The OF Blog: In Fantasy Do I Believe?

Friday, May 04, 2007

In Fantasy Do I Believe?

I have been devoting some time lately to pondering how best to respond to comments I've seen by Gabe Chouinard, among others, regarding how reviewers of the speculative ought to strive to make their reviews something more than a Two Thumbs Up or a Five-Star rating short piece that reflects the USA Todayization of all forms of printed and electronic media. The above-linked piece about the "Two Cultures of Fandom" is interesting, but despite agreeing to a point, I feel there are certain limitations to that train of thought.

I rarely write reviews anymore. I write occasional commentaries over books that I particularly enjoyed, but it's not necessarily to discuss the innards of the book in detail or to hawk it to someone who might want to buy it in the future. I follow, it seems, a third path. I often will write short pieces on the effect that a book had on myself and why such a work was important for me and perhaps how it could influence others. Perhaps is this due to my unwillingness to divorce literature/fiction from greater questions of symbols, values, and inquisitions that are rooted in material cultures.

As I was trying to think of how I was going to crystallize my thoughts on the topic, I happened to read three books, two of them in the original Spanish and the other in an English translation from the Italian, that seemed to offer echoes of why I seem to "believe in fantasy" and why there are those who are not going to see literature as being anything else but a TV-like mode of engaging oneself with symbolic situations.

The first book I read was Carlos Fuentes' En esto creo (available in English as This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life). It is an A through Z book full of thoughts on issues such as God, Jesus, Sons, Education, Experience, Kafka, Faulkner, Time, and so on. In the section on Novels, Fuentes says an interesting thing (my rough translation is below:)

The novel is a re-introduction of the human being in history. In a grand novel, the subject is presented anew to his/her destiny and his/her destiny is the sum of his/her experience: fatal and free. But in our time, the novel is also a letter of presentation of cultures that, far from being drowned by the tides of globalization, have emboldened themselves to affirm themselves with more vigor than never before...

There is no novel without history. But the novel, introducing us in history, also permits us to search the road outside history in order to see history with clarity and to be, authentically, historical. To be immersed in history, lost in its labyrinths without recognizing the exits is, simply, to be a victim of history...

The novel gains the right of criticizing the demonstrable world, in the first place, its capacity for criticizing itself. It is the the criticism of the novel by the novel itself that reveals such a labor of art such as the social dimension of the work. James Joyce in Ulysses and Julio Cortázar in Rayuela/Hopscotch are superior examples of what I want to say: the novel as critic of itself and its procedures. But this is a heritage of Cervantes and the novelists of la Mancha.

The novel proposes to us the possibility of a verbal imagination as reality not less real than history itself. The novel constantly announces a new world: an imminent world. Because the novelist knows that after the terrible dogmatic violence of the twentieth century, history has converted itself into a possibility, never more into a certainty. We believe in order to know the world. Now, we ought to imagine it.
Perhaps in a commentary or review of a book, especially a novel, one ought to not just denote what World X that Story Y is taking place, but also perhaps consider the possibilities contained within that novel/writing and how it might affect oneself and those others who will read and consider the imagined worlds presented within the pages of a book.

The second book that I read these past few days that touches upon related issues is Jorge Luis Borges' Otras inquisiciones (Other Inquisitions is one possible translation title for the English). The majority of that book is devoted to particular authors and themes (Hawthorne, among other American authors, has a chapter devoted to his themes and times) related to their works. Borges does an excellent job of setting up the background for the stories, looking not just at his own viewpoints, but the possibilities that could have influenced the authors' decisions when writing their works. Perhaps this is something that is most in need of being revitalized in genre reviews; the consideration that authors have influences and perceptions that are going to influence the understandings of their stories just as much as the readers' own mental/emotional baggage may influence the interpretation of the text. But yet that is a difficult task to accomplish, one might think, in the world of dungeons and deadly dragons, of wench and rogues, of orcs and elves, and of all the tropes that might contain idealizations of our past. I believe it can be done, however, provided of course one accept first that the literature being considered is just as much a part of contemporary material culture as the legend of Wilt Chamberlain's 20,000.

And finally, today I read Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality. Such a fitting title, "hyperreality," or the art of mimicking that which is "real" to us. After all, this field abounds in those whose ability to suspend disbelief in some ways is oddly less than those who are more enamored of Romantic or other genres that touch upon the fantastical. I have said my piece elsewhere on those who are so in search of the "real" within the imagined world, so suffice to say that in writing about fantasy, or perhaps capital F Fantasy would be more suited for this occasion, one often will find others who cannot imagine as much as reasoning themselves toward an imagination, however pale or distorted that might possibly be on occasion.

In the end, I believe in the fantasies that I read or hear, not because I view them as being "hyperreal," but because there is something in the process of imagination that ties me not just with my own world and time, but with those of the authors I read and of others with whom I interact. To discuss a book without discussing how it might possibly influence your own thoughts is to leave something out. Say what you feel about the book; only just "ground" it in a common "reality" that might help others consider what you and what the book might have to offer in terms of interpretations of the thoughts that follow the readings.


Anonymous said...

Larry, this is a very intriguing response, and it isn't far at all from what we've been saying, though you state it quite differently. You have to bear in mind that the two cultures of fandom posts were only part of a wider dialogue that has been going on, and that there are many other 'players' involved. But yes, I think you've nailed some important conceptual changes that we'd like to see within the context of reviews and reviewing.


Lsrry said...

Yeah, I knew there were things inside that debate I was missing, particularly since I've been rather occupied of late with this teaching job that I've had.

Also checked the referral links and I see that a poster at your site comes close to what I was thinking about when I was writing this piece the other day. The Author-Text-Reader relationship is very dynamic and I believe that some of the best reviews turn inward to show how the Text interacted with that reader, outward to explore what influenced the Author's creation of that Text, and perhaps sideways to examine how this Text at any particular time might relate to how we perceive other Texts, other times.

That being said, one of these days, I'm going to get around to writing a longish piece on Saramago and/or Borges. But that might be months or years into the future, as I still have a lot to explore about how I'm reacting to their Texts.

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