Rhetorics of Best American Fantasy

Last winter I wrote about the Stephen King-edited volume of Best American Short Stories, and more generally about the discussion that that anthology, and King's introduction to it, kick-started about the future and viability of the short form, a discussion which was enhanced within genre circles by Jeff VanderMeer's thoughts on editing, with wife Ann, the first volume of a new series from Prime, Best American Fantasy (the second volume of which is forthcoming; table of contents here). After my post went up, Jeff e-mailed me and kindly offered to send me a copy of Best American Fantasy, mischievously noting that some in-genre reviewers had found it a hard slog (for a mixed but overall positive review, see Gwyneth Jones at Strange Horizons).

The first volume in a projected series of anthologies, and especially a best-of-year series, of which there is a glut, is essentially a statement of intent. The VanderMeers, and series editor Matthew Cheney, seem almost to be girding themselves for battle in their introductions to the anthology. Does fantasy, Cheney writes, mean
Swords and dragons? Dreams and portents? Nonsense? Does fantasy have to include magic, or can it simply hint at strangeness? Is it a genre or a lens? Is it subject or object? Can it live within the structure of a story, or must it emanate from the content? Where does fiction end and fantasy begin?
The VanderMeers are even more forceful in their introduction, seemingly warning off the wrong sort of reader:
What you will not find is a set definition of "fantasy." If you enter into reading this volume eager for such a definition or searching for the fantastical event that you believe should trigger the use of the term, you will overlook the many other pleasures that await you. These are the same pleasures you can find in non-fantastical stories: deep characterization, thematic resonance, clever plots, unique situations, pitch-perfect dialogue, enervating humor, and luminous settings. The extraordinary depth of imagination in the best stories affects not merely their content but their form, the form shaping the content, until we realize the two are not separate, that they are, in the best writing, united by the same imaginative act.
The definitional argument, which crops up so often with regards to SF that anyone who's been in fandom for longer than a few years has come to dread it, is less common when it comes to fantasy. And when it does crop up, it seems to still be in its infancy, still asking the question 'is X fantasy?', rather than the more advances stages at which its SFnal equivalent currently hovers. (What are the characteristics of SF? What are its goals?) See, for example, Niall Harrison at Torque Control just yesterday, kick-starting an argument over whether having a dead narrator means that a work of fiction is a fantasy. (To which I say no, or at least, as Niall himself concedes, that it may be possible to say that a dead narrator makes a work fantastic but that this is probably not be the most useful or informative way of discussing the work in question.)

It's the bi-polar nature of the fantasy genre, I suspect, that discourages in-depth discussions of its definition. One the one hand, we have a rigid and restrictive concept of fantasy familiar from most bookstores shelves--Tolkien-derived, and featuring a relatively limited palette of character types, settings, and tropes. There's a lot of fine work to be found within this subset of fantasy, but its stiffness and conservatism can mean that what gets called avant-garde and boundary-pushing from within it can seem, from a distance, a little staid. I suspect that to an outsider looking in, the qualitative differences between the kind of fantasy China Miéville writes and the kind that Robert Jordan wrote are easy to miss. This is not to put down Miéville's fine and intelligent novels, nor the very real innovations within 'traditional' fantasy that he is in large part responsible for, but there's no denying that he is writing very much within his subgenre.

At the other end of the scale, we have a fantasy as a catch-all term for anything counter-factual or tinged with unreality. As an example of this approach, the VanderMeers quote from Carol Bly's The Passionate, Accurate Story a hypothetical situation in which a little girl announces to her parents that a family of bears has moved next door. In a naturalistic story, the parents assume that the girl is lying or making things up. In a fantastic one, they take her words at face value. This strikes me as the flip side of the observation made by Michael Chabon in his introduction to McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, which I quoted from in my Best American Short Stories piece, that the commonly accepted definition of short story, within literary circles, has come to mean a "contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." If fiction, per Chabon, has been reduced in definition to stories that are naturalistic, plotless, and focused on mundane details familiar to their readers from their own lives, then everything else--historical fiction, comedies, adventures, romances, melodramas--must be fantasy.

It should come as no surprise that I find neither definition particularly appealing or satisfactory. And, more importantly, as a veteran of one too many SFnal definitional arguments I've long ago imbibed the truism that, when seeking to define a genre, description, rather than prescription, is the key. But even then fantasy proves an elusive specimen. In discussions of the definition of science fiction, one often finds an attitude of equal-but-separate taken towards the genre's tropes and its themes. It's how novels like The Handmaid's Tale, The Carhullan Army, and Never Let Me Go can be categorized as science fiction even though the former two are only interested in the future as a purposefully exaggerated cautionary tale about the possible consequences of a present-day evil, and the latter not at all, and how novels like Pattern Recognition and The Baroque Cycle can be obviously SFnal despite taking place in the recent or distant past. It's this distinction, I believe, that Cheney is referring to when he asks whether fantasy is a subject or an object, but this is no less manageable a question. What are the tropes of fantasy? What are its central themes and questions?

Farah Mendlesohn has just recently published a book, Rhetorics of Fantasy, which moves the discussion even further into the descriptive realm. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but several reviews and commentaries have noted Mendlesohn's central argument, a taxonomy of fantasy--a division of the genre into four types. Immersive fantasy takes place completely in an alternate, counterfactual world (Perdido Street Station). Intrusive fantasy features the fantastic impinging on the mundane (War for the Oaks). Portal/Quest fantasy, as its name implies, takes a mundane individual into a fantastic world (Un Lun Dun). Liminal fantasy posits a border realm between reality and unreality, across which individuals from both sides cross and influence each other (Lud-in-the-Mist).

My reason for taking a gigantic detour through the fantasy definitional argument before finally coming back around to the contents of Best American Fantasy is that, even with Cheney and the VanderMeers' introductions (and Jeff's needling e-mail) notwithstanding, it is impossible to crack open this volume without the question of the definition of fantasy being prominent in one's mind. Everything about Best American Fantasy--right down to its design and layout, which are all but identical to those of Best American Short Stories--demands it. It's an anthology that screams 'this is not your Datlow, Link, & Grant's best-of-year collection,' as well as, depending on your reading predilections, either 'help! Pretentious literary-genre fans appropriating everything non-mimetic in sight!' or 'finally! Salvation from yet another third-rate Tolkien ripoff!' (Myself, I had both reactions in more or less equal amounts.) For all that Cheney and VanderMeer's introductions caution against it, it is only natural, while reading Best American Fantasy, to keep an eye out for their personal definition--or perhaps preferred variety--of fantasy.

Farah Mendlesohn's taxonomy seems sensible and exhaustive, but it is nevertheless designed to describe traditional, in-genre fantasy, and it was therefore not very surprising to discover how few of the stories in Best American Fantasy fit comfortably within one of her four categories. What was surprising, however, was the fact that so many of the selections in the anthology seemed to fall into the same gap between them. Many, and perhaps most, of the stories in Best American Fantasy can be described as a cross between what Mendlesohn describes as Immersive and Intrusive fantasy. These stories take place in worlds very similar to our own, into which the fantastic emerges, only to be treated as something matter-of-fact. These are stories, in other words, in which Dad asks 'well, what kind of car do the bears drive?' and then asks Mom to pass the potatoes and muses the they ought to invite Mr. and Mrs. Bear for dinner. Stories that achieve their effect by creating a single incongruity between the way their characters view the universe and the way their readers do.  (EDIT: in the comments, Farah points out that my presentation of her categories is incomplete, and that the type of fantasy described here is covered by and discussed in the liminal fantasy chapter of Rhetorics of Fantasy.)

Tony D'Souza's "The Man Who Married a Tree," a lovely piece and my favorite in the anthology, does exactly what it says on the tin. The title character is a loner, a veteran who drifts into town, gets into a bit of trouble, straightens out, and marries a tree. The story is narrated by outsiders who observed the relationship--everyone from the local sheriff to the brook alongside which the two met--most of whom regard it with a mixture of distaste and resignation.
Even so, when the wedding was first getting rumored, some of the womenfolk got their feathers up. They complained about it at the Elks, at the Eagles. They said, "Now every Tom, Dick, and Harry is going to think he can up and run off with a tree." We just shrugged our shoulders and looked at one another over our beers. Even if in our hearts of hearts we wanted to, who's to say there was a tree out there for us? For a while after that, you'd hear about this fella or that going off for a long walk in the woods, about how his wife or girlfriend had marched out there to haul him back in. But as far as actually marrying a tree? Time went by and no one else ever did.
It's an odd thing, to be sure, but not, in the world of D'Souza's story, which otherwise completely resembles our own, an impossible thing. At first it is tempting to read "The Man Who Married a Tree" as an allegory--the cross-species marriage standing in for gay marriage, a mixed-race marriage, or even (given the townspeople's old-fashioned views) a marriage between a local and an outsider--but just as one of these interpretations begins to seem right, D'Souza's squirms out of it. In the end there is simply no avoiding the fact that he's told a story about a man who married a tree.

Meghan McCarron's "The Flying Woman" is another story that wears its fantastic conceit on its mundane sleeve. Once again, the title character lives an ordinary life in an ordinary world. One day in a school assembly, we're told, she simply began to float, and then fell to the ground and broke her back. Now she floats around with a collapsible wheelchair strapped to her back, and by day works as a supermarket checkout girl. The narrator is her best friend, and she tells us how the flying woman discovered her ability and developed it, and what kind of life she lives (at one point, she dates a cyclist, and flies above him to warn him of upcoming road hazards). Kelly Link's "Origin Story" treads similar ground. Its protagonist is another flying woman, the girlfriend of a superhero who works odd jobs and has trouble getting a babysitter. Both stories are well done, but I'm going to commit sacrilege and say that I prefer the McCarron, Link's fondness for non-sequiturs having crossed just over that invisible line into smugness this time around. McCarron's story, though driven by the same matter-of-factness that sustains "Origin Story," as well as much of Link's fiction and so many other stories of this variety in Best American Fantasy, has more heart.

Sumanth Prabhaker's "A Hard Truth About Waste Management" is a darkly comic story about a family who find a novel way of getting around strict restrictions on garbage disposal. After first hiding garbage around the house and even in their food ("The father finally put this diet to a stop when he noticed a Christmas card stuck inside a leftover flan.") they take to flushing it down the toilet, which they find so satisfying that it becomes a popular pastime. The impression that we're reading a nonsensical farce, whose author is deliberately avoiding any tangible connection to reality even as he purports to set his story in something quite like it, is sustained until the last few paragraphs, when the story, almost in an instant, turns serious and weighty, and leaves a palpable impression in the readers' minds. This is not to say that in those final sentences, Prabhaker gives the readers a decoder ring--the story remains nonsensical and counterfactual--but he ties its fantastic elements, however loosely, to real life. There's a similar, and similarly faintly acknowledged, weightiness to Tyler Smith's "A Troop [Sic] of Baboons," in which a family living in South Africa are driven from their house by invading baboons--who take over it in order to stage theatrical productions.

Roughly half of the stories in Best American Fantasy could be described as taking place in this sort of perverted and unremarked upon normalcy, and the rest are a mix of other styles and approaches. A few are clearly science fiction: Elizabeth Hand's "The Saffron Gatherers," Geoffrey A. Landis's "Lazy Taekos"*, Brian Evenson's "An Accounting." One--"The Last Corpse Collector" by Ramola D.--isn't even, in any measurable way, a genre piece. "The Ledge" by Austin Bunn and "The Warehouse of Saints" by Robin Hemley are historical pieces (the past being so much hospitable towards the unreal than the present) in which the characters' superstitions take flesh (in the former case) or are proven false (in the latter).

Sarah Monette's "Draco Campestris" and Nicole Kornher-Stace's "Pieces of Scheherazade" are arguably the closest the collection comes to old-fashioned, commercial fantasy, in that in both stories there is a sense that the authors have put a great deal of work into creating a fantastic universe which incorporates elements familiar from the clearly delineated pool of traditional fantasy tropes. Monette's piece in particular stresses her imaginary world's construction to the exclusion of all other considerations, including plot and character. It is a series of glimpses into the inner workings of a museum (specifically the dragon gallery) in a fantasy world, through which we gain intimations of political upheavals and simmering rebellion. Kornher-Stace, meanwhile, as the title of her story suggests, revisits the One Thousand and One Nights. It would be accurate to say that she tells the story from Scheherazade's perspective, but at the same time also a vast oversimplification, as her narrative, like Monette's, flits back and forth within the character's, in the process considering the power of fiction and taking a more jaundiced view of it than the one suggested by the original tale.

If Monette and Kornher-Stace deliver traditional genre fantasy--or at least as close as one gets to it in Best American Fantasy--the volume's most traditional narratives come from Kevin Brockmeier with "A Fable With Slips of White Paper Spilling From the Pockets" and Nik Houser with "First Kisses From Beyond the Grave." In Brockmeier's story, a man buys God's overcoat at a thrift store, in whose pockets there constantly appear slips of paper with people's prayers written on. Though it bears some resemblance to the normalized abnormality that dominates Best American Fantasy, Brockmeier and his protagonist acknowledge the oddness of what has happened, and are only matter-of-fact about what happens next. Houser's story is the most traditional piece in the anthology, falling squarely in Mendlesohn's Portal/Quest category, and funnily enough by the time one gets to it the attitude that the fantastic is something that even real-world characters ought to take in their stride has become so pervasive that when its protagonist, a teenager who has mistakenly been transferred to a high school for children in purgatory, feels terror and disbelief at his predicament, he seems almost uncouth--Jeez, kid, don't you know what kind of story you're in? (It doesn't help that both the story and the writing are on the predictable side, and that Houser takes far too long to move the plot along to its conclusion.)

Though it ultimately features a broad selection of approaches to the fantastic, one comes away from Best American Fantasy with the sense that one--the Link-ian, surreal, one--has been prioritized, not only because of its numerical prominence but because most of the memorable stories in the anthology, for better and worse, belong to it. Best American Fantasy is not an exciting collection--I probably felt indifferent or vaguely positive towards more stories than I either liked or hated--but when it managed to excite either my vehement approval or my vehement disdain** it did so through one particular approach to the genre.

This is not, I think, a bad thing. Though it is obviously a good and necessary approach for anyone who doesn't want to become mired in a superficial and over-literal definition of the genre, there's something missing from the VanderMeers' broad-minded and all-inclusive assertion that the pleasures of fantasy can be "the same pleasures you can find in non-fantastical stories." Yes, it's true that fantasy can feature competent, adventurous, and even experimental writing, that it doesn't have to prioritize plot or plot-driven storytelling, that it can have literary qualities, but where, in all of this, is the fantasy? The VanderMeers make much of the importance of imagination, but it seems to me that imagination is a prerequisite to any act of storytelling. Even ponderous, plotless mood pieces about unhappily married, middle-aged insurance adjusters contemplating infidelity are, in the end, acts of imagination. What is it that sets the good, literary, experimental stories the VanderMeer's selected apart from non-fantastic stories with the same qualities?

As I said at the beginning of this piece, the first volume in an anthology series is a statement of intent. To my mind, this statement is almost more important than the overall quality of the resulting volume (which, just to be clear, is good but not stellar--there are several stories I liked, and one, the D'Souza, that I absolutely adored--though it is pretty much a given with such projects that only a rare few will walk away from them wholly satisfied). Best American Fantasy makes that statement. It lays out the kind of fantasy the series, or at least Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (who remain as editors for the second volume; Kevin Brockmeier has been announced as guest editor for Best American Fantasy 2009) are interested in--perhaps the kind of fantasy they think of as fantasy. Not everyone will agree with that definition, and even those that do won't love every story in the style the anthology favors, but so long as the series and its editors are honest and upfront about the kind of fiction they're serving up, I don't see this as a problem. Going by its first volume, Best American Fantasy offers up an interesting alternative to the more traditional and familiar best-of-year fantasy collections. Perhaps more importantly, it acts as an additional point of view in the ongoing, and now apparently strengthening, debate on what, exactly, fantasy is.

* This story, presumably, made it into the collection because it is told in the style of a fairy tale and within the structure of one--the title character, though living in the future and in the possession of gene-modification and holographic technology, is trying to win his beloved from a stepfather who has set him a series of impossible tasks--but if that's the case then why isn't Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" on the table of contents for Best American Fantasy 2008?

** The very worst piece in Best American Fantasy being Ann Stapleton's "The Chinese Boy." In saying this I am no doubt causing Cheney and the VanderMeers palpitations, as they speak highly of this piece in both their introductions and later blog posts, referring most particularly to the beauty of Stapleton's prose. I found her sentences overworked--quite consciously so, in fact--and, in what is a rare occurrence for me, couldn't even bring myself to finish the story. I was also aggravated by Daniel Coudriet's "Geese" and E.M. Schorb's "An Experiment in Governance," two short-shorts which, regardless of where one stands on their genre, are not actually stories.


Anonymous said…
"These stories take place in worlds very similar to our own, into which the fantastic emerges, only to be treated as something matter-of-fact."

Sounds awfully like magic realism to me, but since you don't mention it I guess there's a distinction I'm not seeing (I haven't seen the collection, obviously). Any comments?
Magical realism might work, though I tend to associate it with South American writers, whereas the stories in Best American Fantasy (the Link and D'Souza in particular) are set in North America and deal with characters whose culture is North American. Another important difference is that magical realist stories, though nominally set in the real world, tend to imbue that world with a sense of the fantastic and unreal. Their reality is often wondrous even before wonder infects it. The stories in Best American Fantasy take the opposite approach. They stress the ordinariness - the shabbiness, even, in some cases - of their settings, and extend that ordinariness even to the extraordinary. Still, that's an interesting observation, and one I hadn't considered.
Anonymous said…
Douglas Adams once said that fantasy is the the one genre (he actually treated it as a sub-genre of science-fiction, I think) he finds most annoying, because it describes things that never happened, and never will happen. I suppose that's the reason why I personally prefer the fantasy that Mendlesohn defined as "Immersive", or at least "Portal" - it's easier for me to accept fantastic elements as part of a system that has a logic of its own, rather than having them planted in a real world where - as you noted - they tend to make no sense. The problem I have with many fantasy stories that take place in the "real world" is that the writers seem to aim at being weird for weirdness sake. This kind of writing just doesn't appeal to me.
But coming to think of it - doesn't the most popular kind of fantasy today, outside literature, take place in the real world? Super-Hero movies become blockbusters on a regular basis. And what about any average action film, where gravity and physics are optional - isn't it as "intrusive" fantasy as any story about a floating girl?
The problem with defining fantasy, is the same problem in defining any genre - a genre always carries certain elements that repeat themselves, make the readers expect certain things. Critics often argue that readers react negatively to breaking these expectations, because they are conservative and afraid of change. Maybe, but I think there's another reason - very often, when breaking expectations, things just aren't as fun as they used to be (a point, I think, touched in the review).
Personal anecdote: in my current thesis research, I'm involved in trying to define animation (not a genre, but close enough example). One member of my comittee, who is a leading expert in the field, said she found the idea "weird" - after all, no one ever tried to define what "live action" is.
Not that this criticism made me give up, but it did make me work harder on finding a good answer.
Anonymous said…
I was about to push Kelly Link as magic(al) realist, but the Jelly Ink page for "Magic for Beginners" does it for me: "call it kitchen-sink magical realism".

The geographical distinction has always slightly irritated me: why should a continent get dibs on such an evocative name? On the other hand the "direction of wonder" (ordinariness infecting wonderous events or wonderous events infecting an already wonderous reality) is a nice distinction.

The magic realism I've read often has a very visual quality: bright vivid colours, sparkles and so on. Not much grime. That seems to fit.
Farah said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Farah said…
Please don't summarise a book you haven't read. If you had read it you would realise that the material you describe below is discussed exhaustively in the liminal fantasy chapter. If you would like a review copy, I can arrange for one to be sent to you.

"FMany, and perhaps most, of the stories in Best American Fantasy can be described as a cross between what Mendlesohn describes as Immersive and Intrusive fantasy. These stories take place in worlds very similar to our own, into which the fantastic emerges, only to be treated as something matter-of-fact. These are stories, in other words, in which Dad asks 'well, what kind of car do the bears drive?' and then asks Mom to pass the potatoes and muses the they ought to invite Mr. and Mrs. Bear for dinner. Stories that achieve their effect by creating a single incongruity between the way their characters view the universe and the way their readers do"
Sorry, Farah, I didn't mean to misrepresent your work. I would certainly like a copy of Rhetorics of Fantasy, if it's not too much trouble.
Farah said…
Send me your address to farah dot sf at gmail.com.

I'd appreciate if you woudl simply take down that comment about a cross between immersive and intrusive. I'm actually really specific about these kinds of stories (of which a really good example is Joan Aiken's "But It's Tuesday" and I really don't want people citing what you have written *as if* it is an extrapolation from my work, when my work addresses this.
Anonymous said…
Confining magical realism to South America is understandable but may be a little out of step with reality. Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, for example, is a thoroughly American novel that is widely seen as magical realism as opposed to genre fantasy.

A long time ago I read David Brin saying that SF is forward-looking and optimistic about progress while fantasy looks to the past and assumes technology and progress aren't taking us anywhere different. This division was intended to get Lord of the Rings and Star Wars on the same side of the line (i.e. not the side with Asimov) but predates Mieville, Link, etc.

It may not be quite what Brin meant, but these days I think of his distinction as rational versus irrational. A lot of traditional fantasy is written in a world with rules different from our own, but rules nonetheless: laws of magic (or whatever) that can be observed and acted upon. That brings it very close to science fiction. But that's not evident in Mieville...his world has scientists of magic attempting to understand their world in a rationalist way but their attempts to control their environment fail in the face of supernatural forces. But then, it wasn't true of Tolkien, either, whose magic was of divine (or diabolical) origins and therefore couldn't be quantified or evaluated. So maybe what we are seeing from the people writing "new" fantasy is just a return to the old style with a secular veneer.

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