On Genre Fiction, Institutions and Contemporary Audiences, a Conversation with Brian Evenson
This interview was a couple months in the making. Brian Evenson and I worked very hard at it and also worked very hard at lots of other things, hence the time it took! I've discovered Mr. Evenson's writing this year and became quite obsessed with it, so I wanted to know more about the man, his creative process and the experiences that shape such an original and powerful brand of fiction.
Mr. Evenson turned out to be a fascinating interview guest with an encyclopedic knowledge of genre fiction and ironclad enthusiasm for my nerdy questions. Without further ado, I invite you to read the conversation I had with Brian Evenson (which I think is fascinating) and to subsequently discover his books if you haven't already. I'd suggest to begin with the iconic Last Days, which is one of the best thing I've read all year.
Ben: Your writing is difficult to categorize. There are plenty of genre elements to it (science-fiction, cosmic horror, noir) but it never really commits to one. Genre is always accessory to your fiction's philosophical agenda. I find it intriguing because it is thoroughly unique for a man of your academic background and it reflects into original and vibrant writing. Has the genre classification always been incidental? What is your stance on how your writing is categorized?
Brian: I think I've always been the sort of person who reads widely and eccentrically and that's only increased over the years. Honestly, I think one of the things that separates the writers of my generation from the writers in the generation directly before me is that that older generation was still pretty concerned about making a distinction between high and low art, between literature and genre, and in doing so in a way that made it clear genre wasn't as good. I'm increasingly convinced that's bullshit. I had a conversation about ten years back with a literary writer now in his eighties who made it very clear that he saw the genre elements in his work as "material", that he didn't really have an interest in genre or popular culture except as something he could appropriate. That never made sense to me: I use genre elements because they let me do something that a so-called literary approach won't let me do, and I use literary elements because they let me do something that a so-called genre approach won't let me do. Each approach and its nuances lets me break something open in a different way--but they let me do that because I actually care about those genre elements and respect what different genres can do. And yes, as you point out, for me I've always got certain sorts of things I'm exploring philosophically, and the different combinations of genre and literature that I deploy allow me to continue and expand that investigation.
In terms of how my writing is categorized, initially it felt weird to me when people talked about my writing as horror, but that was partly because my sense of what horror was was a little naive and dated. As I read more contemporary horror, it started to make sense to me. So, by this point, I don't have a strong feeling about how my writing should be categorized. Probably in some way that acknowledges both the genre and the literary elements to some degree. I've even played with that a little with my career: Immobility was accepted by both a literary press and by Tor, a science fiction press. I went with Tor, partly because I wanted to muddle those boundaries just a little, and because I was curious to see if people would read the book differently if it was published by an SF publisher.
Ben: I find it interesting that you singled out horror. It's an audience you're really popular with. Why do YOU think horror readers get such a kick out of your books? What do you think are the themes and elements that speak to them the most? Because outside maybe of the Dead Space novelizations, I don't think your books REALLY are horror novels.
Brian: I think horror was the first so-called non-literary thing that people suggested I was, and so that's stuck with me. Ellen Datlow had a short paragraph on my first book, Altmann's Tongue, in the 1995 Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and then in 2003 The Wavering Knife was a finalist for an International Horror Guild Award - an award which, to my surprise, it won. The horror audience has been really supportive of my work. But yes, that question of whether they're really horror novels is definitely something I've thought about. What I decided, after looking more closely at the field, is that there are substrands of horror - the weird, for instance, or the Aickmanesque strange tale - that I do feel a lot of affinity with. Also certain writers whose work I really like: Thomas Ligotti for instance, though he's also not your "normal" horror writer. Or individual stories I like very much, like James Tiptree Jr.'s "Painwise" (another writer who doesn't quite fit any mold) or Dennis Etchison's "It Only Comes Out at Night" or Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows". Peter Straub makes the argument in Poe's Children that there's a "new horror" going on that maybe doesn't act quite like how we believe horror should act. Certainly I identify with many of the authors he includes in that volume, about half of them normally thought of as literary and half more genre-y. But I probably have more in common, both locally and globally, with writers like Cormac McCarthy and Blake Butler.
I think probably what horror readers identify with most is the way the reality of my work is always contingent, always subject to slipping out from under their feet. And there's a kind of intense bleakness to some of what I do, coupled with an odd sense of humor that probably appeals. Maybe some of them respond to the way I approach violence--but I often write violence with so little affect that maybe that's not it. I think that with some horror writers it becomes all about affect and suffering, and I often don't find that interesting. For me it's more about dismantling our idea of what it means to be human and then seeing what's left afterward... John Clute (see The Darkening Garden) would argue that I write terror rather than horror, and I think that's probably right.
Ben: So, I've read your novel Last Days for the month I dedicated to horror on my site and while it was much more terror than horror like you pointed out, but it hit me in the face like a goddamn hammer. There are so MANY intriguing things about this book, I don't know where to start. The people in this book. They don't talk to each other! They do, but they don't tell Kline (the protagonist) anything. The entire premise operates on faith and coercion. Why did you decide to systematically obfuscate every common variable of investigation fiction in Last Days? Because I can't stop thinking about it since I finished the novel.
Brian: I've taught a couple of times a class I designed which is about the origins of detective fiction--we start at J. Sheridan LeFanu and end with Dashiell Hammett since after Hammett detective fiction can never be the same. What's great about it is the way that a bunch of the stories very early on just don't act quite like detective stories. Even things we take for granted today, like the importance of clues, just hadn't occurred to people, and in the place of logic and deduction leading to the solution of the crime a lot of those early stories demand a confession from the villain--so the detective tries to put the character in a position where, from fear or other reasons, they can't help but confess. I think I was thinking about a lot of those things as I was working on Last Days, and thinking about directions that detective fiction and noir could have gone in but mostly didn't. Also, the whole faith and coercion thing, and the way people in the cults all seem to have a common understanding of the way things are and what should be done but rarely inform Kline of this is pretty closely based on the insularity of Mormonism - the way so much went unspoken and unquestioned but was, at the same time, what really drove the culture...
Ben: What is the direction detective fiction and noir could have gone into but didn't. Could you elaborate on that?
Brian: Well, I think that as it developed it became increasingly committed to the idea that solving the crime was the most important thing. And of course that's important, but that's not the only thing, or even the primary thing, that a detective story can be about. You look at something like Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, which for me is one of the most amazing noirs out there, and it's about a detective who comes into a community that has a kind of precarious balance. He's hired to investigate a murder, then told he doesn't have to do it after all, but he very pigheadedly insists on doing it and basically destroys everything around him, all for no real satisfaction or reward--we're told at the end that his boss gives him "merry hell" for doing what he did--but just out of a kind of perversity or doggedness. That's amazing! So, the crime is kind of beside the point at a certain moment; it's more about a man slipping and sliding through very difficult territory and turning different parts of a community against itself. That's something I see Last Days responding to. Ultimately, like the continental op in Red Harvest, Kline feels that once you achieve a certain momentum, you should give in to that juggernaut rather than resist it. But instead of different factions within a town it's different sects of a religion, and that brings other sorts of things along with it. That's, I guess, one of the things I mean.
Ben: Religion is a recurrent term in your work and it is perhaps most evident in Last Days, where it controls the entire narrative. Now, you have a well-documented, troublesome history with Mormonism, yet correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think your depictions of religion come from a place of straight antagonism. You seem fascinated by them, by their power of control over reality. Why are religious themes such an important part of your work? What is it about them that fascinate you?
Brian: I think you're right about that. I find religion fascinating, particularly in terms of the way in which a strong religion can modify the way a person perceives and responds to reality. That can be incredibly problematic, but it's also really intriguing, and perhaps suggests things about the way in which we interact with reality as a whole. We're never interacting with reality directly, there's always something of filter that's there, even it that filter is only the fact that our perceptions can't take reality in in all its complexity. I find religion at once very frightening and very seductive--they offer to think for you in some senses, they give you a model for organizing your life, they potentially give you alibis for your failings. But they also seem to have the goal of making you a better person, of making you ethically conscious. I guess I'm less interested in religion than I am in the way that individuals interact with religion, the complex relation of acceptance and resistance that they engage in when they become involved.
Ben: I noticed reality is a recurring theme for you. It's both at the heart of Last Days and your latest book The Warren. Reality and the self. Here's an existential question for you: how much do you think a person is the product of their environment? Because from reading your book, I can't decide if they are or if reality is their construction.
Brian: I feel pretty strongly that reality is constructed, but I also feel the self it constructed, so it ends up being a little bit of a chicken-egg problem. I think we interact with a reality that we at least partly construct and that we kind of assume that we're interacting with the same reality that other people are until we're made to realize that we're not. Even something as straightforward as color is so personal and so uniquely processed. Every relationship I've had before my current marriage has been with someone who was convinced that I didn't see at least one shade of color right and that they did--and this included someone who was legally blind. Which is why I know my wife is the right person for me: because we share the same delusion about what colors the world actually is...
Ben: Were the multiple personalities of the protagonist a flawed, manmade attempt at creating a leveled playing field that somehow derailed? It was one of the elements of the book that left me a little perplex.
Brian: In The Warren? I don't want to reveal too much or suggests there's one right answer, but I will say I see it more as something decided on by X and the others that came before him in the face of scarcity and being in a situation where everything is breaking down. Previously, the implication is that their minds would be stored in what they call "the monitor" after their short lives reach their end, and that they'd be selectively imprinted with information. But when the monitor starts to go one of the makes the choice to fill X's head with not only selective information but as full a range of personality as possible as a way of trying to preserve them. But, of course, his brain's not sufficient for that, and it leads to all sorts of complications and to a sort of artificially induced schizophrenia. (It may also be complicated by the fact of whether X is the same as or different from those who have come directly before him--that's probably the subject of another novella.)
Ben: When I read The Warren, I really appreciated being challenged like this but part of me wondered how many people would. Reading the advance reviews on Goodreads, the major reactions were: "what the hell have I just read?" and "can somebody explain this to me?" which I'm sure you've expected to a certain degree. How do you measure the success of your books aside from sales? What makes them a success or a failure to you?
Brian: Yes, I wondered about that too - I wasn't at all sure how the book would be received, particularly since it was being published as part of Tor.com's science fiction novella line and was quite a bit more "out there" than a lot of the books published in that line. I was pretty concerned that science fiction readers wouldn't know what to think of it. That was one of the reasons I dedicated the book to Gene Wolfe - I figured that'd give SF readers a model for how they might approach the book. But I really didn't know if it'd fall flat or not: I knew it was possible to write a book that has a foot in SF, and a foot in the weird, and a foot in the literary that wouldn't work for readers in any of those areas... But, so far, the reception has been really good.
I think probably every artist has their own private sense of whether something is a success or failure and it may not match up to reader's responses. There are one or two stories I've written that everybody seems to like but which I don't think of as my best efforts. On the other hand, there are a few things that almost nobody talks about that I feel are as good as anything I've done and which were important in getting me to a new stage as a writer. I guess that for me is the key: if writing a story or novella or novel changes the way I think about writing from there on out, it's a success and something I wouldn't want to be without.
Ben: What do you think of the relationship between contemporary storytellers and their audience? Do you feel the need to entertain, educate?
Brian: I tend to like work that has an impact on me, that keeps on working on me after I've closed the covers of the book, and I think that's the kind of book I try to write for my readers as well. I don't know if entertain is exactly the word for that, but it's work that you have an experience with, and and experience you can't quickly shake. I think you and I have very similar tastes in movies, and it's reflected in those movies as well - difficult films that are entertaining on one level and engaged in dérangement on another level - derangement, disruption, disturbance. In terms of education, in most cases I don't think that's my primary purpose, though I do have strong feelings about institutions, particularly patriarchal religious institutions, and that can't help but seep into my fiction. Basically, I think institutions are very problematic, particularly when they begin to make you act "for the good of the institution" but against your own interest or against the interest of individual members. But I see that as being secondary to my commitment to tell a story, to create a mood, to make the narrative work.
Ben: What do you think are the best/worst aspects of contemporary audiences? What would you say is the responsibility of someone with the freedom of choosing how to spend their free time?
Brian: This is a hard question. Like everyone with a computer, I spend way too much time going down clickholes that lead nowhere - the internet is both a great thing and a huge problem. I have no problem with doing that, but I also think that narrative feeds us as humans in a way that deadend news stories don't, so I try to spend some time each day reading, watching a decent tv show, watching a film. Contemporary audiences have their attention pulled in all different directions, I think, which can be a very problematic thing. On the other hand, I think that contemporary audiences are open to artistic experience to a much greater degree than their parents' generation was. I've found so many people who have never read anything like the weird fiction I write but are still entirely game for it once they read a few pages. Ten years ago, that was much less the case. Sixty years ago, I probably would have had a very hard time getting published at all. Three hundred years ago, I probably would have been burned as a witch (and still may be, once the presidential transition of power takes place here in America).
Ben: Thank you for your patience! Anything you want to plug before leaving? Now is the time. Go nuts!
Brian: My latest book, called The Warren, is available for a ridiculously low price of $2.99 online, and for a bit more expensive but still reasonable price as a print book. It's a good entry into my work, I think, and not a bad place to start. Either that or A Collapse of Horses, which is my latest book of stories...