“Theory is often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as ‘common-sense’ is in fact an historical construction. . . . As a critique of common-sense and an exploration of alternative conceptions, theory involves a questioning of the most basic premises or assumptions of literary study, the unsettling of anything that might have been taken for granted…” – Jonathan Culler, from Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2011)
“The mainstream (or mundane, as NS [Neal Stephenson] slyly calls it) is being, or has been, gentrified-reduced in status to one among many other genres. It’s the center that cannot hold, the mainstream which is breaking apart into tributaries.” – James Enge
One of the great obsessions in the literary field of fantastika is the discussion of what, exactly, we are reading/writing/identifying with/talking about when we use that term or one of the many others people invoke to represent their notion of the field. This is not old news; in fact, one could argue that this combination of definitional controversy and genre elasticity has been argued about since someone had the audacity to create a label for such literature. The debates have ranged from those dealing with the genre’s (however you categorize it) uniqueness to the idea that the genre is really part of the “mainstream.” Writers dispute the label for their fiction while others in the field dismiss genre labels as marketing categories. What unites all of these conversations is not just the subject of the debate, but the idea that definition is significant (even if wrong-headed or too narrow/broad/specific/imprecise) and requires constant discussion.
What fascinates me is the ongoing need to struggle over definitions and designations. The fact that these debates do not go away, and appear to invigorate engagement with the literature and create a social nexus around it, tells me that they have both utility and affect for those who participate in the literary field. Reading the literature is just one aspect of participation in the field; just as important is talking about it, writing about it, performing it, considering how it seeps into our imagination. Discussing the literature, and not just in terms of what a given reader likes and dislikes, is consequential because it is through that process of communication that the social effects are generated; ones that, rather than relating right back to the broader socio-cultural milieu, instead create a discrete sociality that some participants in the field take on as identity, custom, and vocabulary. This element is what makes fantastika distinctive as much as literary conventions or tropic connections within and between texts.
What I am here to grumble about is not the debate, because the discourse that results, while sometimes rote or idiosyncratic, is a vital part of the literary field. The problem is not that there is a discourse, but that it often focuses on creating boundaries or narrating trends, rather than examining stories from different angles. In essence, a lot of the discussion is about a theory of fantastika as a discrete category, rather than the active pursuit of theory to assess the literature. And here I mean theory in the sense that Jonathan Culler articulates in the quotation above, the probing of “common-sense” understandings and the dissection of our reception, interpretation, and reproduction of the texts. We don’t need new theories of fantastika; we need to think about those “basic premises and assumptions,” how they are created and perpetuated, and what other understandings and insights are possible.
We can argue about codifying the literature, about what texts belong in the canon or on a certain shelf, but these arguments become circular very quickly. As starting points for deeper discussion they can be useful, but we soon lose sight of the stories themselves and their effects. We stop considering what they mean, what they can mean, what we each see in them, and fall into a rut. Seeing designations such as genre labels as frameworks, as points of entry into texts, can break our readings out of those ruts. Viewing genres as perspectives, as vantage points for engaging stories, and arguing from those points rather than just about them, has the potential to create more active, fluid discussions.
Trying to create a “theory of science fiction/fantasy/fantastika/etc.” is a losing proposition if you are trying to create definitive borders around a group of textual objects. Any effort to state categorically what one of these designations “is” quickly becomes more of an exercise in revealing one’s reading proclivities & biases. Such efforts say more about the creator of the theory than about the literature itself. In our attempts to solidify boundaries or demarcate discrete categories we discover more about our own preferences, intentions and anxieties than we do about the literature.
Take, for example, my own efforts to discuss “the mainstream” in this very column. The idea of “mainstream literature” is, as commenters have noted, problematic, and I agree with this assertion. When I have tried to deal with this idea in the past, however, the “mainstream” emerges as a vague, hollow signifier (which, to be fair, the idea IS to some extent). In my efforts to discuss something that fantastika does distinctively, I have contrasted it with something that I believe does not do the same things, but the category I compare it to is one with fuzzy boundaries. The result is that my discussion becomes hazy because I have shifted my gaze from the literature and the field of production to a juxtaposition that does not illuminate the text. It becomes a return to the rather tired discussion of what each genre “is,” rather than an investigation of the narratives or texts that I am trying to understand. I end up comparing two genres, neither of which have satisfactory purlieus for genuinely illuminating analysis.
Personally, I want to discuss fantastika with more aggressive inquiry, more critical discernment, and with more soberness. It is very easy to get caught up in passions that the allied genres stir in our minds and, often, in our hearts. The trick, I think, is to channel that passion into keen and refreshing readings of the stories that we love, that challenge and nurture and inspire us. Instead of arguing for the relevance or popularity or inherent awesomeness of the genre, we need to argue more from the stories themselves, argue with the stories, sometimes even argue against them. The focus becomes one of looking at fantastic literature from angles that allow us to articulate something restorative or provocative about the work(s) in question. Instead of asserting that a text is not mundane, we need to open up our interpretations of the text to show the peculiar and extraordinary qualities that shout at us from the texts.
On Twitter today Paolo Bacigalupi wrote “Open up your mouth and scream, and then keep screaming. I wish more literature did that.” That is what I look for in literature, whether fantastic, mundane, surreal, or utterly mimetic. I don’t love fantastika because the stories are based in fairy tales or scientific innovation or psychological archetypes or other peoples’ dreamworlds. I love them because the stories that scream at me mostly come from this realm of story. Fantastic literature is where I found the screaming that woke me up, knocked me out of my rut (multiple times), pushed me to write and think and dream with sharper eyes and quicker wits. I don’t need to define it; I need to sit with it, turn it over in my hands, listen to it, figure it out, and see what new things it tells me when I try to fathom it using new ideas. The power of fantastika does not come from what it is, what it supposedly contains; it comes from what we do with it, what we take into our skulls and what happens in them when we take it apart, let it flower in the light of our imaginations and breathe in the fresh air that it generates for our spirits.