AWP 2016: A Good Time For Hybrid Genres?

Read Weird was at AWP in Los Angeles this past weekend, and it should surprise no one that we sought out panels and readings that focused on speculative, interstitial, and experimental writing. This week, we’re reflecting on some of our experiences at the conference.

On Friday evening, the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau hosted a reading by Kelly Link, Emily St. John Mandel, and Ruth Ozeki, followed by a conversation moderated by L.A. Times book editor Carolyn Kellog. There was a lot to like in the readings–Ozeki and St. John Mandel both read excerpts from their latest books, and Link took requests for readings from a series of zodiac-inspired flash stories.

During the Q&A, one of the topics that came up was fiction that crosses genre boundaries. In particular, it was suggested that works that blur the lines between genres are having something of a moment right now. St. John Mandel observed that her first novel, Last Night in Montreal, struggled somewhat to find an audience because it was difficult to categorize, while her most recent novel, Station Eleven, didn’t face the same fate , despite being equally (if not even more) genre-bending.

This feeling that it’s a good time for genre fiction is one St. John Mandel has expressed before–for instance, in a conversation with Laura Van Den Berg over at FSG’s Work in Progress. Nor is she the only one making this argument. Earlier this year, David Mitchell called disregarding works based on genre “a bizarre act of self-harm” in an interview in Salon, and at the end of last year, Lincoln Michel declared in VICE that “2015 Was The Year the Literary Versus Genre War Ended.”

So, is it really an especially good time for hybrid and interstitial fiction? Are genres over? Can we all go home now?

I’m not quite sure our evolving attitudes toward genre exactly follow the narrative of progress many commentators seem keen to ascribe to them.  It’s certainly fair to say there’s been no dearth of excellent, difficult-to-categorize fiction coming out in recent years–and, perhaps significantly, coming out from major publishers and receiving mainstream recognition.  But arguing that the distinctions between genres are no longer valid seems to miss one crucial point–they were never really valid in the first place.

That membrane people like to believe exists between “genre” and “literary” fiction has always been more permeable than anyone likes to admit. As Lev Grossman put it in the Wall Street Journal several years ago,

“There was a time when adults read fantasy with impunity. The classical literature of Greece and Rome is so fantastical that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a god or a witch or a centaur, and chances are the cat will turn out to be somebody’s long-lost son-in-law in transfigured form.”

In other words, it’s not that publishing is more receptive to weird, unclassifiable fiction these days. There’s always been a place for writers interested in the bizarre and difficult-to-pin-down, even in the mainstream. If readers and big-name publishers are paying more attention than usual to those voices, all the better, but they’ve always been part of the conversation.

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