Collectionizing: Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove

WHM discusses a few of the stories in Karen Russell’s short story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” and gets sidetrack by musings on where interstitial authors end up finding publication and an audience.

cover of Vampires in the Lemon GroveWith her collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”, Russell wins the 2013 WHM prize for melding literary and genre and the humorous with the horrific/uncanny/dark. I suppose there could be other challengers, but they’re going to have to be damn good with the blending.

I would like to see her push a little further into genre territory, especially with her endings, which tend towards the ambiguous and/or the sum-it-up image. The title story especially suffers from this. Of course, this is a matter of taste, and my tastes now run towards writers taking a bit more of stand with their work. I’d rather read 10 genre endings and only have one hit than 20 perfect but ambiguous literary endings that all seem familiar.

That’s unlikely to happen, though. Russell herself explained in a must-listen Agony Column Podcast, she prefers the ambiguity [1. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for a link to the MP3 file.]. And if that’s part of the engine that leads to the creation of her stories, then she shouldn’t tinker with it because from my readerly perspective, the twisted science fictional/fantastical premises she comes up with are fascinating (and amusing and horrific).

It’s interesting to note, though, that the stories in this collection–all of which have strong genre elements–were published in literary mags: Zoetrope, Conjunctions, Tin House and Granta. Maybe they pay better or are better for building the career Russell is building. Likely both. But it’s always intriguing to me to see where the interstitial authors find homes. Russell did garner two genre-oriented award recognitions [2. According to her sfadb.com entry]: a Tiptree nomination for her previous story collection and a Shirley Jackson nomination for “Reeling for the Empire”, which is one of the strongest stories in this current collection. But it seems to me that Nebula and Locus noms (or even wins) for “Reeling” would have been a fait accompli if the story had appeared in Clarkesworld or F&SF. And the story very well may win the Shirley Jackson for novelette [3. The awards will be anounced on July 14]. I’m not saying that it is more worthy than the other novelettes that did receive Locus and/or Nebula nods–only that it seems to be well within range.

Okay, enough inside baseball–on to the collectionizing:

Best story: “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” has that ending problem; “Reeling for the Empire” sticks with me more than any of the other stories so it must be the best one.

Favorite story: About half the stories are strong candidates for this, but I’m going to go with “The Barn at the End of Our Term”, which is about U.S. presidents incarnating as horses after they die. It’s thoughtful and amusing, and the premise is perfect.

Creepiest story: “Reeling for the Empire” is the most horrifying story and others are rather uncanny, but I found “Proving Up” the creepiest because we know the least about what’s going on.

Funniest story: the most overtly funny one is “Douglas Shackleton’s Rules for Antartic Tailgating”, but I found myself chuckling most at “The Barn at the End of Our Term”.

The science fiction double issue of The New Yorker

A belated look at last June’s science fiction double issue of The New Yorker, which brings with it exactly the pleasures and annoyances one expects when the literati tackle genre.

The June 4/11 2012 edition of The New Yorker is almost wholly devoted to science fiction. Sadly, it’s about what you expect. It’s not without it’s pleasures, of course (more on those later), but on the whole I found it disappointing. Here’s why:

  1. Lipsyte, Burgess, Lethem, Egan, Whitehead, Diaz. With brief personal essays from Bradbury, Le Guin, Mieville, Atwood, Karen Russell, and Gibson. The only names missing from the “acceptable to academics/the literati” list are Chabon and Grossman. That’s a pity. There are so many authors writing excellent genre fiction that has strong literary fiber to it.
  2. Many of the personal essays/personal histories focus almost solely on exposure to science fiction during childhood and adolescence as the driving force behind why the author now writes genre fiction. There is very little attempt to define and defend science fiction and other genre fictions as adult expressions of creativity, issues and ideas. Burgess’s long essay on the thinking behind A Clockwork Orange is the exception, but that’s a novel that is now decades old and, as far as I can tell, isn’t really engaged with the genre in a major way. Le Guin tackles it, but in a way that looks back to the origins rather than what’s current (and she only gets one page to make her case).
  3. This is the cover:
  4. I hate upholding conventional wisdom, but Jonathan Lethem’s “My Internet” is a not-quite-passable, very thin, (barely) idea science fiction short story. To use the vernacular: it’s weak sauce. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see one of the respected short fiction editors in the actual SF&F field giving it a nod.

The issue is not without its pleasures. The Lipsyte short story does something interesting with narrative form. The Diaz story has some heft to it although doesn’t really play as much out as I would have liked. And, as you might expect the Bradbury, Le Guin and Gibson mini-essays are charming. Emily Nussbaum’s critical essay on “Doctor Who” and “Community” is also well worth reading.

And then there’s Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”, a near-future sci-fi story told in 140-character segments. I like the story. It unfolds gracefully and although the sci-fi elements are light, they do what good sci-fi elements do: magnify and depend character and plot. The story is reproduced on the page in blocks (you can view how a sample page layout here). For some reason I found reading it in that form daunting. Which is why I was glad that I had actually already read it in serialized form on Twitter. In fact, I thought the story worked better that way — parceled out in the form of tweets 20-30 in a row every evening for several days in a row. Showing up in your timeline alongside other tweets — it felt a bit more real, each line had a bit more impact. It’s the best thing about the issue. And it was outside the issue.

Walter Mosley’s case for genre

WHM uses Walter Mosley’s recent column on genre fiction to again take up the issue of genre fiction vs. literary fiction.

Earlier this month, Walter Mosley wrote a case for genre for Tor.com.

He wrote:

Alternative fiction is not comfortable, not expected. There are heroes, yes, but the world they bring us stinks of change and betrays all the faith that we once had in the sky above our heads and the ground below our feet.

This is what I call realistic fiction; the kind of writing that prepares us for the necessary mutations brought about in society from an ever changing technological world.”

I’m not sure that all speculative fiction does that. Some of it is backward looking — nostalgic, a reminder of virtues that if not widely held were more widely valid in the past: things like honor and courage. But just because that type of fiction exists, doesn’t mean that Mosley is wrong: the core of both science fiction and fantasy are engaging in speculation (thus the term speculative fiction [a term that is not loved by all, but one that I find useful]) and one can’t do so, I don’t think, without engaging with where are, where we have been and where we are going as a society. And, of course, literary fiction can be nostalgic as well.

And I think what Mosley is saying is that to engage in the fantastical, the speculative is to remind us that we can imagine other lives, other worlds, other timelines, other technologies than these. If literary realism gives us a snapshot of time, attempting in so doing to provide some sort of psychological portrait of a segment of society, speculative fiction gives us moving pictures. A dynamic view. Motion. Change (a world that stinks of change, according to Mosley).

I posted about this issue last year when Lev Grossman defended genre in the Wall St. Journal. What I like about Mosley’s post is that he doesn’t engage in any of the three weak defenses that we often see. He also speaks not just of achievements but also potential. I think this is also good. No literature ever fully arrives — that’s why we keep writing and reading.

In that previous post, I made the point that genre fiction should be defended “by showing what you can do that other genres can’t.”

I’d like to amend that statement:

I think that the onus here is on literary realism (and I do like how Mosley twists that term and claims the terms realistic fiction and alternative fiction for genre fiction) to prove what it does that other genres of fiction can’t. That is, the default position shouldn’t be literary realism, which is, after all, just a blip on the timeline of storytelling. It also can’t be an argument of degree (it does this,  but better) because the argument that genre fiction ignores poetic prose or characterization or that it doesn’t experiment with structure or style or point of view is no longer true. In other words, I think we should treat genre fiction like everything that happened in the field of literature (the turn towards theory, the debates over canon, the hi-lowbrow collision) actually happened. And then we woke up from that fever dream and realized, hey, we still have all these novels and people reading them and maybe the genre lines don’t matter as much as the fact that fiction is being written and published and read.

 

Defending genre fiction

How not to defend genre fiction and a call to eschew the aim of literary respectability.

Due to the peculariaties of my biography and literary interests I have read many defenses of genres and minority art forms or literatures over the years. They all tend to fall into the same traps. Lev Grossman’s opinion piece for the Wall St. Journal does a decent job of avoiding some of these traps, but still not quite as deftly as I would personally prefer.

Generally the core problem with such defenses is that they seek for respectability — literary respectability. They usually do this by:

1. Pointing out examples in their field that are unusually well-crafted and share strong similarities with literay fiction. Lev Grossman does this when he mentions George R. R. Martin and Sussana Clarke* (and Neil Gaiman). Gene Wolf’s work also often gets deployed in this same way.

2. Acknowledging the field’s lowbrow roots but then pointing out how the field is maturing (and usually the maturation = more works that have the marks of literary realism [see #1]).

3. Weakly throwing up hands and pointing out that people like to be entertained and read a good story and what’s the harm of that.

There is some merit to each of those approaches, but they all fall down in that they, fundamentally, defer to literary fiction (or rather literary realism) and the sub-genres it has deemed acceptable (including magic realism).

Grossman tries to do better than this by pointing to the fantastic roots of fiction and by observing that all works of fiction are, well, fiction. Both good points, but also obvious ones that don’t carry much weight with those that worship at the altar of literary realism or are inimical to the whole notion of narrative fiction itself. For example, Grossman writes: “When it comes to novels, fantasy is the rule, not the exception. If anything, it is realist literature that pretends to be real.” Very true. But that does nothing to address the attitude that literary realism is the highest form of such pretending and that it gets closer to revealing whatever it is that we expect literature to reveal (character? truth? life? reality?).

The thing is that the proponents of literary realism** assert the superiority of the form (and you’ll see a couple of examples of that in the comments section to Grossman’s opinion piece), but are actually rather hard-pressed to prove it. Indeed, much of literary theory of the past 50 years seriously undermines it. And yet it in terms of critical and cultural activity (prizes, syllabi, criticism, academic appointments, anthologies, class offerings, best of lists), it remains the highbrow power in narrative fiction and other genres and minor literatures are excpected to defer to it and position themselves in relation to it. Genre writers can be gentrified by literary realists by proving their commitment to literary tropes and style. But, of course, only a few are let in to the club and, sadly, those who are the most on the edges too often feel the need to draw lines between them and their less gentrified cousins. Which then, often, leads to a petulant or resentful keening from the genres and the minor literatures. A “why not us too?”

I say stop it. Just stop it.

Don’t do so by, as certain genre writers have, decrying it as elitist or morally bankrupt. Do it by showing what you can do that other genres can’t (and I think that literary realism is a genre among genres and should be treated as such). Or by showing how you can do it in ways that they can’t. Let me give one brief example: I would submit that a really thoughtful, honed idea sci-fi short story is of equal literary value to a really good piece of epiphanic, honed literary realism. Both do very different things with the form. But they can be equally important, artistic, entertaining, revealing — whatever you want to assign to the function of reading fiction.

Another example: I think The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a failed genre novel. I found much of the reaction to it amusing because it betrayed the literary realists lack of awareness of the field of post-apocalyptic and horror fiction***.

There’s more I should say: about pulp fiction and plot vs. prose; about the recent slumming in the genres by literary authors; about the reaching for literary acclaim by genre authors; about the market and academia; about cultural signifiers and the beautiful shame of fandom. But I’ll leave with this simple thought: I don’t. You don’t. We don’t — need no literary respectability.

* Now don’t get me wrong. Both A Song of Ice and Fire and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are major favs of mine.

** Now don’t get me wrong. I also love literary realism. I’m one of those annoying people who loves the novels of Henry James and Tolstoy and Cather and Marilynne Robinson and has actually read Ulysses all the way through, etc.

*** Michael Chabon’s review of The Road (excerpt only unless you login; it’s also found in his essay collection) and his reading of it as a horror novel redeemed it somewhat in my eyes.