On SF and the Mainstream, or, Rapidly Changing Scenery

By Susannah Mandel

If you've been reading these columns regularly, you'll know that I've been using this space to talk about life in France as a strange experience: estrangement from the world I'd known. If you've been reading them regularly, I thank you. But I'd like you to know that as of this week, I'm going to knock off talking about France for a while to address something different. The reason is that I've got some questions about the fantastic knocking around in my head, and I want to get them out in the air and see if I can shake out the kinks.

Like many of you, I think, I'm very interested in the question of what differentiates "fantastic" literature—either understood text by text, or taken more broadly as a school or genre—from the non-fantastic. Now, as I think most of us know, this debate has been going on for a long time, and it offers few easy answers. Let me assure you that I'm not mentioning this because I want to weigh in. On the contrary, I'm bringing it up because I've recently realized that—even if I did want to put my two cents in—I don't really have any idea what the current terms of the debate are.

What do I mean by "the current terms"? Well, here's the thing. I've recently been out of the country for two years. Before that, I wasn't paying attention to much in the larger SF world for a year prior to that, nor for almost a year thereafter, and before that I was writing a thesis. The upshot is that you may imagine me as someone who's been living under a rock for—oh, five years, give or take. Imagine me as Rip van Winkle, waking up from a bit of a sleep; imagine me as someone who's been kidnapped by the fairy folk, stepping out from underground, shaking the dirt out of my hair, and asking the following question:

Say! Where do SF and fantasy—speculative fiction, if you like—stand in relation to "mainstream" literature right now?

It's a complicated question, isn't it? And the scenery keeps on changing. In my case, I'm looking around after my time away and realizing that a tremendous, I mean a really huge, amount seems to have changed while I wasn't paying attention.

I admit this bothers me. I'm a scholar by predilection, and I like to believe that I understand the Big Context of the issues that interest me. As a result, I've been reading like a madman for the past five months: in my local library, in magazines, online. I've also been soliciting advice and recommendations from friends, strangers, and the ever-present internet. But even now, not only do I still feel light-years away from being able to answer the question, I feel—as I said above—as though I haven't even gotten a firm grasp on the way the scenery has changed.

The last time I gave much serious thought to the relationship between SF and the mainstream was ten years ago, when I was an undergraduate in college. At that time, I was much exercised by the desire to find a precise definition of "science fiction." I was majoring in English literature, I was a lifelong SF fan, and it felt very important to me to understand science fiction in the context of the literary canon—to seek historical and theoretical structures that would give factual back-up to my powerful feeling that the stories I loved didn't sit apart from "real" literature, but, both aesthetically and in terms of historical development, existed as a part of it.

Turning to the available resources, I spent a few months going through all the books the college libraries could produce that aimed to address this question. These books followed several kinds of format—encyclopedic, historical, or (rarely) theoretical—but one format emerged as the most prominent. This kind of book tends to be structured as a sort of bibliographic timeline. It usually starts from the premise that SF, in its current incarnation, is more or less a ghettoized genre form, excluded due to its fantastic elements from the realm of respected, "artistic" literature, which is dominated by the mode of narrative realism. It goes on to present the history of science fiction, through several now-familiar iterations: the early-twentieth-century Gernsback era of magazine "scientifiction," and its evolution toward the genre publishing models of today; before that, the influential nineteenth-century predecessors, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells; and, from there, back and out into centuries and cultures ever more distant from our own, until it has taken in most of the major works of world myth and literature, up to and including the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh.

These books were very helpful to me at that time. If their theoretical underpinnings—the ways, the methods, with which they justified appropriating pre-modern stories into the purview of science fiction or fantasy—did not bear too much examining; if they were sometimes vague about how they differentiated the concepts of science fiction or fantasy from fantastic literature in general, or if the definitions they used to make those distinctions tended toward the circular; if they were, in fact, not much use in convincing people who didn't already believe in SF's noble line of descent. . . . Well, it doesn't really matter. It didn't matter for me, at that time. Because what I needed was then confirmation in my feeling that SF had deep, meaningful roots in the history of my culture's literature. And, with the rounding-up of these chronicles of the fantastic that trail off into the mists of time, these books provided that sense of solidity.

To return to the present: I have, as I said, been trying to figure out where the discussion currently stands—how to start addressing the Big Question, Where do SF and fantasy stand in relation to "mainstream" literature right now? I have been reading and asking and generally digging around with good will and as much energy as I've got, but I have to say that at this point I still really have no idea. I have, however, been learning a few things along the way. Here they are:

First, in recent years there's been a considerable influx of new or young writers into the literary "mainstream" whose work is not, even by the most desperate stretch of terminology, conventionally realistic. At the same time, established writers in the literary mainstream have been experimenting with tropes, concepts, or premises historically associated with fantastic fiction; and at the same same time, others who have worked in or near the fantastic occasionally in the past seem to be increasingly reaching back toward it.

Again, if you haven't been living under a rock, you probably know all about this, but to me it's terrifically fascinating news. And the more I learn about it, the more interesting it gets. Through hounding friends and strangers for advice ("Have you read anything lately that you'd call 'literary speculative fiction'?"), I've put together a reading list that currently includes, among others, recent work by Haruki Murakami, Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood, P.D. James, Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, Aimee Bender, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jeanette Winterson, Geoff Ryman, David Mitchell, China Miéville, Helen Oyeyemi, Ali Smith, John Updike, and A.M. Homes. Some of these I have read before, some I have not; nearly all of them I'm looking forward to. But what surprises me about this list is the trans-genre heterogeneity of its names. How many of these writers have, historically, worked only as realists? How many have regularly seen their work described as "fantastic"? One of the few things I'm pretty sure I can expect from my summer reading is that much, if not most, of it won't slot cleanly into anyone's definition of "science fiction," nor of "fantasy." If the relationship of SF to the mainstream these days increasingly has to be examined in terms of interstitial, inter-genre work, well, that's a pretty interesting statement about the current landscape all by itself.

Another change seems to involve terminology. When I was doing my reading up in the late 1990s, it seemed apparent that terms like "science fiction," "fantasy," or even "fantastic" didn't get attached to any kind of writing that was not targeted for marketing to the specific niche markets they denote. That is, no highly crafted book or short fiction by a "mainstream" literary writer would be referred to by reviewers or publicists as fantastic or as SF, irrespective of how many SF tropes or stylistic strategies they drew on. From the SF side of the wall, the term "slipstream"—I thought pretty highly of myself for knowing it back in 1996—seemed to be used, at that time, to denote fiction that was not realistic, but also couldn't be comfortably slotted into a genre classification; or alternately work that seemed somehow "obviously" SF, but was also experimental or otherwise unwontedly "literary."

Crawling out from under my rock this year, I was eager to take a look at the current state of marketing to see if anything had changed. Was it possible that, these days, if a "literary" writer wrote fantastic fiction, it might actually get described as fantastic? Apparently, the answer is still no. I admit I'm disappointed, partly because I'm partial to that word, but also because it means it's still hard for me to track down the stories I want to read.

On the other hand, the terms (euphemisms?) used to describe the literary fantastic have been proliferating like tadpoles. (Do tadpoles proliferate? Maybe I mean rabbits. Anyway, something that proliferates impressively.) Looking at the critical reviews, back jackets, Amazon publishers' statements, and blurbs about recent work by writers who tend broadly toward the non-real, but who apparently are or wish to be classified outside of the fantastic genres, I have thus far gathered the following descriptors: "slipstream," "dreamy," "strange," "postmodern," "skewed," "magical realist," "irrealist," "surrealist," and "fabulist." (Also, "new wave fabulist." I'm still trying to work out the difference between the last two.) I'm keeping a list of these, because they appear to be used as a sort of code to denote work that I would consider both literary and fantastic, and since apparently no one is actually going to call the work "fantastic," it seems I will need to keep my eyes open for the code words if I want to find it. The other way I find I can recognize this work is that usually, on the back cover or the inside flap, somebody invokes one or more of the following: Borges, Calvino, Pynchon, Kafka, Donald Barthelme. While this isn't exactly new, in the context of trying to claim respectability for science fiction, I don't remember seeing these names pop up quite as often, being applied to so many stylistically dissimilar texts, as I do now. But maybe I just wasn't paying attention.

I should note that the situation seems to be different for established, historically realistic writers who have reached outside of realism for a single recent project. In those cases, the reviews and promotional text seem to prefer confining themselves to calling these fictions "inventive," "imaginative, and "stunningly original." (Do you detect a note of crankiness in my tone? It's not because I doubt that some or all of these books may in fact be "inventive," "imaginative," and "original." Since I intend to read them, I very much hope that they are all these things. My complaint about these adjectives, which seem to have taken on the character of code words, is that they describe qualities I expect from fiction in general, not just fantastic or speculative or non-realist fiction; and, taken by themselves, they do not tell me a blessed thing about the narrative's relationship—Conventional? Decidedly distant? Ambiguous? Downright hostile?—to what we like to call the real. And that is something that I am, in fact, interested in knowing.)

The third thing I've learned is that, if you're interested in this in-between space and these questions of genre, there are a whole bunch of recent anthologies aimed at you. So many, in fact, as to start to feel bewildering. Some deliberately mix "genre" and non-genre stories; others try to feel out a specific in-between space; and most mix work from big names—often from outside the fantastic genres—with stories from newer and more obscure artists. (Their titles also provide a compendium of the variegated terminology mentioned above.) Lying on the sofa with me as I type, I've got bookmarked copies of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (Tachyon Press, 2006, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel), and ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories (Omnidawn Publishing, 2006, edited by Ken Keegan and Rusty Morrison). Meanwhile, on the desk downstairs are Trampoline: An Anthology (Small Beer Press, 2003, edited by Kelly Link) and Conjunctions: 39, The New Wave Fabulists (Bard College, 2002, edited by Peter Straub). At the library in May I worked my way through McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales—mostly detective, thriller, and SF stories—while next month is for McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, from which I'm expecting magic. (Both books are from McSweeney's, 2005, edited by Michael Chabon.) And when I'm done with all of those, it will be time to move on to what I believe is the most recent compilation of this kind, published this April: Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing, from The Interstitial Arts Foundation, edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss.

This is part of what I mean when I say that the landscape's changed since I went under my rock. That's a lot of anthology activity for a five-year span, and, though I suppose it's too early yet to really be sure, the rate seems to be accelerating. It's also too early in my reading for me to know how I feel; of the stories I've read so far, some have been disappointing, some satisfying, a few revelatory. One thing that's obvious, though, is that many of these books echo the publishing trend by including work from high-profile writers who work outside of, or straddle, the fantastic genres. Marquee names include Michael Chabon, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, Neil Gaiman, Aimee Bender, and Angela Carter, among others. The McSweeney's anthologies manage to wedge in Elmore Leonard, Nick Hornby, and Joyce Carol Oates, to boot.

So there we have it: things have changed, and I'm trying really hard to catch up! I'm enjoying all the reading and research, of course. At the same time, though, this is starting to feel like one of those situations where, the more you learn, the more you realize you do not know. I think it's going to be quite a while before I feel like I've caught up to what's going on out there—before I can even approach the Big Question I laid out above.

Honestly, this is difficult for someone who likes to feel that they Understand The Context. I've decided to handle it by shrugging and taking comfort in a couple of my favorite philosophical quotations. The first comes from a letter of John Keats, written to his brothers George and Tom in late 1817:

". . .[S]everal things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. . ."

The second is from a 1903 letter of advice of Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Kappus, part of the correspondence collected under the title Letters to a Young Poet (translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1986):

". . . Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

This is good advice, I think, for writing and life, as well as for dealing with the difficult fact that sometimes, even those of us who really like to think that we're Familiar With The Context just plain don't know. And it is particularly appropriate in relation to trying to understand a type of writing that, these days, often seems to be characterized by its elusiveness and ambiguity; especially in relation to another genre that has always been distinguished by its strangeness, and its sense of wonder.

I'm going to be reading and thinking about this question for the next few months. If any readers out there have thoughts, recommendations, or opinions to offer, I'd be glad of them. Opinions, at least, I trust there will be. That's something SF fans are seldom short of!

And now, to get to the question of what exactly I plan to be doing with this column in the coming months. One thing I won't be doing is expounding on the theories of genre. (Well, not a lot, anyway. Maybe just a little bit, as I work my way toward tackling the Big Question above.) Mostly, though, while my head is stuck into recent works and new anthologies over the next few months, I plan to keep oriented and keep my spirits up by taking an excursion back into the fantastic fiction of the past. My aim is to have a romp in the treasurehouse of story that our history offers up. That's always good for a breath of fresh air, I think! And, especially in times of uncertainty, it's also a great way to keep perspective.

My inspiration is those bibliographies of SF I read in college, back when it seemed both important and possible to figure out just exactly what SF was. My approach, however, will be cheerfully un-theoretical. I'm not really interested in reviewing the history of literature with an eye toward saying things like, "The Epic of Gilgamesh was science fiction, and I'm going to prove it to you!" Those arguments tend to get circular and ahistorical, and I'm not sure they do anyone much good.

Where I think these compendious histories get it right, though, is in pointing out that SF lies at the modern end of a very, very long tradition of fantastic storytelling. I don't have qualms about speaking of fantastic as opposed to non-fantastic tales—although even those definitions can, and in some instances probably should, lead to merry quibbling. What's more, those books also make a vital point in stressing that, as storytelling modes go, "realism" is a very recent one; the lifetime of this concept has been only a couple of centuries, over two millennia and more of Western storytelling tradition.

So I'll be using this space to revisit some of my favorite works of English (and related) literature, and to ramble on about some of my favorite bizarre, creepy, weird, and otherwise thoroughly fantastical scenes, elements, and plot devices from what is entertainingly called the classical canon of Western literature. I'll probably kick off with Shakespeare, then noodle around in the Renaissance a little before heading off toward Chaucer, maybe dabbling in a few epics along the way. Hey, what else is an underemployed English B.A. supposed to do to keep herself busy? (Aside from digging through that mountain of anthologies, that is.)

The constraints, such as they are, are as follows: 1. Nearly every story I'll discuss here will be fairly well-known, something that could reasonably be called a classic. 2. Nothing from after 1800. As a cutoff point, it's semi-arbitrary, but it makes sense because genre divisions as we know them today began developing in this century, paralleling the solidification of the concept of narrative realism. Finally, no one needs to read yet another essay on what we owe to Shelley, Verne, and Wells. 3. The works I'm going to be writing about come from the canon of Western literature. That's not because I don't care about the rest of the world, it's because I write about what I know. If any of you have suggestions for stories that you think ought to be covered, either from the Western canon or from outside it, bring 'em on. I learn by finding out, all the time, about all the stuff I still don't know.

Till next month, then! And, in preparation for hanging out with Shakespeare, I'll leave you with this question: In your classical reading, what was your first, or favorite, encounter with the fantastic?


Susannah Mandel has lived for ten years in Boston, two years in France, and several months in Philadelphia. She hopes never to move back to the suburbs. Her favorite hobbies include stories, sunlight, looking at stuff, and going into detail. Please feel free to tell her interesting things.