Recently, a Wall Street Journal article titled “Slipstream Fiction Goes Mainstream” trumpeted, once again, the triumph of genre-bending writing’s apparent coup at overthrowing the supposed realism gods of the literary mainstream. The proof, seems to be in the release of Kelly Link’s (excellent!) new collection of stories Get In Trouble getting a higher print run than her older books. Certainly, hurrah for Kelly Link, and definitely, hurrah for her writing reaching more people! But is “slipstream” really the newest way that genre-ish lit is breaking boundaries? Or, perhaps more urgently, why is the traditional media always firmly planted at the beginning of this conversation?
While the WSJ article certainly reads as positive reportage of what is presented to be a developing literary phenomenon (notice: not new phenomenon), there’s still the sense that the article itself is proceeding from a pessimistic or at least partially biased lens in relation to some of the elements and conventions being discussed. The authors of the WSJ piece define “slipstream” fiction and/or “the New Weird” as “a fast-growing strain” which borrows from science fiction, fantasy, or horror, in order to surprise readers who aren’t expecting such things in their allegedly normal fiction. The way this piece makes it sound is that “slipstream fiction” is like reading a kitchen sink drama only to have robots, ghosts, or fairies bust down the door screaming “nobody expected us to come into this story!” like they’re the Spanish Inquisition in the old Monty Python sketch.
I find this to be a tiny bit reductive and disingenuous for a few reasons. For one, the “definition” of slipstream strikes me as wrong and/or backhanded. As the article notes, the term originates (innocently or not) with author Bruce Sterling, who, writing in SF Eye #5 in 1989, wondered about a word which might define a genre (or “category”) that wasn’t quite for hardcore SF readers, but might be too odd for mainstream readers, too. The context of this essay is relevant, because Sterling arrived at his defining of “slipstream” out of what seemed to be frustration with the SF establishment. From the essay in which “slipstream” was coined:
“Science Fiction—much like that other former Vanguard of Progressive Mankind, the Communist Party—has lost touch with its cultural reasons for being. Instead, SF has become a self-perpetuating commercial power-structure, which happens to be in possession of a traditional national territory: a portion of bookstore rackspace.”
Sterling goes on to argue that writers from the mainstream (in 1989) were doing SF better than SF. Now, whether you agree with this statement in 1989 or 2015 isn’t my point here (really)—my point here is that Sterling (along with his crony Carter Schotlz) were frustrated with the SF establishment and really excited about “mainstream” lit that was doing cool, innovative SF-esque things. All of this is helpful to keep in mind when you think about where the word “slipstream” supposedly originates. Sterling further clarifies that he thinks a “genre” has power, while a “category” is simply commercially useful, a marketing term. Notably, in 1989, Sterling believed the “mainstream” would never refer to itself as such. So, he coined “slipstream,”—a sort of in-between kind of fiction— which Sterling says was represented by a bunch of specific authors of which he provides a list. Ironically or not, a lot of them (like Kurt Vonnegut or Kinsgley Amis) I’ve made strong arguments for in my Genre in the Mainstream column, a couple decades and change after Sterling’s slipstream essay (rant?) was first published. Also important: I LOVE Bruce Sterling and Cater Scholtz and think their work is great, even if I don’t totally agree with all of their assertions. (I also find myself disagreeing with my own assertions from time to time.)
When I created this column—Genre in the Mainstream—my initial goal was sort of to do the opposite of what the WSJ article seems to claim is going on in the “mainstream.” Instead of sci-fi and fantasy invading the mainstream, I thought I’d recommend some mainstream books to the SF crowd. Sort of an inverse gate-crashing. I’ve had a lot of discussion with folks on this subject and the overall feeling seems to be that the “mainstream” is open to genre conventions and the genre gate keepers have always liked literary voice-driven stuff. Yet, there does seem to be some bias on both sides. Sterling refers to himself as a “skiffy troll” in is 1989 slipstream piece, so for fun, I’ll take the “side” of a skiffy troll for a second about what annoys me about the WSJ piece:
The way the WSJ uses the term “slipstream” implies a fake sense of otherness in which “normal” or conventional elements in fiction are combined with the “unexpected” or “unreal.” With that reasoning, because The Lord of the Rings isn’t actually written in Elvish, doesn’t that make it slipstream? It’s flirting with the “ordinary” because it’s in English! Look how effortlessly Tolkien blends the real with the unreal: real words RIGHT NEXT TO fictional ones. Amazing. Slipstream at its finest.
But of course, Tolkien is just plain old fantasy, or perhaps, at this point in time, literature. Tolkien’s work certainly started a kind of publishing revolution, and the boom in Fantasy has provoked plenty of think-pieces as to why that specific genre crosses-over, too. And yet, the print runs of George R.R. Martin’s books and Robert Jordan’s books have been sufficiently high for decades but almost certainly aren’t the subject of bemused articles about “genre blending.” And that’s because what the WSJ article gets wrong about all this is oddly also what it gets right. The focus and search for new labels actually proves how meaningless they’re becoming. We live in a world where Kareem Abdul Jabbar is writing a book about Sherlock Holmes’s brother and we all hardly bat an eye. Surely, in this day and age, the mainstream press can come up with a slightly less “gee-whiz” affect when writing about writing that is supposedly “weird.” Is it all that “weird” to write about supernatural occurrences? I hear that the first super-popular book in the western world features dudes who can turn into burning bushes. Historically, “weirdness” has always been hip.
Three years ago, I wrote about a novelist friend of mine asking me “Why does it matter? Why can’t science fiction and fantasy writers just do their thing and shut up about genre definitions? ” The answers to her questions are: we (the SF community) really should shut up and just read outside of our genre more. Meanwhile, we (the literary mainstream) should also stop pretending like stuff that’s not that weird is weird. To me, the discussion about why readers are or are not willing to accept “realism” versus “non-realism” has almost nothing to do with labels (genres, marketing terms, categories, whatever) but instead is actually about the newer trend of reader sharing. I’m in the SF community, but I’m also in the mainstream literary community and from where I sit, the main reason to support “slipstream” or “genre in the mainstream” or YA or whatever isn’t because the geeks or winning or being “weird” is hip. But instead, because writing in general is starting to become less cliquish in all camps. Which is why the existence of the WSJ slipstream article is also great, even if it’s little bit reductive.
Obviously, terms like “science fiction” or “slipstream” are helpful shorthand for discussing tastes and differences and so forth. But, the flipside of some of these labels is they seem born about of a desire to be disassociated with a sense of “otherness.” Oh, I don’t write fantasy, I write “slipstream.” In making the newer term preferable, the old term becomes dirty. This happened in 1951 with “science fiction,” too, when Robert Heinlein suggested that he was more interested in writing “speculative fiction.” Samuel R. Delany responded to this in an essay called “Quarks” in 1969 in which he said”
“Speculative fiction? It is one of the numerous terms that numerous critics for numerous reasons have decided is inadequate for the numerous things that fall under it.”
My take away from this is that the new label didn’t change much for anybody about their biases. Which is what I mean about the mainstream media being at the beginning of the conversation. Talking about slipstream is a good step to bringing out biases shared by readers and critics on all sides, but just slapping a label on something doesn’t actually confront those biases effectively. The only way to really combat those biases is to change reading expectations all together. Or, on the actionable reader-level, by switching up your reading habits.
Of course Kelly Link can appeal to “the mainstream.” Being shocked about it is silly. But we also shouldn’t be surprised if “genre readers” dig The Corrections, too. The future of reading sharing is one I believe is devoid of genre labels and instead lousy with something everyone (including the WSJ) definitely possesses: enthusiasm for great books.
Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths forthcoming from Plume (Penguin) on 11.24.15. He is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.