Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Follow Up

In a response to my post on Clute's narrative grammars of genre, Niall Harrison took issue with my contention that Clute was really talking about Epic / Heroic / High Fantasy rather than fantasy in its wider sense, referring me to the ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF FANTASY. At the time, without a copy to hand, I had to assume I was taking Clute too rigidly and shrug it off as "that's how it reads in the essay"; but having managed to track down a cheap copy of the text now, I'd have to say it still seems like Clute is talking of a sub-type of fantastic fiction which is... rather more limited than I'm comfortable with, limited enough that I do think there's a case for calling it "Epic" or "Heroic" or "High" or some such, rather than simply "Fantasy".

Here are two aspects to the problem of rival applications of the label "Fantasy", viewed from Clute's side of the coin, where he distinguishes it from the "fantastic fiction" of writers like Kafka, Borges or Marquez:

1. [T]o call so much of 20th-century literature fantasy is radically to misunderstand the enterprises of Modernism and Postmodernism...

2. ... and thereby to strip the term "fantasy" of any specific meaning.

This is to say that (2) the term "fantasy" has a narrow (specific) meaning which we stand to lose if we fail to (1) disassociate it as an enterprise from (post)Modernist texts that could be (mis)labelled as "fantasy". Which is, in turn, to say that Fantasy is an enterprise with its own set of purposes, strategies and tactics distinct from those of (post)Modernism.

This is directly opposed to the argument that fantasy is a technique (and, by extension, any form of fiction using that technique), applicable within a range of enterprises, each of which may have a quite distinct set of purposes, strategies and tactics. That contrary argument sets out an open definition of fantasy entirely opposed to Clute's closed definition (but essentially identical to his definition of "fantastika" or "fantastic fiction").

Actually neither of these definitional approaches are solutions to the problem; they are in fact the source of the problem in the opposition they set up, the conflict of open and closed definitions. Deciding between them is a matter of aesthetics (the elegance of the model), pragmatics (the applicability of the model) and politics (the actual ramifications of applying the model). From a critical view I recognise the utility in Clute's closed definition, the problems of indistinction and overload that emerge when we throw the term fantasy about with little specificity. But as a writer working within the marketing category of Fantasy who is engaged on an enterprise with a set of purposes, strategies and tactics that overlap with those of post(Modernism), and aware as I am of the number of my peers engaged on similar enterprises, I think that ultimately Clute's closed definition (a) does not reflect the diversity of enterprises within the field, and (b) reifies and reinforces a prejudicial stereotype with a palpable negative impact in artistic, practical and political terms. In short, it is inaccurate as an act of description and inequitous as an act of prescription.

Clute seems to implicitly acknowledge the nature of his approach where he suggests, by way of Attebury, the possibility that "fantasy is inherently best described and defined through prescriptive and exploratory example" (my italics). However worthwhile this approach may be in practice, I would argue, there is an inherent danger of generating a feedback loop between prescription as dogma and exemplification as cherry-picking -- where a preconceived theory results in a narrowing of focus which highlights appropriate examples and neglects exceptions, this in turn validating and reinforcing the theory. The result we can expect to see under these circumstances is a closed definition of fantasy at odds with an open definition which, in contrast, attempts to describe without prescription and to incorporate exceptions to any limiting theoretical model.

This is, I think, exactly what we find in Clute's closed definition of fantasy, in its conflict with the open definition used by many within the community that coheres around the term ("fantasy" readers, "fantasy" writers, agents who deal with "fantasy", editors of dedicated "fantasy" magazines and imprints, publishers producing and marketing works as "fantasy"). I do acknowledge the possibly irresolvable problem that arises from the conflict of this open definition and the various closed definitions of Fantasy (naturally born of critical and commercial pressures toward specification). For this reason, and to avoid confusion, I prefer to substitute "strange fiction" for either "fantastic fiction" or "fantasy" in my own open definition. But on the flip side -- also to avoid confusion, and to counteract the negative impact where this essentialist view reifies and reinforces the stereotyping of work conventionally labelled as "fantasy" -- I feel we must also acknowledge the narrowing of focus at play here, the fact that Clute closes his definition to a degree which requires a modification of his nomenclature. The alternative is a deliberate or unconscious marginalisation of works which don't fit the stereotype.

How then, specifically, does Clute's use of the term close his definition? And what modifier(s) might function, in light of this, to make explicit, to acknowledge, the narrowing of focus in an easily and widely comprehensible way?

Clute's principal narrowing of focus reflects his distinction between fantasy and post(Modernism):

A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative.

Self-coherence is the key quality by which Clute distinguishes fantasy from the fantastic, projecting the notion of story onto that of narrative. His basic contention, as I read it, is that the former has an identifiable structure, a grammar which requires the coherence of causality within the setting (the "world"); there is no subversion of the connectivity of cause and effect, events and consequences. A conventional shorthand way of saying this would be to say that fantasy has story and story is plot-driven. An open definition of fantasy, in contrast, would take the latter (i.e. narrative) as its basis, contending only that fantasy has an identifiable process, a dynamics which allows, in the end, for a sense of aesthetic rather than causal coherence; the progress of events may be made sense of less as a chain of consequences and more as a pattern of scenes which develops in accordance with its own abstract or affective logic. In conventional shorthand, a narrative may lack story, being "held together" by character and theme rather than "driven by" plot.

When we look at Clute's definition of "Story" we can see the extent to which he sees it as permeating the fictive world. The end-point and purpose of the narrative here is the "unveiling of an irreducible substratum of Story, an essence sometimes obscure but ultimately omnipresent". The fictive world of (Romantic) Story is imbued with a layer of meaning in a way that the fictive world of (possibly Rationalist, Modernist or Post-Modernist) narrative is not; it is essentially a construction which embodies an aesthetic sensibility -- the systematic notion of internal or external reality which we project upon it in our own variant of the Pathetic Fallacy. To a very large extent I agree with Clute here; this is exactly what I'm focusing on in the post on sub-genres, in the idea that we can identify idyllic, baroque and grotesque flavours of Romantic aesthetics which set up a world with boulomaic modalities written into it, a world already disrupted or primed for a disruption (c.f. Todorov) which will trigger the narrative.

Where I would differ from him is in the degree of overlap I see between baroque and grotesque aesthetics and (post)modern aesthetics, and the potentiality these have, along with neo-primitivist and modern archaic aesthetics, for refocusing a narrative on Satire or Critique rather than Story -- i.e. on deconstructions of Story. In opening up the Romantic narrative in this way, these aesthetics force us to open up our definition of fantasy. Where they render the fictive world intrinsically too complex, too repulsive, too incoherent, too bereft of meaning, or too mystical to be grasped and accepted in a moment of narrative unveiling, they defy the restoratory end-point of Story. Works which do so are often subject of category disputes -- labelled as horror, slipstream, cross-genre, interstitial or what have you rather than "pure" fantasy (a term which Clute revealingly applies directly to the Secondary World Epic form he is narrowing his focus upon) -- but it is with the exclusion of exactly these texts that, I am arguing, Clute's "Fantasy" becomes limited to the subset of "Romanticist Fantasy". This is precisely where a plethora of fiction which is conventionally labelled fantasy by readers, writers, agents, editors and publishers is wrongly excluded from the model in order for that model to function accurately (and prescriptively). You cannot restore the idyll if the world of the story was not constructed as an idyll in the first place. The end-point of a narrative based on a world of baroque, grotesque, (post)Modern, neo-primitivist or modern archaic aesthetics are just as likely to be the "revel" or "conceptual breakthrough" Clute ascribes to Horror and SF.

This projection of story onto narrative, moreover, has ramifications for character and action as well as setting, plot requiring agency as well as causality. From Clute's definition of story a clear picture emerges of how he sees character and setting as being bound into the story, the one being conveyed through the other by way of a narrative composed of "sequences which hearers or readers understand as consecutive and essential moments in the telling of the tale", structured as a quest towards the restoratory end-point. It is at this point that his narrative grammar ceases to describe Fantasy, or even Romanticist Fantasy and comes to describe Heroic Fantasy.

Depending on the nature of the setting, the narrative trigger, the protagonist, and the dynamics of boulomaic modalities that emerges from those factors, the Story may play out as Epic, Adventure, Mystery or Thriller (or any "combination" thereof), but the role of the protagonist within all those flavours of fantasy is essentially still heroic. We can and should distinguish the Heroes of monomythic Epic from the Heroes, heroes, anti-heroes and reluctant-heroes of Stories less grand in scope, but in doing so I think we begin to see where Clute's narrative grammar of Fantasy merges into those of SF and Horror, how he is focusing on the more grandiose incarnations of the hero when it comes to the former, sliding his definition of it towards the Epic / Adventure end of a sort of spectrum of narrative structures in order to map that spectrum onto the three genres.

Ultimately, his focus on the quest structure is what closes his definition in this respect, attempting to bind Fantasy within a plot-type at one end of the spectrum where the protagonist is an active agent with a crucial mission who will succeed (overcome the "thinning") because they must. The more active the agent is, the more Heroic the fiction. The more crucial their mission is, the more Epic the fiction. We can compare this to plot-types where the protagonist is a reflexive agent forced to engage with a disruptive event through actions that may lead them deeper into the disruption (mired in the "thickening") to eventual failure, or that may in fact lead along them a more complex path through encounters with enigma ("estrangement"), to a more ambiguous "conceptual breakthrough" in the end.

While there is, undoubtedly, a predominance of Epic / Heroic Fantasy within the genre labelled as fantasy, my contention is simply that there is enough fiction within that genre employing narrative structures best labelled as Adventure, Mystery, Thriller or even Horror (and better described in terms of "thickening" or "estrangement") that to map this spectrum of narrative grammars to the genres is descriptively inaccurate even as a broad generalisation and prescriptively inequitous as an essentialist definition. Remove the labels and apply this model of narrative grammars across the genres of strange fiction, and it becomes a profoundly powerful tool for critiquing narratives, many of which will have Story at the heart of them. But applied as a direct mapping of the genres I think it creates significant issues.

Underlying the closed definition of fantasy which makes this mapping sustainable (and, it often seems, widely accepted) despite those issues is, I think, the misleading notion that a single subjunctivity level is attached to a text and constant throughout it and can therefore be used as an essential identifying feature of a genre. Thus we get Fantasy as representing events that are "impossible in the world as we perceive it" or taking place in a secondary world that is itself apparently "impossible" though the events "may be possible in its terms". And, in contrast, we get SF tales "written and read on the presumption that they are possible -- if not yet".

I've argued elsewhere that this is not actually how we write or read fictions of either genre, that impossibility and possibility are judgements of subjunctivity level, that this switches from sentence to sentence within a text, and that the resultant flux renders any narrative a discourse of subjunctivity levels, with the reader often in a state of tension (Todorov's "moment of hesitation"), unsure of whether an incredible event, an item of strangeness (which includes the technical, temporal and often theoretical impossibilities of SF), is to be read as artifice or anomaly. I won't regurgitate that here, but I will say that if this an accurate model of how strange fiction works it requires a more complex view of the three genres in terms of narrative dynamics, one which sits nicely, I think, with the notion of narrative grammars applied without closing the definition of fantasy. Conversely, an essentialist approach in which stories are either "possible" or "impossible" factors up neatly to the generalisations about genres, the mapping of SF to "possibility" and Fantasy to "impossibility", which is necessary if one is to characterise SF as a Rationalist enterprise and Fantasy as a Romantic enterprise -- if we are to claim that each can be identified by a discrete (and incompatible) set of purposes, strategies and tactics.

In Clute's definition of fantasy this association is not explicit but we do find the argument that the genres of Fantasy and SF must be understood in this context. There is much within pre-Enlightenment that the contemporary reader would consider fantastic. Before this era of Enlightenment Rationalism, however, it is impossible to be sure of the degree of belief that readers of any given text might have had when confronted with narratives portraying events we now consider utterly incredible. We cannot, in fact, be certain that they would view those events as impossible at all in the context of the time. Though fantasy would have existed "whenever stories were told which were understood by their authors (and readers) as being impossible" we cannot be certain, "before the rise of science" that this was an aesthetic purpose, that "they stood as counter-statement to a dominant world-view". In this positioning of fantasy as antagonist to the scientific world-view (and the following association of SF with that world-view), I think the association surfaces as an implicity.

There is an issue here of how strange fiction might have had that technique of breaching nomology as an aesthetic purpose before our scientific worldview redefined not just the terms of that nomology but the basis of how we construct it. Actually I think there is scope here for investigating nomology as a non-scientific sense of possibility, investigating the way beliefs in Natural, Social or Divine order might also have functioned (and might still do) to construct "laws of reality" -- looking at the ancient concept of "miasma" as a breaching of those laws, for example, and a breaching that is integral to the narratives of Greek Tragedy. But I'll leave this question aside for now, as I'd basically agree with Clute that SF and Fantasy are better understood in an Enlightenment context. I do think these genres, along with Horror, are better understood as emergent features of a dialectic between Romanticism and Rationalism.

However, ultimately, I'd argue, these genres, in their present condition, are best understood as emerging at a point of synthesis in the Modernism of the 20th century, with Rationalism and Romanticism as potential aesthetics within them, but with a huge proportion of the fictions involved fundamentally taking the technique(s) of strange fiction and applying them in enterprises which, if we break them down into purposes, strategies and tactics, are entirely understandable as Modernist or Post-Modernist. SF is immediately understandable that way, with a deep interpenetration of Rationalist and Romantic aesthetics blatant throughout. But the very fantastic fiction which Clute excludes from Fantasy (from Kafka up to Carter) -- and much of what he includes -- is also profoundly (post)Modern, equally so and sometimes more so. In fact, I'd argue, the most interesting work in the field today (Kelly Link, Jeff Ford, etc.) is deeply rooted in a multi-threaded tradition of fantasy traceable back through the indie presses of today, mainstream movements like Magical Realism, genre traditions of slipstream and interstitial fiction, magazines like TTA and early Interzone, the New Wave and on, right back to the roots.

Where contemporary Fantasy in its post-Tolkien Epic / Heroic form may appear to be entirely Romantic (validating the false Rationalist/Romanticist dichotomy of SF and Fantasy by sheer weight of numbers), I'm not convinced that even this is actually more than an ersatz Romanticism, defined more in opposition to Modernity and Modernism than to Rationalism in and of itself. (There is much, I think, in the world-building of this type of fantasy that incorporates the Rationalist approach of data collection and organisation, exhaustive mapping and chronicling as ends in and of themselves.) Either way, Clute's closed definition of Fantasy, I'd argue, narrows his focus onto this form in a way that leaves many readers, writers, agents, editors and publishers sitting in a swelling tide of fantastic fiction that they happily refer to as fantasy but which is quite at odds with Clute's idea of what Fantasy is and how it works.


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