The Spaces Between Objects

On Weird Fiction and the Interstitial

Inter: between. Sistere: to stand.

What is interstitial art? According to the website of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, 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.

When I think of the interstitial, I become more interested in verbs than nouns: to make, to flourish, to cross, to refuse.

Ellen Kushner, one of the founders of the IAF, once described the interstitial as “a moving target.” There’s no final definition, she said, because categories keep changing: genres split, subgenres arise, culture moves. She’s right: you can’t ever give a detailed definition of something that exists because two other things are not the same — something that comes to life in the gap between two (or more) distinct, describable things. The interstitial is utterly relational.

The interstitial, as used by the IAF and its magazine, Interfictions, also has a history. It’s a history of the divide between literary and genre fiction, and the rules of each, which have made it hard for writers to find an audience for certain work. Again, we’re talking about relationships here: relationships between writers and readers, and between writers and publishers, and all that comes with them — the deadening dynamics of branding, the pressure to sell big, to reproduce oneself, to be “accessible,” that is, easily consumed. “[I]n reality,” wrote Alastair Fowler, “genre is much less of a pigeon hole than a pigeon” — but it doesn’t always feel that way. Genre is a cloak. Sometimes it allows readers to recognize you and provides you with community and delight. Sometimes it just itches.

This is one place where I see an affinity between interstitial art and weird fiction: in the attempt to carve out a space for work that takes fantasy, science fiction, and horror seriously, that isn’t trying to use genre fiction in an ironic way or be “meta” or cute, but that also has a special, often oppositional relationship to genre fiction’s rules. Both weird and interstitial fiction refuse to stay in the box. They warp, they mix. They might play with the tropes and conventions of genre fiction, stretch them, take them in unexpected directions, exaggerate them, break them. They’re looking for borders, but only so they can get across.

Sometimes interstitial and weird fiction are perceived as breaking a trust. Blending genres can look like betrayal. These experiments can provoke angry comments on speculative fiction websites: “This isn’t science fiction!” Sometimes these relationships are sad.

Feathered Dinosaur

Source: Wikipedia

At Interfictions, we’re interested in all kinds of in-between spaces: between myth and the everyday, between music and photography, between essay and poem. There are other magazines out there working in these spaces; what distinguishes us is our warm relationship with the genres of speculative fiction. This doesn’t mean that every piece we publish has something speculative about it, but speaking for myself, there’s an element of the strange or otherworldly in most of the pieces I accept, from Sunny Chan’s feathered dinosaurs to Nancy Hightower’s peeling skull to Ashon Crawley’s desire to imagine Ferguson, otherwise.

The AlephMostly I’m interested in objects in relation to one another. The mesmeric power of Borges’ Aleph. The space between animate and inanimate, one of the countries of childhood, where we can grasp K.J. Bishop’s Gleeful Horse.

I’ve mentioned nouns and verbs, but prepositions are even more instructive: they’re often the hardest things to learn well when you study a foreign language. I don’t want to put too much weight on this little curiosity, but it does suggest to me that it’s easier to translate objects than the relationships between them. Relationships are particular and volatile and relentlessly weird. Weird fiction opens us to the strangeness of our relationships with one another, our relationships with nonhuman entities and ways of being, our relationships with time and space. In emphasizing these relationships, weird fiction is always, to me, interstitial. It shares interstitial art’s preoccupation with the spaces between objects, the blank strip of paper between items on a list, the darkness between the stars, where you can reach in, slip, fall, find yourself somewhere else, and decide if you want to come back.

3 replies to “The Spaces Between Objects

  1. I think you’re correct in seeing a connection between interstitial art and weird fiction, but I also think you’re operating on an unnecessarily narrow definition of what weird fiction is and how it came to be. Weird fiction as it was developed and published in the 1920s and 30s by writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith, came into existence when the delineations of genre fiction were still very soft — they didn’t really concern themselves with distinguishing whether they were working in horror or dark fantasy, scientifiction or supernatural tales, except insofar as the needs of the emerging markets sometimes bent how they would need to label a story to make a sale. The stories themselves were less the genre-blending mashups of modern steampunk or the like than ur-stories that preceded the popular (and narrow) categorization of today.

  2. Perhaps in trying to take genre seriously but not reverentially, a writer is recapturing some of the fluidity of genre at its formative stage. It’s easier to be in dialog with the past than in dialog with the future, but for this endeavor one almost has to be in dialog with the past’s past (and maybe the past’s future) in a transitive sense. (Also see classic works like “The Structure of Genre Revolutions” and “Against Marketing”)

  3. @Robert Derie- Given Ms. Samatar’s impressive credentials, I’m sure she doesn’t need to have Weird Fiction defined for her, or its history explained. And while I don’t disagree with either the definition or the history you offered, I also don’t see anything in the above essay that would be at odds with them.