“But this [historical critical] view only traces a single thread through what is essentially a tapestry of aesthetic productions. The line, of course, tries to connect the high points. Frequently enough, these high points are , in reality, connected. But just as frequently they are connected more strongly to other works and situations totally off this line. Historical artistic progress only exists through the perspective lent by hindsight.”– Samuel R. Delany,
“Theft is an integral function of a healthy literature.”– Ursula K. LeGuin, The Language of the Night
In hindsight, I wish I was a better journalist.
Last summer I attended Readercon 21, which is one of the best fantastika conventions in the U.S. It focuses on the heart of the wider genre, literature, and is a small con in size but enormous in intensity. That focus is what makes it both an intimate and mind-expanding experience. Because of the focus on the written word, there are often panels and discussions on genre, and also alternatives to genre. Some panels have focused on denoting or explicating new genres, while others take genre(s) apart. It was at one such panel that I was introduced to an idea that I found both quite refreshing and a tad perplexing: interstitiality. Sadly, I did not practice assiduous notation of the proceedings, but the ideas discussed about interstitial fiction were compelling (and infectious) enough to keep nagging at my mind.
What is interstitial art? It is …art made in the interstices between genres and categories. It is art that flourishes in the borderlands between different disciplines, mediums, and cultures. It is art that crosses borders, made by artists who refuse to be constrained by category labels
The word “interstice” represents a number of different things, but all of them have to do with space, gaps, what lies in-between solid things, like the slats of a fence or the organs of a body. In this case specifically, it is about artistic productions that are created in the gaps and connectors between genres. The current movement behind it came together nearly a decade ago, and supports the creative endeavors of artists who work from “the margins,” whose work “defies categories and laughs at expectations.” A response to the increasingly commercial pigeonholing of difficult-to-label works, the momentum behind interstitial fiction comes primarily from a group of authors who are generally considered fantasists, but who champion genre border-crossing.
The idea both entices and unnerves me. I am not a genre purist, but I do see the manifold uses genre provides actors in the literary field of production. As a reader, I both revel in and shake my head at genre, indulging in works that both fit comfortably within some genre designations and that gleefully exceed the conventions and tropes they draw upon as creative fodder. As an unpublished writer, I struggle with genre expectations and think about how to use them to enrich stories. As a lover of literature, I am quite taken with the idea of supporting those who strive to cross boundaries and create provocative art, who want to create new openings and inhabit vibrant niches between genres. At the same time, I wonder if the idea is really necessary, if it does not threaten to somehow homogenize or standardize either the practice of art or how observers view it.
My skepticism comes from my own perspective, as reader, fan, and social observer. If genres can die, metamorphosize, or mutate, how do we identify the interstitial? Is anything that does not rigidly adhere to a particular set of genre expectations a poacher on the borderlands? “Perhaps interstitiality is like porn. You know it when you see it.” Is it qualities, intention, specific applications of literary devices? It is an attitude, a position of identity? The instability of the idea emerges as soon as you start to think about it. This is partly because it inhabits conceptual “spaces” between interpretive objects, but I think that it is also difficult to isolate and codify because it is simultaneously a new idea and something that artists have done since someone made up a term for “art.”
Hasn’t the interstitial always been with us, just unidentified, uncoalesced? There have always been “outliers” in the hinterlands of the genres. New genres are often created in the conceptual boundaries between story types, categories of action, clusters of symbols and notions (which, to be fair, is something that is argued as a benefit of supporting the interstital). As soon as shared tropes and narratives aggregate into categories, the interstitial potential appears. And while marketing and the expectations of some readers have hardened some genre categories, is genre such a solid object that we require a label for what happens in-between convention and interpretation?
The importance of interplay is a little overdetermined in the interstitial, as is the notion of rigidity in genre. If interstitial fiction is in “a constant state of coming-into-being at the threshold of the readers’ consciousness and yet also in a state of potential self-negation once their nature has been identified” genre is there too. Expectations are there, anticipations, pleasures of the confabulated glosses that inform our cultural gaze. We constantly recognize words, vistas, and connections through a literary lens conditioned by the idea of what the story is, what we wish it to be, and what it is becoming in each moment. Reading, in essence, is the practice of deciding what the text means, what it associates with, what it creates in our imagination, and how we link that to the world-as-we-know-it. Whether a crushingly realist text, or one surreal and deconstructive, we enjoy and wonder at those strings of words by figuring out where the boundaries are and what spaces exist between them. Interstitiality is present in even the most hackneyed, genre-bound text, if often subsumed or lost in the looming shadows of larger tropes..
“By now you get the idea or you have a headache, or perhaps both.” Gregory Frost distills, in this humorous passage, the intellectual and artistic gymnastics that are demanded by an interstitial perspective if you dwell on it too long. The implicit commitment and explict subversion create an idea that thrives more in enactment than in theorizing. Interstitiality is not an operative genre label, it is a strategy of authorship. It is called many things but what it labels is creative license. It is not the breaking or abandonment of genre, because without genre, without those gaps and borders to cross, interstitiality loses its agility. And yet, it requires a certain stereotyping of stories, an unreflective collection of
classifications, to emerge. This troubles me, because I feel that the broadness, flexibility, and rambling nature of fantastika is vibrant enough to nurture and encourage the crossing of borders, and I worry that too much focus on being interstitial loses sight of what the literary field of the fantastic is capable of giving to artists.
Fantastika, in all of its related forms, from graying grandsires to the most vivacious of nascent subgenres, gives writers a rich environment in which to thrive, to explode conventions and twist preconceptions into fresh, unfamiliar configurations. Fantastika thrives on outlaws and ne’er-do-wells raiding and trading across the borders of all of its imagined territories; that is what the fantastic is all about, isn’t it? I am not sure that artists need more encouragement to do what many already do with such verve and lunatic fervor. And yet, it seems to me that the promotion of the interstitial might make the reader, the publisher, and the bookstore owner more aware of the wonders that the fantastic has to offer, pull more folks out of that narrow historical perspective that Delany talks about, and make us more aware that stories are always more than they seem, and that we need to celebrate that, share that with one another, and never stop looking for more wonders.