Lincoln Michel is the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com and a founding editor of Gigantic. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Tin House, NOON, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Believer, Bookforum, Buzzfeed, Vice, and The Paris Review Daily. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction, and the author of Upright Beasts, a collection of short stories. He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn.
To read his story “Dark Air” and an exercise on merging literary and genre stories, click here.
In this interview, Michel discusses the differences, if any, that exist between literary and genre fiction.
I was on a panel recently, and the question was posed about the difference between literary and genre fiction. The usual things were said, with the eventual answer being a bit like the Supreme Court justice’s line about obscenity: we know genre or lit fiction when we see it. But when it comes to this particular story (and several in the collection), any distinction between genre/literary seems impossible to find. I can’t remember another story in Granta that was so devoted to genre elements, yet the characters are developed and the language is tight, so it’s easy to see why Granta selected it. You’re part of a large group of writers who are straddling both worlds (Adrian Van Young, Manuel Gonzales, and, obviously, Karen Russell). What do you think? Is any distinction left?
I seem to have a different stance on this question than most people I know in either the genre world or the literary world. I don’t believe that genre distinctions are meaningless, but I also don’t believe that there is anything inherently inferior to genre work. To me, genres are literary traditions and conversations between writers, readers, and critics. Part of the enjoyment of “genre-bending” or genre mashing is seeing the different tropes and styles subverted, complicated, or tweaked in different ways. If we didn’t understand what, say, a hardboiled detective story was or what a Lovecraftian horror story was, then a hardboiled cosmic horror story simply wouldn’t work.
When I write in a genre (or in two or three), I’m both participating in a conversation with other authors in that literary tradition, and I’m working in a form and hoping to subvert/complicate/expand it.
“Literary” is a tougher term, because I think it has a lot of different usages and definitions that frequently contradict each other. (That’s true of “genre” too actually.) To avoid going on a thirty-page rambling rant, I’ll just say that I think of “literary” fiction as fiction that is complex, language-focused, and challenges instead of simply meets readers’ expectations. As such, writing can be simultaneously literary and genre. Le Guin, Delany, Chandler, Atwood… their fiction is as complex, beautifully written, and boundary pushing as anything on the “literary fiction” shelf of a bookstore. (By the same token, fourth-generation Raymond Carver knockoffs are the realist version of genre pulp.)
In my book, Upright Beasts, some of the stories use genre elements from science fiction, fairy tales, and horror, but I don’t believe there is any quality distinction between them and the Kafkaesque parables or realist Southern stories. They are just playing with different forms and styles.
So genres exist, but I think you are right that we’re finally tearing down the borders separating the writers who work in them. It used to be that the literary world was separate from the SF world that was separate from the crime world, and so on. As a writer you kind of had to pick one little patch of land to grow your garden in, or maybe two if they were adjacent plots like SF and fantasy. But now Le Guin just got a National Book Award lifetime achievement medal, the Library of America series publishes Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut alongside James Baldwin and Philip Roth, the New Yorker has issues devoted to SF and crime, and authors are feeling increasingly free to write in different genres, to plant lots of different gardens in lots of different plots.
And that’s how it should be. No one wrinkles their nose at the fact that a Kubrick directed the best horror film ever in The Shining AND directed one of the best science fiction films in 2001 AND directed great black comedies, war films, and other films in other genres. Why shouldn’t writers have the same freedom?
I actually just co-edited an anthology of science fiction called Gigantic Worlds that had this ethos, so I’m definitely interested in genre as both a form and as great literature. Gigantic Worlds is a mix of fantastic SF writers (Ted Chiang, Laird Barron, Meghan McCarron, etc.) and great literary writers working in the form of SF (Catherine Lacey, Alissa Nutting, Kyle Minor, etc.). There is no reason those writers shouldn’t be read, enjoyed, or studied side by side.
(Adrian Van Young is also in that anthology, and I’m glad to hear you give him a shout out as he’s a fantastic writer—and one of my best friends—whose work is definitely simultaneously genre and literary.)
That’s what I want for my own writing. I want to write a book in every genre! I want to play with different genres like I play with different structures, different voices, and different POVs. I think you have to do that with a love and understanding of the genres—and I grew up reading Le Guin and Chandler alongside Carver and Calvino—but otherwise, go forth and write whatever you love. Sculpt weird beasts out of the different elements that speak to you. Make them yours.