News Ticker

A Few Grumblings About Theorizing Fantastika

“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.

13 Comments on A Few Grumblings About Theorizing Fantastika

  1. Jeff VanderMeer // March 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm //

    A screaming came across the sky back in the 1960s and 1970s.

    Mostly, I just want less mumbling these days…

  2. 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.

    Yes, this.

    Mainstream literature mainly bores me and doesn’t seem to speak to me in a meaningful way. Fantastika speaks to me.

  3. Yup, sounds good to me. Now, forward in the mumbling or the screaming. Let’s “argue more from the stories themselves, argue with the stories, sometimes even argue against them.”

  4. Jon Tallis // March 2, 2012 at 3:23 am //

    Nope, I’ve read five of these columns now, and I still don’t understand a word of them.

    • You aren’t supposed to understand them, Jon. This is what you call scholar-ese gobbledygook, and the goal isn’t to be understandable; the goal is to sound impressive and scholarly. That said, here’s a rough translation into English: “We shouldn’t worry about definitions of genre, we should just approach each story on its own terms.”
      Woo. Hoo. Don’t you feel enlightened?

      • John is coming to SF and Fantasy from an academic, scholarly perspective. To say that “you aren’t supposed to understand them” suggests deliberate obfuscation on John’s part.

        That’s rather unfair, Karl, if not a deliberate insult.

        Are John’s posts difficult, dense and complex? You bet. He’s writing in the tradition of people like, say, Gary K Wolfe, who mix Academia into Genre.

        John’s posts aren’t for everyone, but then, there are writers whose novels and stories aren’t for everyone. Try reading some of the denser novels of Gene Wolfe, for example. Those are so complex that whole books have been written as skeleton keys to unlock what he has done.

        • “That’s rather unfair, Karl, if not a deliberate insult.”
          Yes it was a deliberate insult, but no it’s not unfair.

          “Are John’s posts difficult, dense and complex? You bet.”
          No they aren’t. It’s the _writing_ that’s difficult, dense and complex, and unnecessarily so; and that’s my complaint. If the _ideas_ were difficult, etc., then I wouldn’t have been able to write a 1-sentence synopsis that Stevens himself agreed with.

          This sort of writing is required in academia, so I suppose I shouldn’t really blame Stevens for it. But it’s a silly, tiresome brand of writing, and as I said, it’s a brand of writing whose purpose is not to be understandable, but to sound impressive while (usually, as in the case of this particular article) saying nothing of any consequence.

          • Yes, I can see where sentences like “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.” would be impenetrable.

            Writing a sentence such as “genre is problematic, so we should focus on stories” is not a conclusion, it is a starting point for reflection and discussion. We all know that genre is limited, subjective, inaccurate, elastic, etc. But why? And why do people keep using (and re-suing, and reforming) these imprecise ideas that incompletely define texts? We can write all of the simple declarative sentences we want, but so what? What is interesting and stimulating for discussion is taking those declarations apart and trying to understand them.

            And I will reiterate that while you go on and on about how difficult and tiresome my writing is, you do see some of the points I’m making, which undermines your smug (and unsubstantiated) contention that the writing is “saying nothing of consequence.” I mean, if you don’t like my writing, that’s fine. But mischaracterizing it is not.

          • Saying that your article said nothing of consequence was unnecessarily harsh of me, and distracts from my real point, which was to rail against “scholar-ese” writing. There may have been an interesting discussion in your article; I don’t know, because I only did enough of the arduous mental parsing of scholar-ese into English to extract the gist of the piece. If you should ever care to rewrite the article in English, I’d be curious to read it.

            As I’m sure you know, I’m far from being the first to complain about scholar-ese writing, or the first to accuse it of being deliberately obscure and obfuscatory. Take for example this passage from Brian Aldiss’ book “The Detached Retina”:

            “[A]cademics in humanities posts write their papers in a form of language which imitates the jargon of their colleagues in the harder sciences. The result is frequently an inviolable form of gobbledygook. [An example passage from a critical journal is quoted.] …[T]hese two sentences seem to say little, and say it in an ugly way remote from the graces of our language as she is spoken. A defense mechanism is in operation. To speak plainly is to risk being taken for a fool.”

            I agree with Aldiss that this is an ugly, deliberately obfuscatory form of writing whose unspoken purpose is to give artificial weight to what’s being written. I suspect that many in academia have lost the ability to see this. They’ve become steeped in scholar-ese and internalized it as a language, to the point that they can’t understand or express the underlying ideas in what used to be their native language of plain English. Thus they believe their obfuscatory gobbledegook is necessary to what they’re saying.

            Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way to prove or disprove those theses. (Though it’s just possible that–to your own surprise– you would see the truth of them if you were to undertake the translation-into-English that I mention above.)

            Just BTW, the reasoning in your final paragraph is flawed. You argue that because I see some of the points you’re making, this undermines my contention that you’re saying nothing of consequence. “Nothing of consequence” isn’t the same as “nothing,” so it isn’t especially resistant to being “seen.”

      • Actually, this was pretty unscholarly, I thought, but to each their own. Other folks seemed to get the point just fine; it’s unfortunate that you thought it “gobbledygook” and yet still got a large part of the point I was making.

    • I’m sorry to hear that my columns don’t speak to you, but I appreciate your reading them regardless.

  5. Jeff VanderMeer // March 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm //

    We must have different defs of screaming. Like, screaming to me is false drama. Lack of nuance. Inability to remain in control of your material to achieve the *effect beyond*. Throwing in teh explosionia (or figurative equivalent) because the writer can’t think of anything better to do. Mostly, I think of screaming as in *writings that send me screaming from the room*. We have lots of screaming, and lots of mumbling. Passion’s a different story.

    I’m trying to think of how Wolfe’s articles are difficult. I don’t see it. Wolfe Prime meanwhile is metaphysics, not circling around metaphysics.

    Mainstream. Still a meaningless term. Reacting against mainstream. Meaningless. Stereotyping. A kind of unthinking screaming. “I grokked these four mainstream books out of five million. I didnae like them. Thus, I dislike the other 4,999,996. I didnae like these seven heroic fantasies, either, but my allegiance is with ‘fan-tastika’ so we’ll just paper that over and wall-in Childe Logic in the process.

    Rehash, acid reflux, regurg…all are deja vu-ing me into grump.

    • Jeff:

      I took Paolo to mean passion, not false drama. Cutting through the din and startling the reader. I think we could do with more of that.

      I agree that “mainstream” does not have much meaning, but it’s out there and used a lot, often without explication and frequently in contrast to stories that speak/scream to me. Many of these stories are labelled “SF” or “fantasy” or “weird” or “speculative fiction,” etc. It’s not a question of allegiance; there are plenty of works under these designations that I do not like, that don’t give me anything. But some of the works that have these labels DO speak to me, so using that label as shorthand, as an entry point for discussion has some utility. The trick is not to reify that by talking about how the stories relate to the label, but to discuss instead what the literature communicates to you. That’s what I am trying to do more in my writing.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: