Tag Archives: Lincoln Michel

An Interview with Lincoln Michel

22 Oct
Lincoln Michel's debut story collection, Upright Beasts, was described in The New York Times as reading

Lincoln Michel’s debut story collection, Upright Beasts, was described in The New York Times as reading “something like translated Kafka.”

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Lincoln Michel

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.)

Lincoln Michel's collection Upright Beasts is a genre-bending debut (O Magazine), full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences (Vanity Fair).

Lincoln Michel’s collection Upright Beasts is a genre-bending debut (O Magazine), full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences (Vanity Fair).

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?

Gigantic Worlds is an anthology of 51 science flash fiction stories from writers as varied as Jonathan Lethem, Charles Yu, and Kelly Luce.

Gigantic Worlds is an anthology of 51 science flash fiction stories from writers as varied as Jonathan Lethem, Charles Yu, and Kelly Luce.

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.

October 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Merge Literary and Genre Stories

20 Oct
Lincoln Michel's collection Upright Beasts is a genre-bending debut (O Magazine), full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences (Vanity Fair).

Lincoln Michel’s collection Upright Beasts is a “genre-bending debut” (O Magazine), full of “monstrous surprises and eerie silences” (Vanity Fair).

Perhaps the most significant movement in American fiction is the genre-bending mashup. Karen Russell nearly won the Pulitzer Prize for Swamplandia, a novel whose setting (alligator theme park in the Florida Everglades) would have fit perfectly with the campy premises of 1960s sitcoms like The Munsters and The Addams Family or many of today’s reality shows. In a similar way, George Saunders combines speculative fiction with a literary narrator in his story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” and Kelly Link merges a lush southern landscape with a world of fairies in “The Summer People,” the first story in her latest collection, Get In Trouble. It’s a good bet that almost every writing workshop in the country includes someone writing a monster story or some other genre-inspired piece of literary fiction.

The problem that those beginning writers often encounter, though, is that genres don’t merge easily as you might imagine when reading Link, Saunders, and Russell. As readers, we have expectations for realist fiction, and we have quite different expectations for stories featuring a Weekly World News roster of characters: werewolves, aliens, psychopaths, and alligator wrestlers. A story that begins in one genre tends to begin with a particular tone, a nod to the readers’ expectations, and then when the genre shifts, so must the tone. It’s this shift that gives so many writers fits.

Lincoln Michel demonstrates how to negotiate this shift in his story, “Dark Air,” which is included in his collection Upright Beasts and is almost certainly one of the most genre-bending stories ever to appear in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about an alien that infects other creatures, transforming them physically and giving them the telepathic powers. As you might expect, the story includes a fair amount of gore and a few scenes that would fit neatly into a horror film. But none of this is evident in the story’s opening. Here are the first two sentences:

How we ended up in those backwoods hills was Iris said we needed to ‘get a little air,’ and Dolan added, ‘country air!’ and that was that. Iris was my lover, and Dolan was her roommate I’d never liked.

This opening has a sense of foreboding (backwoods hills), but there’s no sense yet that the story will inevitably become a kind of horror story. At this point, it could just as easily become a version of E. B. White’s super-literary essay “Once More to the Lake,” but with some relationship drama thrown in. But that’s not where the story is going, as the next sentence makes clear:

All of us were alive, at that point.

That line telegraphs the general twist the story will take, which is necessary, but the story is attempting to have a foot in both genre and literary. It’s engaged in a balancing act, and so what follows is a nuanced mix of realism and horror. After this death prediction, the story immediately refocuses on non-genre elements:

I had no problem with city air. I figured it was the same air out there as in here, but the decision had been made in my presence without my participation.

‘You know what we mean, goofus,’ Dolan said. ‘The noise. The lights.’

Iris giggled and put her hand on Dolan’s arm. They had their own private definition of humor.

A few hours later we were rolling through the hills. We’d been in a car the whole time and we had the windows up, AC blasting. We hadn’t yet felt the country air.

Into these realist elements, Michel introduces hints of danger, which are amplified given the prediction of death:

The roads up in these mountains were littered with signs. Caution for this, danger about that. Falling rocks, bobcat crossing, dangerous incline. There must have been a dozen ways for us to be crushed or torn apart.

‘You never see green like this in the city,’ Iris was saying. She clicked away with her phone as we rounded a chunk of mountain that had been blown open with dynamite.

Caution signs are, of course, part of the natural setting of the story, but in this passage they’re clearly establishing a tone and setting the stage for less realistic forms of danger. When that danger arrives, it literally break into the midst of a realist moment:

Dolan had his headphones on and Iris was pretending to sleep.

‘Hey, I said –’

I think that’s around when the creature burst from the bushes on the side of the road.

The realist moments don’t vanish at this point in the story, but the genre elements become increasingly visible. The balance between the two is easier to strike because it’s been introduced on the first page.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s merge literary and genre stories, using “Dark Air” by Lincoln Michel as a model:

  1. Identify the expectations of the genre element. Horror stories are, well, horrific. So, a suggestion of imminent danger and the risk of death or pain is needed. Speculative fiction often has a technical focus—the details of the technology or futuristic detail. Detective fiction, crime fiction, romance, and fantasy (classical and otherwise) all carry with them particular expectations. If you’re not sure about what these are, you can open almost any book that is situated firmly in a genre. The first page almost always tells the reader in both clear and nuanced ways what kind of story it is.
  2. Include a clear marker of genre. Michel does this with the sentence, “All of us were alive, at that point.” Speculative or science fiction might include a direct reference to technology. Detective fiction might allude to a crime or mystery. Blunt is good.
  3. Find ways to hint at those expectations (and marker) within realist prose. I keep saying realist because that is the default mode of contemporary American and English-language fiction. It may be different in other countries, cultures, and languages. But since it’s the starting point of most (though not all) American literary fiction, it’s a good place to begin. So, find ways to drop genre hints into that realistic prose. Michel does this with the caution signs on the side of the road and the dynamited mountain. They carry forward the tone set by the marker without directly referring to it. To do this, think about the tone of the marker you’ve used or the usual language and images of the genre. Is there diction from the genre that overlaps with realist diction? Or, vice versa, is there realist diction that carries the same tone or connotation as the language of the genre? You can play with image in the same way. How can you use the realist aspects of the setting (warning signs, dynamited mountain) to convey the same tone that genre-specific images might convey?

The goal is to use images and word choice to set the stage for the shift from realist fiction to genre fiction in order to create a new hybrid. When done well, the inevitably introduction of the genre element won’t feel out-of-place but, rather, something that is part of the natural fabric of the story.

Good luck.

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