Stranger Than Science Fiction: Into the Alternate Dimension of Mainstream Literature
Sometimes I imagine a world where stories are experienced not by reading, listening or seeing, but are instead comprehended through telepathic signals sent directly from the stories themselves. Here stories are living, corporeal things, floating around in the air like butterflies, or humming birds, or bats. In one scenario, I am an unscrupulous story-poacher, sent to this world from ours, tasked with netting a few good yarns. Soon I’ve captured three of them, and shoved the stories into my backpack without remorse. Back in our world, they’ll be transcribed, and stuck in a genre-appropriate book or magazine. Prior to snatching the stories, I listened to their whispers and quickly noted each story’s “elevator pitch.”
The first one is about a group of sentient buses who are all suddenly and mysteriously murdered one evening. The second story tells of a finishing school for female werewolves and their attempts to become permanently human. The third is a personal narrative of a man’s family history, stretching all the way back to civil war era America. Returning home, I prepare to convert the stories to good-old ink on paper (or photons on a computer screen), and I’m pretty damn sure I know how to classify these suckers. Using my extensive training, I identify the sentient bus and werewolf stories as works of speculative fiction, and the family tree story as a memoir. I’ll send the first two off to Fantasy & Science Fiction, Weird Tales, or Clarkesworld. The other one will end up with Tin House, or Conjunctions, or Granta. But there’s just one problem. In the real world, I’d be wrong.
“The Night the Buses Died” is a short story written by Etgar Keret, a wildly popular Israeli writer whose work frequently features elements of speculative fiction, despite being published in Zoetrope All Story, The LA Times, and Tin House. “St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves” is the title story of short story collection by the American writer Karen Russell who, in addition to being recently awarded the prestigious 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation, was also named one of Granta’s best new novelists in 2006. The memoir about the man’s family tree, “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance”, was written by Paul Park and appears in the January/February 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
To be fair, the publication of a pseudo-memoir in F&SF is not without conventional reasoning; Park’s tale does stretch into the future, 2024 to be exact. “I’ll be in my late sixties when this all eventually happens,” he tells me, playfully affirming the notion that he views his own personal science fiction as an inevitable reality. Still, upon first inspection “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” reads like something you might find in The New Yorker. It has the trappings of a deeply personal confessional piece of emotional angst. It explores the struggle of the American male to find meaning in his family history while grappling with his failings in an increasingly emotionally brutal and detached world. It feels like serious literature. It also has aliens. Is this uncommon in SF? Not to those of us who know the score. For fans of Alfred Bester, Ursula Le Guin, Connie Willis, Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman and, more recently, Paolo Bacigalupi, the answer to the question “Does SF have literary merit?” is a resounding “yes, of course.”
Paul Park enjoys some cross-over success. In addition to being published in Interzone, F&SF, and other genre magazines, his stories have materialized in more mainstream journals like Conjunctions and Fence. “That was back when Jonathan Lethem was the editor,” Park says of the latter publication, an allusion to another well-known writer who, along with Michael Chabon, Stephen Millhauser and a few others, is claimed by both the literary and SF camps. Kurt Vonnegut famously joked in his essay “Science Fiction” that he had no idea he was a science fiction writer, and that he was simply someone who “noticed technology.” But what about non-SF writers who consciously had SF-leanings at the start of their careers? It appears some of today’s rising literary stars became writers because of an interest in, and love of, the fantastic.
When I ask Etgar Keret about the kinds of books he read as a teenager, he lists Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Robert Zelany and other SF giants as major influences. “I didn’t differentiate SF writers from ’other’ writers,” he says, “There was interesting stuff and boring stuff.” Keret, a household name in Israel, has a speculative element in almost every single one of his crisp short fictions. Shapeshifters, ghosts, super-powers, magic, alternate dimensions, the after-life, you name it.
He’s “sure” we’ll see an Etgar Keret story set in the future at some point, and says it would be a “great honor” if one of his stories or books were nominated for a Hugo. “They [the Hugos] were the first literary prize I had ever heard of, and some of the best short fiction I’ve read in my life is associated with this prize.” Keret finds hyper-realistic writing “over-rated” and tells me, “The ’objective’ sense of reality is in no way closer to your inner truth than metaphorical or fantastical storytelling.” When he espoused a similar sentiment to NPR’s Ira Glass in front of a large audience at the New York Public Library last October, I heard not only thunderous applause, but some hoots and hollers of approval too.
“I am soooo glad you mentioned that,” Karen Russell tells me over the phone, “I remember loving that comment.” Russell was in the same NYPL crowd as I was, and speaks fondly about her love for speculative fiction. In addition to the werewolf story, Russell’s other premises include: a minotaur with a human family, children with prophetic nightmares of past disasters, and a world where crab carcasses are large enough to be made into small boats. Of the giant crab-shell boats Russell has this to say: “My favorite thing about that story is how many people have asked me if there really are crabs that big. Like they really believe in these huge mutant crabs! Who knows, I guess they might be real. I have no idea. I made them up.”
She is quick to point out that her mutant crabs and werewolves aren’t merely symbols in her stories or tricks of magical realism. “I don’t like stories that use the alphabet of the fantastic to seem weird or whatever. You’ve got to believe in the monsters.” Her story about the finishing school for female werewolves possesses wonderful self-searching themes of identity and self-control. At the end of “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” if the reader has any experience with social anxiety they’ll relate to being a werewolf. But Russell insists the story didn’t begin from a sense of metaphoric self-importance. “I didn’t sit down to write this story about my childhood of feeling awkward and left-out and then slapped on the werewolf thing as some over-the-top metaphor. I sat down and wrote a story about werewolves because werewolves are cool and I thought it would be a fun story to write.”
Another celebrated young writer whose career began with a focus on genre, rather than mainstream fiction, is Victor LaValle. He is the author of three books, most recently the highly acclaimed novel Big Machine which, in addition to being one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 best books of 2009, was also named among the best science fiction of 2009 by the Los Angeles Times. The novel is perhaps more accurately described as horror than SF (it has recently been nominated in the Best Novel category of the Shirley Jackson Awards). LaValle tells me he set out to write a story that was “scary”, “exciting” and “had monsters in it.” The book describes a sort of low-tech secret society whose members are attempting to piece together supernatural consistencies through the study of various newspaper clippings. The tone of the book could easily make it the literary cousin of Fringe or, as one character describes it, “the spiritual X-Men.”
LaValle tells me he is very pleased with the response Big Machine has received, since it was the first of his three books that he decided to “have fun with.” In between bites of burgers in the Upper West Side of Manhattan I tell him I sensed a sort of Harlan Ellison meets H.P. Lovecraft quality in the prose and style of Big Machine. “You know,” he says, “I had direct references to ’I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’ in early drafts of the book. But my editor wasn’t sure who Harlan Ellison was, and I figured the material should stand on its own. But yes, that is totally an influence.” When he was a teenager living in Queens, LaValle sent one of his early short stories to a horror ’zine based in the Lower East Side. They didn’t take the story, but what LaValle did receive in the mail was a detailed checklist indicating which aspects of his story were strong and which aspects were weak. “They had this flow chart,” he says, “telling me the characterization was weak, or the plot was strong, or whatever. This was a huge moment for me. I realized even if I was writing about Goblins or Demons or whatever, that there were people out there that took writing seriously.”
So it’s safe to say many young writers getting attention in mainstream circles love genre fiction, and in many cases actually write genre fiction. But what about the editors on the front lines of new fiction? Are mainstream literary journals looking for SF-style stories? Todd Zuniga of Opium Magazine certainly seems to think so.
“We did an interview with William Gibson back in our fifth issue, which was great because he is phenomenal.” Headquartered in Brooklyn, Opium (available both online and in print formats) in many ways represents the post-McSweeney’s 21st Century direction of chic mainstream literature. With contributors like Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), Ben Greenman (an editor at The New Yorker) and Etgar Keret, Opium celebrates a diversity of voices and shows no signs of shying away from something because of its genre. Their 8th Issue, called “The Mania Issue,” featured almost exclusively fanfic, including a story which combined elements of the film Alien with John Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
“The fanfic thing was fun,” Zuniga tells me. “But I really want to go further. I’m not sure I know what to call it anymore. I like ’Fabulolist Fiction’. But yeah, I love all that stuff.” As we talk I get the impression that Opium is the kind of mainstream publication that is perfect for a humanist science fiction writer. Zuniga likes stories “with plots” that are “actually about something”, rather than dry character studies in which “not much happens.” “The thing about good science fiction,” he says, “is that it’s always about something happening now. And I’m really interested in stories about now.” When I ask him if Opium would ever publish a story which takes place in the future his response is confident, “Oh yeah. For sure.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that all kinds of SF would find its way into the pages of Opium. I ask Zuniga if, as an editor, he has any kind of nerdy science fiction threshold; a point at which certain speculative elements will turn him off. “When something takes itself a little too seriously,” he says, “I read because reading is fun. If I’m dealing with science fiction and it’s absolutely no fun to read because of too much earnestness, I’m out.”
Jessica Loudis, an associate editor at Conjunctions, firmly believes, “it just comes down to the quality of the prose and the writer’s ability to effectively create their world. If an author can make use of speculative elements in an innovative way, then I certainly won’t object to genre tricks.” In the late 1980s, George Plimpton (of The Paris Review) said Conjunctions was “the most interesting and superbly edited literary journal founded in the past decade.” The journal has published such literary super-stars as Joyce Carol Oates, Ricky Moody, Sandra Cisneros, Tom Robbins, David Shields, Mary Gaitskill and many others. Yet the ratio of genre writers to literary writers is practically one to one. In addition to Paul Park, Conjunctions has published stories by China Mievelle, Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, Jeff Vandermeer and others. They’ve also published Karen Russell. Though seemingly a redundant question, I asked Loudis if Conjunctions is actively still looking for SF stories. “Definitely,” she says, “Conjunctions publishes across those genres regularly. Our upcoming issue is about facsimiles and doppelgangers, so expect to see lots of fantasy/speculative fiction in that [issue].”
For the ultimate proof that many of those who run in literary circles actually long to travel through time and space, I find myself visiting the home of Lawerence Raab. At 64, Raab has been a finalist for the National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellow, published in The New Yorker and The Virginia Quarterly Review, and is currently a distinguished professor at Williams College. Raab has the gravitas of being an old solider of literature; he refers to Raymond Carver as “Ray” and possesses a book collection that includes numerous first editions. In addition to the stuffy important stuff, there are various toy robots, rocketships and wonderful vintage statues of Nosferatu and Gamera peeking out from the shelves, letting you know the real inspiration behind the great poems. And of all his various awards and plaques, there is only one thing he wants to show me.
“Look at these!” Raab exclaims has he shows me two different issues of The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy for the 1970s. Both feature cover stories from SF giants like Ellison and Zelany and Asimov. But the contributing SF poem in each issue was written by Lawrence Raab. “Pretty cool, huh?’ he says, beaming like a child. Raab is a little older than my father and yet, as he shows me these old issues of F&SF, he’s looking for approval from me, not the other way around. Yes Larry, it’s still cool to like SF, and it’s still literary too.
The next time I head back into that alternate dimension of corporeal stories, and hunt for the best new stuff, I might not be as sure where to put a story from Karen Russell, or a novel from Victor Lavelle. Hell, even Lawrence Raab has a poem called “Attack of the Crab Monsters.” And if I’m very lucky, I may not always know. When my memory fails me decades from now, I might recall having read that Paul Park story in The New Yorker and Karen Russell’s werewolf story in Weird Tales. I may not remember which authors won all the Pulitzers or Hugos, but hopefully, I’ll always find the good stories. In his essay “On Writing”, Raymond Carver lists some of his favorite writers (including Ursula K. Le Guin) and then says that, “Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.” I wonder if this made all good writers of fiction in actuality, writers of fantasy.
“I hope so,” Karen Russell tells me, “because I do this so I can escape to another planet. My planet.”