Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Critique of the New Wave Fabulists

There's a new literary genre afoot, or so I have read. Actually its point is that it's neither literary nor genre, but something in between, for the best of both. (If you didn't know, like I didn't, there's a long running feud between literary, which is somehow classic and artful and important but doesn't particularly sell, and genre, which is profitable potboiler narratives in predictable popular themes. A way to combine the best of both and end the partisanship would be desirable).

When I heard that this new story style had imaginative spooky roots going back to Poe and Hawthorne and others, I got excited. When I heard that a star if not founder of the movement was a Massachusetts writer named Kelly Link from whose pen flowed wild contemporary mythologies, I got even more excited. Some call these writers new wave fabulists, or new fantasists, or something else similar. Prestigious Bard College dedicated a volume of its prestigious literary journal "Conjunctions" to this movement in 2002. "Conjunctions:39" is a bargain compendium worth picking up. The style, which is often darkly ironic as it dabbles in science fiction and fantasy, has also been called Slipstream... to give some sense for the genre bending going on I suppose.

So here's my take on this cultural phenomenon. Like many things in this world, I think it's moving in a great direction but falls short. It’s not all there, so it’s quite criticizable. And because criticizing can be fun and cathartic and cruel, and because I need more practice in becoming not too destructively critical (being creatively constructively critical is my goal) I will proceed to outline my criticism of The New Wave Fabulists, especially as seen in "Conjunctions:39".

This is just another genre, albeit a genre that's trying hard to not resemble a predictable genre. As such, there are certain apparent formulas and rules for writing these self-consciously overcreative and narratively unsatisfying stories, as many turn out to be. Sorry, but it's true. I was hoping I might find kindred spirits for my own style of "Consciousness Fiction". And maybe I do fit in, and maybe I don't, but too much of the New Wave Fabulism isn't to me worth reading (which is what other people are, in all fairness, welcome to think of my writing).

For example, here are four apparent formulas for writing New Wave Fabulism.

1) You are invited and even obliged to use plenty of genre themes, including cliches and titillating bizarrities from science fiction and romance and horror. Just do not bring them to a clear genre ending. Go wild, then just end the story off a cliff, ambiguously with multiple possible outcomes. I guess that way no one can say you're commercial and simple. Instead they'll say wow, how ironic, or wow, you sure know how to respect the reader's imagination, now they have to ponder what's next... Sorry, but if I read an author's deliberate construction then I want to know what was their intended message and destination. Don't impress me with refusals to be predictable or too obvious. Maybe if they're only thinking something predictable and obvious but they don't want to say it, then they shouldn't be writing the story in the first place. But if they're thinking of something unpredictable and not obvious, then I want to know what it was. No ending, no benefit of the doubt.

2) Use sophisticated narrator vocabulary. Assume some literary and historical references in your readers. Be almost poetic in your density and erudition and attack. But then contrast with the dialects and tough hick talk of unsophisticated characters. Voila, instant intensity and emotional depth from the range of humanity! I guess the hybrid will keep both literary and genre readers engaged.

3) Have at least one character go increasingly insane. Do weird unpredictable things until a demise seems imminent. You can be brutally detailed in descriptions, but use sophisticated vocabulary around anything crude (see rule 2). And don't spell out the demise; stop short of unambiguous conclusion (see rule 1)

4) Make references to various epochs, mythologies, and cultures of humanity, but collide and blend them in unexpected ways. Stories within stories within stories are popular. You don't have to go anywhere in particular, in fact it's better if you don't (see rule 1). But doing the symbolic melange is so very post-modern, that it makes everyone feel more awed and smart. Except the ones who don't get it, of course. They should stick to the old genres.

...I was amazed how many of the stories in "Conjunctions:39" embodied these rules, usually to their detriment. Form over substance; concepts for amazing setups that never really payoff. To be fair, many tales contained bold riveting scenes, so perhaps they were worth reading after all. There's definitely some great description and imagination in the New Wave Fabulism. But fistfuls of startling ideas don't in themselves make a story. I wonder if there is here a kind of literary equivalent to the plague in cinema where editing tricks and eye candy hope to make us forget wanting the old-fashioned story that actually means something. Call me genre if you like, but predictable themes and follow-throughs at least give satisfactions that trendy spotty bursts of contemporary experimental fiction, however ironically familiar in parts, may not.

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