We’d like to take November’s blog to introduce an upcoming concept issue for our journal. While Orca was founded on our love for literary storytelling, we like to champion any use of rich, carefully crafted language. Some of our favorite novels and short stories fall under the umbrella of genre fiction, but they remain classics in our heart for their wonderful use of language and their broad exploration of imagination.
With that in mind, beginning with our fourth issue and continuing with every third issue of Orca, we will be celebrating submissions of literary speculative fiction and shining a deserved light on those storytellers who push boundaries and manage to break away from the conventions and tropes of their genre and seek to craft something truly special.
What do we mean by the terms Literary and Speculative—and what does it mean when those two worlds combine?
Literary: A style of writing in which the focus is on language and character, and plot is often secondary. A literary story is about ideas. It has an overarching theme distinct from the narrative and a leitmotif running through it. It treats its characters as real human beings and not as props to espouse an author’s opinion or to simply move the plot forward. It approaches language as art: a literary writer pays attention to every sentence, every word.
Speculative: The term “speculative” has been employed by writers and editors to connote works from a variety of genres, such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian, space opera, and similar subjects. All of those genres are welcome, and we hope to celebrate shining examples of them all, but for Orca we are specifically looking for submissions that adhere more closely to the original sense of the word, which is to consider what might be, instead of what is. Think a near-future where the political structure is turned on its head. Think about an alternative present where the South won the Civil War. Imagine a fantastical horror that over the course of ten pages begins to feel all too real. Think Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone. Think “what if….”
Both definitions pay particular attention to the idea behind the story. Good, literary speculative fiction has its basis in concepts that are larger (often much larger) than the story itself, and seeks to examine one aspect of it, and how that aspect affects the story’s characters.
A great example of excellent literary speculative fiction can be found in the opening paragraph of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Notice how, on its surface the narrator is simply establishing a setting, but then marvel at how, within this description, Atwood manages an incredible amount of world building:
We slept in what had once been a gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirt, then pants, then in one earring, spike green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, and undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands make of up of issue paper flowers, cardboard devils, and a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with snow of light.
Not a word is wasted. Notice how the backstory it hints at creates far more questions than answers. Notice how the future being described is done, not through heavy-handed narration or purple prose, but through carefully constructed sensory images that give the novel’s world a full past, present, and future, all in a brief 150 words.
Other great examples of this type of writing include works by Ted Chiang, Kelly Link, Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula K. LeGuin, Julio Cortázar, and Ta-Nehisi Coates latest novel, The Water Dancer. Notice how Chiang’s stories are much more about the people dealing with and affected by the great unknown than they are about defining the unknown itself. Remember that LeGuin was using the lens of science fiction and fantasy to tackle subjects like institutionalized racism and transgender rights long before they were at the forefront of the political realm.
Horror, too, can find a home within the speculative literary world, for what genre better epitomizes the collective sentiment of the human condition that we tend to feel today? In this world of polemics and 24-hour push notifications, who among us can turn on the news or read an article and not be stricken with a sense, false or not, of impending doom?
There are few better than Shirley Jackson when it comes to writing literary horror. Consider her opening to Hill House and the world it opens up to us, like the day to twilight shift of a full eclipse:
No organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
While we want to keep this upcoming issue open to all types of literary speculative fiction, it is unlikely that we would publish anything considered high fantasy or hard sci-fi. So too, would we be likely to pass on anything that focuses on extreme gore, violence, or eroticism. All of those can be great tools for a skilled writer, but only when used sparingly.
Consider this thematic issue our challenge to the many writers who have submitted to us in the past, to break away from the mold and to craft something boldly imaginative. To pose a “what if…,” explore it, and perhaps, even attempt to answer it. We cannot wait to read your submissions!
– Zac and Joe