Impossible Realism

Mad Tea Party by DaliIn a recent blog entry (27 Jan), Jonathan Carroll (one of my all-time favorite writers) brings up the idea of “Impossible Realism,” a term that seems to have been generated by issue no. 52 (2009) of Conjunctions, the literary journal of Bard College that is edited by Bradford Morrow (which has been friendly toward Carroll’s short fiction and novel extracts). This particular issue (which contains Carroll’s story “The Stolen Church“) seems to have been designed in order to expose more genre writing to Conjunctions‘ readers, much like the aegis of a previous issue (no. 39, the “New Wave Fabulists” issue, 2002). Although contrary to that issue, no. 52 seems to be split between recognizably genre writers and recognizably literary writers who actually write genre fiction but are not marketed as such.

Just like the term “New Wave Fabulists,” I wonder where along the spectrum of fantastika “Impossible Realism” would fit. The blurb for the issue is: “Postfantasy fictions that begin with the premise that the unfamiliar or liminal really constitutes a solid ground on which to walk.” Which makes my eyes cross a little. What is “postfantasy”? If a story contains fantastical elements (which “impossible” would seem to denote), doesn’t that mean it’s “mid-fantasy” or just “fantasy”? There are so many terms now that describe in one fashion or another the cross-genre trope-blending between fantastical and mimetic fiction: Magic Realism, Slipstream, Fantastika, Irrealism, Fabulism, Postmodern Fantasy, Interstitial Fiction; is this yet one more attempt to make genre fiction palatable to readers who normally find it icky?

And this is the crux of Carroll’s entry, wherein he calls for a return to wonder:

For many adults, wonder is a guilty pleasure like reading comic books, karaoke, or eating Hostess Snowballs. It’s something for kids—childish, and beyond a certain age vaguely embarrassing. Not something you admit doing if you want to keep your good standing in the Adult Community. On the other hand, mention names like Murakami (giant talking frogs), Gogol (detached noses found in loaves of bread), Ionesco and his rhinoceroses, Jonathan Lethem (animal private investigators), the wilder short stories of Hawthorne, Julio Cortazar and his human axolotl, Goethe and Christopher Marlowe (Dr. Faustus, I presume?) and the literati quickly bow their heads in deference.

And why is that, exactly? Why does becoming an adult automatically mean (for large numbers of people) giving up that sense of wonder we had as children? Once we reach a certain age, the Real World is constantly beckoning, but it sometimes seems to me that we as a species need to become a bit less pragmatic. We need more dreamers, more people willing to creatively wonder. This is an issue quite relevant in Singapore, where the government has explicitly stated that its citizens need to become more creative in order to compete in the world, yet the education system and civil service is designed to drill out individuality and free thought. Creativity through government mandate is not creativity.

I sense a frustration in Carroll’s writing here. He does not like to be called a fantasy writer, yet he writes stories with overtly fantastical premises. He is published in “respectable” venues such as Conjunctions, yet the authors with whom he shares many tables of contents do not share his sense of wonder. (And believe me, he is not the only writer frustrated by this situation.) Is perhaps the paradox here that realism itself is impossible? Fiction, by its very nature, is “Stories That Have Not Happened,” which would seem to be the very definition of fantasy to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud Morrow and Conjunctions for being open to publishing genre fiction; however, when these issues are few and far between, and are seen as “special events,” they continue to contribute to the stigma that Realism Is Proper Literture, although we can slum it with the non-realist stuff on rare occasions. It’s the equivalent of editing a “Writers of Color Issue” or a “Women’s Issue” or a “GLBT Issue.” Awareness is one thing, but a more productive solution is to integrate those writers and those fictions into the fabric of your publication on a regular basis. In Conjunctions, to take just one example (and I really don’t mean to dump on them as they’re of consistently high quality), genre authors like Elizabeth Hand (who is highly praised by Morrow in this Millions interview (link via The Mumpsimus)) are published there anyway, but this fact is not widely publicized.

These are depressing times. We could all do with a bit more wonder in our lives.


The Woman Who Married a CloudN.B. In case you weren’t aware, Subterranean Press is releasing in June a landmark collection of Carroll’s short fiction, called The Woman Who Married a Cloud: Collected Stories. It will gather all the short fiction previously published in The Panic Hand (which is long out of print), as well as a whole other book’s worth of stories, including his masterful novella The Heidelberg Cylinder. I can safely say that I am more excited about this book than any other being released in 2012.

Note from SubPress: “If the Signed Limited Edition calls to you, please get your order in soon. Only 40 copies remain available for preorder. The trade edition should be available via the regular outlets, but the only way to guarantee a copy of the Limited Edition is to order direct.”

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