In 2010, Transit Lounge published In-human by Anna Dusk. Set in a small country town in Tasmania, In-human explores teenager Sally Hunter’s descent from reason into animal instinct. Sally is an outsider in her dysfunctional family and in her community. She’s angry and her feelings of alienation grow into disease and heightened sensual perception. Sally is becoming a werewolf – and she is very happy about that. For her, the animal state is preferable to being human, and she begins to succumb to the desire to kill and eat her enemies.
Marketed as ‘adult literary fiction with comparisons to The Catcher in the Rye’, the book received some excellent reviews, yet never quiet gained traction with booksellers or the book-buying public. At the same time, anecdotally, traditional horror aficionados were confused and frustrated by the way in which In-human subverted the well-established tropes of the genre.
In the current debate around the place of genre fiction in literary circles, it is useful to look at the limits of applying genre, what we mean by it, and how it can be bridged so that In-human – and lots of other high-quality original Australian genre-bending work – can reach a wider audience.
Obviously, the Australian market is small, and the prize money on offer is limited; so are the arts grants. Perhaps it is not merely resentment which causes writers to disparage other writers’ work, but survival. But for genre writers, hearing their slaved-over novel declared inferior before the book has even been read hits below the tightened belt. (This is not to suggest criticism is not on – I support the right once you’ve read a novel to hate it as much as you want.)
In-human has been called obscene – and also brilliant. Critics have remarked upon the high calibre of its writing, the passion of the language, the use of lyrical local idiom, the fully realised characters and the slow-release tension of the plot. So why did it not become a cult classic? Why were teenagers not furtively passing it around at lunch time?
Barry Scott, the man behind Transit Lounge, known for publishing genre at the literary end of fiction, is cognisant of the risk of publishing such a book because, he says, ‘it subverts the standard expectations of readers, and often confounds booksellers (with their neat categories) and reviewers especially’.
In-human, according to Scott, ‘takes aspects of genre – in this case the werewolf novel, but melds it with regional gothic and a confronting realism.’
Not only does In-human mess with genre, it loiters dangerously near the young adult shelves. ‘In many respects it is a YA novel,’ says Scott, ‘but its violence and focus on bodily functions militates against it ever being accepted by the gatekeepers of that genre.’
Despite his best efforts the book never found a wide readership. One of the problems of original work is that reviewers and booksellers need to say what other books a new book is similar to. But by focusing on comparable work, sometime very distantly comparable, it would appear that the opportunity to see and appreciate the book’s unique qualities was lost.
This is, Scott says, ‘a sad reflection on how publishing is being failed by the mainstream – book buyers, reviewers, awards who like to play it safe. If In-human had been a realist novel about a girl growing to womanhood in rural Tasmania, it would have been accepted more willingly.’
And yet, westerns, romance, horror, and other genre themes are frequently used in literary fiction. Magic realism? Garcia Marquez. Talking animals? Watershipdown to The Master and Margarita, to Only the Animals. How do these novels manage to slip through to approval?
In the US, a similar debate has thrown up a possible solution in the curious term slipstream, (whether or not Bruce Sterling’s seminal 1989 essay on the nature of slipstream was initially used in jest, it is now used seriously). Sterling defined slipstream as:
a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel …
In his list of slipstream literature, Sterling includes DM Thomas’s The White Hotel, John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick and Coetzee’s Life and Rimes of Michael K.
Slipstream is a relatively new term and it is not yet clear if it will gain acceptance widely. Current definitions range from a version of the postmodern pastiche or the slipping from mainstream into ‘non-real’ in fiction usually thought of as literary. Slipstream may be the cover required for literary fiction to venture into a world of aliens, or monsters, without losing its credibility.
Literary fiction is generally considered challenging and innovative, but innovation and appeal are not mutually exclusive. The cri de Coeur at the core of In-human is challenging, original, and distinctly Australian. What vexes me is the fact that the novel was submitted for every literary and genre prize it was eligible for and did not make one shortlist. Was it the werewolves that relegated it to being entirely overlooked?
I asked Antoni Jach, novelist, playwright and former teacher, if he believed In-human was neglected. ‘It has been unjustly overlooked, but then again most literature that is different is usually overlooked,’ he replied. Jach prefers the label ‘Indie Lit’ for In-human to the term slipstream or, even better he says, ‘contemporary Australian Gothic’.
‘I’d call it experimental writing,’ said Jane Rawson, the genre-melding author of the award winning Wrong Turn in the Office of Unmade Lists (also published by Transit Lounge). ‘A challenging, complicated, messing-with-form-and-style kind of work, like Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.’ In-human left a deep impression on her, Rawson said: ‘It’s difficult to read and to understand, and it’s from a very unusual perspective – a powerful teenage girl in love with her monstrous power. But this isn’t Carrie: Sally has no guilt, no problems with self-doubt and no shame about her body, that’s for sure. She’s full of joy.’
It is worth noting that every publisher who initially read A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing rejected it as too experimental. Ten years later, the tiny Galley Beggar publishing company released it in June 2013. It went on to win the 2013 Goldsmiths Prize, the 2013 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the 2014 Kerry Group Irish Fiction and the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize (for debut novelists).
‘The prejudice and preconceptions about genre are huge, especially when the conventions of genre are subverted,’ observes Barry Scott.
Reviewers invariably don’t look at what the author is trying to achieve. So conventions in genres are rarely challenged – in literary fiction the result is a sort of realism that can seem artful but dull, in genre a cookie-cutter quality. Exciting fiction moves beyond such boundaries – its strangeness often integral to the author’s journey to something truly deep and insightful. Perhaps one day the gatekeepers will catch up and turn readers onto the possibilities.
The friction between literary and genre fiction appears to be, largely, a false antagonism. The blurring of styles augments both ends of the literary cultural landscape. While attacking a middlebrow strawman is all fun and games that fan the outrage-o-metre, fine writing goes unread. Isn’t it time to resist the view that monsters don’t make proper subjects for literature?
In-human is still available via Transit Lounge, and there is sure to be a copy of in your local library.