Yesterday as I was riding the bus to work I opened my bag to take out Jo Walton’s new novel Among Others, which is a wonderful and heartfelt, but not schmaltzy, book that I look forward to reviewing in full soon. But when I opened my courier satchel, I found that I had left the book at home, and instead had a few duplicates that I was bringing to the store to trade in (it is a bad habit of mine to see a book, bring it home, and later find its twin elsewhere in the collection. The other returns were The Master & Margarita, Sputnik Sweetheart, and The Yorkist Age). One of the books was Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is one of my favorite books of his and is one of the best examples of fantastika of the 20th century. I got so absorbed in it that I missed my stop, and I was honestly surprised that I could get so lost so quickly.
This morning I left Walton at my bedside and brought along Jeff VanderMeer’s new collection Monstrous Creatures, which is also in the review queue. I read “The Third Bear” which was a lot of fun, and finished “The Language of Defeat” before I got downtown (and got off at the right stop this time). This piece was downright inspirational, in part because Jeff makes what I think of as an anthropological argument for looking at genre’s effect on our conceptions of literature. In particular, his discussion of “the syntax of defeat” resonated with me, because the ideas of symbolic capital that inhere to certain genre categories and distinctions can powerfully affect how we look at books and their place in our creative and imaginative lives.
What I took away from that was an odd thought: that in both over-valorizing or denigrating particular literary categories, formations, and ideas, we miss all of the little moments between conceptions, when literature works its way into our minds and our ontology, makes us feel and dream and reassemble our view of the world, if only for a few seconds. It was heady to read the Murakami and feel those strange episodes dance with the warm ideas of Walton’s book. I wonder how I would have responded to the golden beasts in the Town’s fields as a teenager like Mori, far more damaged than she but with far less magic in my life, except that of the library. Back then these moments in-between were blurred as I fled for the solace of genre, for the security of escapism and the comfort of books that had nothing to do with the world around me.
The syntax of defeat is part of a struggle on multiple levels, of meaning, belonging, and representing our conflicts and desires. People would not invest so much energy in these debates if there were not affective elements to them. Sadly, this does not make the debates much more useful, unless people do use them to better understand theirs and others’ ideas of the power and joy of literature. Wrangling over an “umbrella term” for fantastic literature, for example, seems more about authorial or critical identity, about one’s position in relation to various literary conceptions and communities, than about finding an agreeable way to characterize a massive swath of literature. Don’t misunderstand; these debates fascinate me, and I personally stick by “fantastika” as a useful term, but they do contain within them some of that syntax of defeat.
The trick is to think about those moments between, what lies inside and between the categories and assumptions that we project and ingest and wrestle with as we read and think and imagine. It is easy to conflate the cultural and literary utility and pleasures of genre with other considerations, and create not just borders, but outright barriers that inhibit our ingenuity as readers and writers and editors. The syntax of defeat creates obstacles, rather than conditions for creativity. The question for me is, what ideas enrich our experience of literature, increase our insights into what it gives us, and help us to recognize and incorporate the little moments between into the life of the mind and spirit that literature invigorates in us.
Because it in those moments that the magic of the word becomes powerful, when it evades and exceeds expectations and pretensions, when an assemblage of words is becoming literature. A “science fiction book” is not literature until we apprehend it, overlay our notions and understandings on it and turn its symbols into a literary experience. Those moments between are individual instances of sense and comprehension that we pattern and render significant. Genre can give them added meaning or shape, or help us relate them to constellations of stories in our heads, give us another angle of perspective or flavor of experience, but when we lose all sight of them, and think of them as building blocks rather wonders in themselves, we give strength to the syntax of defeat and lose a bit of the gift that literature gives us.