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Why I Love and Hate the Interstitial Arts Society and Everything It Stands For

April 8th, 2007

I’ve had a funny relationship with the Interfictions anthology. I mean, I’m in it. I’ve been writing its name on my cover letters since last fall, like I’m proud of it. I am proud of it. My first pro sale. It has probably shaped my perceptions of myself and the industry more than any other sale I’ve had or ever will have.

But I’ve also been in a position–as occasional fly-on-wall at Small Beer Press–to sit objectively by and watch the Interfictions Anthology go through the iterations leading to its release (which happens April 30th). I saw the stories they bought and knew the list of authors ages ago. I talked with Delia Sherman, one of the editors, about the breadth of submissions they’d received, and the hard time they had paring down to only 19. I saw the cover art when they picked it.

[A diorama of painted and wallpapered wood, nine compartments arranged in a 3x3 square to make the shape of a paned window, each pane depicting a different scene]

My first reaction to the art was not a positive one. Before anything else, and over everything else, I saw the frame. Nine little walled-in compartments. None of them with doors. What kind of bridging of the gaps was that? A window-shaped thing, made out of windowless, inescapable boxes. And that shadowy shape behind the curtains in the center room? It’s a camera–lens aimed right at our eye.

The whole thing seems perfectly–maybe even intentionally–tailored to call attention to the thing that is my biggest problem with the whole Interstitial Arts movement: hypocrisy.

From the IAF mission statement:

What is Interstitial Art? It is art made in the interstices between genres and categories. It is art that flourishes in the borderlands between different disciplines, mediums, and cultures. It is art that crosses borders, made by artists who refuse to be constrained by category labels.

They want to encourage art that defies definition. Awesome. Noble cause. But the first thing they do to achieve that is bring in a truckload of concrete pilings and cordon off a new term with a new definition. How the divil does one transcend barriers by throwing barriers up?

Say I write a story that just barely borders on fantasy, because I want to, because that’s where I find all the really interesting stuff happening in my head. Because I figure hell, if I can’t sell it to the intellectuals, there’s always the geeks. But no! Such is not to be. Along comes big ole grumpy ogre Slipstream, and he says “No! You get over here. You don’t belong with them academic elites! And you’re not going to be hanging around with no popular fiction neither, not if I gets any say.” But oh, ole Slipstream better look out, ’cause what’s that silhouette I see on the horizon? It’s Interstitiality! Run? Run for your lives!

And who knows what even more titanic blanket term is on its way? Doesn’t it all just feel like a big meaningless mess of pseudointellectual, egomaniacal, obfuscated, genre-crashing one-upmanship? I feel like I’m caught in some revisionist mockery of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. All this, just to keep me from crossing a bridge!

Since first looking at the cover art, however, I have had the opportunity both to mull a bit and to actually read some of the fictions which our editors have selected as their chosen banner-bearers for the interstitial. And one interesting and unifying thing about the selection is that many of them do seem to be just that–banner-bearers, space-shapers, writings that are both self-aware and aware of the borders they create, cross, break and recross in the course of their execution. Plus, I read the editors’ afterword, and Heinz Insu Fenkl’s foreword.

And now I look at the art again, and it isn’t the walls between the frames that strike me, but a sense of the artist’s awareness of those frames, and her desire to make me aware of them.

Look at the anthology from the editor’s point of view. Given the intrinsic hypocrisy of the term they are trying to define, the avowed disdain for definitions of the society they represent, their task seems practically impossible: to pick out a heap of stories that represent not only the meaning of interstitiality but its ideals, to choose them in such a way that they will be readable and entertaining enough to allow Interfictions to compete with its now-venerable predecessor, Polyphony. Considering the thing from that perspective, what they’ve done actually begins to seem pretty clever. I’m not finished reading yet, but it looks as though at least a plurality of these stories will turn out to be works that actually address themselves to the question: what is interstitiality, what does it mean to exist between cracks and in gaps? However ineffectual the Interstitial Arts Society has been at sketching a purpose and an excuse for its own existence, no matter how many labyrinthine straw walls the jacket blurb and promo material for this anthology manage to set up and blow down in the course of building their brick courtyard in the middle, in the end it’s going to be the stories they enclose that determine their success. What they’ve done is pick stories capable of poking holes even through brick–stories that poke fun at the whole Interstitial conceit even as they exemplify it. Whether the authors meant these stories to be part of some grand and complicated definition of “interstitial” (I know I didn’t), the editors, in the grand, flawed tradition of postmodern criticism, have made them part of it.

I read over the last few sentences I’ve written and get a rather sickly-sweet, gushy feeling. Which wasn’t my intention–I’m not at all ecstatic about this whole interstitiality thing, and I am even less interested in letting my writing get walled into their silly category than Ms. Goss and Ms. Sherman and their Society claim to be.

But this experience has been, as much as anything else, a lesson in not reading books by their covers. So in hopes of impressing that same lesson on the rest of you, I think the best way of conveying the evolution of my opinion about this is to go through and show you my reactions, Saunsaucie-style, as I attempt to judge this book by its contents. In other words, over the twenty-one days remaining until the official release of Interfictions, I’m going to try to review one story a day.

Starting tomorrow.

   Interfictions, Magic Realism, Reading, Writings | 5 Comments »



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5 Comments »

  • Wow, I have a style! 🙂 I feel special…

    Interesting discourse, by the way. I was starting to spaz out over your criticism, and then I saw where you were going with it. Very interesting. I’m very much looking forward to this anthology, and I can’t wait to pimp it when it comes out! 🙂

    That said, I wish I had something up my sleeve for the next time they call for submissions. Maybe reading these stories will inspire that sleepy muse? 🙂

    • mjd says:

      What made you spaz out, exactly? My heavy-handed rhetoric? My hyperbolic wobbling between grumpiness and gratitude?

      I mean, I guess I don’t mind too much if *you* spaz out… 😉 I just want to be careful that if Dora or Delia ever find their way over here I don’t make them mad. I mean, I appreciate what they’ve done. I’m bowled over by it. Astounded. That’s why the word ‘love’ is in the title. All I want is to make sure there are some checks and balances to this whole interstitial thing, in the form of a healthy debate. Keep people honest. Keep them earnest.

      Incidentally, I came across this lively discussion, which approaches the subject of the cover art from a more artistic perspective.

  • MaggieDR says:

    Very well-written essay and educational to an old curmudgeoness like me. I’m looking forward to your story reviews.

  • Mostly, I was worried what Dora or Delia would say if they did happen upon this entry, cause at first, I was worried you sounded too critical. By the end, though, I understood and got where you were coming from, so it’s all good. 🙂

    And I’m with Maggie: I’m looking forward to your reviews! 🙂

  • Jeff Howell says:

    Interesting stuff, thanks for posting your thoughts on all that. I look forward to purchasing the Interfictions Anthology. Congrats on the publication success.

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