The OF Blog: Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy

Every few months, the cycle begins anew. Someone out there somewhere, someplace, asks "What makes this work a fantasy?" He or she ponders it for a bit, like a cow chewing its cud, then the thoughts are spit out, perhaps onto a blog or into the middle of a forum discussion. Others read it and react, "No!" or "Yes!" or "Yes, but..." Names are tossed about as example of the X but not Y "qualities" of "fantasy." "Yes, Borges is." "No, he isn't!" "Yes, yes he is!" And so it devolves into the claiming of authors as being X, Y, and Z or X and Y but not Z, or Z but not X and Y, and by the time the poor, baffled reader deciphers what is being argued, he or she is left wondering if anything was really accomplished.

Sometimes, however, someone dares to go a bit further, to ask tougher questions, such as "How is this story interacting with the world about the reader?" Occasionally, these questions lead to further explorations that reveal a lode full of fruitful results. These rare works contribute to the growing historiography of literary studies, studies that leave the reader not just knowing more, but also armed with an interpretative set that can be applied to other works. Farah Mendlesohn's recent book, Rhetorics of Fantasy, has the potential for being such a book.

Instead of engaging in a rather Quixotic attempt to define a hard and fast set of rule for "what is fantasy," Mendlesohn instead is more interested in understanding the construction of the genre, namely its language and the rhetoric employed, in order to provide critical tools for further analysis (Introduction, xiii). She argues that more is to be gained from examining the various ways in which a dialectic between the author(s) and reader is created; as it takes an implicit understanding of what the author is constructing and what the reader will digest for a true "sense of wonder" to be constructed out of mere words. This idea appeals greatly to me, as too many comments on the structures of fantasies fail to note this dialectal event by which an author creates scenes that contain expectations that the reader desires to see fulfilled. It is a case in which the actual creation of a form is often neglected for looking just at the already-constructed forms themselves.

Mendlesohn posits that there are four main types of fantasy: portal-quest, intrusive, immersive, and liminal, with many works utilizing elements of each of these four. Each type or form has its own semantical relationship between character, plot, setting, as well as how reader expectations shapes these relationships. Mendlesohn structures her book into five sections, devoted to each of these four types and a final section for those works that exist on the peripheries of each of these. It allows for a lengthy exploration of well over one hundred novels along their "genetic" kinships, as well as noting those books that do not meet the criteria.

Portal-quest fantasies are perhaps the most easily recognizable of the fantasies and are defined as being stories in which there is a "safe," non-magical origin point and a wilder, more "dangerous" and magic-filled realm on the outside; the two never meet and any magic that occurs in one place cannot be transported into the other. Stories as diverse as the Narnia tales Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant novels utilize this aspect of fantasy, although each has its own unique characteristics that Mendlesohn does examine at length later. I found this to be the least objectionable of the four types.

Immersive fantasy are those fantasies in which the fantastic is presented as being mundane from the characters' points of view; it is there, it is accepted, it is wholly "natural." An interesting example of this is the magic realist subgenre, in which not only is the "magic" accepted, but that it symbolizes very real socio-political trends, especially in Latin America. One little quibble: considering the stated claims by Gabriel García Márquez and others of the "Boom Generation" that William Faulkner was a huge influence on their styles and approach to fictional writing, Mendlesohn devotes only a few passing sentences to Faulkner and none at all to Flannery O'Connor, who likewise utilized such tropes as the decaying/changing dichotomy and the spiritual lusts of the populace to create stories that influenced the shape and direction of the Southern Gothic.

Intrusion fantasies, where the fantastic intrudes upon the mundane world in a threatening fashion, presents some frightening possibilities for the reader and I felt that Mendlesohn did her best work here and in the liminal fantasy section in laying out the parameters for the "fuzzy set" of attributes of those stories that would belong in this field. Finally, the liminal fantasy, is perhaps the hardest to describe, not just because of its relative paucity of members, but rather because it involves presenting the fantastic as something that the characters choose to forego and to leave outside of the narrative. Mendlesohn cites M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart as an example and I agree, as it is the characters' choices not to reveal what magic they have experienced that creates great plot tension.

Rhetorics of Fantasy does an outstanding job of laying out the parameters for future explorations. I found myself not only agreeing with Mendlesohn's conclusions the majority of the time, but I also began asking questions that this book chose not to cover. Namely, if rhetoric is what drives author/reader interactions in a way akin to an unspoken, unwritten contract, of what substance is the "fantastic?" That is a question that has gnawed at me for some time. When did the "fantastic" emerge from actual belief and understanding of the world around? Perhaps Mendlesohn or another will take up that question and relate it to the development of material cultures and how various cultures address such speculations. Regardless, Rhetorics of Fantasy covers its purposes well and ought to serve well those readers who desire to go further in asking questions. Highly Recommended.

Publication Date: April 30, 2008 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Wesleyan Press


Unknown said...

Do you buy these books or are they sent to you for review? Just curious. I'm fascinated by the critical work on fantasy and science fiction and wish I got non-fiction work to review. I've only received fiction thus far, but maybe one day.

I have this book on my "to buy" or "to request for a present" list, by the way. Thanks for bringing the title up :).

Larry Nolen said...

They were sent to me for review, as part of my arrangement for reviewing the Zafón book. I will be getting another book, Colonialism and SF in the near future from Wesleyan Press as a review copy. It's like old times, reviewing academic studies :D

Unknown said...

Well I want to live in your old times :P. That book sounds fascinating too. I'm planning to do my graduate work on some aspect of SF, hence the fascination.

Cheryl said...

Larry - Glad you liked the book. I saw a lot of it in draft so I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I've already seen people using the framework it puts forward in reviews and papers.

SMD - Wesleyan are really nice people. They used to send me lots of books for Emerald City because they knew I'd review that sort of thing.

Larry Nolen said...


Actually, you might have an easier time getting similar review copies since you have a blog and are in a field where promoting it (academically) would be beneficial to Wesleyan. Wouldn't hurt to try, no? :D


It certainly is a book that provides a useful template and for that alone, I consider it to be a valuable work to read. I had a few more niggles here and there, but that's more a matter of personal preference and not something that substantially would affect Mendlesohn's work either way. Now if only I could get people to consider the material culture behind the various esprit du temps, I'd be a happy camper... :P

Anonymous said...

Rhetorics of Fantasy looks like an interesting read. Anything sci-fi/fantasy related is key for me, but the specifics of this review looks very intriguing.

Larry Nolen said...


It certainly is a book well worth considering. If I had been writing this for a peer review journal, I would have gone into more detail about the mechanics of Mendlesohn's arguments, but suffice to say, I think it is a valuable resource, even if there are a few niggle points here and there.

ThRiNiDiR said...

Since I'm into "theories" and think of my self as one who likes to analyse/theorize -- no matter how bad I'm at it -- I believe this book would be great for me to read. thanks larry.

Larry Nolen said...

Uroš, based on what you said, you'll love this book :D

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