The New Fantasy
The New Voices of Fantasy, review
Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman title their collection New Voices of Fantasy. What does that mean today? The literature being published under the heading “literary” is allowed to be magical realism—though not without criticism from some quarters (that tweet I saw once: “Magical realism is neither ‘magical’ nor ‘real’…” followed by something more disparaging”)—but if it’s fantasy it’s something else. There is clearly a shifting and merging of genres, but rather than identifying different ways to communicate ideas and convey reality, value judgements remain, especially among the gatekeepers.
If I pull Karen Russell’s short story collections off my shelf and look at the publication credits, I see Tin House, Conjunctions, The New Yorker, Oxford American, Granta. If I scan Kelly Link’s website, I see Tin House, Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, McSweeney’s, A Public Space, Event horizon, Stranger Things Happen, Realms of Fantasy, Lightspeed, Uncanny, Realms of Fantasy. Aside from demonstrating that Link has been at this longer than Russell, this list sparks many questions. Why only the two overlapping literary mags? Why is every other publishing magazine on Link’s bibliography a “genre” magazine (except for A Public Space), whereas Russell’s are even more “literary” literary magazines? Does anyone really believe Sleep Donation is more literary fic than genre? How much reflects what the authors themselves were reading and therefore dictating where they sent their work? How much of this difference lies in Link trailblazing for authors like Russell? How much of these lists reflects a shift over time, in which literary fic has come to more fully embrace elements of speculative fic?
All of this brings me to Weisman and Beagle’s respective introductions. Weisman’s comes first. He writes that all of the works in the collection are published after 2010 and reveals that Beagle’s last anthology, The Secret History of Fantasy, published in 2010, “explored the merging of genre fantasy and so called mainstream markets into a new form of literary fantasy. This anthology constitutes something of a sequel, leaping ahead to examine the work of a brand-new generation of writers working along similar lines.” It is, and I am paraphrasing loosely here, unabashed signal boosting of a new cadre of writers, most of them racking up awards as the collection was being compiled.
As new as the writers might be, I wonder if they could have called this collection “The Voices of the New Fantasy,” afterall, there are no knights with swords, no wizards, and more ducks than dragons. But Beagle quotes Ursula LeGuin’s advice when he was asked to speak at an annual meeting of the SFWA, “remember that all of us feel, to one degree or another, that mainstream fiction has been stealing our ideas—and even our classic clichés—for generations, and selling them back to us as ‘Magical Realism.’ Tell them that, loudly and repeatedly, and the ones who can still stand up will be buying you drinks all night.” Beagle goes onto to say that the “remarkable young writers” whose work he gathered aren’t likely to face “either the intellectual snobbery or the commercial exclusion” his generation endured, noting that some have even been accepted to the Iowa State Workshop, but even so financial success may still prove illusive.
The power to “show, not tell” stemmed from the writing for an audience that shared so many assumptions with them that the audience would feel that those settings and stories were “universal.”… Look at the literary fiction techniques that are supposedly the hallmarks of good writing: nearly all of them rely not on what was said, but on what is left unsaid. Always come at things sideways; don’t be too direct, too pat, or too slick. Lead the reader in a direction but allow them to come to the conclusion. Ask the question but don’t state the answer too baldly. Leave things open to interpretation… Make allusions and references to the works of the literary canon, the Bible, and familiar events of history to add a layer of evocation—but don’t make it too obvious or you’re copycatting. These are the do’s and don’ts of MFA programs everywhere. They rely on a shared pool of knowledge and cultural assumptions so that the words left unsaid are powerfully communicated. I am not saying this is not a worthwhile experience as reader or writer, but I am saying anointing it the pinnacle of “craft” leaves out any voice, genre, or experience that falls outside the status quo. The inverse is also true, then: writing about any experience that is “foreign” to that body of shared knowledge is too often deemed less worthy because to make it understandable to the mainstream takes a lot of explanation. Which we’ve been taught is bad writing!
In other words, literary fiction has a tendency to demand a certain homogeny dictated by the preferred techniques that genre fiction does not insist on in the writer’s craft DNA.
More recently, Victor LaValle and Marlon James, both established authors of literary fiction, have drawn attention for leaving lit fic in favor of fantasy. LaValle’s last novel, The Changeling, and James’s freshly released Black Leopard, Red Wolf are both fantasy, the former an urban fantasy fairy tale and the latter an “African Game of Thrones.” Vulture interviewed the pair in New York (over dumplings, you should know). The interviewer asked, “what’s going on in speculative fiction today. How is it changing?” On the one hand, James points out what Beagle has: “There are so many writers now who’ve been blurring the line between so-called literary and so-called genre that they become almost meaningless. It used to be people thought you were slumming if you wrote genre.” But, they acknowledge in tandem that in many quarters there’s something about fantasy that still isn’t good enough. LaValle echoes Tan above, saying,
Literary realism demands that everybody agree on what real life is — and it is really a very specific subset of American or European life — but if all the writers and the critics and the jurors for the prizes agree that this is our life, it becomes realism. I love reading the fantasy of middle-class life in Connecticut, because I’ve never lived that before. Do you all really cheat this much? That to me is like, Wow!
James goes on to point out that while he grew up in independent Jamaica, he was still taking British exams, but he refused to make the distinction between the literature of his schooling and the pop culture he also loved, “I am getting the same feeling from Love and Rockets that I’m getting from One Hundred Years of Solitude but I’m supposed to look at one as, that’s comics and that’s a serious novel? From a very early age, I thought, That’s bullshit. The whole idea of a great American novel is bullshit.”
There is a sense that, as a genre, fantasy (and science fiction) can carry a burden past the gatekeepers to the audience, which literary fic cannot. To quote Tan and Uncanny article again:
But SF/F can do better. We can break the status quo and leave it broken into a completely new shape. This doesn’t reduce the potential power of an SF/F story: it increases it. Instead of a set of shared assumptions about “universal” setting, the SF/F writer has more control over every aspect of the reader experience. All fiction is metaphor, but in a story where the society, customs, and language are crafted rather than inherited, the reader experience of that metaphor can be all-encompassing. The reader learns powerful cultural norms and acquires the new language the same way they acquired their first one: through experience.”
Which brings us back to the current collection. While some of the stories are lighter and some are more entertaining than brimming with meaning, it remains that fantasy, parable, and fairy tales carry a lot of weight, which is not to say they’re necessarily moralistic. As Tomi Adeyemi says in an interview featured in Slice Magazine (Fall’18/ Winter’19, Issue 23) about her blockbuster debut fantasy novel Children of Blood and Bone, “It’s real life. This book is about being black. There’s fantasy. There’s adventure. But it’s all real.”
The collection radiates with various truths and entertainments conveyed in open defiance of the laws of science, and often quivering with mysticism:
Alyssa Wong’s story, “Hungry Mothers of Starving Daughters,” tells the story of women who have learned to thrive off the negativity fed them by men, only to learn that the toxicity of the power gained threatens their cherished relationships. The setting could be Gotham as easily as New York—I kind of like thinking of it in the world of Gotham, to be honest. I love it. It was originally published in Nightmare Magazine, #37, Queers Destroy Horror!, 2015. She is the youngest author in the collection and has the honor of initiating you into the collection as the first story.
Sofia Samatar’s story, “Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” is set in rural small town American. The narrator hates selkie stories, because they’re always about finding your mother’s skin and never seeing her again. When she meets the only other girl at the restaurant where she works to help offset the hole her mother left in the budget, she promises never to tell Mona any selkie stories, but she knows them all. The two teens have to console each other, and they plan to run away to Colorado—as far from the sea as the she can get them.
Ursula Vernon’s story, “Jackalope Wives,” plays in a space deeply rooted in the American ethos of western expansion, but instead of six-shooters or Willa Cather’s sturdy immigrants taming the land, she invents a folklore and weaves it gently alongside existing threads of folklore. Ultimately, the theft from the Jackalope wife is resolved in keeping with the traditions of folklore, even if it is not in keeping with the historical theft of America. (You can also listen to Levar Burton read it in his podcast series.)
E. Lily Yu’s story, “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” this story was delightful and surprising and, in places, unforgiving. Set in a Chinese landscape wherein paper wasps map their territory on the paper of their hive and use this knowledge when they are forced to relocate to subjugate the bees in the land. In the colonial traditions of imperialist powers everywhere, the local population has some of its denizens kidnapped and raised in the new ways. From this, anarchy and resistance is born.
Kelly Sandoval’s story, “The One They Took Before,” is arguably the closest story to more traditional fantasy out of the entire collection (other, perhaps, than Chris Tarry’s story, “Here Be Dragons,” in which there are none, just a couple of conmen out for thrills and wealth at the expense of their family--actually, given his other career as a bassist, maybe they’re a rock band). Sandoval’s taken, alluded to in the title, are those talented humans collected by the Fae, used up and returned to the modern world, and left churning in it the way the abused so often do.
Eugene Fischer’s story, “My Time Among the Bridge Blowers,” reprises the writing style of the non-fiction imperialist travelogues, writing of their “quaint” exposure to various native populations depleted by colonial invasion, but in a fantastical setting. It is a world that could easily fill a novel.
In all of this, I am leaving out Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” playing on campfire tales and tellings of casual horror between men and women; Brooke Bolander’s lovelorn tornado seeking to impress and love a human woman who’s struggles to be normal and fit in only leave her disappointed; Max Galdstone’s modern Dracula story, an oddly charming Dracula story—as opposed to a charming Dracula, thank God; and Amal El-Mohtar’s mysterious, mystical story of love as it is when written out for us; plus so many more.
In the end, I appreciate this new fantasy a great deal—I even write it sometimes. It is made up of different cultural norms that are still real even if I am a stranger to them. It is queer. It’s peopled with women. It is told by individuals with names I have known how to pronounce since preschool and ones I suspect get flagged unjustly by TSA for extra harassment when flying. It is interesting and different and exciting, whether it is being published in “literary” lit mags or “genre” lit mags. I’m here for it.