Scratching my Duck Quack

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Think of how you roll your eyes whenever someone utters the words, “If I were you, I would…” Everything’s easy for the observer – and for the reader, easier still. This is what makes hard choices in hard circumstances the most difficult thing to convincingly portray in fiction.

Here’s an attitude I seem to bump into on occasion:

R. Scott Bakker, for instance, sees fantasy as a result of the mind’s inability to cope with the rapid change and rationalistic thinking of modernity, but I think it’s best to avoid this kind of thinking because fantasy literature has been around for a really long time; there was no distinction between imaginative and realist forms in literature for a good while, and seeing fantasy and science fiction as some sort of aberration strikes me as foolish.

The notion that fantasy literature is not only as old as literature itself, but obviously so, is painfully common. The idea, again, is that different species of writing are best defined according to relations of resemblance. So you compile ad hoc lists of the things you find in The Lord of the Rings and the things you find in Beowulf and… If it looks like a duck, the assumption is, then it is a duck. The upshot is that you can claim that the fantasy you write is the Ur-Literature, that you’re sitting on Poppa Homer’s lap (hoping that it’s his cellphone you feel in his pocket).

But what if that duckish thing is actually a decoy. The cliche saying, remember, is, If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. In other words, it not only has to look like a thing, it has to do like a thing as well. Expressed this way, the gulf between The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf couldn’t be greater.

A ‘book,’ remember, is simply conceptual shorthand for families of related readings. Once you realize that the meaning is all in the audience’s collective head, then you can see the perils of using formal resemblances as your yardstick for grouping what belongs to what. In fact, the identical piece of code can result in profoundly different reading experiences (something Borges was fond of playing with on occasion).

The crazy remarkable thing about fantasy literature is the way it utilizes the forms of premodern scripture to do something diametrically opposite. Where scripture is the truest of the true literature, fantasy is the falsest of the false. Similar forms, completely different sets of cognitive committments, and drastically different cultural roles. This is why I think fantasy is kind of canary in the cultural coalmine: nowhere do we see the socio-historical rupture of the Enlightenment with greater clarity. Use the kinds of anthropomorphic ontologies you find in preEnlightenment scriptures to structure your fictional settings and you find yourself writing the most fictional fiction.

Is fantasy as old as the Bible? To say yes is to say something genuinely foolish, to prioritize appearances over consequences, and just as importantly, to overlook the constitutive role of the audience, culture, and history in the production of meaning. Anthropomorphic ontologies are as old as the Bible, even older. What readers make of those ontologies depends on a supercomplicated soup of social and historical considerations.

Fantasy fiction, on the other hand, is only as old as its audience. Unless you want to call the ancient Greeks, Israelites, Hindus, etc., fantasy readers, then you need to bite the bullet and admit that it is young – and in a very telling way.