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In this conversation, part of the Author and the Critic series for this Strange Horizons special issue on SFF reviews and criticism, Megan Milks and Aishwarya Subramanian discuss childhood reading, engagements with genre, and the possibilities of fiction, and community, in creating literary criticism. Megan is a writer, critic and academic, and the author of, among other things, Kill Marguerite (2014) and Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (2021). Slug, a revised and expanded version of their first collection of short fiction, was published at the end of 2021. Aishwarya is a critic and academic. She researches children’s literature, fantasy, and spatiality and borders. She’s also a reviews editor at Strange Horizons

Aishwarya Subramanian: You’ve had a ridiculously productive year, at least as far as publishing books goes, with a novel (Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body), a collection of short stories (Slug, an updated version of your earlier collection, Kill Marguerite), a nonfiction internet memoir (Tori Amos Bootleg Webring) and an anthology which you co-edited (We Are the Baby-sitters’ Club, edited with Marisa Crawford). I’m tediously listing these out partly because I want to ask you some specific things about all of them, but also because I’m always struck by the range of your work and influences. When I read Kill Marguerite, back in 2014 (readers might want to know that we “met” because I wrote a very excited review of that book), one of the things that was so refreshing for me was the way that it brought together parts of my reading life that I’d always thought of as separate: I am a reader and fan of science fiction and fantasy, and I’m also someone who was intensely into pop culture about/ targeted at pre-teen and teenage girls in the 1990s (a period when I was a pre-teen and subsequently teenage girl), and somehow those things never seemed to meet either in my own mind or in the groups of people with whom I shared them. And so, coming to your work, there was an intense thrill of recognition, as well as a sense of the possibilities that open up when you juxtapose genres (which is something I want to talk more about!), but also a feeling that my critical vocabularies for talking about these things needed opening up as well; that they’d developed in isolation from one another. All of which is a long preliminary to asking you: how do you think about the genres you work with?

Megan Milks: What an exciting opening question—thank you for this! And I can’t thank you enough for that incredible review of Kill Marguerite—it was such a smart and generously attentive reading of my work. Yes, I am fairly obsessed with genre. The word can be a bit slippery, though, since it’s used in so many ways in conversations about writing—how do I think about genre? There’s fiction as a literary genre defined against nonfiction and poetry. There’s genre as it is used within fiction: where literary fiction gets opposed to “genre fiction” such as SFF, romance, mystery/crime, YA, etc. Then there are the various, more specific genres of story that exist within and beyond the above genres: for example, the migration story, the bildungsroman, pandemic horror. I’ve started to think of my work as embracing genre anarchy because it tends to cross and recross genre at all of these levels. My novel Margaret is a coming-of-age novel that invokes the girl detective story, paranormal juvenile fiction, choose-your-own-adventures, friend/girl group series like the Baby-Sitters Club, illness memoirs, post-confessional feminist writing, and more. It’s adult literary fiction and it’s YA, it has fantasy and mystery elements—it’s been categorized on various book lists as Historical Fiction, Mystery, and Thriller (!). It also blurs fiction and memoir.

When I repurpose and recombine genres in fiction, I am typically working with those that are part of my literary heritage—that’s definitely how I think about the genres I take up in Margaret and in many of the stories in Slug. Whether it’s the girl group series, memoirs of anorexia, or the capsules of personal humiliation collected in Seventeen Magazine’s “Traumarama” column, these are narrative genres that have been encoded into my writerly DNA. In this sense, genre is one way I bring autobiography into my fiction—it’s a mark of the narrative environments I’ve lived in and been shaped by. I also just like to see what happens when I put my personal experience in tension with an available genre or text—each invariably bends the other, revealing something new about both, and about how and why we tell stories.

In the past I would typically come to a genre or specific text with an idea of bringing a critique to it through exposing what I perceived as a fault or an absence. Usually, these early drafts would be horribly, flatly satirical and kind of smug—not very interesting. Since they were directed towards girls and young women, many of the books that I absorbed as an adolescent were perceived as “lesser.” And though I loved them wholeheartedly as a young reader, as an adult writer I felt sort of obliged, I guess, to adopt a critical stance: to pore over them and mock all their flaws. (Somehow, I considered this feminist.) But the more I returned to them for source material, the more I admired these texts and remembered what they gave me.

Now when I turn to a given genre I’m more interested in its affordances: what does it do? What more could it do? How can I exploit it in a way that respects what it offers while stretching it to accommodate something…else? That else-ness is usually some combination of queerness, transness, a more intersectional lens, a longer view, my own life—and a layer of loving knowingness that is less smug and more earnestly appreciative (at times this shows up as camp). There is probably some connection here between genre and gender—like many queer and trans people, I’ve moved from a position of vehemently rejecting certain tropes of gender to joyfully riffing on them. I approach genre now with the same kind of critical play.

Aishwarya Subramanian: One of the things you rightly point out here is the way in which we’re encouraged to dismiss, or feel superior about, work aimed at girls and young women. I’m a big fan of what is sometimes referred to as “Girls Own” fiction (a kind of counterpart to Boys’ Own, and with a similar history of constructing particular forms of gender identity) and when I think about the media that I consumed from about the ages of 8-14, it’s as a kind of continuation of that genre. This was often literally the case—I was reading e.g. Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books and Sweet Valley High at about the same time—but also in their function as long series narratives about girlhood and how one ought to relate to others and also how to perform being a girl. (And someone else has probably done the work on the literary ancestors of magazines like Seventeen, and how much they owe to those early girls’ magazines…) And so, even as we’re told that these books and magazines are inherently lesser by virtue of being commercial literature targeted at audiences of girls, for those of us who grow up reading them they often are deeply embedded in our sense of ourselves, how we’re performing or failing to perform those identities and what that means for how we relate to the world and to other people. Margaret opens as its main character is coming to terms with the demise of Girls Can Solve Anything, a mystery solving club modelled on the Baby-Sitters Club. As we get some of the club’s history in flashbacks we already know that it’s a lost cause, but Margaret’s own growing awareness of that, and fear about what it means not to have that solid marker of identity, is one of the things that’s so great and painful about the earliest parts of the book. I can only really speak for myself here, probably, but there are things about my reading as a child and a teenager that are quite literally, physically encoded in my body even now.

And so I love what you say here about the …intimacy? of the kind of creative play that you describe. In part because one of the “defenses” one sometimes sees of fan fiction (I don’t know if I’m being unfair in saying it’s usually from people who don’t engage with it much) is that it’s a vehicle for “criticism” of the original text, and this is often stated in a way that seems to me to have those same smug overtones as you describe here—identifying where the text is flawed or ideologically impure and “fixing” it or rewriting it to make those flaws all the more glaring. Whereas what one actually sees in practice is sometimes a lot more complex—a relationship of deep love (and often longing), that is perhaps complicated by increasing knowledge of those flaws. I’m mentioning fan fiction in particular because that is one of the things that your work sometimes is—I’m thinking of the pretty blatant take on the Sweet Valley franchise in Kill Marguerite (transformed into the less blatant “Pleasantvale” in Slug), or the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic lens through which you comment on transphobic bathroom legislation in “AB 469: A Po(r)ny-ography in Three Parts”. One of the things that I enjoy about these is that commentary on the “original” text is only a part of what they do—they’re using that text as a shared vocabulary and trusting in an audience that will recognize that vocabulary. Which also works as a corrective to the dismissal of these books and turns them into a kind of canon.

Megan Milks: I want to hear more about the things from your reading as a youth that are still with you—what sorts of things? I’m totally with you—those early books really powerfully shaped my world and my sense of self and my language. Some readers might view the genre play in Margaret as mere/more 90s “nostalgia” but I really do think of it as a literary history of the self—a history that is shared in full or in part with many other readers—so yes—a kind of canon! A popular adolescent canon from a particular time.

I’m so glad you brought up fan fiction. I’m such a fan. I got super into reading fan fiction and fan studies scholarship some years ago when I was making notes towards a novel project that tried to bring together slash fiction and the slasher film. I’ve since abandoned it—I couldn’t find my way into the characters, and I guess I had questions about my violent imagination. A few of my peers, Gina Abelkop and Tim Jones-Yelvington, were writing and thinking about the role of the fan around the same time, and then I stumbled into Tom Cho’s fiction and an essay he wrote on the use of self-insertion, a (much-maligned) fan fiction strategy, in his own work—in a campy way not dissimilar from Kathy Acker’s self-insertion projects. (I’ve written about fan fiction tactics in literary fiction here—please ignore the regrettable lead, which was a desperate attempt to give the article a news peg at my editor’s request.)

I love your description of fan fiction as “a relationship of deep love (and often longing).” Yes, similarly, there is a lot of love in my engagements with existing texts. I want to relish in these texts, while also, as you point out, using them to go somewhere else. In that sense I’m using them as a vehicle, and maybe also a hook. Borrowing characters from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (and the Equestria Girls spinoff) in “AB 469” gave me a bright, campy way to approach, and ridicule, the debates going on about trans people in bathrooms and locker rooms that were going on at the time, particularly in Wisconsin, where such legislation was under debate when I lived there. I wanted to use these ponies and their soapy story to satirize the trans-exclusionary policy under debate and its absurd fixation on the terror of bodily difference (especially as it showed up in the public hearing that I attended). I also wanted to bring the reality of queer desire into the locker room—because in all of the specious panic over “men” “pretending” “to be” “women” with some nefarious plan to have sexual access to girls and young women—there was this attendant erasure of queerness in those spaces, as if locker rooms aren’t already spaces with erotic potential. But yeah, my goal was not to skewer MLPFIM but anti-transness and anti-trans legislators.

Aishwarya Subramanian: You asked about the things from my youthful reading that are still with me, and mentioned language as one of the main ways in which those books have stayed with you. That’s definitely true for me—both in shaping a broader, more general sense of what is possible and how narrative works, and in specific turns of phrase. A small, silly example: there’s a term of endearment that I use for my dog, and a couple of years ago I was rereading one of the Chalet School books and there it was, a throwaway line in a book I hadn’t read for several years. It’s also in things like descriptions of rooms, or food, or clothing. Sometimes I’m drawn to something intensely and only later realise it’s because it somehow resembles what someone in a book wore, or ate, or a room they looked at. I don’t mention this to suggest that I regularly dress like a Sweet Valley High character (I extremely do not!); just that these details of books read at that moment are embedded in me at some level.

I don’t write fanfic, but that intimacy with a text is something that feels familiar to me as an academic and as a critic. In my academic life I work on children’s literature, and often on books (and genres) that I’ve known at this intimate level all of my life. That’s not necessarily the case for most critics, I realise, but I’ve found it a huge advantage in how I engage with any text. I’ve had to find ways to position myself in relation to literature that I love and have been shaped by, but in ways that are critically useful. And at least in science fiction and fantasy, most critical work is done by people with a long relationship to the genre. And this is something I really wanted to ask you more about; your critical and academic work, and whether you see a difference between how you approach texts/genres as a writer of (if this is a thing) “critical” fiction and nonfiction. You’ve mentioned Delany as an influence in a few places, and he’s someone who blurs a lot of those boundaries …

Another thing I wanted to pick up on (it’s tempting to bring in a sort of choose your own adventure structure here, in tribute to “Pleasantvale Twins #119: Abducted!”) is what you say above about this popular canon being a shared one. We’ve mostly been talking about reading and criticism as things that are quite personal, individual pursuits, but it’s also true that we experience these texts as part of communities, and we experience those communities through these texts. That’s evident in your fiction (I already mentioned Girls Can Solve Anything), but it feels like quite a significant part of your recent nonfiction work as well—to the extent that it’s present in the titles of Tori Amos Bootleg Webring and We Are the Baby-Sitters Club. If we read (or watch, or hear) as part of a community do we also perform critical work as part of a community?

(If you choose to read Megan's answer to the first part of this question, keep scrolling. If you choose to skip to their answer to the second part of the question, click here.)

Megan Milks: That’s such a charming example—thanks for sharing. I’m not familiar with the Chalet School books. I’m guessing they didn’t get published in the US? I probably would have loved them as a kid.

Can you say more about how you’re thinking about my work as “critical” fiction? I’m taking it to mean something like “fictional works that interrogate the texts/genres they’re engaging with,” but maybe you mean something else? In terms of how I approach texts/genres, with fiction I suppose there is more of an element of repetition via repurposing—a repetition with a difference that produces a parodic foundation on which a story is based. (Here I’m drawing on Linda Hutcheon’s definition of parody as “a form of repetition with ironic critical distance, marking difference rather than similarity.”) It’s typically in the gap between the original and my version where the critique, when there is one, and/or the personal shows up. But I’m also interested in interrogating the cultural status of these genres. That is, the notion that girly and/or adolescent genres are somehow “lower” or less valuable than highbrow fiction, or that juvenile fiction for girls was lesser than that for boys. With the Pleasantvale Twins story, I wanted to mash up two genres (Sweet Valley and Choose Your Own Adventures) that were targeted to differently gendered audiences. (While the second-person protagonist was written to be gender-neutral, the publisher chose to depict boys on most covers.) As a young reader I was aware of how certain genres were gendered and as an adult writer I wanted to interrogate that divide.

With nonfiction I’m usually offering analysis in a more straightforward way, describing a text and its effects, and/or my relationship to it, without attempting to reinhabit or reproduce it. I’m thinking about essays like the one in We Are the BSC, which explores Kristy’s construction as “immature” in the series alongside my relationship to and ambivalent identification with Kristy. So I think both analysis and the personal are showing up in both forms, but the “argument,” insomuch as there is one, comes through in different ways.

Delany was my teacher at Temple and I’m an enormous admirer of his work. I can’t remember where he said or wrote this, but I know he said or wrote something—probably related to the two genres, personal nonfiction and political theory, brought together in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue—about how spending so much time on a subject in one genre for him always leads to him writing on the same issues through another genre. I’ve always written in multiple modes and been a bit baffled by the genre divisions in writing programs. There’s a lot of similarities in the bare facts of the stories I’m telling in Margaret and in Tori Amos Bootleg Webring, for example, and there are overlapping themes between Margaret and in the essay I wrote for We Are the Baby-Sitters Club—friendship and the desire for deep intimacy and queer forms of social belonging, food/body problems, queer/trans anxieties—this is just my life, as analyzed through the various genres I’ve taken up.

Aishwarya Subramanian: By “critical fiction” I just mean fiction that uses its medium to perform some of the same functions as literary criticism. Does it deepen my understanding of why/how a text (or body of texts) works, or why/how it matters, does it open it up to a new set of ideas? Sticking with the two Pleasantvale stories in Slug because they make for useful examples: as you’ve said, there’s an element of interrogating the cultural status of things like the Sweet Valley books, and in “Abducted!” there’s a mash up of gendered forms of commercial juvenile fiction, and these things are both to do with the way these books fit into a wider cultural landscape. (As an aside, this genre mash up might also serve as a reminder that these series always did straddle genre boundaries at least a little—plenty of ghosts, at least, even if aliens were rare.) “Allison’s Lament” (an angsty letter from the “good” twin to her sister) works a little differently. It’s extremely funny, but the relationship between the twins (that they’re identical and opposite, mirror images, interchangeable, the tenuous nature of the boundaries between them) becomes, for me, a really useful way of thinking through the entanglements of desire/resentment/aspiration/identification that are part of the experience of reading these books, and that the books themselves invite us to partake in. (As a result, I think I have the beginnings of a far too long piece on the number of Wakefield doppelgangers that show up through the various Sweet Valley series—including the Sweet Valley High thriller edition in which an evil plastic surgeon, ignored by the twins’ mother in university, embarks upon a decades-long plan to one day steal Alice Wakefield’s face.) And that kind of engagement feels possible because it’s not direct—because the story reinhabits that space rather than commenting on it.

I read your We Are the BSC essay around the same time as Margaret and they do feel like companion pieces of a sort, which isn’t surprising. But I did want to ask you a little more about the ways in which your work responds to … your own work! I wanted to ask about the resonances between Kill Marguerite and Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body, and further to the name Megan (one of my original notes for this conversation was just “death and margarets?”). But also the whole of Slug, as an altered version of Kill Marguerite, is also a kind of response to that collection, isn’t it? I mean, changes have been made to individual stories, new stories have been added, there’s a new title. In the new story, “Patrick”, which closes the collection, you’re writing as the author of the short story “Slug” (with which the book now opens), and commenting on that story and this one. Margaret ends with, essentially, an essay that works as commentary on the narrative.It’s a really compelling breaking down of those genre divisions. Reading Margaret and Slug so close together, it’s really noticeable how the physical transformations, both supernatural and not, are echoed in the structures of the stories and at the level of the narrative. In “Patrick”, there’s a description of “Slug” as “a trans story. Patty grows a new body, becomes something new, something big and slimy.” (Also in my notes for this conversation: “stuff transforming into other stuff (form and content).” Eloquent.)

Megan Milks: This is a much more satisfactory definition of critical fiction, thank you. Hats off to the SVH writing team on that evil plastic surgeon plot—! I desperately want to read your essay on Wakefield doppelgangers.

I’m thinking through your question about how my work comments on/responds to itself—there’s so much to say on this. In some ways it’s a bit of a feedback loop simply because of how many projects I work on concurrently, and how long I take with them (typically a long time). Margaret and We Are the BSC are in a kind of circular relationship, for example. Margaret had always had a serial girl group element in it—the GCSA story with the brain has been there (in a different form) since 2006. A few years ago, I performed it when I read as part of Marisa Crawford’s launch party for her collection Reversible, so it made sense that later, when Marisa was dreaming up an anthology of BSC-related writing, she thought of me. Revisiting the BSC series in co-editing We Are the BSC revealed some important things about Margaret—particularly the themes around friendship and belonging and mourning the loss of a club; and writing and rewriting Margaret taught me a lot about what I’ve taken from the BSC books.

The Marguerite/Margaret thing is kind of funny. In the story “Kill Marguerite,” the protagonist was originally called Margaret, but I changed her name after I decided the antagonist needed to be named Marguerite—now I wonder why they couldn’t have been alter egos in like a Fight Club match or something—and changed the protagonist’s name to Caty in a nod to Mean Girls. For the novel, Margaret used to be called Matilda, after Roald Dahl’s character (in an effort to realize every young reader’s fantasy of being able to move things with the mind)—but I ended up changing the book quite a lot so it was less tied to that text, and it just seemed right to rename her Margaret. Caty and Margaret are pretty close in spirit to one another—and I do think of them both as versions of my younger self. But also, there’s Meg as nickname for Margaret in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series. Yeah, I don’t know. There’s no mystery here—I think I’ve always felt that it was important to present these characters fairly transparently as fictionalized versions of myself, and names were one way to cue that.

I love this reading of Slug as a response to Kill Marguerite—that’s totally right. Slug is a big improvement! I’d always wanted to name the collection Slug, but my first publisher made the case that Kill Marguerite would be, because violent, more attention-grabbing (he wasn’t wrong).

Some of the changes to what is collected in Slug just have to do with which stories still seemed interesting given shifting concerns as a writer, especially my relationship to what might be called “transgressive” fiction. I’ve always found pleasure in the grotesque as an anti-realist mode. In returning to Kill Marguerite, I felt a few of the original stories were offering little beyond an attempt to be shocking or transgressive—or just seemed superseded by newer, stronger stories with similar concerns. “Trauma-rama” was updated to match the sharper, more streamlined version that I performed at readings; in revising it I was also responding to some of the ways in which the discourse on trauma has changed over the past decade.

Thinking about your great comment about transformation: yes, I think I am just really committed to transformation as a constant—revision as life and writing praxis. Cue Octavia Butler: God Is Change. Nothing is static, and why should a piece of writing be?

(To return to Megan's answer to the first part of this question, click here.)

Megan Milks: On to strand 3! Yes! Thank you for this question. This is all communal work. I’m very interested in and reliant upon community as part of my writing and reading practice. I’ve been a part of a number of different writing groups and book clubs over the years, and really feel stuck in the mud when I’m not reading and writing with others. We Are the Baby-Sitters Club and Tori Amos Bootleg Webring were both opportunities to create, or engage with, community as critical practice. Marisa and I talked about this a lot when we were working on our book. As young readers, we both loved the BSC books but were the only people we knew who loved them so much (there was no online fandom then through which we could find each other). In building We Are the BSC, we in effect created the exact kind of club that we longed for as kids. And many of our contributors, as we note in our intro, had already formed their own communities shaped by the model of collaborative friendship on display in the books.

I guess I’m getting into my history of fandom here—with Tori Amos Bootleg Webring, I was part of an active fan community who were creating a critical context for Tori Amos’s music—especially important in a critical landscape that often dismissed or disparaged her work for being too much, or too weird, or too female. Even though I absolutely belonged to this community, I often felt like I didn’t. And when I sifted through the email listservs that were so important to me, I found only traces of my participation. So the project was a way for me to reengage and historicize that community while also making a kind of claim to it: yes, I was there, I did participate, I did belong. Both of those books, and Margaret, are digging into the deeply felt anxiety around community and belonging that so many of us share.

Aishwarya Subramanian: I love this idea—that writing these histories of fandom is itself a part of the creation of that community, and an act of embedding ourselves within that history. And I think it takes me back to where I started; that these reading histories, and these canons, are as transformative, as SFnal, and as worthy of scrutiny as any other.



Aishwarya Subramanian lives in the North of India, teaches English at a law school, and writes about children’s books, fantasy, space, and empire. She's on Twitter as @ActuallyAisha.
Megan Milks (meganmilks.com) is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body and Slug and Other Stories, both published by Feminist Press last year. Their personal history of early online fandom, Tori Amos Bootleg Webring, was also released last year as part of Instar Books' Remember the Internet series.
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