While paging through the literary magazines at Barnes & Noble, I stumbled upon Karen Russell’s new short story “Reeling for the Empire” in the latest issue of Tin House. The story concerns a group of women who are taken from their families, transformed into human-silkworm hybrids, and forced to spin silk to support Japan’s new industrial economy.
Certainly, such a story isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of “literary fiction,” and I was a little shocked to find it in one of the country’s premier literary magazines. It was a pleasant surprise, though, because “Reeling for the Empire” demonstrates something that I often find lacking in contemporary fiction: imagination.
Literary fiction emphasizes character, style, and the thematic exploration of the human condition — all important qualities for a story to have. In today’s literary scene, however, these concerns have to some degree crowded out another essential part of storytelling: the power of the human imagination. Supernatural or science fiction elements are often regarded with suspicion in literary fiction and viewed as tropes of intellectually inferior genre fiction. This is why I find the publication of Russell’s story so fascinating.
Granted, Russell’s name comes with credentials. In 2010, she appeared on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list of promising young writers, and her debut novel Swamplandia! was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel follows the Bigtree tribe, a family of alligator wrestlers who run an eponymous amusement park in the swamps of southern Florida. Absurdities and supernatural forces from ghosts to avian Pied Pipers abound in Swamplandia!, and it’s definitely not your average Pulitzer fare.
Karen Russell is by no means the only contemporary literary fiction writer to transcend the bonds of reality in her work — George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, and T.C. Boyle immediately spring to mind as some current examples. But literary critics are always quick to label this kind of fiction as magical realism, surrealism, or — most adventurously — gothic. It seems in order to justify this bending of the rules of nature, the right terminology is required, lest anyone be accused of writing horror, fantasy, or sci-fi — intellectually inferior “genre fiction.”
But what of the writers whose fiction is labeled as such? Take Stephen King. Shunned by the American literati for his pop culture appeal and genre sensibilities (in a 2003 editorial for The Boston Globe, literary critic Howard Bloom disparaged him as a “a writer of penny dreadfuls”), King’s best work exhibits surprising depth. His 1986 novel It, for instance, tells the story of a shape-shifting monster, while providing chilling insight into the darker dynamics of small town life. Furthermore, the book has an innovative nonlinear narrative structure, even comparable to the works of acclaimed postmodernists like Don DeLillo.
The aversion toward genre in today’s literary scene is understandable. Good literary fiction encourages us to look inward, to consider the larger concerns of society, humanity, and the world, as well as our own existence; genre fiction functions mainly as escapist entertainment. The logic here, therefore, is that adding genre elements to literary fiction distracts from the essential human element of a story.
Given that fiction at its core is the art of making up stories, it is ironic that the modern literary scene is plagued with a fear of the human imagination. Human beings have a boundless capacity to create, and seeing this ability explored to its fullest has always struck me as one of the most satisfying things about reading a good piece of fiction.
Obviously, speculative fiction isn’t a path every writer should take, but those who tend toward the weird or supernatural in their work — so long as they write well, of course — should be praised without hesitation or elitist labeling in the literary community. Yes, suburban family dynamics can make for meaningful novels, but setting this kind of realism as the gold standard of fiction is dangerously dehumanizing.