My new column is up at SF Signal, rather academically entitled “Autonomy, Individuality, and Narration: More Conjectures on Fantastika and the Sense of Self.” In it, I extend the previous week’s discussion about how readers pull together a sense of self from fictional narratives that enhances their engagement with the text and the story, based on some prompting from my friend Felix Giron. The great thing about Felix’s observation is that it not only shook up a fairly simplistic consideration of the idea, but prompted me to consider the dual problems of what “the self” and “a novel” are. The conclusion this led me to is that we need to think through this notion of how the reader creates a persona that carries them into the storyworld and the plot and question the cultural and ideological tenets of what a self is, and how the novel frames and constrains that.
There was a moment when I was writing the column when I felt I was about to break through the “no politics” restriction that SF Signal has, so I held back a bit, especially with the ending. Because, I realized that as I started looking more critically at my topic, there were layers of subsumed ideology that I had not begun to engage. Our generally-shared conceptions of what a novel is are linked not just to a constitution of consciousness within the fictional narrative, to specific ideas of what a person is, what constitutes (actively and substantively) a self. And this is not just very ideological but deeply political in some ways.
As people struggle in “the real world” to change our ideas of how to conduct our politics and deal with the excesses and irrationalities of our current political and economic structures and practices, I believe that writers need to do this within the literary field of production as well. Well, OK, I’ve believed that for a long time, but the realization has intensified recently. As Paolo Bacigalupi put it on Twitter several months ago, “I’m starting to think that if science fiction isn’t deeply worried about our present, it should be taken out and shot.” I not only agree with this statement, but I think that this sentiment can be used productively to diversify and improve fiction, to make not merely into a revamped political tool but to make it more powerful, challenging, compelling, and gratifying.
We need to submit less frequently to the habituated, ideologized imperative of the novel. There are plenty of novels that just do the usual thing; fantastika has more potential to do not just the unusual, but the unheard of, the unexpected, and even the unfathomable. These are all necessary elements to foster and foment, because too many contemporary works of fiction just reproduce and trivially rework genre conventions, tropes, and submerged ideological positions. From the very idea of the autonomous, individuated protagonist to the broader subject matter of life, novels tend to regurgitate and reaffirm the world around us instead of doing what fiction does best, which is retell the story by calling all other stories into question. I was flipping through Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel last night and I think his take on this matter is, sadly, spot-on: he novel is “distinguished from other forms of fiction by the amount of attention it habitually accords both to the individualisation of its characters and to the detailed presentation of their environment” (pp. 17-18). The novel is not just about life, or about people or a person; a novel narrates a very specifically-conceived assumption about the nature of personhood.
This was a shift from the previous literary era’s focus on types: archetypes, stereotypes, monotypes (which, obviously, we have in revised forms in today’s fiction). Early novelists such as Daniel Defoe broke out of the orthodoxy of classical literature and tried to produce something innovative and critical. As Watt notes: “Very few writers have created for themselves both a new subject and a new literary form to embody it. Defoe did both” ( p. 134). What is now rote and implicit was, at the beginning, a major break in the conception of self and in the work of literature. While I disagree with Watt about many things, on this matter he is quite correct: that the novel was at first. . . novel, something different and vibrant that played with convention and pushed the boundaries of fiction.
That is no longer the case, in general. The novel has become quite a comfortable thing. There are many writers who do incredible things with the form, both internal to its constraints and by transgressing its customs and boundaries. In fact, notions of subversion and departure have become more commonplace and de rigeur in some genres and literary circles. This points to two conclusions: that “the novel” as cultural artifact and imaginative practice (for reader AND writer) is reaching a point of change, and that because of this techniques and effects of transgression are being ideologically normalized to try to head off or soften the ramifications of this change. Excess and border-crossing are often not confrontations or deep refashionings, but aesthetic flourishes and/or flirtatious interludes that do not question the basic ideology of self, narrative, or conditions of the world that structure and limit the literary field of production. And we are well past the time for dabbling and clowning.
For every reason, for ones of entertainment to ones of profound reckoning, writers and readers need to take a cue from the growing movement to change the dynamics of our socio-economic system and occupy literature. But we need to do more than that, starting with a critique of the idea of “occupying.” We need to come up with ways to liberate and reclaim not just public spaces, not just the vast gulfs in our economic hierarchy, but to reclaim imagination. The fantastic and the weird have a profound potential to do this, by questioning comfortable assumptions about the very nature of reality as we apprehend it. This means questioning the ideology of “the novel” itself, enriching it and transforming it, if only in little bits, into a form of storytelling that does not submit to our preconceptions or just toy with them, but that causes us to look at them with wider, more suspicious and discriminating eyes. Literature has been employed to do that before, and it can do it again, if we have the will to write it and read it and talk about it and tear open our imaginations to encompass it.