Let’s Get Irreal

3 Apr

The Cafe Irreal, an online journal, was the first place to publish excerpts from “Mr. Deadman,” back in 2008, when it was a work-in-progress. In web time it’s a venerable journal, having been online since 1998. It features non-realistic writing in the tradition(s) of Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, to name a few of the most important literary forbears. Irrealism is one of a number of overlapping terms that have been applied over the years to non-realistic, “non-traditional” literature. When I was getting started as a writer in the ‘seventies, the term was very much in vogue. Other terms that were used to describe the type of writing that I was attempting and being influenced by included “experimental,” “innovative,” and that old favorite, “avant garde.”

For me, all of these terms are limited and limiting. I find “experimental” and “innovative” too descriptive of process or intent, too slippery and vague when it comes to actually describing the work, and needlessly scary to many readers who would probably enjoy much of this work. To a great degree, there was a certain self-congratulatory trap that experimental/innovative writers fell into back in the ‘seventies, some implicitly and others explicitly claiming an esthetic (and sometimes moral) superiority for these approaches while John Gardner, Cynthia Ozick, and Tom Wolfe, among others, were even more hysterically arguing that these writers were a threat to literature, morality, and western civilization.

To call something “avant garde” in the 21st century would be both silly and presumptuous. “Irreal” is, I think, too much of a shibboleth to be wholly adequate.

Anyway, as I was thinking about terminology some time ago I came up with a term that works for me: “alternate mindset literature.” It’s writer-centered and it’s open-ended, but it limns a territory apart from realistic literature without carrying a value judgement about that which it is not.

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