I wasn’t technically on assignment at AWP ’16, the 15,000-strong literary conference of writers and writing programs that Los Angeles hosted last weekend. So, I didn’t technically “take notes,” and maybe in lieu of certain speculative-fiction panels I drank what were technically margaritas.
And there were speculative fiction panels, gratifyingly: on eco-fabulism, on Octavia Butler, on genre ressentiment and hybrid forms. There was a terrific reading and discussion by Emily St.-John Mandel, the great Kelly Link, and the sublime Ruth Ozeki, with due recitation of their frustration with rigid genre classifications and delight at finding readers or critics so receptive to a fresh breach of those boundaries.
What impressed me the most over the conference’s three-day course, drumming through its rhythm of coffee, whisky, and readings, was the fearless presence of writers of color, queer writers, and women in the heart of Updike territory: Rabih Alameddine decrying the apolitical pretensions of literary fiction, Claudia Rankine delivering a scathing read of MFA programs’ structural racism, Garth Greenwell urging an unapologetic queer literature. These writers and many others articulated a literature released—dare I say ‘unbound’—from white male neuroses, from able-bodied flâneurs experiencing New York, from wry, elegiac stories of cis-hetero love.
Genre fiction too can have this disruptive or “queering” effect—a way of knocking literature off its center, of forcing deviation if not outright deviance. Genre-bending is one of the reasons why Alexander Chee’s best-selling The Queen of the Night feels powerfully queer, despite no notable LGBT characters, in its raunchy, vital, and full-throated plottiness and camp, its indifference to the meditative and male literary novel. Genre fiction, and especially speculative fiction, by its nature asserts that the sleepy interiority of modern literary fiction is incomplete.
Not that there’s anything so inherently bad or unworthy about those stories; but as Alameddine pointed out in the “Politics and Literary Fiction” panel, what we choose to depict in our writing is itself a political act. John Updike’s Rabbit, Run makes an implicit case for what is worthy of literary attention. So does Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell, which Updike infamously panned for its ornate, detailed depictions of gay sex: “Boredom swoops in without heterosexual clutter to obstruct its advent”—criminy—“nothing is at stake but self-gratification.” Because God knows self-gratification never moved a plot forward.
A writing teacher in the audience asked Alameddine how to euphemize the “political novel,” “the novel of social concern,” so as not to undermine that texture of ambivalence and subtlety that is so crucial to fiction; and Alameddine nearly lost it. Prizing ambivalence and subtlety is a choice—in many ways a Cold War choice—one that privileges certain stories and shies from others, one that fits a novel of suburban malaise but not necessarily one of genocide.
Claudia Rankine gave a fascinating example of such choice in her keynote speech. She read a lovely, wry, subtle poem by Joshua Weiner about a childhood summer day; then she read us Weiner’s revision, after he realized how the poem erased a painful estrangement he’d had from a black friend at that very time, due to the racial tensions of 1970s school busing. Weiner’s revision was astonishing: its reinserted black presence had power to knock the poem’s speaker out of his reverie and make room for a reality far from his molting dogwoods and screen doors clapping in the wind.
Speculative fiction too has this potential to radically make room for unheard voices. Horror, with its sexually fraught anxieties, is especially attuned to queer desire—think of Dracula’s sexually charged pursuits of Mina and Jonathan Harker or, more recently, the catalytic gayness of The Hunger's Miriam Blaylock or Buffy's Vampire Willow. Or think of how Ursula Le Guin or hell, Star Trek used sci-fi aliens to explore gender outside of the male/female binary. On an AWP panel on writing queer identity, Lauren Espinoza talked about queer authors of color who felt they had to invent whole alternate worlds to introduce characters that reflected their experiences. Some identities, in some contexts, are so radical that reality itself has to warp to truly accommodate them.
So this is one of chief virtues of speculative fiction: queering the world, a way to re-center the universe to welcome an eccentric truth. However often that potential is spent on terraforming politics and magic college, it can also be spent in reinstating the disenfranchised.
Which brings me back to Rankine, and black presences in literature. As was pointed out this Oscar season and last, the “prestige” depictions of blackness too frequently focus on the help, the slave, and the addict. Without conflating discourses, there is an analogy in which imagining black centrality and even victory is so disruptive, suddenly speculative fiction offers an opportunity to queer the world. Science fiction can give writers the imaginative velocity to escape the hold of insistent racial tragedy—from Afrofuturism in literature, music, and visual arts; to Wakanda, the technologically sophisticated African civilization of Marvel’s “Black Panther” comics; to Octavia Butler’s fiction, which positions black women as leaders of new and better societies. To make space for black achievement and transcendence, speculative fiction lets us change all the rules that should never have been rules in the first place.
What we choose to depict, what we choose to imagine is a profoundly political act—and genre gives us the room to imagine different, bigger.