Recently Matt Cheney (and later Miriam Burstein) discussed the kind of narrative exposition pejoratively called the "infodump," in which "an author needs to convey a lot of information and does so by coming out and stating it. Telling vs. showing. Choosing efficiency over subtlety."
To me, Matt's most interesting musing on this point is this:
Does a foregrounding of psychology rather than action in a story reduce the challenges of exposition? If we're deep inside, for instance, Mrs. Dalloway's mind are we less concerned about expository lumps than if we're reading about Mrs. Dalloway's adventures in time and space? It could be that the tangential and associational writing associated with the representation of a mind undercuts the need or desire for straightforward exposition. But probably only if the setting and situation are ones that a general audience can be assumed to have some familiarity with. If Mrs. Dalloway were thinking about buying flowers on the planet Xsgha, where the riuGsj splort the frunktiplut, the need for some sort of exposition would increase. But would it look different as exposition because we're so deep inside Mrs. D's brain than it would were we following her from a more objective viewpoint?
Although Virginia Woolf's version of "psychological realism" needs to be taken as a special case--it's so pure an attempt to stay within the flow of her character's stream of thought--I would argue that most expository passages in modern fiction do in fact take place as part of the "foregrounding of psychology." We may not always be as "deep" into a character's consciousness as we are in Mrs. Dalloway, but in most ordinary "literary fiction" (by which I mean literary fiction that adopts established strategies and techniques as the markers of "craft") we are certainly at the very least being oriented to the world in which the characters move as it is inflected through their awareness of it. If anything, this makes information-laden passages of exposition, however brief, even more conspicuous and artificial: fiction in which external rather than internal realism is the goal surely has a good excuse for resorting to the infodump, since providing information is a large part of its job, but psychological realism, in theory at least, is restricted to the kind of "information" a character him/herself would regard as such. In this context, the infodump seems like the author's intrusion on what has otherwise been set up as the character's "space."
Matt is certainly correct in maintaining that "If Mrs. Dalloway were thinking about buying flowers on the planet Xsgha, where the riuGsj splort the frunktiplut, the need for some sort of exposition would increase." In fact, this very feature of much science fiction has made it difficult for me to enjoy it as much as I'd like, given my admiration for the intelligent commentary on the genre provided by critics such as Matt Cheney. I've found that the problem extends even to what are generally considered the greatest SF writers. Take, for example, this brief passage from Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch:
In the miserably high-number conapt building 492 on the outskirts of Marilyn Monroe, New Jersey, Richard Hnatt ate breakfast indifferently while, with something greater than indifference, he glanced over the morning's homeopape's weather-syndrome readings of the previous day.
The key glacier, Ol' Skintop, had retreated 4.62 Grables during the last twenty-four-hour period. And the temperature, at noon in New York, had exceeded the previous day's by 1.46 Wagners. In addition the humidity, as the oceans evaporated, had increased by 16 Selkirks. So things were hotter and wetter; the great procession of nature clanked on, and toward what? Hnatt pushed the 'pape away, and picked up the mail which had been delivered before dawn. . .it had been some time since mailmen had crept out in daylight hours.
This bit of exposition doesn't necessarily originate from "deep inside" Richard Knatt's mind, but it does arise from his specific consideration of the "homeopape" and the information it conveys--information that is surely intended for the reader's edification as much as Richard's. We need to know that he lives in a world of homeopapes and Grables and Selkirks, and that the oceans are evaporating. And when Richard pushes the 'pape aside and takes up his mail, we are clearly to accept as his own rumination that "it had been some time since mailmen crept out in daylight hours."
Unfortunately, I am unable to read this whole passage, providing such specific details about a wholly nonexistent world, without finding it just a little bit silly. I don't think it's because I can't accept such imaginary worlds per se, as I frequently like SF movies, including some made from Dick novels, perfectly well. There's something about evoking such worlds in prose, burdening that prose with exotic information, that makes reading this kind of SF a chore. Indeed, a passage such as this one more or less defeats me:
Shortly, he was aboard a thermosealed interbuilding commute car, on his way to downtown New York City and P. P. Layouts, the great synthetic-cement building from which Perky Pat and all the units of her miniature world originated. The doll, he reflected, which had conquered man as man at the same time had conquered the planets of the Sol system. Perky Pat, the obsession of the colonists. What a commentary on colonial life. . .what more did one need to know about those unfortunates who, under the selective service laws of the UN, had been kicked off Earth, required to begin new, alien lives on Mars or Venus, or Ganymede or wherever else the UN bureaucrats happened to imagine they could be deposited. . .and after a fashion survive.
Probably even partisans of Philip Dick's work would concede that he is not a particularly notable stylist. From what I can tell, story in a Dick novel is more or less all. I don't necessarily have a problem with that approach (and there are SF novelists--China Mieville, for example--who could be called stylists), but the stories he tells are indeed crammed with "information," and relating this information in such an otherwise unadorned prose style only makes the limitations of this style more evident. Dick's approach also underscores the extent to which even pulp or genre fiction has absorbed the conventions of what I'm calling psychological realism. One might say that Dick attempts to portray an unreal world by realistically depicting his characters' response to living in that world. The "infodump" remains a perhaps unavoidable limitation of such an effort, one that may even call into question the aesthetic integrity of the effort in the first place.
Polyphony 4 makes it clear enough that a spirit of experimentation exists among those writers who have chosen to work within the uber-genre of science fiction/fantasy, much more so, if this anthology is at all representative, than among those who still aspire to the putative respectability of "literary fiction." The latter category encompasses a small subset of writers who are in effect granted a license to call themselves "experimental," but the degree to which these writers are truly willing to reconsider the ultimate purposes and unexamined proprieties of fiction is really quite limited. And while occasionally this or that ostensibly unconventional approach manages to create a modest stir or even for a time to catch on as the latest in literary fashion, my impression after monitoring the wandering course innovative fiction has followed over the past twenty years or so is that only a few experimental writers are able or willing to stick to that course very firmly in the face of both complete commerical irrelevance and a general lack of informed critical attention.
SF/Fantasy of all the genres presumably offers through its fundamental enabling conventions the most explicit alternative to mainstream literary fiction, which, even at its most experimental, mostly aims, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, to capture present circumstances, things as they are, or at least as they can be seen to represent abiding concerns in human existence more generally. Science fiction deliberately foregoes a direct engagement with the world literary fiction confronts more squarely, preferring instead imaginative extrapolations from existing conditions in that world; fantastic fiction ignores the restraints of realism in coming to terms with that world altogether. But the stories in Polyphony 4 don't just exemplify the alternative strategies embodied in their genres. They manifest an obvious effort to question inherited assumptions about storytelling, the basic principles of fiction-making.
And yet my most immediate response to this anthology was disappointment, even boredom. While the ambitions motivating most of these stories are entirely admirable, the realization of these worthy ambitions is not often equal to the potential for "making it new" the anthology itself represents. Too frequently the stories seem to settle for, at worst, an indulgence in superficial whimsy, at best, a cultivation of the bizarre in situation and event that, at least as I read them, can't bear the weight they're asked to bear when left to provide the primary source of dramatic interest. Somtimes, the piling-up of bizarre details and frankly silly conceits simply substitutes for any further attempt to additionally develop the work into something more aesthetically compelling, as in "Ataxia, the Wooden Continent":
ATAXIA: A floating continent, entirely composed of wood. Populated by various races of arboids, celluloids, and laminates. Ruled by the priest cult of the Great Lectern at Shellac-Veneer. This magnifcent city surrounds the sacred lectern's base. The cupolas and minarets of Shellac-Veneer rise from the Plain of Lath, Ataxia's central plateau. The Lectern's high priest administers the Holy Ataxic Empire from the Shrine of the Thrones of Nails. Defended by armies of Drillers under the command of the Walking Barn Roof. . .Major Cities: Shellac-Veneer, Cambium, Silo, and Wharftown. Main rivers: The Timber, the Pellet, and the Tanbark. Chief imports: screws, bolts, and brackets. Chief exports: Shovelers and toothpick hay.
Moreover, the editors have not made it easier to appreciate the worthwhile stories that are included in Polyphony 4 by arranging it so that the most tiresomely whimsical and/or hackneyed stories are the ones at the front of the book (the very best story, in fact, is literally saved until last), thus only increasing the possibility that a casual or curious reader will give up on the anthology and conclude that sf/fantasy may not reward further sampling. By my count, the first really good story doesn't come along until page 169 ("The Storyteller's Story"), althought at least four of the following eight stories ("Memree," "Baby Love," "Hart and Boot," and "Bagging the Peak") are also quite good. Of the remaining 100 pages, readers might disagree about the quality of such stories as "The Journal of Philip Schuyler," and "The Wings of Meister Wilhelm" (historical fantasies of a sort), while "Tales from the City of Seams, and "Three Days in a Border Town" are two of the best stories to be found in Polyphony 4, almost (not quite) redeeming the tedium one must unfortunately endure through the largest part of this anthology.
Perhaps the most significant contributing factor to the general lassitude Polyphony 4 induces is that, with exceptions, the writing itself in most of these stories is really quite lackluster, not at all commensurate with the colorful concepts from which the stories seem to emerge. The very first paragraph of the very first story sets the tone for the mostly flat and stale style of writing one encounters in too many of the stories:
Emelia's home is in a city where only children are allowed to draw graffiti on the crumbling walls. The old bricks and stones are covered in crude pictographs and stick figures, smoking chimney houses and bicycles with four wheels and two seats. Chalk is a penny a piece, any color to be had. A little old lady with gnarled fingers and crooked eyes sells the sticks out of cigar boxes on street corners, even in the rain.
The open-eyed wonderment conveyed by this passage cannot, for me, mitigate the otherwise bland prose and the cloying and cliched effect it produces. Overall, the most lasting impression the writing in many of these stories left with me is the sense that all too often their authors were so enamored of the "idea" being pursued they couldn't really bother with composing satisfying prose to go along with it. In the most extreme cases, I could only conclude that the sensibilty informing the stories was finally more cinematic than literary, more concerned with narrative immediacy than with the opportunity to do something interesting with words, at least where style is concerned.
Nevertheless, if I were to point interested readers to stories in Polyphony 4 that would reward the effort to locate a copy of the anthology, regardless of one's interest in genre, there would be two: Michael Bishop's "Baby Love" and Jeff VanderMeer's "Three Days in a Border Town." I would be hard put to classify the former story as science fiction or fantasy at all: It tells in a more or less straightforwardly realistic but effectively understated way the story of a man who loses his wife in an auto accident and must care for his infant daughter by himself. It is an engaging story that concludes in a quiet but really very emotionally crushing way. "Three Days in a Border Town" is to some extent a fairly familiar tale of the postapocalypse, but its central conceit is executed very effectively (it is thematically integrated in a manner that succeeds in purely literary terms and is not merely clever or fanciful) and the writing is evocative and assured: "When you come out of the desert into the border town, you feel like a wisp of smoke rising into the cloudless sky. You're two eyes and a dry tongue. But you can't burn up; you've already passed through flame on your way to ash. Even the sweat between your breasts is ethereal, otherwordly. Not all the blue in the sky could moisten you." If VanderMeer's story is a good example of what current sf/fantasy is capable of achieving, I would definitely like to read more.
It's good that Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss print at the end of the book an interview with themselves about Interfictions, an "anthology of interstitial writing" they've edited and published through the Interstitial Arts Foundation. Otherwise I, for one, would have finished the book, including its nominal "Introduction," without having much of an idea what either "interfiction" or "interstitial" are supposed to mean.
Heinz Insu Fenkl's intoduction tells us that a book of his was published as a novel, even though it was really a memoir. Later, a publisher wanted to "repackage" the book as a memoir. Presumably, then, the book is neither a novel nor a memoir, but something "in-between," even though Fenkl's account makes it perfectly clear that it is a memoir, its "tropes, its collaging of time and character" notwithstanding. Using what Fenk thinks of as "novelistic" devices not make the book a novel. Not wishing to have it understood as a memoir does not make it other than a memoir.
After this thoroughly confusing initial illustration (confusing in terms of what an "interfiction" might be), Fenkl goes on to tell us in jargon-clogged prose such things as "The liminal state in a rite of passage precedes the final phase, which is reintegration, but an interstitial work does not require reintegration--it already has its own being in a willfully transgressive or noncategorical way"; "Interstitial works have a special relationship with the reader because they have a higher degree of indeterminancy (or one could say a greater range of potentialities) than a typical work"; "Once it manifests itself, regardless of the conditions of its creation, the interstitial work has the potential to create a retroactive historical trajectory"; "An interstitial work provides a wider range of possibilities for the reader's engagement and transformation. It is more faceted than a typical literary work, though it also operates under its own internal logic."
This is all well and good, but I finished Fenkl's essay still wondering what an "interfiction" is. How does it differ from other literary works that also manifest a high degree of "indeterminancy" but no one ever thought to call "interstitial."? (In my opinion, all great works of literature are inderminate in this way. It's what makes them literature in the first place. And Fenkl's invocation of "a retroactive historical trajectory," by which literary works of the past are transformed by new works, seems to me just a restatement of T.S. Eliot's notion that "The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them," which applies to all new works, interstitial or otherwise.) Does it merely have to be "transgressive" of genre boundaries? Where do we mark those boundaries, anyway? And what exactly is a "typical literary work"? I always get the sense that when intense partisans of genre fiction, SF especially, get wound up about "literary fiction" and its discontents, they usually associate such fiction with "realism," against which all genre fiction transgresses in one way or another. But is Finnegans Wake realism? The Unnameable? Catch-22? Infinite Jest? If not, do they also qualify as interstitial or as interfictions? Are or they just not "typical" literary fiction? (In which case the whole notion of "transgression" becomes just a convenient buzz word. It only applies to the most rigidly conventional or the most really boring literary fiction.)
Sherman and Goss clear things up a little bit in their interview. "An interstitial story does not hew closely to any one set of recognizable genre conventions," says Sherman. This makes it sound like an "interfiction" blurs the lines between genres, although from my reading of the stories collected in the book it seems that most of them mostly revolve around a fantasy/science fiction/horror axis that, as an only occasional reader of these genres, I often have trouble seeing as radically opposed forms that need bridging or boundary-smashing. But then Sherman says of one of the stories ("Climbing Redemption Mountain," a kind of cross-breeding of John Bunyan and Erskine Caldwell) that "If I tried to read it as realism, I ran up against the fact that the writer had made up this world out of whole cloth. If I tried to read it as a fantasy, I ran up against the story's lack of recognizable genre markers." This suggests that the real "boundary" the book wants to question is again that between "realism" (literary fiction) and genre fiction with its identifiable "markers."
Reading the book as a collection of stories that are "willfully transgressive in a noncategorical way" did me no good at all. Notwithstanding that most of them were "transgressive," when at all, in rather tepid and formally uninteresting ways, I simply was unable to understand what they shared in common that made them "interfictions." The editors' narrowing of focus to the contest between "realism" and genre fiction did allow me to reexamine the stories in this more concentrated light. (Although not all of them. Apparently some of them are "interstitial" because they portray characters who feel "in-between" or because their authors themselves feel this way, as revealed in the authors's comments appended to each story.) But ultimately I am still puzzled by Sherman's explanation of how it is that interstitial ficion avoids "any one set of recognizable genre conventions." She continues:
An interstitial story does interesting things with narrative and style. An interstitial story takes artistic chances. . .[E]very interstitial story defines itself as unlike any other. . .The best interstitial work. . .demands that you read it on its own terms, but it also gives you the tools to do so.
I am hard-pressed to understand how these characteristics of "interfiction" distinguish it from other, non-genre, "experimental" fiction that also "does interesting things with narrative and style" and "takes artistic chances." Experimental fiction (which ultimately I would have to say is a part of "literary fiction," representing its vanguard in exploring the edges of the literary) precisely "demands that you read it on its own terms" rather than according to pre-established conventions. If interfictions are just versions of experimental fiction, why coin this additional term to describe them? If there is some significant difference between interstitial and experimental fiction, something that has to do with genre, why not be more specific and delineate exactly what that is rather than fall back on the usual language about taking artistic chances, etc.? Or is the purported conflict between realism and genre really meant to blur the fact that plenty of writers, writers who are otherwise thought of as "literary," have already deconstructed this oppositon and created work demanding "you read it on its own terms"?
On the other hand, if the stories in this anthology were to be presented as simply "experimental," without the accompanying claims that they alone challenge the "typical literary work," it's not likely they could stand up to scrutiny. Adrienne Martini's review of the book in the Baltimore City Paper asserts that the first story, Christopher Barzak's "What We Know About the Lost Families of -------- House," "feels wholly unique, as if it is rewriting our expectations about what kind of story it is even as we're reading it," but it's really just a haunted-house variation on Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." The second story, Leslie What's "Post Hoc," about a woman who tries to mail herself to her estranged boyfriend, strikes me as standard-issue surrealism, with perhaps a chick-lit chaser. (I guess this might itself be "interstitial," but it's not very interesting.) "Climbing Redemption Mountain" doesn't really go anywhere with its blending of allegory and rural Gothic except to a mountaintop rendezvous with banality.
Of the rest of the stories, Matthew Cheney's "A Map of the Everywhere" is pleasantly odd and Colin Greenland's "Timothy" has an amusing premise (a woman's cat is transformed into a man) that unfortunately doesn't go anywhere. Most of the rest are forgettable exercises conducted on what seem (to me) familiar science fiction/fantasy terrain. Some of them, such as Anna Tambour's "The Shoe in SHOES' Window" and Catherynne M. Valente's "A Dirge for Prester John" are essentially unreadable, full of pretentious declamations substituting for narrative: "Truly, where chaos reigns, even at night, nonsense and evasion shine where people look for straightforwardness, but where they look for inspiration, something beyond the realm of daily existence, they are then shown only things, and who can feed his soul with that?" Too many of the stories, in fact, are like this, straining after Meaning where some "merely literary" formal and stylistic pleasures would go a long way toward deflating the pomposity.
Karen Jordan Allen's "Alternate Anxieties" is the best story in the book, but it also only highlights the book's overriding weakness. The story's protagonist is a writer attempting to write a book about "mortal anxiety," which also appears to be the defining condition of the writer's own life. The story is presented mostly as a series of notes and brief episodes to be incorporated into the book. In the course of accumulating these notes, the protagonist latches on to the "alternate universe theory," according to which "events may have more than one outcome, with each outcome spinning off its own universe, so that millions of universes are generated each day. . . ." This notion then leads the author-protagonist to further reflection on the events in her own life (are there other universes in which her actions led to different outcomes?) as well as on the capacity of fiction to embody such alternate universes. It's a compelling enough metafiction, but again I can't see what calling it an "interfiction" instead of a metafiction accomplishes. Nor is it that clear why it would even be categorized as science fiction, despite the toying with the theory of alternate universes. It's a pretty good story, and trying to espy its "interstitial" qualities adds nothing to its appeal.
In her review, Martini asserts that "The stories in Interfictions operate. . .by existing in the spaces between what we want our genres to be." Speaking for myself, I don't what my genres to be anything but sources of interesting fiction. When it comes down to it, I don't even want genres, just worthwhile stories and novels. Whether you want to call them "interstitial" or "metafictional" or "postmodern" doesn't really matter much, and I suppose by that principle calling a group of stories "interfictions" isn't finally that objectionable, although in this case it is a needlessly byzantine way of arriving at the conclusion that a good piece of fiction "does interesting things with narrative and style" and, unfortunately, turns out not to be the most efficacious way of finding good fiction.