The Booker Prize, “Fantasy,” and “Mainstream”

An interesting discussion here, based on this quote from China Mieville. I understand why this is a new concept to the interviewer—referencing “those utterly fascinating texts which contain not a single impossible element, and yet which read as if they were, somehow, fantastic”—but it’s not a new concept in the larger scheme of things (nor do I think China’s presenting it as such).

As I commented:

“It’s an important point China is making, but while it may be new to the interviewer, it’s not a new concept. It’s an argument I’ve been making, along with several other writers, for decades. It’s also something John Clute has explored to some extent in his criticism, and I think literary journals like Conjunctions have also explored it. The fact is, there are fantasy novelists who read like realists and supposedly mimetic novelists whose world view and approach make them read like fabulists. The importance of stressing this similarity/difference is that it gets us away from using the terminology of commodificaition of fiction and what are often just marketing terms that reflect “accidents of birth.” If you’re a Kafkaesque writer from Eastern Europe, you’re likely to be published in the mainstream. If you’re a US writer like Michael Cisco, you’re likely to be published through genre imprints. These arbitrary issues and contexts don’t really tell us much about the works themselves, or their complexities and contradictions…which is why “genre” vs “mainstream” is so pointless.”

I recognize I may be riffing off of only part of China’s quote, but it’s the part that most interests me and is most irritating in terms of how people tend to compartmentalize literature.

I was just revisiting this, taking a piece of the fantasy lecture I’ve been delivering since the late 1990s, and expanding on it for the Inspiration chapter in the writing book I’m working on for Abrams Image:

“But, conversely, does it really matter if the imaginative impulse results in the ‘fantastical’ in the sense of ‘containing an explicit fantastical event?’ Is it something a writer should worry about definitionally or practically? No. For a certain kind of writer a sense of fantastical play will always exist on the page. This is often what we really mean by the voice of the writer. Talking bears have moved in next door. Does the reality of whether they actually have matter more than the quality of the metaphor? Perhaps not. Consider Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale and his World War I novel A Soldier of the Great War. A Winter’s Tale includes a winged horse and other fantastical flourishes. A Soldier of the Great War contains no fantastical elements, and yet in its descriptions, its voice, Helprin’s animating imagination behind the story, this novel also reads as invested in the fantastical. The writer Rikki Ducornet can write as lyrically phantasmagorical a novel as Phosphor in Dreamland and an as intense yet fiercely realistic story collection as The Word Desire…and yet they exist in the same country, perhaps even come from the same area of that country. This is the power of one type of unusual imagination.”

The writing book is still in rough draft form, but it’s forcing me to close in on more precise terminology and an expansion of the idea, so we’ll see where it ends up in a couple of months…

3 comments on “The Booker Prize, “Fantasy,” and “Mainstream”

  1. Kai in NYC says:

    Rescuing the discussion from a purely theoretical plane: there are real-world consequences for a writer hoping to reach an audience insofar as how plausibly your fantastical story reads as phantasmagorical or a metaphor, on the one hand, or straightforwardly fantasy on the other. The sinking feeling as you hold out a manuscript toward your well-read, favorite Aunt, and she eyes it suspiciously asking, “Umm … are there *dragons* in that?” (there are, as a matter of fact) is very like the sinking feeling when you enthusiastically show one of your favorite writers another piece of secondary world fantasy and, after reading, he slaps it down on the table in disgust, saying: “Where are the fucking *dragons*?!”

  2. I certainly do agree to an extent, but the framing, marketing, and nuances of delivery of a book to a reader are to some extent separate from the book itself when you’re talking cross-genre, etc., because the publisher can choose to emphasize some aspects and de-emphasize others. At the very least, it’s important to write whatever the fuck is most personal to you and then just simply find devious and interesting ways to give the reader the best entry point…This isn’t to say deceive the reader–just that there are usually more than one entry point for the reader, and however you decide to present the book affects that initial perception.

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