Genre in the Mainstream

Genre in the Mainstream: Millhauser, Straub, and Stern Discuss Why the Fantastic is More Real than Real

Over the weekend, Genre in the Mainstream took a field trip to The Brooklyn Book Festival to soak in some conversations about the very questions that preoccupy this column. What are the relationships between mainstream literary fiction and the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror? Why is there so much more crossover now than ever before? And the most interesting question: why do non-genre writers choose to incorporate elements of the fantastic into their stories? This past weekend, I sat in on a discussion between Steven Millhauser, Emma Straub, and Steve Stern and discovered a little more about the ever-blurring lines between the genres.

Moderated by editor and writer Harold Augenbraum, the purpose of the panel was to discuss exactly why certain kinds non-realistic elements crop up in literary fiction. Each author read a little selection of their work, and then the brief, but insightful discussion began. Augenbraum kicked things off with the notion that fantastic fiction might be a response to a form of “hysterical realism.” That at the point at which so much serious literature involved very believable relationships and interactions, that perhaps this form of realism got to a point of being unrelatable. Steve Stern chimed in by saying that part of why he writes the way he does is because he discovered what he considers to be interesting and folklore-like aspects of Judaism.

Stern’s new book is called The Frozen Rabbi, which deals with a man living in 1999 discovering an orthodox rabbi from 1889 frozen in his basement. Stern jokingly called this story “autobiographical” but went on to elaborate that as a child he discovered Judaism was “keeping secrets” from him insofar as some of the more mystical and interesting aspects of the Jewish faith and literature were being down-played by contemporary rabbis. As a result, Stern was interested in poaching the more “fun” elements from his culture into his stories in fantastic ways. Stern doesn’t believe that this is necessarily in contradiction to reality; instead he feels that “these sorts of events [frozen rabbis in the basement] expand the boundaries of reality.”

“There must be a term,” Steven Millhauser said in regard to trying to define the kind of fiction in which “the real” is being contradicted by fantastic events. But Millhauser definitely balks at any kind of a definition saying, “If you are a fabulist, than you are in opposition to the real…which I resent.” Like Stern, Millhauser doesn’t think impossible aspects of stories make something unreal or outside of the grasp of the human experience. Instead, he asserts just the opposite is true. “Impossible things allow you to get at something in the real that realistic fiction can’t do.” If you’ve ever read any of Millhauser’s stories or novels, you’d know this couldn’t be more accurate. In his first book, Edwin Mullhouse, cartoon characters painted on the walls of a childhood bedroom literally come to life. How many of us really experienced childhood this way? In this way it seems Millhauser’s form of fabulist fiction isn’t out-of-control, but rather an honest emotional representation of what certain experiences are really like. (Millhauser’s new book We Others came out last month and is a collection of new and previously published stories. Genre in the Maisntream will be covering it soon!)

The youngest member of the panel was Emma Straub, who has written two books Fly Over State, and the forthcoming Other People We Married. The story Straub read prior to the discussion was positively delightful and dealt with a trailer park full all kinds of things people who love fantasy would want to take home. “Look out Goblins Ahead!” screams one of the signs in this Straub story while one of her characters takes to doing spot-on Walt Whitman impressions for the supposed delight of certain adults and children. Augenbraum pointed out that while Straub’s work certainly appeals to the same kind of sensibility as the out and out fantasies of Millhauser or Stern, that her characters didn’t seem to completely cross that line. Straub countered by saying “I’m not an expert on those fantasies yet, but I will get them there.”

Augenbraum then moved the conversation towards this question: Have we had enough of the realistic novel? Millhauser thinks that “the argument has already been made” insofar as anytime someone reads a book that is outside of their time and experience, the chances of them becoming impatient with the previous generation are high. Millhauser posits that the impatience a writer might have with the conventions of the previous generation often pushes writing toward the fantastic. Stern doesn’t think that fantastic fiction is so much a response to overly realistic novels, but instead that overly realistic novels are the “blip” because most major works from ancient mythology to the Bible are full of fantastic elements. In the grand tradition of storytelling then, Stern feels realistic fiction is actually a relatively new development.

An audience member later asked a good question: at what point does the high concept of a fantastic story start to feel like a gimmick? Stern believes that all fantastic elements are “subversive and therefore not for grownups.” But Stern really thinks the idea of writing fiction is kind of mischievous in general. For Stern, writing the kinds of stories he enjoys is far preferable to the kinds of stories in which “people stand around in their kitchen wondering why they can’t connect.” In response to the question of when does a fantasy element become a gimmick, I got the sense that Millhauser, Stern and Straub actually don’t understand how that could ever happen. For authors like this these kinds of elements are just as real and important to their lives as the kitchen or the workplace or the subway. Millhauser believes in moving cartoons, Stern in frozen ancient rabbis. And Straub, possibly in goblins and even animal psychics.

Authors of literary fiction who push the boundaries aren’t crazy. They’re just interested in figuring out what’s more real than real. And maybe that’s fantasy.

Ryan Britt is the staff writer for


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