluebeard to Donkeyskin) into a decidedly strange mother-daughter narrative is nothing short of brilliant — placing her in a class with writers like Angela Carter and Djuna Barnes, making all the modifiers I used above a positive thing. Unfortunately, The Keepsake never found a wide readership because the publisher withdrew its marketing plan after the disappointing reviews from the mainstream world.
Bridge of Birds spawned two sequels, but then Hughart quietly disappeared from the Fantasy radar, having worn out the quality that made his mythic China a novelty in that genre. Hughart's is a case of initial success as a result of forceful classification into a genre, but the eventual outcome is negative. Gunn's case is slightly different — it is her second novel that was misclassified or misunderstood because she debuted as a "literary" writer with Rain. To market her second work as Fantasy would have been considered a mistake, perhaps even a sort of insult, given the odd psychology of the publishing world in which genres are lower in the cultural hierarchy.
On the one hand, what I've described above is merely the sad reality of the publishing business. But both cases show the problems of initial perception and the eventual effects of forceful classification based on a publisher's (mis)perception of a text. Playing devil's advocate, one might argue that both Hughart and Gunn had their chance with readers, that they simply represent cases of texts that lost their potential readership to other texts more competitive in the marketplace. But both readers and publishers know the importance of initial reviews, packaging, and classification. What if Bridge of Birds and The Keepsake were to be re-released into different classifications, the first as mainstream and the second as an Adult Fantasy title, with careful attention to sending the books to appropriate reviewers? Would the books suddenly find large numbers of new readers who had not appreciated them in their first release? (I let this stand as a challenge to some brave publisher willing to take a meaningful risk. But recall that above, I stated that interstitial works are not implicitly transitory — to republish these books would be to make them retroactively illustrate the liminal state.)
Things are complicated in the DMZ of the Interstitial. There is another problem, an unexpected one. Interstitial works are also self-negating. That is, if they become successful to the degree that they engender imitations or tributes to themselves, or, if they spark a movement which results in like-minded works, then they are no longer truly interstitial, having spawned their own genre, subgenre, or even form. The DMZ they initially inhabit becomes its own nation, so to speak.
The irony is that successful interstitial works are almost by definition self-negating. They may emerge, like William Gibson's Neuromancer, as something sui generis (ironically within a genre) but then their very success creates a category — Cyberpunk — that becomes its own genre and retroactively, in the midst of controversy, quickly manifests a historical trajectory that precedes Neuromancer itself. (There is already a large and argumentative literature on this subject, which I need not dwell on here.)
Another example might be the form of the Revisionary Fairytale itself, which has become a clear subgenre by now. Although its current form is best represented by the works collected in the six volumes edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow (ending with Black Heart, Ivory Bones) as well as books like Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch, there are numerous recent works that make use of the same trope, some by established writers like Robert Coover, who enjoy a highbrow credibility for their Postmodern writing. Once this subgenre exists and is identifiable by various consistent characteristics, it is possible to begin tracing the history of the form. We might begin with a work with strong elements of Revisionary Fairytale like the film that made Reese Witherspoon famous — Freeway — and then look for other works that perform similar transformations on the Little Red Riding Hood story and arrive at Angela Carter's collection, The Bloody Chamber (1979). Carter is recognized now as one of the originators of the contemporary Revisionist Fairytale, but while doing some random reading, one might run across an even earlier text, Djuna Barnes' perplexing novel, Nightwood (1937), which uses tropes very similar to Carter's, and may, in fact, be a formative influence on her work. But by this time we will have noticed the Red Riding Hood motif in perfume commercials, music videos (by Tori Amos and Sarah Evans), and other recent films (Pieter van Hees's short, Black XXX-Mas: a.k.a. Little Red in the Hood).
A literary scholar, unlike a typical reader, might watch Freeway and see, immediately, that much of its subtext comes directly from an academic collection of works on Little Red Riding Hood — Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook edited by the psychoanalytic folklorist Alan Dundes. But even with this crib, the scholar would go on to Carter's and Barnes' works while following arguably non-literary works like Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment and then the case studies of Jung and Freud. I say "arguably non-literary" because, upon close examination, one discovers exactly how fictional the "scientific" works of Bettelheim, Jung, and Freud can be — and how they are all deeply influenced not only by the psychologists' reading of literature, but their own literary sensibilities.
What I am trying to illustrate is the oddly ironic quality of interstitial art. Once it manifests itself, regardless of the conditions of its creation, the interstitial work has the potential to create a retroactive historical trajectory. Further, if this historical trajectory is prominent enough, the work that sparked its discovery (or creation) then may become a representative — though not necessarily the first — work in a newly-identified genre or subgenre whose parameters the work has helped illuminate.