We got an additional thrill when we saw four of the contributors to American Fantastic Tales among the nominees in other categories:
- Caitlin R. Kiernan, who contributed the story “The Long Hall on the Top Floor,” was nominated for her novel, The Red Tree.
- Jeff VanderMeer, who contributed the story “The General Who Is Dead,” was nominated for his novel Finch.
- Brian Evenson, who contributed the story “The Wavering Knife,” was nominated for his collection Fugue State.
- And Gene Wolfe, who contributed the story “The Little Stranger,” was nominated for two collections, The Very Best of Gene Wolfe and The Best of Gene Wolfe.
Library of America: In his famous essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft wrote that tales of “cosmic fear” would always find an audience among those of “requisite sensitiveness” but that “relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to tappings from outside.” By contrast, Joyce Carol Oates has explained the addictiveness of “tales of the gothic-grotesque” by noting that “readers of genre fiction, unlike readers of what we presume to call ‘literary fiction,’ assume a tacit contract between themselves and the writer: they understand that they will be manipulated, but the question is how? and when? and with what skill? and to what purpose?” Are they talking about the same readers? How would you characterize the audience for American Fantastic Tales?Related LOA works: American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to Now (boxed set); H. P. Lovecraft: Tales
Peter Straub: Lovecraft supposed that his tales would find their best audience among the imaginatively refined, while Oates wishes to remark the inherent superiority of realistic literary fiction over hypothetically cruder, more compromised genre work. It does not seem likely that they are speaking of the same readers. Over Lovecraft’s supposition hovers the flavor and atmosphere of Decadence, of The Yellow Book and Swinburne and Ernest Dowson; Oates’s position is more daylit and reasonable, but both positions are radically divisive. Lovecraft’s assumptions about his audience are completely personal to him, and of interest primarily for psychological reasons. Oates expresses a deeply familiar literary opinion, one with wide general acceptance. For that reason, it is worth looking at.
All fiction, literary or genre, seeks to manipulate its readers. Every novel is an effort to present a completely formed and coherent view of the way its particular world works, and every novelist is doing her best to make her case persuasive. As Marilynne Robinson once remarked, novelists are always standing on top of a hill, shouting, “No, you’re all wrong, this is how the world works.” In this regard, there is no essential difference between the writer of a literary novel and the writer of a crime novel. The differences have to do with matters other than manipulation: open-endedness, psychological acuity, formal beauty, the quality of the prose, depth of feeling, alertness to ambiguity, suggestions of the world’s depth and richness, supple transitions, and a hundred other things. A writer of the fantastic may or may not possess the kind of writerly authority implied by these considerations, but if she does, her work might as well be called “literary.” It won’t be, though; the fences are too high. However, to be completely frank, work of this kind is always as good, in a literary sense, as most “literary” efforts, and often better than most.
To see what I am talking about, a reader could turn to John Cheever’s “Torch Song,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Daemon Lover,” or M. Rickert’s “The Chambered Fruit.” Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” is one of the greatest stories of the past two decades, worthy of a dozen rereadings. To answer your final question, the audience for these stories is open-minded, imaginatively playful, and interested in complicated, richly rewarding pleasures.