On genre, influence, and getting weird in fiction.
If you were taking the pulse of American short fiction circa now, you might begin with Lincoln Michel’s Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press, 2015) and Alexandra Kleeman’s Intimations (Harper, 2016). The writers, both graduates of Columbia’s MFA program, create stories that are disorienting and alive, winning praise from Margaret Atwood (in Michel’s case) or drawing comparisons to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon (in Kleeman’s). As one might guess from reading their work, Kleeman and Michel possess voracious appetites for culture; their conversation doubles as a syllabus for The Dozen Great Books You Should Read Right Now.
Alexandra Kleeman So I’m going to describe this as a conversation between two fabulist short story writers. But do you harbor some realist tendencies? Are you interested in realism?
Lincoln Michel I'm not super interested in realism in the traditional sense. I read traditionally realist writers and like some, but I'm much more interested in writing that attempts to shatter your conception of reality and makes you see things in a new way—that rebuilds reality as something different. I do think there’s a way to do that in what might be called realist fiction. For me, the Lish-edited Raymond Carver stories are so spare and violent and surprising that they don't really feel like “reality” in the normal sense. Diane Williams does something similar in her work. I believe she thinks of herself as playing in the real, and she does, but her stories are really weird. You don't need a monster to be weird, you don't need tentacled rats coming out of the walls.
AK Reading Diane Williams is this interesting experience where you call up and expend everything you know about reality in order to try and understand what these reality-based characters are thinking, doing, experiencing. Her work doesn’t make you question reality itself, but it calls into question how well you, personally, understand it.
LM Your own writing takes that kind of warped reality and plays between the border of reality and dreaming. How do you think about this question?
AK I think I still write from a place of intuition instead of actual, useful knowledge about plot structure and how to craft a nice story. It’s a stress-ridden process where I ask myself “What's the right thing to happen next?” and think of ten options and then choose the one that seems ineffably right. And then maybe it's none of them and I have to go back and think of ten more. But there are realist writers who I definitely write from this dark, intuitive place. Joy Williams.
LM I love Joy Williams.
AK She makes people and their motivations seem wild and strange and alien.
LM I totally agree. She is someone I love and think of as a big influence. I also think of her as a big influence in that—this might sound really pretentious—but I feel like most of us, when we started writing and we liked this or that, and we tried to do this or that, but then at some point you have to apply for residencies or fellowships or grants so you can eat more than ramen and pay the electricity bill. And when you do that, you have to have an artist's statement, and you have to come up with some smart way to talk about your writing. It's horrible, but it also forces you to re-conceive your work.
AK I always feel very wary when writing those things. The artist statement is not just a representation of what you are working on, but an intervention in what you are working on. If you start saying, I aim to do this and not to do this, maybe it keeps you from thinking of your perfect aim, which is none of those things.
LM The kind of pretentious way I started talking about my writing in applications was that—and this is also true—there is one set of writers that I really love, who are really formative to me, that have a lot of play in their work and try a lot of structures and crazy ideas who stimulate me on an Apollonian level. I mean in the Nietzschean sense of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I’m thinking Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, Kobo Abe—writers like that were a huge influence.
On the other hand, I was always influenced by more realistic writers who write in this kind of powerful Dionysian way with sentences that pull at your guts. Writers with a minimalist poetic aesthetic like Denis Johnson, especially in Jesus' Son, which I know everyone loves, and Joy Williams, Diane Williams, Barry Hannah. So I would describe my writing as combining those two forces.
AK I feel like that is sort of the zeitgeist of fabulist fiction now.
LM Is combining those two?
AK Yeah, is taking the elsewhereness of a nonrealist world, but trying to build in the emotional connections that haven't always existed in that lineage.
LM Yeah, I think that's true. One of the first interviews I ever did was with Sam Lipsyte. Did you have him as a professor?
LM I was asking him something, probably very awkwardly, and somehow we got on the topic of Harold Bloom and the anxiety of influence. And I think Sam said that was mostly bullshit, but what he did notice was when you start out as a writer, you get really enamored with these authors that become your constellation. Then at some point you notice that there are gaps between these writers, between the stars, and that “finding your voice” is learning how to fill in these gaps. That's how I think about it. I like Barthelme for doing A and B, and I like Denis Johnson for doing C and D, and Flannery O'Connor for doing E and F. How can I do B, C and F all at once?
AK A gap where you can do something that hasn’t quite been done before. Are there any influences that you had when you were young that you reject now? I'm interested in this question of influences, it seems impossible to actually channel someone you admire, even if you try to. So it's always this messier thing, this flawed metabolism, where you take in what you love but can’t recreate it--and also inadvertently take in some things you don’t love, but can’t help having them become part your voice. I never meant to emulate television sitcoms, for example, but I think they’re one of my biggest influences.
LM I've been asked about what I read when I was younger and how that influenced me before. And I realized as I was answering that I was, in part, telling the truth, but I was also very much self-mythologizing. I would situate myself now in this tradition of writers like Franz Kafka, Kobo Abe, and Shirley Jackson, strange writers that kind of blur the borders of literary and genre. When I was young, I remember I really loved the Greek myths and myths from other cultures. And I really loved this one book I had of unsolved mysteries. As a kid I read about the female pope and the Yeti, the Bermuda Triangle and chupacabra. And I always say that Kafka was the biggest influence to me, the first writer that I really felt a kinship to. But I can also see that I am charting it that way because that's the destination I’ve arrived at. If I had ended up writing really traditional realist fiction, I could easily be like well, I always loved reading and I got really into Raymond Carver in High School. You know, I spent a long time reading Richard Ford, Amy Hempel, Rick Bass and other fairly traditional, literary story writers.
I think I lost the thread here. But there are people that would have been really influential to me, or I would think of them as really influential, if things had gone slightly differently in what I publish, but now I don’t think of as influences. Does that make sense?
AK That makes a lot of sense. I enjoy a lot of things that people wouldn’t think I was influenced by. I love Elena Ferrante and George Orwell as much as I love George Saunders and Kobo Abe, but I don’t see a place for myself among Ferrante and Orwell. It’s like being able to understand a language, but not being able to speak it yet.
LM Well, I think “yet” is a great word to use there because either of us could totally do that in a future novel.
AK I like that you are talking about these non-literary influences. Do you remember that illustrated series of weird nonfiction, like The Big Book of Conspiracies and The Big Book of Hoaxes, and stuff like that? They were pretty straightforward accounts of crimes, fakes, freaks, just rendered in comic book style. The Big Book of Conspiracies had masons in it, the Bermuda Triangle, and UFO things. You could consume them incredibly quickly, it was totally satisfying and decadent and because I consumed them so rapidly I think they penetrated deeper. Anything you take in with that kind of appetite has an effect.
How did the MFA shape the stories in Upright Beasts while you were writing them? Which of these stories were brought into an MFA setting and which were outside of it? Is there room for the imagination, for the dreaming mind, in an MFA workshop?
LM I think that you and I went to one of the best programs for writers interested in anything outside of traditional MFA realism. When I was at Columbia, I had Ben Marcus and Sam Lipsyte, and Kelly Link and Victor LaValle taught classes. So we have a lot of both experimental writers and genre-friendly writers. I felt that atmosphere. Most of the writers in my workshops were writing fairly traditional domestic realism, but there were definitely writers doing weird post-modern stuff, and there were writers doing a detective novel or a science fiction novel. I think that in a lot of MFA programs, that gets squashed. But I didn't feel that way at Columbia. When I was an undergrad, when I started writing, I had great teachers and they encouraged me a lot, but the atmosphere of the classes and of the other students, pressured you to write domestic realist stories about people being sad and going to bars and thinking about their grandmothers with cancer and such.
AK So at the time, were you pushing against that, or were you trying to write more traditional stories, for example about people being sad and drinking, and feeling like you weren't embodying yourself in them?
LM I was pushing back against it because I was a smart aleck and was like, I'm doing all this weird, cool stuff that you don't know about! I mean, I wrote more of the realist stuff back then, but the story in my book that has the earliest drafts—there's one story (only one) in there, called “The River Trail,” where the first draft was written when I was a senior in undergrad so literally 10 or 11 years ago. Maybe I shouldn't admit that. It was not as good back then, but it wasn't radically different, like a weird Barthelme/George Saunders-y story. I hadn't read George Saunders at the time, but it was in that vein, so even then I was writing that stuff.
AK I also have a story in Intimations that is a much-adapted version of something I wrote my senior year in college. I feel like it isn't something to be ashamed of. It's the moment when you you’re finding your trajectory. Young work isn’t supposed to be as good as the later work because the writer isn’t fully developed yet, but I had some stamina when I was younger that I think let me chase down some text I wouldn’t have the patience to write now. That, and I felt that there was the chance, when I wrote, that I might figure out some problems. Now I only aim to represent problems, render them.
Are there places you want to go with your writing that wouldn't at all fit into this collection?
LM I feel increasingly genre greedy, like I want to do everything. Like I would like to try to write a book in every genre. Or at least the 6 or 7 genres that really interest me. And some of that would maybe be too much for one book.
AK What is the pull of genre? What appeals to you?
LM Oh man, I have a lot of genre/literary opinions...
AK Are there any genres you disdain?
LM Sure. I do think there is this attitude these days that all genres are the same and they all are equally good or bad. I’m not convinced. I think that there's probably less good writing in the dino-erotica subgenre than there is in the hardboiled noir genre. Maybe that's my bias. I don't know where to start with “genre” or “literary.” I think both the terms genre and literary are used in a lot of contradictory ways, like there are a lot of different definitions for them that even the same people use in a way that makes that whole conversation totally confusing. I think of genres, just personally, as these different artistic traditions or conversations between writers. And if I'm writing in a genre or two different genres, then I'm having a conversation with both sets of writers. I think that's an exciting thing. I think that's the whole point of where the gaps are in the constellations that we were talking about before.
I do think that one thing that I have realized, and I really only realized it through interviews where I was asked to talk about my process—but I've always been someone who thrives on constraint. With Upright Beasts, I have a story that is all in dialogue, and I have another story, which a lot of people didn't realize it was a story—
AK John Adams?
LM I have this story at the back of the book called “A Note on the Type,” which is a fictional story in the shape of a note on the type, but the John Adams one was a definitely a constraint too, where I was asked to write a 500-words-or-less piece about an American President for this anthology. But constraints have been really useful to me, kind of like the Oulipo group, where they were all about constraint-based exercises. When I took writing classes, I had certain teachers who would be like, write a story with only three sentences, and then write a story with this or that. It was always really useful to me. I find genre useful in a similar way. It's a similar set of constraints that you are figuring out how to create something new out of. I have a story called “Dark Air,” where I was trying to write a cosmic horror story that was also trying to be Sam Lipsyte. It was basically Sam Lipsyte meets H.P. Lovecraft. And that was kind of the constraint I was placing on myself. It was similar to the way that I wrote an all-dialogue story. A constraint to work in. Do you think about “genre” in your writing?
AK Robert Coover has always been very influential to me. I feel like he had some of the same ideas about genre. The genre constraints were places to delve into, to inhabit the position of a genre character, but make them explore all the avenues that are usually closed off within the genre. Like have Snow White fuck everybody in sight. Have the cowboy fail to shoot anybody and sort of drift off into wondering about his existential predicament. Maybe it's a reaction to reading realist fiction and feeling like you don't totally identify with any of the people in a given book. Instead, you identify more with characters in situations that aren’t supposed to be realistic, whose challenges mirror existential challenges that mirror your own.
LM I think there are some writers who play in genre, but don't like genre. I am not that way. I grew up reading Calvino and Kafka. But I was also reading Ursula K. Le Guin and Raymond Chandler. I didn't really distinguish between those writers. I thought they were all exciting and interesting. So I don't think genre as un-literary in that way. And maybe no one does anymore.
AK That's not true. There are still genres that are black sheep, that haven’t been turned into literary....
LM That's true. But Ursula K. Le Guin won the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award. Stephen King won it a few years ago. The New Yorker has issues on science fiction and crime fiction. There are still some people who can't accept it. But even the biggest literary institutions are much more open to genre now. The Library of America has editions of Lovecraft and Vonnegut and Raymond Chandler.
AK I feel like vampire fiction is still unappropriable currently, but may not be soon.
LM Yeah, you know. I feel like I can think of some literary genre crossover werewolf and zombie novels and stuff. There is Benjamin Percy's Red Moon and Colson Whitehead's Zone One. I don't know if the vampire one has happened yet. Although Kelly Link has a great vampire story in her new collection.
AK So, with straightforward literary fiction, people know your taste and they recommend books to you that they think will fit your taste; with fabulist fiction, it seems like people recommend to you any fabulist writer. There are no genres or divisions or categories within fabulist fiction. It's just, Oh you dislike the real world, try this person or this person or this person. Are there any fabulist writers who simply did not influence you?
LM Well, certainly. I mean, I don’t like most of them.
AK What stuff do you dislike? Maybe thinking about people who aren't currently living, so that...
LM Well, I'm not really interested in writing I find whimsical or twee. That feels very surface level, like it's not going to haunt you in some way. I don't really want to name people, but I do think, like what you said before, it's very weird that the literary world—the critical literary world—hasn't figured out a better way to talk about the vast ocean of work that exists outside of straight mimetic realism.
AK I remember reading Boris Vian a couple years ago when his books were reissued, Froth on the Daydream and stuff. His books are amazing to read, his worlds are profoundly un-rule-based. The logic is always changing and things happen out of nowhere, with no connection to the law of conservation of mass or anything. A problem might occur, like a character has a fragment of a lily stuck in their body and the only way they can be kept alive is to be placed in a room surrounded by flowers all the time. Then, suddenly, the situation changes, the problem goes away unexpectedly and is replaced by some other plotline you’re supposed to follow. It’s so beautiful, and frustrates me so much as a reader. I think it's weird of me, and hypocritical, to feel this way. I love these worlds that are not realistic, but I still want them to adhere to their own internal logic, I want the logic to remain intact or I don't get the same pleasure.
LM Well, you and I are on the same page there. I like stuff in all styles, but I am most drawn into stuff that's not super rule-based in the way of a lot of high fantasy fiction or world-building science fiction. I'm more attracted to work where the writer is like, “Here is the world: when this happens, this happens;” but it has its own internal dream logic to it. Like Kafka, his stuff is not just random stuff happens with no connections, but it's more of a kind of Freudian or psychological dreamlike logic.
Certain speculative fiction is so obsessed with world building, and clear rules, and making a coherent universe. On a certain level, that makes those kinds of speculative fiction closer to historical fiction than it does to magical realism or Kafka. Something like Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, where odd events happens for poetic effect. One character is followed around by butterflies all the time, but it's not a world where everyone has butterflies following them. Or if a witch curses them, they have butterflies following them. There's some kind of poetic reason for that to happen. That's why I don't like when people just group magical realism in with high fantasy. They have different effects and purposes and ways of working. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other, just that they are different.
AK They have different political valences, different ways in which you’re supposed to read through the literal level to the level of meaning.
LM To me, that's a flaw in the way that fiction is taught. We teach kids in high school or college level that fiction is some one-to-one allegory all the time or there is a specific meaning. Like, “What does this story mean?” Fiction should open up a lot of meanings inside the reader.
AK We teach kids to ask “How did the genius get to this perfect ending in this great book that has a consistent meaning throughout?”
LM Yeah. “What is the message of this novel? What is the moral lesson the author is trying to impart?” Unless you are writing an allegory like Animal Farm or something, I think you want a lot of different meanings. I don't think you get taught that really.
AK Oh, there’s nothing more annoying than a person who thinks they have figured the meaning of a thing out. I've had multiple people explain Mulholland Drive to me, telling me that it’s actually a straightforward story of a girl’s decline, and this feels like such a violence. You literally can’t explain this film without mutilating it.
LM And Lynch is someone who specifically never elucidates on the meaning of his films. He goes out of his way to say he won't do that.
AK I heard two people the other day arguing over The Metamorphosis: one was saying it was clearly a realist story where he doesn't really change into a bug, but thinks he does because he’s insane, and the other was saying it was a metaphor for drug abuse. They were fighting with each other. That's not the best way to read literature.
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of the novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine and the short story collection Intimations, both from Harper. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Tin House, VOGUE, and n+1. She was the 2016 winner of the Bard Fiction Prize.
Lincoln Michel is the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature and the author of Upright Beasts. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, NOON, Tin House, The Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere.