My students often want to write fantasy and science fiction and crime fiction and horror and that’s fine by me. But I tell them it has to be about this world, too, our reality. It somehow has to reflect back to us, however fantastical it gets. I show them The McSweeney’s Treasury of Thrilling Tales—“genre” fiction by “literary” masters—and stories by Aimee Bender and Manuel Gonzales and Wells Tower and many other writers as examples of what I’m talking about.
They say they want to escape reality through their writing, offer readers an escape, but Flannery O’Connor says, “I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it is very shocking to the system.” We talk about this.
I don’t have a no-genre rule in my classroom, because that would exclude my own writing from my teaching. Louise Erdrich just published science fiction in Granta. The walls are coming down. But I do expect students to transcend the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working in, and not just duplicate formulas.
I’m very interested in the line between the possible and the impossible.
I’m interested in irreality.
In the introduction to Extreme Fiction, Robin Hemley and Michael Martone argue that the “‘traditional’ story with which readers today are most familiar is actually a recent invention,” and carries with it expectations of “realism” and “narrative,” which are not synonymous (1). They then trace the tradition of nontraditional fiction, both fabulist (not realist) and formalist (nonnarrative) (1). They say:
The irreal is a kind of allegory, not so much like the traditional religious allegories of Medieval times but of a more personal nature, in which the representations are perhaps more ambiguous and not necessarily contingent on dogma. The irreal encompasses all we have learned in the past century about the human mind, combined with our belief systems of several millennia. The irreal simply suggests an alternative way of viewing reality, one in which characters and images are meant to stand for something else (something that may itself be ambiguous or open to interpretation). (6)
In Bender’s “The Rememberer,” the speaker’s lover is experiencing reverse evolution, probably because he told her they think too much, and is weirdly getting his wish to think less. In Gonzales’s “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” a plane has been circling Dallas for twenty years, and the passengers have to decide how to live now. In Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” a Viking who’s not that into it anymore has to keep pillaging. The story ends with him where he wants to be, home with his family, thinking:
I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It’s crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it. But still you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.
I want what hasn’t happened to tell me about what has, what might.
Another Kind of Reality Hunger
Some unconventional fiction is very realistic. Cynthia Reeves has written a manifesto called “Experimental Fiction Is Not Literature! And Other Myths About Nontraditional Fiction” (read the entirety here: http://waxwingmag.org/writing.php?item=168). She writes that some writing
reflects diverse styles and techniques that allow a writer to convey ideas and emotions through nontraditional and usually nonrepresentational means. The word “nonrepresentational” would seem to imply the opposite of realistic; however, the nonrepresentational is not antithetical to realism, especially as it applies to the way we engage in or reflect any number of altered psychological states (e.g., dream, hallucination, mental illness) as well as the way we experience time (largely through its forward arrow, but also by seamlessly parsing the present moment with moments of memory and anticipation). In attempting to depict these and other extraordinary experiences of reality, the nonrepresentational might in fact be more representational of reality than traditional modes of expression.
Narrative and realism are not synonymous.
- Would a different sort of marketing strategy for literary fiction—one that embraces traditional and nontraditional realism—promote a more significant readership of all fiction?
- Would writers be more willing to explore the boundaries, a process which sometimes results in new forms and new ways of expressing ideas, if readers and editors were more liberal in the application of the term “realism”?
- Similarly, would writers be more willing to explore the boundaries of realism if writing programs broadened their training to include a larger portion of, and more rigorous training in, modes and techniques of nontraditional realism?
- Would all of these explorations result in a more vibrant, relevant American literature, literature unafraid of grappling with life’s “true” reality—its complexity and ambiguity, its struggle to achieve something outside of the self, its effort to embrace the “other,” its ability to make the reader feel?
I want more nontraditional reality. I want more irreality. I want it all to tell me more about reality.
There’s fiction in my nonfiction and nonfiction in my fiction and hopefully a bit of poetry in all of it, and some of it’s real and some of it isn’t, but don’t worry too much about that.
Hybridity is alive and well. Writers are transcending binaries as ways of exploring identities and ideas and irrealities that broaden our conception of and compassion for what it means to be alive.
I’ll give the last word to my teacher, and my students.
In an interview with r.kv.r.y literary journal, Kevin “Mc” McIlvoy says:
In the literature of the wisdom tradition, the reader is invited to feel what she/he knows inside the work. Wisdom offers the feeling-knowing response, which is quite different than the knowing-knowing reaction. I also firmly believe that the best experimental literary work (Beckett and Woolf and Nin; Lydia Davis and Steven Millhauser and Jim Crace, for example) consistently originates from the writers who are most radically committed to wisdom. […]
I’m happy there are so many different kinds of work thriving in the contemporary world literary tradition. By my reckoning, the fiction receiving the most attention from American publishers concentrates upon offering completeness: a story with a well-constructed shape or arc; a defined beginning, middle, and end; a crystalline sense of irony (the recognition of human duality); a balanced treatment of dramatic elements; an imaginative regulation of language serving content.
Sadly, in the U.S. we have so many writers with amazing book manuscripts in hand who cannot find publishers only because their books offer fullness instead of completeness: a story with centrifugal force that resists finding a center; a story that is marvelous in its disproportionality; a story that gives irony its due without giving it primacy; a story that allows dynamic balance (unstable terms of engagement) to override balance; a story in which the transformative (sensation-generating, playful, pleasure-making) language is allowed, at certain moments, to overwhelm the transactive (meaning-making, plot-preserving) language.
The literature of completeness confirms for the reader the mind’s recognition of an always-emerging order in human experience. […] The literature of fullness confirms for the reader the always-emerging chaos of human experience. With a great love for the palaces of the literature of completeness, I prefer the ruined palaces of the literature of fullness [….] I find my body responds more fully to the body of the ruined palace: where entry and exit are no longer perfectly clear; where the original purpose for the structure is a compelling riddle, where the large and small structures are only barely evident and, as a result, the body responds to many rooms at once and the mind must relent its will to compartmentalize.
Because of this quote, a student of mine who is a musician is titling his next EP Ruined Palaces.
“I love writing for its ability to capture truth. That doesn’t just mean nonfiction, there is a lot more to truth than just reality.” These are the first two lines of Noah Shute’s fiction portfolio, submitted in my intro class.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Boderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 3rd edition. San Francisco: Aunt
Lute, 2007. Print.
Bender, Aimee. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. New York: Anchor, 1999. Print.
Booth, Stephen, ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977. Print.
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Norton Anthology of History and Criticism. 2nd
- Vincent B. Leitch, ed. New York: Norton, 2010. 1942-1959. Print.
DeLillo, Don. Libra. New York: Viking, 1988. Print.
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York, Riverhead, 2007. Print.
Doody, Noreen. “William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and the Art of Appeal.” Shakespeare and
the Irish Writer, Janet Clare and Stephen O’Neill, eds. Dublin: U College of Dublin P, 2010. 123-135. Print.
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.
Erdrich, Louise. “Domain.” Granta (2014). 9-24. Print.
Gonzales, Manuel. The Miniature Wife. New York: Riverhead, 2013. Print.
Halpern, Richard. Shakespeare’s Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud,
and Lacan. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002. Print.
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in
the 1980s.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st ed. Vincent B. Leitch, ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 2269-2299. Print.
Hemley, Robin, and Michael Martone, eds. Introduction. Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and
Formalists. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. 1-12. Print.
Horvath, Tim. Understories. New York: Bellevue, 2012. Print.
Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.
Lim, Jeehyun. “‘I Was Never at War With My Tongue’: The Third Language and the
Performance of Bilingualism in Richard Rodriguez.” Biography 33.3 (2010): 518-542. ProQuest. Web. 20 Apr. 2012.
McIlvoy, Kevin. “A Conversation with Kevin McIlvoy.” By Mary Akers. r.kv.r.y quarterly
literary journal. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
—. The Complete History of New Mexico. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2005. Print.
Menon, Madhavi, ed. Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare.
Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. Print.
Minor, Kyle. Praying Drunk. Louisville, KY: Sarabande, 2014. Print.
Pequigney, Joseph. Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Chicago: U of Chicago
P, 1985. Print.
Reeves, Cynthia. “Experimental Fiction Is Not Literature! And Other Myths About
Nontraditional Fiction.” Waxwing (2014). 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New
York: Columbia UP, 1985. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Stephen Booth, ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.
Shields, David. Reality Hunger. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.
Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Tower, Wells. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. New York: FSG, 2009. Print.
Watkins, Claire Vaye. Battleborn. New York: Riverhead, 2012. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Portrait of Mr. W.H. The Riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: Basic
Erin Stalcup’s short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Sun, PANK, H_NGM_N, Hinchas de Poesía, Novembre(Swiss), and elsewhere, and she has creative nonfiction forthcoming in The Laurel Review. Erin received her MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, and later served as the Joan Beebe Fellow at Warren Wilson. After a decade of teaching in community colleges, universities, and prisons in New York City, North Carolina, and Texas, she recently returned to her hometown of Flagstaff, where she has joined the creative writing faculty at her alma mater, Northern Arizona University.
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Yanique, Tiphanie. How To Escape from a Leper Colony. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2010.