Among the deleterious effects of the separation of genre from mainstream fiction – a separation that is in many ways a marketing invention – is the marginalisation of various authors. It’s a process that affects the genre writers more than the mainstream ones. Genre is, after all, that embarrassing cousin who is placed at the far end of the dinner table next to the most understanding of relatives, who nod pleasantly, tolerating with good humour the truths we’d rather avoid and which our cousin insists on raising in a slightly too loud voice. Our cousin is always interesting, but not fit for polite, ‘civilised’ company. And yet, all too often, when the dinner comes to an end, we find that the cousin hasn’t actually said anything controversial, hasn’t offended anyone, is in fact, well, not that embarrassing after all. The whole thing was just a family myth, a misconception based on events of years before. The cousin, it appears, has matured.
But it’s a misconception that the literary world cannot seem to shake.
Thus, it is unfortunate that a writer like Deborah Biancotti is not better known outside genre circles. Much of Biancotti’s writing has been published in Australia’s speculative fiction magazines and anthologies yet could easily have been published in the countries literary magazines. In fact, many of her stories wouldn’t be out of place in collections like Best Australian Stories.
In 2009 many of Biancotti’s stories were collected in A Book of Endings, which recently went into its second printing. Many of these are magic realist and surreal tales where Biancotti can meditate on loss and escape. Indeed, as the title A Book of Endings suggests, there is a strong apocalyptic theme to the book, though some of these terminations are personal rather than social. As a review in the Age noted, ‘She is working in the Zeitgeist of The Road and Steven Amsterdam – the apocalypse and afterwards – but at much shorter length.’ There is humour here too (as in ‘The Seven Ages of the Protagonist’) though the pervading atmosphere is one of melancholy, which hovers over the pieces like a fog. In ‘Diamond Shell’, Mish has simply disappeared, escaped a constrictive world. In ‘No 3. Raw Place’ (the first Biancotti story I read, and one which impressed upon me that I was in the presence of a considerable talent) a couple moves into a new home, far away from the alienated suburbs. But things begin to go askew. Quickly someone else begins building a house nearby, ruining the couple’s peace of mind. Their phone begins to ring, but people on the other end insist that it is they who have been rung. Everything begins to fall apart so that protagonist feels that:
The walls thickened, ambushing him. Even the air was bloated. Not enough windows, so the darkness kept winding around him, wrapping his arms and legs like leaches. He was pinned, rocking in the centre of it, the house ebbing and flowing, and rolling like an ocean over him.
Here we get a glimpse of Biancotti’s wonderful prose, which manages to be both evocative and controlled. Her externalisation of the character’s sense of entrapment is finely achieved. Indeed, there are myriad examples of Biancotti’s ability to sum up a character in a delicate turn of phrase. A character in the science fiction story, ‘Coming up for air’ wore ‘his suit in an off-hand way, like someone who wore suits to impress people, but pretended not to give a damn himself.’ ‘This Time, Longing’ begins with, ‘Belle wasn’t prepared for brave, strong daughters.’
If Biancotti focuses on fine details, she also consciously withholds important information. This is not a style designed to attract a mass readership. Rather, it makes the reader work, and it is work for which the reader is rewarded. The effect is a kind of density, which makes reading A Book of Endings a slow process. After each piece, you want to set the book aside to let things settle in your mind, to let the details and connections absorb.
Biancotti also likes to leave things unresolved. She has mastered the difficult art of providing a satisfying ending with refusing closure. The title for the book began, she notes in the afterword, ‘as an ironic play on the history or criticism for my story endings – some too understated or confusing for audiences to feel comfortable with, some too slight.’
In many ways, then, Biancotti is the opposite of a writer like Paul Haines, whose Slice of Life I reviewed earlier this year. Where Haines revels in genre conventions, throwing himself in and deploying them with feverish energy, Biancotti barely utilises them at all. When she does, they dissolve into the worlds of character and moment that she depicts like an impressionist painter. The lines are small yet visible, the effect pronounced and yet somehow also subtle, the subject matter is ordinary, yet the landscapes dreamlike. Both Haines and Biancotti are among the first rank of Australian SF writers, but they showcase the different sides of the field in such a way that they could almost be writing with entirely different referents in mind.
One might claim that Biancotti has performed a double marginalisation upon herself. She writes not ‘genre’ but ‘literary genre’. The problem is immediately obvious: literary readers don’t read genre, and genre readers don’t read literary writing. If she wrote only science fiction, (rather than just the few in A Book of Endings, including the wonderful ‘Silicon Cast’) she would complete the triumvirate of cultural exclusion. Still, there are payoffs for those who write in the speculative fiction field. It is a welcoming community, with its own structures of support and encouragement. It’s a field where the short story is alive and, if not well, at least surviving.
Still, if I were to suggest a writer who undermines the very basis of the genre/mainstream antinomy, Biancotti might well be the first I’d point towards. She’s a genre writer you would be happy to have at the family dinner.