Tuesday, June 19, 2007
A Retroactive Historical Trajectory
It’s good that Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss print at the end of the book an interview with themselves about Interfictions, an “anthology of interstitial writing” they’ve edited and published through the Interstitial Arts Foundation. Otherwise I, for one, would have finished the book, including its nominal “Introduction,” without having much of an idea what either “interfiction” or “interstitial” are supposed to mean.
Heinz Insu Fenkl’s intoduction tells us that a book of his was published as a novel, even though it was really a memoir. Later, a publisher wanted to “repackage” the book as a memoir. Presumably, then, the book is neither a novel nor a memoir, but something “in-between,” even though Fenkl’s account makes it perfectly clear that it is a memoir, its “tropes, its collaging of time and character” notwithstanding. Using what Fenk thinks of as “novelistic” devices not make the book a novel. Not wishing to have it understood as a memoir does not make it other than a memoir.
After this thoroughly confusing initial illustration (confusing in terms of what an “interfiction” might be), Fenkl goes on to tell us in jargon-clogged prose such things as “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 have a special relationship with the reader because they have a higher degree of indeterminancy (or one could say a greater range of potentialities) than a typical work”; “Once it manifests itself, regardless of the conditions of its creation, the interstitial work has the potential to create a retroactive historical trajectory”; “An interstitial work provides a wider range of possibilities for the reader’s engagement and transformation. It is more faceted than a typical literary work, though it also operates under its own internal logic.”
This is all well and good, but I finished Fenkl’s essay still wondering what an “interfiction” is. How does it differ from other literary works that also manifest a high degree of “indeterminancy” but no one ever thought to call “interstitial.”? (In my opinion, all great works of literature are inderminate in this way. It’s what makes them literature in the first place. And Fenkl’s invocation of “a retroactive historical trajectory,” by which literary works of the past are transformed by new works, seems to me just a restatement of T.S. Eliot’s notion that “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them,” which applies to all new works, interstitial or otherwise.) Does it merely have to be “transgressive” of genre boundaries? Where do we mark those boundaries, anyway? And what exactly is a “typical literary work”? I always get the sense that when intense partisans of genre fiction, SF especially, get wound up about “literary fiction” and its discontents, they usually associate such fiction with “realism,” against which all genre fiction transgresses in one way or another. But is Finnegans Wake realism? The Unnameable? Catch-22? Infinite Jest? If not, do they also qualify as interstitial or as interfictions? Are or they just not “typical” literary fiction? (In which case the whole notion of “transgression” becomes just a convenient buzz word. It only applies to the most rigidly conventional or the most really boring literary fiction.)
Sherman and Goss clear things up a little bit in their interview. “An interstitial story does not hew closely to any one set of recognizable genre conventions,” says Sherman. This makes it sound like an “interfiction” blurs the lines between genres, although from my reading of the stories collected in the book it seems that most of them mostly revolve around a fantasy/science fiction/horror axis that, as an only occasional reader of these genres, I often have trouble seeing as radically opposed forms that need bridging or boundary-smashing. But then Sherman says of one of the stories ("Climbing Redemption Mountain,” a kind of cross-breeding of John Bunyan and Erskine Caldwell) that “If I tried to read it as realism, I ran up against the fact that the writer had made up this world out of whole cloth. If I tried to read it as a fantasy, I ran up against the story’s lack of recognizable genre markers.” This suggests that the real “boundary” the book wants to question is again that between “realism” (literary fiction) and genre fiction with its identifiable “markers.”
Reading the book as a collection of stories that are “willfully transgressive in a noncategorical way” did me no good at all. Notwithstanding that most of them were “transgressive,” when at all, in rather tepid and formally uninteresting ways, I simply was unable to understand what they shared in common that made them “interfictions.” The editors’ narrowing of focus to the contest between “realism” and genre fiction did allow me to reexamine the stories in this more concentrated light. (Although not all of them. Apparently some of them are “interstitial” because they portray characters who feel “in-between” or because their authors themselves feel this way, as revealed in the authors’s comments appended to each story.) But ultimately I am still puzzled by Sherman’s explanation of how it is that interstitial ficion avoids “any one set of recognizable genre conventions.” She continues:
An interstitial story does interesting things with narrative and style. An interstitial story takes artistic chances. . .[E]very interstitial story defines itself as unlike any other. . .The best interstitial work. . .demands that you read it on its own terms, but it also gives you the tools to do so.
I am hard-pressed to understand how these characteristics of “interfiction” distinguish it from other, non-genre, “experimental” fiction that also “does interesting things with narrative and style” and “takes artistic chances.” Experimental fiction (which ultimately I would have to say is a part of “literary fiction,” representing its vanguard in exploring the edges of the literary) precisely “demands that you read it on its own terms” rather than according to pre-established conventions. If interfictions are just versions of experimental fiction, why coin this additional term to describe them? If there is some significant difference between interstitial and experimental fiction, something that has to do with genre, why not be more specific and delineate exactly what that is rather than fall back on the usual language about taking artistic chances, etc.? Or is the purported conflict between realism and genre really meant to blur the fact that plenty of writers, writers who are otherwise thought of as “literary,” have already deconstructed this oppositon and created work demanding “you read it on its own terms”?
On the other hand, if the stories in this anthology were to be presented as simply “experimental,” without the accompanying claims that they alone challenge the “typical literary work,” it’s not likely they could stand up to scrutiny. Adrienne Martini’s review of the book in the Baltimore City Paper asserts that the first story, Christopher Barzak’s “What We Know About the Lost Families of -------- House,” “feels wholly unique, as if it is rewriting our expectations about what kind of story it is even as we’re reading it,” but it’s really just a haunted-house variation on Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” The second story, Leslie What’s “Post Hoc,” about a woman who tries to mail herself to her estranged boyfriend, strikes me as standard-issue surrealism, with perhaps a chick-lit chaser. (I guess this might itself be “interstitial,” but it’s not very interesting.) “Climbing Redemption Mountain” doesn’t really go anywhere with its blending of allegory and rural Gothic except to a mountaintop rendezvous with banality.
Of the rest of the stories, Matthew Cheney’s “A Map of the Everywhere” is pleasantly odd and Colin Greenland’s “Timothy” has an amusing premise (a woman’s cat is transformed into a man) that unfortunately doesn’t go anywhere. Most of the rest are forgettable exercises conducted on what seem (to me) familiar science fiction/fantasy terrain. Some of them, such as Anna Tambour’s “The Shoe in SHOES’ Window” and Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Dirge for Prester John” are essentially unreadable, full of pretentious declamations substituting for narrative: “Truly, where chaos reigns, even at night, nonsense and evasion shine where people look for straightforwardness, but where they look for inspiration, something beyond the realm of daily existence, they are then shown only things, and who can feed his soul with that?” Too many of the stories, in fact, are like this, straining after Meaning where some “merely literary” formal and stylistic pleasures would go a long way toward deflating the pomposity.
Karen Jordan Allen’s “Alternate Anxieties” is the best story in the book, but it also only highlights the book’s overriding weakness. The story’s protagonist is a writer attempting to write a book about “mortal anxiety,” which also appears to be the defining condition of the writer’s own life. The story is presented mostly as a series of notes and brief episodes to be incorporated into the book. In the course of accumulating these notes, the protagonist latches on to the “alternate universe theory,” according to which “events may have more than one outcome, with each outcome spinning off its own universe, so that millions of universes are generated each day. . . .” This notion then leads the author-protagonist to further reflection on the events in her own life (are there other universes in which her actions led to different outcomes?) as well as on the capacity of fiction to embody such alternate universes. It’s a compelling enough metafiction, but again I can’t see what calling it an “interfiction” instead of a metafiction accomplishes. Nor is it that clear why it would even be categorized as science fiction, despite the toying with the theory of alternate universes. It’s a pretty good story, and trying to espy its “interstitial” qualities adds nothing to its appeal.
In her review, Martini asserts that “The stories in Interfictions operate. . .by existing in the spaces between what we want our genres to be.” Speaking for myself, I don’t what my genres to be anything but sources of interesting fiction. When it comes down to it, I don’t even want genres, just worthwhile stories and novels. Whether you want to call them “interstitial” or “metafictional” or “postmodern” doesn’t really matter much, and I suppose by that principle calling a group of stories “interfictions” isn’t finally that objectionable, although in this case it is a needlessly byzantine way of arriving at the conclusion that a good piece of fiction “does interesting things with narrative and style” and, unfortunately, turns out not to be the most efficacious way of finding good fiction.
I just read this book and I agree completely, especially about “Alternative Alternates.” For many of the stories I had to strain to see what exactly was supposed to making them interstitial in the first place; like you, many of then struck me mostly as relatively untransgressive and unremarkable examples of literary genre writing, especially literary sci-fi.
I haven’t read the book, but all of the quoted bits sound like bog-standard academica from people who know very little about the genres they’re talking about. Something like SF (to include both science fiction and fantasy) is defineable as a genre by subject, not by genre conventions. “Alternate Anxieties” may be a good story, but the concept of alternate universes has been so heavily gone over in SF that I’d guess that it depends on the novelty of an audience not familiar with the trope—rather as if someone had written quite a good play about a prince whose father’s ghost tells him that he has to kill the person who has married his mother for an audience that has never heard of Shakespeare.
Because, of course, literary SF already ignores or subverts genre conventions in one way or another. That’s part of what makes it literary; it does not therefore become any less SF, as if literary quality were the defining marker of the literary genre. I would think that people capable of using the kind of jargon involved would already have examined these kind of irksome high art vs low art cliches.
Most “interfictions” are simply conflicts between the marketing category of the author and the genre. Gravity’s Rainbow is SF, even though the SF readers of the time couldn’t deal with it, and the literary world never really considered the idea that it might be. The Time Traveller’s Wife is SF, even though it has many of the genre conventions of, and is sold as, a romance.
"That’s part of what makes it literary; it does not therefore become any less SF, as if literary quality were the defining marker of the literary genre.”
You’re going to have to unpack that a little. I don’t think I follow.
I don’t know what’s been happening to my comments, but I’ll try again.
When a text is well written, with attention to aesthetic impact, avoidance of cliche, skilled technique, etc., people often refer to it as having literary quality. There are some people who treat the well-written quality of a text as being the defining marker for the literary genre. In other words, any text with literary quality must therefore be literary, any text without it must be in another genre, or simply a failure.
This opinion would hold that SF can never be literary, and that literature can never be SF. Or rather, that literary SF must be “interstitial”—a strange object in between two genres. That’s an opinion that seems to me to be powered by ignorance and lingering high-culture prejudice.