05 November 2006

More New Terms for Fantasy

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
  • slipstream
  • the new weird
  • weirdass fiction
  • kitchen-sink magic realism
All these terms strike me as simply new labels for "magical realism," a term in play since the early 20th century. And I think "magical realism" was a label seized by savvy and self-conscious authors to distinguish their type of fantasy fiction from the sort written for children. Writing unreal fiction in an age of realism, they wished to avoid being lumped with writers of frivolous fairy tales. A new, longer label for their work let them claim more respect.

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.


Anonymous said...

Hey J.L.B.! While I agree with the spirit of your argument, I do think that "fabulism" is different in several ways from fantasy -- though maybe as a subset. The whole debate about this genre title is, incidentally, precisely analogous to the division between "science fiction" and "speculative fiction." In any case, here are what I see as the elements that distinguish fabulism:

1. Less emphasis on the construction of coherent alternative worlds, and more on the mechanics of fable. The "unreal" elements are introduced with a specific view to their symbolic, symbolist, or psychological resonance, rather than any definite insistence upon their physical reality or the continuity of another world.

2. A lot of the people considered fabulists are readers of fantasy (or sci-fi) as children who now reintroduce these elements -- but the elements are often introduced with a specifically ironic sense of their familiarity and their location within genres of the past. It is still possible, for example, to write a straight fantasy novel in which women wear wimples and dragons are a big deal ... but whereas a fantasist would posit these as a given part of their world, a fabulist would treat these elements with some kind of distance, I suspect -- irony or meta-fictional play or whatever it was. And the emphasis, as I said above, would be on their aptness as emotional figures rather than their absolute "realness" in the created world.

3. There is quite a lot of cross-over between the writers of this genre and that often called "experimental fiction," which leads to a lot of fabulism being written in idiosyncratic narrative structures.

And I would add -- though this is not a defining element of the sub-genre -- that there is a lot of cross-over between YA / middle-grade fiction and fabulism among the writers of those genres themselves. Kelly Link is a perfect example of this -- a writer who is equally at home in the pages of Bradford Morrow's journal of experimental fiction, CONJUNCTIONS, and the pages of, for example, a book of ghost stories for teens forthcoming from Candlewick Press. Holly Black, whose YA work, though not strictly fabulist, certainly is informed by its emphasis on magic as an emanation of psychological truth, could also be counted as part of this Northampton circle, imhop. The group as a whole -- as they exist in central MA and in the wider literary community -- would be the first, indeed, to make these very connections between kid's lit and their own work, precisely the connections for which you're arguing. (And one could even claim membership retroactively in some respects: George Macdonald, for example, could easily be called a fabulist rather than a fantasist, especially in PHANTASTES, etc.) Still, though the connections are there -- literary and even personal -- there are worthwhile distinctions between this genre and, for example, high fantasy -- either for young adults or for children. I don't think that the name is simply a snob label ... It has some taxonomic validity. But at the same time, as you suggest, there is plenty of room at the moment for tremendous cross-fertilization -- which is exciting.


J. L. Bell said...

I get the distinction between using unreal elements in a story to delineate a society or a universe, and using them to explore a psychological state or an individual psychology. Nonetheless, I lump 'em both under fantasy and let the gods (all 400 of them, bristling with pointy red horns) sort 'em out.

There seem to be a lot of pixels being spilled trying to define label(s) of highly debatable scope and, thus, value. At Speculations and Asimov's and AGNI; on the "slipstream" between genres at 14 the Ditch and again; on the traditional meaning of "fabulist" at Book Ninja; and revulsion from any label and most attention at Sense of Soot.

If indeed the Northampton school's writing resembles stories by George MacDonald [whom I hope to blog about very soon] or Franz Kafka or Joseph Conrad or other long-dead writers people name [why can't I think of any women?], then the "New Wave" label seems less tenable and also less useful.

I'm reassured on the permeable line between YA and adult fiction in this arena. At least for writers. Whether critics, given our culture, are as open to that sort of crossover is another question—which is where I suspect the desire for new literary labels arises from.

Folks can check out Conjunctions, and even look at the start of "Lull", plus Paul Kincaid's review of the magazine.

Little Willow said...

This is the first I've heard of the term "new wave fabulism." I prefer "magical realism" to "new wave fabulism." It sounds better and it makes more sense. When I hear the words "new wave," I think of music, not books. "Magical realism" sounds more like, well, what it is!

Anonymous said...


Margin has been collecting its contributors' definitions of magical realism since 2000. Indeed, a lot of pixels spilled on the subject. Come on over and peruse our content, we've got hundreds of pages worth looking over.

As for MT Anderson's comment, I agree wholeheartedly with the first point. One aspect to MR I am fairly wedded to, which distinguishes it from fantasy, is the reliance on the "here and now" v. fantasy's overt worldbuilding and use of established fantasy tropes.

Aside from the supernatural tropes of angels and witches and ghosts, which pervade magical realist writing, there really doesn't exist a place for things like dragons and elves and other fantastic fauna born of mythology and other older storytelling traditions.

And speaking of place, the time and place in MR are usually quite enmeshed in what readers generally accept as The Real World, at least up to a point. That is to say, readers do not enter a magical realism story knowing they are going somewhere that was created just for them, like a campaign in D&D. They suspect instead that they are going to be taken somewhere possible and believable, however different/new that place might end up being to them at the completion of the reading of the story.

Our elevator-ready definition of magical realism reduces it in this way:

"Narrative in which the impossible enters into material reality." Realism is the bedrock of magical realism, to our way of thinking.

Thanks for posting about MR! It's a terrific subject for spinning ideas about realism and its counterparts.

Tamara Kaye Sellman
Editor and Publisher
MARGIN: Exploring Modern Magical Realism
Since 2000, the world's only continuous survey of literary magical realism

Coming Feb 2007, MRCentral.net!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comments and links.

As I went said in my next posting, my definition of fantasy includes dealing with magical things in the world readers recognize as very like their own. It doesn't have to involve an elaborately constructed alternate universe or a portal between them. Certainly the children's fantasy genre includes some stories like that.

And that entry in turn points back to my first blog posting on this topic, about E. Nesbit's story "The Deliverers of Their Country." Which is, to my eyes, very much a "narrative in which the impossible enters into material reality," except that the impossible takes the form of, yes, dragons.

Anonymous said...

Not another "new wave"!
Punk Rock sufferred in the wake of "new wave" or radio punk rock lite.
Occult/Esoteric Spirituality suffers from its current incarnation of a "new age" smorgasboard-- love and lite.
Feminism's present generation of individualism (undertow) is called (you guessed it) the "new wave."
Come on!
It sounds like a new wave fabulist is someone who can actually write (though aside from Kelly Link, I can't verify that). Much if not most fantasy/sci fi etc. is just badly done. Its great that people are discovering Magical Realism, but as previously stated, this is not a new idea. I'm all for new ideas if they are actually innovative, but it sounds like yet another watered down version of an original impulse, or perhaps a new marketing strategy?