I’m about to become an author of speculative fiction. The Receptionist and Other Tales has just been accepted for publication by Aqueduct, a feminist science fiction press in Seattle. I’m both thrilled and nervous.
Thrilled: I love the mission of this small press. I’m joining a list that includes many wonderful writers—Ursula Le Guin, for example, of whom I am a swooning fan. And I have been reading fantasy and science fiction ever since I could lift The Lord of the Rings. I read everything else, too; as a ten-year-old I made little distinction between Jane Eyre and Madeleine L’Engle’s books, and they have a fair amount in common, really, even though they’re shelved in different parts of the library. Few things compare to falling in love with a new author and plunging into his or her weird world, knowing that there are hundreds of pages ahead of you, craving and dreading the plot’s resolution—as an adult I’ve felt that joy about Philip Pullman, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Michael Chabon, and many others who work in that area between literary and genre fiction sometimes called “slipstream.” Several years back my friend Suzanne introduced me to the Bold as Love series by Gwyneth Jones (another Aqueduct author), sticking each book into my office mailbox as she finished it. She teased me later about the time she bumped into me outside Payne Hall and said, “Oh, I just left the next one for you.” My back straightened, my eyes grew wide and wild, and I dashed ravenously back into the building.
The Receptionist is a tale in terza rima of a young administrative assistant in the English department of a small southern college. She reads fantasy novels aloud to her two sons each night, so as campus crisis deepens around her, she sees an abusive administrator as the Dark Lord, university counsel as his leathery-winged avian minions, a powerful but sleepy senior professor as The Dragon, a group of feisty women colleagues as Quest Companions. Writing it helped me survive my stint as Department Head. I mapped it out one Christmas break (thanks to Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a hilarious book that crystallizes all those tropes), and each time I drafted a 30-line canto, I’d leave a thread for the next occasion I could carve out two hours for writing. I’d pick up that rhyme or plot point and jump back in to a world where rather than an administrative job title, I had real power.
And maybe you see now why I’m nervous? This isn’t a roman à clef but people from the campuses I’ve worked at will recognize little elements of character and situation I’ve added to the blender, and some might be offended. That’s one danger, but maybe the more familiar one.
The other risk has to do with genre. I’ve been making progress as a Serious Poet. Plenty of Serious Novelists and Critics look down their noses at genre fiction; they might admit to the guilty pleasure of mystery-reading but fantasy and science fiction are just too stinky. Serious Poets have even longer, more sensitive schnozzes. I am sure that this is a good book—I sat on it for a long time, revising and weighing and making sure my delight in writing it wasn’t impairing my judgment about the product—so if/when people murmur about this questionable career move, I’ll know they’re wrong. That doesn’t mean it won’t bug me.
I’m not the only contemporary poet doing this. In the long run, of course I’m not—I wouldn’t compare my book to Spenser, Milton, or Dante, but surely they’ve proven that poetry can be great speculative literature. Just as twenty-first-century high-brow novels, though, play around with popular genres to terrific effect, some critically successful poets are splashing around in the slipstream, and perhaps for similar reasons. More on this soon.