A few months ago, I wrote an article on Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife in which I suggested that perhaps the novel wasn't fantasy literature. This post inspired a number of comments, as well as a guest post by Ken Schneyer in which he explores the nature and limitations of genre definitions. All of this was very interesting to me, and the question of how I define fantasy literature has been something that has been percolating in the back of my mind since then.
These questions came back to the surface when I picked up Songs of Love and Death, a collection of stories edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. All of the stories engage both the supernatural, as well as the theme of love and romance, and this cross-genre focus made it an excellent volume to think about the nature of the fantasy genre.
The more I've thought about how I would define fantasy literature, the more I've realized that my thinking is shaped by two theorists--Tzvetan Todorov and Brian Attebery. I take from Todorov his idea of the fantastic--that is, a moment of hesitation or uncertainty, where the reader of a text isn't sure whether what she's seeing has a natural or supernatural explanation. When a character in a novel sees a ghost, for example, there are two possible lines of explanation--either the ghost exists, or the character is hallucinating/going crazy/overtired/etc. and the ghost doesn't actually exist. The fantastic exists in that moment of hesitation where either explanation is still possible, and no definite decision has been reached. As Todorov points out, most texts are not completely fantastic, since this hesitation resolves before the end of the novel, but many texts do have moments of the fantastic.
For me, these moments of the fantastic are incredibly powerful becuase of the way that they engage the reader in the text. It is more than just a character hesitating over the appearance of a ghost--the reader of the novel hesitates too, and is forced to intellectually engage with the text in a way that requires more than just reading comprehension.
Brian Attebery has also strongly shaped my thinking about the fantasy genre with his discussion of the "fuzzy set" theory. A "fuzzy set" is a group of items that is defined not by a border around it, but by a few core items in the center. Other items can be arranged around these core items, with the distance between them increasing as they become more different. Attebery uses birds as an example: birds like robins would be at the center, while birds that lay eggs and don't fly like ostriches would be farther out. Animals like platypuses (platypi?) and bats, which share characteristics with birds but that aren't birds, would be even farther from the center. What makes this model so appealing to me is that there is room in a fuzzy set for anything remotely connected to the central idea--nothing has to be excluded, but it is also clear which items are the ones that have the most influence over the shape of the category.
I bring these two theories together, then, by suggesting that fantasy literature is a fuzzy set with the fantastic at its center. This definition highlights what is for me the most powerful function of fantasy literature--its ability to blur the boundary between fantasy and reality, and to get its readers to think about the real world in a new way. Works that engage prominently feature these moments of hesitation between reality and fantasy, between the supernatural and the uncanny--these are the texts that are at the center of my fuzzy set of fantasy literature. I would put texts like The Magicians, The City and the City, and Bladerunner at the center, because a central theme in all of these texts is the blurring of the line between what is real and what is not.
Why do I define fantasy literature this way? As a scholar of fantasy and science fiction, part of me is always feeling a bit defensive, like I have to justify how my interest in these groups of literature counts as "scholarly." I'm tired of fantasy literature being labeled "escapist," I'm tired of it being dismissed as fluff, and I'm tired that for many, it seems to be literature that's only appropriate to read on the beach (yes, I'm looking at you, NPR). It is in my definition of fantasy literature that I have an answer for this criticism--this is literature that causes us as readers to reevaluate some of the most fundamental questions underlying our existence.
Interestingly, this definition causes me to revise a statement I made in my original article about The Lord of the Rings. According to my new definition, I would no longer put The Lord of the Rings in the center of my fantasy literature fuzzy set. Of course, Tolkien's trilogy would absolutely appear in the set, but just not in the center, because it does not feature those moments of hesitation. It, along with many classic works of fantasy literature, are straight-up secondary world fantasies, where the hesitation between what is real and what is supernatural does not feature prominently.
I realize that this will be a rather controversial claim. The Lord of the Rings topped NPR's recent poll about the top 100 books of science fiction and fantasy, and works like Tolkien's, and Rothfuss's, and Martin's are beloved favorites of millions. Saying that these works are not at the center of my fantasy fuzzy set is probably akin to heresy for many of you.
Before you write me off completely, let me assure you--I absolutely think these works are fantasy.
In fact, I think that the hesitation between reality and fantasy can and often does play a key role in these works, but often more for the author of the novel than the reader. As anyone familiar with Tolkien's vast legendarium knows, Tolkien spent vast amounts of time thinking about how the mythology of Middle-earth relates to the real world, and specifically, England. In writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien walked the line between fantasy and reality, figuring out how to negotiate the boundary between the two. And as interviews of other authors who have written secondary world fantasies suggest, the question of how to build a convincing secondary world--one that is both sufficiently familiar, but also just different enough--is one that almost every author of fantasy has to deal with on some level.
But in a finished product such as The Song of Ice and Fire, the blurring between fantasy and reality that is part of Martin's creative process is not as easily accessible to the reader. And as a result, Martin's novels can easily become escapist. A reader can become immersed in the fantasy of the novel, without thinking of the very important ways in which that fantasy reflects the reality of our own world.
And it is because of this that I think works that blur the line between fantasy and reality are where the heart of fantasy literature lies. These works make readers engage with a text, becoming an active participant in the narrative rather than simply a passive observer. These works encourage readers to think about questions that have an impact on their perceptions of reality. These works challenge the idea that all fantasy literature is fluff. And perhaps most importantly in terms of the fantasy genre, these works provide the reader with the tools to recognize the ways in which much-beloved secondary world fantasies can themselves provide us with ways of thinking about our own world in different ways.
Which brings me to Songs of Love and Death. I enjoyed all of the stories in this collection immensely, and I would absolutely agree that all of them belong in the fantasy literature genre. But one story stood out as different. One story where I was left wondering about the nature of reality more than I was about the relationship between the lovers in the story. That story was Neil Gaiman's "The Truth About Cassandra." While I won't spoil the story for you, I will say that the focus of that story wasn't--from my perspective at least--the love relationship between the two main characters, but rather, the nature of those two characters' reality. And rather than being comfortably resolved at the end of the story, the questions about this reality linger on. And so while I would say that all of the stories in Song of Love and Death belong in the fantasy set, I would place "The Truth About Cassandra" at the center of that set, because it is part of the foundation from which all other fantasy literature is built.
What is also interesting to me is the way in which this idea seems to be supported by others--both the editors of the collection, as well as the readers of Locus magazine. "The Truth About Cassandra" is placed eighth in a collection of seventeen stories--in other words, about as close to the center of the volume as you can get. Not only does this reflect my idea that Gaiman's story exists at the center of the fantasy genre, but it also is a position in this collection where it can influence the way in which both the stories before (because they are fresh enough in the reader's memory) and the stories after are read. Additionally, "The Truth About Cassandra" is the only story from the collection to be nominated for--and win--the Locus Award for Best Short Story, out of a volume filled with well-known authors and wonderful stories. It seems that other readers, too, recognized this story as something special, something different, something genre-shaping.
And so ultimately, for me, defining fantasy literature is not about saying what is or is not fantasy, but rather, it is an attempt to identify texts that most directly engage with what I see as the heart of fantasy--the boundary between fantasy and reality, between the natural and the supernatural.
It's a matter of the heart. Which, given the theme of Songs of Love and Death, is quite fitting, don't you think?