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.