I now turn you over to Ben for his thought-provoking discussion of Speculative Elements in Literary Fiction. This kicks off his blog tour for Sketches from the Spanish Mustang. Keep an eye on his blog so you don't miss out!
First, I'd like to thank you Michael for allowing me to write all over your blog. It's a great place to kick of the Sketches from the Spanish Mustang Blog Tour, and it won't be a surprise to your readers to know that you suggested the first topic: Speculative Elements in Literary Fiction.
I'm going to quote a definition from Wikipedia (the parts that are correct) that I've quoted on my blog before and will likely quote again. What is literary fiction?
Literary fiction is a term that came into common usage during the early 1960s. The term is principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison to genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e., paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more upon style, psychological depth, and character. This is in contrast to Mainstream commercial fiction, which focuses more on narrative and plot. Literary fiction may also be characterized as lasting fiction — literature which continues to be read and in-demand many decades and perhaps centuries after the author has died.
When I asked a few people what they thought of when they heard the term "literary fiction," the responses I received ranged from “Vladimir Nabokov” to “classics, Dickens, Bronte” to “old stuff.” But it's a term, according to the above definition, that wasn't in common usage until the 1960s. (I'll assume that before then, all stuff was "old stuff.") On top of age, there's a whole book of articles that could be written debunking the notion that literary fiction is just plotless words jotted down for the sake of being fancy. I won't do that here, but I will say: it's not true.
Literary fiction, in my view, is more a kaleidoscopic of work that includes elements of romance, thriller, horror, science fiction, mystery, the American Western, etc. It is cross-genre. Within that kaleidoscopic of genres, then, it's only natural for us to find the speculative elements.
Here are a few titles I think we can (mostly) agree fit the definition posed above regarding literary fiction: Metamorphosis, War of the Worlds, A Christmas Carol, Wuthering Heights, Gulliver's Travels, Beowulf. Are there speculative elements in each of these?
As kids, we were fascinated by the supernatural, especially as we investigated the world around us. We've all grown up since, but many of us have never grown out of our desire to know more. It's a part of who we are. Think of the strong beliefs which existed in the time of William Shakespeare. What of the beliefs that existed in around the time of Nathaniel Hawthorne? Charles Dickens? Do you think, just because we listen to music on iPhones, drive hybrid cars or make our own donuts at home these days, that we no longer believe in the supernatural, the paranormal, the speculative?
In a poll conducted by Gallup in 2010, 71% of Americans confess to having had a paranormal experience of some sort. While only 34% believe in the existence of ghosts, 65% believe Ouija boards are dangerous, 41% believe in extrasensory perception and 37% believe that houses can be haunted. Let me put that in persepective: if there are roughly 300 million people in the United States, about 213 million people confess to having had a paranormal experience of some sort.
I don't like polls myself, but what I do find interesting is that people generally want to believe there might be more out there. It's this desire to want more which drives people to look for more in movies, television, books. How many want to believe in sparkly vampires? How many want to think in some distopian future? How many people really think Harry Potter is real?
Combine those desires of what people want with the cross-genre possibility of literary fiction. What you end up with is "lasting fiction" which is peppered with the speculations of a generation. For me personally, I wrote speculative elements into Sketches from the Spanish Mustang not as a deus ex machina or because I thought they'd be neat, but because they fit the character's personality as much as the story. A Ute who believes in spirits is not uncommon. An immigrant farmer who was brought up in Mexico to believe his grandparents' tales of nahuales is not far-fetched.
What about the claim in that above definition that literary fiction is "principally used to distinguish 'serious fiction'...in comparison to genre fiction and popular fiction?" Well, let me ask you this: would you consider The Road by Cormac McCarthy to be serious fiction? What about Wicked by Gregory Maguire? State of Wonder by Ann Patchett? 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami? All of these are serious works, and yet they are replete with speculative elements.
Speculation (wondering the big "what if") is as natural for humans as it is to love or hate or laugh or run amok in the water sprinklers on a hot day. That it finds itself in literary fiction is no surprise. What is surprising is that so many people shun literary fiction because of the label without knowing what's in it, casting it off as "old stuff" without a modern-day focus.
SKETCHES FROM THE SPANISH MUSTANG
In Sketches from the Spanish Mustang, a haunting, heart-warming and often brutally direct exploration of the lives of seven people in the mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado, a woman must come to grips with the failings that cost the lives of her husband and child. Bestselling author Michael K. Rose says: "Mr. Wretlind has penned a tale of such emotional and literary depth it will haunt the reader long after the last page is turned."
With a pencil, a sketchbook and a keen eye for the details of the soul, the woman's lines and smudges, curves and tone reveal the stories behind her subjects. Life emerges on the page — vengeance, salvation, love and death. The artist's subjects fight for survival, only to be saved in the sketches of a woman with a gift . . . and a curse.
International Book Award winner Gregory G. Allen calls the book a "unique journey that rips away the outer layers of people allowing us to stare into their souls where humanity is universal: no matter the genre of writing."
Sketches from the Spanish Mustang will be available at all major online retailers for $14.95 on July 1st, 2012. It will also be presented in an electronic format (e.g. Kindle, nook) for $5.95.
Benjamin X. Wretlind, the author of Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors and Sketches from the Spanish Mustang, has been called "a Pulitzer-caliber writer" with "a unique American voice." Aside from novels, he has been published in many magazines throughout the past 10 years.