Literature and Fantasy
Speculative fiction may be a big tent, but "real" literature, when considering the same topics, is not. If a story has science fiction attributes, there
is little chance it will be accepted into the canon. Virtually anything future oriented or technological is automatically shuttled into "genre", becoming science fiction by default. There is very little "literature" which is science fiction. Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, some Vonnegut, and not a whole lot more. "Real literature" is somewhat kinder to fantasy. A hybrid fantasy story can make quite acceptable literature. Literature generally uses three main types of fantastic construction. The first might be called "speculative storytelling". There are often no overt fantasy elements in such a story, but the very premise itself will be fantastical. Often verging on being a schematic mythology, this form is characterized by the use of symbolism and extended metaphor. Here is an example. A woman is born to a man who wants only a son. So he simply goes on as if she was male, raising her as a boy and believing fully in her maleness. In time, enjoying her enhanced place in society, she adopts the role fully. What might be only a specific case of transvestism can become a metaphor for the role of gender, or the place of women in male-dominated society, or for the nature of identity itself. Something fairly normal (or at least conceivable) can become the vehicle of fantastic speculation. (The story cited, The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun, will be reviewed in our upcoming Desert Themes issue, so stay tuned.) A second area of fantasy in literature is the fabulation. The key mark of the fabulation is a subversion of acknowledged reality for the express benefit of the story being told. It is important that the reader recognize the unreality of the tale to appreciate the points of the narrative. This is a very widely used convention in literature, by countless authors. William Burroughs comes immediately to mind, as does Katherine Dunn in the incredibly creepy Geek Love. Most importantly, it is a convention, used with a nod and wink to the reader, and in this strays a bit from what could be called a "pure" fantasy. Where speculative storytelling uses covert fantasy in the realm of
overt reality, the fabulation turns this inside out, hiding the "reality" within a construct of fantasy. A third avenue involves fantastic elements emerging into a conventional setting. There is a lot of this in Kafka, and especially in the genre of "magical realism". Mostly Latin American or Central European, magical realism's three "M's" are mystery, miracle, and magic. Some explanations of magical realism's genesis are, first, the mysteries of alien culture observed by the European invaders of the New World, the acceptance of mystery as an integral part of "pagan" religion. The second is the structural system of belief in miracle which underpins the Catholic faith, the miraculous happening in literary narrative echoing the history of acceptance of miraculous happening in life. Third is the collision of the modern world with remnant traditional belief systems, often magical, which offer a resonant symbolism and structure. The typical magical realism story involves singular, fantastic eruptions into everyday existence, aberrations of reality which hold within them (spiritual) truths. It is half-way fantasy, not forcing the reader to make a full suspension of disbelief, using fantasy only as an element in the story. What literature is most comfortable with is an emergent fantasy, as in magical realism, Kafka, Burroughs, and recently in the excellent work of Jonathan Carroll. (It has an analog in horror fiction, which uses the intrusion of the occult into mundane life). Literature will use the speculative device, but is leary of full speculative investigation. At the sharp end, use of fantasy in "real" literature is not about a full, speculative suspension of disbelief. That is left to science fiction and fantasy, which it ghetto-ises as "genre". The stink of it is that these two step children are not fully literary, that they are somehow less. Unfortunate, but that's just the way things are. It's easy to see why Ursula LeGuin complains about being called a science fiction writer. "I write science fiction. I am not a science fiction writer".* Being taken seriously in the literary world can be a toughie.
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