Carrie recently pointed to this Meghan O’Rourke essay. O’Rourke suggested that Munro’s purported realism “is more of O. Henry in Munro than her admirers tend to admit.” Taken together with Lev Grossman’s recent suggestion that Michael Chabon’s editorial duties for his latest McSweeney’s “thrilling tale” compilation are “the promiscuous atmosphere of one of those speakeasies where socialites slum with gangsters in an effort to mutually increase everybody’s street cred,” it seems to me that the fight for fantastic fiction’s respectability is far from over. In fact, it’s extended across some interesting fault lines.
A genre writer is considered declasse, but in these days when postmodernism is considered dead as bright young things are busting their humps trying to find a playful yet acceptable substitute, a literary hybrid is apparently much worse. O’Rourke goes on to suggest that Munro has manipulated her readers because, heavens to Betsy, in O’Rourke’s judgment, the timing is off when she has two characters fail to meet. O’Rourke implies that this is a willful act of cruelty on Munro’s part and that, as such, the story she cites is built “of the tinder of contrivance.”
But what is contrivance exactly? Is it missed opportunities? Is it a character failing to meet some pivotal individual at the right time? Isn’t fiction supposed to be about the emotional impetus of its characters, as guided by language and reasonable plotting? Setting aside the odious example of Dickens’ Little Nell, it’s interesting that O’Rourke is vague about why “cruelty” is such a bad thing in fiction. If O’Rourke’s point here hangs upon whether Alice Munro is a firm Chekhovian realist or not or whether her fiction is “a bag of tricks,” then I’ve got news for her. Fiction has always involved machinations. But why should genre or style matter if emotional verisimilitude is firmly in place?
In fact, if we consider a number of Golden Age science fiction short stories, I would argue that what we remember is not the machinations, but the human impulse that bristles from the tales. Alfred Bester’s “Hobson’s Choice” is remembered not for the apocalyptic setup, but for its chilly ending about alienation and displacement. Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” is remembered for a safari tourist stepping upon a butterfly and the stunning consequences. Harlan Ellison’s “Jefty is Five” is remembered for its depiction of youth and mortality, not the gimmick of a boy perpetually aged five.
I suppose the O. Henry comparison vexed me because I’ve been rereading Richard Matheson’s stories of late. Matheson, who I’ve often referred to as “the Ray Bradbury everyone always forgets about,” was one of a handful of speculative fiction storytellers who inspired me as a very young reader. What I’ve found years later is that, much like the examples cited above, the genre conventions ultimately didn’t matter. Sure, the stories are fantastic in structure, often carried out through vaguely described future worlds. Even the science is considerably loopy at times. But that isn’t the issue. Because Matheson’s characters are ensnared by jobs, families, their own paranoia, or their own inability to take control. And each Matheson tale involves a character trying to escape, whether it’s Mann from “Duel” or the frequently used Professor Wade. It’s the human impulse that commands our interest. If, however, the human impulse isn’t believable (say, for example, Tom Wolfe’s wholly implausible depiction of college life in I Am Charlotte Simmons), then this behavioral discrepancy will mow down a story more fatally than a Panzer tank.
If genre fiction offers a more fantastic approach to get at the human condition and we can accept it, why then should Munro or Chabon be penalized because their tales fall outside the box? Why is literary fusion considered a dirty concept in the 21st century? If fiction exists to make us feel, then, if a story does the job keeping us from seeing the lie, has not the task been fulfilled?
(Okay. Enough. Hiatus! Hiatus!)