Linkerman Returns

1. This essay by Benjamin Kunkel in the New York Times, about the rise of confessional memoirs, leads to this post at So Many Books, and this response at Tales From the Reading Room investigating what it is about contemporary life that makes us so pain-obsessed, suggesting that

Trauma is resolutely not about knowing things; it’s about having been through an event that was radically alien to knowledge and understanding. But turning it into a narrative gives it the look of having been mastered—there’s a powerful transformation at work in the victory of words over dangerous, untamed experience that we can all share and marvel at. Equally the experience of trauma is one of the few in our society that is given a special form of authority. No one can deny or argue with a trauma victim’s experiences, which is a pretty unique state of affairs in the modern world.

And see the comments, this followup, and this post at Eve’s Alexandria for more general discussion of creating personae through nonfiction. It’s a fascinating topic in and of itself, but something about it also chimes with the thinking I’ve been doing recently about that most ill-defined of literary categories, slipstream; certainly the Kessel/Kelly definition of slipstream can be understood as being about attempting to convert an incompletely understood experience, that of daily living in the twenty-first century, into a narrative. But it’s notable that more than a few of stories they selected for their anthology end with uncertainty or dissolution—quite the opposite of the sort of mastery of story being discussed above.

2. Waggish has an interesting post on left-brained literature, which (based on the list) you could also largely call “that stuff sf readers like that isn’t genre sf” (Murakami, Eco, Calvino, Borges etc). The determination of overlap between this category and slipstream is left as an exercise for the reader.

3. Abigail Nussbaum on Superman Returns, which I might be able to respond to if I’d had a chance to see the film yet.

4. An interesting review of A Scanner Darkly, and here are the first 20 minutes or so of the film (which is not out for another few weeks over here, and I’m getting impatient).

5. Clarkesworld books has started putting fiction online, starting with a few stories from Fantasy Magazine.

6. Martin Lewis on Polystom by Adam Roberts. To the list of useful references that are frustratingly not online, I would add Matt Moore’s review of Polystom from Foundation 91. One day, maybe …

7. Farah Mendlesohn’s SF reading habits questionnaire is closing down at the end of July; if you haven’t filled it in, now’s the time.

5 thoughts on “Linkerman Returns

  1. This notion of the ‘slipstream’ which I’d never heard before reading your post, is very interesting to me. I’m writing a book on literature of the fantastic and it seems to me that the effect of slipstream is very similar to that of classic C19th fantasy – to introduce an element to the narrative that cannot be ‘real’ but which is portrayed as if it were. So, for example, the appearance of ghosts, demons, spirits, the supernatural, within an otherwise realistic context. The effect is to unsettle the reader at the level of interpretation – is this ‘true’ or not? And so we can’t be sure what we are seeing, and therefore cannot be sure what things mean. As I say, I’ve never come across this term before – is this a reasonable understanding of it?

  2. There’s no particular reason you would have come across ‘slipstream’ as a term if you don’t move in genre circles. Even within genre circles the exact meaning of the term, or whether it’s useful at all, is somewhat debated.

    The brief brief history is that the term was coined by Bruce Sterling in 1989, as “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” He was talking about mainstreamish writing as well, not dissimilar in many cases to the list of books Waggish posted for ‘left-brained literature’. Since then, among those people who feel that slipstream is useful, which as I say is not everyone, the word has been used in several ways. Probably the most common usage is something close to yours: use of fantastic elements in an atypical (for the current literary environment) way, to unsettle. As mentioned in the interview, Kessel and Kelly have edited the first slipstream anthology, and include a very interesting critical introduction in which they try to pin down how slipstream does what it does. It’s published in a few weeks. I agree with some of what they say, and disagree with other bits; mostly I wish the introduction was online, because it’s worth reading. The bones of their description (they’re clear that it’s not a definition), though, are:

    Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and still function.” However, it is our fate to live in a time when it takes a first-rate mind just to get through the day. We have unprecedented access to information; cognitive dissonance is a banner headline in our morning paper and radiates silently from our computer screen. We contend that slipstream is an expression of the zeitgeist: it embraces cognitive dissonance rather than trying to reduce it.


    1. Slipstream violates the tenets of realism.

    2. Although slipstream stories pay homage to various popular genres and their conventions, they are not science fiction stories, traditional fantasies, dreams, historical fantasies, or alternate histories.

    3. Slipstream is playfully postmodern. The stories often acknowledge their existence as fictions, and play against the genres they evoke. They have a tendency to bend or break narrative rules. (pp.xii-xiii)

    Some people favour the time-specific part of Sterling’s definition too: all fiction reflects the present, and all times seem unique to the people who live in them, but ‘slipstream’ could be used to describe the fiction that examines the strangeness in being alive now. Or something like that. I tend to be in that camp, and a key point, I think, is that you can get a slipstream effect without using fantastic elements (in much the same way that you can get psychological horror; it’s about the effect more than the tools used to achieve that effect). I would argue, for instance, that Ali Smith’s The Accidental fits Sterling’s slipstream, although it has no overtly fantastic elements.

  3. This is extremely helpful – something that I really feel I need to think about for the book, and your explanation is just what I wanted. Thank you!

  4. I read your overview of the comments on Kunkel’s piece and thought you might be interested in what I said about suffering, Kunkel, and the like here: If you do read it, please leave a comment. I’d be curious about your thoughts on it.

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