What is Literary Fiction and Should it be a Requirement in Writing Workshops?

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What is Literary Fiction and Should it be a Requirement in Writing Workshops?

Epic_of_GilgameshThe first form of fiction was, arguably, fantasy, what with mythology going back to 4000BCE and the first written fiction, The Epic of Gilgamesh written circa 1200 BCE.  Some of the first English fiction  were also fantasy, such as Le Morte d’Arthur written c. 1470. Yet fantasy not still not considered “literary” merely because it’s fantasy.

Somewhere in the mid 1800’s, realism took over the halls of academe, and anything which took part in the fantastical was deemed “less than.”  This might have been the logical extension of the “age of reason” or the “enlightenment” where science began to supplant religion.  Fantasy was kicked to the corner and designated as children’s literature or inferior “genre-fiction” (as if realism itself wasn’t a genre – but the true natural state of literary fiction). Despite this, fantasy and science fiction’s popularity persisted.

Eventually, in the 1960s, the academy begrudgingly allowed some science fiction to be taught, but almost exclusively from male writers, and fantasy was still disdained. While many science fiction and some sci-fi fantasy anthologies are published by textbook publishers, no fantasy anthologies are.

A few years ago, I was attending a session on teaching creative writing at AWP (the Associated Writers and Writing Program conference – one of the largest of its kind in the US). Teachers were saying they routinely forbid their students from writing “genre fiction.”  They bewailed the fact that student writers of science fiction and fantasy wanted to spend a lot of time on “world building,” as if this was somehow an inferior pursuit to character building, which is one of the core criteria of literary fiction.

My contention that what makes fiction good or bad literature has nothing to do with genre (including regionalism, romance, westerns, as well as science fiction and fantasy).  It has nothing to do with whether or not life is portrayed as “real” or “fantastical.”  After all,  the tension between what is real and what is unreal is inherent in “real life.”  Some good fantastical literature can be recognized by how well it employs that inherent tension, such as the work of Karen Russell an Aimee Bender.  I allow my students to write whatever they want to write, and I encourage experimentation, but inevitably, the question arises, what is good literature and how do we steer our students toward it?

I contend that we call things literary if they meet three or more of the following criteria:

1) They generally put character before plot

2) they have more ideas per page

2) they push deeper into the incomprehensible aspects of life

3) they don’t offer easy answers or neat endings

4) they make us think and wonder

5) they use language originally and precisely,

6) When they make use of characters (as not story forms do- such as allegory) — the characters are real and complex.

7) Their structure is inherently congruent with the content

The more a writer resorts to clichés and truisms, the less their fiction reflects the complexity, beauty and surprising contradictions of life. This doesn’t mean that all literary fiction need be dense. There’s beauty in a great plot.

But this is not something you should ever think about when writing a rough draft.  Save these thoughts for the end of the writing process.

I do not condemn that which some consider mainstream or genre fiction. Having written a few novels, I applaud anyone who makes it to the end with something resembling coherence. It’s hard work.  Also, a lot of people don’t like what we, in academe, call “good literature.” It’s often dense, plodding, demanding, esoteric, and downright boring.

All kinds of writing is needed in the world, and each have their place. Some of my students are absolutely besotted by their fantasy, romance, and horror fiction, writing many novels.  I would never want to squash that enthusiasm.

gilgamesh

Here are some links to what others have said about this:

What Is Literary Fiction & What Sets It Apart?

Why Isn’t Literary Fiction Getting More Attention?

Speaking the Language of Trees

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Apple tree 2
One strong memory I have from childhood is lying on a sprawling branch of an ancient apple tree on my father’s farm in Pennsylvania. This branch was so wide that I could lie on it without falling off. I used to imagine that some loving entity was watching me there, in the shade, like a guardian angel, or a parent, or the tree itself…

See attached video for the rest of the story.  On June 23, 2020, three storytellers told at Caffe Lena for the pandemic Stay at Home series.

  • Barbara Palumbo tells Nathaniel Hawthorn’s story “The Great Stone Face” and Frank Stockton’s story, “The Lady or the Tiger,” at the beginning.
  • My original story blended with norse creation mythology, “Speaking the Language of Trees,” starts at minute 27:40.
  • Finally, Mary Murphy rounds out the evening with a great “old haunted house story,” starts at minute 58:00.

 

 

Trump’s Covid-19 Cocktail* (Guaranteed to cure your quarantine blues!)

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Guest Post from Loren Davidson

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 oz Citrus Meadows Lysol disinfectant spray (I like that one, but any of the flavors will do. The Cherry Blossom and Pomegranate is quite nice, or if you’d like something more exotic, try the Jasmine and Rain variety.)
  • 1/2 – 3/4 oz lemon flavored Clorox (again, try different scents; see which one works for you!)
  • Then for that woodsy flavor and lovely color; just a soupçon of Pine-Sol!
  • Shake vigorously with plenty of ice and strain into a chilled martini glass
  • Garnish with a Tide pod

As you know, I’m more of the industrial type, so I like something with a little more city scent.  So instead of the Pine-Sol, I found CLR works well (calcium lime and rust remover), but if you happen to have an auto parts store near you, I found that any STP product works well.

I myself prefer the carburetor and fuel injection cleaner. Lucas Oil has some fine products, too, but, unfortunately, they’re all clear colored.  So, for a nice chartreuse color, a little Prestone antifreeze will do the trick, or if you prefer a nice mauve, ATF fluid (for those of you not in the know, automatic transmission fluid).

And since you’re in the auto parts store anyway, garnish with a pine tree air freshener. It has a much more chemical pine scent then Pine-Sol and a lovely texture when you chew on it.

Drink under a tanning light!

Or, if you have one near you, a concentrated thermal solar plant!

Or, if you have one of those nerdy friends, their solar oven!

Also, don’t forget! Share a lollipop for Trump day is coming up, just around the corner! I’m so excited!!! Be sure to bring plenty of lollipops to share! We’re going to try to set a record for how many people can share a lollipop and how many lollipops get shared!

Save the date!

*Loren Davidson is a comedian/contractor from Los Angeles. He is neither a doctor or a chef. The above recipe is not to be taken seriously in any way!

Cosmic Cat

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Science Fiction appeals to creatures of all kinds. Daisy, an American Bobtail mixed breed enjoys catching a planet or two on Expanse, a series based on the novels by James S.A. Corey about a future where few have the privilege to still live on earth while most of the population mines for water in an orbiting dust belt. Daisy is one of the smartest cats I’ve ever had the pleasure to live with, so if she likes something, you should pay attention.

I adopted Daisy from the local animal shelter when she was still nursing kittens. When not stalking birds and other unsuspecting prey, she follows me around the house, indoors and out, tilting her head quizzically as if to say, “Whatcha doing, Hooman?” She’s the only cat I know who can purr and growl simultaneously. She can be a bit of a bitch, which only intensifies her allure. Her penchant for screen hunting runs in the family, because her son, Merlin, who was adopted by a friend, tries to catch silver screen dragons. Cats were one of the few creatures H.P. Lovecraft loved, and he portrayed them as the walkers between worlds.

Note: NBC Universal blocked the video because of copyright violation (even though all you can see is the cat). I’ve written for permission and covered the soundtrack, so hopefully, this meets fair use. Sigh. It’s free advertisement for them. If they block this one, I’ll try to capture Daisy watching royalty-free video. But you know how cats are…

Strong Female Protagonists in Science Fiction

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More than ever before, badass female protagonists populate book and screen.  From Lara Croft, to Black Widow, to Katniss Everdeen, they kick butt. In America, the message seems to be that true power is only gained by brute force and coercion, so women can only be powerful if they are young, beautiful, and fight like a man.

Kij Johnson’s poetic The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe shows female power in a refreshingly different way. It’s not every day that you read a sci-fi adventure novel with a sixty-something-year-old female protagonist. Vellitt Boe, is quiet, careful and wise—and her body aches after a long hike. Nevertheless, her goal is achieved, and her strength is expressed in her mentorship of a younger woman. That which has been stereotyped as feminine weakness is revealed in this novella as revolutionary power.

In the mystery genre, there is slim precedence for elderly protagonists whose only weapon in the apprehension of criminals is intelligence. Take Murder She Wrote on TV and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series.  However, I can’t think a single elderly female protagonist out for adventure in science fiction. Let me know if you can.

Johnson, who was born in 1950 and is a professor at the University of Kansas, explains in an interview for The Geeks Guide to the Galaxythat this novella was written in response to  H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which has no women in it at all. She asked herself, “What happens to [the male fictional] world if I put females in it? Does it break it?”

Kij Johnson

Some of my students didn’t want to read the book, fearing an angry feminist critique of Lovecraft and all men, but what we found, instead, was a gentle assertion of female-centered conflict and a main character who uses other forms of power: intelligence, kindness, and patience.

The premise of the novella is that a gifted female college student in Dreamland has thrown away her future to run off with a man to the waking world. Because the education of women is threatened in this male-dominated world, her teacher Vellitt Boe and her Dean determine she must be retrieved before it causes a scandal and the college is shut down. When the Dean proposes to send a man who has the advantage of being both young and—well—a man, Vellitt Boe convinces the Dean that her own knowledge and her power of persuasion are more important to the success of the mission than physical prowess, “We need her to listen, to understand what is at risk…” (27)

The plot thickens when Vellitt discovers that the girl is the grand-daughter of a god. The gods in this Lovecraft’s Dreamland are cruel, petty, and beyond random. If he discovers she is gone, he might raze the entire city in which the college resides.

Though she has to use a machete once or twice, it is primarily the power of patience, wit, clear sight, and compassion that save Vellitt from the murderous shantak birds and ghasts. In a feat reminiscent of the Greek myth of Psyche with the ants helping to complete her insurmountable tasks, Vellitt’s tears when she is trapped are tracked abroad by millipedes, and this draws to her rescue a monster gug whom she saved when it was an infant. Thus, Velitt’s compassion in the past bears fruit in the form of an enormous life-saving gug (134).

If great power comes in subtle forms, so does great danger. In the climax before she breaks into the waking world, Vellitt’s greatest obstacle is not Dreamland’s violence, but doubt, which arrives in the form of a violet-eyed god who tells her that her city, Ulthar, has already been destroyed and her quest failed (142). Again, Vellitt’s power is not brutal strength, but strength of character as well as reason: “You cannot stop me,” she tells the god. “If you could, I would be dead already…and if Ulthar were truly destroyed, you would have brought me visions and shown me relics.  You are just a shadow here. You have no power” (143).

Turning yet another stereotype on its head, Clarie Jurat, the object of Vellitt’s quest, has already fallen out of love with the man she followed to the waking world by the time Vellitt catches up to her. Clarie has discovered on her own that she really didn’t crave the man’s love but rather the expansive world to which he belongs. Women have historically been associated with the unconscious and intuitive – i.e. the Dreamworld, whereas men represent the active, external world, so Clarie’s realization of her own true intent – her desire to leave the interior realm of the unconscious and live abroad in the active realm shows a woman in true possession of her power.

Johnson continues to highlight a subtler form of power in the last turn of the plot. Vellitt convinces Clarie to return not by forceful argument but by providing Clarie with the facts and then just…waiting (160). Awfully passive for a heroine. However, her waiting is really trust of her student’s higher nature. Rather than coercing, she respects the independence and intelligence of her student. This form of power is based on mutual respect and has a revolutionary effect.

When Clairie realizes that the fate of an entire city rests on her decision, she vows to return. Not just another woman sacrificing herself for others, Clarie vows she will change Dreamland and fight the capricious cruelty of the gods: “I have seen a world without gods, and it’s better…I will return and fix our world…I am one of them. I can do it” (162). “Do you doubt me?” she asks Vellitt. “No,” Vellitt says. “No” (163). Transcendently, Clarie laughs and “for a moment it seemed as though the little house was filled with thunder and the earth beneath them shuddered” (163).

Thus, Kij Johnson’s feminist approach doesn’t tear down Lovecraft’s world but augments it by adding women to it. While she points to how women are ignored and disapproved of in a man’s world, her protagonist shows how women are powerful on their own terms.

“Interview: Kij Johnson.” Geeks Guide to the Galaxy with David Barr Kirtley. Lightspeed Magazine. January 2017 (Issue 80). http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/authors/geeks-guide-to-the-galaxy/

Johnson, Kij. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. A Tor.com Book Published by Tom Dhoerty Associates, LLC. 2016.

Unraveling Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest

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Vellitt Boe

Does an overtly racist writer deserve the energy it takes to write about them?  I’m not sure. However, Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, based on Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, obliged me to read him. Turns out, her interest in Lovecraft is timely, so this month, I’ll focus on Lovecraft, and next month I’ll focus on Nebula and Hugo award winning Kij Johnson.

Lovecraft’s style in The Dream-Quest is annoying and boring. His prose is crammed with value-laden adjectives like terrible, shocking, frightful; his characters are flat and don’t evolve; there’s little dialogue, and there’s a lot of summarized action. Finally, he favors pretentiously and anachronistically twisted syntax.

Yet, when I enter Lovecraft’s land of “dream,” I feel like a person wading through a bog, sliding my foot along a hidden rail of oddly compelling, incomprehensible sense. His more polished stories remind me of Jorge Luis Borges.

Lovecraft,_June_1934

Lovecraft 1926

He prays to the gods of Kadath to go there, but they don’t answer him. He determines to go Kadath, “where no man has gone before,” to speak to its gods in person. What ensues are rambling encounters with Ghouls, Night-gaunts, Zoogs, and Gugs with no apparent progression.  The basic plot of Dream-Quest is that Randolph Carter (Lovecraft’s avatar) visits the land of “dream” and sees a “glorious” sunset city that fills him with “the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place [them] again” (Lovecraft 1).

Kentucky U. scholar Timothy Evans asserts Lovecraft’s antiquarian travel writing is key to understanding his fiction. He idealized his white, New England heritage, and he despaired of science, industrialization, and modernism. He loved America’s colonial landscapes, seeing them as the “real America” (forget the indigenous). His greatest horror was immigration and “miscegenation” (Evans 177, 188, and Klinger xl).

Alan Moore corroborates this in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, where he urges us to see Lovecraft as a “barometer… of the fears…of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant-descended males” who were threatened by “the shifting power relationships…of the modern world” (Moore, xiii).

Sound familiar? Trump would seem to be a dumber, barely literate version of Lovecraft, engaging in absurd antics as he tries to reify a nostalgic vision of “the great white America,” while populating the White House with Ghouls, Zoogs and Thugs. But I digress.

Evans asserts that while Lovecraft’s travel writing explores the light side of his antiquarianism, his fiction explores the dark side, which, in my estimation, might partially redeem his fiction.

Maxfield Parrish

Maxfield Parrish

The fact that Randolph encounters ugly and dangerous creatures who kidnap, drug and almost kill him supports Evans’ assertion of the dark side of antiquarianism, as does Randolph’s interview with the “crawling chaos,” otherwise known as Nyarlathotep, at the end of the novel. Certainly, Dream-Quest, is rife with bucolic landscapes rendered in misty-eyed wonder. The rejection of obsessive antiquarianism is evident when Randolph Carter encounters King Kuranes, who has dreamed up a replica of old Cornwall (Lovecraft 71). His warning that life in his fulfilled dream is actually unfulfilling suggests that Lovecraft – at least unconsciously—thought the same.

Nyarlathotep informs him, (spoiler alert), that the city he seeks has always been his for the taking, for it is made of his childhood memories of New England. The gods of unknown Kadath have been hanging out there, and that’s why they didn’t let him reclaim it (Lovecraft 130). All he has to do is ride on a “monstrous” bird, alight among the gods, and remind them how beautiful their own Kadath is, thereby inducing them to leave his city (Lovecraft 135).

It appears to be a trick when the bird flies him into chaos where he’ll certainly go mad.

The duality of cats and Ghouls, the only friendly creatures in the land of “dream,” who save his life, is yet more evidence of Evans’ assertion.

When I opened the window to let in my own cat, she paused on the threshold, the perfect embodiment of duality. Cats are wild but domestic, cuddly by day, killer by night, and they always pause on the threshold. In short, they make the perfect guides between worlds, thus serving as a touchstone for reality. A fan of cats, Lovecraft depicts them thus in many stories.

Dogs are also dualistic creatures, wild and tame, happy, silly human companions who nevertheless eat carrion and feces. So, too, Ghouls, described as having dog-like faces, “glibber” and “meep” rather adorably, considering they are cannibalistic zombies.

If we view both Randolph and King Kurane as monological, the fact that dualist Ghouls and cats save Randolph suggests Lovecraft sees resolution in the dualism. One more point for Evans.

KadathHere’s where Evan’s interpretation ceases to work, though. Randolph, in the midst of being driven into madness, suddenly remembers he’s dreaming and can simply jump off the bird. Inexplicably–yet somehow consequently–the cosmos dies and is reborn (Lovecraft 140).

Then two conflicting things happen: On the one hand, maybe the dream world becomes real (italics mine):

There was a firmament again…for through the unknown ultimate cycle had lived a thought and a vision of a dreamer’s boyhood, and now there were re-made a waking world and an old cherished city to body to justify these things…

Randolf Carter had indeed descended at last the wide marmoreal flights to his marvelous city, for he was come again to the fair New England world that wrought him. (Lovecraft 140)

On the other hand, he simply wakes up:

Randolph Carter leaped shoutingly awake within his Boston room…and infinities away, past the Gate of Deeper Slumber…the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep…taunted insolently the mild gods of earth whom he had snatched abruptly from their scented revels in the marvelous city. (Lovecraft 141)

I must admit, I like the way Lovecraft’s prose deconstructs itself here, delivering and un-delivering a resolution at the same time by moving the dream into the real world, but characterizing the dream world as simultaneously “infinities away.” Jacques Derrida could have a field day.

Far from being a rejection of antiquarianism, the ending of Dream-Quest suggests that if you pursue your dream in with the right consciousness and a few friends in the unconscious, you can turn fantasy into reality, and it’s worth a brush with death.

The contradictory and inscrutable ending makes it impossible to ascertain just exactly what the story means, which is perhaps, the point of all stories, but most certainly this one.

That’s why, against all intention, I ended up liking it and look forward to rereading Kij Johnson’s Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe with it in mind.

Evans, Timothy H. “Tradition and Illusion: Antiquarianism, Tourism, and Horror in H. P. Lovecraft.” Extrapolation. Vol. 45, No. 3. by the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. 2004.

Johnson, Kij. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Tor.com. 2016.

Klinger, Leslie S. “Forward.” The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2014

Lovecraft, H.P. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. A Del Ray Book. Ballentine. 1990.

Moore, Alan. “Introduction.” The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2014

Rottensteiner, Franz. “Lovecraft as Philosopher.” Science Fiction Studies, March 1992, Vol. 19, p117-121.

The Potbellied Virgin by Alicia Yánez Cossío

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potbellied virgin

One interesting characteristic of Latin American magic realism is that it often rejects the European and North American literary legacy of unified narratives. Unified narratives can sometimes unintentionally promote the hegemony of one class and culture. The Potbellied Virgin, written by Ecuador’s Alicia Yánez Cossío in 1985 and translated into English in 2006, is an interesting example of a communal narrative. The reading experience is fascinating though disorienting for a mind trained in North America or Europe.

Although Alicia Yánez Cossío is one of the better-known authors in Ecuador, only two of her books have been translated into English and she is virtually unknown in the United States.  The Potbellied Virgin provides a social history of Ecuador between 1900 and 1970 blending voices of the indigenous, the Catholic Church, descendants of the ruling Spanish aristocracy, Marxist revolutionaries, and the military.

The plot revolves around a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that is cared for by members of Ecuador’s white aristocracy, the Benavides family, specifically the women. Years ago, the Benavides came to the region and simply stole the land from the Pandos family, who were Mestizo landowners. The Mestizos were descendants of European conquerors who were born in South America and with whom some of the indigenous had married.

When the white Benavides laid claim to those lands, the Pando clan sued, but, in the words of the group narrative, “justice is slow and lazy when the rich man fights the poor” (94). Somewhere along the line, the Virgin statue becomes “pregnant.” The Pandos believe that the deed to their land and the proof of their ownership is being hidden on the Virgin’s dress, hence the belly. A series of military coups and Marxist revolutions ensue as the statue of the Virgin is bandied about amidst both carnage and humorous chaos, resulting in the spontaneous abortion of the deeds.

Yanéz Cossío uses four devices supplant the unified narrative. First, she makes copious use of proverbs, second, she slides the point of view seamlessly from the main characters to people in the crowd often with few identifying taglines, gestures or facial expressions. Third, she uses long plot digressions about things which have nothing to do with the main characters, but which sometimes reveal the animism of the indigenous culture or a bit of social history, a device often evident in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And fourth, she uses humor.

The fourth device is evident throughout the novel but mostly at the end, during a brutal yet comical military coup. Professor of comparative literature and writer Kenneth Wishina, quoting narrative theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, writes that the “absolute monoglossic unity” of narratives “can be destroyed by laughter which is rarely present in the majority of Ecuadorian Historical novels” but which is a “dominant motif” in Yanéz Cossío’s work (13).

Though people often hate “spoilers,” it will increase your enjoyment of this disorienting narrative to know that The Potbellied Virgin ends when one the Benavides’ female descendants runs off with one of the young Pandos who has become a communist, leaving his elderly relatives to sit in the village square as they have spent most of their life doing, unwittingly smoking the scraps of their land deeds, which are blowing about the streets after the coup. Thus the town will find liberty only in the intermarriage of their disparate voices and outlooks.

 

Cossío, Alicia Yánez. The Potbellied Virgin. Translated by Amalia Gladhart University of

Texas Press. 2006.

Wishnia, Kenneth. Twentieth Century Ecuadorian Narrative: New Readings in the Context

        of the Americas. Bucknell University Press. 1999.

 

Does Fantasy Dodge or Enhance Reality?

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Baby dragon? Or newborn lesser short-nosed fruit bat. Photo by Anton

Lately, I’ve been writing and reading realistic stories with a hint of guilt. Why guilt, you may ask?

Because I’ve been a staunch defender of the literary merit of fantasy, sci-fi, and magic realism, and because my turn to realism in middle age is accompanied by a bit of skepticism about the paranormal and a bit of boredom with its fiction, even as these genres are gaining status in the publishing world and as writers are beginning to blur genres with greater effect and fewer apologies.

In a recent interview with the New York Times Book Review, Samantha Hunt said: “’Magic’ is a tricky word. It separates the unexplainable from our daily experience. Yet eyeballs, snowflakes, quantum physics and birth (along with many other things), are magical and habitual. I prefer the word ‘science.’ I like to write about wonder found in the ordinary.”

Basically, she’s saying, reality is so amazing that she uses the concept of magic to call attention to it. That’s sort of what I do—use magic to externalize emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual truths – make metaphor materially (or at least verbally) manifest.

But while I agree with Hunt that molecular structure is wonder-inducing, calling into question, as it does, the nature of solidity, I disagree that science equals the magic or the miraculous. The words “magic,” “supernatural” and “miraculous” specifically mean that which is beyond nature – that which has no rational explanation.

So why do we keep using it in fiction if what we are really talking about is our perception of reality?  Why, in the wonderful featured story, “The Thing In the Walls Wants Your Small Change,” does author Virginia M Mohlere use the tiny dragon to symbolize the main character’s need to let her own inner monster out to fight the very real monster of her abusive, alcoholic mother? Why didn’t she just write a realistic story about that? Wouldn’t that be more complex to have the character fight her own battle, thus inviting the question of whether it’s right to fight violence with violence?

I don’t know if I can answer that question, but I’ll try: the tiny dragon is a more delightful, more beautiful, more loving solution to rancid reality. The dragon is allowed to be an animal. It’s right and correct for the dragon to bite and scratch the mother—because it is acting in accordance with its true nature, whereas it would be wrong for the narrator to do that because humans are supposed to transcend their basic nature, to transcend violence. The dragon construct, therefore, allows us to have both. It allows us to deal with a heavy subject in a light way.

But, at the risk of offending, I wonder when approaching my own writing on this score, if I’m dodging the difficult. If one goes much further down this road one might conclude, as some do, that all of fiction is a contrivance, and that only “real stories” are worth reading. Is there something wrong with relying on a construct? Is a construct the same as a contrivance?

Ursula Le Guin by Marian Wood Kolisch

Ursula Le Guin. Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch

Ursula Le Guin, in her essay, “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists,” would object to this line of questioning. She says, to assert that fantasy is mere metaphor or allegory is to reduce it and negate its primary power, which is to point us outside the box of quotidian life, which she sees, I think, as an inherently good activity because it opens us up to tolerance for difference and to imagining a better life.

Of course, we all know how subjective reality can be.  And we’ve all heard the adage that fiction (good fiction anyway), is truer than truth.

I remain conflicted and curious about this issue, and ultimately, I think the world takes all kinds of fiction and needs all kinds. After all, there isn’t just one version or a willow, but thousands, and new ones crossbreeding every day.

Reblogged from Luna Station Quarterly

Fantasy’s Half Sister-Magic Realism

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Reeling for the Empire

“Reeling for the Empire” by Karen Russell. Illustration by Daehyun Kim

If you’re reading about dragons, chances are, you’re reading fantasy. But if you’re reading about women ascending bodily to heaven, you’re probably reading magic realism, or what New York Times reviewer Joy Williams calls “the new uncanny.”

Confused? You’re not alone.  The most common definition of fantasy is “literature in which magical things occur” or, as the Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms defines it, literature which creates its own coherently organized worlds and myths” (82).

Of course, magical things happen in both fantasy and magic realism, so that doesn’t help us. I’ve heard people say that the big difference is that in fantasy, the characters are amazed, stunned and shocked by the magical events, as when the glass suddenly disappears at the zoo in Harry Potter, and everyone screams.  In magic realism, by contrast, the characters react to the magical as though it is ordinary.

“Reeling for the Empire.” Watercolor by Margaret Sloan. https://mockingbirdsatmidnight.com/tag/reeling-for-the-empire/

Complicating both these definitions is the fact that the concept of reality is culturally defined. Orthodox Christians consider God and the Bible real. Atheists consider both fantasy. Roman mythology was at one time was considered real; now the word myth is synonymous with lie. Native American writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko write about things that most Caucasian Americans would call unreal, but which are very real to her.

reeling for the empire by sloan

“Reeling for the Empire.” Watercolor by Margaret Sloan. https://mockingbirdsatmidnight.com/tag/reeling-for-the-empire/

Gabriel García Márquez, the king of magic realism and author of the Nobel Prize winning 100 Years of Solitude, said, “Fantasy has nothing to do with the reality of the world we live in; it is purely fantastic invention, an inspiration, and certainly a diversion ill-advised in the arts” (quoted in Kroeber 130).

However, anyone who has heard a woman screaming in the forest and followed the sound into the mouth of a mountain lion will find the origins of fantasy very real. The flicker we all get in the peripheral vision, and secrets our parents tried to keep but which we all  felt,  is where ghosts come from. The amygdala is a crude but lightning fast instrument. So I have to respectfully disagree with the king.

I think the best way to consider the difference between fantasy and reality is to consider its impact on the reader. Tsvetan Todorov, a literary theorist famous for his treatment of the fantastic, said that magic realism disrupts the reader’s sense of reality whereas fantasy creates another completely enclosed reality. Whereas fantasy “imposes absolute closure” and “implies complicity on the part of the readers,” the literary fantastic seeks reader hesitancy” (Armitt 7). The story begins in the “real world” and when something unreal happens, and the reader is never sure if the cause is supernatural or natural, such as a psychotic break or a drug induced hallucination (Armitt 8).

The-Turn-of-the-Screw-LaFarge

Illustration from the serialization of “The Turn of the Screw” in Collier’s Weekly, published in 1898, by John La Farge

According to this definition, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is an example of the literary fantastic: did the governess see a ghost or hallucinate it? Did the ghost kill the boy, or did she scare him to death? The movie Pan’s Labyrinth is likewise an example: Is she alive or dead at the end? Did imagination save her or kill her?

However, this definition doesn’t work for the poster child of magic realism, 100 Years of Solitude.  No one doubts that Remedios the Beauty ascended bodily to heaven and that a man’s blood flowed out the front door, down the block, turned left and went into his mother’s house.  As Lucy Armitt says in her book, Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction, there are no “competing readings of the text… revolving around two choices, the psychological or the supernatural” (Armitt 8).

Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

However, you do feel ill at ease in Jorge Luis Borge’s short stories.  In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” you aren’t even sure that anything magical happens, it’s just an incredible coincidence that a spy randomly walks into the house of a man who has been studying his ancestor’s life work.  Is Borges just a bad writer, you find yourself wondering. Is this even a story?

That’s why you also need this other defining characteristic of magic realism to understand it.  Jon Evans says magic realism “draws from the well” of political disruption, violence and chaos, where the “surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational.”

Magic realism is often the intersection of culturally competing definitions of reality, and that creates an inherent tension. In the case of 100 Years, it’s the intersection of indigenous and Catholic culture. This is the kind of tension you find in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (the tension between White and Black culture) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (the tension between Native American and White culture), even Karen Russel’s story, “Reeling for the Empire,” about Japanese women sold into slavery and turned into human silk worms by poisoned tea (the tension between the rich and poor).

Tiger Mending by Amy Cutler

Amy Cutler’s painting inspired the story “Tiger Mending” by Aimee Bender.

I’m not sure how I explain why I would put Aimee Bender and Amber Sparks in the category of magic realism rather than fantasy, especially as Bender has representatives of both in the same collection. Perhaps it comes down to a third distinguishing characteristic.

In fantasy, the magic is orderly and even predictable, rules apply.  In contrast –and this is why I prefer it–mystery lies at its heart of magic realism.  We don’t really know why the tigers come out of the forests with split skins, patiently waiting to be sewn back together by two sisters in Aimee Bender’s “Tiger Mending,” but the trope shimmers in our minds like an image on water, hard to grasp, unforgettable, and necessary.

Karen_Russell

Karen Russell

So I’d say a pretty good, all-inclusive definition of magic realism is: literature  which causes the reader to experience tension between competing views of reality, which is most often derived from violent political and cultural clashes, in which magical things occur, often with no clear explanation, and to which the characters in the story are often oddly accustomed.

Armitt, Lucie. Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.

Bender, Aimee. The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

Childs, Peter and Roger Fowler. Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms.  Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2006.

Evans, Jon. “Magic Realism: Not Fantasy. Sorry.” Tor.com. Tor Books. 23 October 2008. Web. 12 March 2014.

Kroeber, Karl. Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists.” The Secret History of Fantasy. Ed. Peter S. Beagle. San Francisco: Tachyan Publications, 2010. 355-366.

Pan’s Labyrinth. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López. Warner Brothers, 2006. Film.

Russell, Karen. Vampires in the Lemon Grove. New York: Knopf, 2013.

“Thursday, March 6, 2014.” The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. American Public Media, 6 March, 2014. Web. March 12, 2014.

Williams, Joy.  “The New Uncanny: ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ by Karen Russell.” The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Feb. 7, 2013.

 

 

 

Cone Oddyssey

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Walking in Saratoga Spa State Park last weekend, I came across this conelith. Did the cone fall from the tree, and via the mysteries of chaos and order, land upright? Or did some quixotic human being plant it here for the love of oddity and future passers by? Perhaps, as the narrator of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Sentinel,” which inspired 2001 Space Odyssey), surmised, “something from the stars swept through the Solar System, [and] left this token of its passage.” We will never know, but it compelled me to make this short film.

 

Music: Strauss, Richard. “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Greatest Classical Music in Movie Soundtrack. Opening music for 2001 Space Odyssey.