“[R]eading is as much a strategic enterprise as the work itself. To read, then, is to engage in one set of strategies in order to decipher another set.” – Terry Eagleton, The Event of Literature, p. 185.
“Imagination and reality can be in cahoots, not at daggers drawn.” – ibid, p. 127.
I’ve been ill for the past several weeks and not writing very much, but I have been doing some reading, and I just finished Terry Eagleton’s new book The Event of Literature. It is a sometimes snarky, often erudite discussion of what literature is and is not, and a wide-ranging discussion of ways to conceive of literature and the significance of doing so. As I read I couldn’t help but think not just of the idea of literature writ large, but of the subset of fantastic literature. Reading the book (which I recommend to anyone who wants to think more about the meaning of literature, the self, and the life of the mind) stimulated my thinking on the nature of fantastic literature, and what I want to do this week is to present some of those thoughts and consider how they might relate to the reading of fantastika.
Eagleton’s argument, as complex and layered as it is, is essentially about how we read, from how we incorporate the written ideas of others into our thinking to how the act of reading is conducted. “Literature” is both a category of texts that we read and a strategic label for making sense of texts. The same can be said for categories such as fantastika, science fiction, etc. When we label something with one of these designations, we are doing more than categorizing a material or conceptual object; we are asserting how we believe we should interact with it. We are framing our understanding of what the object is, how we wish to relate to it, and deciding what conceptual tools to apply to deciphering it.
Genres are not just an attempt to label texts; they are invitations to engagement. We engage them strategically, in the sense that Eagleton, following Wolfgang Iser, explicates:
” Strategies. . . constitute the vital link between work and reader, as the cooperative activity which brings the literary work into being in the first place.” (p. 186)
Genres are one form of strategy by which we interact with texts. The term “strategy” here does not mean some scheme to achieve victory; they are techniques that readers employ to find meaning in a text, to unpack/resolve/reject the paradoxes of the text. Every work of fiction is unreal, yet it strives to present an interpretation of reality — whether precisely mimetic, wildly surreal, or something in-between — and readers must decide what to believe, what to dismiss, and how to reconcile what they discover in the text. Readers make an unfolding series of decisions as they approach a text and as they then interact with it. They accept the writer’s effort to communicate and then decide — symbol by symbol , word by word — what the author’s strategic choices are and how to comprehend them, working with the author’s words to create an imaginative event. A reader continuously checks and re-checks assumptions, reproduces or rejects ideas, and reinforces or alters how they categorize the text, from “literature” to “pulp”, from “good” to “bad”, etc. This ongoing act of flexible strategizing is the “event” of literature.
Reading fantastika is a particular kind of event, of reading literature; it is in essence an acceptance that notions of possibility and displacements not tied to common notions of reality will be intensified and elaborated and toyed with, undermined and overdetermined, in the text. Literature gives us permission to believe; fantastika extends that permission, asks the reader to take an additional step into the elsewhere. Some readers do not need or want to make that distinction, but others do so that they can deploy particular strategies that accentuate how they make sense of a fictional narrative.
Readers choose, for a host of reasons, to read literature that plays with or refutes realistic representation. Paul Kincaid made a fascinating observation in his recent response to discussions of his (BSFA-nominated) essay The Widening Gyre that relates to this point. He notes that SF is frequently not about science, but about other issues and topics that are considered “science fiction” because they use tropes or symbols that readers interpret as science-fictional. What “science fiction” is about often has little to do with science and more to do with playing with the rules commonly used to apprehend reality. I think this works in the same way that fantasy is not strictly about magic, but about envisioning new ways for the world to work. This can apply more broadly to fantastika as well; such stories are not refutations of “realism” or mimetic fiction but refashionings of the rules. An author chooses to write about, and readers choose to read about, fantastic literature for a different angle on what all literature does. As Eagleton puts it:
“the literary returns us to the ludic roots of our everyday knowledge and activities. It allows us a glimpse of how our distinctive ways of feeling and acting are a semi-arbitrary selection from a whole gamut of possibilities…” (p. 30).
Choosing to read a text as fantastical means a change in the strategy for working with the text in a reader’s imagination. As I noted in a previous column: “Many of the attempts to theorize how readers engage fantastika arise from notions of initiation and arcane attenuation.” The idea of protocols is a good example of this as a notion that we have to learn special skills to read fantastika, SF in particular. Eagleton’s idea of “strategy” is more productive to think with than ideas such as “protocol” for conceptualizing how we read fantastic literature. I’ve talked about protocol before and the limits of that idea for understanding how we read, and I think that the idea that both the produced text and the reader’s engagements are a collusion — that the text provides clues that a reader decides how to imagine — is a much more fruitful way to think about reading fantastika. We don’t learn rarefied skills to reveal the wonders of the text; we instead open ourselves to a given text with altered expectations, with strategies that respect the insular “reality” that a writer’s text is designed to build in our imaginations. We accept “the liminal nature of the act of reading fiction, caught as it is somewhere between artifice and reality” by placing our faith in what the writer presents to us without trying to constantly link to it the rules of reality we use to function in the everyday world. Literature is never the everyday world, no matter how prosaic or mimetic it is; fantastika is even moreso another world, and when we accept that framing for a text and strategize our reading accordingly, we can see much more not just in that text, but possibly in the world around us, and even the world inside us.