Nearly 30 years after I earned my doctorate in creative writing and pedagogy, I sent my published books to one of my mentors from graduate school, Eugene Garber (University at Albany).
It’s hard to convey how much this means to me without relating how stormy my relationship to writing has been. But in the interests of brevity, I’ll simply share the letter/review.
The books have arrived. I have read Strange Appetites with great admiration. I enjoyed all the stories. “The Opal Maker,” though it depends on a kind of conceptual trick, moves into some fine mother/daughter exploration. The sister in the labyrinth is a skit. Here I think the humor wins the day. The retelling of Daphne and Apollo is a stunning account in short of the slow loss of humanity. “Calling Down the Mountain” is a masterful moving story of our bafflement in the face of loss and indeterminacy, his incompleteness now ours, or always was ours. “World’s End” reminds us that throughout, even in its darkest moments, the writer looks for hope, not some sentimental approximation of hope, but real hope at the bottom of the well.
But for all of the excellence of the foregoing stories, “The Spiral Staircase” is of a different order, truly a lapidary masterpiece. Even as I began it, the story sent me off on associative journeys–Borges “Library of Babel,” Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. And then the story brought me back to its own intention, which I believe to be an intensely lyrical exploration of presence and absence, in this case not only psychological but also metaphysical. Marvelous.
You are looking for a broader audience of intelligent readers. Of course, but I would hope that I could see more stories, even one more story, with the stylistic perfection and the philosophical resonance of the staircase.
I look forward to Blue Woman Burning, but I’ve got some obligatory reading ahead of it. OK, I remember with shame that workshop session, a dark blemish on an otherwise reasonably benign pedagogical history. That you have made it into a novel is at least partial redemption, even if undeserved.
Stay in touch. Keep writing. Who knew you were so close. Maybe some summer day, if Old Mortality stays his fell hand here a while longer, we might have lunch here or up there. It would be a pleasure.
The 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 a text literary when it meets many, but not necessarily all, of the criteria below:
It generally puts character before plot.
When it makes use of characters, the characters are complex. However, not all literary forms utilize complex characters, such as poetry, allegory, fable, and fairytale.
It has more ideas per page.
It pushes deeper into the incomprehensible aspects of life.
It poses life’s deepest questions, and it doesn’t offer easy answers or neat endings.
It makes us think and wonder.
It uses language originally and precisely.
Its structure is inherently congruent with the content.
It doesn’t resort to clichés, truisms, or stereotypes.
It reflects the complex, beautiful, ugly, paradoxical, irreconcilable, tragic, absurd, and laughable aspects 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.
Here are some links to what others have said about this:
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.
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.
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.
Here’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.
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
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, 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.
I’m pleased to welcome a guest to my site, Holly Wright, as she reviews Hayao Miyazaki’ film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind:
One of the things I’ve liked most about the Hayao Miyazaki films I have seen is that characters that would typically be seen in black or white terms, are in shades of grey. In Nausicaa, one can see this element in Kushana, princess of Torumekia. Sure, she conquers a peaceful village and kills their beloved king, but she’s doing this because she believes this to be the only way. She knows that the giant warrior cannot be brought back to her homeland, not only because the creature is too large, but because they will use it for their own gain. She wants to destroy the toxic forests, and the monsters that inhabit it. For Kushana, she is saving the world and uniting the kingdoms for the good of humanity. I love Miyazaki’s ability to make what could be the antagonist into a real human. But of course, the real antagonist of the movie isn’t in one single person, just as it often isn’t in life. In this particular movie, the antagonist is in the establishment of beliefs centered around the toxic jungles and her creatures.
Kushana, in a sense, can be seen as the embodiment of these beliefs, but again, she is somewhat of a pawn rather than the most concerning opponent to the peace of their world. She’s humanity; even her body has been industrialized. She feels rejected by nature, and why wouldn’t she? She was literally scarred by its protectors, the insects, embedding in her a lifelong hatred for what had physically and emotionally maimed her. She wants so badly to believe in the ability and power of humanity to finally take their earth “back.” This desire leads her to place her conviction in the form of the giant warrior, able to destroy what is keeping humans from dominating. Unfortunately for Kushana, she misses what Nausicaä, the main character, has the wisdom to understand. Nature is not there to control. The people of the Valley of the Wind know that they must live beside the toxic jungles, that they must coexist with the terrors Kushana wishes to annihilate. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is the polar opposite of Kushana.
Nausicaä easily communicates with the animal world, rides the winds, and even cultivates what was believed to be toxic plant life. She is unafraid of the toxic jungles, leisurely laying within the toxic spores at the very beginning of the movie. As a child, she befriends a baby Ohmu, a creature that horrifies most of the people of the world. She still considers herself a component of the natural environment, and this is proven with every daring feat she accomplishes within the movie.
Clearly the movie is a story that has been told many times, but is still unheard. Nature is terrifying, and destructive, but it is also the giver of life and a creator of beauty. (Mind you, this is not the type of beauty that this word is now often inclined to be used for. Nature’s beauty doesn’t have to be just aesthetically pleasing to the eyes, it can even be found in things even humans do, things like love or altruism.) The movie warns of what happens when we cut off our connection with nature and take up a fight against it. It warns of what happens when we take and don’t return. Either we like it or not, we are a part of nature, it is evident in our abilities for destruction and creation, but if we lean too far on the side of destruction, it will not take long for nature to correct us, and then maybe we will be seeing the red eyes of the Omhu.
Holly Wright is a returning adult student currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in psychology and hoping to be accepted into a PhD program at SUNY Albany. She initially wrote this for my SUNY Adirondack course in science fiction and fantasy, English 217. In between school work she likes to write, read, watch TED talks, and spend time with her husband, daughter, two cats, and dog.
I recently read Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and what I’m loving best about it is the depiction of early Manhattan:
When the grid of Manhattan streets was created, in 1811, a grand project that would forever change the city, filling in the streams, ridding the map of meandering roads, Ninth Avenue cut through the center of Moore’s estate. The scholar was so appalled at the way the future had swooped in to claim the farm he so loved that he donated much of his land to the general Theological Seminary and St. Peter’s Church. He left open sixty lots of orchards, assuming this gift would ensure that Chelsea would never be completely overtaken by mortar and stone. But after Moore’s death the lots were sold, with most of the trees hurriedly chopped down. Only the churchyard and garden remained the same…(56)
As a writer, she has improved a great deal since she wrote Practical Magic where the magic felt cute but extraneous to the plot. In this novel, the magic is so integral to the plot that you wouldn’t really call it magic. But I’m finding the plot slow. Moore, mentioned in this fascinating except, isn’t a character in the book, though some might argue that Manhattan is. Certainly this development of
Manhattan feels as though it will be central to the plot eventually. But even though almost every line is beautifully written, reading the novel feels more like work than pleasure. In my opinion, she is doing more “telling” and reflecting than she needs to. She is relying on flash back rather than letting the present-day action carry in it the traces of the past that shaped it. But I’m not criticizing her. This novel is a triumph.
I simply want to raise a question. We demand that short stories be efficient, that they externalize the conflict wherever possible, but in many novels, this admonition is thrown to the winds. Why? Why shouldn’t novels be as taut as short stories? I’m finding many novels a bit of a grind to push through, but I have always blamed this on my slow reading habits, my physical restlessness, my intellectual laziness.
Yet I find writing in Anzia Yezeirska’s novel The Bread Givers refreshing. A Polish immigrant, she wrote this novel circa 1920, about a Jewish immigrant family. With the novel, she captures the Yiddish cadence and sentence structure. There is very little reflection, very little back-story. It’s all plot and dialogue. It reads quickly and pulls me convincingly into that world. And yet, Yezierska wasn’t considered a great writer until recently, and then by a discerning few.
Plot-driven novels have long been considered sub-literary. “How can you develop character without backstory and flashbacks?” asks my colleague. It’s a rhetorical question for her. “My favorite novelists, like Faulkner, are all reflection,” she adds. Yet, Yezierka succeeds in conveying depth of character all with present-day action. Hemmingway was renowned primary for his externalization of conflict.
I want to be clear that I’m not talking about pot-boilers. The reason these aren’t good isn’t because they are plot driven, it’s because the characterization is shallow and the word choices trite.
My mother says lack of reflection and explanation was something Plato hated about Homer. He criticized the Illiad and the Odyssey for being all action and no explanation or interpretation. I’m too lazy to read Plato and Homer to see if she is remembering correctly, but she should know: she’s a world literature scholar and is a walking encyclopedia.
This type of storytelling – where plot and action is ascendant — belongs to the oral tradition, she says. And perhaps that’s why I love it so much – why I became a storyteller/performer for 15 years. Storytelling showed me that a story can be beautiful in the very shape of its plot, so that it almost doesn’t matter what words are used to convey it. When the tinker turns out to be a prince, we feel the rightness and truthfulness of that idea. When Hansel and Gretel have to ride alone on the back of a duck to get home, we unconsciously know why.
Louise Erdrich’s Tracks does a beautiful job achieving beauty through plot. For this reason Tracks is my favorite novel of hers, yet it may be one of her only novels that didn’t win an award. It is a novel that is told by two competing storytellers who alternate. The writing is beautiful, but the beauty comes from the shape of the story, rather than from verbal gymnastics: ““Men stayed clear of Fleur Pillager after the second drowning. Even though she was good looking, nobody dared to court her because it was clear that Misshepeshu, the water man, the monster, wanted her for himself” (11). Though this is, in fact, a flashback, it is all about the “facts” – about what people said about this character. It’s all very direct and visceral.
I’m surprised to find myself on this end of things. I, who have always been accused of being overwrought, I who love words, and who my poet friends accuse of being a poet. And I’m certainly NOT writing a manifesto for what all novelists should be doing in the 21st century. I’m simply doing what Judith Johnson, my writing teacher from SUNY Albany told me all writers need to do, define their genre, carve out a place for themselves in the literary world and name it. I’m going to call it visceral writing.
As I dove into research for my sabbatical last year, I was confronted by two conflicting responses: 1) God, this article is hard to understand. I’ve gotten rusty; and, 2) This article is syntactically tortured and needlessly obtuse.
Case in point: “The ethics and efficacy of explicitly teaching disciplinary discourse conventions to undergraduate students has been hotly debated.” (17 words from an author who shall remain nameless.)
What the author is really saying is, “In composition studies, people hotly debate whether it would be more effective and ethical to make clear to undergraduates how writing conventions vary in each discipline. (26 words)
My version takes more words, but the meaning is more quickly grasped.
While academic language sometimes covers more ground, more precisely, with fewer words, that doesn’t make it more efficient to read. In fact, it makes it much more time consuming.
It sounds elitist for very good reason: It is. It creates and maintains an academic in crowd and an academic out crowd.
This kind of language may be partly responsible for America’s anti-intellectual culture. Of course, the larger reason for American anti-intellectualism can probably be traced all the way back to Puritan distrust of any book other than the Bible, and then forward through the rampant capitalism and consumerism that sprang up in Puritanism’s stead.
But getting back to academics. To be fair, sometimes philosophers use complex terms to denote entire pages or books of thought explained elsewhere in the field, so they are not always writing in tortured sentences just to be torture us. They are actually taking short cuts – having a quick dialogue with experts.
I’m certainly not advocating that everyone should write for fourth graders. It’s okay to write for specific audiences. It’s okay to use big words and long sentences.
But if academics want a lot of people to read them, they might want to brush up on style and try to meet their readers halfway.
Meanwhile, we might want to challenge ourselves to read above our reading level once in a while. I find that if I keep at it – whether reading insurance policies, building codes or legal contracts — my brain clicks into gear about halfway through the document, and I understand even if I don’t enjoy it.
*You wake up one morning and for no apparent reason, everything has changed. Your mind is caught in a dark loop, endlessly repeating that you have no friends, you’re ugly, you’re fat, your writing is worthless, you have been teaching twenty years only to become a disorganized, boring, overly complex and uneasy teacher. And it’s not all in your head, because there was that comment from an acquaintance, that shaming rejection from publisher, those 30 agents who passed on your novel that was supposed to be your resurrection, that sidelong look from a colleague, and those student evaluations. When you stand at a party, no one comes up to talk with you, or people’s eyes go dull when you talk because you are so shallow. And why aren’t you like Karen Russell who at 24 got a story published in Zoetrope and now has a MacArthur genius grant? Anger builds at all the people who wronged you in big and little ways. You find yourself going over this same, dark, messy ground for the umpteenth time despite years of therapy.
You know this isn’t real. Only four days ago, you were thinking you were a loving, fascinating, beautiful person, as good as any published writer.
You know you should clap your hands over your ears, get out of bed, walk up the mountain past the shadows that tear at you, whispering. This isn’t real, you say to yourself, stumbling forward, not real, not real, not real, not. But the knowing comes from some part of your mind that has no flesh, and the voices aren’t on the outside, they’re inside. They’re the very cast of your blood chemistry, the design of your atoms, so real, so real, so real, that you think you would rather die than fight this invisible battle again, this civil war that makes you seem self pitying, irresponsible, disorganized, irritable, and erratic to others. And maybe you are, maybe it’s all just a matter of will, and you are lazy, lazy, lazy. Will you ever be free? The only honorable thing to do is quit your job so that the healthy people who deserve it can have it, or kill yourself so that you don’t have to walk this walk again.
If you have chosen badly, your spouse tells you he or she is sick of your shit, but if you’ve chosen well, he smiles sadly when he sees the signs and stands back knowing you’ll figure it out. Later he cleans the house and does the food shopping to lighten your load.
The survivalist part of your brain tells you that you have to exercise and eat right, and people will tell you to take medication, and maybe you should, but they scare you, so you don’t. You push yourself outside, because in the end that is the thing that has always saved you. And as you walk you call the right friend, and she, instead of trying to talk you out of it, says, yes, that’s how it feels, and it’s hard. And then the tears come, and the two sides of you, the chemical and the rational talk, taking turns with each other and your friend. And you remember not to ever judge others again, because this is how it feels to be inside depression, and no one from the outside knows what it’s like. It looks like nothing. It sounds like a head cold.
A half hour later, after the walk, if that was the particular cast of your genetic dice today, you feel better, but jittery. Your brain feels like it has been wiped clean. You can’t quite remember which street your house is on, because it looks different somehow, the angle has shifted or the light, or you are seeing it from a different time in your life, a time kicked up by that sudden bout of depression. The words threw, through and thru don’t look right, and you know that you knew which was which only yesterday, but for now, you don’t. You swim back through the murk to reclaim your former self and hope others don’t notice. You remember that it’s important to be who you are even if only a fraction of the world wants it, that it may not be the right time for you to become a successful writer, but that you must carry the flag of who you are until that time comes, even if it comes after you die.
This is one of the places magic realism comes from.
*Note to my friends: Don’t worry, I wrote this over a year ago. Thanks to the anti-depressant duloxetine building on years of therapy, I’m fine. This really is just a rumination on one of the many ways that fantasy and magic realism represent a facet of reality.
In general, quibbling about categories and definitions annoys me. Categories are rarely consistent. Definitions rarely capture the whole thing. They are tools for grouping information to help us retain it, yet they can never contain the whole of what they point to. We shouldn’t mistake our finger for the moon, the Zen saying goes.
However, if categorization and definition helps us understand literature better, helps us to interact with it more deeply, I’m all for it. So even though I think magic realism and surrealism belong under the fantasy umbrella, and even though we are venturing into a Borgesian garden of forking paths here, it’s useful to ask, what is the difference between magic realism and fantasy?
Wait, what? Magic realism is a subset of fantasy? Well, the way I figure it, fantasy was the first form of literature. And by definition, fantasy is any literature in which “reality” (defined in western, white, agnostic culture as normal) is altered. Any literature that goes beyond the known, that externalizes the internal and unconscious reality, that inhabits the divine and sublime, in which the impossible and improbable happens, is fantasy.
But for some reason, my literary friends tend to relegate fantasy to the bad lit bin and accept magic realism as good. In fact the king of magic realism, Gabriel García Márquez, adamantly denied that he wrote fantasy: “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, as I said in an earlier post, anyone who has heard “a woman screaming in the forest and follow[ed] the sound into the mouth of a mountain lion” will find the origins of fantasy. Anyone who has spun around with beating heart toward that flicker in the peripheral vision knows where ghosts come from. The amygdala is a crude but lightning fast instrument. So I have to respectfully disagree with the king.
Author Jon Evans, in a great blog post for Tor.com “Magic Realism: Not Fantasy. Sorry,” says we should think of fantasy as a spectrum with “surreal fantasy” to the left and “systematic fantasy” on the right…
“One Hundred Years of Solitude occupies the far left; a little further in is Ben Okri’s Booker-winning The Famished Road. Midnight’s Children and Little, Big occupy the centre-left. The Dragon Waiting and Patricia McKillip are dead centre. Jonathan Strange is center-right. Julian May is way out on the right, as is, um…Steven Brust” (Evans).
Seems reasonable. So why was García Márquez so adamant that there is a difference—no, a complete divide– and why does he share the disdain for fantasy that we typically find in universities?
The answer lies in the question of what these books do with reality and what the impact is on us.
(For the faint of heart, quit here and read the rest tomorrow. It was devilishly hard to keep this short, and I didn’t succeed.)
Tsvetan Todorov, a literary theorist famous for his treatment of the fantastic, said that magic realism disrupts our sense of reality whereas fantasy creates another completely enclosed reality. So says Lucie Armitt, anyway, in her book, Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. Todorov claimed that fantasy “imposes absolute closure” and “implies complicity on the part of the readers” (Armitt 7). In other words, fantasy calls upon the reader to enter an unreal world and pretend that it is real. It seeks to make the unreal seem real and calls upon the reader to suspend his or her disbelief, as the old saying goes.
Evans agrees that what we typically think of as fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkein, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terry Brooks) operates by certain rules. In it, the supernatural is regarded with amazement – it’s a stark contrast to what we see as reality. Magic is “systematic,” he says.
This would explain many academics’ disdain for fantasy –because they see it as too tidy, too predictable, too comforting. Literature is supposed to make you think and grow. How can we do that if we have absolute closure? More on this later in some other blog entry.
Let’s get back to magic realism, which Todorov thinks of as a subset of the “literary fantastic” along with surrealism. In contrast to fantasy, the literary fantastic has a “disruptive impulse” and “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). According to this definition, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is an example of the literary fantastic: did she 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? Did imagination save her or kill her?However, where does this put Kafka’s story, “The Metamorphosis” in which Gregory Samsa wakes up to find he is a giant insect? We are never meant to believe that he is simply imagining this. Likewise, in Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, there are no “competing readings of the text… revolving around two choices, the psychological or the supernatural” (Armitt 8).
Still – as Jon Evans says in his blog post, this literature “draws from the well” of political disruption, violence and chaos, where the “surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational.”
Another attribute of magic realism is that supernatural events are described with “a brick face” according to Garcia Marquez (quoted in Writer’s Almanac). The effect on the reader is that our sense of reality is constantly disrupted. We aren’t allowed to escape into another world that is orderly and consistent. We are left straddling many worlds, teetering back and forth uneasily between.
Karl Kroeber echoes this idea: “surrealism is a subversion of meaning, fantasy is a construction of meaning” (quoted in Le Guin). Though I disagree with him when he says that “Surrealism subverts in order to destroy, fantasy subverts in order to rebuild.” The point of the “disruption” or “destruction” of surrealism is, ultimately, to rebuild. Surrealists are not sadists.
Complicating 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 Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko write about things that most Caucasian Americans would call unreal, but which are very real to them.
So where does this put Aimee Bender and Karen Russell? Both of them come from the U.S. presumably where peace and (mostly) good order rule. Bender writes both kinds of stories: ones that take place in a recognizable reality and then diverge from it in “Tiger Mending” and ones that start in fairytale land and stay there in “Devourings.” She plays at both ends of the spectrum. So does Amber Sparks, a writer who I hope will soon gain a wider audience. Karen Russell belongs on the left end of the spectrum with her wrinkled old vampire who sits in the lemon grove hardly noticed by tourists and her Japanese women who turn into human silk worms.
I’ve raised more questions here than answers. And that’s the point. Armed with questions we become better readers.
Armitt, Lucie. Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.
Bender, Aimee. The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013.
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.