31 August 2008

What Is Interstitial Fiction?

A couple of months back, I made the bold claim that my short story collection Transported is an example of interstitial fiction. “Ah-hah,” you might have thought to yourself, “I must get down to my local bookshop and raid the interstitial fiction shelves at once!”

Or, more likely, you wondered what on earth I was talking about. An understandable response, because “interstitial fiction” hardly trips off the tongue. But interstices are gaps or cracks, in this case gaps or cracks between genres, and much of what I write falls within those cracks. Things that fall through the cracks don’t always get much attention in this cruel world of ours, so this post is here to wave a flag – a multicoloured freak flag – on their behalf.

The concept of interstitial fiction, sometimes called slipstream fiction, is an American invention. It began to be used within the science fiction field in the mid 1990s to describe stories which tended to be published in certain science fiction magazines and anthologies, but which it was difficult to classify in conventional terms as SF.

These stories often used the traditional materials of science fiction – space ships and aliens, time travel and alternate histories – for non-traditional ends, with emphases closer to literary fiction than genre fiction as it had been previously written. Alternatively, they treated mundane materials in science-fictional ways. A parallel development occurred in genre fantasy, often bringing it closer to magic realism than had previously been the case.

Meanwhile, especially in the US, fantasy and SF elements were increasingly being incorporated in mainstream fiction. For example, the novels of Michael Chabon are marketed as literary fiction rather than SF or F, yet most of them have elements which bring them within one or both of those genres in a formal sense. Margaret Atwood, so vigilant against any claims that The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake are science fiction (although, as stories set in an imagined future which extrapolate aspects of our own world, they clearly are), nevertheless wrote The Blind Assassin, which interleaved mimetic realism and pulp science fiction within the same novel.

And that’s what interstitial fiction is: fiction that mixes genres, in particular, fiction that interleaves the realistic and the fantastic.

Transported qualifies as interstitial fiction in two ways. It contains a mixture of literary fiction and speculative fiction stories in the one volume (together with some surrealism and flat-out weirdness), and it contains individual stories that mix genres. The paradigm example, and one of my own favourite stories in the book, is “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev”, which mixes science fiction, travelogue, celebrity profile, political history, literary criticism, and the early short stories of Arthur C, Clarke, and comes out with – well, with interstitial fiction.

You can read “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev” as part of the New Zealand Book Council’s Read at Work promotion (although there's a couple of paragraphs missing from this version), or in Transported. You can learn more about interstitial fiction at the Interstitial Arts Foundation. And you can take the wildest ideas you have, mix and match them without regard to genre, and end up with a story that can still find a home with receptive readers.


Helen Rickerby has posted a long and thoughtful assessment of Transported on her blog, which references this post and various others from "Books in the Trees". Thank you, Helen!


gypsy said...

eh ! authors blog too!?

nyways, would try finding your books asap, the names sound interesting...


Tania Hershman said...

Tim - how interesting that you bring this up, I just received the Interstitial Arts Foundation's Interfictions anthology for review for The Short Review and was wondering what all the fuss was about. I was expecting something very wierd and different from what I read, but actually it's not earth-shatteringly different. I have only read one story, I must admit! I am a great fan of mixing fantastic and realistic, I think that possibly is what I've done in my own collection (published tomorrow, quick, shameless and very subtle plug, The White Road and Other Stories!) so I look forward to reading more. And I must get myself a copy of your book, am off to do that now!

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, d sinner!!! - and Tania, very interesting comment on Interfictions, as I am intending to submit to Interfictions 2 - once I come up with a suitable story, of course! (Maybe the one story you've read is the one that they put in to lure lovers of realist fiction ...)

Congratulations on the publication of "The White Road and Other Stories" - from all I've heard about it, it definitely sounds like a book I will enjoy. I see it's available through Amazon.co.uk; do you know whether Salt have arranged international bookshop distribution for it?