For some time now, I’ve been looking for a very different kind of writing anthology to use in an introductory college class — ideally, something that isn’t bound by genre, style, theme or category; in other words, an eclectic selection of contemporary writing (suggestions welcome!). At first, I thought Interfictions might be just what I had in mind. The idea of interstitial fiction is rather appealing, suggesting — at least, to me — unique combinations of generic and stylistic elements. I imagined blends of fiction mixed with journalism, prose-poetry, rhetoric, and other hybrid forms, assuming the interstitial nature of the stories would be in their style rather than their content.
As it turns out, Interfictions isn’t the book I’ve been looking for. That’s not to say many readers won’t enjoy it, however. Most of the stories are imaginative and polished, and the collection includes translations from Hungarian, French, and Spanish. What’s more, according to the editors’ blog, the anthology has been getting a lot of positive press.
What struck me most about these “interfictions,” however, was their striking similarity, rather than their difference. In fact, I don’t think anything would be lost if this book were described as an anthology of magic realism, since that’s the genre — perhaps once interstitial, but now a definite category of its own — into which all these stories would neatly fit. Most of them are set in a world that is recognizably ours, often described in heightened detail, into which unexplained miraculous, magic, fairytale elements are introduced: ghosts, talking birds and animals, peasants, sorcerers, mysterious figures with special powers, strange curses, secret gifts. Stories in this tradition, like many of those in Interfictions, may also involve leaps of time and place, and a fragmented or self-conscious narrative voice. Magic realists like Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie often re-cast existing stories or characters in a new light, as, in this collection, does Rachel Pollack (whose “Burning Beard” re-tells the Biblical story of Joseph), and Veronica Schanoes (who, in her grim story “Rats,” re-visits the sad life of Nancy Spungen, Sid’s ill-fated girlfriend). Other magic realist writers, like Ursula Le Guin and Isabel Allende, weigh in on the fantasy end of the spectrum, as, here, does Catherynne M. Valente in “A Dirge for Prester John,” and Adrián Ferrero in “When It Rains, You’d Better Get Out of Ulga.”
So what’s all this about “interstitial fiction”? Well, as editors Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss explain in their “Afterword” to Interfictions, they’re certainly not making the case that interstitial fiction is anything new. On the contrary, many popular and well-known writers have produced work that defies categorization, including Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, Italo Calvino, John Barth, and William Burroughs. So why bother giving these stories a label at all, when, as the editors point out, all labeling bears the risk of potential Balkanization?
Their beef with genre, it turns out, has to do with the marketing process. According to Sherman and Goss, publishers’ marketing departments have made it increasingly difficult for writers whose work doesn’t fit into established categories. In fact, according to the Interstitial Arts Foundation, this is true now of all the arts:
“Our intention in Interstitial Arts is to give all “Artists without Borders” a forum and a focus for their efforts. To that end, we do not want to build up new walls between genres or create new pigeonholes to slot works into. What we want to do is encourage a conversation in which art can be spoken of as a continuum rather than as a series of hermetically sealed definitions: to break down the borders, in fact; and to learn to judge, and choose, art on its own merits.”
In the spirit of this conversation, I’d like to suggest that, contrary to Sherman and Goss’s claims, there is far LESS categorizing today than there used to be. If it’s true that a lot of good books are overlooked, it’s probably not because they happen to fall between categories, but because there are around 3500 of them published every week in the U.S. alone, about half of which are novels. There’s also the fact that they may not be very good. Books that are really good eventually get attention even if — perhaps especially if — they don’t fit into existing genres (which, I’d venture, can be as off-putting to readers as they are appealing).
The fact that only a tiny percentage of books published these days are sold in high street bookstores or reviewed in the mainstream press has led to the growth of the self-publishing and web-based publishing industries, as well as print-on-demand sites like Lulu. Many authors are electing to publish from their websites, or in the form of e-books, or in alternative venues, which are no longer readily stigmatized as second best. It strikes me that, today more than ever, writers, like other artists perhaps, have plenty of opportunities to take things into their own hands, set up their own publicity, and get the word out (as, incidentally, Sherman and Goss have done with Interfictions). Most readers, I’d suggest, are far more familiar with nontraditional and hybrid art forms than they used to be.
Obviously, if your primary aim is to pay the rent rather than simply to get read or published, you might want to think about becoming a genre writer, since that seems to be the easiest way to become a best seller. Danielle Steele, Stephen King, John Grisham et al are all genre writers, but even here, if any of them decided to try something new (and some of them have), I think their fans would happily give it a try. Categories and genres, after all, are cultural constructs, broadly descriptive rather than critically rigorous, except perhaps in certain very specific cases like Romance.
In his “Introduction” to Interfictions, author Heinz Insu Fenkl writes that many readers find interfictional stories uncomfortable to read, and they then reject the work “often rationalizing their decision by focusing on some perceived flaw”. This may be true. If these stories fail to engage us, it might be because they make us feel uncomfortable and dislocated, but it might also be because they simply don’t work. You decide.