I’m currently reading the latest interstitial anthology, Interfictions 2 edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak. It’s not a bad anthology. If no stories stand out as brilliant, there are no obvious clunkers either. Though for all the claims of innovation, most of the stories are fairly straightforward fantasy or (less commonly) science fiction. It’s quite remarkable how many of the contributions use the standard postmodern trick of foregrounding the fact that it is a story, making the characters aware they are within a fiction or directly addressing the reader. I keep seeing things I’ve seen rather too often elsewhere; in fact, reading it has made me realise why I feel so ambivalent about the whole interstitial enterprise.
For a start, I think the understanding of what is meant by interstitial has changed. In the early interstitial presentations I saw at Wiscon, and again in the first Interfictions anthology, I got the distinct impression that interstitial was regarded as a genre between the genres. In other words, if you drew a Venn diagram of sf, fantasy, horror and mainstream, then interstitial would occupy that gap where they didn’t quite overlap. The very name, interstitial, supports this interpretation. But it didn’t make sense to me because no such gap actually exists.
This new anthology reinterprets the word to mean not the gap between literary forms but the point where they overlap. Now this actually makes a great deal more sense, because literature is full of such overlaps. On the other hand, it negates the whole idea of interstitial, because literature is full of such overlaps.
There is, to my mind, no such thing as a pure example of genre. Throughout the history of literature, writers have plundered modes, approaches, styles, forms, genres, in exactly the way that contributors to this volume ascribe to interstitial. Thomas More’s Utopia is a combination of themes taken from the writings of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci and structure taken from works of philosophy such as The Education of a Christian Prince by Erasmus. Five hundred years later, China Miéville’s The City and the City is a combination of approach taken from any number of crime novels and theme taken from Foucault’s notion of the Heterotopia. In between, practically every work of fiction you can name has borrowed liberally from history, biography, science, travel, philosophy, other fictions, and so on (and conversely, every work of history, biography, philosophy and such has borrowed liberally from other fictions and the rest). In other words, if interstitial fiction exists, then it is indistinguishable from fiction as a whole.
Of course, none of this is new. Writers have always chaffed against what they see as the narrow restrictions of the established literary norm (whatever that might be), and so have continually come up with new forms. They call this modernism or postmodernism, the avant garde or the new wave, slipstream or any of a myriad of other names. Mostly such movements are short lived; they tend to get absorbed into the general arsenal of the writer, or they disappear to be reinvented later. The avant garde has been reinvented several times over the last century, the ‘experimental’ fiction of the 1920s being pretty hard to distinguish from the ‘experimental’ fiction of the 1960s. The British new wave in science fiction (the American new wave was a rather different beast) primarily incorporated modernist techniques (stream of consciousness, unreliable narrator, intertextuality) into science fiction.
The generic mess that is science fiction, fantasy and horror seems particularly prone to this urge to invent some new literary lebensraum (new wave, new weird, new hard sf, new space opera, slipstream, interstitial). It all depends, I think, on a category error: you want literature to be broad, accommodating, flexible; but you perceive genre to be fixed, rigid, narrow. The category error lies in perceiving genre as some prescribed, inalterable territory marked off from the rest of literature, rather than as an ill-defined area within literature whose borders are porous at the least.
Therein lies my problem with the interstitial as much as with slipstream and all the other pseudo-genres the literature has brought forth. I believe that these forms can only truly exist as an independent entity if we regard science fiction and fantasy and horror (and, indeed, all other generic forms, including mainstream) as an absolute. If there are hard and fast limits, an immoveable wall sealing off sf, then anything that partakes of sf outside these walls can be presented as something new, daring, transgressive. But that is not how I see genre. I have consistently argued that genre is a relative thing, indefinable precisely because it is constantly reinventing itself, because it has no set limits. In such a case, if there are no walls you cannot have an ‘outside the walls’. For me, therefore, things like slipstream and interstitial are not new genres, but a manifestation of the malleability of genre.
First published at LiveJournal, 3 December 2009.