by Henry Jenkins, 2009
(Note: The following essay appeared as the introduction to Interfictions 2.)
“Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”– Groucho Marx
Let’s start with some basic premises:
- I do not belong in this book.
- The contributors also do not belong.
- You, like Groucho Marx, wouldn’t want to belong even if you could. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t have picked up this book in the first place.
Let me explain. The editors of most anthologies seek stories which “fit” within prescribed themes, genres, and topics; the editors of this book have gone the opposite direction – seeking stories that don’t fit anywhere else, stories that are as different from each other as possible. And that’s really cool if the interstitial is the kind of thing you are into.
At the heart of the interstitial arts movement (too formal), community (too exclusive), idea (too idealistic?), there is the simple search for stories that don’t rest comfortably in the cubbyholes we traditionally use to organize our cultural experiences. As Ellen Kushner puts it, “We’re living in an age of category, of ghettoization – the Balkanization of Art! We should do something.” That “something” is, among the other projects of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, the book you now hold in your hands.
What I love about the folks who have embraced interstitial arts is that some of them do comics, some publish romances, some compose music, some write fantasy or science fiction, but all of them are perfectly comfortable thinking about things other than their areas of specialization.
Asked to define interstitial arts, many writers fall back on spatial metaphors, talking about “the wilderness between genres” (Delia Sherman), “art that falls between the cracks” (Susan Simpson), or “a chink in a fence, a gap in the clouds, a DMZ between nations at war” (Heinz Insu Fenkel). Underlying these spatial metaphors is the fantasy of artists and writers crawling out from the boxes which so many (their publishers, agents, readers, marketers, the adolescent with the piercings who works at the local Borders) want to trap them inside. Such efforts to define art also deform the imagination, not simply of authors, but also of their readers.
All genre categories presume ideal readers, people who know the conventions and secret codes, people who read them in the “right way.” Many of us – female fans of male action shows, adult fans of children’s books, male fans of soap operas – read and enjoy things we aren’t supposed to and we read them for our own reasons, not those proposed by marketers. We don’t like people snatching books from our hands and telling us we aren’t supposed to be reading them.
One of the reasons I don’t belong in this book is that I’m an academic, not a creative artist, and let’s face it, historically, academics have been the teachers and enforcers of genre rules. The minute I tell you that I have spent the last twenty years in a Literature department, you immediately flash on a chalkboard outline of Aristotle’s Poetics or a red pen correcting your muddled essay on the four-act structure. Throughout the twentieth century, many of us academic types were engaged in a prolonged project of categorizing and classifying the creative process, transforming it to satisfy our needs to generate lecture notes, issue paper topics, and grade exam questions. After all, academics are trapped in our own imposed categories (“disciplines” rather than “genres”) which often constrain what we can see, what we can say, and who we can say it to. Academics are “disciplined” through our education, our hiring process, our need to ‘publish or perish’, and our tenure and promotion reviews. Most academics read or think little outside their field of study. As Will Rogers explained, “there’s nothing so foolish as an educated man once you take him out of the field he was educated in.”
I may gain a little sympathy from you, dear reader, if I note that for those twenty years, I was a cuckoo’s egg – a media and popular culture scholar in a literature department – and that I am finally flying the coop, taking up an interdisciplinary position at a different institution, because I could never figure out the rules shaping my literature colleagues’ behavior.
Many literature professors may hold “genre fiction” in contempt as “rule driven” or “formula-based” yet they ruthlessly enforce their own genre conventions: look at how science fiction gets taught, keeping only those authors already in the canon (Mary Shelly, H.G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon), adding a few more who look like what we call “literature” (William Gibson, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick), and then, running like hell as far as possible from any writer whose work still smells of “pulp fiction.” Here, “literature” is simply another genre or cluster of genres (the academic mid-life crisis, the coming of age story, the identity politics narrative), one defined every bit as narrowly as the category of films which might get considered for a Best Picture nomination. I never had much patience with the criteria by which my colleagues decided which works belonged in the classroom and which didn’t.
What I love about the folks who have embraced interstitial arts is that some of them do comics, some publish romances, some compose music, some write fantasy or science fiction, but all of them are perfectly comfortable thinking about things other than their areas of specialization. In that sense, I do very much belong in this collection as a kindred spirit, a fellow traveler, both phrases that signal someone who does and does not fit into some larger movement. Maybe we can go to each other’s un-birthday parties and not belong together.
To be sure, academics are not, as Buffy would put it, “the big bad.” We may have gotten inside your head but with a little mental discipline, you can shove us right back out again. Most interstitial artists ritually burned their old course notebooks years ago. They started to write the stories they wanted to be able to read, only to be told by their publisher that their book would sell much more quickly if it could be positioned into this publishing category for this intended audience and to achieve that you just need to cut back on this, expand on that, and add a little more of this other thing. I often picture James Stewart in Vertigo gradually redressing, restyling, and redesigning Kim Novak’s entire identity, all the while creepily asserting that it really shouldn’t make that much difference to her. That’s the process those of us who sympathize with the concept of interstitial arts are trying to battle back into submission or at least push back long enough so that we can demonstrate that there are readers out there, a few of us, who want the stuff that doesn’t really fit into fixed genres, though it may bear some faint family resemblance to several of them at once. Viva the mutts and the mongrels! Long live the horses of a different color!
So, you are now about to enter the Twilight Zone, where nothing your freshmen literature teacher taught you applies, where we eat with the wrong forks and wear white shoes after Labor Day. But it doesn’t mean that academic genre theory has nothing to contribute to our efforts as readers and writers to step across the ice floes and navigate the shifting sands of the interstitial. For the next few pages, I will be proposing a more contemporary account of how genre works in an era where so many of us are mixing and matching our preferences and defying established categories. The work of genre is changing as we speak – in some ways becoming more constraining, in others more liberating – and genre theorists are rethinking old assumptions to reflect the flux in the way culture operates.
To start with Genre Theory 101, all creative expression involves an unstable balance between invention and convention. If a work is pure invention, it will be incomprehensible – like writing a novel without using any recognizable language. Don’t worry: a work that is pure invention is only a theoretical possibility. None of us, in the end, is all that original; we borrow (often undigested) bits and pieces from the already written and the already read; we all construct new works through appropriation and transformation of existing materials. As Michel Bakhtin explains, we don’t take our words out of the dictionary; we rip them from other people’s mouths and they come to us covered with the saliva of where they’ve already been spoken before. Sharing stories is swapping spit.
However, if a work is pure convention, it will bore everyone. While most of us feel gratified when a work sometimes meets our expectations and most of us feel somewhat frustrated when a work fails to deliver those particular pleasures we associate with a favored formula, none of us wants to read a book that is predictable down to the last detail. All artists fall naturally somewhere on the continuum, in some ways following the dictates of their genres, in other ways breaking with them. And most readers pick up a new book or video expecting to be surprised (by invention) and gratified (by convention).
As they seek to satisfy our desires for surprise and gratification, genre conventions are both constraints (like strait jackets) and enabling mechanisms (like life vests). They are constraints in so far as they foreclose certain creative possibilities, and they are enabling mechanisms in so far as they allow us to focus the reader’s attention on novel elements. In the Russian formalist tradition that shaped my own early graduate education, we didn’t speak of “rules”; we spoke of “norms,” with the understanding that a work only achieved its fullest potential when it, in some way, “defamiliarized” our normal ways of seeing the world and ordering our experience. Or in another familiar paradigm, the auteur critics embraced those filmmakers who were “at war with their materials,” that is, who followed the expectations of genre just enough to continue to be employed by the Hollywood studio system but also sought to impose their own distinctive personality by breaking as many of those rules as possible.
Now, let’s consider how some of the writers featured on the Interstitial Arts Foundation website are confronting these competing pulls towards convention and invention as they think about their work. Some are seeking to break with the conventions of genre more dramatically than others; they each lay claim to different positions on the continuum between convention and invention.
Here, for example, is Barth Anderson: “If the work comforts, satisfies, or generally meets the expectations that viewers might carry of a genre in question, then the work is genre. This might even apply to works attempting to redefine genre or works which introduce alien elements and disciplines into the genre mix… Interstitial art should be prickly, tricky, ornery. It should defy expectations, work against them, and in so doing, maintain a relationship to one or more genres, albeit contentiously…. Interstitial art is often upsetting. It rocks worldviews, political assumptions, sacred cows, as well as bookstore shelves.” Anderson values surprise and sees genre primarily as a constraint.
Susan Stinson, by contrast, sees the artist as moving between the pleasures of operating within genres and the freedom of escaping their borders: “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 both embraced and constricted by the conventions of those worlds…. The interstitial idea of thriving in cracks and crevices feels like [another] 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.” Stinson acknowledges the gratifications of consuming genre entertainment and understands genre formulas as both enabling mechanisms and constraints.
Anderson speaks about the interstitial as “prickly, tricky, ornery,” while Stinson sees it as welcoming, “nurturing,” joyous, and “receptive.” One stresses radical breaks from the genre system, while the other is negotiating a space for singular passions within the system.
Most current academic thinking dismisses the idea that genres are stable and essential categories, that we can determine what genre a work belongs to once and for all, and that doing so tells us all we need to know about the example in question. Instead, this new scholarship talks about what genres do rather than what genres are and describes the processes by which works get classified and reclassified over time.
When these categories are deployed as a system for regulating the production and distribution of culture, the publishing industry is misusing genre theory. As music critic Simon Frith notes, “genre maps change according to who they’re for… A committed music fan will soon find, for example, that she’s interested in sounds that fit into several categories at once and that different shops therefore shelve the same record under different labels…. It’s as if a silent conversation is going on between the consumer, who knows roughly what she wants, and the shopkeeper, who is laboriously working out the pattern of shifting demands. What’s certain is that I, like most other consumers, would feel quite lost to go to the store one day and find the labels gone – just a floor of CDS, arranged alphabetically.” So, for Frith, genre categories have some temporary use value in helping consumers find the music they want to hear. But those categories are also subject to recall and modification without notice and are often deployed in idiosyncratic ways, reflecting the personalities of the owners of different record shops or even the whims of the clerks who shelve particular titles. If you print the genres on the book jacket, you automatically limit their shelf life by restricting your ability to shuffle the pieces to reflect changing tastes and perceptions. The result will be as much bad business as bad art. Of course, on the consumption side, we all adopt very idiosyncratic systems for shelving our books anyway: that’s the pleasure of reading someone else’s bookshelves as a map of their mind, displaying what things interest them and the perceived relationships between the parts.
You might think that this “shelving” metaphor for thinking about the cultural work of genres would break down quickly in a world where fewer and fewer books are purchased in brick-and-mortar bookshops and more and more of them are being bought online, where listings can be easily reconfigured, where the same book can be listed in an infinite number of categories. Paradoxically, though, genres have had a tighter hold on our imagination in recent years as the range of cultural choice has broadened and audiences have fragmented. Film historian Rick Altman tells us that far from imposing rigid boundaries between genres, the old studio system depended on the idea that the same film could appeal to multiple audience segments at a time when pretty much everyone in the country went to the movies once or twice a week. Hollywood films rarely fit into some narrowly composed category: the same film had to appeal to men as well as women, the young as well as the old, by signaling different entertainment elements (“Comedy. Romance. Action. Exotic Locales. Singing. Dancing….”)
Over the course of the 20th century, however, genre categories have become ever more specialized as media industries refine techniques for monitoring and targeting particular clusters of consumers. These more rigid and precise subgenres are the product of a more general tendency towards what anthropologist Grant McCracken calls “specification.” Subcultures break down into smaller subcultures, niches become smaller niches in an eternal dance between our desire to differentiate ourselves from and affiliate ourselves with others who share our tastes. There are more different categories of books, records, and films than ever before; all that diversity produces an anxiety that is being met by more aggressive policing of boundaries. Using more sophisticated tools, media consumers are trying to find the “perfect choice,” rather than taking for granted that a work designed for a general audience is going to contain some things we like and some things we don’t.
And where the market doesn’t impose such specifications, we add them ourselves. Catherine Tosenberger has argued that the best fan fiction is “unpublishable” in the sense that it operates across the genre categories, aesthetic norms, and ideological constraints that shape commercial publishing. Fans self-publish in order to step outside those filters. Yet, the fan community also imposes its own categories, which help readers find the “right story” through author’s notes that tell us, for example, which “ships” (relationships between specified pairs of characters) are being explored, offer a rough sense of their sexual explicitness or emotional tone, warn us about vexing themes, and so forth. And if you read the letters of comment, there’s enormous anger directed at any writer who asks a reader to read a story that doesn’t deliver what was promised and, even worse, gives them something they didn’t ask for.
All of this focus on using genres to classify and shelve works assumes that we know where one genre ends and another begins and that genre works stay where we put them. Genres may be optical illusions, which come and go like mirages, depending on the ways we look at the texts in question. In one formulation, genre classifcations offer reading hypothesis: we start a book with the assumption that it will follow a certain path; we read it “as” a mystery or as a romance or as a fantasy, and as we do so, we look for those elements that match our expectations: depending on our starting point, we may notice some things or ignore them, make certain predictions or avoid them, value or reject certain elements, form or dismiss certain interpretations. Start from a different hypothesis and you will have a different experience. Some critics are rereading familiar texts through alternative logics: so, for example, queer cultural critic Alex Doty has made the case for The Wizard of Oz as a power struggle between butch and femme lesbians, Jason Mittell has read the HBO series The Wire as a video game, and Linda Williams reads pornography in relation to Hollywood musicals. Might we see such essays as interstitial criticism?
For some readers, there is a certain pleasure in playing a game where all the parts match our templates (much as a sparrow feels more like a bird than an ostrich does). For other readers, there may be a pleasure in the unanticipated or the indeterminate. Let’s hear it for the duck-billed platypus!
Tzvetan Todorov has talked about the “fantastic” as playing with this uncertainty about classification. For instance, most ghost stories create a special pleasure from our uncertainty about whether we are supposed to believe there really are ghosts or whether we are to come up with a natural, logical, real-world explanation for the events. The pleasure, he says, is in toggling between multiple interpretations, not knowing what kind of story we are reading: there was a ghost; the narrator was crazy; or in the Scooby-Doo version, it was all a scheme by the guy who runs the old amusement park.
Even when we kinda knew where the ghost story was going, the process of hiding and unveiling can be as much darn fun as a good old fashion striptease. What if we were to imagine the interstitial as another kind of indeterminacy, one that flits between genres in the same way that the fantastic flickers between levels of reality. Maybe this is what Heinz Insu Fenkel is getting at when he writes, “Interstitial works make the reader (or listener, or viewer) more perceptive and more attentive; in doing so, they make the reader’s world larger, more interesting, more meaningful, and perhaps even more comprehensible. The reader, who has been seeing black-and-white, suddenly begins not only to see color, but to learn how to see other colors.”
Just as there are systems of cultural production where audiences express confusion if a work straddles genres, there are others where artists thrive upon and audiences anticipate mixing and matching genre elements. Take for example the so-called “masala films” that come out of the Bollywood film industry in India and are popular across Asia, Africa, and increasingly the west. The same film might move between historical and contemporary settings, might mix comedy and melodrama, might follow an intense (and disturbing) action sequence with a musical number, might mix the most sudsy romance with social uplift and political reform, and might acknowledge both Hindu and Islamic traditions. The descriptor “masala” refers to a mixture of spices used in Indian cooking. Just as one would be disappointed if an Indian dish only contained one spice, the Bollywood spectator would be disappointed if a Hindi film contained only one genre.
We are seeing greater cultural churn as more and more works move across national borders, get picked up by new artists and audiences, get combined in new ways, paving the way for nouvelle culture in the same way that the global availability of spices and ingredients has led many of our best chiefs to experiment with radical departures from and reinventions of traditional cuisines. The anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has contrasted a classic understanding of cultures as so many exhibits in an ethnographic museum with a more contemporary notion of cultures as garage sales, where people push, pull, and paw over other people’s used stuff before taking it home, trying it on for size, and altering it to suit their needs. Many young American consumers are using the web in search of Korean dramas, Japanese anime, Latin American telenovelas, or Bollywood films, anything that takes them outside the parochialism of their own culture. The result really does defy any classification: look at something like Tears of the Black Tiger which starts as a classic Thai novel, throws in a little opera, adds a much more intense color palette, and tells the man’s story as a western and the woman’s story as a ’50s style melodrama to suggest that the two protagonists are living in different worlds.
Globalization is simply one of a number of forces which are breaking down the tyranny of genre classifications and paving the way for experimentation within popular storytelling. In his book Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson makes the argument that the most popular forms of entertainment today are popular because they make demands on our attention and cognition. For example, a television show like Lost, one of the top ratings successes of the past decade, demonstrates a level of complexity that would have been unimaginable on American television a few decades ago – with its large scale ensemble casts of characters, its flashes forwards and backwards in time, its complex sets of puzzles and enigmas, its moral ambiguities and shifting alliances, but also its uncertain and unpredictable relationship to existing television genres. If we knew what the operative genre model was, we might figure out what’s really happening on the island, but without such a clear mapping, we remain pleasurably lost. Such dramas thrive in part because they support robust internet communities where readers gather online to compare notes, debate interpretations, trace references, and otherwise have fun talking with each other. Its interstitial qualities are essential to Lost‘s success, even as they account for why other viewers got frustrated and gave up on the series convinced that it was never going to add up to anything anyway.
Lost illustrates another tendency in contemporary popular culture towards what I call transmedia storytelling. Lost is not simply a story or even a television series; Lost is a world that can support many different characters and many different stories that unfold across multiple media platforms. As these stories move across media platforms, Lost also often moves across genres: not unlike early novels, which might be constituted through mock letters, journals, and diaries, these new stories may mock e-mail correspondence, interviews, documents, websites, news magazine stories, advertisements, computer games, puzzles, cyphers, and a range of other materials which help make its world feel more real to the reader. These transmedia works will add a whole new meaning to the concept of interstitial arts.
So, to borrow from Charles Dickens (who borrowed from everyone else in his own time), this is the best of times and the worst of times for the interstitial arts. In such a world, the interstitial thrives and it withers. It finds receptive audiences and harsh critics. It gratifies and grates. It inspires and confuses. Above all, it gives us something to talk about. It opens us up to a world where nothing is what it seems and where little belongs, at least in the narrow sense of the term. We’re going Out There!
What happens next is in your hands. Read. Enjoy. Debate. Tell your friends. But also create. Write. Appropriate. Remix. Transform. Just leave your cookie cutters and jelly molds at home. We can figure out what shelf this belongs on later.
Delia Sherman, “An Introduction to Interstitial Arts: Life on the Border,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/intro_toIA.html
Susan Stinson, “Cracks,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/reflectionStinson.html
Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (University of Texas, 1982).
Heinz Insu Fenkl, “The Interstitial DMZ,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/why/the_interstitial_dmz_1.html
Barth Anderson, “The Prickly, Tricky, Ornery Multiverse of Interstitial Art,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/reflectionAnderson.html
Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Harvard University Press, 1998).
Rick Altman, Film/Genre (British Film Institute, 1999).
Grant McCracken, Plenitude 2.0: Culture by Commotion (Periph: Fluide, 1998).
Catherine Tossenberger, Potterotics: Harry Potter Fan Fiction on the Internet, Dissertation, University of Florida, 2007.
Alex Doty, Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon (Routledge, 2000).
Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (MIT Press, 2009).
Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (University of California Press, 1999).
Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Cornell University Press, 1975).
Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Reworking of Social Analysis (Beacon Press, 1993).
Charles Vess, “Interstitial Visual Arts: An Impossible Marriage of Materials,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/marriage_of_materials.html
Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You (Riverhead, 2006).
Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton University Press, 1988).
John Caughie, Theories of Authorship: A Reader (Routledge, 1981).
Peter J. Rabinowitz, “The Turn of the Glass Key: Popular Fiction as Reading Strategy,” Critical Inquiry, March 1985.
About the Author
Henry Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Art at the University of Southern California. Until recently, he served as the co-founder of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. More about Henry Jenkins, including his blog, “Confessions of an Aca-Fan”, is available at www.henryjenkins.org.