Translated into English by Lawrence Schimel.
Ricard Ruiz Garzón: My dear Elia, although it's now been over a year since I gave up journalism to focus on writing, I think that due to professional habits that are hard to kick, and out of respect for your distinguished trajectory, I should begin asking the questions—if that's alright with you. I propose that we try to reconsider some key elements of the fantastic genre, both those that are more traditional as well as the ones which, in my opinion, are erupting with force in this new century. Of course, in order to do so, perhaps we must allude briefly to the old debate about what the fantastic is and is not. As a professor, I stand with the lay reader and speak of the fantastic in a way that not only includes Todorov's classic concept, but also all that is non-mimetic: science fiction, fantasy, horror, the speculative in general . . . you, on the other hand, have always spoken more of science fiction as the genre that encompasses everything. Is it worth broaching this subject, or is it just another example of the stigma the genre still suffers from in Spain?
Elia Barceló: I think that the most sensible thing would be to ignore terminological questions. We've spent thirty years mired in this issue without appreciable results and most of us writers are tired of the subject; I suppose you are as well, you'll tell me. My opinion is that one should talk of the fantastic naturally and peacefully . . . it is like an enormous house with many floors and rooms.
It is non-mimetic literature that augments our mental boundaries about what reality is. Reality is also our dreams, imaginations, nightmares, inventions, reflections . . . everything that emerges from a human brain is reality (in one way or another, let's not be too persnickety). Otherwise, it wouldn't be possible for one to have a heart attack from fright or passion or sadness. It isn't important whether the ghost exists or not. The mere belief that you are facing a monster that should not exist makes your body react and become capable of things like leaping over a three-metre-tall wall or stopping your heart. If you're suddenly attacked by a velociraptor, your first reaction isn't "Velociraptors don't exist and therefore I shouldn't be afraid." The first thing you do is hide or flee, and if you have no other recourse, to confront it. Your brain doesn't care about categories when it's in danger. Reality is much broader than what literary realism thinks.
On this issue, if we want, we could resolve things very well with a quote from Borges that I love:
“This granting more importance to writings that reflect visible and palpable reality over those which are a mirror of the emotional and passionate is a prejudice lacking all justification. It derives from the encyclopedists and Zola's theorizations and is based on the absurd idea of believing that a tree or a tram are more real than I who understands them. Deep down, the seen, the suffered, the imagined, and the dreamed are equally real, that is to say, they exist.”
(J. L. Borges. Die Aktions-Lyrik 1916-1918. Berlin.)
RRG: Well, I still find this issue of terminology interesting, although of course it's not a priority and we'll drop it in a moment. Probably because I spend all my time debating it with the students of my courses in Science Fiction and Fantasy at the Ateneo School of Writing, I come back to it often. Also, as you aptly state, something that has not been resolved deserves to continue to be considered. And if I reflect on this matter, it would be that due to the rise of certain fashionable trends, many readers and many writers play with genres and sub-genres forgetting that which Ursula K. Le Guin so aptly noted: that they are categories of arrival, not departure. Today there are so many people trying to write according to YA dystopian formulas, or retrofuturist ones, or even dragonepics closer to Tolkien than to Martin, that one suspects that society hasn't assimilated that freedom of which you speak and which seems essential to me. The creative liberty that allows for the fantastic comes from letting one read (and write) from any angle beyond strict realist longing, which in many senses is limiting—but not by obeying orders that have more to do with the industry than inspiration. As a result, I care less about whether the fantastic is or is not in vogue (that is cyclical, as we know) than about attaining in Spain a normalization for the genre such as has been achieved by the mystery novel, but which we're still, unfortunately, far from realizing. Do you think in this sense that we've not taken advantage of the fantasy boom begun with Harry Potter (or was there in fact such a boom)? Do you think it is something generational? Younger readers, needless to say, have fewer prejudices in this regard, at least in film, TV series, video games . . .
EB: I continue to think that realism is a fashion that arose during the nineteenth century and was emphasized in Spain over the course of the Franco dictatorship because, since the newspapers were censored and muzzled, novelists thought that their obligation was to replace the work of journalists by speaking out about the sad sociopolitical reality being lived in the country. The fantastic was considered "escapist" and, as a result, superficial, trivial, cowardly.
Today, although a majority of critics insist in valuing realism more (one need only look to see how year after year the Nobel Prize in Literature is given to realist authors who tackle "difficult" subjects, as if the literature were the subject and not its treatment), I also think that the younger generations already don't let themselves be as swayed by "official" opinions, and they read whatever they want to, which in many cases is fantastic (of whatever sub-denomination: dystopia, horror, fantasy, etc.)
It seems to me that, deep down, it is a case that the reading public has now again realized that literature should be pleasurable and that, whatever its theme or subject, all good literature deals with the human condition, with the situation of humankind in the world (present, past, or future), the decisions that leave their mark upon individuals’ lives, the possibilities that open before one or another, the transcendence of the individual and the species.
The good and sweet is as realist as the bad and terrible, and everything has its place in literature. Now there is a much greater diversity of material and of kinds of audiences. In my opinion, what's most difficult under these circumstances is maintaining the literary quality, the aesthetic pleasure that derives from the appreciation of the literary art. I think that a serious problem is that increasingly it is being forgotten that literature is an art and doesn't merely consist of intelligibly recounting events one after another.
RRG: I agree, a generational change is taking place which, although slow, seems to me to be historic. Below the age of forty, few people distinguish between the realist and non-realist. If you ask them if they like science fiction, the stigma is still there and they might say no, but they follow Game of Thrones as likely as The Wire, they go to the movies to see The Martian as easily as Spotlight, they read Svetlana Aleksievitch or Brandon Sanderson. And that's just great, although I insist that things are different for those over forty. This is another way of saying that if these changes continue, they will be important in the medium to long term. Why . . . does it occur to anyone that, as you say, a fantasy author could win a Nobel Prize? Isn't the longstanding campaign for the Swedish Academy to consider Stephen King, ignoring questions about his quality, considered a joke by experts? Why do certain professors still arch an eyebrow when you try to convince them that Kim Stanley Robinson will be as or more influential in a few years than Mario Vargas Llosa? You're absolutely right that, beneath all of this, there is another determining factor: artistic ambition. But for me it's clear that the greater the production, even if Sturgeon's Law holds true and 90 percent of it is garbage, the greater the increase we will see in innovation, quality, good literature. This, in fact, is already happening, so now it's just a matter of waiting for the works of the new generations to appear. Always, I repeat, so long as things continue on their current trajectory. But let's be hopeful: haven't you detected some of these new key elements we're talking about, both in Spain as well as in Europe? Doesn't it seem, for example, that hybridisation is clearly one of these keys, and that the formulaic in a battle with innovation is giving rise to unsuspected amalgams and interests? In this sense, I don't think the rise of the more borderline subgenres (like the dystopia, alternate history, steampunk, etc.) is at all coincidental . . .
EB: I am in complete agreement as to the importance of hybridization versus “pure” genres. I imagine that one of the reasons is because we lifelong readers have tired of reading novels that are "just" crime stories, or love stories, or historicals, or science fiction. It is also one of the clearest characteristics of that post-postmodernism from which we don't seem to be able to emerge, to invent something truly new. I always see it as a sort of terminal Baroque, like the Churrigueresque of literature; and I see the parallels with art history: pure Gothic wound up converting into flamboyant Gothic style; the Baroque wound up as the Churrigueresque. Then, when people tired of so many twists and curves and re-curves and chubby little angels covering every surface, came a Renaissance or a Neoclassicism that swept everything away and left pure, smooth forms again, almost without ornamentation: the beauty of the structure.
It's possible that fantastic literature will also wind up like this in the near future: stripped of so many excessive elements (a fantasy melange of western with werewolves and spaceships, for example) and with a return to the cleanliness of the basic elements. Then we could perhaps begin to innovate in structures, which until now have remained rather classic.
As far as borderline genres, perhaps they have to do with what you mentioned earlier: it's a kind of return to focus on one thing instead of offering the reader colored fireworks. The dystopian or steampunk also connects with what happened to science fiction during the Cold War: it is pessimistic and understands itself as being a warning. Now we are again in a worldwide situation of insecurity, of a lack of optimism.
Before, it was the danger of nuclear war, of overpopulation, of the rise of machines and their victory over humans . . . Now we speak of the destruction of the planet by natural catastrophes that we've produced ourselves, of the end of civilization, of the barbarism of religions . . . and our only glimmer of optimism is in the alternate histories, that is to say, if things had been different, we'd be even worse off.
RRG: That's true. If dystopia, alternate history, and steampunk have enjoyed a golden age it's because right now we don't like the future, and dystopia condemns it (the rise of the subgenre has been in periods of crisis), alternate history reinvents it from the past (before reaching it, what would have happened if . . .?), and steampunk recovers the era in which we still believed in the future, that future associated with progress. But it's also certain that they have triumphed because they are genres halfway between fantasy and “lighter” science fiction, during a time when there's been a change of cycle and we're already at the doors of another, allowing them to reach many more readers.
I, in any event, don't see hybridisation as an absolute novelty (because it has always existed, and in fact the genre was born from it), but instead as a natural process derived from that generational change of which we spoke, and which makes people combine without problems Jonathan Franzen and Susanna Clarke. Authors do so as well, and thus we have Michael Chabon, or to cite a rising Spanish author, Emilio Bueso; they cease to be exceptions and begin to mix without problems, to experiment in subject matter and treatments, even in style. It's true that there is a certain predictability in the structure, but the way of understanding the magic of an author like Brandon Sanderson shows to me that the Campbell Syndrome, although still dominant, is no longer legion.
In this sense, I also think that “globalization” is key, that is to say, the universalization of non-western narratives, such as those from China or Japan, or more timidly those from pre-colonial Latin America, or even (and despite their many problems) those of Africa: many new things are arriving and will arrive from there, and from the cross-fertilization healthy reinventions will undoubtedly emerge. Do you think that something like that could happen from Spain? Do we have something genuine to offer the genre from here? Because when it comes to international successes, excepting yourself and Félix J. Palma and, at most if one wishes to include him for his hybridisation, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, we're coming up short . . .
EB: Some years ago now, I think at a Semana Negra or a science fiction convention, we were talking with some English-speaking writers about the issue of the lack of translations from Spanish and other languages into English. They said that of course they would be interested in knowing what is being written in Spain, but always so long as it was something truly Spanish, something purely autochthonous. Because, if they were to end up reading the same things that they were producing themselves, publishers didn't have to spend all that money translating it.
It was true that much Spanish science fiction, horror, and fantasy followed English-language models exactly and, instead of innovating, what it frequently did was repeat and, hopefully, add original elements that were personal but not immediately recognizable as “Spanish.” For a long time being Spanish left us feeling a sort of shame, our inheritance from the dictatorship.
However, since the 1990s (and even a bit earlier) the autochthonous components of our fiction have increased, although I wouldn't say that they can immediately be recognized as “Spanish” on being read. But the truth is that I am not particularly interested in creating a “Spanish” literature of the fantastic nor do I think that this could be of use to anyone else in other countries. Aside from anything else, it would be very difficult to define what that contribution consists of: would we need to use flamboyantly flamenco or Almodovarian characters? Would we need to mold ourselves to the stereotypes of ourselves created by other countries? Would we need to make a national social critique instead of speaking of global human concerns?
I think that is not the path to take and, in any event, it's not the one I want to follow. For me, it's more important to keep doing what I started to do years ago: writing cosmopolitan European novels, whether they have fantastic elements or not.
RRG: Well, here we disagree a bit (at last). As I mentioned before, it is not a matter of tingeing the non-English fantastic with localisms, but of introducing variations and nuances that increase, renew, and enrich it. The current primacy of English-language fantastic is the fruit of a cultural imposition due to economic factors, nothing more. And it seems to me very healthy to open the genre toward other latitudes and influence. To say something obvious, manga and anime have allowed, trends aside, for the appearance of extraordinary works that run from Akira to The Matrix, and I think that we must encourage authors to search in their roots (and also outside of them, the world has become very small) for discourses that could be of interest beyond their borders. That doesn't mean that the Spanish fantastic needs to be Spanish in everything, nor even that what's European needs to be European in everything—that's nationalism and doesn't help in literature. What I mean to say is that I am interested in English-language genre fiction, of course, but I would also like for more French, German, Greek, Hungarian, and Estonian authors to be translated, if they do something innovative in the fantastic. And in the same way, we should blend more our own fantastic tradition with that of Latin America, for obvious reasons. It seems incredible to me that so few non-Spanish Spanish-speaking authors of the fantastic are known in Spain. How many Mexican fantasy authors does the average Spanish reader know? And is that because there aren't any? Obviously that's not the case. Is it really normal that we know even the worst American genre authors, and we can't list half a dozen Europeans who don't write in English? And from Asia, aside from Cixin Liu? And Africa, I insist? Is it because only realist narrative is written in Africa? Because I've just read Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen and it was just great . . .
In any event, and now that we're talking about stigma, would you agree that the principal one is that of gender in the genre, that is to say, women in the fantastic? How is it possible that there isn't more ink and conversation about the massive irruption of women authors and readers in a world that has traditionally and unjustly been dominated by men? Unquestionably, there are revisions to the canon such as the case of Lola Robles or Teresa López-Pellisa, but even for the common reader, things have changed since the time when you were the official Grande Dame of Spanish genre (or at least the Spaniard in the Spanish-speaking trinity alongside Argentine Angélica Gorodischer and Cuban Daína Chaviano). And quite a lot . . .
EB: That's true and it's quite gratifying. There are increasingly more women in the genre, also in Spain, but it is a slow process and I have the sensation that on many occasions, these women writers lean more toward the side of fantasy, as if they think it's “more appropriate” as a genre for them.
Until now there was a very slight presence of women, both as authors and readers, you're right, but I need to put in a word of defense for my male colleagues. I never felt that I was rejected or treated inferiorly by editors, magazines, or other writers. I used to be the only woman in almost any group of science fiction writers, but I was treated exactly the same. The only moments when I felt that there was a problem because of my gender was when I published "Natural Consequences" (many male readers were offended because my main character was an overbearing macho prick) and in stories like "Loca" in which I describe a rape (a man from the present brutally rapes a female time traveler) and I use crude language. There were many criticisms and attacks because, since I was a woman, I should focus on pleasanter themes and write in more lyrical prose.
Even the most important German editor of the past few decades—when he asked me for a story, I sent him "Loca" (which had been nominated for the Ignotus—he replied, scandalized, saying “how is it possible that such a nice young woman could have written something so unpleasant” and that when I had something “prettier” he would be delighted to publish it.
But that's just an anecdote.
The fact of being a woman has never caused me any problems that stood in the way of being published or accepted in fandom. Now there are increasingly more women and, as far as I know, there is no difference either in treatment nor opportunities.
RRG: Well, the truth is that this issue has become of the utmost relevance over the course of the year. The polemics in Angoulême or the Semana Negra conference in Gijón because of the absence of women authors among the finalists for their respective prizes has without doubt been healthy. It is certain that we've improved, and that forced parity is at odds with creative freedom, but it is also unquestionable that we have been under a male perspective for such a long time, and even more within the genre world, so that we now treat as normal things that aren't actually so. In my courses, I see 80 percent female students versus 20 percent male ones. It is accepted that there are more female readers than male, and with the turn of the century, a good number of the popular brands in the genre have come to be named Rowling, Meyer, or Collins. And yet many accept as normal that there are anthologies published which contain 90 percent male authors, or that there aren't more female authors in the prizes and best-of-the-year lists, or that in countries like our own it seems that apparently a woman who wants to call herself an author needs to immediately tackle subjects like relationships or maternity. I know that it's a process, and that the great female authors of this generation have only just begun to publish, but there are still many resistances to be overcome. And that's without getting into overcoming the man-woman dichotomy and entering into queer, LGBT, and heteropatriarchal abuse, or topics such as those you point to: Where are the women writing hard SF? How come when people talk about the five "aces" of world fantasy (Martin, Rothfuss, Gaiman, Sanderson, Abercrombie) no woman is included? Why is it that authors like Anna Starobinets, De Bodard, Beukes, Willis, Leckie, Moon, and Clarke find it more difficult to shore up their success than their male counterparts? Is it really a question of quality? I sincerely doubt that. And there are too many examples that indicate that the opposite is true. We are improving, yes, but we still don't have full equality yet. And in any situation of inequality (this is a textbook case) it is necessary to reinforce criteria and dismantle the abuses of the dominant discourse.
By the way, is there a subject for discussion that you'd like to propose? Is there some other notable new key element you want to talk about?
EB: I'm not sure . . . Perhaps one would be that of the fantastic in other media, what you pointed to at the beginning: comics, TV series, video games, film . . . it’s natural that all these new languages have influence on the literary, as was the case of film since its beginnings. However I, perhaps because my unconditional love belongs to the art of the word, think that one needs to be very careful to avoid converting literature into a sort of substitute for other forms of storytelling. I've always detested the novelisations of films, for example, or graphic novels based on existing novels, reducing and simplifying them.
Each of these narrative possibilities is a world in itself and has every right to exist, but I advocate for my right to write novels and stories within the tradition of novels and stories without pretending that they be a sort of movie to be “read.” I don't see the need of concentrating the information and accelerating the pace when I'm writing a novel just because the reader doesn't have time to lose. If the reader only wants to spend two hours, let them watch a film. If they wish to read a novel, they'll have to grant more time to the endeavour.
I don't want to have to relinquish my character's reflections, internal monologues, or descriptions that seem necessary to me. I don't know how you see it, but I think that everything has its attraction and possibilities, and that is precisely the beauty of the matter. If I want to read a comic, I don't want to have to read long additional texts. If I'm reading a novel, I don't need to have illustrations nor a background soundtrack.
Nor do I want to have to turn myself into a one-woman band when I want to tell a story. I specialise in narrating stories with words, within a literary tradition that I know well and which, with luck, I can subvert, break, and cause to evolve. But I don't know how to draw, to compose music, nor to create intricate layouts, nor to promote myself using all the possibilities offered by social media. If that is the future of literature, I won't be able to take part in it as a creator any more.
RRG: This is another interesting point, to say the least. Yes, one must vindicate narrative for what it is, and not sell it out it in search of the attention that other modes already receive for themselves. So that we understand one another, it’s not a question of creating novels in the style of video games in order to attract a gaming audience, even if Ernst Cline is doing very well doing just that. However, it seems to me that there are some very positive interactions. In the same way that literature has nourished and continues to feed film, and vice versa, today it seems obvious that TV series are altering the way many creators tell stories, and from that come works with the ambition of Brilla, mar del Edén by Andrés Ibáñez (winner of the National Award), to demonstrate that this feedback can give rise to ingeniousness in which the literary aspect isn't sacrificed in the slightest. On the other hand, the rise of transmedia will unquestionably alter (it is already doing so) production models, and literature won't be an exception. Yes, you and I shall die still seeing books on paper like they've always been, and there will continue to be writers in the manner of Cervantes. But many writers will also be content generators for other modes, storytellers in different formats, and it is good that this is the case. In fact, there have already been authors who were screenwriters and vice versa; could George R. R. Martin write the way he does without having worked for so many years in television? Why can't there be good authors who earn their living writing gamebooks or apps, in such a way that that enriches their literary creations? What's more, won't digital narratives be written in some different way? Or has the introduction of computers and the Internet not perhaps altered our way of writing as compared to, for example, that of Melville’s, with his insufferable overlong paragraphs about cetaceans? The fact that technology has avoided the profusion of what Umberto Eco calls "Salgarisms" and I often call "wikibricks" doesn't seem to me a narrative prejudice; just the opposite. Another thing, of course, is that today we think that all writing must describe an audiovisual experience; I am not in favor of that either. The rest, however, is welcome. I am one of those who thinks that for my trajectory in the genre (warning: what I'm about to say is a sacrilege) Michael Moorcock might wind up having as much influence as Black Mirror.
Speaking of our trajectories, let me ask you, please, about your evolution as an author. I, beyond having put together the dystopian anthology Mañana todavía (featuring twelve authors, including yourself) and my YA series Guardianes de Sueños, still have everything left to prove when it comes to narrative. But you, who are a role model, and as the author of such notable works as Sagrada, El vuelo del Hipogrifo, The Goldsmith's Secret (for me, a masterpiece), Heart of Tango, Cordeluna, or the recent Ánima Mundi trilogy, I think you are a good reflection of what has taken place in the European fantastic. The first word that comes to mind to define your work is "versatility," and you have spoken about this yourself on some occasions, but it's also true that there are certain core subjects that permeate your books: love and cruelty, for example. Do you find yourself comfortable with those terms? How do you think they have grown over the course of your career?
EB: You're right about love and cruelty, but I think that time also needs to be added: it is one of the most important elements in my work, one that I've used in many different ways, whether as a literal return to the past, as happens in The Goldsmith's Secret, or as the unexpected contact between two times, past and present, as I did in Heart of Tango, or in Cordeluna or even in El vuelo del Hipogrifo, although there it was a case of parallel literary worlds in an historical past. Even in the Ánima Mundi series, one of the central questions is the tremendous longevity of the central characters, which allows them to constantly compare and reflect on the development of humanity.
For me, love is, in the word of Leonard Cohen (my favorite living poet) "the only engine of survival," and I consider it one of the greatest forces of the universe, on the same level (and I know that this sounds like a very unscientific exaggeration) as gravity or magnetism. Logically, it is not always a sentimental and/or sexual relationship between two or more people, but I am interested in all kinds of love and indifference, lack of love, and also hate, which is a kind of perverted love. That allows me to connect easily with hate, with pain. Do you remember the song "Love Hurts," that Nazareth made so famous in the '70s? In my opinion, what hurts is not love, but not being loved, or not managing to feel it, or being betrayed, or cheated on . . . All that is what I use in my novels and stories, together with mystery, which is one of my most-used narrative tools in addition to the investigation and revelation of secrets from the past, which project their shadow onto the present. That is something I also use in my realist novels.
Over the course of my development I've always been interested, above all, in characters, beings (human or not) facing extreme situations. Lately, in my genre work, I have leaned more toward the dystopia, science fiction that makes a social critique, because I have the feeling that since we often look a bit further than others, authors of science fiction have the obligation to warn of certain possible negative developments, to expand the boundaries of thinking among our readers. That has produced books like Futuros peligrosos (eight extrapolative stories in a very near future) or Mil euros por tu vida (which has been filmed as a feature-length movie titled Transfer in 2009), or the dystopia that appeared in Mañana todavía, which you edited, "2084: Después de la Revolución," or "Hijas de Lilith," which will be published in an anthology about artificial women that Teresa López-Pellisa is putting together, which you're also a contributor to.
As happened to Julio Cortázar, I've also reached a moment in my life in which, without abandoning the realm of the fantastic, I've begun to write texts that are more critical, more political, perhaps more admonitory. Science fiction, like any other genre, can be trivial, of course, but that's not what interests me. Gabriel Celaya said that "poetry is a weapon loaded with future"; it is precisely what I feel with regard to the genre of the fantastic and science fiction.
Perhaps it is mere optimism and "wishful thinking," but I am convinced that in the future, the history of literature will remember the second half of the twentieth century, and the twenty first century, as the moments during which the defining works of our period—the fantastic ones—appeared. These works are the ones that speak of our fears and hopes, of our position versus the modern world, of the new themes that are arising now and which hadn't existed before (computing, robotics, domotics, genetics, mass manipulation, etc.). Realist novels will surely remain interesting from an historic point of view, to remember how life was lived in the past, but they won't have much more importance for the readers of the future; with the exception of those which, as literary works of art, merit rereading. But they will be few in number.
RRG: We'll need to be alert to all that, I agree. It's been a pleasure, Elia, and an honour, as always. Many thanks for this enriching time. See you (and read you) soon.