In Which Pretty Books Arrive In the Mail but the Author Is Still Kinda Whiny
I received Feeling Very Strange, the Slipstream Anthology edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, in the mail the other day; the spoils of a mad foray into a debate about literary classification a little over a year ago. (Other recent treasures in the mail: my contributor's copy of Twenty Epics (Yay!), and a copy of this book from someone who thinks, with some justification, that I owe Hemingway another look.) In other words, John and Jim enjoyed the debate, and pulled out a mess o' quotes from it. Witness me talk myself into completely reversing my original position! See me get pwned by Ben Rosenbaum! Shed tears at the birth of Infernokrusher, which was left to die of exposure only weeks later!
Far better, though, are the stories. I say that not yet having read this volume, but having read most of these stories previously in various places. If you're at all interested in the weird intersection of genre and not-genre that is rather inadequately labeled "slipstream," you will want this book, because in addition to the wonderful stories there is a great introductory essay by Messieurs Kelly and Kessel.
There's a point in that essay which particularly struck me, since it's something that I've been encountering a bit lately. Jim and John write that "slipstream's cavalier boundaries towards boundaries can lead to a lack of rigor. A failed slipstream story can seem like idle noodling, a grab bag of uncommited allusions to genres without any investment in characters or the ideas behind them, or acknowledgment that genre tropes are anything more than pawns on a chess board."
I know we've all read (and I know that I, for one, have written) stories like this. Stories that read as playful and clever but never actually coalesce into something meaningful. I fully consider the greater part of the burden in these cases to fall on the author. And yet I sometimes feel that it's my failure as a reader when these stories fall flat for me. I like to be challenged, and sometimes it feels like I'm not quite up to that challenge. Maybe I'm not picking up on some symbolism or other subtle cues the author is giving me. Some stories are like that; they ask more of the reader, and while this may limit their audience, it can also mean a greater payoff for the right person. Some may argue that this is elitist or snobby, but I don't think so (at least, not most of the time). Sometimes the elitism is in other readers, who may treat a certain text as though it contains secrets meant for a privileged few. Here on genre (or perhaps, as Lois Tilton argues in an insightful essay over at Deep Genre, generic) street we're particularly sensitive to this kind of nose-in-the-air bullshit, so we tend not to invite those people to our parties anyway. (Savor the irony!) (Ignore the possible connection between this impulse and my distaste for Hemingway!)
What I'm rambling about is that there is a fine line between the writer's failure to portray his or her vision with clarity and the reader's--well, failure isn't the right word--let's say, reluctance to engage with a work with the amount of effort which might lead to a rewarding exchange.
As Ms. Tilton says in a follow-up to the above essay:
More serious readers, that's what I think genre fiction needs: readers who don’t mind doing some work, readers who can appreciate the stuff that a writer puts into her work below the surface story, the stuff like symbol and metaphor and allusions, complex sentence structure, or techniques like [the] unreliable narrator.
Based on that snippet you might be forgiven for thinking that Lois's essay sounds like the sort of thing that self-considered literary geniuses like to do: blame the reader. It's not so simple as that, of course. Lois's point, in the end, is that even readers who are willing to work hard at other types of literature don't want none of that crap in their fantasy. She's arguing, in fact, that too many fantasy readers don't respect the genre. And I think she's got a point. I think many people are quick to dismiss something as just "too weird" to be meaningful. It seems as though many fantasy readers want their fantasy to be rigorous in a very non-fantastic way.
I'm under no illusions that I'm saying something new here. But while I'm not going to get specific (every time I start talking around it I sound like a whiny bastard), this has been a matter of much frustration for me recently.
In conclusion: buy Feeling Very Strange and Twenty Epics. And watch some Raspberry Beret while you're taking orders. ("Wendy?" "Yes, Lisa.") Oh, and some Elastica too. (Yeah, I know they stole that riff from Wire and that's not cool. But Justine Frischman's sneer is still teh sexay.)