Theories and Definitions
I have three The Scar posts waiting for editing, and I’m hoping to have them out over the next two weeks (of course I should finish the novel itself by the end of this week). But this whole debate about “realism” in fantasy just keeps dragging me in. Hopefully, this will be my last word and I can go back to talking about Mieville.
What do I think is going on? Part of the problem is certainly a lack of definitions, of a consensus of what is meant when we throw around terms like “realism” and “fantasy.” My definition comes from my edition of Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literature. In that book, “realism” is defined as a genre that attempts to explore middle class life in the nineteenth century. It is highly mimetic and emphasizes character and psychology over plot. From the late nineteenth century, realism has largely, in various permutation, influenced most of mainstream literature. One can say that there are elements of realism in fantasy, as I said in various comments, that verisimilitude and character are important (read the writing blogs that I read). The idea is to make the secondary world as believable as possible so that the readers are not lost at the beginning (or at the first sign of the fantastic).
But I think that “realism” and “realistic” are being misused when other terms could be more appropriate. I posited that Comedy and Tragedy (as Aristotle and the Elizabethans understood it) and Northrop Frye’s theories might be better terms to explain the issues at hand. But I am not so sure right now (of course, they do work to explain fantasy in general).
Taking a cue from science fiction, I would like to posit the notion of “mundane” fantasy. Mundane fantasy, like mundane science fiction, is about secondary worlds in which little or no magic exists. And the magic, the supernatural, and the fantastic, might just be illusions or parlor tricks if it exists at all. And if we are talking about this mundane fantasy, then I agree with the naysayers, I don’t like the idea of it.
Now, if we are talking about the new violent, explicit strain in fantasy, I think that this strain has existed since Howard and the pulps (just not as explicit- hell read the old epics). I would posit you to take a look at SF Signal’s sword and sorcery mind meld from a few months ago. What we are seeing is, perhaps, a diffusion of sword and sorcery influence on the wider body of the fantasy genre. But if you still are not convinced or happy with that, then how about we posit a style rather than a genre- the “brutal” style of fantasy.
Now with this in mind, I think that for a lot of those who dislike Martin, Morgan, and Bakker for the explicitness of their work, you can rage about the brutal style and not bring in clunky old realism. And if it is a lack of fantasy, then tear apart the mundane secondary genre.
I won’t say categorically that there will be no more posts on this issue. But for now, I want to get back to Mieville. However, I do see the potential for a new series of posts where I hash out an analysis of fantasy. Unfortunately, that means I still can’t get rid of my monstrous theory anthologies! Augh!