The Fell Gard Codices

Something to Think About

November 30th, 2012

A little while ago, I was thinking out loud on this blog about fantasies without rules; or without obvious rules. And about the distinction between fantasy and surrealism. It occurs to me that one way to phrase the distinction is in talking about the way different stories answer questions. One kind of fantasy answers questions — things like ‘how did this happen’ and ‘why did this happen’ — in clear, direct ways that tend to close off certain avenues and open others. The other kind is maybe less direct and clear, but leaves more avenues open.

I got started thinking about this after reading a discussion in the comments to this post by Jo Walton, about Pamela Dean’s fantasy novel Tam Lin. A commenter (in post 24) brought up Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as a point of comparison; among other things, both books are set at universities and both have something sinister going on in the Classics department. In the next comment, 25, Jo says that she was disappointed in Tartt’s book:

It made me think that for any phenomenon, there are a large number of explanations. When you’re reading a story, you can’t help thinking about what the answers are. SF and fantasy’s answers just take place in a more interesting space than mainstream stories. The Secret History poses lots of interesting questions but it gives them trivial answers.

I think that’s a great way of putting things, and gets to the heart of an issue I’ve been wrestling with for a while — that is, why fantasy? What sets fantasy apart from mimetic fiction? Answer: a different set of potential explanations for events. But at the same time, different fantasies will have different ranges of answers. Perhaps every book will define for itself a certain range as it goes on. But some narrow their ranges more aggressively than others. If so, then it’s not the kinds of answers that divide fantastika from mimetic literatures; but the range of possibilities they embrace.

Worth thinking about.

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