Rhetorics of Fantasy, 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?]

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