Calling a Sword a Sword

Anomander Rake from the Sub Press Edition of Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon

Anomander Rake from the Sub Press Edition of Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon


In Rhetorics of Fantasy Farah Mendlesohn has said that ‘the debate over definition is now long-standing and a consensus has emerged, accepting as a viable “fuzzy-set” a range of critical definitions of fantasy’.[1]  In fact she argues that a combination of Brian Attebery’s formulation of the ‘fuzzy set’[2] with a choice of critical framework chosen from Christina Brooke-Rose[3], John Clute[4], Kathryn Hume[5], Rosemary Jackson[6], or Mendlesohn’s own Rhetorics is all the critical rigour necessary to analyse and understand Fantasy.  In many respects she is absolutely right, however, there is one major flaw: the debate never happened.

This might seem a grandiose claim, the cry of a young academic seeking to tear down the work of his predecessors to gain notoriety, or even an apparent misunderstanding of previous critics due to a lack of ability to parse the nuance of their arguments and intentions.  Let me take this one moment to say unequivocally that it is not.  This entire essay will illustrate this.  The point that I wish to make is one that is both obvious and yet unspoken.  We have never had the debate about ‘Fantasy’ and the evidence for this is as stark as it is obvious.

A stronger point to consider is that now is precisely the time to have the debate.  In previous years we have sought out small groups of texts, examples and fuzzy sets around key texts to help us define the nebulous construction of Fantasy.  Now the genre has consolidated, now we have a huge body of work which has cohered into something definite and discernible beyond literary antecedents, beyond outlying exceptions.  There is a core, a genre, which can be examined and investigated.  This genre has evolved beyond the early examples and taken on a life of its own.  It is vast, it is diverse but it exists and it is self-aware.  Now we must have the debate and move the discussion to examining Fantasy in its own right.

In the introduction of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy Clute states ‘You know it is a fantasy when you see it’[7]  in his discussion of the difficulty the editors encountered when trying to create a working definition of Fantasy for the encyclopaedia’s remit.  Given that this is one of the foundational critical approaches and definitions that Mendlesohn suggests has settled the debate and Clute has resorted to paraphrasing Damon Knight’s oft cited remark ‘science fiction is what we point to when we say it’[8], it is difficult to see how this is anything other than starting the debate.   Attebery has addressed the essential principal of my argument in the first chapter of Strategies of Fantasy.[9]  ‘Fantasy’, as a term, is used in three major ways; the mode, the genre and the formula.  This simple statement reveals a problem that has plagued Fantasy scholarship almost from its very inception.  When we as academics discuss Fantasy we are almost always arguing at cross purposes, not because we have never defined the limits of Fantasy, nor because our desire for taxonomy has obscured the discussion, but because we use the term Fantasy to mean multiple things.

When Todorov wrote The Fantastic, when Hume wrote about Fantasy and Mimesis, when Jackson wrote about Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion and even Mendlesohn’s own Rhetorics, each have, at times, used the term ‘Fantasy’ interchangeably with ‘Fantastic’ to refer to the supergenre of the Fantastic.  That is, the mode of the Fantastic, the grand overarching category of non-realist or non-mimetic literature.  This much is obvious when one considers the number of SF, Horror as well as Fantasy texts which are used in these critical works to illustrate the arguments.  This is not a problem in and of itself.  Arguments concerning the Fantastic, the arguments that allow us to explore, explain, investigate and analyse broad swathes of literature are necessary for the critical endeavour and to place our research in context.  If we did not have these frameworks or appreciation of larger structures we would only produce text specific, ad-hoc limited analyses.  However, as Attebery clearly articulates, Fantasy is not the same as the Fantastic.  Arguments about the Fantastic differ from arguments about Fantasy specifically.

In Gary Wolfe’s Evaporating Genres, he explains and articulates this very same point.  ‘This book consists of eleven essays on fantastic literature […] to re-examine these ideas in light of my current thinking and more recent developments in these genres’.[10]   The genres of the Fantastic are his area of investigation.  Genres.  Plural.  In fact, the IAFA, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts contains within it three literary divisions; Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction.  The scholarly association dedicated to analysing and researching the literature of the Fantastic recognises that Fantasy is distinct to the Fantastic, just as it is distinct to SF and Horror.  This simple ideological or conceptual approach is key to understanding what I am trying to articulate.  Fantasy is not the overarching mode.  Fantasy is not the term to use for the discussion of the mode, the supergenre, the all-encompassing category.  Fantasy is a genre within the Fantastic.  Fantasy is a genre comparable to and as established as its siblings SF and Horror.   Fantasy is a distinct tradition, a distinct genre, a distinct entity, with all the complexity, paradoxes, exceptions and formulas that every other genre exhibits.  To argue that Fantasy is the Fantastic is both limiting and inaccurate.  It negatively impacts on our work on the Fantastic and on Fantasy itself if we continue to conflate the terms.

This insistence on terminology is not simply an academic quibble or a specious argument for argument’s sake, rather this goes to my initial assertion.  The debate never happened.  We have debated aspects of Fantasy.  We have debated key texts within Fantasy.  We have debated approaches to the Fantastic.  We have agreed a consensus of critical frameworks that can be applied to the Fantastic as well as to Fantasy.  But we have never had a debate about Fantasy.  The very shape, size and core of the genre remain areas that need meaningful and concerted debate, deconstruction and discussion.  Identifying innovation in the works of George R.R. Martin and Guy Gavriel Kay needs to be placed in the context of the sub-set of Fantasy in which they write; Historical Fantasy.  Like Paul Kearney, both Kay and Martin take historical inspiration for their fantasies and build on them. This is not necessarily as innovative as it may first appear but this is only apparent if we consider the whole of the genre of Fantasy.  Innovation, trends, tropes and formulas need to be discussed, but we need to discuss them in relation to the whole of the genre of Fantasy.

Scholarship tends to focus on distinct or original texts that attempt to deepen or widen the genre and define its outer boundaries.  However, in order to identify how texts subvert genre norms and push the boundaries of genre convention, we must have a clear conception of the stereotypes and clichés they subvert, as well as their origins.  As Amy Devitt has said in relation to the construction of genre, ‘Variation within literary texts is generally more highly valued than is similarity’.[11] She also notes:

Where rhetorical genre theorists often seek texts that typify a genre, examine writers’ conformity to generic conventions, and study readers’ roles in promoting  generic expectations, literary genre theorists are more likely to seek texts that break the rules of a genre, to value writers who violate conventions, and to act as readers promoting unconventional generic readings. Great authors have often been admired for their “breaking” of generic conventions, thereby expanding the literary universe.[12]

Innovative novels are interesting, engaging and often of a higher literary quality than their generic counterparts.  Yet, texts which exist on the periphery are, by definition, not representative of the genre as a whole; they are the exceptions and they are not the most illustrative of genre conventions.  In fact, non-conventional texts and the importance that academic scrutiny places on them create a distorted perception of the genre as a whole, skewing the focus towards ground-breaking works and the edges of the genre, rather than toward its centre.  In this respect, and with the exception of Diana Wynne Jones’ parody of perceived stereotype[13], it seems that literary genre theorists have overlooked an important point.  The core of the genre, the centre of the mass of popular Fantasy literature, is better suited to explain the fundamentals that non-typical texts exploit or subvert, while the unique or distinctive texts better illustrate the range of possibilities beyond them.  Literary merit is not necessarily an indicator of critical worth, and popularity should not always be anathema to critical value.

We need to discuss the distinction between Children’s Fantasy, core Genre Fantasy texts and modern innovations within the genre rather than assume that these examples are representative.  Comparably, if one is writing on the genre of SF and half the examples given are children’s SF novels, innumerable scholars would take issue with this construction as representative of the core of the genre.  Yet this same approach, using the works of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis and Phillip Pullman in discussing the genre of Fantasy, passes without comment.  Yes the discussion of these authors is important, yes we should analyse their works, yes we should analyse Children’s Fantasy, but we should not do this on the understanding that these are representative of the genre.

There are numerous fantasy series, franchises, multi-volume epics, stand-alone Fantasy novels and anthologies of Fantasy stories.  There are a myriad of forms of Fantasy, and this list has not even included hybrid texts, cross-genre pollination, exceptional texts, and texts on the very periphery of Fantasy.  We need to debate these.  We need to analyse these.  We need to integrate our understanding of these texts within the broader genre of Fantasy.  This is already a Herculean and Sisyphean task without conflating Fantasy with the Fantastic.  These debates can only happen if we start by acknowledging that Fantasy is not the same as the Fantastic and being clear from the very beginning what we are discussing, debating and arguing.  If the term Fantasy is still contentious in this sense perhaps the term GF, Genre Fantasy, could be an easily used and understandable abbreviation for the genre texts.  This would make the concept of the genre of Fantasy as discernible as the term SF does for Science Fiction.

When we address Fantasy we should address it with the same rigour and the same specificity as we do SF.  We need to acknowledge the historical antecedents such as Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien.  We also need to acknowledge the dross, the hack writing, the poor examples as well as the key texts that subvert, innovate and push boundaries.  If we do not understand the formulas, if we are not familiar with what is happening at the core of the genre, we can never be sure when one of our more favoured or critically accepted authors has done something innovative.  We can never say with any certainty that an author or work is notable if we are blind to the structures and developments within the genre.  If we wish to analyse and debate the state of the genre as it now stands modern texts must be considered in conjunction with key historical texts.

Fantasy scholars have typically placed J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings at the heart of the genre, and argued that this text has greatly influenced the formal and generic composition of much Fantasy literature.[14]  As the construction of genre is obviously mutable and evolving we must be prepared to re-consider established positions and re-evaluate customary approaches and terminology.  Andy Sawyer has argued that Fantasy as a popular genre has evolved at least twice, the first iteration of ‘sword and sorcery’ or ‘heroic fantasy’ stemming from Howard’s Conan, and the second stemming from Tolkien’s LotR.[15]  Two key related and mutually supportive influences on the evolution of the modern Fantasy genre subsequent to Tolkien are the numerous franchises and RPGs that have developed in the last forty years.  Yet, due to our distaste for these books, dislike of RPGs, or our dismissal of their ‘hack’ writing, we do not consider their impact on a genre that by definition is ‘popular’ literature.  David Hartwell has written on SF in a similar vein,

Gernsback was the man who first saw science fiction as the ordinary pleasure reading of the new technological world. But his standards were not the standards of a literary man, of a modernist. They were the standards of a publisher of popular entertainment in pulp magazines, low-class, low-paying, low-priced popular entertainment serving the mass market.[16]

Clearly the work of Hugo Gernsback is not well written.  Ralph 124C41+ is an embarrassment in terms of literary techniques and the craft of writing.  Yet no serious SF scholar would dismiss the importance and the impact that Gernsback, his work and the writing of the pulps in general, had on shaping the modern genre of SF.  So it is a curiosity that we as Fantasy scholars routinely dismiss or ignore a large core constituent of the genre simply because it is not to our taste.  Franchises such as Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and now computer game tie-ins and novelisations continue to add to the field.  We ignore them at our peril as to ignore what is evolving at the core of the genre, or at its most formulaic if we are going to be elitist about it, is to ignore the very real innovations that are happening in front of our eyes.  The result of this academic myopia is that we are blind to the true shape of the genre and as a result our analysis is becoming skewed, un-relatable to and unrepresentative of what is actually taking place in Fantasy.  Considering RPGs and these related franchises is not a call to ignore Tolkien, far from it, but it is a plea to acknowledge that the genre continues to evolve and has assimilated, adapted and argued against more modern forms of Fantasy beyond the classic texts.

When we continually look back to Tolkien and to Lewis as formative influences on Fantasy as a genre, we do a disservice to how the genre has evolved and changed.  Donaldson’s essay ‘Epic Fantasy in the Modern World – A Few Observations’[17] clearly articulates his view and formulation of Fantasy; that of the internal externalised, the literalised metaphor, the psyche made manifest.  Like Clute, Donaldson works with a paradigm in which Fantasy connects character, story and landscape on a deeply thematic and often psychoanalytical level.  Yet the advent of RPGs forcibly moved Fantasy into a more SF-like construction.  Secondary worlds in Fantasy have become less an extension of the character’s internal psychology made manifest, or functionality of story, and closer to the paradigm of an alien world, inhabited and populated by monstrous and heroic alike.  The setting is no longer dependant on, or servant to, story, it is a world in which multiple stories can happen.  When trilogies stretch into series, when authors build a world to function as a setting for multiple stories, we have to move away from considering this an exception within Fantasy or as Clute puts it, Full Fantasy[18], and acknowledge that the paradigm has shifted.  If not acknowledge then at least be open to the debate.  The genre has evolved because the readership has evolved, the fans have changed, the authors have changed, and the world has changed.

It is a source of both amusement and frustration to SF people, writers and readers, that public consciousness of science fiction has almost never penetrated beyond the first decade of the field’s development.[19]

If we locate our scholarship of the Fantasy genre solely in the consideration of early fantasists such as Howard, Leiber, Tolkien and so forth, and we base our conception of the Fantasy paradigm predominantly on their work, we continue to perpetuate the myth that Fantasy has not evolved.   In essence we risk committing the self-same sin; not looking past the first few decades of the field’s development.  To not consider the impact of RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) we deny their influence on the genre.  This would be despite the fact that current Fantasy authors such as Steven Erikson,[20] Ian C. Esslemont, Raymond E. Feist,[21] China Miéville[22] and newer authors such as Joe Abercrombie,[23] Scott Lynch,[24] and Adrian Tchaikovsky[25] have openly discussed their history with gaming.[26]   If we are to understand the approach and concepts that may have influenced these new Fantasy authors, whether they are reacting against them, or utilising them in their fictions, then it seems both inevitable and essential that we consider the role and impact of RPGs.  In fact, given that a number of authors have described the impact and influence of RPGs on their writing, it could be argued that the RPG has supplanted Tolkien as ‘the mental template’ for Fantasy and thus assumed a central position as key text within the GF fuzzy-set.[27]  Attebery has argued that:

Tolkien’s form of fantasy, for readers in English, is our mental template, and will be until someone else achieves equal recognition with an alternative conception.[28]

The RPG and its related literature, including franchise writing and ‘pulp’ Fantasy, have generated that ‘alternative conception’ and deserve ‘equal recognition’.  Attebery’s fuzzy-set rule is partially predicated upon knowledge of the wider genre and the ability to isolate important key texts, and this necessitates a broad understanding of the genre and a wide knowledge of those texts that are popular or inspirational.  If the identification of key texts is solely the province of the Fantasy academic who refuses to consider RPG related material, then the set constructed will not resemble the genre as whole but rather only its periphery.

By combining this gaming perspective of Fantasy with more traditional sub-genres of Mythic or Epic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, we can construct a more meaningful fuzzy set or grouping that corresponds to core genre conventions.  It is this sub-grouping that the term GF describes, in effect a form of ‘typical’ Fantasy positioned at the centre of the genre.  Consequently magic realism, literary Fantasy, historical Fantasy et al are here viewed as wider extensions of the genre, located at a distance from this core ‘stereotypical’ adventure quest.  In this framework the ‘Fantastic’ is the broadest of categories, while other forms of Fantasy may contain aspects of GF’s conventions and clichés, they exist toward the periphery of the genre as they attempt to push the boundaries and create innovation.  The central GF texts are those most representative of genre norms and conventions.  By isolating and analysing the core concepts of genre Fantasy, we gain a clearer picture of it.  As David Fishelov has argued:

[…] even in those areas of modern literature where it seems that generic rules are absent, the innovative areas of canonic literature, generic rules are still a vital part of the literary communicative situation. These generic conventions might be viewed as a challenge, or a horizon, against which the writer and his reader have to define themselves. The writer may stretch the generic rules, he may produce some unpredictable ‘match’ between different existing conventions of existing literary genres (or even between literary conventions and conventions taken from other media), but in order to understand the overall significance of his text, we should be aware of the generic system against which he is working. A writer does not create in a textual vacuum, and a rebellious child is still part of the family.[29]

In order to accurately analyse innovative Fantasy texts, one must first be clear on the generic conventions.  When the Fantasy critic has defined and codified the core, it becomes easier to isolate those elements of the wider genre that subvert, invert or play with convention.  While it is commonly accepted that Fantasy contains clichés and conventions, as illustrated by Jones’ Tough Guide, RPGs and their related fictions identify these conventions, as well as provide rationales and a set of terms with which to explain and utilise them.  However, as Ralph Cohen has argued:

[Genres] are historical assumptions constructed by authors, audiences, and critics in order to serve communicative and aesthetic purposes… Groupings arise at particular historical moments, and as they include more and more members, they are subject to repeated redefinitions or abandonment.[30]

The RPG is illustrative of the historical rise of convention within the genre as Fantasy evolved from Tolkien through to the modern day.  Games, gamers and game designers have become part of the dialogue through which the genre is defined.  An inclusive definition of the genre of Fantasy should therefore also consider the perspectives of the consumer and fan, editor and author, in addition to that of the critic and academic.  Stableford has said that, ‘our first and most intimate experience with the fantastic is the substance of our dreams’,[31] yet while this is almost certainly true, one of the first experiences of the ‘genre of fantasy’ occurs upon our first entrance to a bookshop and seeing the section marked ‘Fantasy’.

This is part of the debate we need to have.  We each have specialisms, areas of interest, text specific knowledge and differing perspectives on the genre.  This goes to the heart of Fantasy criticism as the field, the genre, is simply too vast to know it all.  Yet we cannot have this debate if we argue at cross purposes, it we cannot agree on simple terminology, and even agree that Fantasy is a genre.  The Fantastic is the mode and Fantasy is not the Fantastic.  Fantasy is a genre and that genre is not SF.  Fantasy exists as a genre in its own right with a body of work that has become increasingly self-aware.  If the genre is aware of itself, then as Fantasy scholars the least we can do is engage with that awareness.  It is time to call a sword a sword and move on to the debate.

[1] Farah Mendlesohn Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown, CT. Wesleyan University Press, 2008)  Introduction p.xiii

[2] Brian Attebery Strategies of Fantasy (Indiana: Indiana University Press,1992) p.12 Chapter 1.

[3] Christina Brooke-Rose A Rhetoric of the Unreal : Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)

[4] John Clute and John Grant eds., Encyclopedia of Fantasy, (London: Orbit, 1997).

[5]Kathryn Hume Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (New York: Methuen, 1984 )

[6] Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, (London: Methuen, 1981)

[7] John Clute, ‘Introduction’ in Clute and Grant eds, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, p.viii

[8] Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago: Advent Publishing,1967) p.xiii

[9] Brian Attebery Strategies of Fantasy (Indiana: Indiana University Press,1992) Chapter 1

[10] Gary Wolfe, Evaporating Genres (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2011), p.vii

[11] Amy Devitt ‘Integrating Rhetorical and Literary Theories of Genre’ College English Vol. 62, No.6, July 2000 pp.696-718 p.706

[12] Ibid., pp.704-5

[13] Diana Wynne Jones The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (London: Gollancz, 2004)

[14] Where Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has been quoted citations have been given from the combined edition J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 1991)

[15] Andy Sawyer ‘Who “Owns” Children’s Fantasy?’ Foundation Vol.32 No.88 (2003) pp.5-18, p.16.

[16] David G. Hartwell, The Science Fiction Century (New York: Tor, 1997), p.18

[17] http://www.stephenrdonaldson.com/EpicFantasy.pdf [last accessed 30/03/12]

[18] John Clute ‘Grail, Groundhog, and Godgame’ JFA Vol.10 No.4 (2000) pp.330-337

[19] David G. Hartwell, The Science Fiction Century (New York: Tor, 1997) p.19

[20] Interview with Steven Erikson www.bscreview.com/2008/06/on-the-spot-at-bscreview-interview-steven-erikson/ (last accessed 20/08/2010) acknowledges both his and Esslemont’s gaming background.

[21] Feist has acknowledged his gaming group in the majority of his novels, as well as on www.crydee.com.

[22] Interview with China Miéville www.believermag.com/issues/200504/?read=interview_mieville (last accessed 20/0/2010)

[23] Interview with Joe Abercrombie www.sffworld.com/interview/204p0.html (last accessed 20/08/2010)

[24] See his personal website www.scottlynch.us/author.html (last accessed 21/08-2010)

[25] See Tchaikovsky’s personal website www.shadowsoftheapt.com (last accessed 21/08/2010)

[26] Jim Butcher, the author of the urban Fantasy series ‘The Dresden Files’ advertises his LARP society on his author page www.jim-butcher.com

[27] Attebery Strategies of Fantasy p.14

[28] Attebery Strategies of Fantasy p.14

[29] David Fishelov Metaphors of Genre: The Role of Analogies in Genre Theory (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993) pp.82-83.

[30] Ralph Cohen ‘History and Genre’ New Literary History 17 (1986) pp.203-18, p.210

[31] Brian Stableford, ‘How Should a Science Fiction Story Begin’ JFA Vol.12 Issue 3 pp.322-337, p.323

(Originally published in the New York Review of Science Fiction)

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