Todorov – The Fantastic


Todorov, Tzvetan.  The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.  Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University.  1973.
Amazon page

Ramble post time!  Just barreled through this book today and have many feelings about it, none of which have yet been compartmentalized.  Also possibly worth noting: the cover image you’re seeing here is for the Cornell Press edition of the book.  Looks like Cornell took it over from Case Western, added a critical introduction, and republished it in 1975, though the translation of the base text remains (I believe) the same.

So!  More structuralism!  Like I said last time, we’re just tunneling back through the years (Bakhtin and Genette are both coming up soon!) in this stretch of high genre theory.  Todorov doesn’t say much that Jackson doesn’t recapitulate in her own book on the fantastic, but he does have quite a bit more to say about the notion of genre itself, so that’s where my focus will lie here.  So what’s in a genre?  Glad you asked!

Man, if French structuralism and Russian formalism are all we have for thinking critically about the concept of genre, I feel like I have a lot of work to do because they feel unsatisfying as hell to me.  It remains to be seen, of course, whether I’d be able to come up with much better, but that’s for ABD me to figure out.

Like I said above, if you’ve read what I have to say about Jackson’s take on the fantastic, you’ve basically heard Todorov’s definition as well, minus the psychoanalytic spin of dissolving Self/Other distinctions, but just to recap: the fantastic is a genre (not mode, as it was in Jackson) defined by a structure that causes the reader to hesitate in making a final judgement as to whether seemingly supernatural events in the narrative were in fact supernatural, or were rather simply explainable by madness or other logical, mundane causes.  That’s it.  As long as the text doesn’t give it away, and instead leaves the reader in uncertainty until the end, it’s fantasy.  Notably different between Todorov and Jackson is Todorov’s claim that fantasy as a proper genre stopped at the end of the 19th century, when psychoanalysis and sociology borrowed from its language and became anchors to the mundane world from which it could no longer escape.  Kind of an odd historical claim to make for the genre, if you ask me, but then my post on Jackson’s book maybe already showed off how much of a different frequency I’m on than these authors.

More interesting to me was Todorov’s preamble about genre theory in general.  He phrases his problematic along the lines of a dialectic between the specific and the general or abstract, with genre occupying the latter category.  He runs with the metaphor of the natural sciences and mathematics, in which an established theory can only ever be proven false because we cannot observe all specific instantiations of it.  He uses the notion of a species as an illustrative contrast: a species designation is the abstract pattern against which individuals can differ more or less without going outside the operating boundaries of the species itself.  The difference, however, is that whereas each new individual member of a species does nothing to change our overall image of the species itself, each new piece of literature produced is capable of shifting our assumptions and expectations of a genre.  Thus, we can discuss a piece of literature because we have pre-existing frames of expectation thanks to the genre in which we place it, but the value of the story lies in where it breaks those frames and stands as a unique, new text.

Oddly, Todorov gets kind of classist here when he says that texts don’t necessarily produce such an effect (i.e. they aren’t guaranteed to make us re-evaluate our conception of a genre), and, “Texts that do not fulfill this condition automatically pass into another category: the so-called “popular” or “mass” literature”.  This is obviously tied up in a stereotype of the artisan producing a unique — and thereby valued — work of art (as opposed to the much-maligned technically reproducible industrial art), and actually made me think of Kawana’s brief pushback against this very model of valuation in her discussion of detective fiction.  He names detective fiction, serialized novels, and (of course) science fiction specifically as those genres — as we popularly define the term — which therefore aren’t “literary” enough for inclusion here.  Ouch.

Todorov fetishizes independence and autonomy for literature, and he criticizes prior genre theory (specifically Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism) as borrowing its tools from philosophy or psychoanalysis, thus compromising literature’s ability to exist as a self-contained entity.  He instead advocates for a linguistic approach (which I guess is more properly literary?) and treats the individual work as an utterance, more or less.  Drawing on verbal, syntactic, and semantic registers, he lays out his structure for fantastic literature, considering all of fantasy’s moving parts like one would linguistic grammars.  In Todorov’s hermetic notion of literature as a system with elements and rules that only ever hold meaning in relation to each other, I was actually briefly reminded of Azuma’s database theory, in which anime (or rather, otaku products) are structured according to self-referential rules and elements.  But whereas Azuma’s moe elements are only recognizable because they excite an emotional response in the viewer, tying that viewer to corporate profit motives and that anime to a wider world, Todorov vigilantly discards the receiver at all times.  Structuralist analysis, he claims, takes as its object abstract, universal structures that are not directly observable in empirical reality, and therefore any actual manifestations of these structures as observed by readers are purely secondary.  Like Golley’s notion of realism for Japanese modernist authors, but way less fun.

With this definition of “genre”, maybe it’s no surprise that Todorov sees fantasy as dying out when its borders can no longer hold against the incursions of psychology into its idioms.  But I would argue the fantastic and the uncanny are still very much active categories in the stories we tell; they are, perhaps, fundamental elements in storytelling, as they demarcate the limits of human knowledge in any given moment.  Psychology, in its own terms, made certain areas of human experience “known”, but this is not to say that there are no longer places in which our words fail us and we are made to question the means by which we try to make sense of the world.  Sci-fi, for example, poses limit case questions of what separates us from our technology, and the results (Neuromancer, say) frequently leave us without a clear answer.  Todorov and Jackson would likely object that, since these texts take place in clearly delineated other worlds, they can only work through the mediating device of allegory, but as Gibson ends up being more and more of a prophet, this seems like less and less of a hard and fast distinction.

Moreover, I must ask: so what?  Their problem with allegory seems to be that it goes “outside of literature,” but was it ever so sealed off to begin with?  A text can’t exist in a vacuum through the simple fact that we are observing it in order to talk about it.  Like Einstein’s relativity or Kant’s philosophy, we can’t access the text-in-itself.  Beyond that, the author cannot write the text without necessarily knitting in their own moment in history, whether that history is political, geographic, literary, or (more likely) all of these and more put together.  Despite the aspirations of bourgeois ideology, even novel-writing can’t conform to the solitary artist stereotype.  I would agree with Todorov, I think, that novels are composed of a myriad different elements all put together in relation to each other, but that database is necessarily constructed through collaborative labor, even if only one person was striking the keys to pen the manuscript, because every novel is the product of a long history constructed by many actors, and its utterance is idiosyncratically received by each reader.  And while trying to deduce the transcendental structure we might deem “Fantasy” is a fun mental exercise, it’s in the reading that these things have their weight.  What’s the point of trying to isolate fantasy “in the lab” when literature is an art form meant to move people?


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