After spending a weekend at WisCon, billed as the world's only feminist science fiction convention, I have been thinking about consolation, pattern, interstitiality, and community.
I am enormously drawn to the idea of interstitiality , of embracing art that falls between the cracks of genre or combines elements in strange, fecund ways. An impulse towards resisting expectations surprises me with its strength and persistence in my own writing life.
On the other hand, there is the idea put forth in the essay "On Fairy–Stories," by J.R.R. Tolkien, of story as pattern and pattern as consolation. This rings true for me, too, despite the dangers of being consoled. I love the punctuated ripples of live sentences and the erotics of complication, climax, and denouement snagged on the horns of the next dilemma. I love the ways that metaphors echo in the hollows of structure. I love the spooky repetition of turning the page. There are patterns within genres and categories that attract readers and provide writers with rhythms that are fabulous to play with. They offer elegant forms and the beauty of tapping into live traditions.
While I was at WisCon — a stranger, despite the woman I ran into who told me that she had made the cover of my first novel into a refrigerator magnet — the obvious pleasures of genre were startling to me. It was clear that many of the people there had active relationships with each other as students, teachers, peers, critics, and party–goers. The sense of community was palpable. Watching Kelly Link and Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press engage with it — as writers, editors, publishers, readers, pals and beloveds — was a lot like watching my lover in her garden: hands in the warm dirt darkened with compost, waves of early asparagus and green onions that wintered over, followed by lettuce and spinach and broccoli and the seedlings of peppers and tomatoes just went into the ground. There's always tending, and another round of digging, birds thrash the air — it's a wonder. Kelly and Gavin looked to be working like that, and it was a pleasure to witness.
Part of me wants to say, hey, I can do monsters, magic, ghosts and freaks. Fat girls know those stories, of course we know. What is it I have to do, exactly? Where do I sign? And then I get that itch, that impulse, that impossible perversity that's got me writing a novel about Puritans, and I'm heading for the cracks again, thinking, but how do you gather people in cracks, really? Spiders (with their sagacity and admirable ways of working), dust, moss, trash, pink chips of granite and mica ground down to gravel by the pressure of geological shifts, sure. But don't communities form around identifiable interests, say, science fiction or fat dykes, for instance? Is a willingness — or an internal imperative — to bend and stretch genres and reach for the stars (is Romper Room still around?) sufficient to hold books and stories and writers and readers in close enough proximity that they can help sustain each other? It could be — I can feel it — and that reaching gets me back to the core of what I love about art, but my fear is isolation and feeling lost without a clan.
In "On Fairy–Stories," Tolkien wrote:
It is the mark of a good fairy–story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art...Fairy story or not (and without Tolkien's insistence on Christian resurrection and redemption as the ultimate happy ending), that catch of breath is what I'm after when I read and when I write, and what I really want is to read widely and write with craft–toughened reckless inspiration and to support others who are doing the same.
I was at a feminist science fiction convention because I had been talking with Kelly over tea about Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth century theologian. I told her that he thought the manner in which birds and squirrels are charmed by serpents to go into their mouths is a lively representation of the manner in which sinners are very often charmed and destroyed by the devil. When I said that he wrote about spiders and divine light and freewill to try to make the whole world fit together to support the Christ story, she said, "Oh, he was writing science fiction."
If he was, perhaps I am, too.
Or I might not be. I don't know yet. I do know that I'm being influenced by the excitement of the conference and the wonderful rush of books I've found following Kelly's advice (sometimes she's literally put them in my hands) — including her slippery, funny, ghostly collection of stories, Stranger Things Happen, and other novels and stories by Carol Emshwiller, Nalo Hopkinson, Ray Vukcevich, Karen Joy Fowler and China Miéville. Amazing books, every one. I've had to pause in writing fiction to try to integrate all of this stimulation.
At the conference, at a panel on writing about war, I heard China Miéville suggest that narrative itself could become a dangerous kind of consolation, that simply telling a story — any story, with any kind of ending — creates an illusion of order where none exists. The implication was that story–telling is no replacement for political activism. I was in the middle of reading one of China's novels, The Scar, a whale of a story that goes beyond adventure into profound uncertainty and the inescapable embrace of complexity. Much of it takes place on Armada, a pirate city of ships linked with bridges and chains, with intricately imagined architecture and politics and peoples (for instance, those whose blood scabbed over into impenetrable armor when they were cut). I was being pulled deep into strange waters by the force and mystery and logic of his inventions, so I knew that China was a serious story–teller. It was also clear that he had read "On Fairy–Stories," too.
The gifts of being in a genre — reading the same essays and stories; seeking out the same mentors; publishing with the same magazines and presses; writing books that share shelf space; gathering at workshops, retreats, and conferences often enough to know each other — create a common language. I've felt this as part of networks of queer and feminist presses, journals, and bookstores. I've felt both embraced and constricted by the conventions of those worlds. Passion is what took me there in the first place. Passion is what pulls me towards puritans and pirate cities, so far from where my books have found their welcome.
The interstitial idea of thriving in cracks and crevices feels like a kind of home. Nurturing active, creative, receptive, demanding relationships and institutions that welcome genre–bending and respect a wide range of sources, traditions, and affinities sounds so good that it scares me.
The expanded possibilities for joy are worth the risks.