Dateline, 2008: I'm in my pajamas on a Wednesday night, wrestling with the first draft of the weirdest little novel I've ever tried to write. I tab over to the AOL chatroom where some of my best friends and workshop buddies hang out so we can write together, despite living in entirely different cities, and announce: "358 words of unsaleable book, 358 words of the boooook!"
Austin-based novelist Amanda Downum, then working on the first of a trilogy of second-world fantasy mysteries set in a world that's more Micronesia than medieval Europe, promptly chimes in with "I bet mine's more unsaleable than yours."
--and then we set up a poll on my blog and made them fight (the only rational response!), and got a hell of a laugh out of the whole thing, but that's not really the point. Both those books are now our debut novels: Amanda's The Drowning City made an award shortlist, and the sequel made a few more. My Above is coming out from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic in March. The point is why we were so convinced, no matter that we loved them and were going to finish them anyway, that those books wouldn't sell. We were both taking some serious leaps with the genres we wrote in, and in my case, you couldn't even say what genre I was writing in. It was a novel that was sincerely CanLit or sincerely urban fantasy depending on the reader's expectations. And, having worked as a Toronto-area bookseller for four years at that point, I knew that was going to be a problem.
Call it genre bilingualism. A lot of us speak, intimately, two genres or more. But we sometimes have trouble speaking – or hearing – them two at once.
Ultra-ironically, guys? We have solitudes.
Like many of us, I grew up with a lot of books. My mother is an engineer and a hard science fiction fan; my father reads thrillers; they both made sure I had plenty of those illustrated kids' versions of the classics as soon as I could read my own bedtime stories. But along with the McKillip, Asimov, and Atwood novels I pillaged off my parents' bookshelf (stealth runs, in the afternoons after school before she was home from work, usually stolen back by equally stealthy runs a few weeks later), I read overdose amounts of Marquez, Allende, Esquivel, Borges, and Scliar, because I loved the soft curves of their prose and the offhandedness of their magic – and apparently, when you were writing in Spanish or Portuguese, genre definitions didn't matter. Those books didn't acknowledge solitudes, or explain away their oddities, or insist on them like wearing a black eye as a perverse badge of pride; they danced on the edges of cliffs and did it with absolute confidence in who and what they were.
Those are the books that shaped me as a reader: the ones where everything was possible in the here and now, just because that's how it went. Just because it's a big wide world. Just because the author, chin high and spitting sheer charisma, said so.
Lucky for little bespectacled Leah, age ten, voracious reader of magical realist and fabulist fiction? We do this. We have a tradition of the fabulist, the weird, the balls-out proud literary fantastic in Canada. Some of my favourite Canadian novels of all time – Gail Anderson-Dargatz's The Cure for Death By Lightning; Catherine Bush's Minus Time; Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma; Sean Dixon's The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn – firmly embrace it. William Gibson's more recent work, notably Pattern Recognition, has both feet in that tradition. Several small presses – including Toronto's ChiZine Publications, only a few years old and already building a strong reputation – are growing to fill that niche. This year, a book about the suicide of a gay teenager and being free in your own skin that's also a book about unicorns, and completely approached through the metaphors and symbol sets of science fiction, made the Giller longlist (no, really, ask me about the science-fictional reading of Monoceros sometime. It's thematically complete, and makes that book even more perfect).
So we do this stuff, and it's seeping like groundwater into the public consciousness. Which is great: We're inherently a bilingual country, and a diverse country, and solitudes neither become nor express us in any aspect of our lives. And beyond the always-laudable goal of getting to read more books (yay!), there's another reason why trying out, tasting, embracing literature that is genre-bilingual would be really great, and it's both huge and altruistic and selfish and small:
Even the stealthiest literary traditions produce writers. Writers like Suzette Mayr, who writes literary novels about Star Trek fans and unicorns; like Jim Munroe and Andrew Kaufman, who talk about love lost and activism and the space between your dreams and your grasp through the lens of superhero fiction; like Nalo Hopkinson, who weaves together the strands of Caribbean and feminist literature with post-apocalyptic science fiction; like Cory Doctorow and Ryan Oakley, whose edged and sharp and wild worldbuilding contains at its heart the problem of the just society; like Evan Munday, who's writing middle-grade books about Canadian history using a posse of child ghost characters and all the pop culture references you can handle; like Caitlin Sweet and David Nickle and Maggie Helwig (my lord; Maggie Helwig), whose arguments are so clear and words so beautiful they shape whole mythologies of their own.
Writers like, well. Me.
And regardless of the selfish/selfless urge every writer has to be read, these writers are a numerous, emerging face of the Canadian literary tradition. Just as whole schools of Canadian novelists speak in echoed and doubled voices, whispering in two languages and two countries at once, we are quietly whispering our bedtime stories to you in a voice doubled by the tropes, the thematic concerns, the pacing and structure and assumptions of two best-loved genres of fiction. And not necessarily on purpose: that's just the literary input we've had. We're the writers who worked four years of weekends at a science fiction bookstore while studying 17th century literature and Canadian short fiction during the week. We cliff-dance between and through forms of fiction because we were born on cliffs, and love them, and because no matter what happens when books are split up for shelving in the modern bookstore, there are no solitudes in our heads. It's all ragged rocks there, and between-spaces, and what-ifs.
Even if sometimes that means fearing that your manuscript is unsaleable.
I assure you, as a reader: You want to be able to read these writers. You want to be able to catch everything they're throwing at you. It's an amazing feeling when you do.
Leah Bobet lives in a hundred-year-old house in Toronto, plants gardens in alleyways, and wears feathers in her hair. Above is her first novel. Please visit her website at www.leahbobet.com.
See also Leah Bobet's books list, Five Canadian speculative fiction titles for literary readers/ Five Canadian literary titles for speculative fiction readers.
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