The Feminist (and other) Appeal of Kelly Link’s Fiction

The following is a reconstruction from notes taken during a panel at Wiscon 31 (Friday 23 May, 20:45–22:00). The moderator was Margaret McBride (MMB); the panellists were Eileen Gunn (EG), Paul Kincaid (PK) and Micole Sudberg (MS). It is not a complete record: I stopped taking notes before the end, and though I write fast I did not note down every word that was said. I have used the words used by the panellists as far as possible, but have also turned a few notes into sentences. I may have got some things wrong. If you haven’t read any of Kelly Link’s fiction you should, and could start by downloading a copy of her first collection, Stranger Things Happen, from here.

MMB: What makes Link’s stories work so well? She appeals to non-genre readers as well as genre readers – why?

EG: The appeal is inherent in what she’s writing and how she’s writing. Her point of view is inclusive – she doesn’t write like a genre writer. And the issues she addresses are everyday issues. She draws out the surrealism from everyday life and makes it integral to her stories.

MS: I am a genre reader, so what I say about why she appeals to non-genre readers is going to be a guess to some extent. I think part of it is the lack of explanation and the acceptance of mystery – there’s no need to definitively pin her work down. (The cynical viewpoint would be that this means it’s easy for non-genre readers to “misread” the fantastical elements as psychological.) Does her work feel like sf? It feels more focused on the strange than on the fantastic – it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed the border into the impossible. Which perhaps means it appeals to those who like the strange and those who can be persuaded by it.

PK: Link doesn’t so much write fantasy as write about fantasy, writes realist fiction in which fantasy is a way of making sense of the world. You could say that the strange thing is why she appeals to genre readers. She could be read without any recognition of the fantastic – her stories are about story, and the way they cross boundaries allows us to cross boundaries.

MMB: How important is the recognition of other stories in Link’s work?

PK: If you look at a story like “Flying Lessons”, the longer we look the more we start to recognise the myths, legends, fairytales that have fed into it but been subverted or distorted. Most fairy tales have a familiar shape, provide a form of comfort. Link introduces distortion, which makes us look again.

MS: “Flying Lessons” is one of my favourite of Link’s stories. If you don’t know it, one of the big references is Orpheus, but part of the fun is working out the references. In the way it has a familiar plot but an unconventional structure, I think of it as a transitional piece on the way to something like “Travels with the Snow Queen”. That starts to break out of the familiar plot and change the ending (it becomes a breakup story) in a way that still gives a comfort of recognition, but an unexpected comfort. The building blocks of the story we thought we were getting are used to say something unexpected. I think this ties in to Scott Westerfeld’s response to the New York Times reviewer who seemed confused about what the zombies in “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” are for. I don’t entirely agree with Westerfeld – yes, the zombies are cool and fun, and that’s one part of what draws you into the story, but they’re also a comment on the protagonists’ need to control their anxiety. They’re doing multiple things.

MMB: And the style of the story reflects that anxiety – in the list of things you’re meant to be afraid of, for instance.

EG: The zombie contingency plans are a control strategy – they’re a story. And it’s a different use of story than you see in fairytales, it’s about people making things up as they go, why they tell and how they tell.

PK: “Lull” is another obvious use of story – the reader goes into the layers of story, but doesn’t come all the way out. It breaks your expectations, it’s as if you yourself are trapped in the story at the end.

MMB:Magic for Beginners”, which is the story about an imaginary TV show, plays a similar trick. Let’s talk a bit more about what’s good about Link’s story structures.

PK: It’s striking how many of her stories use that sort of brokenness. Even in the more conventional stories, there’s often a sense that there are bits missing and that’s hard to do. (I imagine the ultimate Kelly Link story, some years from now, which consists of a tremendously evocative title and nothing else.)

MS: I wouldn’t say they’re broken so much as they have an empty space that the reader is invited to fill. Even when the stories aren’t directly addressing the reader (which they often do) they’re making allowances for the reader to fill in the gaps. It’s interesting to compare “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” and “Monster”. In some ways “Monster” is conventional horror – at the end of the story the attempts to control chaos don’t work. It’s a campfire story that turns out to be real, the reader was lulled into a feeling of control that wasn’t real. “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” uses an unreliable narrator, so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t, but still plays on that sense of horror-recognition. And in “The Faery Handbag” it’s up to the reader to interpret the ending as about loss or about hope.

MMB: Is this waiting space to do with how she writes her endings?

EG: I think it’s hard to consciously produce that kind of effect by conscious structuring. If I know the structure of what I’m writing ahead of time I find it impossible to write. Link’s stories defy structure in satisfying ways – they’re structured, they satisfy that reader need … but not entirely.

MMB: How do the voices she chooses – younger voices, or using the second person – affect her story structures?

PK: Her voice is very interesting. When it’s a younger voice it’s not straightforwardly a younger voice – in “The Girl Detective” the perspective shifts, never stays in one place. In “Travels with the Snow Queen” the story is told to “you”, but your role changes over the course of the story because the character changes.

MMB: It seems to me she’s writing close to the characters’ point of view but not quite inside it – you only notice this when you realise you know some things the character doesn’t.

PK: There’s a sort of meta-author, telling us that the real story is not the one we’re reading.

MS: Both the “You” and the “I” in her stories tend to slip. In “The Girl Detective”, “I” is variously the girl detective, an observer inside the story, the narrator … the playfulness of style and the combination of the deliberately young tone is one of the things that makes the story work.

MMB: What about her use of humour?

MS: A lot of the humour in a Link story is about disconcerting juxtapositions – Nancy Drew and twelve dancing princesses – which matches the way the structure works to unsettle the reader.

PK: Yes, she uses incongruence. In the bank robbery in “The Girl Detective” the vault is loaded with dirty socks. Also – the difference between humour and satire is that humour tends to need affection. Cruel humour puts people off. It’s interesting how appealing the characters and circumstances in Link’s stories almost always are.

MS: And humour is dependent on structure, it has a grammar – a bad joke is a joke that hasn’t been told in the right way, in the right order. So the way things are revealed matters.

MMB: We should also talk about the feminist aspects of her work.

MS: I think “The Girl Detective” is a feminist story because of the missing mother. We ask ourselves, why is the mother missing, and then, why is the mother always missing? The quest for the mother aligns with the reader’s quest for the girl detective – for missing women in stories.

PK: In something like “Travels with the Snow Queen” there’s a rage that is impossible to escape, a rage at the way that character has been treated. The mad and foolish actions in that story are driven by that rage. But for lots of Link’s stories, feminism is more like the air they breathe, it’s not necessarily driving.

EG: You can look at the stories from a feminist point of view but feminism is not “in” the stories. They inspire feminist reading but are larger than that one reading.

MS: A couple more stories – in “Most of my friends are two-thirds water”, one of the interesting things is the complicity of the sympathetic female characters with what’s hurting them. The story is told by a narrator who’s in love with the guy who has the story about aliens, she has this painful, dead-end conversation with him and then directs her anger at the blonde women he’s talked about. “Stone Animals” I think is another story that has a lot of rage in it, but it’s buried and (therefore?) more self-directed on the part of the female lead. One of the most potent aspects of that story is how the characters are unable to change, or even recognise, their situations.

MMB: The blurb on the back of Stranger Things Happen reads in part, “These eleven extraordinary stories are quirky, spooky, and smart. They all have happy endings.” Do they all have happy endings?

EG: That’s clearly a blurb written by the author – more unreliable narration! Can’t trust it.

PK: Although we are asked to provide endings for a number of her stories – perhaps we are more likely to invent happy endings.

Notes From Wiscon 4

Strictly speaking, these are notes post-Wiscon. We lit out of Madison at lunchtime today, and have now safely arrived (after a slightly alarming cab ride) at the Union Square Inn in New York. But to tie up the loose ends:

  • Sunday was very much a social day for me; the only programmed item I went to was Kelly Link and Laurie Marks’ combined guest of honour speech (which I enjoyed). Otherwise the day was about hanging out and having good conversations. Notes for various panels are popping up on the Wiscon lj community, though.
  • Actually, I tell a lie: the parties were on the program, and Sunday was the day of the Strange Horizons Tea Party, which was hectic but which seemed to go well, as well as various room parties later in the day (and, I gather, a secret dance party that eventually happened after I went to bed).
  • This morning was a bit of a blur of packing, goodbyes, incredibly sugary and cinnamony cinnamon rolls, and a quick swing around the sign-out to get some books inscribed. (I am also rather proud of my copy of Twenty Epics, which I think I managed to get signed and/or doodled on by every contributor at the con.) In between I went to The Future of Feminism, which somewhat ironically left me wanting to read a good one-volume history of English-language (or Western) feminism, to give me a slightly more coherent context for everything. Any suggestions?
  • Other snapshots: listening to Graham trying to explain cat macros to Ted Chiang; high-fiving Meghan about crime-fighting hotties with killer bodies; the incredible hand-made truffles at the Interstitial Arts Foundation party; chatting to someone who’d been to 22 Wiscons at the Strange Horizons party; explaining why my badge said Njäll; the largest baklava ever; breakfasts with the Brits (and a rotating cast of guest stars) at Michelangelo’s.
  • All of which is to say I had a good time and am left with a contended post-con glow (enough that I’d like to go back, although I’d also like to try other US cons, particularly Readercon and ICFA); but I know not everyone’s first Wiscon went as well as mine, and some of the reasons are ones I think it wouldn’t hurt for Wiscon to take on board. See, for example, Rose Fox’s con report; I spoke to several other people over the course of the weekend who had at least some of the same reservations.
  • And I succumbed and bought one final book: Busy About the Tree of Life by Pamela Zoline. I haven’t counted the final tally, exactly; they did all fit in my suitcase, but they also made my suitcase weigh rather more than the airline allowance for checked baggage, so posting a box to the UK sometime this week may not be a terrible idea.

Notes From Wiscon 3

Thanks to my cunning plan of travelling out light (and thus leaving more room to travel home heavy, laden with books), I have left the con hotel for the delights of Laundry 101. I was planning to spend this time making a final assault on the current Orange Prize book, Half of a Yellow Sun, with which I am not really getting on, but it seems they have free wi-fi here too, so here are some notes on yesterday’s Wiscon happenings instead.

  • Started the day with a wander round the farmer’s market, as instructed by all and sundry, which resulted in a breakfast composed of the most cinnamon-y and sugar-y cinnamon whirls ever. Mmm.
  • Got back in time for the last two-thirds of a panel on editing anthologies: some interesting background on the economics of it, and the merits of open vs. closed anthologies, but overall a bit of a disappointment; I think the main problem was that it was in a much bigger room than it needed, which dampened down discussion somewhat. (Another audience member’s notes here.)
  • After lunch, went to “The Foremothers of Today’s Feminist SF“, which saw interesting discussions of the work of Ursula Le Guin, Naomi Mitchison and others, as well as some good points about how today’s feminist sf differs from its forebears, but never really got around to the bit of the panel description that interested me the most (how do new readers react to earlier feminist sf). I recorded this one, so there’ll probably be a transcript at some point somewhere.
  • Next up was “Can Technology be the Answer?“, which was missing a panelist and seemed somewhat under-attended, although that was probably because it was scheduled opposite Cultural Appropriation Revisited. Somewhat predictably, the answer to the question was “no”, which led to discussion of how sf (and society in general) tends to simplify how new technology affects society. The point was made, I forget by who, that the very clear stimulus-development-consequence path followed by nuclear weapons is (a) how a lot of sf treats any new technology and (b) almost the only real-world example of such a pattern. Also discussed was the tension between needing new technology to open up new options, and the problems of developing technology without a clear need in mind.
  • Then it was time for Laurie J. Marks and Kelly Link interviewing each other, which covered a lot of ground (including discussion of what makes something YA, which is a theme that’s much more obvious here than it has been at any UK con I’ve been to; Mely reports from a panel I wish I’d gone to here), and which I also recorded.
  • Out to dinner with David, Kameron, Karen, Jed, Susan, Matt, Liz, Graham, Lawrence, and Jackie, which I really enjoyed; then back to the hotel for a bit of Tiptree auction, a bit of bar discussion, an (excellent) late-night panel on good criticism (also recorded for later transcription), and a bit of Small Beer press party. Lots more people met; only very briefly in some cases, but it’s still good to have faces and voices to go with the names. (And I should say, too, that it’s been good to see the people I already know but don’t get to hang out with enough.)
  • I have managed to restrain myself from buying more books. Unfortunately, I have collected a moderately-sized pile of review copies …

Notes From Wiscon 2

Or rather, photos from Madison.

I should probably not be allowed to buy any more books on this trip.

Met yet more people today, including Mary Rickert, Rick Bowes, Mely, Alan DeNiro, Christopher Barzak, Rose Fox, L. Timmel Duchamp, Meghan McCarron, Hannah Wolf Bowen, Karen Meisner (who led us to a wonderful Japanese restaurant for dinner), most of whom I need to seek out for longer conversations, plus I’m sure many others I’m forgetting. Coming up this evening: do I go to the panel on Kelly Link, or do I go to the Ratbastards karaoke party?

Notes From Wiscon 1

Preliminary bookhaul:

  • Black Glass by Karen Joy Fowler
  • The Kappa Child by Hiromi Goto
  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
  • Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand
  • Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand
  • Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh

This may not look like much, but you have to bear in mind that the con hasn’t actually started yet. It’s just that Madison has a lot of very temptingly-stocked bookshops. Other than bookshopping, today was mostly spent hanging out in the hotel lobby and bar, meeting various people I’ve only ever interacted with before online (e.g. Susan, Dave), enjoying the free cookies and cake from the Governer’s Club bar (don’t tell anyone), and learning exciting book news (Night Shade have a Paolo Bacigalupi collection scheduled for early 2008). I anticipate the whole “meeting people” thing being much easier now that everyone’s started to register and put on their name badges.

Hopefully further updates will follow as the con progresses!