Fabulist Fiction, A New Literary Genre Explained

Omnidawn Publishing Senior Editors Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan discuss Fabulist Fiction

Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan

Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan

Mary: Rusty and Ken, welcome to my People Who Make Books Happen interview series. Could you please begin our conversation by telling us why you decided to to call the work that Omnidawn is publishing “Fabulist Fiction,” and why you thought it was necessary to create this new genre? I’m particularly interested in the history of your decision, since you’ve recognized at least five of my novels, including The Year The Horses Came, as fabulist fiction.

Ken: At present, there are basically three major categories of fiction: genre fiction, literary fiction, and a third type which has had no commonly accepted name. This third type has cultural meaning and artistic value, which means it does not fit well into the escapist formula genres, yet it also has non-realistic elements and settings which exclude it from the category of literary fiction. We knew from the start that we wanted to publish this third type of fiction, but what would we call it?

When we began to consider publishing our first ParaSpheres anthology and were seeking a name for the kind of work we wanted to include in it, we remembered that in the fall of 2002 the literary journal Conjunctions (from Bard College, edited by Brad Morrow) devoted issue number 39 (guest edited by Peter Straub) to what they described as “new wave fabulist writers.” The announcements for Conjunctions: 39  described the issue as including stores from a “small group of innovative writers rooted in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror [who] have been simultaneously exploring and erasing the boundaries of those genres by creating fiction of remarkable depth and power.” To honor Brad Morrow and Peter Straub’s work in bringing attention to this type of fiction, I discussed the value of Conjunctions: 39 in both an editor’s note and a longer essay included in ParaSpheres; and we decided to call the stories in ParaSpheres “Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist.” 

After ParaSpheres, as we’ve continued to publish this kind of fiction, we’ve decided to use the simpler term “Fabulist Fiction,” which in our minds we think of as embracing all the kinds of stories that might erase as well extend the boundaries of “non-realistic artistic fiction.” Although we consider this kind of fiction to meet the broad definition of the term “literary,” we recognize that it does not meet the established narrative realist definition of literary fiction. By presenting this fiction as neither literary fiction nor genre fiction, but rather as something else altogether, we are hoping to redefine it as a new category.

Mary: Why does this new genre need to exist?

Rusty: To put it simply, literary critics serve as defenders of intellectual and artistic values that are relatively free of the profit motivations. There is definite merit in this. But the conventional standards of literary fiction that are applied in order to eliminate escapist fiction also eliminate much serious, thought-provoking fiction that has artistic value. By establishing Fabulist Fiction as a recognized form, which contains both non-realistic elements and artistic and cultural meaning, we hope to bring the serious works in this genre to the attention of readers and critics and to garner writers of Fabulist Fiction the respect they deserve.

 Mary: Could you please give us some examples of works that are Fabulist Fiction?

 Ken: There is a long and illustrious tradition of serious works that can be defined as Fabulist Fiction. Some of the most important include:  Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, Tristam Shandy, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, Alice in Wonderland, Gershenzon and Ivanov’s Correspondence from Two Corners, Kafka’s The Castle, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Woolf’s The Waves, Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, Gombowicz’s Ferdydurke, and Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

 Rusty: Outside the United States, non-realistic work has generally received more recognition. Many non-realistic authors first achieved success outside the U.S. and were later published here. As you may have noticed, all the authors Ken cited above are European, as are Huxley and Orwell. Latin American authors have also received recognition for such work. For example:  Gabriel García Márquez who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 and Jorge Luis Borges who won the French Legion of Honor in 1983. More recently, Yann Martel won England’s Man Booker Prize for Life of Pi. Non-western countries, particularly Japan, also have a long tradition of honoring non-realistic stories.

 Outside academia, a number of small presses and journals have published such fiction for decades, including City Lights, Coffee House, FC2, Dalkey Archive, New Directions, and Sun and Moon (now Green Integer). And within the larger commercial publishing world in the United States, established literary authors like Philip Roth can always get their non-realistic works (e.g. The Plot Against America) published successfully.

 Ken: In the United States, writers almost always stay in the classification in which their work first succeeds. It is simply easier for book buyers to find all the books by a particular author in one section of the bookstore, and for bookstore clerks to know where a particular author’s work can be found; and work that is an attempt to break out will almost always stay in the section with the author’s original books. Because this creates genre “ghettos,” writers who want to be taken seriously generally avoid starting out in genre fiction, and successful literary writers who write genre fiction are often described as “slumming it.” So writers who want to write artistic work are discouraged from starting out with and later experimenting with a style that will be incorrectly classified as genre fiction.

 Rusty: Fortunately, we believe there is increasing interest in what we call “Fabulist Fiction” or fiction that engages the issues we’ve discussed above. We’ve had a Fabulist Fiction Chapbook Contest for a few years (it runs from August 1 to September 30 each year), and we are thrilled by the submissions we receive. There are more universities where such texts are studied and more presses bringing out this kind of work without classifying it as genre fiction. We remain excited by what is possible.

Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan are senior editors and publishers of  Omnidawn Publishing. Rusty Morrison’s “After Urgency” (Tupelo) won The Dorset Prize. “the true keeps calm biding its story” (Ahsahta) won The Sawtooth Prize, the Academy of American Poet’s James Laughlin Award, the Northern California Book Award, and the DiCastagnola Award from Poetry Society of America. “Whethering” (The Center for Literary Publishing, 2004), won the Colorado Prize for Poetry. “Book of the Given” was published by Noemi Press in 2012. She has received the Bogin, Hemley, Winner, and DiCastagnola Awards from PSA. Her poems and/or essays have appeared, or will appear in A Pubic Space, American Poetry Review, Aufgabe, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, Lana Turner, Pleiades, Spoon River, The Volta’s Evening Will Come, VOLT and elsewhere. Her poems have been anthologized in the Norton Postmodern American Poetry 2nd Edition, The Arcadia Project: Postmodern Pastoral, Beauty is a Verb, and The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare and elsewhere. She has been co-publisher of Omnidawn since 2001. Her most recent collection “Beyond the Chainlink” was published by Ahsahta in January 2014. Ken Keegan has a background in theater, graphic design, desktop publishing, and the founding, management of, and consultation for, non-profit organizations.

Dear Readers: Join this conversation about People Who Make Books Happen. You are warmly invited to ask Keen Keegan or Rusty Morrison questions or leave a comment. This is where the experts hang out.

 

Comments

  1. Beverly Bonta says:

    I recently hired a writing coach who pronounced my work as “fabulist.” It’s science fantasy with literary leanings, but that had nothing to do with his use of the term. Specifically, he said that the work was “fabulist” because it was written from the point of view of someone telling a fable.

    This is quite different from your definition, isn’t it? His definition had nothing to do with literary merit found in what would otherwise be genre fiction. I would like to know more about how you coined the term, “Fabulist Genre.” Does it have anything with the literary form known as a fable?

    Curious and a little confused,

    Bev Bonta

    • Mary Mackey says:

      Hi, Beverly,

      Since Fabulist Fiction is a fairly new genre, I’m not surprised you feel a little confused. The best way to understand what it is, is to read a good selection of it. I suggest you take a look at a wonderful anthology of Fabulist Fiction entitled Paraspheres, edited by by Ken Keegan and Rusty Morrison, published by Omnidawn Press. Omnidawn also has a Fabulist Fiction contest every year, so you also could read the guidelines for that. I think if you take a look at these sources you will have a better idea why a work of Fabulist Fiction may have things in common with a fable, but at the same time, is not usually a fable in the ordinary sense of the word.

      • Beverly Bonta says:

        You are wonderful for such a thoughtful reply. Thank you so much. I will be adding your suggestions to my reading list. I don’t think I’ll be querying agents and publishers calling myself a fabulist. 🙂 It all sounds very interesting.

  2. I’m very pleased that there are writers constructing new genres. It’s important to have some way of classifying more obscure fiction without dumping it in the massive bin of speculative fiction. Although we need these massive bins, it does make it hard for readers to search through them without getting a nasty cut that could become septic. I suggest these massive bins be filled with smaller bins – or buckets, perhaps, to allow a filtering of writers’ work into numerous sub-categories with a much reduced risk of infection. I decided upon the genre of “New Fable” to categorize my Velvet Paw of Asquith novels after readers suggested it should not only be classified as speculative fiction, but reside in a massive bin.

  3. For too long the literary gatekeepers in academia have been prescribing what is or isn’t “literature.” Ursula K. LeGuin has written extensively about the way this has been done with sci-fi, relegating it to a kind of pulp fiction status (where it had its origins) despite the fact that some of the greatest works of literature in the past 100 years have been written by sci-fi authors. I have had manuscripts moldering in my data files for decades because they didn’t fit the rigid categorizations that have become, sadly, the norm in publishing. In Canada it seems to be far worse than in the US; no Canadian publisher I am aware of will publish sci-fi or anything remotely like it. Even from a business perspective this is sheer stupidity, since sci-fi authors can have audiences running into the millions. So this is wonderful news! Viva New Fabulism!

    • Mary Mackey says:

      Sean, I agree with you completely. It’s time to discard the idea that only certain kinds of writing can
      be important. I join you in proclaiming: “Viva New Fabulism!”

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