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Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature
author: Gary K. Wolfe
publisher: Wesleyan
pub date: 01.03.2011
pp: 280
tags: Literary Criticism , SF , Fantasy

Roger Luckhurst on Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature

Boiling Point

June 3rd, 2011 reset - +

FOR TWENTY YEARS, Gary K. Wolfe, a Professor at Roosevelt University, has written a monthly column for Locus magazine, in which he reviews a handful of novels or story collections, usually of science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Wolfe has thus been at the coal-face — near the drill-bit where it is loud and noisy, and where the good stuff is seamed with a lot of rubble — for a long time. Through Locus, Wolfe has also interviewed and befriended many of the leading contemporary writers in these related fields. Evaporating Genres, a collection of eleven essays that synthesize some of this monthly shift work into longer and more reflective pieces, is Wolfe’s chance to get up to the surface and reflect on the radical changes in the genre that he has witnessed. He has a fascinating story to tell.

The literary world tends to think of genre fiction in very short-hand terms, defined by rigid conventions, styles, plots, and readerships. These constraints on commercial genres mean that they are intrinsically valued less than literary fiction (which simply does a better job of hiding its own brutal economics). Publishers and bookshops tend to agree: you can usually identify a romance, a horror blockbuster, or a fantasy novel at twenty paces. These short-hands of course still predominate. But Wolfe’s long reviewing career has allowed him to identify a strange process of hybridization going on at the edges of the genres of fantastic literature — in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Writers have begun to emerge who refuse to conform to rigid rules, who switch between supernatural terrors and geeky hard science gleefully in the same story (sometimes even in the same paragraph), or who write cunning tales that start out with one set of conventions only to subtly undermine them half-way through and lead you up the garden path into a place you never thought you’d willingly enter. It is this generation of writers—not a movement and decidedly not a new subgenre of its own — that Wolfe explores with the thesis that what might once have been stable is now “evaporating.”

Wolfe’s most sustained case study for his “evaporation” thesis is the work of the modern horror writer Peter Straub. You might have seen Straub’s blockbuster horror bestsellers co-written with Stephen King, and dismissed him as another horror hack producing chunks of cheap sensation fiction. But Straub’s first book, Ghost Story (1979), is accurately described by Wolfe as a kind of compendium of all available ghost stories, told through a matrix of multiple narrators and time-schemes, that shifts between domestic realism, supernatural horror, fantasy dream worlds, and even cosmic science fiction of the H.P. Lovecraft variety. Immensely literate and versed in the Gothic, Grimmish fairy-tale Romanticism, and the American tradition of weird tales from Charles Brockden Brown onwards, Straub stirs this heady mix into a quest-narrative form. Ghost Story was only the start of Straub’s career: he has since added an extra, metafictional layer by using an alter-ego novelist character in his books to incorporate reflections on the very act and possibly redemptive purpose of storytelling. As an anthologist and editor, he has also given the opportunity for a new generation to write these precociously self-conscious kinds of fiction, from celebrated figures such as Jonathan Carroll, Jonathan Lethem, M. John Harrison, China Miéville and Kelly Link to lesser known ones such as Carol Emshwiller, Elizabeth Hand, and Jeffrey Ford. They are sometimes called “slipstream” writers or — rather more clunkingly — New Wave Fabulists. With the arrival of figures like Straub, Lethem, and Miéville, who write critically and historically about genre alongside their fiction, there is a strong feeling that a newly confident generation has emerged that sees generic tropes as enabling resources rather than disabling constraints. Wolfe, in a bid to suggest that this is really where the best cutting-edge fiction is being written (regardless of whether it’s in the literary mainstream or not), simply calls these works “Twenty-First Century Stories.”

The core of Wolfe’s argument is articulated in the first three essays, which, although published previously, have been considerably extended and enriched with wondrous examples of texts by Link, Hand, and others that even an avid reader of popular fiction might have overlooked. It is mildly dangerous to read these chapters anywhere near a WiFi-enabled laptop: my online book-shopping as I grazed through these pages proved ruinous. In two pieces co-authored with Amelia Beamer (who also works for Locus , and garnered praise last year for her reinvention of the zombie genre in her first novel, The Loving Dead), Wolfe again ruminates on the nature of trying to define these new kinds of fiction. These essays deepen the readings by attempting to provide the outline of a formal aesthetic, and of the recurrent themes and formal devices that might identify the evaporated genre text, with the inevitable limited success of all such formal exercises.

The book ends with an essay accompanied by the sound of an axe being ground. Ostensibly a reflection on Wolfe’s friend John Clute, the extraordinary reviewer and encyclopedist of fantasy and science fiction, the essay is actually a spirited defense of the value of Clute’s and Wolfe’s many decades of reviewing. Wolfe sounds rather wounded that reviewing is considered less worthy than academic critical writing. He offers a potted history of the rise of academic SF criticism, and although scrupulously polite and fair for the most part, it is clear he sides with those readers who suspect academics of being “opportunistic and exploitative,” believing they simply don’t read enough fiction and imbibe far too much literary theory before pronouncing on the genre. His peroration for the book wants to argue instead for “a reclamation of authority from the last theorist to the first reader.” This chapter reads a little like it still wants to fight the culture wars of the 1980s (Wolfe bases his observations on an attack on Clute’s “journalistic” views that was published in 1988, after all), which jars with his otherwise post-1990s focus on genre fiction. Rather like the genres, such stark oppositions between criticism and journalism — or between abstract theorizing and the empirical work of reading the archive — have surely dissolved. Ironically, in Britain, the last two governments have rolled out a requirement that research demonstrate a “public-facing impact,” which actually means that journalism is becoming valued above the specialist academic essay. The latter is a form that, in the humanities at least, has in the last year been officially determined as undeserving of any public financial support at all. Perhaps Wolfe should be having the last laugh, rather than feeling too hurt about the lowly status of the press reviewer.

Speaking as one of those worthless academic critics, though, I did feel that Wolfe’s book, in fact, although immensely informative and refreshing in many respects, begins to reveal some of the limits of simply relying for insights on the accumulation of reviews. Reviews (like this one) do the what and the how. They’re less able to stand back and reflect on the whyEvaporating Genres will be able to tell you what a slipstream/fabulist/New Weird text might look like, and how it uses formal technical effects to achieve its ends. It does this rather brilliantly. But in all the fascinating summaries of hundreds of texts here, Wolfe never asks questions about why this new genre might have been emerging around him in the nineties and beyond. 

There were clues everywhere. In one chapter called “The Lives of the Fantasists,” Wolfe collects many examples of fantasy writers beginning to weave autobiographical resources into their fantastic texts. It sketches an emergent grouping of texts that repeatedly end up being about extreme traumatic experiences, explored in a displaced fantastic register. Peter Straub is used once more as an example, this time as an author who has written about the sources of his storytelling in childhood trauma (though Stephen King and Elizabeth Hand have done so as well). Wolfe never looks outside his chosen areas to discuss a wider cultural shift in America that, since the coining of “post-traumatic stress disorder” in 1980, has increasingly valued the power of traumatic events to explain ourselves to ourselves. Trauma has steadily come to define not just individual subjects, but also, since 9/11, national sensibilities of loss. From this wider perspective, Straub is not unusual, but absolutely typical, typical of the culture of trauma narratives that began to intensify in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Indeed, since many psychiatrists have associated traumatic stress with fantasies that borrow from the Gothic and supernatural imaginary, it is perhaps unsurprising that we have had a slew of fictions where domestic worlds slide abruptly into the horror register. Such a critical view merely offers a first reflection on why these genre mash-ups emerge when they do — admittedly it’s just one angle on a complex situation. Wolfe, though, eyes close to the drill-bit, is not willing to step outside the sharp pool of light he focuses on the coal-face. His honorable position is, I think, that if you read enough stories they will eventually explain themselves to you. The critic in me is not entirely convinced that they can, not on their own. Bringing in other cultural and critical frameworks is not a betrayal of this fiction, as Wolfe implies, but perhaps the only way of opening out just why they are so compelling to so many readers right now.

None of this takes away from the fact that Wolfe remains one of the most important recorders of the tectonic shifts in these volatile genres over the last twenty years, and that his reviews remain essential reading for anyone wanting to get a snapshot of the state of play in the field. I will be returning to this book as a guide for a long time to come.