The New Fabulists

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Does even the idea of reading one of those contemporary, New Yorker-ish short stories about yet another middle-aged couple with a wounded relationship make your eyes close and your snoring begin? Well what if a UFO suddenly landed in the pristinely-landscaped front yard of that middle-aged couple’s suburban New Jersey house? Or if a ghost suddenly turned up and impregnated the mild-mannered wife while the husband, unaware, kept right on sleeping? Or perhaps this family struggles through their marriage in a post-apocalyptic world where their slightly charred Colonial two- story is the only one left standing on their tree-lined block?

If reading genre gets you to stop snoring, but if (as a respectable literary type) you’ve always kept your hankering for aliens and zombies closeted, then maybe the new wave of “Fabulist” fiction is for you. The term comes from Bradford Morrow, novelist and editor of the literary journal “Conjunctions,” which has published stories by Robert Coover, William Gass, and Ben Marcus. “Fabulist Fiction” is a nod to the New-Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 1970s, where experimentalism in writing sought to create a new literary landscape. As Morrow puts it, “A new wave fabulist is a writer who has transcended the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, lifting the traditional genre form into a new literary realm. Any effort to narrow down the category much further than that would be like trying to nail a raindrop to the wall.”

As a fan of George Saunders, Angela Carter, Aimee Bender, Cormac McCarthy, and many other writers who have been blurring the line between literary fiction and genre fiction for many years now, I don’t quite know what makes this new “wave” different from the old wave (maybe the snazzy label?). Still, I’m thrilled to see all of the new anthologies coming out. Currently I’m reading McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon, and then I’ll probably move on to Kelly Link’s collection Magic For Beginners. There is also, apparently, an anthology of Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root) and a Jewish mid rash collection (On Moonflowers and Magic).

Like many writing instructors, I’ve always steered my students away from genre fiction because each genre requires its own set of rules and methodologies.  But inspired by this new enthusiasm for genre-bending literary writing,  I have recently begun to allow genre stories in workshop because (I have finally realized) the rules seem to be the same for a fabulist short story as for a good ole, New Yorker-ish, taditional literary short story. Give me  precise prose, an interesting main character, and a compelling plot.  I don’t care what you call it.

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on October 8th, 2009 |1 Comment »

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  1. On October 29, 2009 at 11:47 am Wendy Faris Said:

    Thanks for this, Laura. As everyone knows, I’m delighted when something akin to magical realism gets a vote. So I’m printing this right out for my “magical realism today” file! I venture to suspect that these “new fabulists” have taken some inspiration from what may now seem to some like the “old” (and yet also contemporary) ones like Grass, Garcia Marquez, Cortazar, Fuentes, Morrison, Allende, Rushdie, Castillo, and many others (many of whom don’t like being called magical realists by hegemonic critics writing books about them . . . .
    Intriguing that our recent speaker, Ramon Saldivar, sems to be working on a Latino/a version of this new fabulism, which he is calling (though he didn’t actually put this title out there in his very interesting talk)”historical fantasy”–I think I remember that right. Difficult to distinguish from magical realism but from what I could tell, it contains even more metafiction, even more fantasy, even more history. Which I guess also probably means even less realism. Pace Laura, but occasionally something like that occasionally (but I agree, only VERY occasionally) makes its way into the stodgy old pages of The New Yorker, which I still cling to as a pretty good source of all sorts of things.
    Wendy Faris.

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