Since its first issue appeared last year, Austin-based annual journal Unstuck has found huge success among a growing base of readers interested in their offbeat, fantasy-focused approach to fiction.
“There’s a lot of discussion now on where the border between literary and speculative fiction lies, and what it means to ‘cross over,’” editor Matthew Williamson told us last December. “We’re really not interested in that discussion. We don’t want you to have to join that conversation to enjoy our stories. We’re more interested in creating a meeting place for readers and writers of all interests.”
On Sunday, Feb. 26 at 2 p.m., Unstuck presents an afternoon of readings and live performances. The event will showcase stories from Elizabeth McCracken, Arthur Bradford, Matthew Derby and Lindsay Hunter, as performed by local writers like McCracken, Owen Egerton, Jessica Dean and Tyler Stoddard Smith.
Smith is a Houston-born, Austin-based writer whose work defies categorization; he’s a regular contributor to humor site The Big Jewel, but he’s also contributed to The Best American Fantasy. He’s appeared in dozens of literary journals (including UTNE, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Pindeldyboz and more), but his forthcoming book, Whore Stories (out July of this year) is “a revealing history of the world’s oldest profession.”
We spoke with Smith about this weekend’s innovative Unstuck event, the surprising history behind humor v. fantasy and his experience writing both.
You've written both humor and fantasy; is it safe to say those two genres converge in this event?
Not at all. In fact, it's quite dangerous. People should remember the disastrous summit of '61, when Dorothy Parker and C.S. Lewis came to knuckles over who lay claim to trolls: The humorists or the fantasists. Luckily for Ms. Parker, fantasy authors have notoriously abysmal fitness regimens. To be honest, though, I think all humor has an element of fantasy to it and vice versa. Unless we're talking about schadenfreude, which means "laughing at German people," and quite rooted in reality.
The Unstuck event will be funny and fantastic in every sense of the word, too. It's refreshing because it's nothing like what people are probably used to in terms of readings. The audience is in the dark through the readings, while the readers are well-lit. People aren't coming and going. There's no Q and A afterwards. We really want people to be able to forget themselves for an hour and peep into the worlds that the authors of these stories have imagined.
I love the style of writing on The Big Jewel, which is smart and relevant but also absurd and generally character-driven. Unstuck's style emphasizes 'literary fiction with elements of the fantastic,' and I'm struck by how similar fantasy and humor are, on paper, Do you think fantasy is inherently humorous? Or that humor is inherently always fantasy, too?
"To be honest, I think all humor has an element of fantasy to it and vice versa. Unless we're talking about schadenfreude, which means 'laughing at German people,' and quite rooted in reality. "
The Big Jewel does a great job, in my opinion, of like you say, incorporating absurd and character-driven elements of creative fiction and keeping it interesting. There can be real pathos in humor and fantasy and I think they all feed off each other.
Of course, people get scared off by the word "fantasy." I had a story anthologized once in a collection of "fantasy," and most of the authors were skittish. "Oh hell," they all said, "here there be wizards, but what the hell — it's an anthology." Of course, like you say, and very similar to what Unstuck is doing, the pieces were fantastic, but not necessarily fantasy. Of course, when the editors decided for a brief moment that they might call it "Magical Realism," all the authors were plenty happy to be sorted into the fantasy stack.
It's a shame, really, that fantasy has come to be known as just orcs and portals and outer space herpes and whatnot. The funniest writing to me is always weighted with elements of fantasy. I'm thinking of Catch-22. Sure, it's rooted in realism, I suppose, but the world Heller creates it utterly fantastic, more so to me even than something like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe, at least in terms of the outlandishness on a character level.
I suppose the best example of the fantasy meshing with the funny is Borges, though, and many of the stories in Unstuck do have a kind of "unsettling," Borgesian, if that even is a word, quality to them. Especially "The Carrot," by Arthur Bradford — the story I'll be reading. It's not humor and it's not fantasy, but it sure as hell swallows them both up along the way. I suppose the short answer is that I don't think anyone knows what fantasy means, and that includes me, at the front of that line.
What about the place of humor in non-fiction?
Life is funny, no matter how serious one tries to be. In fact, life becomes funnier the more serious one tries to be. At least for me. Nothing funnier than a serious man with a hole in his pants. Of course, there's a time and place for everything, but I can't imagine not trying to find humor in everything. If there's none to be found, that's fine. Be serious for a while. But it does life a disservice not to recognize its inherent humor.
Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind your forthcoming book, Whore Stories?
My agent actually pitched the idea to me. I was bothering him on Gchat, asking for his advice about opening a sexy car wash chain, when he proposed the idea. It's been great, though. You'd be amazed worked as prostitutes. Did you know Steve McQueen used to drink his own ejaculate on stage in Havana, Cuba? I mean, he got paid for it, but still. I think it'll be interesting, informative and I hope funny. Lots of tremendous information and revelation, although when I finished writing it, I felt like I needed to take a six month shower.
See Tyler Stoddard Smith with Elizabeth McCracken, Owen Egerton and Jessica Dean this Sunday, Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. at the Hyde Park Theatre