Considering Audience at the Museum of Jurassic Technology

While Lindsay and I were in LA for AWP, we made a pilgrimage to what I can only call my own personal version of paradise: the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

If you’re not familiar with David Wilson’s extraordinary museum, do everything in your power rectify this right away! You’re seriously missing out. If you aren’t going to be visiting LA anytime soon, pick up a copy of Lawrence Weschler’s excellent book about the museum, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.

The MJT is difficult to describe, but just imagine a dim, dated-looked museum squeezed into an unassuming storefront in Culver City. What seems at first to be some dusty provincial museum turns out to be crowded with the beautiful and the bizarre: a case of antique pipes, 3-D presentations about Athanasius Kircher,  dioramas of trailer parks, portraits of Soviet canine astronauts, and a rooftop columbarium. Some of the artifacts displayed are real. Some are entirely fabricated. Others still are half-true, facts stretched beyond the limits of reality, accurate information presented in intentionally misleading contexts. The MJT is a seamless and often unsettling blending of fact and fiction, and a riveting exploration of the role museums play in our cultural imagination.

Unsurprisingly, the MJT can be a confusing experience. Even those who come in knowing what to expect may have a hard time parsing the factual from the fantastic, and for those who arrive without any background or context, it’s downright disorienting. Chances are that in the course of your visit, you’ll hear more than one person turn to a companion and say, “Wait, is this for real?” Maybe one of those people will be you.

Personally, I find this confusion delightful. I love the uncertainty the museum produces: is this exhibit displaying fake artifacts about real people, or real artifacts about fake people? This is exactly the kind of bewilderment that delights me as a reader, and that I hope my own writing produces in readers. For my part, I am fascinated by the effect this kind of commingling of the real and the unreal can achieve–in the wonder their combination elicits in me.

But it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. If the museum’s Yelp reviews are anything to go by, a lot of people just don’t get it. They go through the MJT like they would any other museum–treating its exhibits as fact.

For me, this raises some interesting questions about how audiences respond to challenging, difficult-to-categorize art — whether it’s a museum or a work of fiction. Most writers, at one time or another, have had the experience of sharing their work with someone who didn’t understand it at all, and it’s a plight that’s particularly common amongst writers who work on their weirder end of the spectrum. Maybe it was a well-intentioned relative, or that dude with a man-bun in your intermediate workshop, or even an instructor, but unless you’re very lucky, chances are you’ve encountered readers, in one form or another, who fundamentally misunderstand the project of your work. What my experience at the MJT got me thinking about is this: Does it really matter if someone doesn’t get it? Does the audience need to understand the author’s intentions in order to appreciate the work? Does a story, or museum, need to make sense? Are these necessary conditions for “success”, whatever that means?

In the case of the MJT, I would say understanding is almost entirely beside the point. There’s plenty of room at the table for people who “misread” the MJT as a conventional museum. In fact, it may not even be fair to call it “misreading”, since the MJT seems designed to deliberately cultivate such misunderstandings. David Wilson’s exhibits intentionally muddy the waters. To my mind, the MJT is much more about the wonder of museum-going than it is about parsing fact from fiction. The goal, as I see it, is to experience something extraordinary. It doesn’t seem to matter if we leave the museum confused, or uncertain, or even believing untrue information, as long as our visit has amazed us in some way.

In many respects, I feel the same is true for writing weird fiction. As painful as it can be to have one’s intentions misunderstood by our audience, I’m not sure that understanding is really the goal. Does the reader need to understand what the haunting represents metaphorically in order to be unsettled by a ghost story? Probably not. Does it make a difference if I know unequivocally why Alice begins to levitate in Barbara Comyns’ wonderful novel The Vet’s Daughter? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I make of that moment, because the image is so extraordinarily powerful and the event affects the narrative regardless of whether I “get it” or not. While weird fiction isn’t necessarily free from the constraints of “sense” and psychological accuracy we impose on realist writing, those expectations can sometimes be beside the point.

None of this is to say that the audience’s experience is irrelevant. What we take away from a story, or an exhibit, is, of course, important. But I think one of the particular joys of the weird, something it excels at especially well, is that it makes room for the audience’s efforts to find make meaning, embracing that uncertainty–even finding wonder in it.

AWP 2016: Beyond the Definition of Weird

Unreality was the name of our game last weekend at AWP in LA.  On the last full day of the conference, Carlea and I attended two panels concerned with the “unreal,” what some might call “weird.”

The first panel, “In the Realms of the Real and the Unreal,” featured panelists Sofia Samatar, Kelly Link, Carmen Machado, and Alice Sola Kim, moderated by Katharine Beutner.  This panel addressed a question we as readers and writers of weird fiction likely often encounter: what exactly is weird fiction?  Readers and writers of any genre are likely familiar with this question and the difficulty of establishing what, exactly, weird fiction is.  What is this thing?  Can we even pin it down?  How does it work?  What are its rules?

In response to this impulse to define and name, moderator Katharine Beutner asked Sofia Samatar about her belief that her “favorite sub-genre is both over-named and nameless, but it still believes in the power of names.”  When we talk about weird fiction, what do we mean?  The weird?  Slipstream? Literary fantasy?  Interstitial?  Sci-fi, speculative, absurd?  The list is endless, and this is what Samatar is getting at when she points to the abundance of names for this particular genre.  The impulse to categorize fiction is indisputable, but as Sofia Samatar said on Saturday, “defining stories piece by piece might be making us dumber.”

The question of definition will likely be one that we at Read Weird will take up sooner or later, but putting aside the question of definition allowed the aforementioned panelists to productively discuss how to make speculative/unreal fiction successful.  For Kelly Link, weird fiction works through the language, in the way its pattern, repetition, and code resemble music, and the way in which the “musicality or stasis of a story moves a reader through a series of emotional responses.”  Samatar, too, focused on language, saying that the “strangeness of fiction returns language to itself.”

Ultimately, the panel turned to a discussion of the underpinning ideas of unreal fiction, and these underpinnings align remarkably across genres: writing is play, there’s beauty in precision and pattern and rhythm, but also in having our expectations upended.  I’d be surprised if we couldn’t all agree that these are the reasons we keep reading and writing, regardless of our respective pet genres.

So then, as moderator Rob Spillman asked at the final panel of the day (“Speculative Fiction: Defining the Rules of a Rule-Breaking Genre,” featuring Ramona Ausubel, Marie-Helene Bertino, Manuel Gonzales, and Aimee Bender): what is at the emotional core of why not hyperreal?  Why pursue genres that make any use of the unreal?

This question, though it contains interesting theoretical implications, seemed to elicit emotional responses.  The panelists each offered their own beautiful and telling insights: responses included the ideas that the “magical feels so much cleaner than the real world,” and that it’s “boring for writers to tackle the realist stuff”; Bertino also told of needing to defend the weirdness in her stories, that “that’s just what it’s like inside [her] head.”

It seems like certain types of readers and writers have an affinity for weird genres, that for one reason or another, weird fiction can do something, scratch some itch, in a way that realistic fiction cannot.  Weird stories, the “Speculative Fiction” panelists decided, can make simultaneous use of literal and metaphorical readings; speculative fiction is not weird simply for the sake of being weird, but rather that weirdness allows readers and writers to access a fragile, emotional core at the heart of an experience.

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.