Gary K. Wolfe, Evaporating Genres: Strategies of Dissoution in the Postmodern Fantastic (2002)

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Wolfe, Gary K.: “Evaporating Genres. Strategies of Dissoution in the Postmodern Fantastic“. In: Edging into the future: science fiction and contemporary cultural trasnforation. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press 2002. pp. 11-29.


(11) [Chapter front page]

(12) In the 1940s American publishers started to number paperbacks (Pocket Books). Within this series, first American SF mass-market anthology came into being with that term (science fiction). Still, pocketbooks turned to different readerships: fantasy (as first book Lost Horizons), mystery, westerns. SF was relegated to special topics (like vegetable gardening), covered in one-shot publications. It “barely existed in book form at all. It was viewed by publishers as a sort of fringe genre that they knew or cared little about” (K. C. Davis 166)

(13) But SF developed a clear identity and readership. In the 1930s special interest niche-genres developed; Fantastic narratives usually were in the same magazines, e.g. Weird Tales, having much horror; The digest fiction magazines dominated the 1950s only but why not earlier? Literary elitism seems insufficient reason. AVAILABLE BOOKS= books that are candidates for publishing; VISIBLE BOOKS different

(14) directly tied to genre identity. SF in the 1940s usually were put as thrillers or pulp stories, while detective stories and western became distinct traditions within popular novel. SF failed to cohere as a genre, a similar pattern arose for horror and fantasy – a canon emerged only well into the 20th century despite fantasy being “arguably the oldest narrative tradition of all”. The “supergenre” of the fantastic was still locked inside the pulp magazines

(15) 1940ies and 50s SF books arrived in libraries. Mid-1950s SF was a recognisable genre, well identified – and then began to disassemble itself. Mysteries and horror appealed to readers basically the same way – SF had very diverse authors and narratives; in the Fantastic generally, there was much diversity while “the genre markers remained radically unstable” in a formal sense. This uncertainty is the seed of dissolution.

(16) Other popular genres had distinct conventional narrative formulas (e.g. detective novel), identified by Cawleti 1976 – C. disregarded all 3 major fantastic genres (SF, F, Horror). To describe those one might invoke Jean Bodel’s “matters” analogue – SF is geography of reason, H is geography of anxiety; F is geography of desire. BUT: formulas never sufficiently described each genre. Horror named itself after the emotion it wanted to create, not after some formula. F, “the oldest genre of all” developed an identity mainly after LotR and was confined to Sword and Sorcery before. Still, Tolkien’s quest formula was ONE expression of the genre. Populist canons by and by developed from magazines

(17) Each genre thereby identified one ideological linchpin: Heinlein (SF), Tolkien (F), Lovecraft (H). Each field had 2 routes: expansion, or collapsing the genre, ie. Over the edges or into itself (self-reflexive). H was built upon Gothic tradition; F was always the dominant mode of narrative; SF was mainly a designed genre, which made expansion difficult. The consensus core of this genre more and more evaporated.

(18) There were multiple ways of response by writers to circumvent writing SF without the genre of SF: I) colonize another genre a) time travel easily moves into historic novel and uses its protocols; b) suspense thriller poses a more subtle change – conventions of SF stay intact while melodrama etc. is added. Biggest difference: ideologies of power (technofriendly v. technophobic/technoparanoid?, NZ) not in narrative conventions

(19) Gregory Benford tried to expand most prominently [lots more on him]

(20) He is more sophisticated than mainstream like Independence Day etc; he is often diluted by echoes of other genres – thriller, epic disaster novel, academic novel, mainstream science novel. II) F as candidate for “imperialist impulses.

(21) Unkown magazine featured fantastic stories. SF authors like Heinlein et. al treated F as “a kind of alternative science” with minimal mythological supernaturalism. “Rationalised Fantasy” was common and has 3 definitions in Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997): 1. works in which magic etc are given quasi-scientific rules, 2. works in which fantasy elements are completely explained away; 3. works in which fantasy elements translated into SF tropes. This was also used to rationalise supernatural horror, e.g. I am Legend (1954). Worlds in a F landscape that are SF are common => “science fantasy”

(22) e.g. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, a romantic epic very distant to our world. Fiction that does not follow either protocol is less common. Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series jumped between SF and F worlds with most blatant clichés. Sheri S. Tepper made a career of conflating genres, introducing F elements into SF – and also fairy tale, hist fiction, genre fantasy… she played deliberately with expectations. A Plague of Angels also calls attention to its own textuality.

(23) => the characters know that they live in an archetypical village and refer to it as such. Setting is first assumed to be SF (plot: attempted dominance via space station) but then conflated (plot: talking animals). The Talisman borrowed its base structure from the fantasy quest romance.

(24) Horror fiction was largely self-referential to its own tradition, often citing authors and incidents – Straub told King that in Ghost Story (1979) he wanted to be literary yet include every ghost situation he could think of. Beyond genre conventions he introduced doppelganger tale in Mr X (1999).

(25) allusions to Lovecraft are frequent in the novel. The 2nd narrative voice knows it is in a horror story, largely self-created – “[h]e is, in effect, a creature made of genre”. All the time, Mr. X engages in an active and witty critique of the genre and still claims to be part of it. In Fantasy, Was b Geoff Ryman questions genre identity – it contained a realist version of the Midwest.

(26) It put Dorothy from Baum’s Oz into real life where she explained her “vision” as idealised past during an illness. This mingle the narrative of Judy Garland (actress) and a contemporary doctor dying of AIDS who becomes obsessed with the idea that Dorothy was real. In a key scene, a mental hospital inmate claims that the movie stole her life. The novel can be seen as an “extended meditation on the spiritual power of fantasy” but is “very nearly an antifantasy”.

(27) The secondary world is consistently undercut by intrusions of realism. By “Fantasy is Evaporating” (self-quote from The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror) Wolfe meant not that it is collapsing but that it is a sign of contemporary culture – undermining expectations revitalises the genre; boundaries grow uncertain. On the other hand there are writers who do not “liberate” genre but use it as the very reference point.

(28) Wolfe sees this as a kind of “literary karaoke”, recycling familiar tropes. In Fantasy we see endless repetitions of Tolkien; in SF we see the novelisation of ST, SW and X-Files. There is limited evidence that commercialism has halted the development of these genres. A greater concern is increased self-referentiality to the genre which leads to a kind of “genre implosion or collapse”. This does not necessarily lead to disappearance as happened with westerns but can, as western, lead to a self-absorbed group of readers, strongly limited in numbers.

(29) Genre as term has become slippery. It refers to market conventions AND to literary and narrative conventions AND perceived commonalities of affect and world-view… This affects all genres but it is most clear in the fantastic genres: they need to shift to reflect reality science (SF), accommodate shifting sources of anxiety (H), and adapt dreams no more consisting of pastoral idealism (F). This transcending of genre shows the genres at their very best.