Dispatches | February 18, 2011

Many, maybe even most, of my favorite works of fiction are ones that slide between genres, making them hard to categorize. Kevin Brockmeier’s wonderful new novel The Illumination is, depending on your definition, a fable, or a work of magic realism, or a fantasy novel, or a science-fiction novel, or, perhaps, a literary novel with a speculative conceit. In other words, to pin it down with a genre distinction feels both undoable and irrelevant.

A number of writers today are working in this “sort-of-fantastical” turf. The most recent editions of Best American Short Stories all feature stories that contain elements of the magical–from Percival Everett’s story “The Fix,” in which a soft-spoken man can, and must, fix everything, to Greg Hrbek’s story “Sagittarius,” which features a young centaur boy, to Karen Russell’s story–one of my true favorites of the past several years–“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” in which the title pretty much tells you the deal.

Of course we think about Borges or Salman Rushdie or Donald Barthelme or Gabriel Garcia Marquez as influences, but I think that Stephen King should also be given some real credit. So many of us grew up reading his novels. Even if we never became lifelong horror fans, we read Carrie and The Shining and The Dead Zone. It’s worth noting, too, that despite writing dozens (millions?) of genre novels, King won’t hesitate to write straight-up realism if that’s what the story calls for. George Saunders, too, for all his otherwordly absurdism, writes realism with real beauty when that’s what the story demands. These writers never seem bound by genre conventions and are more compelling writers because of it.

A supposed truism in publishing is that for a book to get published, it must fit neatly into a genre so that it can be shelved properly at Borders and Barnes and Noble. Writers are told this all the time–and yet the authors above prove that it simply isn’t the case. Moreover, the bankruptcy of Borders just this week suggests that catering to simple bookshelving demands is not only an absurd artistic strategy, but an unsustainable publishing strategy as well.

Michael Kardos (michaelkardos.com) is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time. While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, he served as Contest Editor for The Missouri Review. He currently co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.