War of All Against All: Realism vs Fabulism? Er, No…

J.M. McDermott argues that the non-realistic, near-fantastical approach to crisis in literary fiction bothers him, whereas the non-realistic, near-fantastical approach to crisis in fantasy doesn’t bother him. Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen drinks a little bit of the Kool-Aid by trying to find examples of literary fiction that don’t fall into this “trap”.

I find this discussion bizarre, to be honest. I don’t automatically assume that my life is like everyone else’s life, or that everyone’s reaction to stimuli and trauma falls roughly within the same narrow spectrum of reaction. And there is much that each of us keeps hidden.

But then, I reject the term “literary” fiction entirely as nonsensical and meaningless, just as I find “genre” meaningless. I have to use them sometimes because of common understandings of the terms, but that doesn’t make them any more meaningful. So, the discussion becomes even more incomprehensible to me in that context. Literature is not a binary construction. No one text is exactly like any other fictional text. Writers who interest me have unique ways of looking at the world, and some may use fantastical elements and some may not. Some may use elements of “realism” and some may use “hyper-realism” and some may eschew realism altogether. A hard SF writer may seem mimetic to me in his or her approaches just as a “literary” writer whose subject is contemporary relationships, and who uses no element of fantasy, may seem to me a fabulist.

The act of committing fantasy in a story or novel no more automatically makes that writer a fabulist than makes a unicorn of an accountant who reports hearing the voices of angels.

In an unintentional footnote to aspects of these first two posts, Matt Cheney tackles mimetic fiction.

I am now waiting for my friend Hal Duncan’s five-thousand-word post that will bind them and rule them all.

Of course, I am just stirring up trouble here. I’m mixing literary and realist, fabulist and genre. Just call me contrary. Besides, it all seems like a Mad Hatter’s tea party anyway.


  1. Nick Mamatas says

    Alice Hoffman’s issue with the review was simply that it was negative and that it contained “spoilers.” That has little to do with the issue of the fantastic or, for that matter, literary fiction. Certainly a concern with plot and some twist that might ruin the book if known about beforehand is one of the major concerns of commercial fiction. Further, Hoffman is likely best known as a fantastic (Practical Magic is likely her best-known book.)

    Franzen, like many literary types, is very wary of Oprah Winfrey. I mentioned that about 120 comments ago. Again, nothing to do with the fantastic — indeed, Franzen traffics in SF/F himself a bit, especially in The Corrections!

    Basically, Bryan the two examples you gave actually support my positions, not yours. Neither of these are examples of strict literary realists pooh-poohing or dismissing the fantastic or genre at all.

    As far as the repeated homophobic slams within science fiction fandom, it is perhaps no surprise that many nerdy kids like SF and many nerdy kids who are boys are also frequently harassed and teased with homophobic slurs. I see the decades of gay panic simply as the work of arrested adolescents who wish to get in a little bullying of their own now that they are Kings of the Shitheap.

  2. says


    I used them as examples of the divide in literary acknowledgment. Both are generally shelved in the literary section, and both have reacted in some dismay to being placed in lower company – Franzen in terms of fellow Oprah books (who he outright scorned), and Hoffman in terms of a low reviewer (not one of the great writers who once reviewed her, as she stated). I think it shows that underlying value judgments are alive and well. Writers overtly aware of how they’re classified… and by who. It’s operating on these ideas of what is “literary”, what has value. As I said before, there’s different responses. You can embrace a counter-aesthetic, you can claim the literary label for yourself (Hoffman), you can break boundaries… But these all seem to come into play because of what seems to be real valuations within the culture. Lots of tension, lots of assertion and counter-assertion. I was going to say I don’t see how you can put it all on one side, and leave the other blameless… except you said you did think there certainly was dismissal. And that’s what I’m getting at. Obviously we disagree on the intensity of that dismissal, and how much of a causal factor that is in certain responses.

    As for the homophobia in fandom… I wouldn’t presume to know enough to respond on that. But isn’t there a danger in conflating the aesthetic conflicts with the social conflicts? I mean, if there is a homophobic and bullying response, isn’t it possible that this is only tangentially related to the aesthetic concerns? I mean, this seems like a whole new topic to me… but one I’m not very familiar with. It’s why I was curious about demographics, about how various social beliefs might coincide with various aesthetic ones. So, if you see strong connections between the two, lay it on me. I’d be very interested to hear how you think these strong genre responses are shaped if you discount any influence from the literary side. You’re suggesting a sort of social inadequacy theory, if I get you right (“attracts the socially inadequate”, “arrested adolescents”). But how does it develop? If you discount the reprisal element, what feeds the responses that you suggest are so vehement? And are those responses more socially oriented or literature oriented?

    Curious to hear what you say, Nick. I’ve been enjoying this conversation. Can’t say you’ve convinced me, but certainly lots of interesting food for thought.

  3. says

    G.Arthur Brown: Actually, the very reason I generally avoid bookstores is the sections. The boring slickness of the whole thing. The certainty that I will find only what I expected to find.

    This idea of constantly breaking things down is a modern sickness. Everytime I stumble on the msn homepage or Yahoo I am assaulted by it: The 10 best haircuts. How to give your hubby a hard on in 5 minutes. 6 ways to eat an orange.

    People are so blind and insecure that they need to feel like they belong. That they have likes which fit them into a model that seems satisfactory to their TV numbed brains.

    Corporate nitwits have taken books and art and globalised them, cleansed them of any stench of anarchy that might have made them beautiful so they can afford to drive around in BMW 4 wheel drives and eat mahi mahi burritos.

    Take away the labels and yes you take away a lot of the profits. And certain illiterate folks might get lost. But the world would be a . . .

  4. Nick Mamatas says

    Hoffman is shelved in a number of places, especially as she has written a number of children’s books. Her complaints about the Boston Globe were many and varied — that the reviewer wasn’t famous (not that she was “low”) was the least of them. The spoiler thing, again a hallmark of commercial/genre fiction, was the largest complaint.

    At any rate, Roberta Silman isn’t any lower than Hoffman anyway, as she has gotten the grants, the publications in the major slicks and lit journals, etc.

    As far as the conflation of the aesthetic and the social, what else is new? The two-party system and the made-much-of red/blue state divide is largely aesthetic and only secondarily actually political. One of the major complaints of the “sniveling fagot” brigade is non-“transparent” fiction. That is, fiction which is often called by a feminized, homosexualized adjective:


    What feeds the responses in the SF world is fandom, which is unique to it. Crime, romance, and the other popular genres certainly sell more books than the SF segment, but only SF has a highly organized decades-old fandom, and a fandom which remains on the paths to eventual prodom. In SF, social misfits get to create their own bohemia with its own tummlers and opinion leaders and central committee members etc etc etc. It’s a social hothouse that depends partially on us-vs-them.

    The sniveling fagots versus the lovers of the universe and wonder.
    The real authors of alternative history verses pretenders like Philip Roth who didn’t write a correct alt. history.
    The real writers, who are craftsmen, versus the beret-wearing “artistes” (I’ve written about this divide before)
    The real audience who reads for “a good story” versus the people who only read books to put on airs and feel superior.

    Plenty of us v. them right in this thread, actually.

  5. says

    To be clear, I personally didn’t think Silman was “low” – but I certainly think Hoffman did, even if she wasn’t right. It seemed a complaint against grouping, about where she was placed – about the value being assigned to her work. She was more literary and valuable than that, and so deserved a more recognized literary evaluator. Because she had other problems with the review doesn’t dismiss this one, I think.

    Anyway, I found your fandom breakdown interesting. So you’re suggesting that the responses are derived from the nature of the fandom’s internalized power structure? Bashing outward forms is a way of staking internal territory and prestige, a way of delineating aesthetics that properly orders fandom along certain lines? I mean, I can see that in a way, but it seems too large for what breaks down, in that sense, as a sort of logical manipulation. How does that explain the vehemence that so worries you? It seems to provide even less reason for that extreme anger that crops up. I guess I’m just trying to understand the dynamic, and it doesn’t seem clear. Certainly it seems there’s an element of this at play, but it doesn’t seem to provide a root, a sense of propulsion that would drive these actions.

    I found the post you linked to interesting, though I would have interpreted Jaylake’s garret comment quite differently. I’ve known a lot of writers who have bought into the garret as a myth. They have this romantic ideal that to be a good writer they have to be poor, they have to live in a garret. They might have a huge trust fund, but to write they have to go live cheap and poor in paris and hang out in bistros. It’s about denying who they are and trying to adopt this romantic ideal of “writer”. Which is, in my opinion, a silly myth. Which is not an attempt to deny that it’s perfectly fine to live and write cheaply in a garret if that’s what you have. Good writing isn’t bound by any socioeconomic or cultural status. So I don’t think that garret comment is an attempt at socio-economic compaction and the enforcement of middle-class ideals, but rather just pointing out the pretense of the garret ideal as a necessity. It’s just as easy to write in a suburban office or a garret or a Manhattan penthouse.

    The feminine/masculine/homophobic construction is interesting, though. Do you see it as a construct of manipulation, of political control, or merely as the manifestation of underlying social views? Or both?

  6. Nick Mamatas says

    Bryan, I think your strong belief in your premise is literally warping your conception of of what Hoffman actually said. It was an old variation on “critics are failed writers” and had nothing to do with who was low and who was high. Really, what you are saying happened just didn’t.

    The same with the beret/garret thing. I’ve been working in publishing on all levels — from salesperson and warehouse clerk to senior editor — for over a decade. I’ve worked with dozens of magazines, ten publishers, etc. I’ve taught at writing centers, hold an MFA, have been a visiting writer art MFA programs, and will be teaching at one starting next month. I’ve published far outside genre circles too — experimental fiction, mainstream journalism, etc etc.

    The number of writers or even aspiring writers I’ve met over the past dozen years who can be described as holding a “romantic ideal” of the garret I can count on one hand. For the most part, as far as I can tell—and frankly there are few people who can tell better than I in this discussion or within SF—the garret isn’t the myth, the poncy wannabe bohemian pretending to write and spending all his time in cafes and garrets is the myth. It’s specifically a bete noire, something to rail against and to position one’s own self against. It is an invisible, nearly non-existent enemy.

    Small, dysfunctional sub and countercultures often depend partially on such “enemies” for social coherence. The less the enemy actually exists, the MORE vehemence is necessary in order to keep people hepped up and worried. That’s how betes noire work, after all.

    As far as the conception of “flowery” language as homosexual or feminized, I suppose the root is simply that the novel form emerged out of the middle class and increasing leisure time for middle-class women. We certainly don’t encourage boys or men to read or write in the US or UK.

  7. says

    Maybe our experiences are simply different. I also have a few creative writing degrees, have worked as an editor, own a bookstore, etc, etc, and I’ve met lots of young writers with just such a conception of the artist, some of whom also fall in with the drink and drugs mythology too. And lots of them don’t actually write much, and are more caught up with the idea of being a writer than with actually writing. Certainly they’re not uncommon, in my experience. I went to school with a bunch, I see them online, I talk with them in my store. Now, some of these may get over these hangups, and get to some actual writing. But I’ve seen many who at least pass through a stage of this, caught up with an ideal of writerhood.

    Now, I’m not claiming it’s extensive, or a majority, or that masses of young writers are tooling up with these false conceptions in mind. But at the same time they are most definitely out there. A minority, perhaps, but they certainly exist. So to call them “an invisible, nearly non-existent enemy” seems somewhat dismissive. I mean, yes, others can use this idea to push their own political agenda, “to keep people hepped up and worried”, as you say. But that fact doesn’t necessarily mean that the minority doesn’t exist, nor that it’s unacceptable to speak to that minority. I think you can speak to that minority about that myth without promulgating a counterculture agenda, without using some sort of manipulative hysteria. They exist quite easily side by side.

    Frankly, I find it a little puzzling you haven’t met more of these people. Are you really saying all the writers (particularly young writers) you meet are all serious, dedicated and pragmatic writers not caught up with the images and cultural stereotypes of the writer persona? Really? That, to me, is a little mind-boggling. It seems kind of foreign to my experience.

  8. says

    “We certainly don’t encourage boys or men to read or write in the US or UK.”

    Well, we sure as frick don’t encourage women to write. And the other strange part of the schemata – while women are ‘supposed’ to read, I find they still tend to read more male authors than female. Especially when you get into the more ‘academic’ readers. I dated a girl briefly who was quick to tout Murakami, Amis, and Alexia as great writers that I should be reading. She then lamented institutionalized sexism (somehow in every aspect of life except literature), while ignoring every female author I mentioned being any good.

  9. Nick Mamatas says

    Are you really saying all the writers (particularly young writers) you meet are all serious, dedicated and pragmatic writers not caught up with the images and cultural stereotypes of the writer persona? Really?

    No, I’m saying that the romantic ideal of the garret and the beret and the cafe is rare. There are plenty of ways to be flighty, to be undisciplined, and to have one’s head in the clouds without being a pre-war bohemian transplanted in time.

    Most of the flighty weirdo writers I’ve encountered are interested either in Hollywood or the New Age. They’re not reading Henry Miller or Knut Hamsen or the other writers that did inform the romantic vision of the writer prior to the dominance of television. None of them are at all interested in the garret or suffering for their art or doing anything other than changing the names in either Harry Potter or The Secret and making their zillion dollars.

  10. Nick Mamatas says

    Well, we sure as frick don’t encourage women to write.

    Sure we do. Just not “well” and not “important” stuff. Thus romance, chicklit, and other genres that surely have their own virtuosos but are denigrated and massified just as SF is. (Well, except that these sections of the publishing industry have a much larger audience than puny little SF.) And when they do write publishing tries to sexualize them greatly, which is another example of institutional sexism, of course. The domestic scale versus the social scale has ever been a gender split.

  11. says


    I’ve met some of them, too. Quite a few of both types, really. But can’t you talk to them in an attempt to dispel some of their illusions without propagating some form of conformist, middle class ethos?

    And, just for clarification with the homophobic stuff: You’re suggesting that, as we don’t encourage men and boys to write, there’s a femininization of writing forms, which results in labels, etc., being placed on those who do write. And then the genre homophobia is a sort of backlash against this, a sort of masculine and straight assertion which partially defines itself through style (say a very direct, transparent, non-flowery prose) and partially through pushing the feminization onto different receptacles, ie. literary writers with their flowery snivelling. Or am I misinterpreting? I was wondering about demographics again, and how the typical social classes of various aesthetic forms might play into this idea of yours. Correct me if I’m barking up the wrong tree in my summary.

  12. says

    “High Art” has long been associated with aristocracy, and consequently with frivolity, decadence, and homosexuality (or homosinuality, if you are from Middle America). Those lily-skinned fops surely can’t have done a days work in their life if they have time to learn how to write all fancy-like. Why I bet they can afford normal ballpoints but still spend money of oldfangled quills to increase their art factor 69-fold. Literature is fruity, flowery – and fruit and flowers are not for the working class. (contrast: meat and potatoes)

    Sci-Fi, though, is crafted by hand from wood or stone, and can be used as a weapon if need be. Surely no queer-types would be caught dead writing it, reading it, or crafting a costume based on it for a convention. In fact, at the Sy-Fy Con they still do public executions for those caught engaging in buggery in the bathroom stalls. It’s all symbolic now, of course because of the liberal media and their control of the legislature, but these staged executions symbolize the need to appear really, really straight in an environ that is 99% guys getting buddy-buddy over a copy of the latest Sexy Vampire volume.

    My costume was by far the straightest. I was an oiled, bare-chested barbarian with perfect Cindy Crawford/Fabio hair. I kept sticking my sword straight out from my crotch and screaming my non-verbal war cry. When I tired of that, I would hide behind the statue of Gene Roddenberry and wait till some random dude passed by. Then I would jump out and wrestle him to prove that I was a real man. We then ceremonially burned literature including Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Beckett, Nabokov and Joyce, because they make my head hurt.

  13. Nick Mamatas says

    Interest in Hollywood and the New Age tend to be, happily, self-solving problems I’ve found.

    As far as the use of anti-gay slams and slurs in the genre, I think you pretty much have it right.

  14. says

    Funny, re. self-solving problems.

    Also funny, re. Gene Roddenberry statue.

    Still wondering about the garret thing, though. I mean, yes, they’ve lost the berets (well, most of them), and they’re less concerned with pure bohemianism circa early 20th Century. It’s been updated a little. But I still see the intentionally poor crib (garret), the drinking and drugging as artistic inspiration, the aesthetic posturing, the embrace of the struggling artist image, happy discussions on the difficulties of the muse (usually laziness, I find). I mean, there’s a place a few blocks away from my store that sells absinthe to basically cater to this whole crowd. This is modern day marketed bohemia. And it sells because people still buy into that ideal. Follow the money, as the old saying goes.

  15. says

    I don’t know about writers, but there was a sure a scene of musical and artistic bohemians in Baltimore in the early 2000s. They all worked in clubs as bartenders, talked about art and music and philosophy, and produced nothing of any note. They all hated whatever they had caught wind of the ‘mainstream’ promoting, even when it was something they would on all principles have supported moments earlier. They all hated me and my band because we were not actually from Baltimore proper and we didn’t work in clubs or in tattoo shops, and because we actually wrote catchy music that someone who didn’t know better might enjoy. They also called us pretentious because we pretended to be entertainment robots designed by a Japanese corporation. I found it tedious. I found them bland and unpalatable. I’m sure some of them wrote. In fact, I remember one chick in particular who was a ‘writer’ who never got around to finishing anything in the years I knew her.

  16. Andrew says

    “My costume was by far the straightest. I was an oiled, bare-chested barbarian with perfect Cindy Crawford/Fabio hair. I kept sticking my sword straight out from my crotch and screaming my non-verbal war cry. When I tired of that, I would hide behind the statue of Gene Roddenberry and wait till some random dude passed by. Then I would jump out and wrestle him to prove that I was a real man. We then ceremonially burned literature including Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Beckett, Nabokov and Joyce, because they make my head hurt.”

    Stereotype alert. Never actually been to a Sci Fi convention, but by your comment I doubt you have either.

    “I have absolutely no problem saying that as much of a hothouse as academia is, the hardcore of SF fandom is worse, and that it attracts the socially handicapped to a greater extent than academia”

    Can someone please explain to me why this is relevant? It may be true, but since when are social skills indicative of anything worthwhile? Wasn’t Albert Einstein socially handicapped? Wasn’t Edgar Allan Poe? Wasn’t pretty much every great artist (-note the “great”- modifying adjective)?

  17. Andrew says

    Not to mention Robert E. Howard, who struggled with feeling isolated among people. But I guess he doesn’t count since he didn’t write stories about how a piece of cardboard caused a 40 year old man to have a midlife crisis.

    Trust me, these “socially crippled nerds” who prefer genre aren’t alone. I have talked to regular readers (Casual and avid) who are quite socially capable (since that seems to be indicative of artistic quality). Someone just recently told me the other day that they’d prefer to read an epic saga than a story about a midlife crisis. And he was not one of the socially crippled nerds. Who, by the way, could never write a book as well as one of the popular kids who have such a larger range of emotional experience, and such a deeper understanding of life.

  18. says

    “Stereotype alert. Never actually been to a Sci Fi convention, but by your comment I doubt you have either.”

    Hi, Andrew. Nice to meet you. Thanks for being completely opaque in your online dealings with me. I’ll lay all my cards out on table: I wasn’t being serious. I was illustrating how you can put a homoerotic spin on anything given a little imagination. The ‘class struggle’ of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy nerd versus the Literary nerd isn’t rooted in some particular homophobic tradition that accounts for the image of ‘sniveling fagots’ that was alluded to much earlier in the post. Now that that is all cleared up… it’s a lot less fun isn’t it?

  19. says

    Opinions are fine. You are too quick to react, perhaps. It’s like you are searching for a buzzword to pounce on. Like your race subsists on buzzwords, which would simply flitter off if not outpaced by immediate violent action. Does their buzzing not cloy in the end, though? Would you rather I take up a contrary stance: Nay, I did oil my toned physique at a con, and I did force my manhood upon the unsuspecting? What’s it to you, Andy C? I’ll punch you right in the face, and then I’ll probably kick you. Being a strong fellow, as I am, it will be hard to refrain from causing you grievous bodily harm. I am, however, studied in my arts. I think I can leave you with only bruises about the chest, easily covered by an oxford style shirt. If you are interested in purchasing a new collar–perhaps yours is stained with blood–I have a whole drawer full. But don’t tell me you wear a flowery pirate shirt, or I shall have to suspect that you may read non-genre writing. This will cause me to summon the power of my primeval god, Klotkigu, and you don’t want that, now do you?

  20. says

    I spend ten days at a summer residency in Maine, with limited web access, and people are still at it?

    Man, I’ve got some reading to catch up on in this thread…

  21. jay sheckley says

    um i’m owned by a bookstore [dark carnival] and you can make any kind of sections you like. We do. the idea is just to interest people who see themselves as sorts of people or types of interests. or interest ourselves: are there many fun novels about ass-kicking children? Find out, and while youre at it, fan out the newest award winning fiction. Hey how bout the 1000 best books you never read. These divisions don’t prove anything about the books themselves or their authors.
    It’s only a display, move along, nothing to see here folks…
    Boy that DaVinci Code prose makes me shudder! Ack!! I hate hate hate it!
    The man writes with shovels. Ick. pweh blechh
    Ok you were talkin of manly men & big name big-game mainstream. Which brings on Uncle Ernie, Papa Hemingway, showing a crisis:
    When his manliest man narrowly avoids becoming a body count casualty and “survives”, that was _supposed_ to be the crisis. And a lot of action it was.
    But to Hem the crisis is in feeling.
    you can train a man and make him run fight shoot obey- but you cant give back what war takes even from survivors. \
    When a healthy young man’s relationship to the world dissolves, Hem sez, that’s yer crisis.
    Maybe it’s just me but I love the line from Hem’s short story “SOLDIER’S HOME”. Everybody’s acting like it’s Thanksgiving, waiting for the kid to snap out of it, get over the war, and resume his pleasant boyhood. The family thinks adjusting and being okay is natural….But the kid, though at “home” now, aint quite with ‘em.
    Hemingway reveals all in pretty much just this one 9 word sentence of the kid’s POV:
    With restraint Hem shows us senselessness. Is it our turn to try and make meaning? Make no difference. His youth, his willingness his energy fed into that basic staple of manliness.War squanders bravery, churns men into
    meat and will power in battle comes into peace in eternal abject terror.
    “Whats the matter, son?”
    There’s no saying.
    And that, my fiends, is the way it is

  22. jay sheckley says

    the 9 word sentence of the kid’s POV was sposed to appear where i typed it between those sideways chevrons.
    But it’s gone! I cant recall SOLDIER’S HOME eponymous kid’s name, but I’ll fake it.
    I t’s meant to read like this:

    Nick watched the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

    That’s all… and enough

  23. says

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  1. [...] watching the movie I read a blog post entitled War of All Against All: Realism vs Fabulism? Er, No… When writers get in the ring to debate literature and classifications and marxism and reality and [...]

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