A succulent breast dispensing good recommendations (yendi) wrote,
A succulent breast dispensing good recommendations

Readercon Report #1: Over the Hills in Farah's Way: Four Categories of Fantasy

Panelists: Ellen Asher, John Clute, Gregory Frost, Greer Gilman, Sarah Micklem

This was a discussion of Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, and was as a mixture of a summary/presentation of the core themes, and a discussion/reaction to them.

I had not yet read the book, and this panel convinced me that I needed to. Alas, Wesleyan Press sold out before I could grab one in the dealer's room, but they're sending my copy by mail at the con discount rate, which is nice (although it turns out that I'd have saved a buck or two via Amazon, since we have Prime, but that's water under the bridge).

Quick summary of the summary (or, if you prefer, oversimplifications of the oversimplifications; all mistakes are likely a result of sloppy note-taking, not stupid panelists. I did foolishly try to come up with my own examples as I was taking notes, and the odds of my being able to read my own handwriting run only slightly higher than the field's):

There are four general categories of fantasy:

Portal-quest fantasy -- the protagonist is roused from his/her safe haven and enters a world of adventure, eventually emerging unscathed and returning to his normal life. This can involve actually leaving our world (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Glory Road), or simply leaving a safe area of another world (LotR, in which case I'm guessing it's really just a "quest" without the portal). In these cases, the protagonists and the reader both learn about the fantastic world simultaneously.

Immersive Fantasy -- the protagonist is already a part of the fantasy world, and the fantastic is considered the norm. This is, as often as not, what I suspect most non-genre folks assume when thinking of fantasy. There's an automatic gap at the beginning between the understanding of the world possessed by the protagonists and by the reader, and the reader is forced to learn about the world to comprehend the story, even if the protagonist gains no new knowledge.

The Intrusion Fantasy -- something fantastic breaks into the world of the protagonist; this is largely horror's domain, with Lovecraft, King, and Stoker all obvious examples. That said, dark fantasy often goes here, as does a lot of mythic fantasy. Props to Clute, btw, for noting again that horror at its best is inherently a transformative genre, not a conservative one.

The Liminal Fantasy -- elements of the other categories apply (most often the intrusive, from the discussion), but the reactions of the protagonists differ from the "expected" reactions the read would apply. Little, Big was an obvious example here, as is Aiken's "Yes, But Today Is Tuesday." This is the toughest category to describe (especially given the limited time of the panel and the fact that I don't yet own the book), but as I understand it, it's essentially one that forces a clash between the reader and protagonists on some level.

Random notes from the panel:

First, although the book grew from an article that aimed for a taxonomy of fantasy, it was a given that the categories are presented as useful concepts to employ when analyzing a book, but books could certainly shift between categories, or employ elements of two or three categories (de Lint's The Little Country springs to mind).

Ellen Asher noted at the begining that this was "the worst-edited book in years," something that I doubt, since I cannot imagine a book with worse editing that Keith Hartman's The Gumshoe Gorilla. That said, I do hate the idea that good ideas might be lost behind bad editing (and hope that turns out to not be the case).

The Portal-Quest section drew some frustration from Asher and Micklem. Asher felt that Mendlesohn, after claiming to be non-judgemental, held the portal-quest in low esteem. Micklem felt that Mendlesohn was also pushing the Liminal over the Portal-Quest, and noted that as a reader, she doesn't "want to argue with the author." Both argued for the value in escapism.

Great quote by Clute at some point: "What is very difficult for a critic to do is to respond positively to someone else's idea." He managed to respond pretty positively, anyway.

There was some discussion about the emotions Mendlesohn associated with the various categories, particularly the use of ennui for the immersive fantasy. That's something I'll have to wait on until I read the book itself.

This panel will eventually inspire a rant about why the Werewolf Fucker mini-genre is neither horror nor intrusive.

My notes contain the question, "does Clute understand Pratchett?" I wish I could remember what I felt he bungled. I think he was claiming that Pratchett's works were immersive and didn't require a connection with or understanding of our world, which is the complete opposite of what they really are, but that seems too extreme to be the case, and I suspect I'm conflating multiple discussions from that panel in my head.

There was a mention of a fifth category, but it's at the very bottom of my page (as it was, it seems, not one of the core ones mentioned in the book), and my handwriting is useless at that point. I believe I have it as "subverting," which likely should have been "subversive."

Overall, this was one of those panels that was worth the price of the con (and which would have worked wonderfully as a two-hour panel -- something I saw at Readercon 2007 with the Slipstream Panel, and would like to see again). I'm very much looking forward to getting my copy of the book.

(This is the only panel which is getting a full write-up, btw; expect two or three other posts to wrap up the con as a whole.)
Tags: readercon, readercon 2008
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