AWP: SAT. MORNING, EARLY AFTERNOON
UPDATE: The Best American Fantasy blog is now live, with a list of the Recommended Reading from 2006.
We’re just back from a great lunch with Brian Evenson and Rikki Ducornet, two of my favorite people. I’d never met Rikki in person before, so it was wonderful to finally get to talk a bit. Evenson and Ducornet are two of my favorite writers as well and it was nice to learn Rikki has a new collection she’s doing for Dalkey Archive and that Brian’s latest novel is a finalist for the Edgar Award.
The panel on nonrealistic fiction (Beyond Realism: Fiction That Tangles With Tangibles) went very well, with great attendance despite the early hour. The other participants were Gwenda Bond, Brian Evenson, Eric Lorberer, and Gladys Swan, with Ken Keegan from Omnidawn moderating. We all presented short essays or observations about the topic.
I went first, reading Leena Krohn’s speech from Finncon on genre boundaries and definitions, which included this very interesting bit:
But the truth of fantasy is not included in facts. It is coiling up from the double helix of untrue and true, from an invisible tribar.
A tribar – what is that? With this concept physicist Roger Penrose points to objects and figures which you can draw but not build. There are false links in tribars. There are contradictory and impossible elements. In many of his works the graphic artist Escher shows tribars.I then read from the Best American Fantasy introduction, which opens:
I think of the tribar as a concept, which describes some mysterious features of human society and literature, too. Tribars appear everywhere in our world and they are so self-evident to us that it is not easy to observe them. Tribars connect fiction
and so called reality. They connect the rational and the irrational, the material and the immaterial, the representative and the concrete. Nearly all social constructions are based on tribars. Every fact is partly an illusion, every material artifact is partly a mental phenomenon, because its origin is in imagination.
In her extraordinary creative writing book The Passionate, Accurate Story, Carol
Bly presents a hypothetical situation. One night at dinner a girl announces to her father and mother that a group of bears has moved in next door. In one scenario, the father says (and I paraphrase) “Bears? Don’t be ridiculous,” and tells his daughter to be more serious. In the other scenario, the father says, “Bears, huh? How many bears? Do you know their names? What do they wear?” And his daughter, with delight, tells him. The imagination is a form of love: playful, generous, and transformative. All of the best fiction hums and purrs and sighs with it, and in this way (as well) fiction mirrors life. This is how we think of the fiction collected in this
first volume of Best American Fantasy. There’s a flicker, a flutter, at the heart of these stories that animates them, and this movement—ever different, ever unpredictable—makes each story unique.
Eric Lorberer from Rain Taxi went next and pointed out that the distinction between realistic fiction and nonrealistic fiction is itself a fiction. Rain Taxi tries very hard not to look at fiction in those terms. Eric believes that use of language, for example, is a better definer of types of fiction than realistic/nonrealistic. “Readership suffers when nomenclature puts literary schools in opposition.” Good literature bypasses the distinction between what is real and what is not. Interrogating the chasm between realism and nonrealism is not as important.
Gwenda Bond of Shaken & Stirred (and also a reviewer for PW and the Washington Post) talked about the Publishers Weekly trend piece she did in 2006, on fantasy published in the mainstream. She believes this is a period of Renaissance for fantasy fiction and literary/genre writers and critics are “aware of each other and talking to one another and responding in their work to each other...[It’s] a return to a broader definition of literature.” She also spoke on differences in reader expectations of craft in fantasy versus mainstream fiction.
Brian Evenson talked about the history of the creation of genres, how realism was the dominant mode in the nineteenth century because it was new and that it might be receding now because it feels old. Brian also discussed the skitzophrenia of criticism and had a great quote (the source of which my notes do not reveal) about how we accept amounts of small amazement that lead to moments of large amazement, so that “it becomes normal for an elephant, a very large animal, to appear out of a snail’s shell.” He expanded on the idea of openness to amazement and how in realism “objects remain objects and do not take on their own life.” My favorite quote of the entire panel was Brian saying, “George Saunders is our gateway drug,” pointing out that Saunders uses all the trappings of dirty realism but the events are fantastical. Thus, Saunders attracts mainstream readers who might be put off otherwise by the fantasy element and fantasy readers who would otherwise not to the realistic elements. “Saunders is a conduit who allows readers to flow in two directions.” Brian continued by saying that genres can go from being a conduit to being a blocked pipe and that realism takes too much joy sometimes in acting as a blocked pipe when it should be a conduit. He noted also the change in status and position of writers like Lovecraft.
Gladys Swan, a novelist and short story writer, began with a hilarious anecdote about Breton’s trip to Mexico, which I am determined to find on the internet somewhere now. She then noted that “I thought I was a realist writer but then my work started turning strange.” She pointed out that a destabilized reality “leads to the need for fabulists.” And that what is fabulist in one age becomes the reality for another. “The best of fantasy raises questions about our assumptions.” She had some great observations to make about nonrealist fiction and her presentation was a fitting end to the panel.