Friday, December 16, 2011

Fantasy in the Year 2012

There are those in the world that tear down genre fiction, claiming it is nothing but the lowest common denominator, watered down prose that is predictable, boring, and without any redeeming value. I disagree. Is there a difference between genre horror and literary horror, between genre fantasy and literary fantasy, between genre science fiction and literary science fiction? There is. But I’ve read just as much boring, predictable literary fiction as I have genre fiction. On both sides of the fence there are authors that succeed and authors that fail. And when they succeed, the literary and academic factions often claim them as their own—convenient, right?

Take a look at The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Is this a literary story or a genre story? If you go by the language alone, then this must be literary fiction. If you go by the subject matter and setting, it’s quite possibly genre, some hybrid of horror and science fiction. Post-apocalyptic doesn’t mean genre, it’s only a place to tell the tale. There are moments of sheer horror in this novel, the baby roasting on a spit over an open flame, the basement full of people stacked like cords of wood, eaten one at a time for survival. The fantasy here is that the world has come to an end—it just happens to be more of a nightmare.

Take the entire sub-genre of magical realism. It’s based in the realm of fantasy, where there are often worlds hidden inside other worlds, dimensions just beyond a window, buried in a tapestry, or revealed after passing through a portal. And what is wrong with that? Can only Tolkien talk about orcs and trolls and be seen as an author of literary merit? No. What magical realism does for fantasy today is start the story (or ground the story) in a reality, a place where we can talk about our problems in universal ways, discussing work and family and emotions. Because we all know that if this were set on Mars or in the year 3012 that we just couldn’t tell a story worth telling, right? 

I’m not sure if Ray Bradbury’s story “The Veldt” is magical realism or science fiction, but it’s probably the latter. Not that it matters. All speculative fiction does the same thing: it speculates. It asks questions, “What if vampires lived in the year 2012?” or “What if ancient gods walked the earth in the 20th century?” How would that all work? Bradbury, in “The Veldt,” a story collected in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, the BIBLE of literary story telling, tells us a tale of spoiled kids who spend most of their time in a room where any setting can be created. Maybe the room turns into an African savanna, lions growling in the distance, the smells and heat bearing down on the children, flies buzzing around their heads. What separates this story from “bad genre fiction” is the ability of Bradbury to find the emotional truth in this tale, the battle between the parents and the children for respect and honesty. The technology, the “science fiction” doesn’t really matter, does it? If we don’t care about the people, if we aren’t emotionally involved, then we won’t get into the story, we won’t disappear into the threads of their lives, seeping into the background, gasping as the door shuts and the lions scratch at the door.

There will always be an audience for straight fantasy, be it high or low. And that’s a good thing. I grew up reading Tolkien, Bradbury and Heinlein, and have enjoyed Gaiman and Rowling as an adult, to name but a few authors. But the short stories and novels that affected me the most were the ones in which I cared about the characters. If there can be any criticism leveled at genre fiction, then it must also be directed at literary fiction: please don’t bore me to death; and don’t be predictable.

Magical realism is a sub-genre that I’ve been getting into more and more these days. People like Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Karen Russell—George Saunders even. Maybe this is a middle ground for contemporary fans of fantasy that are looking for something different to read. In my own work, I usually write what I call “neo-noir” fiction, or contemporary dark stories. It isn’t just horror, but it is often horrific. There doesn’t have to be a monster to scare you, there’s enough to fear within our own dirty hearts and fractured minds. Lately I’ve been dabbling in magical realism because it allows me to write in a place and time I know well (the year 2012, United States, Chicago) and yet take some steps into the darkness, the mystical—the unknown. In my story “Fireflies,” I trim the world down to a man in a hut that rests on top of a hill, the wind outside whipping up debris, wolves circling, snapping at the door, a glowing outline of fireflies recreating the body of a long dead wife. And in “Flowers for Jessica” (Weird Fiction Review, 2012) I show a woman so saddened by the loss of a child that she dissolves into a forest, only to be brought back to life by the sweat and tears of her distraught husband, each layer of her translucence and flowering veins a disturbing realization that maybe the dead should stay that way.

We worry too much about labels, I think. Maybe it boils down to audience and sales. Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates: literary giants or genre fiction masters? Maybe we need to say BOTH. In the end, I can honestly say that I’ve gotten as much joy from Stephen King as I have from Denis Johnson, and China MiĆ©ville as Flannery O’Connor. All of these authors are willing to step into the darkness, and aren’t we better off with them taking us to different places? Maine, the South, London, Mars, or Narnia, if the story is told well, if I can imagine the people, the androids, the beasts, loving and hating, fighting to survive, to find meaning in the world—then that’s all that matters to me.


  1. But then - isn't all fiction "speculative"?

    It all begins with asking questions. What if some guy killed the landlady with an axe? What if an old fisherman went to sea and hooked a marlin? What if a guy and a girl fell in love, but their families were sworn enemies? What if a captain went mad in his search for a white whale?

    How about "non-fiction"? It speculates too. I'm guessing here, but I believe autobiographies are often a way to answer the question "what if [some great moment of history] was shown from a very peculiar point of view".

    Maybe the quality of all fiction (and non-fiction) is intrinsically linked to the kind of questions it poses, and how much they matter to us, how much they resonate with the questions inside us.


  2. Thanks for the comments, Marcos. Sure, I guess all good fiction is speculative, but the term has been used for a long time to refer to the fantastic.