English 3600 was the intro to lit theory class Emily and I had to take during our undergrad. I say intro but it’s probably the hardest class I’ve ever taken because theory is already a lot of “what the fuck?” and then they make you read Derrida, who’s like, “Language is fake, so I’m gonna write like an ass.” And every suffering student popping migraine medicine agrees – an ass indeed.
Okay, so there’s the title explained. Check. The purpose of this blog series is to get into more detail about the theories we discuss on EHR proper, because I think that’s interesting and many of you have told me that you think that’s interesting as well.
Title, check. Goal, check. My crippling imposter syndrome telling me I am bound to misinterpret the theories I studied for my degree and my award winning thesis work – not in check, but working on it! That’s academia, baby.
Let’s dive in, starting with a few words on genre.
Genre is stupid. There, aren’t you glad you stopped by?
No, really. Genre is helpful for categorizing and marketing books, and like all systems for creating boxes, it consistently fails. Sure, I like lists of “Queer SSF” as much as the next suffering bisexual trapped in the dense stacks of the local Barnes & Noblé fighting to scrub Harry Potter and the Cursed Child from my brain. How else would I find books involving rich world building and that good gay content that isn’t subtext or queerbaiting? Read them all? Hope for the best? Pray for guidance?
So genre has a purpose. It helps us know what to expect. You can hand me a book and say “this is fantasy,” and I’ll understand, more or less, what’s living between the covers. When I was younger, I would have thought immediately of Harry Potter or something with dragons, but I’m better read these days and many brilliant contemporary fantasy writers are challenging what this “genre” can look like. Which is rad. So now, I’ll think maybe it’s an otherworld or there will be some sort of “fantastical” element.
Okay, but what do you mean by fantastical? You know, Sally. Impossible, unbelievable. Impossible by what standards? Impossible to who?
In the first episode of EHR (I Think There’s a Tapestry Involved? ) we launched our Wheel of Time journey by talking about Farah Mendlesohn’s four categories as laid out in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy. I brought Mendlesohn to the discussion because I think she provides some of the most useful language for talking critically about fantasy. Her project is not to define fantasy, but to examine how it is constructed. In doing so, she provides, as she suggests in her introduction, “tools for further analysis.” We’ll get more into these tools in the next blog, but for now I want to remain with this project of defining fantasy for a minute.
Fantasy is an absolute bastard of a term to try and define. What does it mean for something to be a fantasy text? If you want to dive down that rabbit hole, you are stronger than me – every time I’ve tried to explain why its hard to define I get a headache, and the last thing I need in my life is more head pain. That’s not to say that there aren’t features that are unique to fantasy or critical to the genre in some key way – and that’s part of what Mendlesohn looks at in her book, and in this blog series we’ll talk a lot about that, too. We’ll get into those genre markers, I promise.
In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy – which THANK GOD I cited in my thesis, otherwise I would have had to ask my friend Brie to check me out yet another book from the University of Utah library and she would have called me a huge fucking nerd – John Clute writes:
“As Brian ATTEBERY has indicated through his description of fantasy as a “fuzzy set,” it may be that fantasy is inherently best described through prescriptive and exploratory example.”
Prescriptive example. Haven’t we all done this? Someone asks a question about what you’re reading and it’s like, “Oh, you know. It’s fantasy. Kind of like [INSERT ONE: Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Wheel of Time.]” It’s so much easier to point to a fantasy text that someone is familiar with than to explain every fantasy book you’ve read, because they’re all so different, aren’t they? Wheel of Time and Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley couldn’t be any more different, but they’re both fantasy. Just of radically different types.
And yeah, we can get into subgenres/sub-classifications like High Fantasy and Urban Fantasy, which are helpful, for sure. Just more for the shelving/connecting readers-with-books aspect of genre discussed above, than anything inherent to an understanding of what fantasy is and fantasy isn’t and what genre is and what genre isn’t.
It’s all just taxonomy – “the branch of science concerned with classification.” Creating categories, essentially– and like I said above, all systems of categorization fail. Because nothing in this world fits easily in any one box. Mendlesohn’s book is about defining further categories for talking about fantasy and even she at the beginning provides a “Health Warning:”
This book is not intended to create rules.
Its categories are not intended to fix anything in stone.
This book is merely a portal into fantasy, a tour around the skeletons and exoskeletons of genre.
All of which I couldn’t love more. As we take a closer look at Rhetorics of Fantasy, we’ll be talking a lot about categories and doing a lot of categorizing. It’s useful, it really is. But it’s important to remember that rules are not necessarily helpful. So I wanted to take this first blog as an opportunity to celebrate the “fuzzy set” aspect of fantasy.
In that first episode of EHR, I explained a fuzzy set to the best of what I recalled from a class. This time around I did some Real Research and looked up the term on Wikipedia.
“In mathematics, fuzzy sets (aka uncertain sets) are somewhat like sets whose elements have degrees of membership…In classical set theory, the membership of elements in a set is assessed in binary terms according to a bivalent condition – an element either belongs or does not belong to the set. By contrast, fuzzy set theory permits the gradual assessment of the membership elements in a set.”
Now a lot of that is math stuff that I just blink at, but I think I’ve got the gist. Staying focused on fantasy, if fantasy is a fuzzy set and there are degrees of membership, well, I just find that really beautiful and hopeful. It isn’t just in or out, there’s an assessment of everything on its own terms. Not every fantasy book has to adhere to the same terms or rules, fantasy will bleed into science fiction, we’ll see things like alternate history. There are infinite possibilities all loosely circling this thing we call “fantasy.”
Wheel of Time is a large world building focused fantasy book that relies on myth and history and a lot of the stuff we expect of traditional high fantasy, and a lot of stuff that is surprising. Dragonhaven is a book about a teenage boy who raises a dragon and this unconventional motherhood storyline takes a real hard look at familial bonds and trauma.
Both fantasy. This is a genre where you can get pretty much anything you want. And god damn I just love it so much.
I’m just saying, I think there’s a reason fantasy is becoming the gayest genre, if it isn’t there already. This is also why it is SO ANNOYING to see people perpetuating the same old oppressions in each fantasy world he creates. And yes, it usually is a he because publishing in general is dominated by men, and fantasy even more so.
It makes me want to tear my eyeballs out when I see a world built with more thought given to the potential use of pennies than to how the lives of women could be improved if they were not constantly threatened by rape. Yes, this is a direct attack on Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and I suppose BSands is just unlucky enough to be the last book I read that annoyed me about this. In each of the first three chapters of that book, a female character is threatened with sexual assault. I almost stopped reading because it’s just so lazy, and it’s a pretty obvious indicator that thoughts on how women’s lives are hindered by rape have not crossed the minds of most male writers. You are breaking the laws of this world as we know it with every single word you write in this fantasy world, but you can’t - or worse, won’t - conceive of better conditions for women?
I know it’s not always a good thing to sugarcoat the real world – we can’t erase rape culture in our world by just never writing a book that features rape again. But when you consistently build a rape culture into your fantasy world over and OVER AND OVER again, you begin to present rape culture as immutable. Oh sure, I can launch myself over buildings with a penny, but don’t be out late at night ladies or a man will rape you. It’s the same thing with racism and homophobia. Oh, so I make fires with my mind or whatever but gay people can’t get married? It’s so exhausting, and it teaches both the privileged and the oppressed that they can’t do anything about it. Be responsible with your world building and give us something to think about. Something that might help inspire us to be brave, and make changes.
If you won’t listen to me, listen to Neil Gaiman I guess:
You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:
The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
This got off the rails from theory a bit – but this has been an absolute bastard of a difficult blog to write. I’m hoping that now that I’ve got the series started, the next one will come easier. Next time, we’ll get dive into Rhetorics of Fantasy.
Until then – Sally.
This blog was made plausible by the existence of our Episode 1 transcript, so if you liked this please consider heading over to ko-fi.com/everybodyhatesrand to sponsor an EHR transcript and enable EHR 3600 to continue!
Clute, John and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Mendleshon, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, 2008.