Back on 8 October, Jessica Winter wrote in the Boston Globe's Arts section about "a new literary movement based in Northampton," Massachusetts. The article, "Make It Weird," describes "writers who are currently staking out ground between mainstream literary fiction and the more specialized domains of science fiction and fantasy."
This reported literary movement goes by various names:
- new-wave fabulism
- the new weird
- weirdass fiction
- kitchen-sink magic realism
I see the same anxieties and shiftiness at work in this new trend. Winter quotes Bradford Murrow, the novelist and anthologist who coined the term "new wave fabulism," as defining it like this:
"A new wave fabulist is a writer who has transcended the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, lifting the traditional genre form into a new literary realm," says Morrow. Any effort to narrow down the category much further than that, he adds, "would be like trying to nail a raindrop to the wall."So "new wave fabulism" differs from all previous science fiction and fantasy because, well, it's different.
It has "transcended the conventions," Murrow says. But by definition fantasy literature already transcends the most rigid convention of all, real life. Of course, the science fiction and fantasy genres have developed conventions. All genre literature does; that's how genres function. (And no one is more ruthless in pointing out clichés than genre authors.) But not all science fiction and fantasy fits within the limits of genre, just as not every novel that contains a murder is a mystery.
Murrow says the new work has entered a "new literary realm," higher (hence "lifting") than its conventional counterparts. What defines "literary"? The article singles out the work of Kelly Link, especially in Magic for Beginners:
With endless permutations of the wry, the enchanted, and the quotidian, Link employs fantastical elements as thrilling ends in themselves, but also as the means for expressing her characters' emotions and private dilemmas.Stories with emotional depth are called good fiction. That quality has nothing to do with the presence or absence of "fantastical elements."
What really distinguishes "new wave fabulism" from the fantasy novels that started to rewrite US bestseller lists a few years ago? The intended audience. Winter starts her article with Link's story "Lull", which involves a phone-sex line. We just don't see phone-sex lines in fiction for young people; older teens may want to chat about sex, but, unlike adults, they haven't given up the ambition of doing so for free. Similarly, calling a movement "weirdass" signals that you're not telling stories to fourth-graders (or else you could never be heard over the hysterics).
So, my Northampton neighbors, write your stories! Explore the depths of adult emotional dilemmas! Break the conventions of genre--because that's what fantasy lets writers do! But address your creativity to your fiction, not to coining new, multi-verbal labels for what sort of fiction it is.