The OF Blog: Fantasy as Genre: Possibilities and Considerations

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Fantasy as Genre: Possibilities and Considerations

The following is a continuation of an exercise began in my post "Grounding the Fantastic" and continued with "When did 'Fantasy' begin?," with mirror discussions here, here, and here. Thanks to the dozens of people here and at those forums who contributed their thoughts, questions, and critiques, as those helped clarify my own thoughts here a bit.

Fantasy is a terrifically ill-defined word that can cover so much ground, obscuring it in the process. Trying to write a precise definition is akin to grasp a catfish; it is hard to prevent squirming, wriggling, and slipperiness from occurring. But in this exercise of constructing the elements of a monograph that I likely will never write in full, I probably would want to place it within the context of "play," itself a term even more fraught with possibilities and escape space for those who do not want tie themselves down with very precise labels. However, since such terms are too universal in some of their meanings to be practical for my hypothetical exercise, I then would seek to "ground" these terms in order to make them more workable.

I probably would then note that while humans (and primates, and many other mammals at the very least) engage in both play and also in "dream," the term "fantasy" would then need to be used in a very limited sense if it were to have any sense at all. And since I would have stated at the beginning that I am interested in fantasy as genre, any opening would have to specify a devision between that "stuff of which dreams are made," the "fantastical," and a genre of literature that makes such items the primary mode of discourse. This is essential to establish early, since even without a precise understanding of what constitutes "fantasy" today, there is a perception among a great many that, like pornography, they know "fantasy" when they see/read/view it.

But in the act of creating a dividing line/point, said point/line will then become a point of contention. In order to address questions of why can't Gilgamesh, ancient Greco-Roman myths, Arthurian legends, or The Romance of the Stone (this is for Western literature; for assuredly, there would have to be a much more global examination than what is traditionally done with said writings), for example, be fantasy, a framework would have to be established. And in this proposed paper, I likely would construct the research around the following points:

"Genre" would indicate a popular (or mass) acceptance of an entity as an entity. Individual works that could be construed as containing elements of "fantasy" (or as I would argue, the "fantastical," to keep the waters from being muddied too much) would have to be examined on the basis of cultural mentalité and dispersion. Yes, Ovid and Lucian wrote stories that contain much that we today would consider as being "fantasy," but what about their audiences? What were they reading (or rather, hearing)? Is the example being cited an example of an "elite" or "high" culture, or is it "common," "low," or "popular" culture? It is not enough to cite authors and their story structures as evidence for the work being "fantasy." Said works ought to be examined on the basis of what was being produced at the time - was said work segregated or viewed as "fantasy?" Was said work "popular" in nature and reflect the prevailing attitudes? If not (and I would argue that either the evidence for the pre-1500 period to be either too scant or contradictory), then while said works might contain elements of the "fantastical," they would not constitute "fantasy."

In continuing this exploration of "fantasy" in a cultural sense, I likely would want to do a lot of readings on oral traditions from before the late 18th century and certainly just before/after the printing revolution of the 15th-16th centuries. I would seek to find answers to the question of whether or not "fantasy" as a separate genre/concept is tied to an increased focus on literacy. Furthermore, would the presumed segregation be the result of socio-cultural polarization between the elites (now more literate and with much greater access to written works) and the populace (who still are largely illiterate)? While I suspect there might be, based on prior readings of the period at hand, I would have to do much more research first.

Another topic that would have to be examined would be that of the Scientific Revolution and how understandings of what was around us and how we would approach studying it changed during the 16th-17th centuries. While I am unconvinced by Adam Roberts' arguments in his The History of Science Fiction regarding the Catholic/Protestant split in terms of how storywriting was done, I do think there is something to examining this period to see if there were major cultural shifts not just in perceptions of the world around, but in the value of imagining places and people that cannot be.

A third area of exploration would be that of the 18th century Enlightenment and the backlash of the 19th century Romantic movement. An examination of popular (increasingly becoming "mass" culture with the Industrial Revolution) attitudes I suspect might yield not just a shift in how the "fantastical" was viewed, but it might give insight into how the "fantastical" fused with folklore and traditions to produce something that could be written, sold, and bought as a commodity rather than as something that might have a basis in belief.

After establishing a very broad timeline in terms of cultural attitudes (and separating religious belief from the "fantastical" until at least the beginning of the Scientific Revolution - for European-based works, of course), this imagined piece probably ought to address the form that this nascent genre of "Fantasy" would take and how said form not just incorporated elements from the past, but also included motifs and ideals that expressed contemporary attitudes.

While utilizing a cultural analytical approach to address perceptions of when "Fantasy" arose from the admixture of the "fantastical" with the horative and religious symbolic belief codes of prior centuries I believe to be quite effective in addressing most of the concerns, I probably would conclude this nonexistent monograph with addressing alternate approaches in the context of explaining why I would choose to use a modified form of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic rather than depending more upon literary criticism, for example, or why my definition of "fantasy as genre" was chosen rather than a broader one of "fantasy as imagined state."

But thankfully, there are no plans for me to do this at the present, so I'll just leave this as a very rough framework (one that if I had truly begun the research, I likely would have modified it in many places) for others to consider, add to, critique, and (if they feel like it) make snide remarks.


Fábio said...

Your considerations are very interesting, and, if I had any time right now (which, sadly, I have not), I´ll try to develop this issue further.

On the one hand, I agree with you regarding a Marxist (or Jamesonian) approach to Fantasy. On the other hand, I don´t know if I would categorize it as a genre (which I usually do in my Creative Writing classes, because, I must confess, I find it easier to explain to university students) or as a mode, which Todorov and Umberto Eco sometimes do in their writings. I´ll try to write more on that later in Post-Weird.

Larry said...

Good point there, Fábio, as mode might be something that would allow for a slightly more "inclusive" approach without opening the floodgates too much for most anything to be considered "fantasy." Still need to read Todorov at some point, come to think of it.

Jonah said...

Nice post! Clearly you're stepping amidst land mines here, but I really liked this post.
A few comments -
I'm sympathetic towards a notion that there's a disconnect between oral and written stories, and that the roots of (a) fantasy genre may lie there, which you seem to suggest.
I wonder whether there's a link between fantasy and describing the medieval period as the middle ages. Partly because so much fantasy is often linked to medieval settings, but more because this seems like a pretty big distinction in terms of how people (or at least the educated) thought about the times and places they lived in.
I'm also a bit skeptical of relying on the notion of a fantasy genre that gains some sort of popoular acceptance as a guide, or relying too much on what we can construct of the original readers' reaction, but I suspect that's due to philosophical differences in how we approach texts.
My final question would be: Is the question of "what's fantasy" too big (I think the answer is yes), and would it instead be possible to write a series of papers with more limited focuses on different genres or approaches to fantasy which would, in combination outline *a* definition of fantasy, while also containing some of the contradictions that are apparent in defining fantasy? (I'm a lot less sure about this).

Larry said...

Thanks! I do tend to have a habit of sticking my neck out there a bit, it seems ;)

As for your points, yes, I do suspect there is a disconnect, similar to what Derrida describes in Of Grammatology. What it is, though, I'm not 100% certain, only that there likely are some key differences between oral transmission modes (and how the stories have built-in repetitive modes) and written, more static modes of storytelling.

As for the "popular" area, I chose that as a point of exploration because I found the other methods to be unsatisfactory in their presentation. It might be, if this proposed course of study were pursued, that a similar level of dissatisfaction would arise. Incidentally, China Miéville has written something akin to this, but I don't have access to that article of his published in Historical Materialism.

As for the "bigness" of the field, one of the reasons why I proposed this exploratory approach is precisely because other methods seemed to leave the field a bit too wide open, considering how the genre is perceived today by "the general public." It is likely that a series of papers would make for a better approach than a single overarching theory, but I have to admit that I would still be biased towards dialectal approaches.

Anonymous said...

Fantasy as a genre began with Tolkien.

Larry said...

Anon, what makes you convinced of that? I'm just curious, since there were authors marketed as such before Tolkien.

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