Thursday, July 4, 2013

Transcendence and Fiction

There is a particular, well-documented snobbism that denies the possibility that literary quality can coexist with science-fictional, fantastic or horrific elements of plot. In certain publications, the phrase "transcends the limits of" is a sign that the critic is about to laud an author whose work strays distressingly from the confines of domesticated realism. (Similarly, the word "gritty" indicates that the critic managed to take interest in a work despite the presence of working-class or otherwise immiserated characters.) The result is a kind of "no true Scotsman" tautology. Genre fiction, you see, just does not offer the kind of pleasure of the text that true literature does. If one then points out an acknowledged classic that is fantastic, science-fictional or horrific in essence, then clearly it has "transcended the limits of the genre." As with any tautology, this methodology sheds no light on what makes literature good or great. And since transcendence is in the eye of the beholder, what breaks the frozen sea within one critic might well make another lose his appetite for morning tea and toast. (Click that link only if you want to be driven apoplectic.)

Yet there seems to be an inverse snobbism whereby those who identify genres not as ways of writing about and estranging oneself from the world, but as communities of comfortable sameness, distance themselves from any work that might induce uncomfortable sensations in between their ears.

Let us consider the case of Karen Russell's story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Of the eight stories, all but the last, "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis" (which I found to be too long by a factor of roughly three, and otherwise dissatisfying, despite some occasionally brilliant sentences and observations) would fit comfortably in one of the above referenced genres: the title store, "The Barn at the End of Our Term" and "The New Veterans" are straight fantasy; "Reeling for the Empire" and the hilarious "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating" are science-fictional in essence; and "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979" and "Proving Up" are as unnerving as anything by Brian Evenson or other great horror writers. (Even "Mutis" could have been horror, had Russell allowed herself to dwell more in uncanny potentialities rather than messy realities, and failing thereby to capture either.) And, aside from "Mutis" and "New Veterans" (which I'd already read and didn't care for when it first came out in Granta), all are excellent. In tone, mordant wit and talent for telling misdirection the writing reminded me of Kit Reed--a writer whose work was as likely to appear in Fantasy & Science Fiction as in The Yale Review.

Yet, unlike Reed's, all of Russell's stories were first published in self-conceived "literary" venues, rather than "genre" ones--albeit relatively venturesome ones, like Zoetrope, Granta, Tin House and Conjunctions. Her CV has a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Berlin Prize, but no Hugo, World Fantasy Award, or Shirley Jackson Prize. I'd need to research it, but I don't think these stories were even nominated for these awards in the years of their first publication. And they should have been. (To be fair, her first story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves did get on the Honor List for the Tiptree award.)

The question that remains to be answered, then, is why not? I am not asking this rhetorically; please comment with any ideas. I am new enough to both the reading and the writing of speculative fiction that I do not have enough data from which to construct a theory.

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