29 March 2012


David Smith, untitled
I have to admit that while plenty of Damien Walter's "Weird Things" columns at The Guardian are interesting, and it's really wonderful to see a major newspaper paying regular attention such stuff, and Walter seems like a passionate and thoughtful person ... the latest one, titled, "Should science fiction and fantasy do more than entertain?" pretty much made me gag. Mostly it was that headline that caused the coughing and sputtering; the piece itself isn't terrible, is well intentioned, and seems primarily aimed at a general audience. I'm not a general audience for the topic, so in my ways, I'm a terrible reader for what Walter wrote. Thus, I'll refrain from comment on the main text.

But there's a statement he made in response to a commenter that didn't make me cough and sputter, it just made me question something I hadn't really questioned before: the term "formalist" and its relationship to criticism within the field of fantasy and science fiction.

In his comment, Walter stated, "The Rhetorics of Fantasy is a formalist approach."

I wonder, though. I haven't read The Rhetorics of Fantasy, so I don't really want to comment on it too much, since my perception is based on reading a few reviews, what some folks have told me, and glancing at the Google Books preview. So it's entirely possible that my question here has nothing to do with that book. I mention it only because it's the book Walter calls "a formalist approach".

What I wonder is how it's possible to have a formalist approach to fantasy or science fiction that is not also perfectly applicable to other sorts of writing. Is there a specifically formalist approach to SF?

To write criticism about SF is almost always to be stuck in content, not form. (We could, and perhaps should, argue about the soft borders between the two terms, the limits of the terms, the fact that content and form don't really exist outside of the words of the text, what that binary hides, etc. — but at the risk of inaccuracy, let's save such an argument for another time.)

There is nothing I can think of at this moment that formally differentiates SF from not-SF.

The most formalist approach I know of to SF is something like Delany's The American Shore, and were I to think of a formalist approach to SF, I'd think of Delany, though I think such a term for his work is pretty reductive. It's formalist, yes, often, but seldom only formalist. How and why depends on what we mean by "formalist" and "formalism".

Of course, "formalism" is not a term that lacks history or context or, quite often, an initial capital. Once we get beyond the most linguistically-based sorts of formalisms, stuff like symbols and tropes are fair game. But to a formalist, they still tend to be seen not as content-unto-themselves, but as iterations of language (specifically of diction and syntax), though they may not be reduced only to being iterations of language. Still, it's all about "the words on the page".

Who, though, other than Delany, is trying to show that SF is distinguished from non-SF primarily through its language? (I ask that honestly, not rhetorically. I don't have an omniscient knowledge of SF criticism.)

The taxonomists and encyclopedists are looking for plot elements, characters, props, settings, etc. That's content, not form.

Actually, I don't want to sound so certain there, mostly because I do question the content/form dichotomy. Let's amend the above to: "That's mostly content, and mostly not form." If we're going to call something "formalist", though, it should be primarily about form.

The question that then arises is: Does this matter, or am I just being a quibbly taxonomist myself?

I think it matters for one reason, and it's a reason that returns in some ways to my objection to the way SF fans and some critics blindly accept the term "mimetic fiction" for not-SF. In general, SF is formally conservative, traditional, unadventurous, and old-fashioned. There are lots of reasons for this, and a good argument can and has been made that such a form is necessary in a fiction devoted to the suspension of disbelief, the presentation of the impossible or unlikely or speculative in such a way that it is accepted and perceived as real. To undermine the reality effect of SF is, in that view, to undermine SF's whole reason for being.

(Aside: I don't subscribe to such a view, but then, I often like weird and formally innovative stuff. I also don't much care about whether SF exists as something separate from other things. I find taxonomy boring. I'm much more excited by fiction and criticism that examines how language and perception create a sense of reality, how representations interact to construct perception, etc. That's not an interest that exclusively requires texts that have been labeled SF or texts that have been labeled not-SF. In terms of the SF/not-SF dichotomy, my interests are in literary history and the ways literary production, distribution, and consumption create different expectations about texts: genre as manifestation of specific writing, publishing, and reading practices. Again, not very taxonomical. [But though I may not understand or sympathize with the obsession for taxonomy myself, c'est la vie.])

So my reason for thinking it is important for us to use the term "formalism" to talk about types of criticism that are primarily (if not exclusively) concerned with form rather than content (as a strategic dichotomy if not an entirely false one) is that formalist criticism likely undermines and perhaps even obliterates the borders between SF and not-SF.

How? Let me see if I can explain this still-nascent idea. (I reserve the right to completely disagree with myself later, since I'm really just thinking aloud here, writing this post instead of doing other things I should be doing...)

Imagine four texts:

  1. traditional form, no SF content
  2. traditional form, SF content
  3. innovative form, no SF content
  4. innovative form, SF content

Which of these texts would a formalist criticism most differentiate between? Obviously, the first two and second two. A content-based criticism would most differentiate between the texts with SF content and those without. For a content-based criticism, City of Saints & Madmen is closer to The Belgariad than it is to, oh I don't know, The U.S.A. Trilogy.

We don't — we shouldn't — necessarily have to choose. I'm not a puritanical ideologue about this; content analysis is useful and often necessary, particularly when looking at the ideological implications of a text. What we shouldn't do is pretend we're being formalist when we're not, because then we are blind to other ways of looking. We need to be able to see distinctions that are not purely based on content. We need to be able to understand how we can learn about innovative texts by reading them alongside each other. The U.S.A. Trilogy probably could illuminate something for us about how City of Saints creates meaning. But if we claim we are doing formalist analysis, that we are formalist critics, when our hearts are still at home in the land of content, then we're likely to limit our readings without even knowing we're doing so. We're likely to miss ways of readings that are productive and useful.

Beyond that, we may miss the intersections of form and content — we may miss an opportunity to throw that perilous-but-useful dichotomy away and see how form becomes an expression of content and vice versa, how content and form are just words, and how words are everything (or nothing). To see how innovation of language and structure affect meaning and change how we read, regardless of marketing labels or taxonomies of plot devices. To keep our minds open to possibilities, not locked up in pigeonholes.


  1. I'm not a great expert on critical terminology, but I think I recall Adam Roberts using "structuralist" rather than "formalist" for Rhetorics.

    Still, as you say, that's not relevant to your lovely idea.

  2. As Cheryl suggests above, I've seen/heard Rhetorics of Fantasy called a structuralist approach more often than a formalist one, but honestly I've always questioned the distinction between formalism and structuralism. Structure (and Delany illustrates this beautifully in his essay for "intermediate and advanced creative writing students") is one of the defining characteristics of form. As such, Rhetorics does an amazing analysis of the structures utilized in fantasy, and I think it could easily be dubbed a "formalist" look at fantasy even without getting into the syntactical constructions thereof.

    That being said, I think both "pure" formalist approaches which abandon content, and "pure" content-oriented approaches risk missing the forest for the trees. Content is what gets expressed through the form, and the two have a recursive relationship. Consider Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: can something meaningful be said about it by wholly separating form from content?

    To apply either approach to the exclusion of any other forces us to miss fine-detailed nuance and/or broad macro-level implications: it's the equivalent of a critic of SF never reading outside the genre, or a "mainstream" critic never reading within it. Either is ultimately hobbling.

  3. Who, though, other than Delany, is trying to show that SF is distinguished from non-SF primarily through its language?

    I still haven't got round to The American Shore, for shame, but I've been arguing for a while that Delany's application of subjunctivity level can be (and needs) modified and extended: firstly, modified to rearticulate the false distinction between s-f as what "could happen" and fantasy as what "could not happen," since the former also changes subjunctivity level to what "could not happen" -- just in terms of *temporal* rather than metaphysical possibility -- as indeed there's an even more extreme breach of *logical* possibility (Delany's own Dhalgren being a prime example of the use thereof); secondly, extended by recasting subjunctivity as alethic modality, allowing us to view a larger context of other possible modalities -- epistemic, boulomaic, deontic -- think, what "may have happened," what "should have happened," what "must not happen".

    Basically, I see the sentences of fiction as having a baseline modality of "could have happened" -- even a pretended modality of "did happen" in suspension-of-disbelief -- which isn't changed so much as *disrupted* by additional modalities that enter into tension with that conceit. That which changes the subjunctivity / alethic modality of a sentence (e.g. the second sun in Delany's "About 5750 Words" example,) to "could not happen" can be considered a "quirk," as I call it, specifically an alethic quirk (technical novum, historical erratum, metaphysical chimera or logical sutura depending on possibility level.) I'm not sure whether one would call this approach formalist or structuralist, but it's certainly about looking for technical linguistic features.

    It is an approach that, yes, practically speaking, obliterates the boundaries between fiction in general and the various traditional strange-fictional genres, in decomposing genre to low-level linguistic elements which don't define a text as essentially this genre or that any more than my use of alliteration and rhyme in certain sections of INK suddenly renders the whole thing a poem rather than a novel. So this text throws nova in with chimerae, errata and even suturae, and suddenly there's argument over whether it's SF or Fantasy. So this text has a single novum or chimera used in a non-traditional way and suddenly there's argument over whether it's spec-fic or not. That taxonomic bickering is utterly tangential to my aim of analysing the dynamics of the modalities. In fact, while I refer broadly to works which utilise quirks as "strange fiction," when it comes down to it, tragedy is as parseable in terms of boulomiac & deontic quirks as horror is.

    Anyway, enough blather from me. There's a more detailed attempt to thrash out the general idea(s) here: http://notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/notes-toward-theory-of-narrative.html

    1. Hal, would you mind translating your comment into a language I speak? I'm lost!

    2. What? Does no-one know their alethic modality from their boulomaic these days? We're talking formalist criticism of science fiction and you baulk at the linguistics terminology? Have we lived and fought in vain?!

      Sorry, just kidding. This glossary of modality has the technical jargon if you want: http://dinamico2.unibg.it/anglistica/slin/modgloss.htm And the post linked above should be a bit less "WTF?!" TBH, I just didn't want to hit and run with a link to me, me, me, or to expound My Pet Theory at length on Matt's blog either. Hence the comment is condensed to a rather abstruse gloss, I freely admit.

    3. @Hal: (FYI, your Chris Priest quote made me LOL)

      I like your alethic model for narrative. There's a lot to be said for it, especially when applying it through a close, fine-grained analysis of a particular text. And yet, I think for the purposes of accessible criticism, it runs into problems as you get further from the actual linguistic constructions employed. Basically, I wonder how well the model holds when it runs into liminal cases.

      For example, there are lots of texts out there that apply the modalities common to science fiction to works that most folks judge as fantasy (and vice versa), or who mix the modalities they employ in a given text to make it neither one genre nor obviously any other. I'm thinking of liminal works, like Ajvaz's The Golden Age, Crowley's Little, Big (or perhaps even more so, The Translator), Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Saramago's Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, or most of Calvino's writing. To some extent, some of Gene Wolfe's writing would also fall into this, I think.

      The modalities in these narratives shift at several points, sometimes explicitly in the text and sometimes only implicitly. At a fine-grained linguistic level, we could probably track all of these shifts, but if we fail to take into account a particular narrative's broader structure, don't we risk missing a dimension to the story that the words alone might not convey?

      (I am reminded of Hemingway's apocryphal six word story: "Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.")

  4. @Chris: Hmmm, you may have to elucidate. I don't know what kind of dimension to the story would *not* be conveyed by the import of the words. I mean, as I see it, all we have to convey import is the words. Words being the only substance, and story being the super-structure of that substance we're interested in, I'm not sure how looking at the sentences would entail *not* looking at how they fit together into paragraphs, passages, etc.. Why would we *not* be looking at how the fine-grained linguistic features fit together to build a broader structure? Why wouldn't we be watching for features constructed *across* sentences as much as within them? Couldn't Delany's "The red sun was high, the blue low," example be split into two sentences at the start and end of a paragraph, or passage even? Or story even?

    I mean, I'd say with a lot of works we might necessarily be looking at the development of a quirk in the text *as the narrative progresses* with the completion of that process the resolution of the story. Bradbury's "The Veldt" is a good example. The nursery walls seem a simple novum at first, but Bradbury slowly introduces little quirks of wrongness (monstra, what "should not happen") which also work as quirks of foreshadowing (prefigurae, what "will happen,") and even as hints that maybe we're even going beyond the technical "could not happen" into the metaphysical. It doesn't just suddenly decide in a spurious twist at the end that the technical novum is really a metaphysical chimera (and a big-ass monstrum too); the transformation of one type of alethic quirk into another is taking place through the whole narrative. That *is* the over-arching structure.

    We may be talking at cross-purposes though. Implicit import is still import to me. There's nothing in that Hemingway story to me that isn't constructed by the import of the words.

    1. @Hal: Hmmm...I think your brief analysis of "The Veldt" answered my original question. :)

      I have a sneaking suspicion that the "transformation" from one alethic quirk to another can itself be further parsed/analyzed/typified. While Bradbury does it one way in The Veldt, Crowley does it another way in The Translator, and Wolfe does it still another way in the Book of the New Sun, etc. While they all feature some transformation, I suspect there are certain commonalities, shared methods, etc. if not between all such texts then at least between some sub-sets thereof. As you say, that transformation *is* their over-arching structure.

      So what approaches are identifiable for the transformation of alethic quirks? (might be perforce a rhetorical question, since its answer would probably yield a Unified Theory of Narrative, Quantum Physics and Relativity while curing cancer, resolving all political differences, and cooking an excellent souflet...or if not, then it'd at least need several hundred thousand words to explain ;)

  5. Structuralism isn't the study of the structure of a cultural artefact, such as a novel. It's the study of that artefact in relation to the structures it is part of...most notably linguistic or political. What you are referring to as structuralism in this article is really another part of formalism. Hence your confusion about whether Rhetorics is a formalist of a structuralist critique. By your definitions it is both, its simply that your definition of structuralism is wrong. The reason Farah opens Rhetorics with a defence of formalism is because its desperately unfashionable in academe. But from the perspective of most non-academics it is the 'common sense' mode of criticism. And the mode that nearly all SF criticism, academic or amateur, reverts to. I haven't read any structuralist, post-structuralist or deconstructionist critiques of Sf, but would be happy to take recommendations.

    1. I'm not entirely sure what you're responding to, because I quite deliberately never used the term Structuralism (with or without an initial capital), and even the word "structure" only appears once in what I wrote. Chris used "structuralism" once, so maybe that's the "you" are are referring to when you say "your definition of structuralism is wrong". My original comments were also not directed toward Rhetorics because, as I said, I haven't read much of it, and, to quote myself, "it's entirely possible that my question here has nothing to do with that book".

      I was actually trying to avoid getting too deeply into the history of the term formalism (or Formalism -- I prefer to use the capital to indicate specific critical histories, methods, and traditions, and the lower case for a more general or idiosyncratic use, but if we're really being sticklers we should be specific about which Formalisms we're talking about, since there isn't only one, and they aren't all in agreement). Believing I could use the term in a general sense was, I think now, a mistake, but I was trying to work my way through an unclear thought and the word "formalism" is what had sparked that thought, so...

      To bring Structuralism into the mix is to get perilously messy, for a few reasons -- there isn't one single method, for one thing (just look at the disagreements throughout the first Structuralist anthology in English, The Structuralist Controversy).

      It's also worth remembering that many of the people -- particularly literary theorists -- who participated in Structuralist discussions or were labeled as Structuralists didn't stay there. Take Barthes. There are a bunch of different Barthes, and the Structuralist one, while important and influential, is only one part of Barthes as a critic and thinker. Or, even more obviously, Derrida or Lacan -- both of whom were present at the Johns Hopkins conference that led to The Structuralist Controversy.

      To me, someone who has generally more sympathy for the sorts of things that tend to get labeled post-Structuralist, Structuralism seems like an interesting path toward the more nuanced and complex ideas and theories that came after it (and that, in many ways, it made possible). But there are also writers who say that post-Structuralism is just Structuralism by another name, that Deconstruction is an element of either Structuralism or post-Structuralism, that Deconstruction is separate from them, that all this categorizing threatens to leave out more than it includes, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. And that just brings us to the early 1980s! (And I'm not even bringing up the arguments about the differences [or not!] between French and non-French versions of such things.) (And yes, I recognize that everything I have written is reductive to the point of almost being meaningless and probably being distorting. I'm trying not to write a 50,000-word comment!)

      The point is, it's complicated.

      [continued in next comment, because Blogger is telling me I'm being wordy.]

    2. To say that formalism is "desperately unfashionable in academe" seems to me a less than useful generalization. It's true that in literary studies these days there is a strong interest in ideology, politics, and culture, but 1.) it's not a zero-sum game where you only get to use One Theory To Rule Them All, and 2.) such interest often draws from or alludes to other theories. Also, the move toward ideology/politics/culture itself was a response to/correction of/evolution from the Structuralist/post-Structuralist theories that many people thought dominant in literary theory in the '70s and '80s (although I would say the most resilient power within literary studies over the last 60 years or so has been New Criticism, but that may just be me resenting New Criticism. And NC is a formalism, perhaps even a Formalism). Hospitability toward any particular approach is also very dependent on specific disciplines, sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines. In film studies, for instance, David Bordwell has had a tremendous influence and his approach is strongly informed by the Russian Formalists. These days, plenty of criticism is quite heterogeneous. (It may be different in the world of SF theory. I spend the majority of my SF crit reading focused on Delany and the conversations around him, so I've only sporadically kept up with the most recent publications on other SF topics, and usually only when they had something to do with Delany's work, since that's an ongoing project for me.)

      As for SF criticism that is structuralist, post-structuralist or deconstructionist, of course I'd say Delany -- he is all of those and more, depending on which era of his criticism we're talking about (The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is primarily pre-Theory-with-a-capital-T-Theory, for instance) -- but Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic would certainly be a useful read, or Robert Scholes's Structural Fabulation, since both came at the apex of Structuralism's influence on general literary studies.

      But it is certainly true overall, from a wide-angle view, that the sorts of people interested in Structuralism and post-Structuralism were not usually as interested in SF as a genre, and vice versa. (Aside from Delany, who read and absorbed it all.) I would imagine Adam Roberts would be helpful in finding other approaches, too, since he's seemed at least familiar with it in some of the things of his I've read, but I've really only read reviews and overview essays by him, not academic criticism, so I don't know the approaches he prefers.

      All of this is tangential to my original post, which I wrote while holding onto the hope that I could avoid this whole minefield, but that was naive. I was just putting out an idea that occurred to me, but to pursue and clarify that original idea would require much more time than I currently have to develop it and think it through.