Here at The Masters Review, we embrace stories of all stripes. But we absolutely love a great work of strange fiction. By “strange” here, we simply mean any story that includes the unreal, that is not based (entirely) in reality as we know it. There is something very powerful about fiction that shows us a world askew. Today, editors Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser discuss the power of strange stories.
K: This week for Short Story Month, we’re examining one of The Masters Review’s favorite topics: the strange. We published that wonderful interview with Kelly Link and have an incredibly strange and surreal story by Thomas Pierce posting on Friday, but I think you and I could fill an entire month of content focusing on the strange, the surreal, and the magical.
I know it’s hard to explain personal preferences, but why do you like magical realism and strange stories so much? And do you think there’s been a shift in popularity toward stories of this kind?
S: I do think that readers of popular “literary” fiction are beginning to embrace the strange. And I love it. Now, by strange here: I simply mean stories that contain realities other than our own. This includes stories with elements of magical realism, science fiction, ghost stories, superhero stories, and beyond. With this distinction, I don’t mean to lump all these genres together, as I think there is a great use to examining each one on its own. But I do think that, for whatever reason, there has long been the implicit assumption that literary fiction means realist fiction, and people are beginning to realize that’s just not true. We see writers like Karen Russell, George Saunders, and Aimee Bender garnering great popular and critical acclaim. Kelly Link’s short story collection, Get in Trouble, which is delightfully packed with strange elements, was just a finalist for the Pulitzer. It seems that readers crave fiction about the unreal, and are less concerned with where it fits in terms of genre than with the sheer pleasure that they get from reading it.
What I love about strange fiction is that it allows us to examine real issues in ways that we can’t in everyday life. One of the wonderful things about fiction is that it can surpass the bounds of reality, and I love that so many writers are taking advantage of that, and being recognized for it. When Kelly Link is writing about teenagers with haunted, robotic Ghost Boyfriends, she’s also writing about what it is like to come of age, to begin to carve out some part of the world for yourself. When Kevin Brockmeier is writing about the sky slowly lowering, it’s also a way to address death. On Friday, you’ll see that when Thomas Pierce is writing about a planet with a face, it is not without a great amount of existential dread. I don’t mean that the unreal elements in stories need to serve as one-dimensional symbols (something that Kelly Link mentions she actively avoids in her writing), but that they allow a new and often very complex way to access a character’s psychology.
This leads me to the question: what makes a strange story effective in your mind? What are some of your favorites?
K: I have so many favorites! Some of my all-time favorites are Ray Bradbury short stories. In particular, I love “All Summer in a Day,” a story about children who live on Venus and only get to see the sun every seven years for two hours. And “The Veldt,” which has always scared and inspired me. Another more contemporary writer I adore is Neil Gaiman. His collections Fragile Things and Smoke and Mirrors are filled with literary speculative tales that dazzle as much for their imagination, creativity, and experimental forms as they do for their character explorations and themes. Gaiman’s “The Price” and “Changes” are all-time favorites, and “A Study in Emerald,” which won a Hugo Award for Best Short Story, is hands down incredible. To me, both Bradbury and Gaiman are literary writers that inhabit genre worlds, and are excellent examples of writers producing fully formed fiction, by which I mean stories that are fun and highly readable but that also operate on a higher level. For example, Gaiman’s story “Changes” examines gender fluidity and exists in a world where a drug called Reboot allows for movement between genders.
In the camp of “literary fiction,” or stories you’ll find in collections that aren’t in the science fiction and fantasy section of bookstores, I love all the writers you mention above, but Karen Russell’s story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” and Ramona Ausubel’s “Safe Passage” are two favorites.
In the most general sense, these and other successful speculative and strange stories are effective because they’re exploring real life, which speaks to what you mention above. Strange and surreal stories are fun because they allow us to inhabit other worlds, but they mean something to us, impact us, because they reflect something about the real world. For me it’s rule #1 in writing for the strange. I say this because too often we read stories with a strange premise that are incredibly creative and promising, but try to get by on strangeness alone. I love what Kelly Link says about the strange not being one-dimensional, and while there are some great stories where the metaphor is direct, I think the most successful pieces do well because of their depth.
I also feel strange stories are effective when they bring something new to the conversation. There are famous vampire stories and fairy tales, for example, that represent “that kind of story,” and it’s exciting to watch those subgenres evolve through retellings and new ideas. In this way the conversation keeps changing and so does what the idea of a “monster story” is (for example).
I’ve gone on and on, but I’m curious what some of your favorites are and what mistakes you see in the strange stories we read that aren’t working?
S: Since we are talking about strange stories, I have to mention Kelly Link! Her story “Stone Animals” is a cult favorite that is at once domestic, surreal, and terrifying. It is so effective because the unreal elements are built into the story thoroughly, and deliberately. They are an essential part of its structure. “The New Boyfriend,” in which teenage girls have robotic Ghost, Vampire, and Werewolf Boyfriends, is another great one. These robots are described with such exquisite, textural detail that the reader has no problem picturing them. Strange stories succeed when writers develop unreal elements with the same precision and care they would give to real ones (or more—since the writer has to teach us about the world she is creating). The unreal elements are, after all, part of the reality of the story—and they should be treated as such.
As far as magical realist stories go, I’d recommend “The Rememberer” and “Americca” by Aimee Bender, as wonderful examples of stories in which the magical element is closely tethered to the emotional core of the story, something that we discussed in an interview with Bender herself. And, finally, “The Ceiling” by Kevin Brockmeier is as elegant, detailed, and emotionally complex a piece of sci-fi as I have ever seen. Brockmeier is another writer who succeeds in playing with different genres, because he is so aware of the traditions he is riffing on. For example, take his story, “The Lady with the Pet Tribble,” which is both Star Trek and Anton Chekhov fan fiction.
Some of the stories with unreal elements from the slush that are less successful don’t incorporate the techniques I’ve just mentioned. Sometimes, unreal elements are introduced in a story but not fully developed, so it’s hard to picture them or understand the part they are meant to play in the narrative. Other times, as you’ve mentioned, we see stories that are strange-to-no-end; the unreal elements may be very clever, but it’s hard to see what role they play in the story, how they connect to its real, emotional core. Other times, an author will simply reiterate key tropes of a particular fairy tale or fable—Snow White, for example—without really adding to them. It takes such a tremendous amount of confidence and commitment to pull off a story with unreal elements. You need a full understanding both of what these elements are and of what they are doing in the narrative.
We’ve acknowledged that strange fiction covers many different genres, but I’m often struck by how many terms are used to refer to fiction with unreal elements. I often encounter the words surrealism, speculative fiction, slipstream, and fabulist when reading about strange stories. And it seems like some of these terms are not always used consistently. In your opinion: to what extent are these labels helpful? Have you noticed any inconsistencies or patterns in the way they are used?
K: I agree that labels for the strange and surreal are often confused or used too loosely. My guess is, stories operating under the umbrella of the strange straddle so many different styles, subjects, and genres that sometimes a single definition is ineffective. But that doesn’t mean we should be sloppy with our terms!
For me, correctly identifying a story when you can is important because it helps us categorize and understand what we’re reading. And to some extent I think there are some genre rules that need to be respected. But like the terms “genre” and “literary,” the words share a blurred line that is useless being too black and white about. Terms like magical realism and surreal are more clearly defined to me than say, speculative, slipstream, or fabulist, but even they can be difficult to distinguish between. Some say magical realism is a world that operates like our own, with a magical or strange element that can’t be explained, whereas surrealism is a story that takes place in a distorted world. I use the term speculative in literary fiction to mean a story with strange or otherworldly elements that can’t be described by any of the traditional genre lines: magical realism, fantasy, or science fiction, for example. But I’m sure there are writers who disagree. Fabulist is a strange term because technically I believe it aligns with fables, but more and more you’re seeing writers use it as a synonym for the strange or surreal.
I’m not sure where that leaves us, but I do feel we should think carefully about terms for the sake of mapping where these stories have been and where they are going, both in terms of their trajectory within the industry and as a study of literature. In the end though, I think we can all identify a story that operates outside of realism regardless of what it’s called. And to some degree, it speaks to the diversity of these stories that they are difficult to define. Writers should be excited about this! It’s a lot of unexplored territory. To circle back to Kelly Link, she’s an excellent example of a writer who understands genres and is thus able to distort, change, and experiment with them.
Do any of these terms demand a clear definition in your mind? Why or why not? And lastly, which magazines do you think do a good job of balancing these strange, surreal, magical realist, fabulist, slipstream, and speculative stories with literary fiction? I’m curious what publications writers in who operate in these subgenres should consider placing their work.
S: I agree with what you said about literary terms! I think it’s important to identify which genre(s) a story is operating in, especially if that genre is very specific: such as magical realism, science, fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, myth, and legend, to name a few. Authors of stories in these genres are generally extremely well versed in the traditions that they are continuing, and that makes for strong fiction. Even in stories that include multiple genres, I think it’s important to acknowledge what you’re working with.
What worries me sometimes are the terms that can encompass many genres, like speculative fiction. The dictionary defines speculative fiction as “a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.” It is often used as an umbrella term for any work that is not entirely realistic, or not a reflection of the world that we readers live in. Writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, and Emily St. John Mandel have all been categorized as writing speculative fiction—though their work could also, more precisely, be classified as fantasy and post-apocalyptic literature, among other things. I even worry about a term like “the strange” mushing a lot of unique genres together. However, I do think that it is useful in that it describes a lot of the nonrealist stories that, in my opinion, are becoming increasingly popular!
You now see sci-fi by T.C. Boyle and Thomas Pierce in The New Yorker, a sci-fi ghost story by Kelly Link in A Public Space, magical realism by Aimee Bender in Salon—all publications that we associate with that increasingly problematic term “literary fiction.”
As for specific publications I would recommend: I think journals like Conjunctions, Electric Literature, Tin House, Zoetrope: All-Story, and McSweeney’s do a good job of publishing both quality strange fiction and quality realist fiction. As far as publications devoted to genre, magazines like Tor online and Lightspeed are at the top of my list.
While I know that you and I both love a good realist story, we can’t get enough of these wonderfully strange tales that seem to be making their way into more and more literary journals these days. Thank you for talking about the strange with me! I really enjoyed it.