Issue 1B – Guest Editor Introduction
Sometime after you stopped saying Where the Wild Things Are was your favorite book, your next favorite book wasn’t a work of “serious” literature. Literary criticism is neither a dominant nor recessive genetic trait, meaning your ability to recognize differences between “genre fiction” and “regular fiction” is an unnatural contrivance hoisted upon you by society! So, if you claim your first favorite book was something you had to read in school or a novel from “the canon,” you’re a big fat liar. Fish didn’t sprout legs overnight and you didn’t become a serious reader that quickly, either. Because when you started reading books with more chapters and less pictures, chances are your first favorite book was a work of genre fiction.
From The Babysitter’s Club to one of the Goosebumps to A Wrinkle in Time (my first favorite!) to Dracula, lifelong readers are initially hooked on the big-idea books populated with ghosts, monsters, aliens, dragons, and, yes, babysitters, because these books have, well, hooks. Novels and stories with plot devices and clear understanding of stakes and themes are like candy, not because they are simple, but because they are, for the most part, unpretentious. In Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel—The Ocean at the End of the Lane—the narrator muses on how adult stories seem to bully readers with a kind of overt seriousness: “Adult stories never made sense, and they were slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?”
But, adults do want to read those stories. We do want to return to Narnia, or in the case of folks like Lev Grossman, create their own versions. And yet, even in our brave new world, supposedly free of genre bias, it’s still true that in certain circles there’s a shadow of “guilty pleasure” haunting conversations about genre books and stories we loved when we were younger. A good friend of mine—with two literary novels under his belt and awards and residencies coming out of his ears—took me aside at a reading last spring and, before looking over his shoulder for spies, confessed to me that he constantly fantasizes about writing a Star Wars novel, and that, in fact, Star Wars novels got him into writing novels in the first place. Can it get anymore shameful and lowbrow than that?
In mainstream literary outlets, these sorts of “hiding your freak flag” stories are becoming more and more commonplace. Sticking a copy of Asimov’s inside a copy of The Paris Review is like someone’s 1950’s Dad sticking a Playboy inside of a copy of Life Magazine. In 2012’s “Science Fiction Issue” of The New Yorker, my longtime pal—Karen Russell—outed herself as a young fantasy reader in her essay “Quests,” where she chronicled the ways in which she lied about reading the Sword of Shanara series out of fear of snobby persecution. Are there flocks of college freshmen reading this right now worrying that they can’t tell their English professors that their favorite book is The Hunger Games?
But wait! We live in the age of acceptance, and isn’t “geek culture” more prominent than ever? Isn’t this kind of genre persecution no longer an issue? Doesn’t the simple existence of the success of Karen Russell and Lev Grossman prove that genre fiction has officially crossed over into the mainstream and is now accepted? Soon, the divisions between “sci-fi” and “regular” literature will vanish faster than Hermione Granger can conjure a spell to make people forget what age they are when they start reading a book. In the past, we put science fiction, fantasy, western and romance on the wire racks in the bookstore, while the real shelves were reserved for the real books. But all that is over now because of Jonathan Lethem and Maragret Atwood, right?
Well, not exactly. Or to put it more bluntly, these literature ghettos aren’t just dismantled because some smart literary writers occasionally “slum it” by writing about talking animals or genetically engineered pigs. Genre bias in reality isn’t The New Yorker simply refusing to publish science fiction, but rather a double Scylla and Charybdis situation. Yep. I’ve been on both sides of this folks, and I’m here to say it. Some of the blame of genre division should be pointed (ray gun and all!) right back at the genre fiction communities themselves. In his essay “Science Fiction,” Kurt Vonnegut noticed the label of science fiction exists partially because science fiction wants to “keep it that way.” There’s a clubhouse mentality to the legitimate science fiction communities, and while Vonnegut didn’t overtly mention my favorite Groucho Marx come way of Woody Allen quote, “I don’t want to be part of a club that would have me as a member,” I’ve repeated it many times to my relations within science fiction. Are literary writers still a little ashamed of science fiction because they want to be taken seriously, or is it just that the clubhouse isn’t quite what they want?
Professionally, I’ve worked inside of the science fiction community extensively, and, while many of authors there bemoan not being supported by mainstream literature, there is a majority of readers and writers in that community who don’t read outside of it. Gary Shteyngart can go on NPR and talk about Zardoz and write a bonafide science fiction novel in the form of Super Sad True Love Story while neither the Nebula Awards nor the Hugo Awards take the slightest bit of notice. Why wasn’t Super Sad True Love Story nominated for a Hugo? Why wasn’t Swamplandia!? Maybe the science fiction and fantasy communities felt like Gary Shteyngart didn’t need any more attention. Or was it simply that Super Sad True Love Story didn’t “feel” like a science fiction novel as defined by the science fiction community? Let me tell you something: before I was a writer I waited tables at the Olive Garden and they have a definition of Italian Food that might not fly with everyone.
On the other side, readers of The New Yorker (or Story magazine!) may not be as versed in contemporary genre writers like Neil Gaiman, Lauren Beukes, John Scalzi, China Mieville, or Nora Jemisin as they really ought to be, which is to say nothing of Octavia Bulter, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Alfred Bester, Stanislaw Lem, and the other greats of science fiction’s past, which non-genre readers seem to have “heard of” but never actually read. The literary elite may not be overtly discriminating against the science fiction and fantasy clubhouse, but they might not knock on the door all that often enough. There are still horror stories of students at big-deal creative writing programs being told their science fiction story is “bad” simply because it’s got science fiction in it. This abuse may not be as prominent as it used to be, and the lunch money of various “geeks” might be secure, but fear and snobbery on both sides are still as common as the ubiquity of the word “geek” to mean absolutely nothing.
My challenge to both communities isn’t to tear down the clubhouses and snobby towers overnight, but instead to simply remember where we all came from: a love of stories. Reading and writing (no matter what I’m told) is a part of the entertainment industry. The magazine you’re reading for pleasure is a piece of entertainment. Genre fiction, once it was defined and codified, has been fairly unapologetic in its goal to entertain. Meanwhile, literary fiction, in its quest to be important, sometimes forgets to have fun.
Good writing can be entertaining and important because genre fiction can be taken “seriously” while literary fiction can be “entertainment.” The boundaries and clubhouses may never go away, but in the migration of individual stories, or in choices of individual writers, everyone can have a little bit of a better time.
The stories contained in this B-Side, I think represent exactly that: important tales which are also fun. If science fiction is supposed to make you think and fiction fiction is supposed to make you feel, the pieces here are a collection of “ThinkFeels,” a sort of reverse Orwellian product which I didn’t invent, but recommend highly. None of the writers of these stories are considered by the science fiction/fantasy community to be genre writers, but, they’ve all, for one reason or another, put up with listening to me worry about genre crossover into mainstream literary fiction. My evil plot is this: I figure if respected and wonderful writers continue to fly their freak flags in this way, the flags will eventually not be needed at all.
All around us, (as Margaret Atwood reminds everyone in her afterward to MaddAddam) science fictions are becoming a reality. So, what does the science fiction writer living in a science fiction future write her stories about? Will her gerne become irrelevant? Will she experience any real recognition? If I have my way, hopefully this future science fiction writer won’t care about genre convention and simply focus on not sucking.
To keep reading and writing vital, we must remind ourselves why we started to love to read, and why we began to write. The stories I’ve selected for inclusion in this special section I don’t think represent anything about any one specific genre at all. I could call Nelly Reifler’s “I am the Ojo Insight 3” a work of genuine science fiction, but then I wonder about the voice of the story. A tale told from the perspective of a piece of technology seems like it has to be defined as sci-fi, but the slips and winks of a different, strong, and present authorial voice, somehow outside of (and a part of) her fantastical musings is part of what makes Nelly such a scary good writer. (If you’ve read her brief and terrifying novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge, then you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, please do so right after reading all these stories. Just prepare yourself for plastic dolls screwing before your eyes.) Similarly, it’s hard to know what to call James Hannaham’s “High Five.” The word “fantasy” certainly comes to mind, but not in terms of a fantasy anyone of us would every willfully have. Instead, James’s story, for me, is like the best kind of haunting; funny because it seems so fantastically strange and scary because it’s so specifically bizarre. James has, more than once, in real life, made me laugh uncomfortably. It’s so heartening when a writer’s work is just like the writer.
Allegra Frazier’s deftness in “The Dreamers, Again” startles me, because the conflating of physical reality with things we can’t touch or know in real life is, to me, exactly what speculative fiction is supposed to do. It’s like Allegra gets to have things both ways in this story; a slightly sideways world with rules different from our own, yet riddled with a frighteningly familiar sting of the mundane.
And what to say about Etgar Keret? In writing about Etgar over the years, I’ve called him a mad scientist at least twice. Here, he’s back in his laboratory mixing up a story which isn’t something out of nothing, as he put it so well in “Suddenly, A Knock at the Door”; but instead the acting of making something out of something. “Birthday Buyer,” might not be his most soaring feat of fabulist exercise, but it might be one of the most affecting and disquieting. Like the best insane genius, Etgar makes me unsure whether to laugh or cry.
So, if your imagination needs some help on how the hybrid monsters of literature and genre fiction will function in a brave tomorrow, then I hope these few beautiful, deranged, wonderfully mutated stories can give you a terrifying, hilarious, and glittering little glimpse of that bold and genre-confused future. And with a little luck, maybe make you forget what a genre is in the first place.
New York City, 2013