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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.

6 Comments on Genre Parochialism and the Fantastic: Critical Thoughts Towards Confluence

  1. Wow, John, I just read your entries and wonder how my reviews are anywhere nearly as well thought out as your work.

    Anyway, Brin’s dislike of fantasy is something I’ve known for years.  He’s no fan of Star Wars, either.  If David Brin ever wrote a fantasy novel, I’d have a heart attack. I also suspect that Brin’s attitude to SF versus fantasy is allied to his politics, the one informing the other (and the converse as well)

    Abraham’s definition of epic fantasy is somewhat narrow, IMO, in tying it so severely to war.  Conflict, yes, but war, not necessarily.

  2. Hal Duncan // April 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm //

    Agreed. I take less issue with Abraham’s case because aside from a line or two talking of adventures that celebrate violence, with a nod to Conan pointing us at S&S, I’d say he’s positing a moral centre to epic fantasy without disallowing equally moral drives in other idioms. Hence his comments regarding romance and urban fantasy in his opening pragraph. Brin, however, is regurgitating the same old (tired & tiresome) redefinition of fantasy (an idiom of fiction utilising the fantastic) to Fantasy (a brand of commercial category fiction split off from SF in the 1970s.) And that’s actually a mechanism for defining Self in the negation of Other — where the Other is of course a complete projection. Shenanigans! I say.

    Teasing that apart a bit:

    Abraham, I think, is conflating the key scale of effect criteria of the epic (i.e. what makes something “epic,” I’d argue, is simply the scale of effect it’s functioning at,) with one of many possible theatres of action that can sustain the requisite scale — warfare. We need only point to the use of “epic” as regards a movie like Giant to see there are other theatres of action which sustain that scale of effect. So, yeah, too reductive.

    Further, he’s collapsing Clute’s narrative grammar (vis-a-vis “Fantastika and the World Storm”) of Fantasy into one of many possible specific dynamics and resultant thematics. By which I mean, I’d translate Clute’s grammar to: a pastoral/idyllic worldscape imbued with numina; the irruption of a monstrum that creates Thinning (c.f. Todorov’s disruption of equilibrium); the emergence/election of a (numinous) champion as a response born of the (numinous) underpinnings of the worldscape itself; a restorative resolution that sets the worldscape to rights, albeit in a less numinous state than before. Tolkien’s LotR is for sure the prime example, and a lot of Fantasy follows that grammar, but it’s simplistic as is; a lot of fantasy, treating the quirk like the novum, follows the grammar Clute ascribes SF, I’d say.

    Now, if you click warfare into the monstrum role, that grammar does give rise to the consolatory epic Abraham’s positing. But it’s easy enough to click a random Evil into that role and generate a work that celebrates war as the means to overcome Evil. (One might even argue that the LotR movies slide in that direction.) Moreover, a lot of contemporary works branded “Epic Fantasy” are actually starting from a baroque worldscape (part numinous, part monstrous, existentist complexities rather than enchanted ideals,) which leads to a wholly different dynamics and thematics.

    That makes it all more ambiguous. You might argue those works become heroic rather than epic, but that’s insisting on a closed definition of “epic fantasy” as an idiom (rather than brand.) Still, such a closing of the definition of epic fantasy isn’t wholly specious, I’d say. As a fairly formalised idiom, it does tend to assert its own boundaries. Like, part of what defines the scale of effect in epic is recognition of the real impact of death, in moments like Spartacus crucified, El Cid dead on his horse. There’s a hint of the tragic in the epic — or there should be (maybe? we feel?) for it to register as “truly” epic. In other words, a work that isn’t pushing our pity-&-terror buttons about the agon itself (not the Evil Enemy the protagonist is engaging with but the act of engagement itself as potentially hubristic) doesn’t feel quite as “epic” as one that does. In that sense, I’m not sure consolation is the right term, but conciliation might not be unfair. It’s just… not so much with warfare, I’d say, as with the loss that comes from it.

    Anyway, my point is, I read Abraham as overly simplifying but essentially trying to identify the inherent potential of his genre, what it can be if you make the most of its basic components.

    Brin on the other hand is misrepresenting another genre in order to aggrandize his own in comparison. I mean, yeah-yeah, this commercial marketing category schismed off from Science Fiction in the 1970s and spewed out Tolkien clones en masse. That category was branded Fantasy, and all the right-thinking SF loyalists gladly latched onto the signifier of “fantasy” as referring to that and only that. That deeply codified idiom made a great contrast, something to point to and say, “We’re not that!” defining SF in negation. Also an awesome opportunity to project the blame for adolescent cock-fluffery elsewhere. Banal wish-fullfilment? That’ll be the fantasy cooties in our serious SF!

    Now, can we get the fuck over this bollocks, please?

    Christ, the fantasy sold under that brand is not only that. The fantasy sold under the SF brand prior to the 1970s (Silverberg’s Book of Skulls, Zelazny’s Roadmarks, Bradbury’s whole fricking ouvre,) was not only that. Much of it, and much of the fantasy sold with no commercial brand at all, has fuck all to do with that. Brin is writing the current fantasy of, say, Jeff Ford, Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer and so on ad infinitum totally out of existence (and a hell of a lot more writers besides) to paint a bullshit caricature of another genre as X, just so he can laud his own genre as not-X.

    It’s a stereotype as bogus as the Magic Negro and not far off it in terms of function; it projects primitive simplicity onto the Other, and in so far as it has any “positive” valuation (i.e. acknowledging the “primacy” and “potency” of this “natural” type of strange fiction / fantastika) that’s really a mask for a valuation of the Self as essentially more progressive. Really it’s a stereotype of fantasy as Magic Negro. The rhetoric is by no means as ugly as notions of the “noble savage” in the real world, applied to real people on the basis of race, but only because it doesn’t have the history of physical atrocity attached; it is the exact same stratagem, casting the Other as atavistic and infantile in comparison to the bold, dynamic ethos of the civilised and civilising sodality. Any “respect” is as much condescension as appreciation.

    And frankly, I can’t help but find it pretty damn ugly when this extends to assertions that fantasy which doesn’t fit this Magic Negro sterotype (e.g. that of Tim Powers) is no longer fantasy but is instead science fiction. An SF writer, presumably used to being on the brunt of such sophistry whenever clueless outsiders claim a work isn’t SF at all because it doesn’t fit their prejudicial stereotype, should fucking know better. But no, where a member of an alterior class subject to the Magic Negro stereotype doesn’t fit that stereotype, that’s not ground to dismiss the stereotype, recognise the inherent diversity of that class; what you do is claim that they’re really members of your own class deep down, at heart, under the skin.

    Translate that to the real world applications of the Magic Negro stereotype, and it’s not just wrong-headed but fucking repellent.

  3. Interesting discussion. Seems to me that we’re attempting to draw lines in the sand and compartmentalize when the premise of such works is to branch out into the realm of imagination in new and different ways. I don’t think one can attribute a “premise” to an entire genre. A “premise” seems, to me, more directly correlated to a story itself, regardless of the sides and dressings.

    Paul, I’m glad you mentioned Star Wars. I finished the post and thought, “By his definition Star Wars is fantasy and not science fiction (though it may contain elements of both).” Likewise, I think that’s true of similar works (e.g. the Battlestar Galactica reboot comes to mind).

    Anyway, I find the war between the genres fascinating. Why draw such distinctive lines?

  4. Hi John, unless Brin and Abraham post this blog and agree with your statement that they are demarcating a specific genre to give it exaggerated value and status, I would withold agreement on that statement. If the chair of the English Department of a high school, college, or university told two professors in his department that next year we are going to offer a survey course covering in the first semester Fantasy and in the second semester Science Fiction, the professors would not have any difficulty complying with his request and the professors would likely not be giving either branch enhanced value or staus. But the chair’s request to have Fantasy given in the first semester would imply temporal precedence, but not value or status, As to whether a reader prefers elve and dragons or spaceships and aliens, the reader isn’t saying, “This is better”, but only, “This I enjoy.”

  5. Yes, Msr. Stevens, this is a column of yours with which I fully agree, and with Msr. Duncan as well. It’s the usual imaginary wall building, the attempt to thematically monochrome large groups of books while conveniently ignoring large groups of other books, often because they’ve never read them and don’t know what’s going on in that side of the fiction market. The urge to create a black and white dichotomy for everything — Us and Others, dark and light, completely lacking in the actual variety and breadth and exploration of ideas and language that is out there, seems to be a human organizational trait, especially to couple it with status, with one offering more than the other, usually by dint of supposed depth.

    SF and fantasy are divided in the somewhat direction of that novum, in that they go with different rationales to explain the existence of those elements that are beyond reality in the story. SF postulates a natural, science-based rationale for the elements, however far-fetched; fantasy uses the rationale of the supernatural for its non-reality factors, even when it is also making use of SF natural science ones for other elements. That choice of rationale needs to be respected, as it is an integral part of the story. But the rationale does not dictate what an author needs to do with character, theme, ideas, language, style, plot, or symbolism. The same themes, ideas, character dilemmas, etc., can be used in SF or fantasy stories and in mimetic stories as well. Murder mysteries are not limited in where they can go just because they have murders and detection in them. Fantasy stories are filled with change and upset. SF stories propose that people will be able to fax themselves or time travel with a machine (natural rationale,) which isn’t really the art of the possible, nor necessarily offers deeper thematic opportunities than fantasy stories with people who can transport themselves with a spell or time travel with a magic rock (supernatural rationale.) Construction elements are not the sum of the creation. The imaginary walls are not there. It would be nice if people would stop desperately trying to hold them up.

    It would also be nice if everyone would just stop using the word “epic” in regards to fantasy at all, as we really never use the word correctly. For two decades, it meant alternate world fantasy that is vaguely “high,” the category market designation, creating endless confusion for people. It is time for the term to be retired, not continually redefined in ever more convuluted systems.

  6. Hey everyone. An excellent array of comments, which I deeply appreciate. Briefly:

    Paul: Indeed, Brin has advocated this perspective for years, and I agree that it is allied with a political standpoint (as is Suvin’s sf novum). But making it simultaneously exclusive and patronizing is a poor way to advocate your position, which is part of my irritation with his forumlation.

    Hal: Thanks for the detailed comment. Abraham is certainly not in the same stratum as Brin here, but I felt the need to point out that this works at different levels. Sometimes we writers unconcsciously reproduce assumptions that reinforce troubling trends or implicitly give them a pass. I do not entirely disagree with his notion, but it got weirdly entangled with the idea of popularity without really analyzing any particular text in depth. If we don’t examine the discourse around our art, as well as the art itself, we can sometimes reproduce ideas that reify rather than extend our understanding.

    It would be great if people would move on from this practice, but I don’t think they will, because of the whole identity/investment aspect and because it has social utility. I really feel that it comes back to the interpretability inherent in the broader genre, how we engage the stories with our own imaginations and feel the potential (and the instability present) as an opportunity to put forth our own ideas about what is significant and creative about fantastika.  But Brin’s way of doing it is indeed quite repellent, and needs to be opposed, moreso in the art itself. Dismissing and annihilating the works of entire constellations of artists is ridiculous and corrosive, and while we can try to ignore it and move past it, I think we need to create direct counters to it as well (which is one of the reasons I write this column).

    J:I think this drawing of the lines to some extent is about creating our own understandings of how the literature works and what texts relate to discursively and socially. I think that SF/fantastika is a fascinating case study in the socio-cultural generation of meaning, symbolic capital, and relational affect, perhaps moreso than any other sort of literature. Assuming a premise to an entire genre is a political act, a line in the sand to cordon it off and give it an enhanced prestige or significance. And it is almost always wrong-headed to do so.

    Honey: I think Brin is explicitly demarcating a particular form of SF from all other literature, specifically in distinction to his gross mischaracterization of fantasy. He says that in his piece. I agree that Abraham is doing this more implicitly, and is trying to figure out a trend, but to do so he has to assume that “epic fantasy” is a particular thing in contrast to other fantasies, none of which he clearly defines. He then assigns that genre a particular characteristic that makes it into an object of analysis that is different than other genres because it tells us something more. Abraham might not, as you say, come out and say that explicitly, but it’s hard to ignore that he does impugn something with his discussion.

    Kat: Thanks very much. That need to create a dichotomy is indeed troubling, and as Hal said, I wish people would move away from it. But as my friend Paul Jessup noted recently, and I see this borne out constantly, many people want neat categories that create clear boundaries and assign a hierarchy of value to objects within that category. This is something we do with the human capacity for culture all the time, but in this case I think it is, as you note, both disingenuous and harmful. We miss so much potential in our art when we narrow things down, as your comment here demonstrates quite well.

    I would like people to write less “epic fantasy” and write more fantasies that actually take the inspiration from the more personal, poetic ideal of the epic and put it to better artistic use.


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