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Discrete Charms, Bourgeoisie? The Mainstream Needs to ‘Critically’ Marginalize Fantastika

“You scream too loud. You know it.” – M. Senechal

“An important aspect of the modern search for identity has been the mapping to the limits and structures of human consciousness and experience by the humanities and the sciences. This exploration employs a modernist metaphysics, which posits a fundamental duality of the real and the fantastic. According to this metaphysics, to identify an entity as fantastic – a character in a fictional story, a monster in a nightmare – is to give it a special relationship to reality. For modernism, the fantastic belongs to the realm of the non-real, to which non-belief is the appropriate response. This exclusion of the fantastic (the dream, the fiction, the lie) from reality makes modernist truth possible. This metaphysics establishes an authority in terms of which proper critical discourse can occur.” – George Aichele, Jr.

This past week was a pretty distressing one for the realms of the fantastic, as it sustained multiple indignities from mainstream media and responded sometimes too harshly to the assaults. The first was a (mostly implicit) judgment rendered against fantastic literature by two BBC World Book Night shows. The more surprising ambushes came from writers at the New York Times and Slate; both critics launched scathing critiques of “fantasy” and those who love it under the guise of reviewing the new HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. In all of these cases the target was less a specific text or production than it was assumptions about the genre and its adherents; in each instance “mainstream” observers derided or disdained “fantasy” in some manner under the pretext of some other task (showcasing books people “really” read or reviewing a television show).

So much digital ink has been spilled responding to these attacks and omissions that there is little that I can add to the specific counters to the critics’ judgments. What I find more compelling to examine is the fact that a caricature of “fantasy” was subjected to this treatment, and that there was such a mighty response in each case (particularly from female fans to the NYT review). In each instance, there was an explicit and/or implicit slight, but all of them were made from a standpoint of privilege supported by an idea of the metaphysical assumption that Dr. Aichele discusses above. The BBC shows and the two TV critics were firmly lodged on the illusory solid ground of the mainstream; all use as their foundation a notion that “fantasy” is aberrant and has no genuine place in the wider media discourse.

The question that arises for me is: why was so much thought and symbolic exchange engaged in over these incidents? In the case of the BBC kerfuffle, a wide array of genre authors responded collectively to the omission of fantastic literature: as Stephen Hunt put it, they were responding to a “sneering tone that was leveled towards commercial fiction” and the perception that “the failure to feature a single work [of fantastika] was a disgrace.” In the case of the two TV reviews, the authors actively and with apparent relish savaged “fantasy” and those who enjoy it. Both used the term “quasi-medieval” to describe the milieu of Game of Thrones, and both quickly established a clean break between “fantasy” and their notion of the real world. In all of these situations, those fans and authors felt a contemptuous snub was perpetrated. And to a large extent, that feeling seems appropriate.

Contrasting an implicit, unquestioned idea of normalcy as inherently more rational and worthy of consideration with a notion of the fantastic as somehow more limited and worthy of scorn is quite an invidious distinction. In her NYT review Ms. Bellafante based her position on the notion that normal females would have no interest in such “boy fiction.” She went on to exaggerate and essentialize its fantastical qualities (far beyond what was actually presented in the episode, according to a number of viewers) and simultaneously portrayed it as a base entertainment that relied on sex to gain attention and a snarl of complexities in the story so great that only a genius could keep track of them. The disjuncture here, especially given its limited basis in the actual show, is dizzying, and is allied more with the author’s contempt for fantasy than the effects of viewing the show itself.

Troy Patterson at Slate took a different tack, combining ironic hipster narrativity with direct insults, such as his explanation for calling the show “quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap. That’s not a comment on its quality but a definition of its type.” His evidence is his reliance on relating each aspect of the show (which he appears to have watched a bit more carefully than Ms. Bellafante) to some schmaltzy or camp trend of the past, or to generalized hype. He admits his “anti-weakness for that general sensibility [of fantasy]” and merrily trashes the production and any who might enjoy it with aplomb.

Despite their different approaches, these two reviewers base their analysis (such as it is) on the presumption that their perspectives are not just supported by their individual opinions, but by a, dare I say, magical notion that their views are more conventional and preferred than those of the deluded souls who love this escapist, fur-swathed burlesque.

That “fundamental duality” that Dr. Aichele describes undergirds both of their discussions. And they accomplish it by essentializing the fantastic, condensing it into a very specific sort of object that they can contrast with their unexplicated normalcy, that can be excluded from the everyday and the real. Which seems a bit of stretch when they use, respectively, Sex and the City and a dating snub to buttress their positions.

With those sorts of invocations, the process of separating “fantasy” is conducted with a combination of eviscerating humor and literary enervation. Both of these reviewers labor mightily to unrelentingly vilify and disempower the fantastic, strengthening their own stance as conventional observers (a bit elite, perhaps, but not marginal or outrageous like the fantasy they revile). Both work to accomplish what the BBC shows appear to do with no extra effort; render “fantasy” as not a part of the everyday, something deviant and of doubtful value. The BBC responded by stating that it was “committed to delivering a broad range of books programmes across radio and TV,” although there was little substance in their response except to note that show on “science fiction” would be coming in May. But here again we see that separation of the fantastic from the mainstream.

My point is not that the noble fantastic has been shoved aside by the pushy, nervous mainstream. Neither has some claim to inherent superiority; the productions of both validate Sturgeon’s Law. What is noteworthy here is the need to keep “fantasy” separate from the implied realism of the mainstream. This idea that fantasy is essentially unintellectual, boorish, and appealing only to a very small subset of individuals is deployed primarily to overdetermine the value of the poorly-defined “mainstream.” It’s clearly a case of media observers deciding to discount and misrepresent fantasy to increase the ascendancy of mainstream literatures as deserving of the default position of undifferentiated standard against which all else is measured.

Clearly, it is a position which requires copious amounts of maintenance to cultivate. If fantasy is so peripheral and stupid, why does it need to be so frequently attacked and denigrated, and why does it have to be visibly separated and ignored? What is so polluting and dangerous about it that mainstream folks need to keep it in its stereotyped place, especially when there is ample evidence that fantasy is everywhere? And why do those who produce or love the fantastic feel the need to respond so forcefully and sometimes stridently to mainstream opinions, especially when the “fantasy” is clearly not what most of them admire or experience?

This returns us to the social aspects of fantastika. The relatively marginal position of the fantastic (as delineated in distinction to “the real) and its frequent appropriation for entertainment, fables, and other cultural tasks creates unease in those with social/cultural investment in it. Combined with the often intense personalization of experience and the sense of belonging that extends into one’s imagination, those who love the fantastic often feel very protective of it. And yet, within that social milieu there are divisions. As Sam Sykes has pointed out in response to the petition against the BBC, there are constituencies within the readership of the literary genre as well. Some devotees exalt rarefied notions of art over entertainment, while others champion escape over reflection. These divisions mirror those in the “mainstream” to some extent, and perhaps for a similar reason: to preserve boundaries. And yet, there is a longing for a dissolution of that metaphysical separation, for literary fiction (whatever the heck that is) and the mainstream to acknowledge its ties to, and inescapable similarities to, the fantastic. Maybe this is why we respond so strongly to these situations: we are advocating not just for some separate-but-equal respect, but for a reconciliation, an elimination of that modernist conceit that still keeps “fantasy” in its place.

11 Comments on Discrete Charms, Bourgeoisie? The Mainstream Needs to ‘Critically’ Marginalize Fantastika

  1. Jeff VanderMeer // April 21, 2011 at 11:47 am //

    Hell, genre seeks to marginalize itself critically, through infighting, cliques, and outright bias pretending to be logic. As an absurdist, it’s blissful, though, so go to it, all! I’m here with bated pen.


  2. It’s true that some critics and readers do that, and others like maintaining fantasy’s elliptical orbit around the mainstream. And I think that a few also wish that the tables could be turned.  Infighting, cliques, and bias appear in every social group, but what I found noteworthy here was that the response wasn’t merely to some bad press or omission but to an idea of devaluation, of the worthwhileness of “fantasy” being trashed. The enactment of a unified response (or the appearance of one, at least) coalesces a solidarity that, as Sam Sykes noted, is inconsistent. The ranks closed to an extent and a lot of people put their opinion out into the public discourse, partly to oppose the denigration of “fantasy” but also as a ritualized invocation of belonging. So, people who value the genre both defend it and reinforce the margnal status while downplaying divisions and issues within “the genre.”

    I think that comes with the conceptual territory.

  3. It’s like the War on Terror. The extremists on both sides can make more mileage from fighting each other than from admitting their argument is a fiction. The BBC petition is probably one of the greatest literary own goals ever scored. Marginalised genre authors confirm marginal status by complaining about marginalisation. Well done.

  4. Damien: Exactly so, although I have some sympathy for the fantastic, obviously. But the desire to maintain some outsider status while getting full recognition from the inside, while proudly declaring one’s marginality (or at least niche) only reinforces the very division being protested, and I think criticisms need to get past that position. Had I more time and space I would have talked more about that, because I think these episodes show the contradictions and ambiguities quite nicely. Bellafante’s NYT response demonstrated to me that both sides are talking past each other and more concerned with maintaining positions rather than understanding the other side.

  5. My impression specifically of the NYT uproar (influenced no doubt by my spouse and her friends) was that it had less to do with the marginalization of ‘fantastika’ per se, and more to do with the marginalization of women–the implication that no *real* woman could possibly like Fantasy delivering a double-fistful of ugly stereotypes around ‘geeks’ in general and female geeks in particular.

  6. [On an unrelated note… I’ve read all of JS’s columns at least 3 times, and still comprehend less than half of them. Brilliant–keep ’em coming!]

  7. JG:

    Thanks for the kind words; I appreciate that you read them so much! I think the “double fistful of ugly stereotypes” is true, but I think that supports two of my contentions: that fantasy is separated, marginalized, and essentially belitted, and that many responses from women were specifically from “geek women” who wanted to demonstrate that women could like fantasy and that there was a particular group for whom it was a part of their identity. My concern with that angle of critique is that it suggests that only geek women could like this stuff, and it feeds back into both the subordinate position of “fantasy” in relation to the mainsream, and maintains the marginalization of its admirers.

    I also wonder if it doesn’t sublimate fantasy as well, creating barriers against non-geeks? 

  8. I read the Bellafante/NYT review & then proceeded to the reader responses expecting to find a storm of controversy.  There were all of 48 ratings of the piece with an average score of 1.5 on a scale of 1 to 5.  If it was in a less prestigious paper than the NYT, 1 wonders if anyone would care.

    Moving on to the Patterson/Slate review, there were many favorable responses, although I have no idea if it was significant relative to the average response to a piece about TV.  But, as mentioned above, Patterson states upfront that he dislikes fantasy to begin with.  He deserves some credit for honesty, but, again, why should anyone care about his piece?  Even the highest rated series attracts a minority of viewers.  The real issue, if there is 1 at all, is that Slate chose an admitted “hater” to do the review.

  9. Just because the response from fans, particularly female fans in the New York Times case, was passionate, does not mean that it always further marginalizes them. A lot of the passion is directed towards pointing out that fantasy is mainstream and a major force in the culture, that female fans are abundant, etc., refuting the notion of the imaginary wall. The New York Times critic is not a literary person of any authority (if there is such a thing) — she’s a television critic. She gets to review sitcoms with poop jokes as her job. By challenging her claim to the high ground to speak for social norms, and most particularly gender roles, instead of actually doing her job, the size of the outcry begins to put those claimed social norms in doubt. While the authors petitioning the BBC may seem weird or marginalized by some, others accept that they are a recognizable, major part of the culture speaking up, and it has put the BBC on the defensive where it has to justify and promote its SFFH offerings. If no one ever says that the Emperor has no clothes on, then everyone continues to pretend and perceive that the Emperor has clothes on. Calling the bluff on the imaginary wall does not produce immediate results, but is part of the slow march of social change. Currently, much of the media like to talk about how the geeks have inherited the Earth or how we’ve all become geeks to try to understand the “sudden” interest in SFFH. That “sudden” interest is actually the work of decades of people trying and enjoying SFFH and also disagreeing with it being called marginal or strange, to the point where even media abandons the imaginary wall. And from that, for certain people it becomes a challenge — SFFH is popular, and so one sounds erudite and critical to challenge that popularity, to proclaim such plebian pursuits trash by their very nature, etc., one aspect of the imaginary wall — mileage as Mr. Walter pointed out. And when that occurs, which it still does on a regular basis, there’s nothing wrong with it being challenged, because if one is already being declared marginal despite being a devotee of half our culture, what’s to lose? While sometimes the complaining may help hold up the imaginary wall between two supposed camps, quite often and in numbers, it knocks bricks out of the thing by proclaiming its lack of existence. Once, it was easy for me to feel alone as a female fan of SFFH; now I have a city and it’s the capital of Cultureland. 🙂

  10. Matte Lozenge // April 24, 2011 at 3:30 pm //

    Yawn. Another turf war pissing match between cultural elitists and popular genre. Put in proper perspective this is a Bambi vs Godzilla dustup. You only need look at the sales figures of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, superhero media, etc etc to understand why the genre juggernaut is Godzilla. The elitists are suffering from a serious case of envy and are fighting back the only way they know how.

    If the elitist critique actually resulted in better written genre, I would be more sympathetic. But every time a literary writer ventures into genre themes, we get works that are tendentious self-absorption or exaggerated political correctness. Meanwhile the writers who actually put effort into their craft of story telling get lumped together with every Z-grade media tie-in ever released and the whole field of genre is dismissed as crap.

  11. David Marshall // April 27, 2011 at 4:08 am //

    Matt, you beat me to it. I posted a similar comment at the TalkToYouniverse blog that simply read:


    “So they sneer at fantasy because the books people really read are mainstream, not fantasy? Two words: HARRY POTTER.” 

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