Get Real! Or Maybe Don’t Get Real? A Conversation with Lincoln Michel (Part 2)

Recently, on social media, Gigantic magazine editor Lincoln Michel questioned the label of “realism.” I write “realism,” and I’m branching into other genres, so I introduced myself and asked a few more questions. Our conversation, conducted over e-mail, spanned several days, topics, and now two blog entries for Ploughshares.

Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

Part 1 can be found here. In Part 2, we discuss “realism” in writing workshops, shifts in the literary market, and how we both approach writing “non-realism.”

Publicicity image of Lincoln Michel. Rebecca Meacham: Earlier in our conversation, we discussed writers who work in more than one genre. There seems to be a move in the last decade toward genre-infused work in the mainstream—and that’s welcome news.

Back in 2003 when I was shopping my first book, I was encouraged to make the stories alike to “unify” the collection. Do you think versatility—in genre, form, voice, theme—is welcomed nowadays? Established writers make genre leaps: Isabel Allende just published a murder mystery, for example. Even debut writers, like Jamie Quatro, are garnering praise for their range.

Lincoln Michel: I do think it’s more accepted—hell, almost expected—for literary writers to dip into genre these days. Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie book, Sherman Alexie wrote a YA book, Cormac McCarthy wrote a post-apocalyptic book, and so on. (I myself am finishing up an anthology of science flash fiction, coedited with Nadxieli Nieto, that got a tremendous response from literary writers and readers when we had a Kickstarter.)

At the same time, those books I mentioned tend to use a fairly established genre or subgenre where audiences are familiar with the topes and conventions. Obviously those authors, being great, subvert and complicate those conventions in interesting ways.

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Don’t Go See World War Z!

WorldWarZ_200-s6-c30Hollywood’s latest apocalyptic zombie romp, World War Z, could have been great. If it followed the lead that the book set out, it could have portrayed a nuanced view of life ten years after the world was overrun by zombies. When the book was turned into a movie, however, it lost the breadth of human experience that made it a story worth telling.

In the book, the zombie pandemic—or “World War Z”—completely transforms both human society and the natural environment. Most nation-states collapse and leave fragmented armies as their only remnant; the skies become clogged with ash; children (dead and undead) are eaten.Continue Reading

Chainmail Bikinis and Other Sexism in Science Fiction and Literature

Planetstories

Winter 1939 issue of “Planet Stories”

If you’ve seen older issues of popular science fiction magazines—think from the 1930s to the 1960s—you’ve seen cover art of half-naked women being abducted by aliens or saved by a ‘handsome’ white dude in a spacesuit. (If you’re lucky, maybe you’ve even seen a cover with both at the same time!) Done up in garish oranges and yellows, the paper covers were a staple of dime-store adventure novels as well as sci-fi magazines that published stories by writers who are now well-known: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, to name a few.

In these science fiction and fantasy stories, as you might expect, women were rarely protagonists; more rarely still were women authors of such stories. And while much science and speculative fiction nowadays is written by women and features strong female characters, nerdrage is still occasionally directed at women as poseurs in fantasy and scifi communities, and sexist novel covers still sometimes depict women posing suggestively.

Chainmail Bikinis

Recently, the cover of Issue #200 of the bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) featured such an image: art of a woman wearing a chainmail bikini. (The SFWA is the pre-eminent organization for professional writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction—think the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) of sci-fi). While the president of SFWA, John Scalzi, has officially apologized for the bulletin’s content, it has scarcely quelled the controversy, nor failed to invite serious criticism. The sexist cover art sparked vibrant and lengthy debate in the larger sci-fi community, on SFWA forums, and on blogs and Twitter—particularly because an attempt to process the snafu incited demeaning commentary within the next few issues of the bulletin.Continue Reading

The Myth of the Literary Cowboy, Part 6: Save a Horse, Write a (Space) Cowboy

space-cowboys-movie-title

Over the past few months, the Myth of the Literary Cowboy has explored how and why Willie was spot on when he observed that our “heroes have always been cowboys.” White hats, singers, anti-hero gunslingers, poets, pop music subjects—the role of the cowboy is part of the collective American pop culture conscience. What is left for the cowboy to conquer?

Anything he wants.

Part of the beauty of the cowboy character is the possibilities for rebirth and interpretation in the hands of the right creator. Annie Proulx took the cowboy through the realm of taboo love in “Brokeback Mountain.” Clint Eastwood, the last living American cowboy star, dissected the limits of masculinity, forgiveness, and redemption when he revisted the classic Western in Unforgiven. And Joss Whedon invited the cowboy to the final frontier in his space Western cult-series, Firefly. In fact, Whedon’s beloved series features a new form of cowboy that has shown up in various mediums for years: the Space Cowboy.Continue Reading

Episodia 1.7: Lost Novels and Love Triangles

Photo by Dave Nakayama

Photo by Dave Nakayama

Lately I’ve been thinking about beginnings, endings, and that terribly murky time between a writer completing one project and starting another. After recently finishing a memoir, I’ve been itching to write a novel. I have a strong start to a new one—it’s always thrilling to be at the beginning of something, when all you see are possibilities instead of flaws—but there’s just one problem.

There’s this other novel I wrote five years ago, lying dormant in my computer files, taking up space in my writer’s psyche. It’s finished; I revised it steadily over a period of three years. But however “complete” it might be, the sad thing is systemically flawed. The plot is static, the themes are too forced, the melodrama too ever-present. So what to do?

My puritanical pride demands that I fix my drawer novel, dammit. Surely if I re-read it, re-think it, and re-work it, I’ll be able to turn it into the book I always dreamed it would be. Right? But as was written in the holy scrolls from “Battlestar Galactica”—which I watched obsessively during the hand-off time between my two projects—All this has happened before, and all this will happen again. No less than three times, I have taken this novel out, dusted it off, and gave revision the old college try. All three times, I arrived at the same end—and with a few nods to BSG and its eponymous spaceship, I’d like to share with you the process I went through to determine that my novel is better left in the drawer.

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Ambiguity: The Boundary Between Psychosis and Reality in Science Fiction

Print

Philip K. Dick.
by Pete Welsch 
CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Television culture means that we often lack the depth to deal with ambiguity. The complexity of novels eludes our attention; we often prefer the truncated and clear narratives of sitcoms, where a plot line is fully resolved in forty-three minutes. The beauty of ambiguity, and of the blurred line between reality and divergent reality, is underrated.

Consider alternative mental states, including states of mental illness, which can often feel like occupying another universe. Functional people glide by on their electric Segways outside the space pod of your apartment. Meanwhile, you exist in another space: the world of couch and ennui, late-night TV, and mustering the courage to get out of bed. Your mind constructs this other space, which intersects with reality only at tangents. This construction mimics the world created in science fiction: an alternate universe only in your own mind.

Within one’s own mind—and within a character’s mind—only a psychologist or a reader (read: impartial third party) can determine where the boundary between reality and fiction “really lies”. But the true location of the boundary between mental illness and reality in science fiction is an unknown quantity, an ambiguity. What is real and what is, in fact, imagined?

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Going On: After the Apocalypse

800px-Grimsvötn_ash_cloudDo you have a plan in place for what to do after an apocalypse? Survivalists do. Survivalists, mainstream North American culture thinks, are a little weird. They prepare for severe disruptions in the order of everyday life, for carrying on when these disruptions obliterate the conveniences of our extensive infrastructure. With their ‘bug-out bags’, they can leave town at a moment’s notice, carrying everything they need for basic survival. Their bags usually include water, clothing, easy-to-prepare food, weapons, and something for shelter, all based upon location and family type. The purpose of bug-out bags is eponymous: to ‘get the hell out of Dodge.’

Some survivalists use bug-out bags as a just-in-case item, like storing extra water in case of a power outage. Yet others (I would say most) keep their plans up-to-date and supplies fresh because they believe there is a high probability that a major, long-term disruption in society will occur in the not-so-distant future. But do survivalists really have a handle on what drives one to survive? Characters in post-apocalyptic fiction go on after the end. In fact, a character from post-apocalyptic fiction would probably survive longer than your average gun-toting survivalist—and here’s why.

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What Do Taylor Swift and Faulkner Have in Common?

Amos Heller. Stadium-ing.Um, the answer is this guy.
Hey Writing World, meet Amos Heller: The much-loved, many-fanned bass player for Taylor Swift.
(And, ahem, for Ellery.)

I’m introducing you to him because—(#truth)—Amos’ literary prowess would put many of us to shame.
When I first I got to know Amos, he was always making reference to some great book or author of which I was maddeningly unaware. At some point, I had to admit to myself that I—the writer in the room—had read much less than my bass player. Dammit.

But let’s be real for a second: Which of us would see this guy with Taylor on the Grammys and think, “I bet he knows his classics”? Or, “I wonder what he has to say about science fiction and culture?” Sadly, very few. And we’d be missing out. 

So I interviewed Amos to begin a new series called “Hey Guys. Other People Read Too”—in which we’ll open the musty closet of the Literary Subculture and let some brilliant minds in.

Everyone I’m interviewing is a wildly successful artist in his/her field, with an enormous following… And each is a voracious reader. By listening to some of these Lovers of Words, maybe we’ll begin to imagine new ways of connecting, of interacting, of being writers in the Wider World…

“Hey Guys, Amos Reads Too”—the interview

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Drones & Dystopia: Can Life Overlap with Literature?

big-brotherLife is sometimes so surreal that you feel as though you’re in a story; as though the anecdote you’ve just related over drinks has an air of falsity about it, simply because it seems too strange to be true. You have to insist to your friends that it actually happened, that life can really be like that. Whether serendipity or zemblanity, odd occurrences can transport us into circumstances we’d never have imagined.

Literature acts as a marker for these situations, these realities that I’m not aware of until I inhabit them. While sometimes a strange juxtaposition of events highlights the experiential truth behind stories—hiding from an old classmate in a coat closet of a high-end Manhattan restaurant reminds me of the description of C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe interior, for example*—more often I measure real events against stories. This measurement happens because I know the story. I know how it ends.

Life and literature can, and do, overlap, even in stories that seem far removed from current realities. Take dystopias, for example: do they help us recognize untoward elements in our own societies? Or does attending to them in the context of technological developments merely fuel paranoia?

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Crowdsourcing the Canon: Literary Merit in Science Fiction

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Imagine the carefully catalogued books available in your favorite library. The rows on rows and stacks on stacks, categorized with little regard for how they participate in the literary canon. There is, in libraries, a certain egalitarianism about book order. A follows B. Yet when the cover is opened, the number of cancelled due dates are immediately telling: you know about the popularity of that book, how often it is removed from the shelf. You get a sense for its circulation-worthiness, and how fleeting or lasting that moment of worthiness is or was.

The formation of the canon has been integral to the development of literary trajectories and to the way books inhabit one another. Canon formation was more straightforward when there were fewer books published, when (usually) only wealthy, racially privileged individuals could publish and see their books reach wide dissemination. Google claimed in 2010 there were 129,864,880 books in the world, a number of which some were suspicious. Yet regardless of the precise number, more books exist now than anyone could hope to read in an individual lifetime. With so many books available to us, how do we find the signal among the noise? How can we best rejoice in a new, more horizontal, mode of open canon formation?

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