Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Fantastic Canon

As time goes by, I've realized that my reading preference has changed and the recent book culling was an exclamation point to my book collecting experience.

Obviously, one can ken that my preference is for the speculative (i.e. the genres of fantasy, science-fiction and horror-- though there is the lit stuff as well) but in one way or another, I've always favored fantasy. However, there is fantasy and there is fantasy. A glance through the culled books made me realize that my preference for the epic fantasy has dropped. This is quite a revelation for me since I'm not sure when my tastes changed in matters fantastical.

It's been quite a weird journey actually. I started out with the usual gateway drug of shared worlds like Dragonlance then moved on parallel tracks of Fritz Leiber/sword-and-sorcery and Terry Brooks/epic fantasy. Alas, S&S died with Leiber and Robert E. Howard and with the flourishing of epic, it's been all door-stoppers filled with imaginary worlds.

Maybe it's time,age and/or reading experience, i.e. that I can't just keep reading the same stuff over and over again. Or I suppose I can attribute dean's influence and the strengths of the short story. So when I read this post by Paul di Filipo about a recent convention where they talked about a slipstream canon*, I felt the hairs on the top of my head stand up (which is no mean feat, for those who've seen me).

Of the the Core Canon of Slipstream (the top 27), I've marked in red those I've read (eh, sorry for the pun), and green for book-in-hand/still unread:

  1. Collected Fictions (coll 1998), Jorge Luis Borges
  2. Invisible Cities (1972, trans 1974), Italo Calvino
  3. Little, Big (1981), John Crowley
  4. Magic for Beginners (coll 2005), Kelly Link
  5. Dhalgren (1974), Samuel R. Delany
  6. Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Fiction (coll, 1995), Angela Carter
  7. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967, trans 1970), Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  8. The Ægypt Cycle (1987-2007), John Crowley
  9. Feeling Very Strange (anth 2006), John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly (eds.)
  10. The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (coll 2001)
  11. Stranger Things Happen (coll 2001), Kelly Link
  12. The Lottery and Other Stories (coll 1949), Shirley Jackson
  13. Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Thomas Pynchon
  14. Conjunctions 39 (anth 2002), Peter Straub (ed.)
  15. The Metamorphosis (1915), Franz Kafka
  16. The Trial (1925), Franz Kafka
  17. Orlando (1928), Virginia Woolf
  18. The Castle (1926), Franz Kafka
  19. The complete works of Franz Kafka
  20. V; (1963), Thomas Pynchon
  21. Nights at the Circus (1984), Angela Carter
  22. The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (anth 2007), Kelly Link and Gavin Grant (eds.)**
  23. The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories [UK title Busy About the Tree of Life] (coll 1988), Pamela Zoline
  24. Foucault's Pendulum (1988, trans 1989), Umberto Eco
  25. Sarah Canary (1991), Karen Joy Fowler
  26. City of Saints and Madmen (coll 2002), Jeff VanderMeer
  27. Interfictions (anth 2007), Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss (eds.)

*For those who may ask, slipstream is that subcategory of fantastical stories that, as Bruce Sterling first described it, makes us feel very strange. Obviously, this definition by its essence limits what slipstream is so I'll just go with Damon Knight's earlier definition of what SF is and apply it here: I'll know it when I see it.

**Strangely enough, I don't understand why the experts on the matter included a couple of books still to be published, something I agree with what Nick Mamatas said.

On one hand, I love the idea of slipstream and am always excited about finding stories that can't really be defined-- whether genre or lit, fantasy or horror or SF, or what-not. These are the stories I would love to write, because I would love to read 'em. The weirdness, the strangeness that wraps your brain around the clutch of a driverless speeding Ferrari and a brick wall is coming up.

On the other hand, I have the feeling that there will always be few who will enjoy such craziness on the pages as Sarah Monette's interesting discussion on the matter (especially why non-fantasy readers don't understand the fantastical) can attest.

P.S. For somewhat of a primer, one can always read this collection of short-stories, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, which collects some very good examples of this type of story.


JP said...

Frankly, reading Hardy Boys mysteries as a lad made me feel very strange - the depiction of all-American boyhood was that alien to me.

All I see here is a list that attempts to claim anything that's overtly intellectual or experimental and work it into some sort of coherent canon. I don't think it really works. Borges' concise (meta)fictions and Delany's sprawling, sexy, surreal SFnal Decameron have very little in common apart from being imaginative, original and not tethered to contemporary social realism. If those are the only criteria, the canon is simply too broad-based to be meaningful:

If Foucault's Pendulum makes the list, why not the same author's Baudolino, which has even more overt fantastic elements? If The Complete Short Stories Of JG Ballard, why not the complete short stories of RA Lafferty, who is as strange, offbeat, fantastic and weird-making as anyone on this list? And so on.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

i've never found the concept of 'slipstream' in any way at all useful. that's my two cents.

and yes, 'not meaningful' is probably a better way to put it.

the Hardy Boys rock. can't wait for the Hardy Men. heh. and that's my juvenile input quota met for this thread.

banzai cat said...

jp: Hehe ironically, I quite agree (i.e. that its really hard to pin down these stories' lack of commonality). Which is why I cited the Damon Knight quote

skinny: On the other hand, whether or not the concept of slipstream is useful or not, I do think there is a need for one. After all, there's got to be a way to describe those stories that-- in a way-- makes one literally queasy.

Have either of you read the slipstream antho, Feeling Very Strange? What did you guys think of the stories in it? And more to the point, how would you describe such stories?

(Hehe knowing you skinny, you'd say that there's no need to categorize these stories, i.e. these are good stories and damn the titles. Am I right or am I right?)

banzai cat said...

Here's an interesting opinion on the matter:

"In essence, it seems to me, 15-20 years of wrestling with the desire to synthesize all this disparate stuff we all like and want to launch off from has actually created a new genre, which consists of the better work by the community of people who participate in or attend panels like this. And one big difference between the new Slipstreamers and their antecedents, I would suggest, is that New Wavers of note were doing really revolutionary work that was in many cases stylistically and politically radical and provocative, whereas today's work in the anthologies is mostly well-Clarionized storytelling that follows most of the rules and pursues a prose poetical exercise in aesthetic decadence, a kind of spec fictional literary oenophilia."

From here: http://nofearofthefuture.blogspot.com/2007/07/non-canon-for-non-genre.html

banzai cat said...

Some more discussions here:




skinnyblackcladdink said...

on the contrary, this isn't about these stories being 'good' or not. but why is there a need for a label to describe those stories?

this 'need to categorize' is that part of the 'genre' tradition i never liked. because most SF/F falls into the general description of SF/F, i don't mind the label. in a way, the label has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is all right because we all (or, at least, enough of us readers) enjoy the generic result (more or less). but SF/F for me doesn't define the fiction it 'categorizes' but simply describes it; hence my insistence on the utility of a label. now things are starting to 'fall in and out, "slipping" through the "boundaries"' between easily categorizable genre fiction and not, and the generic community feel the need to 'capture' the phenomenon with a label, perhaps, in the process, extending its territory (red flag on that word).

that these works describe themselves, individually and not as a group, is not enough. in order to find comfort in the phenomenon, the generic community seem to feel the need to be able to put a name to it. but locking all these wonderful little independent exercises of the imagination down with a label is exactly what these stories don't want you to do.

at some point, the genre community will have to accept that 'fiction' really is the best way to describe some stories.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

also, none of the previous 'movements', such as 'New Wave', to my knowledge, sought to categorize their work; they just did stuff their way. the label was slapped on them by external forces.

creating these labels, seeking definitions, trying to categorize everything, if i may add, all seem to me more of a potential detriment than a useful instrument, since it draws away from the main task at hand, which is simply to write, to express, to play with words.

this is the same problem i see you encountering with your writing, bc: worrying too much about where your work will fit, trying to reshape your story to match what may just as well be something else's definition.

JP said...

Invisible Cities never made me feel queasy. It made me feel wide-eyed with wonder, and furrowed-browed with thought at the same time, but not queasy.

I think slipstream might be attempting to gain itself a monopoly on a sense of strangeness that partakes of multiple frames of reference brought together - I think the definition breaks down on analysis into anything fantastic, especially the dark fantastic.

I understand there is an attempt to claim a certain sense of high weirdness and a certain (self consciously) literary approach, but eventually I have to side with skinny here. 'fiction' really is the best way to describe some stories. We can all pat ourselves on our back for our reading choices whatever they are and weave a seemingly cohesive 'this is a genre' story around them, and if we're clever enough people will even agree. But if we're that good at making things up, let's make up stories instead of genre definitions. You know it's what you (we) really want!

pgenrestories said...

This is such an interesting discussion. I'm learning a lot from it. I remember trying to come up, all by my lonesome, with a title for my Digest that would encompass as many types of stories as I could take in, and I remember going through this labeling issue. At that time, I was working alone and was not aware of all that was going on in the Philippines, or even in the rest of the world. I had not met anyone yet, and was relying on heart and instinct. I just wanted good stories in fields that were normally not given much attention, to give a chance to writers, and to get people, notably younger ones, into the habit of reading, especially the work of their own countrymen. But I see in this discussion that labeling is something others have tackled too. By myself though, I came to the conclusion some time ago that a story is a story is a story no matter how it is categorized, and what's important is that it's honest for what it is, and isn't trying to be anything more or less. Of course, the effort, imagination, and skill put in also counts, but I do put honesty pretty high too.

banzai cat said...

skinny: I see your point. As dean said, not a good idea for terms to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. (If I understood this right.) Still, as I once mentioned to [identity-protected], as a reader, I'm all for the tags, titles and whatnot. As a writer, I really don't give a flying lemur. (With regard to my story, I think that it's a technical thing rather than a core problem. I feel like that there's something wrong with story's engine and thus, I can't make it go. You get what I mean?)

jp: Feeling of wonder =/= feeling very strange? The ironic thing here is that there are still so many terms going around trying to define that elusive term. There's slipstream, interstitial, paraspheres, yadda-yadda all coming from the same people who come out with these stories. So I don't think these people also know how to describe their own writing. Which is why I sometimes think those writers who just don't care about analyzing what they're writing are the "good guys" (for want of a better term). ;-)

kyu: Hehe welcome to the wonderful world of the Internet (i.e. I know what you mean). I never would have thought that there was so much more to fantasy than Dragonlance and TSR stuff. And then when I went around online a bit more, I found out that there was even more to fantasy. So the world really feels like it keeps getting bigger and bigger, eh? As they say, the more we know, the more we don't know. :-D

the cat with the fiddle said...

i am learning so much from your discussion. i have not even heard of such a movement as slipstream before reading your entry, though based on what i understand now, i have read works from that category and love them the most.

do you also read jeanette winterson?

Jego said...

No Rushdie in the list?

banzai cat said...

cat: Actually I haven't but I remember this interesting recommendation for Winterson's "Sexing the Cherry". Alas, I can't find that recom anymore so I don't if I imagined it. :-(

jego: Well, the list is pretty incomplete, rather disordered, and a whole host of problems can be raised against one item or another. But yeah, I think Rushdie should be there. ;-)