Fantasy & Modernism

The November issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction contains a frustrating, though thought-provoking, essay by Tom La Farge titled "Collage and Map". The essay attempts to delineate the differences between fantasy fiction and Modernist fiction, and in the issue's editorial, David Hartwell writes, "I hope to finish another essay of my own on sf and Modernism in the relatively near future. I really believe that it is a common strength of the fantasy and sf genres that they are historically in opposition to Modernism in the United States."

I won't deny that SF and Modernism have created different forms of art, nor that each mode has its strengths and weaknesses, nor that proponents of one have seldom been proponents of the other. But the techniques of both Modernism and SF are now such ubiquitous parts of American culture that keeping the two separate, or insisting on the purity of either, seems not only like a lost cause, but a silly one.

To his credit, Tom La Farge does not insist on keeping up a barrier between SF and Modernism, if one ever existed, and his essay ends with the question, "What fiction could draw upon both of the esthetics I have tried to describe?" (Simple answer: A lot of what's been published since 1960, either as fantasy or as mainstream literature.) The biggest problem with the essay is that La Farge does not name names, does not situate readers in anything other than a fantasy world of his own.

The premise of the essay is that Modernism's view of the world and of literature is that of a collage, while fantasy's is of a map. Neither of these are original insights, but La Farge tries hard to do something with them. "Fantasy proposes," he says, "magic as its alternative to the chaos of history; magic is both what must be defended and what must mount the defense. Story is the magic that must be ringwalled, and the Map defends it by circumscribing and representing it."

La Farge takes many of his terms from John Clute and John Grant's excellent Encyclopedia of Fantasy, where "Story" is defined as sequential narrative that "generates a sense that its meaning is conveyed through the actual telling". Unfortunately, La Farge never makes reference to any actual books of fantasy, only reference books and critical essays about the nature of fantastic literature. Thus, it's never clear what sort of fantasy writing he's talking about, and most of what he says does not apply to the vast majority of fantasy that has been written. (Maybe he was thinking of the Harry Potter movies.)

The essay is (very) slightly better with regard to Modernism, because at least La Farge mentions the names of a couple of writers, although it's useful to remember that almost no-one involved in Modernist literary movements ever much liked the definitions that were dropped on them, plenty of the writers disliked each others' work and goals, and today many different definitions of Modernism exist. Nonetheless, if we define Modernism as "whatever it was people like Ezra Pound, Dorothy Richardson, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, E.E. Cummings, etc. were up to" then we can at least add a little bit of substance to the label.

In La Farge's caricature, Modernism = fragmentation and fantasy = unity:
Fantasy provides memorable images but licenses forgetful retroformations and recombinations. Its image of a whole, sane world, integrated by Story and Map, makes possible a healing wholeness of the reader as subject. Modernism threatens the subject. In its most radical forms, such as analytical cubism or the writings of Gertrude Stein, it calls the integral subject into doubt by multiplying edges and frames and beginnings and repetitions till one cannot see the object represented as having an interior or center. To see it, to enter into a perceptual relationship with it, requires one to cut loose from one's "oneness".
There's a kernel of insight here, but it has little to do with either fantasy or Modernism. The difference La Farge seems to be trying to describe is the difference between subjective and objective worldviews. What he calls fantasy could just as well apply to most forms of writing premised on the idea of a world that is, at heart, orderly and able to be comprehended, a world where chaos is an aberration of the inherent order. Such a description applies to the majority of Greek tragedies, popular mystery novels, and Hollywood movies.

La Farge's description of cubism and Gertrude Stein is not so much inaccurate as it is incomplete, because in the passage I quoted La Farge makes no mention of one of the most important elements separating most Modernist texts from other sorts of writing: language, a subject barely mentioned at all in the entire essay. Through various techniques, including those La Farge cites, the more radical Modernist writers made it impossible for readers to ignore the fact that language has its own values and properties. (The effect at its best is like someone entering the world of Plato's cave and saying to the people looking at the shadows, "Hey, aren't those shadows cool?")

The essay continues with a series of false dichotomies ("Fantasy centers on the needs of the individual for whom experience has been foreclosed; Modernism creates a process of virtual experience to put individuals back in touch with the world," etc.), adds an amusing comparison of Saruman from Lord of the Rings to Ezra Pound, tries to find common ground ("...both reflect a desire for reconnection to the real and a retrieval of meaning, even for the revival of the archaic. Both propose a revitalized world in which desire is clarified. Both take a stand against money..."), and then moves from generalizing about fantasy and Modernism to generalizing about all fiction published today:
Finally, although they may structure imagination differently and although they may ask for a different kind of reading -- Modernism a laborious connection of the disjunct images of collage into a meaningful composition, fantasy a self-insertion into a mapped and framed world -- both insist upon the importance of an imaginative, active reading. In this they differ from and stand as a critique of the normal fiction of our day, designed, I more and more feel, for passive consumption by exhausted, distracted readers. There is a "pre-read" feel to the formulaic fictions from the mainstream houses, whose familiar characters undergo predictable "epiphanies".
I like the idea of Modernism and fantasy both being modes of fiction that encourage active participation from the reader (at their best, this is true, though it's certainly not true of a lot of fantasy that's published). I want to like the last sentence in that paragraph, but it's too general to be useful. What "formulaic fictions from the mainstream houses" is La Farge talking about? Certainly, there are plenty of crappy mainstream novels that make no demands on the reader's imagination, but the same is true of the majority of what gets published by the major SF publishers, the majority of what oozes out of Hollywood, the majority of what clatters from the major music companies, the majority of what hits the stages of America's theatres -- the majority of everything, actually. Without specific examples, La Farge is blustering into a vacuum.

I probably would not have spent this amount of time and thought on La Farge's essay were it not for David Hartwell's comment about SF and Modernism in his editorial, because I think that Hartwell's campaign to keep SF separate from any Modernist influence is ... peculiar. It's peculiar first because it has failed -- Modernism won a long time ago. It's also peculiar because such a desire, though it comes from a feeling that SF is something separate and special from other types of literature, will further marginalize SF by demanding that the only things labeled "science fiction" or "fantasy" be pieces of writing that are illustrations of nostalgia, the literary equivalent of Civil War re-enactments.

The collage techniques and the subjective worldviews often identified with Modernism are techniques that are commonplace in popular culture today, because they were techniques that fit perfectly into the dominant art of the last hundred years: film (by which I mean movies, TV shows, advertisements, etc.). What is CNN Headline News but collage? What is "The Real World" but colliding subjectivities? We are perfectly used to a nonlinear approach to time (so long as it's visual), because we are used to movies juxtaposing scenes that take place simultaneously in the narrative. The internet is even more profoundly Modernist, with every person surfing over their own waves in an ocean no-one can see in its entirety.

What gets obscured by the various well-intentioned people who want SF to return to 1950 is the history of SF's conjunctions with Modernism. I've started reading New Worlds: An Anthology (first put together in 1983 by Michael Moorcock, but only now being released in the U.S. by Thunder's Mouth Press) and it's been fascinating to see that stories published in New Worlds magazine from 1964-1975 feel like they could be from the other anthology I've been reading recently, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. The New Wave got at least some of its fuel from Modernism, and from the New Wave and its aftermath came many of the best writers SF has known: Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula LeGuin, M. John Harrison, James Tiptree, Joanna Russ, Thomas Disch, etc. To claim, then, that SF is "historically in opposition to Modernism" is to privilege a very specific history and a very particular type of SF, excluding many of the best writers who were (and are) not in opposition to Modernism, but who acknowledged it, improvised with it, plundered it, and, ultimately, fused some of the best values of Modernism with some of the best values of popular literature. It was love, not war.

Though Tom La Farge doesn't seem to know it, and David Hartwell seems to think it's a danger, numerous writers continue to fuse science fiction and fantasy with elements of Modernism (and every other -ism), as has been shown by various anthologies -- the Leviathan series, the Polyphony series, Trampoline, Conjunctions 39, and even the Year's Best Fantasy & Horror collections -- and more novelists than I can possibly list. Why? I'll let Virginia Woolf explain, with the last words of her essay "Modern Fiction":
"The proper stuff of fiction" does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtably bid us break her and bully her, as well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.


  1. Hello, I came upon this blog while I was searching (and searching) for some more information on modernism than the brief information that my english professor has chosen to enlighten us with. Alas I have found very little on the subject (on the web) about the elements of modernism. So to you I give thanks for this site. You have been helpful.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"Stone Animals" by Kelly Link

"Loot" by Nadine Gordimer

Gardner Dozois (1947-2018)

Compulsory Genres

Writing in Crisis