Mon
Jul 12 2010 6:02pm

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “Interstitial Then, Genre Now”

Missed ReaderCon this weekend? Fear not. I’ll be posting my notes on the panels every day this week. Today’s installment kicks off the series with “Interstitial Then, Genre Now,” lead by Theodora Goss, with Matt Cheney, John Clute, Michael Dirda, and Peter Dubé.

It was the first panel that I sat in on for Burlington, MA’s ReaderCon on Friday, and it looked at the idea of works of fiction that fall between the cracks—intergenre stories, for example. “Interstitial” was a term that I really wasn’t familiar with, and I’ve heard other terms, such as ’weird’ fiction, that take its place. The discussion as a whole proved to be an interesting one, looking at just what genres were, and once that was defined, what the nature of some of these stories drifted to.

Genre, according to Michael Dirda, is really a creation of the marketplace, an artificial wall that helps publishers and marketers push towards dedicated audiences. This is a topic that I’ve covered a couple of times in my own writing, and the concept of a genre not an unfamiliar one - it is a term that is really tacked on afterwards, based on the story elements that are put together in the story.

Essentially, a genre is an established agreement on what the book is, based on the story elements, and to accomplish that sort of categorization over a broad number of stories, a broad definition of the term is necessary. I have a feeling that there’s a greater level to which the label really impacts a story, because Dirda noted that genres are always looking to push outwards from their definitions, partially by economic necessity of being forced to make your book stand out from the others in the field, but also to make things interesting. As panel member Peter Dube noted: “If there is no pleasure in the text, I won’t read it.”

With that in mind, there is a bit of a problem in defining Interstitial literature as a genre in and of itself, when, essentially, the term is meaningless to the story, or when it comes to the boundaries of the science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative fiction genres, all of which in the context of literature, are difficult to define as a group. I think that “Interstitial” is really a term that is relative to the story and its context within the literature market, rather than a larger label that can be applied broadly to everything that falls between the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. The literature field is continually changing, based on what is currently popular, from the numerous books out on vampires at the moment, all the way back to ancient literature.


Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer, historian and longtime science fiction fan. He currently holds a master’s degree in Military History from Norwich University, and has written for SF Signal and io9, as well as for his personal site, Worlds in a Grain of Sand. He currently lives in the green (or white, for most of the year) mountains of Vermont with a growing library of books and a girlfriend who tolerates them.

1 comment
Eugene R.
1. Eugene R.
I enjoyed this panel as a great kick-off for the convention, having an interesting topic that was approached differently by several opinionated panelists, all making intelligent remarks. I particularly liked John Clute's characterization of interstitial (and other experimental literature) as being forced to "sink or swim". Like a shark, interstitial works need to move forward, challenging reader expectations and genre boundaries, or they simply sink out of sight and die unmourned away from the comfortable confines of genre.

Unfortunately, the panel (save for Theodora Goss, the leader) seemed to dislike the concept of interstitial (or, worse, "slipstream"), and even genre came under attack, with Mr. Dirda referring to the Heinlein-originated label "speculative fiction" in the same tones used by someone who sniffs "Graphic novels? Oh, you mean *comic books*, don't you?" Certainly, genre labels are used to market books. But then, so are terms like "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction", and anyone who fools around with them without understanding reader expectations is likely to get a lower body part handed back to him in a million tiny pieces. Humans think in categories, so the question is the ways we use genre in understanding and appreciating literature (marketing being only one such use). Besides, genre is what brings us together at gatherings like Readercon. For that alone, it seems worthwhile to me.

- Eugene R.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment