01 October 2009

How does fantasy enter?

While First-Page guru Betsy is away at Author Fest, I submit the following for your consideration...
How does the fantastic enter a fantasy?

In Rhetorics of Fantasy (RoF) Farah Mendlesohn outlines a classification system which is about "the way in which a text becomes fantasy, or alternatively, the way the fantastic enters the text and the reader's relationship to this." (RoF p xiv).

Here, I consider four different types of fantasies: the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusive and the liminal. These differ in how the reader perceives the fantastic elements. Mendlesohn says "In the portal-quest we are invited through into the fantastic" while "...in the immersive fantasy we are allowed no escape." (RoF p xiv). Mendlesohn furthermore says, in intrusion fantasies, "Fantasy and 'reality' are often kept strictly demarcated…" (RoF p xxii) while in liminal fantasies, "…the fantastic leaks back through the portal." (RoF p xxiii)

Many fantasies also have some formulaic elements; let's look at each of the four types of fantasy in turn.
In both portal and quest fantasies the fantasy world is an unknown place, i.e. the reader is a stranger to the world, namely,
"a character leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place." (RoF p1)
Portal-Quest fantasies furthermore are structured around "...reward and the straight and narrow path." (RoF p5)
In fact, "...it is the unquestionable purity of the tale that holds together the shape of the portal-quest narrative." (RoF p7) One could say "...the insistence of the fixedness of history and of learning, divides quest fantasy from immersive fantasy." (RoF p16)

The role of the reader is quite different in immersive fantasies, namely, they invite "...us to share not merely a world, but a set of assumptions." (RoF p xx)
The reader does "not enter into the immersive fantasy, we are assumed to be of it..." (RoF p xx) In other words, the reader and "...the point of view characters of an immersive fantasy must take for granted the fantastic elements with which they are surrounded..." (RoF p xxi) and the fantasy world must "...function on all levels as a complete world." (RoF p59)
A unique quality of immersive fantasies is often “the creation of a vocabulary that claims meaning but reveals itself, if at all, only through context, which builds the sense of story and world behind what we actually see." (RoF p83) Science fiction could be labeled immersive fantasy in this classification system.

According to Mendlesohn, intrusion fantasies are quite formulaic, and in fact, "Among the intrusion fantasies, the regularity of the formula is almost overwhelming." (RoF p153) "The entire trajectory of the intrusion fantasy; the sense of threat, of waiting, and of repulsion of the horror. [is]…an episodic structure in which the whole is made up of many identical parts." (RoF p130) It should be noted that "…much of modern horror fits in the very center of the intrusion fantasy subset…" (RoF p142)
Something that is relatively unique to intrusion fantasies is " …the protagonist and the reader are never expected to become accustomed to the fantastic." (RoF p xxii) This means "…intrusion fantasy…relies heavily on the escalation of effect. Intrusions begin small and often quite distant. They increase in magnitude, in scope, or in the number of victims." (RoF p116)
Another quintessential quality of the intrusion fantasy, according to Mendlesohn is "… each is 'concluded'." (RoF p116) Moreover, "However mysterious the ending, there is the sense that there can be no next. We are left suspended on the edge of the void. Any next would be an anticlimax." (RoF p117)

Mendlesohn says, "Liminal fantasy is rare." (RoF p xxiii) Other possible terms for liminal fantasy are "hesitation or uncertainty…" fantasy. (RoF p xxiii) Instead of liminal fantasy, Mendlesohn considered the term "…'possible fantasy,' … Liminal fantasy creates possible readings." (RoF p 183) Whatever you call it, in such fantasies, a "…seemingly ordinary story feels like fantasy. We somehow know that it is the fantastic." (RoF p xxiii) She says further, "Liminal fantasy … was that form of fantasy which estranges the reader from the fantastic as seen and described by the protagonist …" (RoF p182)
This concept can be a bit difficult to understand. Mendlesohn states, "The anxiety and the continued maintenance and irresolution of the fantastic becomes the locus of the 'fantasy'. The liminal moment that maintains the anxiety around this material temptation assists the creation of the tone and mode that we associate with the fantastic: its presence is represented as unnerving, and it is this sense of the unnerving that is at the heart of the category I have termed liminal." (RoF p xxiii)
Mendlesohn concludes "…liminal fantasy, of all the forms of the fantastic, may be that which most requires that its readers be steeped in the conventions of fantasy, may indeed prove to be the purest form of the fantastic…."(RoF p245)

Phew! Complicated stuff! So, what's your fantasy? Portal? Quest? Immersive? Intrusive? Liminal? Whatever it is, feel free to send it along to ElectricSpec. :)


David E. Hughes said...

Interesting post, Lesley. I think we get all of these kinds at Electric Spec, and I think that each of these froms are particularly subject to certain weaknesses or flaws. I may have to write a post about that.

writtenwyrdd said...

What a fantastic discussion! I definitely trend away high-toned discussions about writing (about anything, really), but it's good to have a new means of considering your story.

And I have to say I've worked on stories of all those types.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I think SCAR is striving for liminal (which is a major theme in the book, so I found that interesting) but its writer (me) keeps pushing it in other directions. You might be able to call it all of these at some point during the book.

Dave, I'd like to read your thoughts on the weaknesses of each.

lesleylsmith said...

I must admit, Betsy, if SCAR is your current WIP, I do not see it as liminal. My understanding of liminal is the reader is unsure if the work is actually fantasy or not. Since SCAR is set in the future it is an immersive fantasy and since it has another world in it, it also has features of portal/quest fantasy.

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