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    Towards a Theory of the Interstitial
[Version 1.0]

The Interstitial DMZ
by Heinz Insu Fenkl
Director, ISIS
(Interstitial Studies Institute at the State University of New York, New Paltz)
Nonobservance of the interstices . . . is a sin.
— Addis & Arnold, quoted in Webster's Dictionary
I. An Introduction

OKSTREET by:Stu Jenks
Recently, in one of those moments of insight sparked by a mundane question from a reader, I realized I had worked on my first book for 23 years, from the time I was twelve to the time I turned 35. I am not an especially slow writer; this was writing that had deep meaning for me, writing that was the beginning of a life-long series of interlinked works. In 1996, this book, Memories of My Ghost Brother, was published as a novel.

But Memories of My Ghost Brother is not a novel. It is the story of my childhood in Korea, drawn from life but told in such a way that there is a clear aesthetic consciousness behind it.

The decision to call it a novel — and not a memoir — was made by the publisher's marketing department, not by me. And yet the work is not a memoir, either. How did this odd problem — which still has complicated repercussions for me today — arise?

I had told my editor that if it were up to me, I would simply put the book out into the world as a work of literature. How naive! For the publisher, the problem was a merely a pragmatic one. According to marketing hearsay at the time, memoirs by people who were not already famous did not sell well. On the other hand, there was a decent readership for first novels, particularly if they were of the "ethnic" category like mine. (This was the year before McCourt's Angela's Ashes illustrated exactly how wrong-headed such marketing notions could be.)

I was not aware of this marketing logic until the decision had been made. It was out of my hands (though, really, it probably never had been in my hands to begin with). I had told my editor that given the current state of literary theory, I was comfortable calling my work either thing — a novel (because of its literary style, its use of tropes, its collaging of time and character) or a memoir (because nearly everything in it is true, in the factual sense, within the realm of flexibility for that form). I had just come out of a Ph.D. program in Cultural Anthropology, having spent the last several years heavily engaged with the theory of ethnographic writing. Memories of My Ghost Brother was what I had written in response to, and in implicit criticism of, both ethnographic and theoretical works I had been reading. It was what I was compelled to finish instead of my dissertation monograph.

I did not wish to provide the kind of theoretical justification I could have brought to bear if I had, say, presented my book as a non-traditional ethnographical text. Publishing, after all, is a business, so I left the decision to those businesspeople who knew what they were doing. But what surprised me when I heard of the publisher's marketing decision was that it had been made with no serious engagement with the writing itself. Later, it became clear to me that it didn't matter whether the publishing house even understood my book — the marketing logic did not accommodate issues of meaning at a deep level.

From the marketing point of view, the two possibilities had been obvious because bookstores like Barnes & Noble have clear categories into which the publisher's sales reps must pitch their product, usually in under a minute per book. There is no opportunity (unless, of course, some huge advance had to be recouped, in which case there is a necessity) to elaborate on the particular complexities or literary nuances of a book. My book had to be one thing or another, and so they made it a novel.

Nearly a decade after its initial publication, there is now another publisher that would like to repackage Memories of My Ghost Brother as a memoir and re-release it into a market very different from that of the mid 1990s. Now, it is believed that "ethnic" memoirs generally do much better than first novels.

It took me a long time to figure this out, but in publishing, a thing can be one thing or the other, or one thing and the other. For those with established name recognition (Stephen King, for example), this logic applies simultaneously, but if you are a small fish, you may be both things, too, but only as long as it's one thing at a time. This is not an absolute rule, of course. But it is a general rule we have little choice but to "publish or perish" by.

The above is my personal anecdote illustrating my experience with the power of binary oppositions in the world of publishing. As an academic with a background in a wide range of theoretical approaches, including semiotics and structuralism, the experience is no surprise to me; but as the wide-eyed first-time "novelist," this experience was both disillusioning and educational. It gave me that proverbial eye-opening look behind the scenes, and as I began to work later with small presses, I learned things that helped me become a more realistic academic. For me as the writer of an autobiographical narrative that pushed the envelope in both directions, the problem of categories was: memoir or novel (fact or fiction)? I approached it head-on by labeling my work "autoethnography," a term now in general usage like Audre Lourde's term "biomythography," which she uses to clarify her book, Zami: Another Spelling of My Name.

In an essay I called "an autoethnographic recursion," I looked at my own writing as if I were an anthropologist looking at a text, and this exercise helped me put to rest a tangle of theoretical and writerly problems. I had been familiar with various (now popular) theoretical approaches to texts, which examine their "liminality" or "hybridity," often applying terms with the prefixes "inter" or "trans" ("intertextuality" and "transnationality" to give two examples), but these approaches all rely on an implicit notion of dichotomy combined with the idea of moving from one state to another or combining (intersecting) one thing with another.

In the world of publishing, this way of thinking presents itself as a series of either/or decisions: Fact or Fiction, Fantasy or Science Fiction, Genre or Mainstream, Mystery or History? I present these categorical problems as dilemmas of a sort, but in many cases the possibilities are not initially limited only to two; and yet, when a particular work is hard to classify, its final label is then often compared to or contrasted with a series of other possibilities, one at a time.

The result may be that an either/or decision (which implicitly negates neither/nor) produces a thing that then follows an and/or logic and then transcends it, perhaps by ignoring it altogether. To give an example, one can imagine a work like Caleb Carr's The Alienist presenting such a marketing problem behind the scenes. Is it History or Mystery? It could not be categorized as either, and so it becomes History and Mystery. But calling it a historical mystery novel or a historical novel that focuses on a mystery are both deemed unexciting and potentially limiting in terms of sales, and so it is simply marketed as a mainstream book, riding on the exotic quality of its title and Carr's cachet as a historian with Beat roots. It becomes a bestseller.

Unfortunately, there are many other works with equally interesting or novel approaches — and better-written works — that suffer exactly the opposite fate. The decision-making process follows a different logic tree, and they are shoehorned into an inappropriate inaccurate category, usually for the publisher's expediency, and they simply disappear or take decades finally to be "found" by a readership.

In this essay, I will try to illustrate why the logic of categorizing, which is based on the underlying notion of dichotomy (which itself is a general reflection of the way people think in western cultures), is inadequate for dealing with an entire class of works, which I term the "Interstitial." I will also attempt to show how interstitial works are 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 (also how it causes transformations in the reader at a large scale). I will focus on issues of writing, since that is the field with which I am most familiar, but these observations will apply equally well to other forms of expression like film, visual art, and music.
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