Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. New York: Methuen. 1981.
Or, “What we talk about when we talk about fantasy.”
I remember using a little bit of this book during my very first quarter of grad school (baby’s first big-kid seminar paper!), and so it’s been one of the ones I’ve been looking forward to digging into deeper. I’m traveling back through time in my Genre Fiction list, having read Susan Napier’s book on the Japanese fantastic, which cites this one as a major influence, and now reading this, with Istvan Todorov’s study (which Jackson cites HEAVILY) on the horizon. Maybe this is what people who are compiling their family tree feel like? Who knows, and I’m wasting words, so TO THE PAGE JUMP!
Ah, structuralism… The days when you could write a bifurcated book that says, “Here are the defining characteristics that are present in every fantastic narrative” in the first half and then go into a second half where you say, “Here, look, see? I ran through all of these books, and it’s all here.” That’s literally what this book does. So as you might guess, I tended to look more at the first half. The first 60 pages or so are devoted almost entirely to, “So, like, wtf is fantastic literature?” And I gotta say, I found Jackson’s definition weirdly narrow. She starts out by categorically excluding, for example, Tolkien. Now, I’m not going to claim my opinion is any more or less valid, but I feel like Tolkien is pretty solidly within “fantasy” for 99% of readers. BUT THERE’S THE TRICK! Jackson isn’t trying to talk about “fantasy” per se, but “the fantastic,” which as she says, is a “mode” rather than a genre. And for all intents and purposes, she probably could have saved a lot of time by just calling it “uncanny literature”.
Basically, what I take Jackson’s main point to be in articulating “the fantastic” is that it is a mode in which things are made strange, destabilized, and otherwise just get all freaky-deaky. That’s why Tolkien (or most sci-fi, for that matter) doesn’t count: within the worldview established by the narrative, nothing is out of the ordinary in terms of separating “reality” from “un-reality”. Yeah, it might be weird that a hobbit was the one to destroy the One Ring, but it didn’t make the characters doubt the internal consistency of their reality. Poe or Lovecraft, on the other hand, have (frequently first-person) narrators that get all kinds of freaked out when, say, they encounter the impossible architectures of R’lyeh. According to Jackson (and to common sense, personal memories of these stories) this is accompanied by a breakdown in the ability of language to signify, since the fantastic introduces things that should not exist in this reality, and our linguistic structures are only able to cope with stuff that should be, not stuff that shouldn’t. The (in my opinion) somewhat anti-climactic conclusion drawn is that the fantastic is fundamentally paradoxical, since it tries to undo the Self/Other division and subject-object relations encoded into us from our earliest days. Unable to actually undo that socialization, it contents itself with simply pointing out the gaps in reality as we know it.
I think my problem with this book is my problem with structuralist analyses of media texts in general: the specifics matter, so don’t ignore them. I’m not denying that the uncanny elements of these stories are pushing toward a dissolution of the binaries that order our lives, but if you try to stop at that observation, you end up pulling up the stakes of these stories — stakes that are in the details (Lovecraft’s racism, for instance, or the closeted queerness of Stoker’s Dracula) — and rather than getting at the specific binaries they work to subvert, you just end up with the fairly vanilla conclusion at which we arrived above. These are complex texts! There’s gotta be more going on than “subverting Self and Other binaries”. How is that Self being nuanced? How is the Other textured to make it more than just a cypher for things-not-me? We need to get into the weeds with these things, or else we end up with an argument that has very limited scope, indeed. If we’re taking fantasy, the fantastic, and the uncanny seriously, we need to believe that they’re saying more than, “Sometimes reality isn’t awesome.”
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