So last weekend I was at this books festival in Los Angeles. Wait, it gets better.
I was on a panel with two exceptionally interesting writers, Aimee Bender and Victor LaValle, the whole thing being run by the brilliant Scott Timberg. The idea was that we were all writers who wrote literary fiction with fantasy bits in it, or maybe fantasy with literary bits in it, who can tell. Probably I’m more the latter, they’re more the former. But anyway.
It was one of those conversations where the more we talked the more we agreed with each other. We talked about how incorporating fantasy into our work was exciting and scary and liberating and above all incredibly fun. (“I realized that if I could write a book with a monster in it, I could enjoy writing again” — Victor LaValle.) And how other writers we liked were doing that, from both sides of the alleged literary fantasy/divide.
And it isn’t just true of fantasy, writers are borrowing back and forth across the gap in science fiction, detective fiction, romance, horror, Western and YA. Examples would have to include Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Paul Auster, Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jonathan Lethem, Susanna Clarke, Cormac McCarthy, Cat Valente, Kate Atkinson, Audrey Niffenegger, David Mitchell, and on and on.
(I have no idea whether these writers would consent to being characterized thusly. This is just me talking here.)
This isn’t a wildly new observation. Lots of other people have made it before me. I’ve made it before. It’s just that it seems truer all the time. There’s even a name for this kind of writing. Bruce Sterling called it Slipstream, in an excellent, astoundingly forward-looking essay that’s already 21 years old. It’s a very good name. I like it, and it has caught on. But I wonder why it hasn’t caught on more.
More recently Ted Gioia has floated the name conceptual fiction. I agree with his analysis, but I’m not in love with the name — it reminds me of conceptual art, which is very different, and it has a cold, static feel. I want a name that reflects the vital, dynamic, plotty feeling of the books under discussion.
Should we stick with Slipstream? Or go for something else? The Borrowers? Pulpism? The New Storytelling? It seems like the best names for movements are often coined by critics who are making fun of the works in question. Impressionism got started that way, as did (I think) punk rock. I could go back through what bloggers have called me, but Dickheadism just doesn’t have the same ring to it.