|Reading Rhetorics of Fantasy in the Real World|
A Dizzy Celebration of Being Somewhere Wonderful
Directly before the Resurrection Gate outside of Red Square is a bronze compass rose set into the pavement to mark Kilometer Zero, the point from which all roads in Russia are said to begin. Visitors stand upon its center and then spin around and fling a handful of kopeks and rubles over their shoulders, to the approval of bystanders and a small number of sad, shabby men who step briefly out of the crowd to snatch the larger coins off the ground or out of the air.
The custom, I was told, was an offering to ensure that the person performing the ritual would one day return to that spot. Or else it was a divination, in which the direction the coins flew indicated where one’s future lay. Which, if either, theory is true cannot be determined; for there are in Russia no facts, only speculations.
Me, I spun and flung for the joy of it. I did it in dizzy celebration of being somewhere wonderful.
It is in much the same spirit that I wish to discuss Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy.
the inherent distortion of the fair and balanced judgment
The judicious and well-made appraisal is particularly ill-suited for this sort of enterprise because it is a solemn-faced distortion of one reader's honest opinion of what another reader might reasonably expect. Take John Clute's otherwise celebratory review in Strange Horizons as an example. It begins: "May I say how much I like this book, before I make it clear that I cannot say how much I like this book? Rhetorics of Fantasy, most of which is superbly thought through, is perhaps the first full-length study of the vast fuzzy genre of fantasy to have been written as though the genre exists." So far, so good. But, shortly, he goes on, "My problem with the book comes primarily from its use as 'givens', needing no elucidation, of some arguments and terms and models developed in [his own Encyclopedia of Fantasy]."
Clute cannot possibly have disagreed with Mendlesohn's choice of critical models or disapproved of her adopting his terminology. I picture him reading this book with long stretches of rapt admiration, an occasional appreciative chuckle, a slow shake of the head that might be either respectful disagreement or simple wonder. But, given the protocols of his remit, he had to present what must have seemed to him the least disputable parts of the book as a possible problem for the reader, and then dump down a laundry list of quibbles and corrections. He simply had no choice, if he wanted to remain credible, other than to present a distorted image of his own best reaction.
Personally, on those rare occasions when I discover such a work, I prefer to wallow in it, to, as Scrooge McDuck put it, "dive around in [it] like a porpoise . . . and burrow through it like a gopher . . . and toss it up and let it hit me on the head." If you're not prepared to have a glorious time reading criticism, then why bother?
casualized fantastic, 76-77; the iron dragon's daughter, 48-49, 64-65, 76-77
Thus I begin this book not as I should have, at the beginning, politely proceeding through the careful structures of argument one step at a time, citation by example, jotting down notes and holding all judgments provisional until the very last words — save for an epilogue and the footnotes — of the text ("... and it is one still developing"). No. I begin as any reader would in the real world, by turning to the index to see if my name is there.
And it is!
Slightly over four pages are dedicated to discussion of my fantasy novel, The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I wish it were more; four pages is far from enough to satisfy the inner egomaniac. But Rhetorics of Fantasy is not about the specific books discussed therein but, rather, uses those books to demonstrate various critical insights.
That being so, I include this disclaimer not in order to reveal any potential conflict of interest, but to avoid the trap that Isaac Asimov fell into when he blurbed "It is an incredibly wonderful book" for Alexei and Cory Panshin's The World Beyond the Hill, a critical work which concluded that early modern science fiction all led up to and culminated in — Isaac Asimov himself.
I do not delight in Rhetorics of Fantasy because I am in it. I delight in being in it because it is an incredibly wonderful book.
the absolutely necessary boilerplate
Though the book formally divides fantasy into four modes — the portal-quest fantasy, the immersive fantasy, the intrusion fantasy and the liminal fantasy — it is not about the definition or divisions of fantasy, but about the ways fantasy is constructed, and the effects of those constructions on the reader and on the text itself.
To follow this discussion it is first necessary to understand the terms. The portal fantasy is one where the protagonist steps out of his or her usually quiet world and into the fantastic. Mendlesohn, for reasons which will be later explained, conflates this with the quest fantasy, and sometimes calls it the portal-quest fantasy. The immersive fantasy starts out in a coherent fantasy world and stays there. In the intrusion fantasy, the fantastic breaks into (I paraphrase Nabokov here) what we laughingly call the "real" world. And the liminal fantasy is one which never breaks through into the fantastic and yet which nevertheless feels inescapably fantastic. More on which later.
It is Mendlesohn's thesis that each form of fantasy is necessarily narrated in a different manner. As she puts it, "an immersive fantasy told with the voice of portal fantasy will feel leaden; a liminal fantasy told with the naiveté of the intrusion fantasy will feel overcontrived."
There is also a fifth section, covering those works which do not fit neatly into her system. This recognition that a living genre must necessarily escape all attempts at rigid determination lends her book an authority it might otherwise lack.
I am, as I trust you realize, wildly and even willfully oversimplifying here.
reading under the influence of brownian motion
Moved by nothing more rigorous than whimsy and random molecular vibrations, I drift from the passages covering my own book to the index, looking for authors I am particularly interested in. Greer Gilman is discussed regrettably briefly, so only one observation tells me more than I already knew — that the scarcity of names in her work serves to create a sense of familiarity for the reader. Which is so intriguing, I wish I could transfer a couple of pages from my work to hers, to see what else I might learn.
Flipping forward in the chapter, looking for another place for my butterfly fancy to land, I come across Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and so move backwards to the beginning of the section analyzing magic realism. Here Mendlesohn discusses the role of magic in fantasy and contrasts Borges' "The Library of Babel" with Jeff Vandermeer's "Secret Life." John Clute is quoted as writing that "fantasy can only exist if the ground rules of reality are being broken."
I mark my place and turn to the index to see if Mervyn Peak's Gormenghast trilogy is dealt with, and discover there entries on the two pages following the one I just abandoned. Schooling myself to patience, I resume reading.
The section moves on to One Hundred Years of Solitude. Mendlesohn argues that for the South American reader, who has the proper context for understanding magic realism, the book is not fantasy at all, but straight mimesis. Meanwhile, for the Anglo reader, the created world being so alien (and other signs and portents being fulfilled), it functions as an immersive fantasy. The question is then raised: Is there a North American magic realism? Vandermeer's work is rejected as something else for its baroque elaboration, with the observation that "Magic realism is written precisely without irony." Then Mendlesohn suggests that Faulkner and Welty may well fit the bill. There is no mention of R. A. Lafferty, not even of Okla Hannali, which seems to me a stronger candidate than anything by the Southern regionalists, particularly after Mendlesohn's explication.
I flip to the index to see what is made of Lafferty, only to discover he has no entries. This may be the only flat-out error of judgment in the book.
The chapter concludes that there are many ways to write immersive fantasy. That in it, the fantastic is dealt with casually and the ordinary made strange. That the reader can witness nothing more than the protagonist does. That the protagonist must be engaged with the world in an antagonistic manner. That it is turned inward. Finally, that it is above all about "thinning" — about entropy, about loss, about things falling apart.
Having reached the end of this section, I skip back to see how it begins. Here Mendlesohn says that "the immersive fantasy must take no quarter," a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. Then that it works by creating an "irony of mimesis" — a world as convincing and consistent as our own, though an absolute fiction. Which also seems spot on. Somewhat later, in imitation of Arthur C. Clarke, is postulated what we might as well call Mendlesohn's First Law of Fantasy: Any sufficiently immersive fantasy is indistinguishable from science fiction. It's a startling assertion, but one that explains rather a lot. And so I proceed, hopping from section to section with frequent digressions to the index (that well-labeled teleportation device without which this sort of critical volume would be only half as enjoyable) until all the section is read, judged, and understood.
Then I jump back to the first chapter, on portal-quest fantasy.
I do not claim this is a sensible way to read this book. Only that this is the way it happens in the real world.
what the beatles were to music, j.r.r. tolkien was to literature
I am old enough that the fantasies of my childhood were almost all of the portal variety. Children were forever tumbling through wardrobes, windows, paintings, books, burrows, caves, and labyrinths to emerge in brightly-colored lands where magical creatures would pop up to serve as deferential tour guides. The portal served as a disclaimer: EVEN IF THIS MAGICAL LAND EXISTED YOU'D FIRST NEED TO FIND AN ENTIRELY IMPOSSIBLE MAGICAL DOORWAY INTO IT AND YOU AND I BOTH KNOW THAT AIN'T GONNA HAPPEN. It was the wink with which the adult agreed to play make-believe, the grudging nod by which one paid for the fun by admitting that, yes, it was all nonsense after all.
J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy swept through the ramshackle slum of Books One Must Necessarily Outgrow like a cold wind from the north. Close on the heels of the British Invasion, the books hit America with all the force of a paradigm shift. Tolkien did not apologize for his world. It was not at all nonsense. It had depth and texture. It was an experience that could stand up to multiple readings. It was immersive.
Which is why it is so startling to discover that Mendlesohn believes LotR is a portal fantasy.
Indeed, all quest fantasies are portal fantasies by her reading, because the protagonist begins in some quiet backwater, such as the Shire, and then moves into a larger world which is strange to him or her and which therefore can only be witnessed and accepted. Frodo's relationship with the world is exactly that of Sam and his oliphaunt. It is a marvel that cannot be questioned.
This absolute authority of all the text's explanations arises, Mendlesohn holds, from the literary ancestors of the portal-quest fantasy, particularly John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and the more homely club story. Further, these influences, rather than careless writing, are responsible for this sort of fantasy's endemic weaknesses — a slighting of characters' personal needs, and a scanting of certain other literary qualities, such as irony and characterization.
Much of what seems to me inherently unfair criticism of Tolkien is accounted for here. In a portal-quest fantasy, the protagonist must accept the world as it is explained, and since Frodo moves from an idealized English shire into a Medieval worldview, the divine sanction of kings is unquestioned. To object to this on political grounds is akin to complaining that orcs and elves and dragons are not real. It is asking the book to be something other than what it is.
Ultimately, though, this analysis explains to me why, despite my unabated admiration for Tolkien's achievement, I feel so little desire to write that sort of thing.
The early reaches of this chapter display signs of exasperation with the form, including repeated use of Diana Wynne Jones' satirical term "Fantasyland," that put me in mind of the time I asked a man what he did for a living, and he replied that he worked for the Christian Children's Fund. "But it's not what it sounds like!" he hastily added. "They really do good work — I checked them out."
There is a Gresham's Law for all things, for literature as well as for religion. The bad drives out the good. Unimaginative and interchangeable trilogies have sullied the brand for quest fantasies, much as television evangelists have for Christianity. It is vain to evoke Tolkien or St. Francis of Assisi. The damage has already been done.
Nevertheless, when Mendlesohn returns to Tolkien, her enthusiasm rekindles itself. And her explication of The Scar as a deliberate subversion of portal fantasy is superb. It's quite wonderful to watch her carefully mapping out China Mieville's strategies for taking the best understanding of the form and doing it a violence. Which is why (but I'll get to that later) I'm here in the first place.
the dark ambiguities of liminal fantasy as illuminated by the fire sermon
For those of us previously aware of Farah Mendlesohn's criticism — and who else would spend $27.95 for the Wesleyan University Press trade paperback? — the greatest interest lies in the section on liminal fantasy, a form which she herself defined, and which therefore possesses all the sexiness of the new. Until the form is commonly understood and internalized by the rest of us, there is no way to argue with Mendlesohn's conclusions.
Briefly, what she says goes.
To it, therefore, I skip, bypassing the section on intrusion fantasy, which I associate chiefly with horror, and which therefore I may or may not get around to reading.
Immediately, there is such a thicket of epistemological hesitation, knowingness, and citations from Barthes, Todorov, Jameson, et al. as would be useful to anybody hostile enough to wish to mischaracterize this book. I am put in mind of the sermon from Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, in which a man tries to describe fire to those who have never seen it:
He tells them, "It is red, like a poppy, but through it dance other colors. It has no form, like water flowing everywhere. It is warm, like the sun of summer, only warmer. It exists for a time upon a piece of wood, and then the wood is gone, as though it were eaten, leaving behind that which is black and can be sifted like sand. When the wood is gone, it too is gone." Therefore, the hearers must think reality is like a poppy, like water, like the sun, like that which eats and excretes. They think it is like to anything that they are told by the man who has known it. But they have not looked upon fire. They cannot really know it.
In much the same spirit, the reader is told that liminal fantasy is like Lud-in-the-Mist, in which the fantastic is denied and repressed right up to the resolution. It is like Titus Groan, in which everything feels fantastic but could conceivably exist in reality as we experience it. It is like various short stories in which the fantastic never quite becomes undeniable. It is like Wizard of the Pigeons, in which the protagonist might be a wizard living on the streets of Seattle and then again might be a brain-damaged Vietnam vet. It is like so much of M. John Harrison's work, awash in ambiguity.
In biology, "liminal" describes creatures and conditions along the shoreline. It is a less inclusive term than "littoral," which extends out into the shallows. So, by analogy, it is clearly important that liminal works be written and understood as fantasy — slipstream is explicitly excluded. Liminal fantasy may thus be always a niche literary form, for it seems to require readers with an understanding of the furniture and conventions of fantasy, but also a willingness to be transported by a work that withholds fantasy's traditional payoffs. Mendlesohn remarks on the scarcity of liminal fantasy and perhaps what is going on is that, with the exception of a very few ancestral works, it is necessarily written by people familiar with genre fantasy who are trying to use its stuff to do something else.
Certainly, there is a need to account for such works as Little, Big and the first two Gormenghast books, and this may well be the best way.
a quick detour through the valley of narcissus
If self-knowledge is truly useful (and Authority insists that it is essential, though I do not find this assertion within myself), then it may be worth asking what I have learned about my own fiction from this book.
Throughout my reading, I have been engaged in an intensely personal and largely private conversation with the text. The Iron Dragon's Daughter is all but inarguably an immersive fantasy. Is it then a "fantasy of thinning" and "overwhelmingly concerned with the entropy of the world," as Mendlesohn asserts immersive fantasies to be? I am skeptical, but open to the possibility. I wrote the novel in recurrent Yeatsian gyres, which would seem to imply that the world continuously renews itself, as sassy and fat as ever, whatever may happen to its characters. On the other hand, individually, everyone is going to Hell in a hand basket (sometimes — save for the hand basket — literally), so maybe so. Immersive fantasies, Mendlesohn states, take place in coherent worlds, and indeed Jane Alderberry several times has the world explained to her in perfectly rational terms. Does it matter that these explanations all contradict each other? In H. P. Lovecraft's mythos, the blind idiot god Azathoth gibbers and blasphemes at the center of the universe, where all the dimensions fail to come together. In my system, the Goddess sits in that exact same space and (apparently) makes sense of it. Is the universe sensible if nothing less than She can understand its workings? Certainly the questioning of the world, the arguing against it, that Mendlesohn feels is a central concern of immersive fantasy — whether the questions are answered and the arguments confuted or not — forms a large part of my novel.
Of more interest to me is my future work — unwritten, unconceived, and not even a gleam in the mind's eye. I spread out the book before me as if it were the blueprints for a bank, and search for an undiscovered weakness in the protocols, an unguarded access, a way to breach the walls.
The great enemy to art is comprehension. My son and I can deconstruct an action-adventure movie and rebuild it as a glossier, faster, more powerful engine of intellectually empty visceral thrills in less time than it takes a Russian soldier to field-strip a Kalashnikov. We all know how to tell this particular story far too well. So, too, with fantasy. Donald Wollheim published the unauthorized American paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings in 1965. It wasn't until twelve years later that The Sword of Shannara, the first commercially successful imitation of Tolkien came out. It took that long — and many, many writers (myself included) were trying — to figure out how it was done.
Today, one sees a quest-trilogy on the paperback racks and hurries by, hoping it won't make eye contact. It takes enormous ingenuity and perhaps a slug of gelignite to make that sort of thing interesting again.
I'm not saying that the book's enterprise is a bad thing. It's doubtful that Bertie Wooster found himself climbing that same damned ladder to fake the theft of a treasured MacGuffin for the umpteenth time because P. G. Wodehouse read one too many essays by T. S. Eliot. But writing is hard and writers are lazy and once a trick has been learned it tends to be repeated. So my chief interest in this or any survey of the fantastic is to get a sense of how played-out the various forms are, and whether there are any hints therein for new ways the sub-genres might be subverted. Of particular use to me are all sweeping statements about what cannot be done and, conversely, what always must be.
This is a base and ignoble use of the text and I apologize to Farah Mendlesohn for this. But the street finds its own uses for things. And, what the heck, if the street can do it, so can I.
the physical holophrase for a working farm
My father, who was raised on a farm, always set aside one corner of our backyard for sticks, rocks, and other detritus of yard work. There's a larger corner where boulders and stumps get piled on a farm — and if a tract of land doesn't have it, it's not a working farm. The final chapter of Rhetorics of Fantasy, "'The Irregulars': Subverting the Taxonomy" serves a similar function. It also serves to validate the rest of the book by admitting that any grand unified Theory of Everything must necessarily be inadequate to describe a living genre. "The purpose of this chapter," Mendlesohn writes, "is to validate my argument by undermining it."
There being no overarching theoretics here, the chapter is chiefly taken up in the examination of four exceptional works. Steve Cockayne's fantasy trilogy The Legends of the Land is deemed a fantasy of refusal — one in which the fantastic is irrelevant, while the reader's expectations about the fantastic are manipulated. Roderick Townley's The Great Good Thing is a multiply aware metatextual fantasy. Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place reverses the standard relationships between the mundane world and the fantastic, and between the protagonist and the cicerone. And Sean Stewart's Galveston is both immersive and intrusion fantasy, whose resolution involves the restoration of a cognitive revolution that never took effect. These works serve to define Mendlesohn's territory "from the outside," and so both literally and metaphorically define its limits.
If I were to set aside a place in this essay for the bits and pieces that can't find a proper place for themselves, it would include the following items:
the primacy of emotion and intuition
In a brief afterword, Farah Mendlesohn states her goals for this book: to draw attention to a new set of questions about the genre of fantasy and, by answering them, to raise new questions. It is not my place to decide whether or not she has succeeded at this. But, purely as a matter of personal opinion, I think she has.
So I might as well slouch back to the chapter on intrusion fantasy, and check out what's happening there.
The chapter begins with an examination of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's The Wolves in the Walls. This choice is downright weird, given that it is the only picture book under discussion, and that the gene pool of intrusion fantasy includes everything from Job to Crabs on the Rampage. But a critic is allowed her choice of exemplars. The text swiftly moves on to Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lovecraft, Poe, and The House on the Borderland. Which is an excellent point to pause and reflect on the fact that in its classic form, intrusion fantasy emphasizes emotion and intuition over action and logic, which may be why it is the single form most prone to overwriting. Its structure is holographic, with each scene, and sometimes even paragraphs, containing the tempo of the whole. Which is certainly why it feels different from the other forms. Then on to ghost stories, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and James Herbert.
Emma Bull's War for the Oaks was the first of what have come to be known as "indigenous fantasies," injecting (usually) European mythology into (almost always) American cities. Mendlesohn's examination of this book and of Charles de Lint's Jack the Giant Killer, is particularly useful for she establishes that their importance lies not merely in the introduction of new material to fantasy, but in formal innovation as well. Both authors — Bull first, but de Lint was only a half-pace behind — took storytelling techniques from the portal fantasy and remachined them to work within an intrusion fantasy. Which is why War for the Oaks has become emblematic for this strain of fantasy.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock is another work whose effects rely on the ingenious revision of received rhetoric. At the outset it looks and feels like a portal fantasy — the protagonist, his brother, and their father, all start out from a perfectly ordinary farm and quest into a mystic wood which generates archetypes from the Jungian unconscious. But it does not proceed nor end as a portal fantasy would, for the very simple reason that it is no such thing. It is an intrusion fantasy, wherein the land whose peace is disrupted is the Mythago Wood itself, and the invaders are the book's protagonist and his family.
For those of us who cannot pass by a literary vehicle without peeking under the hood, this is an exciting piece of analysis.
"More than any other form described here, the intrusion fantasy holds true to the unreasoning delights of fancy eschewing the rules and rigors of fantasy," Mendlesohn concludes. This may be why, in marked contrast with the quest fantasy, which by the end of its section is beginning to feel artistically enervated, the intrusion fantasy seems particularly capable of constantly reinventing itself. It is a form not of mind but of senses, not of reason but of emotion. Which allows it to perform wonders other forms cannot, but often hides what Mendlesohn characterizes as a "vicious colonialist attitude to the Other."
Part of the problem is that intrusion fantasy often takes the form of a perverse seduction. As Nalo Hopkinson writes:
From my perspective as a black and "Third World" reader, . . . the fantasy land is the colonized land, and the fantasy is of the colonizer being helplessly apprehended and seduced/kidnapped into the colonized land, rather than being a marauder. It's the old rape justification of "it made me do it! It seduced me! It was asking for it!"
Abruptly, the abyss opens at our feet. For a writer, this is a terrifying observation. But it is also a salutary one, for having been alerted to the dangers lurking in the subconscious (which is where, this form being less Apollonian than Dionysian, its best effects are born), one can then be on guard against them.
It is a pertinent example of exactly how useful Rhetorics of Fantasy might prove to be.
From the general to the specific, the large to small: I recently read a fantasy story involving some cleverly inventive world-creation which nevertheless fell flat. It was dreary to plod through and the surprise ending landed with the same dull thud that a carefully prepared dish of poached salmon au cucumbre makes when it slides off the platter and hits the kitchen floor. I'd always been puzzled by such failures. But after reading this book, it was obvious that the problem was that the story was an immersive fantasy told in the voice of a portal fantasy. It did not engage with its world, but accepted it unquestioningly. The result was, as Mendlesohn had predicted, "leaden."
If this book's insights make their way into the general community of writers, it could save a lot of wasted effort.
a final not so much failure as refusal to reach a conclusion
So I'm sitting in a bar with a chemist named Jane and a guy who says his name is Tom Nobody, though naturally I have my doubts. Jane is delicately picking the cashews out of the bowl of mixed nuts and eating them one at a time. Tom's positioned himself so he can keep one eye on the door. And I'm talking about how Kevin Maroney hit me up to write this essay.
"I told him I couldn't possibly review Rhetorics of Fantasy," I say. "My mind just doesn't work that way. That's not what I'm for. I don't even read critical works properly — I dive in and out of them at random. If I get bored, I skim. I don't take notes, and I skip most of the footnotes. My reading is disorganized and scattershot."
"So what did Maroney say?" Jane asks.
"He told me to make a virtue out of it. He said I should write something impressionistic. Something scattershot and episodic."
"You'd think he'd want something better."
"Well, he didn't have many options. It's an important book so The New York Review of Science Fiction has to cover it, if they're to have any credibility at all. But it seems that almost nobody feels qualified to pass judgment upon a work as magisterial as this, one that surveys all of genre fantasy and discerns in it overarching similarities of structure and strategy."
"I would have just told him no," Tom says.
"You and me, bro. But Maroney hit me up for the essay while I was talking to Farah Mendlesohn. To turn it down would have been to show the white feather before a critic I respected and the author of a book I greatly admired."
"A bit of a con man, eh?" Tom grins. "I like him."
"Farah told me later it was her suggestion that he ask me."
"Yes!" Jane pumps her fist in the air. "It's about time women ran our own damn scams."
"Anyway," I say, "that's how I came to write this essay. I am being extremely careful not to point out that if somebody else had shown a little more gumption, I could have been saved a lot of work."
"So what now?" Jane asks.
"Now I scrap this section and figure out something resonant-sounding to end on."
"My best advice?" Tom says. "Leave this section in. Just so the readers know not to put too much trust in what you say."
I put down my drink. "You think I'm not trustworthy?"
"No, of course not." Tom leans back and stares up at the ceiling. "I'm just saying."