Science Fiction Studies

#107 = Volume 36, Part 1 = March 2009

Michael Levy

The Skeletons and Exoskeletons of Genre

Farah Mendlesohn. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. xxviii +307 pp. $75.00 hc; $27.95 pbk.

I am guilty of one of the gravest sins of which a reviewer can be accused; I have read other reviews of Rhetorics of Fantasy before completing my own. John Clute’s piece appeared on the Strange Horizons website some time ago (Sept. 2008), and how could I not read Clute? Worse yet, while I was not quite through writing my own review, the October 2008 issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction showed up in my mailbox complete with a long review of Mendlesohn’s book by one of the most respected fantasy writers in the field, Michael Swanwick. How could I not read Swanwick? Have these reviews influenced my own? Perhaps. I had already finished reading Rhetorics and taken copious notes before the Clute review appeared and I had the entire review outlined before reading Swanwick. Still, both pieces made valuable points and reminded me of specific examples from Mendlesohn’s text that I might not have come up with on my own. I have not consciously stolen anything from either of them, but they may have had some small influence. Fortunately, though, both Clute and Swanwick share my basic opinion about the text.               

Rhetorics of Fantasy, they believe and I agree, is a very good book. That does not mean that I (and they) do not have the occasional disagreement with it, of course—it is impossible to write a work this wide-ranging without stirring a few feathers on any critic’s back—but in terms of its importance to the field, I am willing to argue that it belongs on the same shelf with Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy (1992) and John Clute and John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), both of which, it should be noted, significantly influenced Mendlesohn’s book. There are, in short, highly significant ideas here, and we must pay attention to them. At this point it would be valuable, I think, to quote the “Health Warning” that prefaces the text: “This book is not intended to create rules. Its categories are not intended to fix anything in stone. This book is merely a portal to fantasy, a tour around the skeletons and exoskeletons of genre” (vii). This is an important statement. Mendlesohn’s categories (which I shall discuss in a moment), although enormously useful, are intended to be both tentative and descriptive, not prescriptive, and her placement of works within her categories should also be seen as tentative. Later on she does argue her points rather vigorously and it is easy to lose track of her initial, more limited critical stance (one that she returns to at the book’s end). At the heart of everything, I believe, Mendlesohn is an explorer, someone more interested in investigating literary relationships than in defining them absolutely.                

Mendlesohn’s key idea, the origin of the book, though stated most succinctly at the end, is that it might be valuable to examine “the way in which the fantastic enters the text” (273). She argues that most fantasies fall into one of four or perhaps four and a half categories: portal/quest, immersive, intrusion, liminal, and irregular. The portal fantasy at its most straightforward involves a protagonist from our world who enters a fantasy universe through some sort of doorway, with C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) being an obvious example. To quote Mendlesohn, portal fantasies are about “entry, transition, and negotiation” (xix): the protagonist must figure out the world s/he has entered and find a place for him/herself within it. Mendlesohn further argues, however, that most quest fantasies, with The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) being the locus classicus for this type of tale, operate essentially as portal fantasies as well. Frodo, though he is native to Middle Earth, is as much an outsider to the great events that he becomes a part of as are the children in the Narnia books, and, while on his quest, he reacts to the fantastic much as they do. This conflation of portal and quest fantasy, although well argued by the author, may be the most controversial claim in the book.                

The immersive fantasy, according to Mendlesohn, is not about outsiders, but rather “invites us to share not merely a world, but a set of assumptions.... [I]t presents the fantastic without comment as the norm both for the protagonist and for the reader” (xx): China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000), she suggests, is a good example of this type of fantasy. Intrusion fantasies generally (although not always) take place in our world and involve some sort of intrusion of the fantastic into daily life. Most horror fiction fits into this category—just about anything by H.P. Lovecraft, for example—as well as much of the fiction of Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, and other urban fantasists. Next comes the most difficult of Mendlesohn’s categories to get one’s head around, the liminal fantasy. In such tales, Mendlesohn says, “the anxiety and the continued maintenance and irresolution of the fantastic becomes [sic] the locus of the ‘fantasy’” (xxiii; emphasis in original). Related to, but not identical to Todorov’s concept of “hesitation,” Mendlesohn’s liminal moment is one where the fantastic appears (or may appear) in what is clearly our world (and not some immersive other world) but, unlike what would happen in an intrusive fantasy, it fails to disrupt. The attitudes of the characters towards the fantastic may best be described as “blasé” (xxiii). They accept the fantastic as real, but do not react to it with strong emotions the way characters in intrusion fantasies do; there is little or no sense either of horror or awe. Mendlesohn’s initial example of liminal fiction is Joan Aiken’s Armitage family stories, which I have to admit that I am not familiar with; her discussion of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) and Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan (1946) are much more revealing. Finally, Mendlesohn devotes space to what she calls the Irregulars, tales that simply do not fit, that—to use her own chapter subtitle—are guilty of “subverting the taxonomy” she has established.                

Mendlesohn’s second important idea, which I believe helps make her book much more than a sterile exercise in category building, is that more often than not “a fantasy succeeds when the literary techniques employed are most appropriate to reader expectations of that category of fantasy” (xiv). Drawing in part on the ideas of Wayne Booth and others, she thus sees the fantastic as a matter of negotiation between writer and reader over genre expectations and recognizable rhetorical techniques: “the failure to grasp the stylistic needs of a particular category of fantasy,” she suggests, “may undermine the effectiveness of an otherwise interesting idea.... [A]n immersive fantasy told with the voice of portal fantasy will feel leaden; a liminal fantasy written with the naiveté of the intrusion fantasy will feel over contrived” (xv; emphasis in original here and throughout).                

The astute reader may have noticed that most of my quotations from Mendlesohn’s book to this point have been followed by lower case, Roman numeral page numbers. This is because the author has chosen to do all of the heavy lifting involved in setting up her categories and explaining why we should care about them in an Introduction that may in fact be, as Clute has already pointed out in his review of Rhetorics of Fantasy, the most important part of the book. The rest of Mendlesohn’s volume consists of five chapters in which she elaborates on each of the categories developed in the Introduction, covering more than one hundred different writers and more than two hundred different texts. In each chapter Mendlesohn identifies and analyzes in some detail what she refers to, borrowing a term from Clute, as taproot texts. These are early examples of works that fit into and help define her categories—for instance, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) in the case of the quest fantasy. She devotes significant space to defining the relationship between the reader and the protagonist of each type of fantasy as well, pointing out, for example, that in both the portal and the quest fantasy “the position of the reader ... is one of companion-audience, tied to the protagonist and dependent on the protagonist for explanation and decoding” (1), whereas in the immersive fantasy “the implied reader, although dependent on the protagonist’s absorption of sight and sounds, is not required to accept his or her narrative” (1).                

The structure of Mendlesohn’s book allows her to take ideas, both her own and those of other critics, and run with them, elaborating these ideas at much greater length than is possible in an essay dedicated to one or two fantasy texts. An example of this method that I found particularly valuable occurs, again in the portal-quest fantasy chapter (although the ideas mentioned here recur as appropriate throughout the book), when Mendlesohn applies the idea of the Club Story to a wide range of fantasy novels. The Club Story—think Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” (1899) or, within genre, Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart (1957)—as defined by Clute is “a tale or tales recounted orally to a group of listeners foregathered in a venue safe from interruption” (qtd. Mendlesohn 6). Mendleshohn points out that many portal and quest tales actually qualify as Club Stories, either explicitly or, more often, implicitly, because the storyteller “is possessed of two essential qualities: he is uninterruptible and incontestable; and the narrative as it is downloaded is essentially closed” (6). Mendlesohn further suggests that such stories are essentially gendered in their origins, having developed out of a particular sort of Victorian and masculine lifestyle located in “a private place uninterrupted by the needs of domesticity or even self care (there are always servants in the club) combined with a stature signaled by the single-voiced and impervious authority” (6). Such tales “valorize ... the control of the narrator” (17), making ironic readings and in fact any form of multiple interpretation essentially impossible. When viewed in these terms, the intensely hierarchical structure of most quest fantasies, and particularly their authority and servant figures (who would never think to contest Gandalf’s leadership or Sam’s supporting role), makes perfect sense. Mendlesohn uses the concept of the Club Story brilliantly in this chapter to help us understand the rhetorical structures that underlie such diverse tales as Pilgrim’s Progress, George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895), Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryóna (1983), and even China Miéville’s anti-quest tale The Scar (2002).             

Do all of Mendlesohn’s categorizations and interpretations ring true? Of course not. Does she occasionally appear to overgeneralize? Of course. Here and there any intelligent reader well versed in the genre is likely to run into something that simply does not fit with his/her sense of an individual work of fantasy. As Clute points out, the allegorical nature of Pilgrim’s Progress makes the author’s positioning of that text as a taproot for the quest tale a bit problematic. When Mendlesohn divides pre-1977 fantasy writers into two groups—“the stylists (Beagle, Anderson, Harrison, Lindsay ...) and the adventure writers (Burroughs, De Camp, Howard)” (39)—I find myself wondering how Poul Anderson (I assume she is referring to Poul) would feel about this placement. Although a fine stylist, Anderson, it seems to me, was first and foremost an adventure writer and even, after all, produced a Conan novel. And then there is the matter of the writers who are missing from Mendlesohn’s book. Swanwick bemoans the lack of R.A. Lafferty and Clute has his own list as well. I would suggest that Mendlesohn missed a bet by not examining A. Merritt. And why no Harlan Ellison, or Orson Scott Card (the Alvin Maker series), or Tim Powers, or Carol Emshwiller, or Lucius Shepard, or George R.R. Martin? The very fecundity of Mendlesohn’s text, which covers far more writers than any other book in the field short of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, calls forth a perhaps irrational desire to take her to task for missing anyone of significance. But, ultimately, I must make clear, these are all nitpicks.

Mendlesohn has produced a fine book, a major work of criticism, one chock-full of aha! moments. My copy of her text overflows with *s where I have noted something important and even the occasional !! when I was particularly impressed by some insight. Her dissection of the structure of the intrusion fantasy, with its “rhythm of tension and release” (117; emphasis in original), its insistence on the importance of “the approach rather than the arrival of the fantastic” (118; emphasis in original), and its emphasis on “feel[ing] and sound, on sensation rather than on visual mapping” (150), followed by numerous examples to underline her points, has made me a better, or at least more conscious, reader of supernatural fiction. Working from Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Mendlesohn writes that “Any sufficiently immersive fantasy is indistinguishable from science fiction” (62). The need to ponder this claim and decide whether or not it is more than merely clever (which I now think it is—more than, I mean), forced me to put down her book for half an hour. I have come back to the statement several times over the past few weeks with continuing pleasure as new examples to which I could apply her aphorism have occurred to me. Then there is her brilliant decision to use Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s picture book The Wolves in the Walls (2003) as a prime example of the intrusion fantasy and for that matter her classification of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (1984) as an intrusion fantasy rather than a portal fantasy, which may have permanently changed the way I look at a major fantasy novel. Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of reading Rhetorics of Fantasy involves having one’s mind changed about various works one thinks one knows intimately. Another pleasure involves having the chance to watch a really good critic, who just happens to write in clear English, do straightforward, intelligent readings of a wide variety of fantasy texts. While writing this review I have obviously had to reread significant parts of Rhetorics of Fantasy and have once again found myself impressed by Mendlesohn’s readings of John Brunner’s The Compleat Traveler in Black (1987), Louis Sachar’s Holes (1998), Miéville’s The Scar, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004), and a variety of other classics.                

Rhetorics of Fantasy is a work that everyone who has a serious interest in fantasy literature should read. You will almost certainly disagree with some of what Mendlesohn has to say, but you will be a better critic of the genre for having read this book.

Attebery, Brian. Strategies of Fantasy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1992.
Clute, John. “Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn.” Strange Horizons (June 9, 2008). Sept. 6, 2008 < of fa.shtml>.
Swanwick, Michael. “A Dizzy Celebration of Being Somewhere Wonderful: Reading Rhetorics of Fantasy in the Real World.” The New York Review of Science Fiction 242 (Oct. 2008): 1, 7.

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