To Scale a Mountain of Fiction: History, Criticism, and Typology
In the modern day, the line between literary and genre fiction grows ever more transparent; in an attempt to congeal this transparency, this paper sets down a new approach to the categorization of fiction, based upon a scale developed by the anthologist and critic, Eric Rabkin. After some revision, the scale allows for any work of fiction to be placed between two poles, one for “fantasy” and one for “realism”. In building up to this new typology, several topics are explored: (a) the idea of fiction in general, (b) a brief and relevant history of fiction and criticism, (c) and the critical outlooks required for an unproblematic acceptance of the new typology.
If one was to walk into a bookstore nowadays, either some local shop or a chain, it is to be expected that the sectional shelves are divided up by subject matter: Cooking, Gardening, History, Religion, Poetry, and so on. It is also to be expected that one may find a section labeled as “Fiction”; not something more specific, like Mystery, Science Fiction, or Romance, but merely “Fiction.” What is this? Well, it’s fiction: stories that were drawn up by an author, a man or woman who knew they had a story to tell and, to some extent, how to tell it. Yet, how are these stories different from those under the sign of Mystery or Science Fiction? Well, one could say, the books under “Fiction” subsume a tone of realness—a narrative grounded in what is real—and can be valued for making a vital statement about reality. This still does not answer the question: why are these stories not “Realism”? Why are they only “Fiction”?
More commonly, these works of realistic fiction may go under the general header of “literary fiction,” a term which often distinguishes realist fictions from genre-writing; the implication here, perhaps, is that realism is not properly a “genre.” While genre fictions tend to follow the tropes and conventions set down by their collective and respective categories of fiction, realism can be reasoned to be a persistent attempt to convey an author’s apperception of things as they really are, to separate a work from customary styles or canonical content. However, separating such fictions from the notion of genre is hardly a simple feat when viewed from a historical or “anthropological” standpoint; furthermore, to continue viewing literary fiction as something worth separating from the supposed limitations of a genre is aesthetically baffling. There must be a means by which these fictions can be placed on a level grounding.
In a short essay by Eric S. Rabkin, there is proposed a scale-model for assessing all types of fiction, bookended by Realism and Fantasy. Though the model was only created as a way of demonstrating a useful method of categorization, it inevitably shows that any piece of fiction, modern or long familiar, can be placed within one spectrum. The goal of this paper is to show that this should be the case, that “Realistic Fiction” is not exclusively synonymous with “Fiction,” and, as a yet unmentioned point, that the very idea of “fantasy” can be utilized in assessing a typology of fictions. This will be done through the provision of a short history of fictive literature and their contemporary criticisms, a suggested method of analyzing fiction, a discourse on the philosophical outlook required for the unproblematic acceptance of this new criticism, and a slight augmentation of Rabkin’s scale.
Before delving into the history of the fictive tradition, which dates back as early as 2100 B.C.E, it is worth giving a general interpretation of what fiction is (i.e. where it comes from, what it does and how) so as to properly frame its historical progression; this will be done without focusing too much on its theological significance, though it is worth noting that myth and legend, both fictions, play an important function in the formation of early faiths. Most basically, fiction emerges through an active, creative process, implemented by the imagination of a story-teller and organized dramatically through language. What emerges is a uniquely and intentionally organized set of words, a narrative, meant to inflame the imagination of a reader or listener. It differs from nonfiction in that the content is entirely or largely made up; it differs from poetry in that its typical form, prose, is somewhat fundamental to its classification as such.
Always, fictions operate by applying a certain device: the symbol. This device is present both microscopically, in the conveyance of language, and macroscopically, in the sustained or discursive meanings behind their specific use as metaphors; though, “they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference,” (Campbell, 236) which is to say that symbols are the aesthetic “vehicles” of fiction, the means of reaching meaning, and the literal or figurative attire of a fictional work. The function of the symbol is thus active both as a principle, hierarchical unit that formally composes a text and as an epiphenomenal, archetypal reference that points beyond what is literal, to something context-rich and culturally accessible. In other words, the symbol enables not only the possibility of language, but the possibility of conceiving that which is completely unreal through language. It is the indispensable tool of make-belief.
Almost needless to say, the ability to imagine the unreal, from two interlocutors at a café in Spain to an interdimensional wardrobe, is the primary criterion for reading fiction; without it, a reader would surely see no purpose in their action, let alone engage emotionally with the fiction. This latter element of emotional response—a “paradox,” according to some theorists—is integral to the value of fiction. Norman Kreitman, in an article on Personal Construct theory, elaborates that emotional reactions to fiction are possible only through a work’s coherence, vivacity, and relation to that which is concerning in real life. Without such grounding aspects and without the faculty of emotion, writers and readers of fiction would be carrying out their respective artistic endeavors with utter indifference; while this notion is imaginable, much like the content of fiction itself, it remains inconsistent.
This is not to say that there are those who do not reject fiction and its purposes, though. Some may find it to be unstimulating, pointless, nonintellectual, or some other such analogue; perhaps their reasons are justifiable. To extents and from person to person, fictions always have the potential to ward off readers: reasons for this range from the misuse of the three criteria of Personal Construct theory above, to mere linguistic complexity, to moral disagreement with the content. This largely results from an incompatibility of reader and writer, since the provocation of “imaginative resistance,” as the phenomenon is often called, depends fully on the individual for whom resistance might occur, their sensibilities and humors (Nanay, 588). Though, whether or not a reader is imaginative enough to engage with a given text, there are still numerous cognitive devices at work through every piece of fiction.
As Kreitman makes clear, and as touched upon above, good fictions invoke in their readers a sense of empathy and immersion, both in the sense of the reader’s involvement with the content of a text and in their investment with the characters or subject matter. A specific cognitive device, hermeneutic recalibration, will be examined later on in order to show how a reader can become immersed in accordance with a specific genre and how a diversity of fictions can be categorized without some of the traditional guide-lines of genre; it will also be useful in showing how and why the concept of imaginative resistance must be considered as strictly negative in its association with the reader. Now that the functions and inner workings of fiction have been explored to some extent, the history of literature and criticism can now be moderately analyzed. For the sake of efficiency, this history will be largely focused on the Western tradition.
As mentioned, the earliest fictions can be traced back to the second millennia B.C.E, from the Akkadian tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh to the orally sustained epic poems of Homer, but works such as these will not be examined here; rather, jumping forward to the 3rd century B.C.E, the literary criticism of Aristotle will be addressed to a greater extent. Often considered one of his later treatises, Aristotle’s Poetics is one of the earliest and best known philosophical inquiries into the nature of fictional, poetic narratives. Of course, the modal condition of Greek fiction/drama was primarily concerned with tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry—all utterly out-dated by our modern standards—but his empirical assay is nonetheless a valuable demonstration of early criticism, both as a componential break-down of narrative and as an exposition of what makes a good poet.
Though it is believed that about half of the treatise is missing, what remains generally expounds on the following features of poetic art: a preliminary categorization of the types of fiction (or “poetry”), a comprehensive definition of tragedy and all the essential rules for its creation, and a brief relation of tragedies to epics (of which the former is “artistically superior” in his view). In asserting such elementary notions as the proper arrangement of plot or the importance of a unity of action, Aristotle set the groundwork for all creative criticism, though the pursuit of this field would not gain significant momentum for hundreds of years. Even so, some of his sentiments survive today in certain forms, such as with this preintentionalist statement: “If the poet meant to describe the thing correctly, and failed through lack of power of expression, his art itself is at fault,” (1460b, Poetics).
Very much contrary to Plato’s antiaesthetics from earlier on in the 3rd century, Aristotle, much like with all of his other philosophical endeavors, showed that empirical analyses can be applied to any field of rational interest, even to human creativity. Some further poetic criticism emerged throughout the proceeding centuries, notably in the Ars Poetica of Horace and Longinus’ work on sublimity. Let it be noted here that “fiction” and “poetry,” up until the emergence of prose as a popular literary form in the later middle ages, can largely be equated as synonymous terms; let it also be noted that, throughout this enormous gap of time between Aristotle and the late medieval period, there existed many works of what may be considered fictional literature, though the purposes of their composition were generally different: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fabricated History of the Kings of Britain, for example.
During the middle ages in Europe, however, the activity of criticism was maintained, though to a vastly limited degree and with a clearer purpose in mind: the salvation of all humankind. While works of poetry and fiction were retained quietly in the secular sphere of Latin Christian society, scholars and theologians directed their efforts toward hermeneutics, the practice of interpreting the Bible, the only piece of literature to be permitted heavy scrutiny. Very much unintentionally, this process of logically and categorically analyzing the Bible, a text of profound metaphysical consistency, paved the way for the possibility of a different sort of hermeneutics, one which could be applied to specific works of poetry and prose; though, of course, this form of criticism would not proliferate until works of secular literature emerged more prominently, several hundred years later.
With the growing popularity of minstrelsy and their propagation of folk heroes, from Charlemagne to the mythical King Arthur, and with the settling of a chivalric tradition, secularist fictions became a topic of note. This can be best observed through Boccaccio’s prosaic Decameron and Chaucer’s poetic Canterbury Tales, both of which are collections of anecdotes and lays; in some cases, the same stories appear in both of these works. Along with Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s projects can be considered doubly important for their use of vernacular language (Florentine Italian for the former and Middle English for the latter) rather than the language of academia, Latin. Criticism at the time, to which Boccaccio and Dante made reasonable contributions, retained its scholarly voice through Latin, which would largely continue until the 17th century.
Also during that later century, there emerged one of the first novels: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, an adventure about an old noble who attempts to become a knight. This work is notably influential for several reasons: it satirically twisted the conventions of chivalry and knighthood, its use of vernacular (both in the original Spanish and in subsequent translations) contributed heavily to the normative use of popular language in literature, and it was one of the first works to utilize the literary device of meta-fiction, where an element of the fiction, like the character and/or narrator, is written to be seemingly conscious of its fictional status. Cumulatively, these features mark Don Quixote as a novel of strong originality and, with the help of its mass propagation, it sparked a keen contemporary interest in both the novel as a literary form and the apparent necessity of originality.
From the mid-18th century toward the dawn of the 20th, the novel officially hit its stride, especially so in England; in his book, Graphs, Maps, and Trees, Franco Moretti shows this literary explosion through empirical models. In one particular figure, “British novelistic genres, 1740-1900,” Moretti shows an astounding diversity of novel styles that emerged and disappeared, each typically within a ten or twenty-year timespan. It could be theorized that this outstanding and long running shift in genre came through the need for originality and authenticity, as heralded by Cervantes’ groundbreaking novel, and was further accentuated by the Romanticism of 19th century art. Most important to the breadth of this particular project, the proliferation of genre brought forth an experimental new form, complete with new conventions and grounded by centuries of tradition: this genre was fantasy.
While fantasy’s origin may often be associated with the faery tales of the Grimm brothers or those of Hans Christian Anderson, their works only scratch the surface. More aptly, once features of the fantastical began to be featured more prominently in gothic or sensationalist novels, they began to enter into the mainstream. Edgar Allen Poe is thought by some to have brought the fantastical to the United States in his chilling horror stories; Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald, respectively to two different audiences, pioneered the portal-quest fantasy, a new convention to be richly cherished in times to come. Doubly important was the emergence of another new, fantastical genre, popularly heralded by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells: science fiction. This genre grounded the fantastical in what was scientifically possible or plausible, extending to a new and diverse readership.
While fantasy and science fiction were going through their formative years in the 19th century, realistic fiction was in the midst of its golden age, from the epic novels of Tolstoy, to the grand Victorian narratives of Dickens, to the sprawling encyclopedic texts of Melville. Aside from these, the 19th century novel commanded significant influence through a number of anonymous female writers, like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Today, these works are typically placed under the umbrella of “Literature”—the books of Poe and Verne may also be lumped under this category. However, these texts of realistic fiction, over time, were distinguished more particularly by various, largely “extinct genres”: the nautical tale (like Moby Dick), the bildungsroman (Jane Eyre), and the serial novel (Bleak House) to name a few. The genres, however, would only vanish as genres—their tropes still remain.
The 20th century brought new and experimental forms of art, not just in the sphere of literature, but across many modes of creative innovation: Cubist painting, Dadaist collages, Surrealism, and others. It would only be a matter of time before such styles were translated into literary forms, perhaps most notably in novels like Joyce’s Ulysses or Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea; stream-of-consciousness became a new stylistic vogue, a standard for innovative realism. As time passed, the art world shifted rapidly, partially due to the emergence of existentialist and logical positivist philosophy, partially due to the devastating events of the two world wars. Perhaps necessarily, the drastic change and progress in the arts demanded new methods or outlooks in criticism: language and identity thrived as subjects of inquiry, and this was surely reflected in the literature and criticism of the new era.
Sartre provides a good quotation on literature’s new appeal: “the work exists only at the exact level of [the reader’s] capacities; while he reads and creates, he knows that he can always go further in his reading, can always create more profoundly, and thus the work seems to him as inexhaustible and opaque as things,” (from “What is Literature”). This apparent shift of importance from writer to reader certainly resonated elsewhere in the new criticism, especially in Roland Barthes’ 1968 essay, “The Death of Author,” where he states that, “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” Their contemporary, Michel Foucault, also supplies a point: “Criticism has been concerned for some time now with aspects of a text not fully dependent on the notion of an individual creator,” (from “What is an Author”).
More so than with the previous poststructuralist statements, Foucault’s point has some relevance to the project at hand; the aspects he refers to are, in fact, genre and conventional variation. This is precisely the kind of criticism to be developed here, but largely from a more modern, “neo-structuralist” (not poststructuralist) standpoint. Here, the author-reader dichotomy is accepted as essential to the entire operation of the criticism, yet it is far from the focal point, which is the work of art itself. This entails the consideration of objective mechanisms and similitudes within a work as well as the potential subjective effects on the reader. However, in its nature as a literary anthropology, it is imperative to treat the criticism as an aesthetic science, regarding how a work came to be and its relations within a historical context. As Northrop Frye said in his excellent article on new structuralism, “Criticism, as a science, is totally intelligible.”
Wimsatt and Beardsley, in “The Intentional Fallacy,” an article on the impersonal quality of poetry, make several assertions against authorial intention. Their third point states, “A poem can only be through its meaning—since its medium is words—yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant.” Though poetry is not entirely comparable to prose fiction, our readings of either form tend to be largely indistinct; if fiction was to be regarded as some entity without some degree of intended meaning, our readings of any given work would collapse into incomprehensibility—even the esoteric endeavor of deconstruction would be completely unguided by sufficient reason. Therefore, the intention of the author and the receptibility of the readership, insofar as it conforms to or advances the author’s objectives, must be given as unproblematic in this criticism.
While intentionality is considerably important to the criticism at hand, “realist-fantasy theory,” it is not necessary; to say otherwise would be to further limit the reader/writer relationship surrounding a given work. Our readings of fiction, from person to person, vary as much as our interpretations of fiction—a reader is not some automated entity that will actively detect every level of the author’s intentions after a single reading. Sometimes, an author’s intentions in a story hardly go beyond the projection of some image and action (think pulp science fiction or sword and sorcery novels). Since non-intellectual, sensationalist works of this variety are far from excluded here, it is unsuitable to place emphasis on intentionality; however, it is not to be dispensed with entirely. Perhaps when investing oneself in the analysis of some blatantly embedded feature of a given text, scrutiny of potential intentionality is a useful tool.
This is where Theory of Mind, “our intuitive systems for understanding the minds of others,” comes into play (Boyd, 590). This scientific study concerns our means of attempting to identify with the subjectivity of others and, as one might suspect, this has been commonly applied to ideas of how and why we read fiction, both realistic and, to a lesser degree, fantastical. “[Theory of Mind] allows successful navigation of complex social relationships and helps to support the empathic responses that maintain them,” (Kidd & Castano, 377); in this respect, the latent social importance of reading fiction can be accepted, but is this only to the extent that the fiction deals with social issues? This is possible, but does not rule out which types of fiction take on speculative apparel, which is more relevant to this criticism. Further, realist-fantasy theory shall make no claims toward the value of types of fiction.
A value of fiction and literature can be pinned to the latterly addressed application in Theory of Mind, where the reader engages a text with a critical eye for intersubjectivity, but it can also —perhaps more simply—be used in a pedagogical sense: “Distinct from the sociology of literature, sociology through literature encourages students to use literature in a way that refines their understanding of concepts, enabling them to integrate theory into their own experiences,” (Weber, 353). Another application of literature in the sphere of education could entail the analysis of narrative philosophy, where the reader unpacks any given work, from commercial to literary novels, expounding the philosophical ideas embedded within metaphor, plot, or character; “at best, it provides an interesting distraction for the philosopher as philosopher, who finds his lofty abstractions prettily exhibited…” (Gooding-Williams, 673).
The end of this criticism is largely the categorization of all types of fiction, but not in the fashion of nor for the purposes of some marketing model, which could be considered the primary origin of any idea of genre. However, as mentioned in the introduction, there is a more general divide in the world of contemporary fiction and publishing: this can be addressed as the literary/ genre divide, whereby literary fiction is something “serious” and genre is essentially “commercial.” They can thus be considered, simultaneously, two “philo-sophies of composition” and two “methods of promotional advertising” (Nostrand, 149). To undertake an analysis of the influence of publishing in the production of literature (and what a titanic influence it is) would be to write a different paper; therefore, the construction of this taxonomy will pay little regard to the economic aspects of fiction and its reproduction.
Umberto Eco, in his short essay, “On Style,” presents three different modes of aesthetic criticism: the review, discursive archaeology, and semiotic analysis. The review is the most basic of these modes and tends to only provide the reader with a synoptic assessment of a given work; discursive archaeology, or “the history of literature” as Eco says, examines the context of a work through the development of a progressive history of ideas. Further, these two modes can be practiced as “artist writing about an artist” (artifex additus artifici) and “philosopher writing about an artist” (philosophus additus artifici). The third and final mode, semiotic analysis, is contended to be the truest and most adequate form of criticism, which is a highly agreeable point (167-8). However, for the criticism to be developed here, discursive archaeology plays an integral part in the classification of a text.
Now that it has been made clear what this criticism is not, the essay can continue on and divulge the nature of its two subjects: literary and genre fiction—or, to a more accurate end, realism and fantasy. Perhaps the most important analytical point in distinguishing realistic or fantastical fiction from their respective counterparts is the content of a given work: this is surely the easiest method, as a realist novel will have some semblance of reality and a fantasy novel will show qualities of the impossible. John Gardner makes this distinction in his craft book: “The realistic writer’s way of making events convincing is verisimilitude. The tale writer, telling stories of ghosts, or shape-shifters, or some character who never sleeps, uses a different approach: By the quality of his voice, and by means of various devices which distract the critical intelligence,” (22). Here, Gardner could potentially mean hermeneutic recalibration, among other devices.
Before going into the specific details concerning this device, it is worth looking deeper into Gardner’s comment on writerly modes. Essentially, while he is also making a distinction between the relative substances of the realist’s and the fantasizer’s endeavors, he is also clearly remarking on the stylistic integrities of each type—that is to say, the rhetoric of a work lends much to our understanding of it. In some cases, the rhetoric can be so prominent in the writer’s project that it determines much in relation to the content; a first-person realist novel can sometimes be nothing like a third-person realism with regards to what the narrative/narrator says or reveals to the reader. In some cases, texts like these can almost resemble fantasy. Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, for example, features a protagonist with multiple personality disorder, which allows for a reality-bending narrative.
So, how is it possible for some-body to read a book with an unconventional style or substance and not consider it to be some sort of fantasy if the narrative lacks significant verisimilitude —let us imagine this reader has found a used copy of Fight Club, stripped of its front/back covers and lacking all additional information, from the author’s name to publication date. This is where hermeneutic recalibration comes in. As the reader moves through each page of the book, certain details will trigger the way they interpret the nature of the story, its setting, its characters; we are instantly aware, from the first page, that we are dealing with a first-person narrator with an odd method of story-telling and who seems to have little concern for the gun being pushed into his mouth by some strange man named Tyler. As we read on, further details—rhetorical, content-wise, or an admixture of both—force us to intentionally recalibrate.
This semantically charged device of hermeneutic recalibration operates in accordance with the theory of persuasion variantism (Liao, 270-9), which is conceptually oppositional to imaginative resistance; as mentioned earlier, this latter theory claims that deficiencies within a work of fiction are the reason for why certain readers may not be able to engage imaginatively with its content or rhetoric. Contra this proposition, and in displacing the deficiencies from the work to the readers themselves, persuasion variantism claims that we possess two principle perspectives with regards to our readings of fiction: make-believe and real-world perspectives. When settling into a reading, we “import” our real-world perspective, which we possess actively during our daily lives, into our make-believe one, which is itself built up through our imaginative engagement with the reading.
As we read through, hermeneutic recalibration potentially occurs, signaling to our real-world perspective that its make-believe counterpart is incrementally differing, that its verisimilitude is lessening and the content/ rhetoric of the text is moving further and further away from a conventional realism. In a way, this could be termed the “export” of the make-believe perspective: aside from the interpretative elements of novel-reading inherent in the act itself, the export could be reasoned as the way in which we come to understand aspects of reality through the context of a fiction, be it the realist’s take on how-it-is or the fantasizer’s take on how-it-is-not. Generally, this interplay of perspectives, all influenced by the rhetorical voice and the makeup of the content, all lend to the ultimate interpretation of any given work of fiction. This the basic method for the taxonomical assessment to be addressed.
As said at the onset of this paper and as developed throughout, there can be observed a fundamental divide in all fictions between the realistic and fantastical; however, the distinctions are not always clear-cut, as Rabkin observed in his “Diversity of Fantastic Literature.” One may very well not consider the qualities of fantasy present within, say, a Sherlock Holmes novel, but they are most certainly there. Do we commonly read Holmes’s character as if he could have some likeness to a real person in our society? Probably not—his deductive and inductive prowess is nigh superhuman and most of us will willingly suspend our disbelief for the joy of immersing ourselves in the prose and plot. So even when plots are objectively grounded in the real world, from the minutiae of street names to references of historical events, there can still be room for the fantastical to emerge as prominent in the text.
As a side point, it is also possible for the fantastical to emerge as a relational property from reader to reader; this relation could be seen through the conjunction of interpretation with context (as rhetoric is to style and as content is to substance). Primarily, this allows for the inclusion of ancient, pre-modern, and early modern works of fiction—several of which have been exemplified earlier—in the realist-fantasy scale; additionally, this historical context as such advocates for a particular rule or function to be attached to the scale, which will be explored later. Essentially, this insists that the notion of realism is an ever-changing standard that, as time goes by and as history progresses beyond our prior familiarities, the necessity of imaginative engagement increases. To read Flaubert’s hyper-realistic novel, Madame Bovary, today is quite dissimilar to reading it in the 19th century—we must fantasize realistic life as it was over a hundred years ago.
However, to call this contextually driven and imagination reliant displacement of perspective an act of fantasizing is to isolate the term from most of its contemporary conceptions: there is fantasy as genre and, here, there is fantasy as a tool, a sort of extreme mode we place ourselves into when a work demands much from our imaginings. The same might go for realism as a tool; perhaps when settling down with a new realistic fiction novel, we can seek some sort of enjoyment from the lack of imaginative functioning required—perhaps our enjoyment stems from the pleasure of reading something so compatible with our real-world perspective, likely enhanced by the poetry of the rhetoric or the content’s precision in semblance. Now that it has been made clear that fantasy and realism are here to be regarded as types/tools bookending the scale in question, they can be examined more properly as genres.
Fantasy, more so than realism, is majorly regarded as a commercial genre, complete with its own set of customary tropes and traditions. Brian Laetz and Joshua Johnston, in their article “What is Fantasy?”, set down a list of five essential criteria in what makes a novel fantasy: first and foremost, it must be fictional; second, the fantastical features must be a major aspect of the work; third, it cannot be strictly allegorical in its nature as a story; fourth and fifth, the story cannot be exclusively parodic or absurdist. The latter three points are questionable, though they will be accepted to the extent that a masterful fantasy work has yet to emerge from these categories. The second criterion is the most precise and the degree to which the fantastical is featured as prominent in a given work (essentially an aspect of content and substance) will play a major role in the determination of the work’s place on the realist-fantasy scale.
As for realism, or what is commonly called “literary fiction” today, there is much more difficulty in distinguishing certain criteria for what makes it “realistic”; it is almost certainly easier to define it by what it is not. Another diffi-culty is the transparency between particular realist works and nonfictions. A realist fiction will often mention or base itself on a historical event or occurrence, invoking nonfictional elements the same way that fantasy fiction invokes fantastical elements. Thus, all that can be said of realistic fiction is that it is centrally “a product of the artist’s fiction-making intention” (Swirski, 66): to include nonfictional elements is to, in some capacity, lessen the load on the readers’ imagination, allow them to acquire a sort of familiarity with the text through their factually grounded knowledge, and largely incite their interests by extending the discourse on this given knowledge.
So, what is it that deters certain readers from this type of writing? Why are some people more drawn to one side of the spectrum while others prefer its opposite? Again, as with the topic of industrial influence, to discuss motivation and inclination in the act of selecting and reading fiction would be to write a different paper—one which could explore the oft unchecked (at least in the field of literary criticism) significance of subjectivity and circumstance. Though this will not play any part in the composition or function of the scale, it could be worth noting that the motive of escapism plays a large part in our decision to take up a fantasy novel or some work which separates its readers’ imaginative activity from the reception of some other kind of narrative, probably one bedecked with truth-value or a sense of realness. However, it is safe to say that preference rests in the individual’s taste.
Eric Rabkin reminds us of the importance of individuality and subjectivity when it comes to assessing a fiction and placing it on his scale, claiming that the critic’s decision is “not so much an assertion about the exact or unavoidable nature of the text but about the reader’s best perceptions of it as he remembers a given reading,” (162). With this in mind, the scale is only a tool to be used from reader to reader, not some inflexible apparatus; the individual’s placement of an assortment of fictions within the scale shows only the individual’s distinctions when it comes to typology. Of course, there would surely be objective, observable patterns, but when subversive fictions become the focal point of debate, then the scale’s use becomes both convenient and even quite entertaining. While it is not the most practical or groundbreaking proposition to use this realist-fantasy “continuum,” it is conducive to the field of criticism.
In Rabkin’s own discussion of his scale, he quaintly attaches ten “cardinal points” along the continuum and specifically places realism on the left and fantasy on the right; the augmented version will retain this much, at least. He identified the first two points as “Realism,” the second two as “Realistic literature,” the following four as “Fantastic literature,” and the final two as “Fantasy.” Nothing else belongs to the scale in terms of some rule of placement, but Rabkin persistently mentions the importance of identifying “security” and “self-reflexivity”; these two devices help the reader in acquiring a notion of what type or genre of fiction they might be reading. Security rests in narratives that are essentially replicated from traditional story structures, implicitly cluing the reader in on the direction of the story; self-reflexivity is at play when these narratives deviate from the norm and open new interpretive possibilities (168-9).
However, Rabkin only discusses these devices in relation to genre, rather than in how they might be used as tools in a given work’s placement on the scale. For the revised version of the continuum, these devices could be retained for critical purposes, and for the sake of developing the scale further in future projects. The first step, then, in changing Rabkin’s model is to dispense with the somewhat bland categories he identified along the cardinal points. These are to be replaced by six evenly situated types, from the Realism end to the Fantasy end: Authentic, Occurrence, Complication, Intrusion, Portal-Quest, and Immersive. Of course, credit must be given to Farah Mendlesohn’s typology of fantasy rhetorics, from which the latter three categories have been borrowed—with the singular exclusion of the “liminal” fantasy. These helped to determine the nature of the former three types on the realist end.
Before going into detail for each of these categories, it is important to mention the general manner of their distinctions: each appears to place some sort of emphasis on the idea of “the problem.” In discussions of the craft of fiction, an often-explored concept is that of the problem and the action, the latter element being the means by which the characters assail the problem, which can be seen as the first mover or cause of the plot itself. The closer a work is to the middle of the spectrum, the wider the scope of the problem and, perhaps to some extent, the scope of the action. This could be reasoned in a number of ways, but let us accept that the extremes of the spectrum could be occupied by works of profound psychological density, where the reader is encouraged to place their imagination confidently within the depicted subjectivity of the narrative, regardless of that narrative’s level of omniscience.
Of course, this idea of scope in conjunction with placement on the scale is merely one way in which the categories themselves could be interpreted; thus, not only are selected works of fiction the objects of interpretation, but, to a lesser gradation, the categories themselves are as well. Their places on the scale and their method of identification are static—that much is given—but they are all open-ended as topics of discourse. Let it also be noted that the respective interpretations to be given for the categories and for the vast selection of fictional works are both of considerably different natures: in reading and criticizing a single work of fiction, there are many intuitive devices at play (which have yet to be exemplified); in placing said work within the spectrum and under a particular category, there are stolid criteria meant to guide one’s judgement. These will be explored now, starting with the Immersive fantasy.
The Immersive fiction sits at the furthest end of the Fantasy side of the spectrum, and this would largely contain works of what is commonly called “high fantasy”: the works of Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, and hundreds of other notable authors would surely occupy this space. Within works of high fantasy or hard science fiction—typically commercial genres—the world we are faced with is not our own and, if it is, it has been skewed drastically beyond our recognition. In following the narrative, which should be substantially rich with fantastical, unreal features, we must rely on some voice that guides us through this world and, more or less, embellishes our imaginings with a rich, often flourishing style. It is also possible for the narrative to walk its reader through without paying much mind to the fantastical; rather, here the outlandish and weird is very much present, but lurking behind or around us.
The Portal-Quest fiction is next, moving left: this narrative usually features a protagonist or group of individuals who must pass beyond the threshold of what is familiar and enter into a fantastical world. It differs from the Immersive in that we have a special connection with the primary characters, who are also being introduced to the fantastical world at hand, same as us. Alice in Wonderland and the Chronicles of Narnia generally follow this narrative; The Lord of the Rings could also be said to sit between this type and the Immersive, since the world at the opening of the trilogy is largely familiar, albeit un-real, and several of its comfortable denizens are thrown into the wide world, unsure of what may come. The Portal-Quest could be argued as one of the more popular types, with its forthright compatibility with the Hero’s Journey narrative structure of Joseph Campbell.
The next fiction is the Intrusion, which could almost be viewed as the inverse of the Portal-Quest: whereas the latter featured a protagonist’s journey from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the Intrusion fantasy features the extraordinary forcefully entering the world of the ordinary. Works of the horror genre can fit into this category, as can numerous science fictions or apocalyptic novels; in fact, the Harry Potter books could be placed between this and the Portal-Quest. Ultimately, the world that the reader is situated in is a familiar one, but something forces it to undergo some sort of terrible or benevolent change, either microscopically (as with ghost stories or some works of H.P. Lovecraft) or macroscopically (as with The War of the Worlds). There could be considerable debate between what makes a book a Portal-Quest or Intrusion, though the question could ultimately be resolved in identifying a first mover of action.
Here, it might be worth mentioning the possibility of the “Realist Fantasy,” which could be placed the center-most point in the scale. This work would have to be both self-conscious of the fantastical present within the content and reflexive of the meaning or teleology of this fantastical element, perhaps presented through a rhetorical voice which bears significant semblance to the voices of real-life people. The science fiction of Philip K. Dick could be argued as having a place in this tight, intermediate position; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly both feature a nigh-dystopic future wrapped up in analogies and commentaries of the postmodern condition. Works of this specific variety are speculative, but manage to balance out their critical aspects with the principles of story-telling. Perhaps the most fantastical components of these stories are our open-ended imaginings of the world at hand.
Next along the continuum is the Complication fiction, the first type to be examined on the Realist side of the scale. Here, similar to the Intrusion, there is a macroscopic or microscopic problem which has pushed itself within our comfort zone. The difference, of course, is that this invasive problem is not of a fantastical nature. Rather than war against Martians, we might be dealing with war against the Nazis; rather than an interfering ghost or monstrous creature, we may encounter a serial killer or thief meant to be caught, as in detective novels. While they are of a realistic flavor, these narratives might not depict life as it actually is: there might be scenes of hokey drama or outlandish instances of situational comedy. Further, as in certain war novels, the brutality of war might be lessened for the sake of a wider readership. Some works of Raoul Dahl or Agatha Christie could fall under this category.
The fifth category is the Occurrence fiction, which further diminishes the presence of the overtly unrealistic. Here, the verisimilitude is further increased, but our sense of security is maintained through our assumptions of the narrative’s structure: it is still probably operating under a conventional framework and there should most definitely be no entry of the fantastical, unless it is deployed as illusory. There is also the frequent use of humor and other forms of situational comedy that give color to these types of stories: the work of Jane Austen, for instance, as Rabkin himself suggests. In these stories, humorous devices remind us of our many fallibilities in the real world, yet, when used in a story, they can detach us—the hidden forces of coincidence and irony are actively at play and we can observe their deployment with omniscience, such as in the works of Dickens. Without these devices, the work must move to the spectrum’s leftmost side.
Finally, as the second pole of the continuum, there is Authentic fiction: here, much like with the Immersive fictions, we are faced with a narrative that requires some sort of guidance and, in some cases, we are completely deprived of any such guidance, which can sometimes reinforce our sense of a true reality, unconstrained by any ontological powers—such as coincidence. Works of this category can have highly subjective content (as with philosophical novels, like Camus’ The Stranger) and/or rhetoric (as with stream-of-consciousness stories, like those of Virginia Woolf), all of which paints a personal, perhaps often abstract portrait of the real world. In a way, imagination is required in the same capacity as with the Immersive, but it is of a different class, one of significant intellectual integrity. This particular distinction of imaginative ability is worth an exploration in the future.
To conclude this brief and preliminary assay into a new mode of critical categorization, it is worth noting that the realist-fantasy scale is not meant to show the insufficiencies of common genre classification; rather, its use is meant to provide a schema by which fictions can be analyzed or considered differently, without the constraints and expectations that come with the assignment of a typical genre. Further, there are a number of implications to explore in greater length from here: the problematic categorization of classical literature, for instance, or the potentiality of a work’s regression from one side of the scale to another, or the use of fantasy in relation to personal circumstance and global perspective. Ideally, these topics will soon be provided with their own respective discourses. For now, however, the groundwork for this has been developed, drawn, and explained, at least to an adequate introductory end. ■
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