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Issue #124 - December 2005

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Literary Fiction for People Who Hate Literary Fiction

By Matthew Cheney

There is a stereotype of literary fiction shared by both science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers: that academically-sanctioned, "serious" contemporary fiction is all about dull middle-class people having affairs, and that the writers of this fiction do such things as use a couple hundred pages to describe events that could quite easily be described in a paragraph. This stereotype is not entirely inaccurate ó such books do exist. But just as it is unfair to condemn all SF as clunkily-written space operas for people who are hiding from puberty, so it is unfair to dismiss all literary fiction as unimaginative hogwash for people who yearn to be seen as sensitive.

A reader only interested in a narrow type of writing (hard SF, for instance) is not going to find much pleasure from any literary fiction, but a reader who is interested in experiencing new realities, strange visions, visceral horror, and supernatural events has plenty to choose from. What follows is an introduction to some writers who might appeal to certain types of genre readers. It is not a comprehensive tour, nor does it focus on the same elements for each writer: some of these writers are worth reading because of their plot devices, some because of their fantastic imagery, some because their approach to language and structure creates a wonder of its own.

The weirdness literary fiction can offer is, in general, of a different sort from the weirdness offered by most genre fiction, but the differences usually are not as much between idioms of writing as they are between the goals and purposes of different writers. There is, for instance, a writer like Flannery OíConnor, the best of whose stories are among the best, and most bizarre, ever written by an American. But OíConnor was not interested in weirdness for its own sake ó she was a devout Catholic, and her faith allowed her to view the world in terms of sin and redemption. These two ideas fill all of her fiction, and if she spent more time writing about the first it was because she despaired of otherwise finding the second. Her characters and situations are often bizarre, and what feels allegorical is usually something more complex ó something that, to experience its full resonance, must be viewed both literally and figuratively. Donít miss her stories "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", "Good Country People", "Everything that Rises Must Converge", and her novel Wise Blood. In these works, characters blind themselves, fanatics torture obnoxious families, a Bible salesman steals a womanís wooden leg, and a mother is killed by her own hatred and anger, leaving her son to fend for himself in a world of pain. Such tales bubble with gothic grotesqueries and ooze original sin.

While OíConnor could almost be considered a horror writer, other mainstream writers use the tools of different sorts of popular fiction. Myths and legends are familiar material to readers of Tolkien and Gaiman, but they are also used powerfully by a myriad of writers not usually associated with the SF section of bookstores. Eduardo Galeano, for instance, is best known for his polemics about Latin America, but he has also written such evocative and unique collections of fable, legend, poetry, and story as The Book of Embraces and Walking Words. He is a master of poetic glimpses and suggestive fragments, and the worlds his words walk through are equally fueled by ancient and modern magics.

Rick Bass is one of the contemporary masters of the novella, but he is also a writer who understands the mythic sense that links American literature to the American landscape. The early short stories collected in The Watch are all worth reading ("Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses" is a fine send-up of writing workshops), but Bass really becomes a great writer when he gives himself over most fully to his more phantasmagoric sensibilities with the stories in Platte River, In the Loyal Mountains, and The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness ó each story feels imbued with the spirit of tall tales and legends, and yet most are based in something resembling a contemporary reality, although one where animals can talk and men can live for centuries.

If you mixed Galeano and Bass, the result would be Barry Lopez, who is primarily known as a nature writer (his Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award), despite his having written more books of fiction than nonfiction. Lopez has yet to publish a novel, but his short stories range from quiet regional tales to interplanetary science fiction. Among his collections, my favorite is Light Action in the Caribbean, which contains one absolute masterpiece, "The Mappist" (about a man who creates preternaturally accurate maps), along with such excellent stories as "The Deaf Girl" and "Emory Bear Handsí Birds" ó fantasy and horror stories. Lopez's fiction is enigmatic, lyrical, and suggestive, and early collections such as Field Notes and Winter Count are most satisfying when read in full, rather than as separate stories. His most recent collection, Resistance, is a strange almost-novel, a work of what might be called speculative realism, about people who have exiled themselves from a politically repugnant United States.

Doctrinaire realism seems most beloved in the U.S., where many writers have not seized all the imaginative possibilities available to them. Thankfully, this disease seems more contained in other countries, and so a Portuguese writer like Jose Saramago is taken seriously (and given a Nobel prize) even though all of his books are fantasies. His novel Blindness is a shocking look at how thin the veneer of civilization can be (one by one, everyone on Earth goes blind), and his other books often feel like the sorts of things Kafka would have written had he gotten the chance ó tales of ghosts conversing with people, of continents floating away, and, again and again, labyrinthine bureaucracies that consume individuals. Saramago has a few stylistic quirks that can make his work difficult to get into, but it is worth putting forth a little bit of effort in the beginning, because after ten or twenty pages, the books have taught you how to read them, and the experience is thrilling. Had he limited himself to the here-and-now, the possible-and-probable, Saramago wouldn't be half as interesting or powerful a storyteller as he is.

Another writer who seems to have never considered fantasy a limitation is Gioconda Belli. Unfortunately, only one of Belliís novels has been translated into English from the original Spanish: her first, The Inhabited Woman. Itís a magical exploration of a womanís life before and during the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, where the spirit of a native warrior woman inhabits the protagonist, giving her insight both into her immediate life and into the cruelties of history, and providing her with the courage to join in the struggle against a dictatorship. Though it suffers from a few first-novel problems, overall it is both gripping and emotionally affecting. (To learn about the reality beneath the fantasy, be sure to read Belliís memoir, The Country Under My Skin, which is readily available in English, as is a collection of her poetry, Eveís Rib.)

And then thereís Bruno Schulz. A writer and artist, Schulz reputedly started publishing when some imaginative chronicles of his everyday life came to the attention of a contemporary novelist. Street of Crocodiles (a.k.a. The Cinnamon Shops) is his most famous book, a kind of surreal memoir, and while it has a certain affinity to the writings of Kafka and Robert Walser, among others, it is not entirely like anything else you are likely to encounter.

Equally unique and evocative as Schulzís writings, the stories of Tatyana Tolstaya are odd, eerie, and beautiful. I am particularly fond of the stories in her first collection, On the Golden Porch ó stories in which cabbage soup talks to itself, and scratchy old records lead to a hallucinatory quest for love.

I canít talk about short stories without talking about Alice Munro. I know plenty of people who proclaim Alice Munro their favorite living short story writer, and I know a couple of SF writers who think her work has all the atmosphere of the best fantasy writing, despite being built with some of the oldest tools of mundane realism. Nothing supernatural occurs overtly in Munroís fiction, and yet her tales seem to take place in a world apart from our own. Her stories are miracles of emotion and character; they often start slowly and build toward devastating conclusions. It seems to me that Munro gets better with each new collection, but itís difficult to go wrong with any of it ó the Selected Stories offers a good sampling of her early and middle work, but her most recent collections (The Love of a Good Woman; Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage; and Runaway) are worth reading cover-to-cover many times. To discover how a short story can be as rich as a novel, to discover how realistic fiction can create a sense of wonder, to discover the possibilities of fiction, read Munro.

Paul Bowles, an American composer and writer who lived most of his life in Morocco, may be best known for such Poe-inspired horror stories as "The Delicate Prey" and "A Distant Episode", but he was a writer of many styles and interests. Bowles has been called a nihilistic writer, a Beat writer, a monster, a genius. He first gained a reputation for the violent scenes in those early stories and in his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, but there is much more to Bowles than brutality. He was an avowed surrealist and existentialist who reveled in the sense of always being in exile. He wrote clear, accessible prose in an attempt to capture inaccessible realities: read "The Circular Valley" and "You are Not I" for stunning approaches to point of view; read "The Time of Friendship" and "Too Far from Home" for their melding of landscape and character, read The Sheltering Sky for its grotesque imagery and portrayal of civilizationís madness, read The Spiderís House because of the magnificence of its structure and the depth of its sad compassion. Bowles is a writer the mainstream world of literary opinion has sometimes loathed and sometimes embraced, but he is a writer any afficionado of dark fantasy should be familiar with, because he demonstrates how much can be accomplished by a careful crafting of tone and pace.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of restraint from Bowles sits Stanley Elkin. You have to have a tolerance for long sentences and an overabundance of detail when you read Elkin, but he rewards the sympathetic reader generously. I donít know of another novel like The Magic Kingdom, in which terminally ill British children go on a tour of Disneyworld, and lots of sex and jokes ensue until, like life, there is death. In terms of content, if Philip Jose Farmer and R.A. Lafferty had ever had a child together, it might have grown up to write Stanley Elkinís novels. But content is only one of the remarkable qualities Elkin offered. Style is what any reader notices first. Elkin could easily be accused of inefficient writing: in addition to long sentences, he writes long paragraphs and long scenes. I found, though, that once Iíd developed a taste for such writing, I didnít want Elkinís stories and books to end. Elkin loved language; he wielded it with gusto and grace, and he spiced even his most mordant ideas with a sense of humor that was broad and silly, but also smart.

Another lover of language, Jeanette Winterson, has probably never been accused of having a sense of humor, because in essays and interviews she seems to have an ego large enough to petition for membership in the United Nations. Much of her fiction is truly extraordinary, though. Her public image has drawn some attention away from the merits of her work, which is unfortunate, because there is just nothing out there quite like The Passion, Written on the Body, Art and Lies, and Sexing the Cherry. Her writing is lush, imaginative, and often erotic; it digs into the humanity beneath history and art, and it offers word-dreams of many worlds. It is impossible to say what Wintersonís best work is "about", because most people who become addicted to her writing have the experience of reading quickly through the first book of hers they encounter, despite feeling at least mildly bewildered the entire time, and then going back to reread it to get a better grip, and discovering that the bewilderment is an integral, and even exciting, part of the experience.

Ben Okri has a similarly lush sense of language as Winterson, and his writings also build entire worlds ó worlds of gods and spirits, of myths and history ó but his work is not nearly as structurally adventurous as Wintersonís. Okriís Booker Prize-winning novel The Famished Road (wherein African spirituality creates a multiverse, and a paradise exists on the other side of a sad and desperate reality) is so richly fantastic as to be exhausting. I admire Okri most for the short stories in a slim collection, Stars of the New Curfew ó the imagery is as vivid and plentiful as in The Famished Road, but it is less overwhelming in ten- or twenty-page tales than in a 500-page novel.

Some writers marketed as writers of literary fiction seem like they could fit quite easily into another camp, given the opportunity. For instance, whenever I try to think of writers to compare Jim Crace to, I think of SF writers: Ian MacLeod, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael BishopÖ While each of those comparisons feels at least vaguely accurate, there just isn't any way to say, "If you like X, you'll like Crace." He is a sensual writer ó the descriptions of markets in Arcadia are as vivid as any such description I've encountered ó but he is also an efficient writer, one who is able to find the most evocative words so that he doesnít have to go on at length. None of his novels are long, and yet they evoke worlds that seem at first to be familiar, but are full of anomalies. Itís the kind of writing that is just strange enough to make you reconsider what you considered real before reading it. His best book is Being Dead, a spiritual novel written by an atheist, a Darwinian paean to the ages of man, and a story of the wonders that happen to bodies when they rot.

The closest thing I know of to a genre writer working outside the marketing labels of genre writing is George Saunders, best known for his short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. Saunders routinely publishes in major U.S. magazines like The New Yorker and Esquire, yet almost all of his stories could have appeared in Interzone or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction ó indeed, he has recently been included not only in The Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Awards volumes, but The Yearís Best Fantasy and Horror and Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahanís Science Fiction: The Best of 2003. He writes about virtual realities, about bizarre corporate theme parks, about grandmothers coming back from the dead to haunt their loser grandkids into doing something productive with their lives. His stories are blisteringly satirical, but also moving, a combination rare enough to have garnered him a considerable amount of attention for a relatively small body of work.

Science and technology may not be the main themes of literary fiction, but they are major concerns for dozens of writers, including some of the most lauded (and occasionally detested) American writers of our time: Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, Don DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. Powers in particular is a novelist whose work is imbued with science and speculation, as well as just about every other realm of human knowledge and endeavor. These are difficult writers, though, sometimes frustrating in their obsession with erudition, sometimes more pathologically encyclopedic than even Neal Stephenson.

Though science is not alien to literary fiction, there are, of course, things SF writers do that writers of lit-fic don't, and vice versa. It is rare, for instance, to find a writer of literary fiction who includes interstellar travel in their work, because such props as space ships and black holes tend to be seen as irreducibly science fictional. Similarly, it is rare for a book considered literary fiction to also be considered traditional epic fantasy. And thatís what we have science fiction and traditional epic fantasy for, and what we love them for ó for those moments that could not appear in any other kind of story.

Those moments are few, though, and just as anyone who limits their reading to the literary mainstream is missing out on a lot of magnificent writing, so the reader who reads only what gets marketed as science fiction or fantasy is missing a universe of marvels beyond those borders.

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