I was going to write an essay describing the state of the speculative fiction genre, or describing my uneasiness with certain genre-oriented tenets, but I decided not to. I thought, then, that I might write an essay describing the state of fiction in general, because the idea of speculative fiction, for me, is something much wider than what is published in fantasy and science fiction magazines; these stories can be found in many literary periodicals as well.
I then decided that it would be best for me to write only small fragments of belief, because what I think changes so quickly, so often, that I would hate to be kept to my word. I hate not being able to change my mind about things, and putting things in print makes that more difficult. But I do have some ideas that don’t change very much; or if they do change, it’s not in very big ways, but more like refinements. Also, there’s a lot of good stuff going on in and out of the genre these days. So instead of an essay, I’ve jotted down some notes. I’m not sure if they really make much sense, but they’re notes towards something more extensive, something still partially submerged, like Hemingway’s famous tip of the iceberg.
I read fantasy and science fiction and horror. The genre. I also read books and stories that are shelved in the “literature” section of the bookstore. I read poetry. I read surrealist manifestoes. I read historical documents, I look at paintings. I listen to music that ranges from classical to hip hop, from Celtic new age to techno. I listen and read and look at a lot of things that fall between the cracks. Because of this, my fiction tends to be all over the map. I may write a story that seems very realistic until eighteen pages into it something magical happens. I may write a story in which a science fictional idea merges with a narrative structure I found outside of genre magazines and books. Sometimes my stories look like a genre piece from one angle, but if you turn them just a little bit, they look like something else. Social realism, surrealism, Southern Gothic, fairy tales, or what is generally looked down upon in speculative fiction readerships as a “slice of life”.
Why is a slice of life (a vignette) so aberrant to genre readers? Because the plots in a slice of life (and they do have plots) are not so easily recognized as the ones that most speculative fiction readers are used to. Traditional science fiction and fantasy rely on over-arching plot structures. A reader can easily follow point A to B, and not get lost. There is evident causality, an explanation of the characters emotions, why they reacted to such and such an event the way they did. This is really a Victorian style of writing. Jane Austen writes like this. I like Jane Austen a lot, but the English language and the lexicon of narrative techniques we have available to us has evolved quite a bit since Jane penned Pride and Prejudice. What I don’t really enjoy about this sort of writing style is how it manipulates my understanding of a book. As a reader, I want more freedom. I like to not know everything, to be left to ponder over something in a story or a novel that is never quite explained. I don’t mind being nudged towards some sort of understanding of a story, but I don’t like being told what to think.
My mother tells me I’ve always been willful.
Plot is about control. It directs a story. Plot is the vacation you took with your family when you were twelve years old, when you all piled into the mini-van and traveled from one side of the country to the other. Your parents had the whole trip planned out. Every day was accounted for. Plot is the day that you wanted to stop to see the way sunlight fell over La Jolla Cove, but your parents had a schedule, and if you stopped, you wouldn’t get to the Grand Canyon on time. You rode the mules down into the canyon when you got there, just as you expected, but what might have happened if you’d stopped for an hour at sunset back at the cove?
I like plot, don’t get me wrong. But I also like authors who take detours, who travel the most unlikely roads to get to where they are going.
Characters are probably my most favorite things in stories. They’re your friends, your enemies, your family, your lover, or simply an acquaintance you met at the Laundromat. A lot of people think you have to like a character in fiction for the story to be a success. I disagree with this. I think you only have to enjoy a character for the story to be a success. I’ve enjoyed disliking many characters in books. Captain Nemo, for example. He was so mean! But I loved Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and wanted it to go on longer than it did, even if Captain Nemo was so dislikable. He had motives, and although I didn’t like his attitude, I liked discovering him and why he had that attitude in the first place.
I hear a lot of people get upset with characters in stories or books with whom they couldn’t “identify”. The invariable statement these readers make is, “I just couldn’t identify.” They say this as if it’s the author’s fault that they wrote about characters with whom they had not much in common, other than their basic humanity. I don’t understand this reaction. Although I do enjoy reading about characters with whom I identify, I also love to meet characters that I don’t understand at all, who I’ve never had the chance to get to know, and may never get to know outside of a story. I’ve never grown up in India, but I’ve got Arundhati Roy’s impressions of it from her novel, The God of Small Things. The world her characters inhabit is as strange and unfamiliar to me as the planet Gethen was when I visited it in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I don’t identify with Roy’s characters, except on a human level, but they were indefatigably interesting and beautiful and sad. (So were the Gethenians).
When I write, I try to understand my characters the same way I try to understand my family and friends—with interest, compassion and humor. I try not to judge.
This is a no-no in many circles of genre-specific readers and writers. What I particularly understand from many speculative fiction readers and writers is that plain, unadorned prose is the best way to go, and often the magazines and book publishers reflect this. It’s true, to some extent. I think as a writer, your reader must be able to comprehend your writing to some degree. But I think that too often this attitude excludes writing by authors that are more idiosyncratic, who phrase things differently than others, who use similes and metaphors that you’ve never thought of, who structure their stories in exotic manners.
When I first read Kelly Link’s “The Girl Detective”, I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. It required re-reading, and contemplation. On the first reading, I only understood bits and pieces of it. I only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg. Re-reading it, I understood more, and enjoyed it in different ways than I had initially. (Again, no matter what, it was enjoyable, even if I didn’t understand everything all at once). The story felt like a cut and paste project. Parts of it felt like a fairy tale. Other parts like a detective story. Some of it felt like a Young Adult story, and other sections were rated R. Point A to Point B became a dark ride into the underworld, and I didn’t always know how I got from one place to the other. I actually liked the not knowing. It was like that first ride on Space Mountain, in the dark, and you can’t see where the tracks are taking you, and suddenly you’re plunging down, down, down, into deeper darkness.
This is a little bit like Alice, falling down the rabbit hole.
A lot of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers are from the New Wave generation. The 1960’s writers who appeared in anthologies like Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. Carol Emshwiller’s stories are like nothing else I’ve ever read. Her voice is her own, I’ve never read anyone like her, and yet she’s writing about alien invasions and labyrinthine journeys. These are typical genre fare, and yet I felt like I was re-discovering science fiction and fantasy when I first read Carol Emshwiller’s stories.
The same feeling happened when I read M. John Harrison, Christopher Kenworthy, Lucius Shepard, Karen Joy Fowler, Lisa Goldstein, Maureen McHugh, Jonathan Carroll, Jonathan Lethem, Sean Stewart, Richard Bowes, Graham Joyce, John Crowley, Steven Millhauser, and Jeffrey Ford. Some of these authors aren’t placed on science fiction or fantasy bookshelves, like Millhauser, whose fantasies are so new and strange and so beautifully made, it’s a shame a lot of genre readers don’t know about him.
What’s most striking about these authors is that I can identify each one simply by reading a piece of their fiction without their name attached to it. This is a little like being blindfolded and knowing the sound of your mother’s voice, or the way your father coughs. No one else laughs like your best friend does. You can pick her laughter out of a room full of laughing strangers.
But I can’t really tell the difference between some writers and others. These are the writers whose sentences are very sturdy, very normal, very efficient and emotionally safe. These are the writers who make competent narratives that are easily forgettable. I’d name a few, but I’ve already forgotten them.
Also, I don’t want to be mean like Captain Nemo.
4. The Wedding, The Story
What makes a fiction supreme? Do supreme fictions even exist? Supreme fictions do not exist really, but some come close to it. Also it depends on how you define supreme. You might think supreme is the bestseller list. I tend to disagree with this assessment. Most often, the supreme fictions that I read are found on the remainder tables.
So, in my assessment, what goes into a supreme fiction? Or a sort of supreme fiction, since supreme fictions really don’t exist. The answer is this:
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. The same things a woman wears at her wedding. These are charms, magical things to make her marriage real and lasting, a spell to bring about the happily ever after. Of course, a lot of stories don’t end happily. But then, neither do all marriages.
Even though I may come off as a reader and writer who wants only the cutting edge, the new, the unfamiliar, the x-factor, this is not entirely true. I love and admire so much writing that is hundreds of years old. Know your Shakespeare, your Hawthorne, your Wharton, your Keats, your Ovid, your Balzac, your Dumas, your myths and legends, your Victorian fairy tales, your Grimm Brothers, your Austen. They are fellow travelers. They’ve been around the block. They’re wise, and can give you good advice.
Don’t wear that tired dress, though. Even if Jane Austen is your muse, at least dress the poor girl up like Susanna Clarke does in her lovely fairy stories told in a distinctly Austen-like tone. Mix it up a little. Don’t be afraid to try something bold, something audacious even. Go ahead, write in the second person point of view. Write a story with an inconclusive ending. Give your story footnotes. Throw in that shocking simile, even if it does call attention to itself. Maybe that’s the point. Make it new.
If you’re a writer, you’re a reader too. If you don’t read, I’m not sure how you became a writer, but I’m sure there are writers out there who don’t read, or who don’t read very often. In any case, you’ll find a lot of neat tricks when you’re reading other peoples stories, or looking at paintings, or listening to music, or participating in a conversation. Some of these tricks will be techniques for telling stories, others may be ideas that you want to work with, and others may simply be mood inspiring, which can be useful if writing is something dictated by your moods. Gather these charms about you. Use them to make your own writing better. If your sister got a divorce and then dyed her wedding dress black out of spite and wore it on Halloween to her ex-husband’s annual Halloween party, and you think that detail is perfect for your story, use it. You might want to ask your sister if it’s ok. Be really nice, and she’ll let you. If you’ve learned how to make a really cool transition from such and such an author, give it a try in your own writing. See if you can make it work for you too. If you’re writing a story that’s elegiac in nature, and listening to Loreena McKennitt helps “get you in the right mood”, use it. Borrow structures from fairy tales. Hijack a narrative like “Little Red Riding Hood”, and put your own spin on it.
Use colors. Don’t be afraid to paint with words. I love A.S. Byatt’s colors. Also Angela Carter brings wild variants of colors to her descriptions. Yes, this is an adornment. But why should we be Puritanical in fiction all of the time? I love Raymond Carver to pieces, but his stories sometimes feel like I’m looking at black and white photographs. This is kind of cool, but I really don’t want a lot of people writing like Raymond Carver, which seemed to be happening for a while in the late eighties and early nineties.
5. Towards Representation
There seems to be a hierarchy in representation. I don’t know if this crosses over into other forms of art, but in fiction, I’ve noticed that people tend to think realism and naturalism are somehow “better” sorts of fiction. I don’t understand this. I sometimes write naturalistically and through the lens of realism, but I have never thought that these styles of representation are in any way better than the use of a fantastical style, or any other mode or genre either. My thinking is that each story in the world can be told in a variety of modes and manners, and none of these modes are better than the other. They offer different grace notes and perspectives; they notice different things about the story they’re telling. This is what I understand: style approaches story. Story itself has no inherent style. It is just story. I think that, as readers, we would be better off to approach our fiction with the understanding that it is a representation of something, and that that representation may come to us in many guises, none of them better or worse, just different. If art mirrors life, or if life mirrors art, perhaps this would also be the best way to approach our world and the people who live in it with us.
6. On Truth
We seek truth in our lives, but some of us seek Truth. But I’m not so comfortable with the capitol “T”. T.S. Eliot said, “Our art is a substitute for our religion, and so is religion.” Many of our truth seekers would agree with Eliot. In the twentieth century and on into this new century, a profound loss of belief in our religious organizations, their Holy books and rituals, has occurred. How can we believe in these books, these beliefs, these teachings, these Truths, when our sciences, both biological and sociological, have changed our perceptions of the reality of these stories?
For a certain kind of reader, thinker, or artist, Art—especially in the Modernist period—became a replacement for religion, or meaning. Because art creates meaning from void, it is like religion. But if we are to assume that religious Truth cannot be trusted, we must not trust our art completely either. Words can be made to mean anything. Our loss of belief in religious truth must also, necessarily, be a loss of belief in the truths at which we arrive through art. James Joyce came to represent the epiphany in fiction, that light coming into the Promised Land, the realization of Truth. The idea is a deeply Christian reference. What he did not represent was the all too common event that follows epiphanic moments: that we moved through time in such a way that our memory cannot accommodate those revelations. We forget or revise as time passes; these processes are natural, and because of that, if we have a moment of Truth with a capitol “T”, we cannot maintain it in its original essence. A similar process can be witnessed in the midst of suffering or ecstacy: we cannot maintain ourselves in misery or extreme joy. We would burn up in their fires. Our minds accommodate such extremes by accreting a substance around such events in the same manner an oyster will surround the grain of sand to form a pearl. Pearls of wisdom may in actuality be Truth contained within a protective, impenetrable barrier.
This is not a bad thing. What this shows us is that there is truth. That truth recedes as quickly as it comes upon us—this may be a natural process. Perhaps we should perceive truth as elusive, rather than non-existent. Or that it is in a constant state of flux and revision, and because of this, we must flux with it. What I have written today will be gone tomorrow. The waves will come. What I’ve written will be washed away.
Write it again. Write again.
Live again. Live differently than you did the day before this one.
Take comfort in endings as well as beginnings.
Though our lives are made and remade, over again and over, they continue. Though there is nothing supreme, except perhaps Change, we find the world does not end. Not with a bang, nor with a whimper.
Notes Towards a Sort of Supreme Fiction is republished here with the author’s permission. All rights remain with Chris Barzak.
Christopher Barzak is the author of the Crawford Award winning debut novel, One for Sorrow, and the new novel-in-stories, The Love We Share Without Knowing. His short stories have appeared in Interfictions, Trampoline, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Nerve, and other venues. He lives in Youngstown, Ohio, where he teaches fiction writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University. You can visit his journal, Meditations in an Emergency for more information.