Genre Parochialism and the Fantastic: Critical Thoughts Towards Confluence
“I think the real strength of the genre [SF] has always been that there are all these hugely different things out there and yet they are in dialogue with each other. Because that’s the other meaning of a genre, genre as writers group, where the works are sparking off each other. Science fiction really is a genre in that sense.” – Jo Walton
“For all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters across 4000 years of great, compelling dramas — NOTHING EVER CHANGES!
Science fiction, in sharp contrast, considers the possibility of learning and change.” – David Brin
“Epic fantasy, with few exceptions, is about war. And the best epic fantasy offers more than escapism, more than comfort food. The best is consoling.” – Daniel Abraham
There has been a lot of discussion this past week about genre. OK, that’s nothing new, but this week, there has been an edge to the tonality of the discussions. In the past several days authors such as Daniel Abraham and David Brin (quoted above) have set out to not just discuss fantastic genres, but to make specific statements about a particular genre in ways that elevate their literary subject from the wider realm of fantastic literature. Abraham’s post set off some productive discussions by others (including Paul Jessup) but Brin’s statement was met with either vigorous agreement or exasperated eye-rolling. I think, however, that they are both trying to do the same thing: parochially demarcate a specific genre-territory and give it an exaggerated value and status.
Abraham discusses some commonalities between “The Two Tolkiens,” which would be J.R.R. Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin. His central point is that these novels point to an anxiety that readers have about war. And while “[t]here are literally hundreds of fantasy novels that are part of this larger conversation” he feels that epic fantasy is “consoling” about war in a way that other strains of fantasy are not. “The stories of kings restored or fallen, of evil defeated or triumphant, are a place that all of us can sit with our discomfort and our weariness and our wish better world,” he believes; epic fantasy has the singular power to assuage our worries about war in the modern world.
David Brin has an even bolder claim to make for Science Fiction: that its goal is “human improvability” (emphasis his). Fantasy is mired in the past, burdened by history, a (paradoxical) lack of imagination, uncomplicated by its status as the “natural genre.” ” We fantacize (sic) about being the king or wizard. Heck it’s in our genes.” SF is a “new kind” of genre; “a cautionary tale that may change your decisions. It may alter destiny.” All else pales in innovation, educability, enlightenment. You may recall that we have heard something like this before.
In each of these discussions, there is an essential problem that Jo Walton’s observation points toward: that neither Abraham’s epic fantasy nor Brin’s Science Fiction (and certainly Suvin’s sf novum) are autonomous genres. Both acknowledge this truism in their discussions (the former more than the latter), but then rhetorically try to seal off their preferred genre from outside influences or rapport with other genres. They both argue (Brin more forcefully than Abraham) for not just some level of distinctiveness, but for a more elevated status and purpose for their chosen genre. In their efforts to solidify their respective genres, they create abstractions that discount their situatedness in a wider dialogue.
Abraham’s idea is that
“We as a culture are anxious about something, and these particular stories comfort us. They say something that we, the audience are willing to pay a lot of money to hear but from a distance that we can stand to hear it.
In particular, our two Tolkiens are telling us that we’re tired of war.”
Abraham is arguing less for exceptionalism than an emblematic quality for epic fantasy. It is not the best (although he does note its popularity, which is still not at the level of, say, urban fantasy), but it is doing something that no other fantasy can do (as his comparison demonstrates). Adventure may be escape, may be an attempt to evade anxiety, but epic fantasy (which is never defined) does this at a whole different level. It is much more than just adventure, and thus much more than a distraction.
But the complication here is that Abraham cannot know the mind of the readers. He has overlain his own conclusion onto a insinuated hunger for epic stories of fabulous conflict. Maybe such stories provide a different comfort: that war is necessary and that militarism is strength. Maybe people assuage their anxieties about the length of the conflicts, the expense, by reading these works: maybe war is a pleasurable idea to them and these stories reinforce that for them. It is certainly true that some authors have a moral objective in mind (Tolkien certainly did), but that does not mean that the reader shares it in the act of reading a book. Abraham’s interpretation assumes a consonance between readers who may have different opinions of contemporary war, but are equally tired of it. That implies a certain moral center to epic fantasy that makes it, essentially, better than its fantastical cousins.
Brin’s discussion is utterly dismissive of all other fantastic genres and is based on an unreflexive shibboleth that proclaims science fiction as rational, speculative, and predictive, and nothing more. But it also goes past Suvin’s formulation of cognitive logic to, again, a moralizing narrative about the genre. Science fiction’s superiority arises from its role as tool of evolutionary consciousness-expansion, as it rejects fantasy’s stagnation and tells tales both cautionary and forward-looking. It forms an unprecedented lens for looking at our flaws of thought and action. While fantasy makes you weep in the stuckness of human fate, Science fiction pilots a way out of the gravity well of destiny and boldly goes, well, you know the rest.
Science fiction demonstrates the obsolescence of the past, while fantasy wallows in it, thus failing to help us make our kids into better humans, which is apparently what literature is all about. Brin does not purport to know the minds of the reader; he instead imparts an ineffable, nigh-empyrean quality onto science fiction itself, an internal impulse that arises from a deep human need that no other literature can fulfill, even the “mother” genre (and let’s not even get into the gendering of passive mother and “brash offspring”). And this is why SF is feared by the “absurd old farts” of literature: because no other genre has ever done what SF does.
I find these two discussions (to different degrees) to be problematic, not as individual opinions, but as characterizations of entire fields of literary production. Creating barriers and aggrandizing one strain of literature rarely creates understanding or heightens the appreciation of it. Such formulations can divide readers, pigeonhole works, and limit the pleasures and panoramas that all of literature, and the fantastic more particularly, can offer both writers and readers. Certainly, anyone who writes about literature creates their own presumptions about what a given genre contains or does, but the act of not just delineating, but separating and solidifying genres or texts, not only inhibits communication, but goes against the workings of genre itself.
Jonathan Culler theorized that “[a] genre, one might say, is a conventional function of language, a particular relation to the world which serves as norm or expectation to guide the reader in his encounter with the text.” This is not all that genre is, but this is a common usage deployed by readers and writers. Fantastic literature of all varieties, as I noted last week, is “much more open to struggles of definition” than more mainstream or mimetic literatures.
It is because fantastika is about hypotheticals of various sorts that it requires those who participate in the field to frequently re-articulate its possibilities and accomplishments. As Jo Walton put it: “”[b]ecause SF can’t take the world for granted, it’s had to develop techniques” that allow readers to anchor the unlikely and the conjectured in some sort of transferable understanding (including multiple histories of its development). That development, that personal reimagining of a narrative’s base, is a factor in this parochialism. It is an attempt to make the genre personal, to project its singular power.
But engaging in that reimagining by isolating and hyperbolizing the characteristics of the genre only serves to deny it the connections and effects it has in context. If we omit the role of interaction, of definition-in-distinction, of how fantastic genres fertilize and challenge each other in their enactment by writers and readers, we risk creating caricatures, ideations that do not ring true to the experience of engaging fantastic texts. And while these may serve to create boundaries that are useful to discuss, they may also create fortifications that keep out new ideas and old allies. Fantastika is always a conceptual location of the struggle between imagination and possibility; might it not better to think about the genres and trends as facets of a highly active confluence?
Obviously, this confluence will never truly occur; it is probably not possible; these parochial discussions and positions are so bound up with identity, with often deeply-held aspirations and yearnings (and sometimes seminal philosophical positions), that they have to be embraced, reiterated, and endorsed. They are ideas that often galvanize and shape the imagination and production of fantastic works. They are ideas that inspire others to try something different, to deviate from the accepted, to blend genres and blur tropes and take a narrative along a different arc. They are also sometimes underpinned with ideology or reproduce powerful assumptions. This is why these sorts of declarations and debates won’t go away, because they are about belief rather than description, and affirmation rather than understanding. We can, however, continue the conversation and keep working to enrich it.
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