Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Picnic Along a River Flowing In Several Directions At Once

The Thames that housed the prison-hulk holding Magwitch, the Trave along which the fate of the Buddenbrooks unfolds, the Seine that bisects the drama of the Comedie Humaine are no less invented than the Rain Wild River up which both dragons and Bingtown Old Traders sail, the rivers Tar, Gross Tar, and Canker that feed “morbific” New Crobuzon, and the River Moth that sustains Ambergris (sv. “Festival of the Freshwater Squid” in Duncan Shriek’s history). The mainstream literary world periodically forgets, ignores or even tries to dam the shared headwaters and the connecting rivulets. Happily the currents seem to be converging once again, the latest eddying in the long-running debate over the idea and utility of fiction, a debate tinged in Western thought with wariness over the seductive but potentially misleading powers of mimesis.

David Hartwell has charted the creation of a mainstream literary world in the United States that excluded by the mid-twentieth century what is now sold as fantasy & science fiction. He captures the process with this anecdote:

“Late in this process of marginalization, I recall that in an English Literature course at Williams College in 1961, when I was assigned E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, the chapter on fantasy was the only one skipped. ... Realism was good art; the novel of the inner life of character was good; the fantastic was not.”

Michael Moorcock traces a similar course for fantasy in his native England:

“It’s probably fair to say that the rift between romanticism and realism began to manifest itself in the mid-19th century... [...] While Jane Austen established our taste for the subtle social novel, it took F. R. Leavis to insist that moralistic realism was the only serious form of fiction. ....we are still haunted by the more old-fashioned school of criticism with which I grew up and which believes fantasy to be not quite kosher.”

A few readers—Colin Wilson, Guy Davenport, George Steiner, famously Auden—continued to discuss, say, Tolkien along side Musil, Broch and Mann, but for decades they were lone eels against the stream. (Might we see Virginia Woolf—who died in 1941--as their forerunner; the Woolf of Orlando, and essays such as “The Strange Elizabethans” and “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia”?). Remarkable in its uniqueness, The New Yorker published fourteen of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Broceliande tales between 1972 and 1976, including “The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo.” In the past fifteen years or so, however, and with accelerating vigor, the stream has reversed itself—the eels, now numerous, are racing with the current.

Dating the points at which the river undid the oxbow is hard. Moorcock suggests as one juncture Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass winning the Whitbread Award for best children’s novel in 2001. Certainly the river spills its banks from that point, with the unprecedented success of Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) and the Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson (2001-2003), the National Book Foundation’s awarding Stephen King its Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters in 2003, the Man Booker long-listing Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in 2004, and the Library of America issuing editions of H.P. Lovecraft (2005) and Philip K. Dick (2007-8).

Acceptance—indeed, canonization—of these authors by an expanded and expanding mainstream is the waterfall. Earlier came a hundred upwellings, spates dragging up the riverbed, the subtle redirecting of currents that ultimately forced the banks to collapse. Some notable waves along the way include Moorcock’s Mother London shortlisted for the Whitbread in 1988, and Octavia Butler receiving, as the first-ever writer of speculative fiction, a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” in 1995. I suspect Angela Carter’s many essays in the London Review of Books, The Guardian and elsewhere in the 1970’s and ‘80s also did much to validate the fantastic for the “common reader.” Joyce Carol Oates, Marina Warner, A.S. Byatt, Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Jeannette Winterson were (and are) other good friends to the genre, likewise Borges, Calvino, Cortazar and Carpentier in their times, making the fantastic salonfaehig without taming or stunting it.

In short, “fantasy and science fiction”—I prefer Clute’s term “Fantastika” and Mieville’s “the weird fiction axis”—looks more and more like the books shelved over in the “literature” section. And vice versa: think Junot Diaz, Helen Oyeyemi, David Mitchell, Rabih Alameddine, Ben Okri, Michael Chabon, W.G. Sebald, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, among others. Our meta-discourse sounds more and more like that attending “literary production.” Whether the bywater came to the river, or the river to the slough, is less interesting than the fact of conjunction. More interesting still is where the conjoined river will take us next.

[Citations & References:

Hartwell, “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre,” in Peter S. Beagle (ed.), The Secret History of Fantasy (Tachyon, 2010; orig. pub. 2009), p. 368.

Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (MonkeyBrain, 2004; revised ed., orig. pub. 1977), p. 16.

For the nineteenth century’s rejection of the “falsifying genres,” see George Levine, The Realistic Imagination (U. Chicago, 1981). On the downstream impact of rigid genre channeling, see Nancy Ellen Batty, “ ‘Caught by Genre’: Nalo Hopkinson’s Dilemma,” in A.L. McLeod (ed.), The Canon of Commonwealth Literature (Sterling, 2003). For insights on current genre-blurring: Neal Stephenson, “Science Fiction Versus Mundane Culture,” at Science Fiction as a Literary Genre symposium, Aug. 5, 2008 at Gresham College, London,

Wilson, Tree by Tolkien (Capra, 1974); Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (North Point, 1981); Ross Smith, “Steiner on Tolkien,” Tolkien Studies 5 (2008); Auden, The Dyer’s Hand & Other Essays (Random House, 1990; orig. pub. 1962).

Chabon, Maps & Legends: Reading & Writing Along the Borderlands (Harper, 2008); Conjunctions:39—The New Wave Fabulists, ed. by Peter Straub (Fall, 2002); Okorafor, “Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction?,” (August 12, 2009); Jas. Patrick Kelly & John Kessel (eds.), Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (Tachyon, 2006); Rusty Morrison & Ken Keegan (eds.), ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction (Omnidawn, 2006); the two Interfictions anthologies, edited by Sherman with resp. Theodora Goss and Christopher Barzak (Interstitial Arts Foundation, with Small Beer Press, 2007 & 2009); Goss, Voices from Fairyland (Aqueduct Press, 2008); Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book (Little, Brown, 2008). Also: Matthew Cheney’s blog The Mumpsimus; VanderMeer’s Ecstatic Days; Cory Doctorow’s column in Locus; John Scalzi’s Whatever.]

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