After I published The Jane Austen Book Club, the questions I got asked most often (and still get asked most often) concern the first person plural narrator. 1) Who is the "we" in The Jane Austen Book Club? And 2) why did I make the decision to go with that point of view?
The answer to the first question has nothing to do with Carol Emshwiller and so I'm skipping it here. Ask me later.
But to the second question, I have an answer I usually give and, among its advantages, is the fact that it's true. What I usually say is this: Jane Austen was, in her narrative technique, quite an innovative writer. But her toolkit has become so standard that if I used her own methods today, they would carry none of that sense of innovation. She is so influential in the ways we tell stories that her influence is now invisible to us and feels instead just like the way stories are told. So I wanted something with more flash, something that might feel less ordinary in the way I imagined Austen's narration might have appeared new and different to a discerning contemporaneous reader.
But it is also true that I did not make up the first person plural narrator and am making no claims myself to innovation. Carol Emshwiller was not the first to use it either, but she has an unparalleled mastery of it. Though it remains an uncommon viewpoint outside her work, she uses it often. I found traces of it in the very first Emshwiller story I ever read—"Abominable"—a tale in which a band of manly men go searching in the snow for elusive missing females.
So the quicker and arguably even more true answer to that second question is this: the we viewpoint looked like so much fun when Carol (and also Kelly Link) did it, I wanted some of that fun for myself. (It is fun, as it turns out. Big fun. I totally recommend it.)
Recently I've begun to notice elements, techniques, and viewpoints from Carol's writing in more places than my own stories. For decades, Carol has primarily been published as a science fiction writer. My impression is that, while always admired and often beloved, her work was seen as essentially idiosyncratic. Whatever it was she was doing, she was doing it alone, and off in her own brilliant little corner of the field. She is the sort of writer to whom the word "quirky" is applied. "A writer's writer." "A cult favorite."
She still defies imitation. But it is my contention that sometime in the last fifteen to twenty years, she has become stealthily influential. I'm unable to find much in her work that suggests to me who her own influences were; she seems to have come on the scene already one-of-a-kind. Because of that, I'm positing her as writer0, the primogenital writer in this group that I'm therefore calling the Emshwillerians.
I cannot speak to her direct influence as a teacher, though she has certainly been that. But she and I both participated for many years in the Sycamore Hill workshop, so I do have a sense of the way she critiques, the way she might lead a class, and some of the issues that she has raised in that role for me.
Here, though, I am thinking more broadly about the influence of her work. I asked a handful of writers if they had written anything they wouldn't have written, or written something in a different way, because of reading her. The following writers answered yes: Christopher Barzak, Jonathan Lethem, Jim Kelly, Gregory Frost, David Schwartz, Eileen Gunn, Pat Murphy, Meghan McCarron, John Kessel, and Kelly Link. Many of these went on to talk very specifically about the ways and places of that influence, but some of them are writing their own statements about Carol, so I won't preempt them here. Instead, I'll note that though this is only a list of writers I happened to ask, it is also a list of writers whose own impact is, or is likely to become, substantial.
Because—John Kessel said this to me and I agree—there are a number of writers influenced by Carol indirectly through other writers and other works. Many of these may be completely unaware of her influence on them, and yet it is still there.
A list of the specifics of her impact on me would include her comic timing and her comic subtlety. I've heard her referred to as a literary writer, but less often as a hilarious one. She is the kind of funny I wish to be.
Also included would be a sort of conceptual daring-do. I was charmed and amazed, back again in that first story, back in our very first encounter, by the inclusion of charts and line drawings, as well as by the high concept nature of the story itself. She made me see that the things you could do in and with stories were more varied and vaster than I'd thought. She made me want to work at the outermost limits of my imagination rather than in the nearer spaces. She made me worry less about the scaffolding that might or might not be holding me up.
Finally, and this is something I think I was less conscious of, she showed me, as Austen had done before her, how much a story could depend on voice. Emshwiller, also like Austen, has an intimate voice. She whispers. Her prose conveys character as well as plot; her perspective often comes in on some surprising slant. She tends toward the unreliable narrator, which is what we all ultimately are, so best just to admit it and get on with things, says I.
I think that, when someone finally counts them up, the fiction-writing children and grandchildren of Carol Emshwiller will make for a pretty large group. I wouldn't be surprised if we outnumbered the cyberpunks.
I leave it to someone else, perhaps someone already wrestling with the slippery definition of slipstream (which is where Carol is often to be found), to enumerate the elements of the Emshwillerian movement. I have so often claimed to be profoundly uninterested in categories and labels, that it would be unseemly to involve myself in that now. What I can do is point out, in the most helpful way possible, that it needs to be done. And that someone else needs to do it.