Tag Archives: Farah Mendlesohn

Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn

<em class="BookTitle">Rhetorics of Fantasy</em>, Farah Mendlesohn

Wesleyan, 2008, 306 pages, C$33.95 tpb, ISBN 0-8195-6868-6

One of the best things about being a Science Fiction and Fantasy genre reviewer at this point in history is the knowledge that, in many ways, the field is still young. The critical discourse about genre is still evolving, and new approaches to the field are being developed. Book like Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy only underscore how much fun it is to read this stuff seriously, and how crazy the genre critics are willing to be.

Because, frankly, you have to be a bit insane to attempt what Mendlesohn tries to do here: Propose not only a framework in which to classify genre fantasy, but also study the ways in which fantasy literature articulates its own nature. Working both at the macro and the micro level of criticism, Rhetorics of Fantasy is a humble sketch of yet another Grand Unified Theory of Fantasy. The enthusiasm with which it was received (I saw it sell out at two separate literary conventions I attended) says as much about Mendlesohn’s impeccable credentials than about the field’s willingness to consider new ideas.

The innovation that most readers will keep from Rhetorics of Fantasy is Mendlesohn’s descriptive classification of fantasy literature in four big categories: Portal-Quest, Immersive, Intrusion and Liminal. The first three are easy to explain: If a character goes elsewhere strange to have adventures, it’s Portal-Quest. If adventures take place in a self-contained fantasy-land, it’s Immersive. If fantasy comes to the real world for adventures, it’s Intrusion. As for the rarer Liminal Fantasy, well, it’s fantasy in which the fantastic may itself be a fantasy. This is a gross oversimplification, of course, which is why the book has not four but five chapters. The fifth one (which is “not elective”, specifies the author on P.246) presents works that don’t fit in the established pattern and may, in fact, break Mendlesohn’s classification.

This too reflects how much fun the SF&F critical field can be. Unlike other academicians, Mendlesohn invites criticism and counter-arguments. Rhetorics of Fantasy is meant to be a toolbox of new critical tools, not a definitive set of conclusions to put the genre in its place. Readers are invited to take and keep what works and improve the rest.

But even allowing for dissent regarding genre sub-classification, there’s much more to the book than five bins in which we can dump the fantasy section of your local bookstore. The categories are consequences of rhetorical strategies, explains Mendlesohn in working her way up from straight prose. In classifying Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as Portal-Quest rather than Immersive fantasy, she offers a crucial clue: Tolkien’s rhetorical strategies are about discovering the world, not inhabiting it like we do in, say, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. (His The Scar is another thing entirely, and Mendlesohn’s insighful analysis of it made me want to re-read it all over again.) Much of Rhetorics of Fantasy is thus concerned about the way words are put together by fantasy writers, and the inevitable consequences those choices have on how the novel is articulated. I’m sure that writer’s workshop organizers will be able to consider Mendlesohn’s analysis as inhabiting the liminal zone between critical analysis and high-level recommendations on how to write fantasy. (An inevitable conclusion to Mendlesohn’s arguments are that it’s possible to write fantasy by using the wrong rhetoric, something that ought to inform a number of writers in the future.)

But another good way to read the book is just to be swept along the critical bon mots and delight in the insights that seem to drip off every page or so. Ultimately, I don’t feel qualified to do anything else but grin at Mendlesohn’s easy familiarity with genre literature and nod along. Most of what she says appear to be true, no matter which type of fantasy (French or English, Old or Modern, Heroic or Gritty) I try applying it to. Some of the tools I’ll be using in reading critically; others seem too cumbersome for my own purposes. (Liminal Fantasy, as you may have guessed, may be a concept too abstruse for a reviewer who’s got trouble keeping his diacritics away from his dialectics.) I’m already field-stripping Mendlesohn’s toolbox, hefting the best hammers and grips, looking at genre literature like a series of nails to be hammered and things to be squeezed together. The rest of the tools can stay in the toolbox: I’ll be back to them once I have more problems that the hammers and grips won’t be able to solve.

And that too, is part of the fun of reviewing SF&F. Books like Rhetorics of Fantasy, written by a genius to be read by morons, will always be there to revisit, growing alongside their readers as needs be.

[February 2009: As I keep mulling over this book, it strikes me that it would be interesting to hash around the ideas of Rhetorics of Fantasy and see whether this prose-based analysis can be adapted to other mediums such as film or comic books. When stories such as Pan’s Labyrinth seem to span all four of Mendlesohn’s categories, is it possible to deconstruct film grammar so that we’re left with the strategies used by directors to create estrangement, make us feel intrusion, allow for a degree of liminal doubt or rationalize immersion? Is it possible to apply Mendlesohn’s fantastic rhetorics to all of storytelling, rather than prose fiction?]

Polder, Ed. Farah Mendlesohn

Old Earth Books, 2006, 308 pages, US$40.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-882968-34-4

It’s impossible to pick a name and say “there’s the best science-fiction writer of our generation”: there are too many good ones, too many styles, too many different approaches. But it is possible to say “John Clute is the best science-fiction critic of our generation”, because it’s true: no one else comes close. No one else has co-written a standard reference encyclopedia (twice!), churned out enough critical essays to fill three books, even redefined the common language of genre criticism. He is a literary singularity; I feel blessed for having met him a few times at conventions over the years. And there’s another measure of success for you: How many other critics have their own fans?

With Polder, the time has come for the biggest fans of the Clutes (John and Judith) to come together and pay homage to the couple and their flat.

I’m not terribly familiar with Judith Clute’s work, but I suspect that text-heavy Polder isn’t the best way to do so: a coffee-table book may be the best way to discuss a visual artist’s work. In my case, I even lack to vocabulary, so I won’t even try.

Similarly, I’ve never been near 221B Camden High Street in London, so I can only shrug amiably at the reverent description of a flat crammed with bookshelves, art, a cat named Pepys and the Clutes themselves. Interestingly enough, Polder ends up presenting a number of stories and segments of SF novels where the flat figures prominently. Snippets of published works by M. John Harrison, Elizabeth Hand, Geoff Ryman or Kim Stanley Robinson are a testimony to the central location 221B Camden occupies for SF professionals passing by London.

A few stories were written specially for this volume, all of them taking the form of light-hearted pieces with good roles for the Clutes. Brian Aldiss’ “An Audible Anagnorisis” is a fun mainstream piece that reminded me of Wodehouse, whereas Ian Watson’s “What actually Happened in Docklands” enlists John Clute in a fight against evil. But the award for the most amusing story surely goes to Sean McMullen’s “Electrisarian”, an anecdote that tells what happened when a certain Sean McMullen started repairing 221B’s telephone system…

For those who want to learn more about the Clutes, a dozen of their friends got together to write warm and effusive portraits of the couple. Candas Jane Dorsey, Scott Bradfield, Neil Gaiman, Jack Womack, Ellen Datlow and Roz Kaveney offering fascinating recollections of their times with the Clutes. Kaveney’s piece is particularly interesting insofar as she describes the process of working on The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and even offers a version of how the word polder entered SF’s critical vocabulary.

This of course, leads us to Polder‘s considerable value as one of the best work of SF criticism (even meta-criticism) published lately. This is, after all, a book at least a third concerned about a critic. It goes without saying that many other big-name SF critics grabbed Farah Mendlesohn’s invitation as an excuse to discuss their fine art. Clute’s own critical work often inspires them directly: Graham Sleight talks about First and last SF while Edward James muses on Thinning. At other times, it’s Clute himself who’s the subject of attention: Rob Latham double-tracks on his assessment of Clute’s New Worlds criticism, Damien Roderick does a bit of historical contextualizing, Javier A. Martinez shares his love of the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Sciecne Fiction (I could tell a similar tale about the Second Edition), Andrew M. Butler and Gary K Wolfe separately muse about Clute’s influence on the genre. And yet it’s Bruce Sterling who burns up the barn with his review of Clute’s Scores, a review that ends up as a springboard to a wider discussion of genre deficiencies. Just try to find a better all-star roster of SF critics in any other book this year.

Alas, it’s a bit of a let-down to see so many problems with this labour of love: Despite Old Earth Books’ best intentions, the finished product is peppered with typos, missing punctuations and other problems. The endnotes present a particular issue: Not only are they all relegated at the end of the book when footnotes would have been far more accessible (or even, at a minimum, chapter-by-chapter endnotes), but an error at endnote 110 makes it so that the remaining 60 footnotes are two digits out-of-sequence. Knowing John Clute’s impeccably-organized mind, I suspect that this mistake will bother him far more than the content of the book.

But content-wise, Polder achieves what it sets out to do: recognize people who deserve the acclaim. I’m a regular fanboy when it comes to Clute’s work, so there is no doubt that I will nominate this book for the Non-Fiction Hugo Awards next year: Polder may be for a very specific readership, but it hits all the right notes.