American Culture

Meet Transrealism – the New Literary Buzz…?

Claims of a new 21st century literary movement called “Transrealism” are, so far, just that – claims….

Why one should not swim in Black Lagoons (image courtesy Xombie News Network)

There have been a number of cross-genre fiction experiments being spun out these days. The most famous (and commercially successful) of these experiments is likely steam punk, a blending of elements of historical and science fiction, though the commercial success crown might belong to cyberpunk, the blending of “high tech and low life” that crosses elements of hard boiled detective fiction with dystopian visions.  Other experiments have crossed science fiction with horror, sometimes with impressive results, sometimes with unintentionally humorous ones.

A recent piece from The Guardian book blog suggests that now authors have crossed into new territory – they’re crossing realism, traditional territory of literary fiction, with some narrative thread that hearkens to science fiction, fantasy, or horror. The writer at The Guardian is sure this is the first new literary movement of the 21st century.

I have to say I remain unconvinced.

There is certainly a plethora of genre bending and experimentation with traditional literary forms afoot in the new century. One of the most successful has the preposterous title (and lives up to its title by being preposterous to the point of silliness),  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. We’ve also had a retelling of the above novel from the point of view of Mr. Darcy and Little Women from the point of view of the absent Peter March who was away in the Civil War during the events of the original novel. There are many other examples of this sort of reinvention of the literary canon – I’m working on The Vampire Catcher in the Rye myself (I kid because, well, because a lot of this stuff is being driven by ideas from publisher marketing departments and deserves to be skewered as often as possible so that maybe at some point writers will decide to quit using Publisher’s Weekly as their only sources of inspiration).

But what Damien Walter, the author of The Guardian’s piece, claims is that we have a new literary movement on our hands. The trouble is, his examples are all authors firmly rooted in 20th century fiction: Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Iain Banks, even Stephen King – all these authors’ best work was behind them as the 21st century dawned. Even David Foster Wallace, by far the youngest of the group he mentions, had (sadly, given his tragic end), done his major work pre-Y2K.

If we look further into the matter, Transrealism seems to be but a variation of an already well established genre of literary fiction, magic realism. The work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Laura Esquivel, et alia, reaches back to the stories of Jorge Luis Borges which reaches back to the work of Franz Kafka – and that gets us closer to the beginning of the last century than this one. Since one of Walter’s criteria for Transrealism is that it might infuse elements of fantasy, surely magic realism qualifies as, well, Transrealism. But since it’s already called magic realism, well…. And while we’re talking about this matter, wouldn’t an early triumph of what Walter calls Transrealism’s use of science fiction within a realistic narrative be a book by Kurt Vonnegut called Slaughterhouse-Five? A novel published in 1969?

Walter has identified an interesting phenomenon in literature. And he raises interesting questions about the influence of Phillip K. Dick on later writers. But what he means perhaps as a new discovery is maybe more a history lesson on what Postmodernism did to the literary canon: it blew it up in a way that pieces of it are landing in all sorts of unexpected places.

What actually seems to be the case is this – traditional realism, magic realism, dirty realism, even Transrealism – they’re all variations on the oldest writing theme of all: trying to convey what it means to live through this crazy experience called life. They’re what we might call variations on a theme.


3 replies »

  1. I’m scratching my head over this one because if I understand the argument, it really can apply to a LOT of stuff that doesn’t get mentioned. You’re right – many of the authors being talked about here are 20th century writers. Why aren’t we talking about something like Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM? And there’s a good bit of writing in stuff like the vampire genre that, once you get past the fact that there are, you know, vampires, is pretty hard-boiled. If the books were anywhere near as accomplished as the TV series, I might go so far as to maybe kinda make this argument about the TRUE BLOOD series.

    In any case, it really boils down, in essence, to a conversation you and I have been having for years about the literary/genre divide. All this is, I think, is the bridging to literary and genre, so long as we’re specifically talking about fantasy, horror or maybe SF.


    • Well, the truth is, if there’s a new subgenre identified to be called transrealism, then let’s see it as a historical development that we’re just now identifying – not as a brand new thing for the 21st century. BTW, I bought a Stephenson book “Cryptonomicron.”

      And yes, this the noting the bridging of the literary/genre divide – which is something you and I have been discussing for close to 3 decades now.. I think accurately noting the time that bridging first occurred is what i’d like to see done here. Walter is right about a lot – but he’s way off on the timeline.

      The whole name thing is, in the most literal sense, a matter of semantics. 🙂

      • Cryptonomicon is a great book, but is probably the least transrealisty of anything he’s written (save maybe Zodiac and REAMDE). The Baroque Trilogy definitely has transrealist elements, although they’re relatively buried until the end.

        So yeah. Not a new thing….