“The literatures of the fantastic are not metaphors. They are the tale itself.” – John Clute
When I started writing this column in January, I had no idea what it was going to be about. I wanted to write a weekly column to chew over issues of genre, reading protocols, and the literary field of production as I saw them. Now, almost a year later, I am still not sure what it’s all about, but I have learned a lot about commentary and criticism and the imagination and reading and reflection through the writing of it. As the year winds down and I prepare to take a few weeks off (less for the holidays than to work on other stuff and spend more extra time with the kidlet), I want to consider what I have learned from a year of writing about fantastic and weird literature and at the same time talk about some of the fiction that has helped shape my thinking.
So far this year I have read about 50 books, scores of articles, several dozen individual short stories, and a lot of blog posts. Most of that reading was for this column or for reviews and articles for publication, so this year was much more about reading for writing. That lensing was a significant shift for me; while I had often read as a writer (of fiction and as student), this year I read to think about reading and writing as a practice, as a social act, and as an imaginative exercise. Looking at my reading from this angle turned out to be very educational; instead of reading as an undifferentiated (yet very subjective) “writer” I was able to think about the processes and ideas that surround that position. This has gradually altered (mutated, perhaps) my ideas about genre, narrative, and the interplay between texts and their reception, and I think begun to enrich how I read and write.
My history with the idea of “genre” is a long one that emerges almost completely from my relationship with fantastika. And I do characterize it as a relationship not because of some genuine interactional connection, but because until a few years ago I considered myself to have a relationship with genre, with fantastic literature. Before I started reading the trinity (Fantasy, SF, and Horror) I had no conception of genre. As a child I read widely, drawn to discrete ideas and characters and narrations, without concern about whether it was mimetic or metaphorical, hyper-realist or surrealistic. I felt an affinity to Charles Dickens’ protagonists, to Native Americans, to orphans, and to animal characters. My reading choices stemmed from my need to read stories of others in tough situations that were not like my own. I felt an affinity to story.
When I was introduced to SF, I was a very confused, needy, and shy teenager. And I dove into the other-worlds of SF and later other strains of fantastika. I found authors and worlds and tales that I loved, but I also loved the idea of SF, and later of “speculative fiction” and “fantastic literature.” When I found other fans, and then organized fandom, I discovered that an identity went with the genres in a way that did not occur with most others. This solidified a relationship with the genre itself as a sort of social entity, as part of what John Caughey called an “imaginary social world.” This notion is of course an oxymoron, because all social worlds are imaginary. But this one identified strongly with a type of literature, and thus, I felt an affinity for the genre rather than for particular stories. In the past few years, as I re-entered both fandom (very much on the fringes) and re-engaged the literature, this has changed, and this year in particular has taught me to separate the genre from the people, the texts from the actors, and to see the web of signification, the social milieu, and the field of literary production in a different way.
My point is, I had to see that I was “in a relationship” with genre so that I could step outside of that affiliation and see genre from a more productive angle. This is one of the reasons why I reviewed Atwood’s In Other Worlds as I did, and returned to it (as I had said I would) later. While we can argue about the veracity or analytical power of her notion of genre, her story resonated with me as a reader. Everyone’s conception of genre comes from a subjective angle, and thus from a social one. I have tried to apply my anthropological training to the conception and production of genre, and this year I think that approach started to work. Bringing in the imagination (a powerful cultural construction of mind) and the idea of the reader as an active participant in literature allowed me to look at fantastika in a more complicated way (tentative as it was sometimes) and to see the situatedness of genre as a filter for
My reading in the last two months has provided an extraordinary amount of grist for my imagination’s mill. I struggled through the entirety of The Weird while also reading Basso and Caitlin Kiernan’s Two Worlds and In-Between. This on top of reviewing China Miéville’s Embassytown meant that I dove headfirst into a deep pool of tenebrous, cacophonous, concept-smashing and reality-questioning stories and perspectives. I highly recommend this as a way to disrupt your normal thought patterns and preconceptions about literature. I highly recommend it as a way to undermine your understanding of fictional narratives and the way we attach ourselves to characters and their movement through the alternate realities their authors have conjure dfor them. This avalanche of shorter works, entangled with critical readings, unmoored the notion of narrative from its comfortable place in my mind and provided an anarchic carnival of oddities to cap a year of reading strangely that is making me see the fantastic in a discrepant way, more polyphonous and lunatic and ecstatic.
The idea of narrative has taken a real thrashing this year from my perspective. I think this started with J. M. McDermott’s Last Dragon and proceeded from there through other works that I selected specifically because of their fraught genre status and bedevilment of standard narrative structures. Paul Jessup’s Open Your Eyes was, indeed, eye-opening to me, and when I turned to reading other challenging works, such as Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discarded Dreams, I felt…not better prepared, but more experienced as a reader, more accepting of challenges in texts. I went back and read chunks of The Oulipo Compendium and the poetry of W. B Yeats (including the manuscript edition of The Resurrection) to look at the range of different ways words could be put together. I read a lot of criticism, from Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing to Eric Basso’s Decompositions, and was energized and provoked by the sharpness and substantiality they gave my imagination and reading eye to look at narratives from a number of different vantage points. It is only in my past few reviews, I think, that this has really started to kick in, and it is exhilarating and a bit perplexing all at once.
Narrative is no longer just a textual thing to me, but an active quality that the imagination enfolds and animates. It is not a structure, not just a “tale or story,” but a parameter of fiction that the reader both overlays upon and draws from the text. As genre has become more processual, more conditioned in my view, I see that conventions and tropes and cues and protocols are more tangled and less discrete, and emerge from cultured interpretations and expectations. To a large extent, we get out of narratives what we put into them, what we expect from them. We are trained to do this as readers, to read surface symbols and see what our education and standpoint cultivates from the text. The imagination can be a creature of habit as much as any other capacity or practice.
But what I also found out this year, felt more acutely and encountered more powerfully, was that if put aside some of that training, saw expectations for what they were and moved them aside or reinterpreted them, fantastic literature had more to offer than “escape” (which really needs a solid going-over) or quasi-cinematic adventure/romance/drama, or wish-fulfillment, or gaudy cheesefest. If you go in looking for more, you can find it. The trick, of course, is to not make too much of it all, to employ discernment and reflexivity in reading, to let your interaction mature and act playfully at the same time, to read with openness, with some suspicion, with sophistication, with curiosity and savvy. I am still working on that, but this year of bellowing about fantastika, while sometimes overly hesitant or strident or floundering or exuberant, has made me both a more critical and more joyous reader, and I am glad that I have had the opportunity to write about my trek through the fantastic and learn sometimes wondrous, sometimes sobering lessons about the literature and about myself. I can’t wait to get back to it next year.