Wednesday, September 03, 2003


Interstitial Arts: art made in the interstices between genres and categories. Art that flourishes in the borderlands between disciplines, mediums, and cultures. Art that blurs the divide between fine art and craft, high art and low. Art that crosses boundaries. Artists without borders.

For a long time now, a sea change has been occurring in the world of fiction. Cross-pollination has, more and more, become an element of the best fiction. These cross-genre approaches were around in the 1990s (and before), but it is only lately that a real renaissance has come about—not just in the number of excellent writers unafraid of crossing borders and boundaries, but also in the number of readers attracted to this kind of work. Fantasy has bled into the mainstream, and vice versa. Among other approaches, experimental techniques from the 1960s (both from the New Wave and the Post Moderns) have been redeployed for either true innovation or for strategic “renovations” that have become new in their own right.

Writers are mixing and matching genres with bewildering, wonderful frequency. For this reason, I personally have been against any single attempt to put a name to these often disparate proto-movements. It has seemed to me that such a naming puts a limit, a boundary, on writers and on individual works.

However, I believe that a new term—“interstitial” (interstial art/literature/music)—has captured not just the moment but the nature of this sea change in fiction. The word “interstitial,” or the term “interstitial arts,” may not slide off the tongue with ease. It may, at first glance, seem too generic, as amorphous in definition as “slipstream.” But a closer look at the term reveals that it strikes just the right balance between too specific and too vague. Any more specific and the term would become as much of a straitjacket as those terms used to describe movements. Any less specific and the term would not be meaningful for classification purposes, or for the more important purposes of dialogue about the arts.

The initial proponents of interstitial art include Heinz Insu Fenkl, Terri Windling, and Delia Sherman. As “founders” of the idea, they can express better than I can what it means in its purest form—and luckily their intelligent, well-thought-out, and fascinating takes on the subject can now be read on the Interstitial Web Site.

I recommend reading through all of the information on the site. For purposes of this blog, however, I would like to excerpt and comment on two of the pieces to be found there: Delia Sherman’s “An Introduction to Interstitial Arts: Life on the Border” and Heinz Insu Fenkl’s “Towards a Theory of the Interstitial.” Both essays represent the beginning of an ongoing dialogue about the term, and about the work the term represents.

Sherman writes:

“Interstitial fiction defies categories and laughs at expectation; Interstitial fiction breaks the rules. Interstitial novels lurk near or on the borders of two, three, or more genres, owing allegiance to no single genre or set of conventions…Take Angela Carter, whose free and easy way with literary conventions surely makes her the Patron Saint of Interstitial writers. Nights at the Circus is part fairy-tale, part historical, part picaresque adventure, part circus story, part meditation on truth and reality. Wise Children draws its background from Hollywood history, its structure from the comedies of Shakespeare and Terence, and its characters from Charles Dickens. These books may have been published as Mainstream, but they swim against the current of that stream with every sentence. Similarly, T. Coraghessan Boyle's exuberant Water Music is equally Historical fiction, Literary Satire, and Magic Realism. Toni Morrison's Beloved owes as much to Fantasy as Historical Fiction or African-American fiction. And Historical fiction is not the only genre that often turns to the conventions of other genres. Many of P.D. James' mysteries are distinctly more concerned with Literary Realism subjects of class, religion, and the state of Detective Dalgliesh's soul than with the progress of his investigation. Tony Hillerman's Navaho detectives often have one foot in the spirit world. Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is a serious historical novel in Western's clothing.”

These examples add a layer of specific detail to the definition of “interstitial arts” as applicable to literature. They confirm that there is at least some “cross-genre” element to interstitial writing. When Sherman describes her own writing, “interstitial” crosses over from mere example to the personal:

“What I ended up writing can best be described as a kind of historical fantastical-Romantic-social realism. That's not what I set out to do, of course. What I set out to do was write something that unpacked the dark places of my heart, that satisfied my need to make beautiful patterns out of words and emotions and images, that allowed me to play with characters I loved, and to explore some of my ideas about class, courage, morality, revenge, purity, pain, and the role of the individual in society. It was more comfortable for me, and a lot more fun, to place these explorations long ago and far away, in times and places where clothing, manners, and language were more decorated and more formal than they are now, when the surface of life was beautiful and expansive even when that which it covered was nasty, brutish, and short. I didn't abandon magic or magical beings or fairytale themes, but I began to use them differently, and I turned to 19th Century novels and Renaissance Drama for my structural models. In writing what I wanted to write, I found myself moving away from the beautiful Fields of Fantasy out into the wilderness that abuts the bustling cities and well-tended plains of Historical Fiction.”

I like this part of the introduction the best because, for me, it articulates dual paths of passion and obsession, which is where much of the best writing comes from. Seeing this passion on the page in connection with the interstitial is another reason why I have come to think of “interstitial” as a supple, useful term—it is flexible enough to serve one well on the level of theory, but also on the level of the relating to the artist or writer, in the actual creation of art.

Fenkl’s essay on the Interstitial provides added detail at the theoretical level. It is at times a down-to-earth approach:

“It took me a long time to figure this out, but in publishing, a thing can be one thing or the other, or one thing and the other. For those with an established name recognition (Stephen King, for example), this logic applies simultaneously, but if you are a small fish, you may be both things, too, but only as long as it's one thing at a time. This is not an absolute rule, of course. But it is a general rule we have little choice but to ‘publish or perish’ by… In the world of publishing this way of thinking presents itself as a series of either/or decisions: Fact or Fiction, Fantasy or Science Fiction, Genre or Mainstream, Mystery or History? I present these categorical problems as dilemmas of a sort, but in many cases the possibilities are not initially limited only to two; and yet, when a particular work is hard to classify, its final label is then often compared to or contrasted with a series of other possibilities, one at a time.”

Therefore, an interstitial approach to literature discards limiting, often meaningless terms such as “fantasy” or “mainstream” in favor of a more holistic approach. It removes the engrained opposition between genre and non-genre to consider the work from a multitude of perspectives. I particularly like the idea of an interstitial approach representing and, not either/or. Certainly, this is more indicative of the mindset of the writer while creating fiction—a time at which most thoughts of category or market are nonexistent.

Fenkl then discusses the difference between an interstice and an intersection:

“An interstice is not an intersection. (That is why a concept like hybridity, by itself, is not adequate to the idea of the Interstitial.) The word ‘interstice’ comes from the Latin roots inter (between) and sistere (to stand). Literally, it means to ‘stand between’ or ‘stand in the middle.’ It generally refers to a space between things: a chink in a fence, a gap in the clouds, a DMZ between nations at war, the potentially infinite space between two musical notes, a form of writing that defies genre classification.”

Clearly, then, interstitial literature is not simply cross-genre, not simply a hybrid. “Cross-genre,” for the purposes of the interstitial, is a term now probably used to describe both cross-genre and truly interstitial writing. For this reason, interstitial seems like a more natural term than “cross-genre”—a chemical rather than physical reaction. Could it be said that in an interstitial work, the disparate elements combine in such a way that they cannot return to the same state they enjoyed before they were mixed together? (At least, in the reader’s mind?) As opposed to some “cross-genre” approaches, in which a physical reaction takes place, the elements mixed together (the equivalent, perhaps, of hay, rocks, and a pair of earrings) fully able to return to their prior state? This may be stretching both terms a bit, but I find the idea of the interstitial describing disparate elements combined in a chemical reaction somewhat compelling. (Or, perhaps, this simply describes good interstitial writing as opposed to bad interstitial writing. I admit I’m on shaky ground here…)

Do works thought of as interstitial always remain interstitial? Not according to Fenkl:

“Things are complicated in the DMZ of the Interstitial. There is another problem, an unexpected one. Interstitial works are also self-negating. That is, if they become successful to the degree that they engender imitations or tributes to themselves, or, if they spark a movement which results in like-minded works, then they are no longer truly interstitial, having spawned their own genre, subgenre, or even form. The DMZ they initially inhabit becomes its own nation, so to speak.”

In the process of naming or identifying a thing, it eventually becomes part of the old, even if once new. Thus, a rather joyful element of the interstitial—like a river that over the years changes its course, creating a new path and new banks, interstitial arts are forever being redefined. Non-static. No inertia. This approach also mimics the philosophy of the writer who does not wish to repeat him or herself. The interstitial, to a writer, turns out to be the farthest thing from a straitjacket—the writer in a sense sets the course through sheer individuality. Ten years from now, writers who strike out for fresher territory than what is currently considered “new” will find the interstitial still all around them, as relevant as ever. That is a movement I can live with.

In the “Illuminating the Interstitial” section of his essay, Fenkl writes:

“What the Interstitial does, actually, is transform the reader's consciousness. The reason that the formerly invisible historical trajectories become visible to the reader is because the interstitial work, in combination with the reader's particular perception of it, has manifested itself in such a way that the reader's ‘reality’ has changed. We have figures of speech for this kind of transformation at a profound level—‘I have seen the light,’ for example—but the transformation caused by the Interstitial is far more subtle. Perhaps instead of something as extreme as ‘The scales have fallen from my eyes,’ one might characterize this change as ‘A scale has fallen from my eye.’ In any case, the reader has learned to see in a different light, and that change causes a reinterpretation of the reader's experience of the past—in general—though perhaps this begins with a re-examination and reinterpretation of other texts the reader has experienced.”

I believe that in the creation of interstitial work, the writer as well as the reader has the experience of the scales falling from one’s eyes. It is in this way that the writer and the reader benefit from a sense of the world as it truly is—a chaotic, confused, complex place in which juxtapositions of beauty and horror, reality and fantasy (and more subtle variations), occur on a daily basis. (If we experience epiphany only rarely in our daily lives—epiphany as a sudden recognition of the strange and wonderful journey we all are on—perhaps it is because we do not allow ourselves to be open to it. Because the potential for it is all around us in our daily lives. This is one thing interstitial literature gives us--a pathway into that sudden recognition.)

To me, the term Interstitial and the reasoning behind the creation of the term both feel natural and relevant. I’m looking forward to further exploration—both what “interstitial” evolves into for me personally, and what it means in terms of a dialogue with other writers and creative people.



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