An Interstitial Sceptic

Via Christopher Barzak, there’s a blog for Small Beer’s forthcoming Interfictions anthology, including (so far) the table of contents and excerpts from an interview with the editors, Theodora Goss and Delia Sherman.

I commmented over on Chris’ blog that reading the interview made me start to understand the allergic reactions some people have to the term “slipstream“, because I found it an increasingly frustrating experience. Given that I’m an advocate of the usefulness of slipstream as a descriptor, and given that most people seem to lump the two terms together anyway, this may seem surprising. The difference is that I know what people mean when they say a story is slipstream, or I can find out. To put it crudely, if they’re Bruce Sterling, they mean a story that generates a certain effect; if they’re Rich Horton, they mean a story that disturbs a familiar context with fantastic intrusions; if they’re James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, they mean a story that uses certain techniques and narrative strategies. We can argue all day long about which of these definitions is most useful, which identifies the most interesting set of stories, but they are all, to an extent, testable.

It’s hard to judge Goss and Sherman’s descriptions of the Interfictions stories without actually having read said stories — though I expect that, like Feeling Very Strange, Interfictions will be a strong collection, independent of whether you agree with the frame it’s presented in. But “Interstitial”, at least as Goss and Sherman are using it, doesn’t seem to work the way that slipstream works. The descriptions of slipstream above are bottom-up: if a story has these characteristics, maybe it’s slipstream. The descriptions of interstitial that Goss and Sherman give are dreadfully vague, and tend to be top-down: this story is interstitial, but why?

Q: Did you have a particular definition of interstitiality in mind before you began reading the stories?

DORA: […] interstitiality has been defined in so many ways, at various forums where Delia and I have discussed the concept, that I wanted to forget my own definition, to say to the writers, I’ve asked you for an interstitial story. Now show me what you think is interstitial. […]

DELIA: What I began with was less a definition of interstitial fiction than a short list of things I felt I knew about it. An interstitial story does not hew closely to any one set of recognizable genre conventions. An interstitial story does interesting things with narrative and style. An interstitial story takes artistic chances. These things are true, as far as they go. But the other thing I know is that every interstitial story defines itself as unlike any other.

Perhaps a better way of approaching the subject is to look at the overall aim of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, which is to promote “art that doesn’t fit neatly within recognised categories of genre or marketing”. This, it seems to me, is only a useful aim if you’re more concerned with the commercial restrictions placed on a given mode than with the mode itself; or to put it another way, it’s an aim that seems more useful for writers than for readers. If I were a writer, I might be reluctant to be labelled, because a label is reductive, and I know my work has many aspects. As a reader, I have a preference for stories of the fantastic, but I don’t care whether they’re labelled as such or not; I’ll pick up Against the Day and Nova Swing, both of which chafe against their assigned labels, in the same shopping trip. So as a reader, the “interstitial” label is barely useful — it’s tempting to say, “ok, name three books that do fit neatly within the categories of genre and marketing”. And as a reviewer, I’d never consider using it; part of a reviewer’s job is description, and “interstitial” is a smokescreen. By definition, even more than other labels, it avoids the specifics of what a story is doing, the details that make it interesting.

16 thoughts on “An Interstitial Sceptic

  1. My frustration with interstitiality is mostly that I’ve never been able to get anyone to define it in a way that means anything other than “this stuff that I like.” Especially given how frequently the ‘interstitial’ works do strike me as fitting very neatly into a genre or crossgenre.

    That said, I’m intrigued by Farrago’s Wainscot. It’s a new project, so it’s hard to say how it will all pan out, but it looks like it wants to be, at least, differently odd.

  2. “ok, name three books that do fit neatly within the categories of genre and marketing”.

    Yeah, this is my problem too. Interstitial has always seemed to me to cast its net too widely. Any work of literary fiction – fantastic or mimetic – is unlikely to cleave to the rules of single genre.

    I also think they are being slightly dishonest because I cannot imagine they would want a SF detective story for the anthology despite it quite clearly falling between the cracks of two genres. Or a historical romance.

    So what are we left with? Well, something that looks a lot like slipstream.

  3. I’ve had this discussion with some of the IAF folk too. It’s my contention that *any* work of art worthy of the name is interstitial: it carves out a space for itself – in terms of its linguistic world, the way it’s constructed, what it does with conventions, all that – that hadn’t been there before. Delia’s quotation as it stands boils down to little more than saying that interstitial stories are those that are good. I hope the anthology will put some more flesh on those bones – the line-up of authors looks very promising.

  4. I was at one of the original meetings when they announced Interstitial Arts, I’ve been to a number of presentations and panel discussions about it since, I’ve read a lot of the material they’ve put out about it … and I still don’t have the foggiest idea what on earth the whole thing means. The clearest definition I’ve ever seen was the ‘reading list’ they put out at that first meeting, but that consisted of a number of works that were undoubtedly sf or fantasy or mainstream, and everything else pretty well fitted in to existing terms like slipstream or postmodern. There was nothing unique or clear or indisputable about anything on that list. Maureen and I decided that it was just anything that a particular bunch of people happened to like.

  5. >they would want a SF detective story for the anthology despite it quite clearly falling between the cracks of two genres. Or a historical romance.

    Do those examples fall between the cracks? Or do they span them with a foot on either side?

    I’m not sure that there’s much difference between the two options. But if we’re to interpret ‘interstitial’ as distinct from ‘crossgenre,’ there would have to be, no?

  6. Do those examples fall between the cracks? Or do they span them with a foot on either side?

    Well, it is a bit of both and that is what the IAF misson statement is: “existing in the interstices; capable of binding two or more things.”

    So I don’t think it is different to cross-genre except cross-genre implies “entertainment” whereas interstital implies “literature” and for all the talk of blurring the line between high and low art I think this is deliberate.

  7. To give them credit, there is a sense in which I’ve found the term interstitial, as used by the IAF group, useful: and that’s in denoting art which uses more than one medium – of which there is a wealth these days, and for which I can see that a descriptor would be useful. But clearly a prose fiction – a story – isn’t interstitial in that sense. And with so many other labels floating around for crossgenre stuff at the moment, I do share Paul’s sense that a new term has to be demonstrably useful and distinctive.

  8. Hannah, that’s how I see it. Very well-described distinction there.

    I don’t think people are satisfied with the term because for the people trying to describe it, it’s a feeling (much how Sterling *did* describe slipstream, I think) that hasn’t been entirely articulated yet, and is in the process of articulation as it goes along. But in any case, Hannah’s distinction of it being between two or more genres (and don’t think just genre as in terms of sf/detective, but also they are looking at works that span disciplines like visual art and music etc as well, from what I can gather) rather than the cross-genre definition wherein you take a detective and a detective story’s plot and place it in a scifi setting. In a case like this, which we see as early as Asimov (for my own reading history at least) those feet are planted firmly in two territories–not between. It’s an odd distinction really, and probably laughable to many people, perhaps not worthy of being discussed according to some. But I think the difference of the “between” of interstitial versus the “hybridizing” of cross-genre is that it’s a work that creates an experience that feels as if it’s calling on aspects or influences of various genres and modes without committing itself to their rules one way or another, and in some cases without the influence being one that is normally nameable. For example, in A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” which for myself is an example of interstitial, we have a detective story, in my opinion, without any real detectives, but there’s still a search for knowledge that is out of our reach, following the modernist convention of detection, of how we come about knowing something and putting it into a context, and at the same time it’s a send-up of the academic novel, as well as a fairy tale without any actual magic as we know it appearing in the book, and on top of this, and perhaps an example of something that we wouldn’t normally be able to name when talking about the influence of something that really isn’t a genre per se but affects the text of that novel anyway, it feels very much drawn in the style of a Pre-Raphaelite painting (and sure enough Byatt in interviews has mentioned she chose a color palette for the novel based on Pre-Raphaelite art stylings) and even one more influence I’d say it carries is that of the Victorian novel lurking in the background of the story within the story, the large overarching plot and out-of-the-pages-of-Dickens characters, nearly caricatured in their doings. It’s hard for me to reduce that book to a+b+c=x, because it does not marry itself to any one of these things, but takes from all of them in the creation of that text at the same time.

    I feel a description of an Asimov detective story set in space or some other futuristic setting would rely heavily, mechanicly, committedly to all of the rules of both the detective story and the sf story. That’s the difference, in the case of how I’m reading.

    This is what interstitial feels like for me. And though a story of mine appears in the anthology, I don’t feel I can speak for the IAF directly, though I’m associated: I mainly answered the call when they asked by submitting a story I wrote that I felt was interstitial, to provide them with my answer to what I saw when I thought of interstitial. That answer will be in the book. I’ve not seen but only one other of those stories, so I can’t say what it is we’ll find when we open it. Like Graham, I hope it’ll flesh out the idea for everyone a bit more.

  9. I guess I have never been satisfied with the idea of a “feeling” as a definition, either here or from Sterling/Moles.

    But I think the difference of the “between” of interstitial versus the “hybridizing” of cross-genre is that it’s a work that creates an experience that feels as if it’s calling on aspects or influences of various genres and modes without committing itself to their rules one way or another, and in some cases without the influence being one that is normally nameable.

    So an interstitial story would be defined by not using the conventions of two or more genres? I am not trying to be (excessively) snarky but it is a hard concept to wrap one’s head around. This still comes back to the idea that something interstitial is something that trancends genres. For me (and, by the sounds of it, other people in this thread) this is just the same as defining interstitial as good fiction.

    A question to which I am not sure of the answer: is it possible to have an entirely mimetic/naturalistic interstitial story? From the definitions that people have given for it it would certainly seem so. Oscar And Lucinda would be an example of my above historical romance that is not “heavily, mechanicly, committedly to all of the rules” of these genres. At the same time I get the impression that such a story would not be considered for the anthology. This is understandable because I am not at all sure how useful a term broad enough to encompass this and, say, Kelly Link. Surely all such writers share is quality?

    I would stress that I – and I would guess everyone else here – look forward to the anthology.

    (Interstitial as a cross-medium idea is interesting but I think that is a slightly different conversation to this one.)

  10. Martin, you’re on to exactly what I consider interstitial. Oscar and Lucinda is a perfect example of intertitial. It borrows from historical and romance genres. I’ve never been an advocate of the view that interstitial means it must contain a fantastic element, or any other element in particular, other than the fact that it makes use of other genre conventions without feeling compelled to follow all of the rules of each of those genres it employs for its ends. So if I were an anthologist of interstitial fiction, something that looks like Oscar and Lucinda would very much be considered. Interstitial does not mean simply “good” or “quality” stories for me. I’ve read many a story that are considered interstitial but which I found badly written or half-formed, not though through entirely, etc. Also I think if interstitial is a term of usefulness for reviewers, it is one that can be useful only in the beginning of a reviewers attempt to explicate they way a given work operates. It would be an opening descriptor, or an ending one, in some cases perhaps. But not a descriptor that will encompass a work ultimately because the nature of interstitial art will demand it be talked about in specific terms afterward noting that it exists in the spaces between various genres or modes of art.

    I’m looking forward to the anthology, too. I have no clue what interstitial looks like to very many other people, so it’ll be interesting to see of a consensus will be achieved or not.

  11. And please, everyone, forgive my typos. I’m writing on the fly and in a hurry and didn’t spellcheck!

  12. Not a direct comment to this thread but rather a response to this very useful post by Matt Cheney.

    In it he says: “In some ways, I was being coy. In more ways, I was being honest.” I appreciate him immensely for saying this. However, I might re-phrase this as “I was both sincere and disingenuous” and this is my feeling about interstitial.

  13. Interstitial fiction and Slipstream are, I believe, different sides of the same coin. Sterling original essay on Slipstream was a reaction to an interview by Carter Scholz:

    “Carter Scholz alludes,” wrote Sterling, “with pained resignation to the ongoing brain-death of science fiction. In the 60s and 70s, Scholz opines, SF had a chance to become a worthy literature; now that chance has passed. Why? Because other writers have now learned to adapt SF’s best techniques to their own ends.

    “And,” says Scholz, “They make us look sick. When I think of the best `speculative fiction’ of the past few years, I sure don’t think of any Hugo or Nebula winners. I think of Margaret Atwood’s _The Handmaid’s Tale_, and of Don DeLillo’s _White Noise_, and of Batchelor’s _The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica_, and of Gaddis’ _JR_ and _Carpenter’s Gothic_, and of Coetzee’s _Life and Times of Michael K_ . . . I have no hope at all that genre science fiction can ever again have any literary significance. But that’s okay, because now there are other people doing our job.”

    An inflammatory comment if ever there was one. Sterling goes on to paint what he thought of the best mainstream writing being produced as being of mode and producing a certain feeling.

    A quick glance at the contents page of the Slipstream anthology will show you mainstream writers like Michael Chabon, George Saunders, and Aimee Bender writing alongside such younger writers as Theodora Goss, M. Rickert, and Kelly Link. Chabon, Saunders, and Bender, I would argue are Slipstream writers: mainstream writers borrowing the tropes of sf to grand effect. Goss, M. Rickert, and Kelly Link are interstitial: sf writers heavily influenced by Slipstream. (Kelly Link is the most successful interstitial writer and a good argument could be made for placing her in the Slipstream camp. After all, is it really that surprising that her books get shelved in fiction rather than in the sf ghetto?)

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