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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.