Ann Patchett, books, Cross Currents, fantasy, Fiction, george saunders, Karen Russell, literature, magical realism, sci fi novel, sci-fi, Snap Judgment, The New Yorker, This American Life, to the best of our knowledge, ursula k leguin, writing
Because I was the unlucky spouse who drew the short straw, I got up with my son at 7:15 on Sunday morning. While making waffles, I caught most of the PRI/Wisconsin Public Radio show To the Best of our Knowledge. (An aside: this is not always my favorite program. The host’s voice is a little off-putting for me, and there is often a false cheeriness about the whole thing. Lately I prefer Snap Judgment, This American Life, and Cross Currents. But I digress.)
This week, TtBooK had a long segment on the short story. I listened eagerly to the discussion, which featured interviews with master short story writers George Saunders and Karen Russell. Inevitably, the conversation veered toward fantasy and reality, and the way these authors play with the two. When asked whether she agreed with the assessment, by a critic, that her new short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove is “the perfect blend of magic and reality,” Russell responded:
I’m uncomfortable…talking about fantasy and reality as though they’re binaries.
This fascinated me. I recently finished reading my first sci-fi novel (Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed), and have been thinking a lot about fantasy in fiction and the way—in North America, at least—there has always been a clear separation between literary fiction on the one hand and sci-fi/fantasy on the other, the first category the one that’s “serious” and the second the oft-derided genre for “geeks.” Russell’s comment made me wonder whether literary fiction in America is beginning to play with the lines more, whether the current trend in writing is towards a kind of magical realism. Like maybe North American writers will begin to write more like Borges and Garcia Marquez—and less like Updike and Roth.
I don’t say this just because Karen Russell is doing it. Consider the rise in popularity of Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), and The Hunger Games. These series’ huge popular and critical response indicates that readers these days are more interested in stories that push the boundaries of the imagination so far that we don’t recognize the place. But mainstream literary fiction writers are starting to make things unrecognizable, too. My recent fave novel State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, had a very subtle (and wonderful) magical element to it. The New Yorker recently surprised readers with a sci-fi issue. And George Saunders is writing fantastical fiction with important social commentary.
I think this is an exciting time for fantasy, for writers and readers both. I’m even thinking of getting in on the action. As Russell says, why are fantasy and reality binaries? Imagination enters our reality every day. And as our American world becomes more chaotic and crazy, fantasy offers us a nice escape.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries” by George Saunders (The New Yorker, October 15, 2012)
“Black Box” by Jennifer Egan (The New Yorker, June 4, 2012)
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Swamplandia, Karen Russell
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
Top 100 Science Fiction/Fantasy Books (NPR survey, August 11, 2001)
What’s your favorite fantasy story, readers? I’m all ears.