Reality is above all else a variable and nobody is qualified to say that he or she knows exactly what it is. As a matter of fact, with a firm enough commitment, you can sometimes create a reality which did not exist before. —Margaret Halsey
The hardest thing I've found is trying to classify my writing. I'm not sure it matters to me that it is but when you're trying to sell something to someone else they usually have a few questions. I've tried describing it as a cross between Kafka and Douglas Adams, I've tried describing my first novel as The Cat in the Hat for grownups but neither really hits the spot; besides even if I could find a suitable ism, that's not how bookshops organise their stock.
So, let's consider my options:
Walk through any bookstore and you'll see the same ol' headings:
Actually I'm not sure the last time I did see 'Western' in a bookshop but I've certainly seen it in libraries.
We do love our labels don't we, but not everything is easily classifiable. If you don't fit into the big genres, where do you go? What if you dare to cross the line?
Example: On what shelf would you put Asimov's The Caves of Steel? Most likely you'd find it under Science Fiction but it's essentially a detective story.
What I'm leading up to here is cross-genre, slipstream, speculative and genre straddling fiction. Strangely enough the first two are generally negative terms but the third, especially if declaimed in a loud, enthusiastic baritone, somehow manages to get the thumbs up. Genre-defying fiction is even more enthusiastically received as if it was some kind of trapeze act.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
Frost in May by Antonia White
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Island of Dr Moreau by H G Wells
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
Under The Skin by Michel Faber
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Wolf Hunt by Gillian Bradshaw
I like the introduction to the article by Whitfield who is the author of Bareback, a whodunit-cum-science fiction fantasy-cum-love story:
Genre is all very well, but it's a cage as much as a support. Who knows how many books a person who won't touch women's fiction or only reads sci-fi is missing out on that they'd otherwise love? But for a writer, the effect is more insidious. A work of art needs to be complete on its own terms: it needs to ring with internal rightness, never mind whether it makes sense in terms of genre. A writer who forces a trope in or leaves an idea out because they're worried about genre categories has mutilated their book. The best novels are those that are so effective in themselves that they let genre go hang: use what works, leave out what doesn't, and come up with whatever's fresh and vivid that serves the story you're trying to tell.
Now that's all fine and good but on what shelf would you put Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson which is "a vision, a fable, a satire, a love story [and] a ghost story" according to his publisher? Maybe on the Horror shelf?
Bruce Sterling coined the term with Richard Dorsett and popularised it in his 1989 essay of the same name. He didn't really expect it to stick but it's amazing what the public latches onto, isn't it? The thing is, he didn't clearly define the term – not clearly enough in any case – and it has been floating around for a while waiting on a definitive drawing of lines.
In an article in The Guardian novelist Christopher Priest has this to say about it:
I'm often told I write "slipstream" fiction, a fairly recent coinage. Although I seek to avoid categorisation of my books, slipstream can be a useful identifier. It is the literature of strangeness, but not necessarily in its subjects. Slipstream is about attitude, or a different way of inquiring into the familiar. It includes rather than categorises – while not being magic realism, or fantasy, or science fiction, slipstream literature includes many examples of these.
It can also be without any fantastic element at all. Most readers who connect with slipstream know it when they see it, even if they don't recognise the name. In literature you might include Angela Carter, Steve Erickson, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, J G Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, some of John Fowles. In films, Memento, Being John Malkovich and Intacto are recent examples of pure slipstream
You can find a master list of so-called slipstream novels compiled by Bruce Sterling and Lawrence Person here.
A list doesn't really prove anything, especially one as long and diverse as this one. In this essay, On Slipstream, a couple of important points are made:
The reader doesn't know if the fantastic elements in a slipstream story are real or simply a figment of the viewpoint character's skewed perceptions and is not meant to ask.
Is slipstream a "real" genre? From a postmodernist point of view, that question is irrelevant – slipstream is as real as it's treated. Since more writers are self-identifying as slipstream, more zines declaring that they publish slipstream, and more academics digging through history to identify this novel or that story as slipstream, it is apparently real enough.
One of the novels in Sterling and Person's list is: Rupert Thomson's Dreams of Leaving which is an acutely realistic novel wrapped around a fantastic premise. The plot concerns the infant Moses who is placed in a basket of rushes and is the only person to have left the English village of New Egypt. Grown up and now living in London he begins his search for his parents. In other words, a "what if" scenario. But wouldn't that come under the heading Speculative Fiction?
Simply put, speculative fiction asks, "What if…?" The term is often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein. It was coined in his 1947 essay 'On Writing of Speculative Fiction,' where Heinlein used it specifically as a synonym for "science fiction" but, as happened with all the other terms in this post, the definition has broadened over the years. It fell out of use in the seventies but has been resurrected. Good examples would be Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Vita Sackville-West's Grand Canyon, Robert Harris' Fatherland and Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night in all of which World War II doesn't run according to the history books.
To my mind all fiction is speculative since every book, every story ever written, starts off with a "what if" scenario: what if I put a man and a woman in a bed and what if he picked her up in a pub the night before and what if I only record their thoughts? That would be the starting point of my short story, 'Just Thinking'.
There is a lengthy article by D D Shade at Lost Book Archives which is worth a read and saved me a lot of research.
In his article he mentions an interesting point about "Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which was marketed as plain vanilla or straight fiction." Now, why would they do that? Why not play the "genre-defying" card? Because Margaret Atwood is a real author and real author's write literary fiction. Of course they do.
In his newspaper article Christopher Priest mentioned magic realism. The first time I came across the term was in connection with the film, Northfork which I saw in the cinema a few years back and I've since bought the DVD. In the film the characters are presented with fantastic things, a guy living in a Noah's Ark and a church with an entire wall missing, and no one bats an eye; we also have a quartet of the most unusual-looking angels searching for a missing fifth. There was actually no magic in the film that I can remember.
You can find a dizzying array of definitions of the subject by Alberto Ríos here which shows how the definition is in flux but in the most simplistic terms magic realism is a fantastic situation treated realistically. It’s a term originally coined by art historian Franz Roh in 1925 to describe a visual arts movement emerging throughout Europe, but it only took a couple of years for the term to begin being used with reference to literary works.
A broader definition is given by "Mr. Magic Realism" himself, Bruce Taylor:
Briefly, the concept of Magic Realism has to do with the concept of "heightened reality" or the addition of another dimension of reality through a symbolic or metaphoric structure. It gives us a new way of perceiving the world, as if through a child looking at the world for the first time. (Italics mine)
Children are great at suspending disbelief. They watch shows like The Muppets and accept the "reality" they're presented with. I think the key here is explanation. In magical realism, the supernatural is not displayed as questionable. It's like the TV show Greg the Bunny where humans and puppets live side by side or the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit where we have a similar scenario only it's humans and cartoon characters this time. In both situations none of the characters questions the world they are in, however in a novel like K-PAX the true identity of the alien visitor "prot" is the focus of the whole book; K-PAX is science fiction.
Like most terms it has become debased over the year but to suggest something like Greg the Bunny is a magic realist work would have purists up in arms. They would argue that magic realism is always serious and would point you, I'm sure, to great literary works like Gabriel García Márquez's novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude and I'm not one to argue with that, but the essential element is unarguably there.
What is different is intent.
In Greg the Bunny and Who Framed Roger Rabbit the intent is to entertain. The literary equivalent would be escapist fiction. Which brings me to my problem.
Okay, so a guy wakes up one Tuesday morning and Truth is knocking on his door, not some long-lost parent or a kid he never knew he had, but the truth in human form. That's the premise of my novel, Living with the Truth. (Yup, that's a plug for my book but bear with me, I have a point to make). Truth appears on Jonathan's doorstep in exactly the same way as the cat in the hat appears: unexpected, uninvited and unwanted. He's like a superhero, he has one unique ability – he knows the truth about everything that's happened everywhere, everywhen – but that's it; he can't fly, he doesn't have x-ray vision and he doesn't wear Spandex.
What kind of novel is this? I could suggest Fantasy:
Fantasy … doesn't seek to ground its speculative elements in this world, but takes as granted either the existence of alternative worlds wherein the natural laws differ, or the existence of natural laws not yet discovered, such as "laws of magic." - Ashen Wings
but I'm not sure about the "takes as granted" bit because Jonathan was oblivious to the existence of Truth as anything other than an abstract concept; meeting him makes him question his whole understanding of the world especially when Truth confirms things like the existence of God and extra-terrestrials.
Or it could be Science Fiction:
Science fiction seeks to explain its speculative elements by extrapolating from science (mechanical, biological, cognitive). Science fiction is often plausible, if far-fetched or dependent on innovations and discoveries that have not yet been made and may be impossible. - Ashen Wings
because nothing Truth tells him is magical. He explains himself in terms of the physical universe.
Or it could be any one of the others. Does the fact that Jonathan needs to be convinced that Truth is who he says he is mean it isn't magical realism? Or how about the fact he's so easily convinced? I don't know and I'm not sure I care any more than Kafka did when he wrote 'The Metamorphosis', where a guy turns into a dung beetle and no one questions it; they accept that Gregor is now a beetle and don't call the police, the priest or the exterminators.
So what is my book? Slipstream? Cross-genre? Magical realist?
I would be interested in hearing what shelf you'd put it on.