Escapism and the genre wheel

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I want to continue this exploration of genre and how it functions as both a flavour of writing, and as a structural concept that informs both the subject of a piece of work or writing, and how it creates boundaries for that—what do those boundaries mean, and how do they inform us about the ideologies under which the writer strains? I’m exploring this not because I have a grand idea to organise these thoughts, but to help in finding one.

Generalising excessively, we can think about three broad genres of literature that are often considered to have at least some connection: fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. Of course, like so many other aspects, these bleed into one another, the boundaries are blurred, etc., but at their most basic, every reader has some broad concept of them as distinct. We can think of them as proto-genre. Each has become, in a way, a caricature, a defining structural characteristic, rather than an adjective that describes an event, or a theme, or an intrusion.

Each to some degree functions as a form of escapism—and also as a set of boundaries. But I think the most curious, and somehow defining, aspect is how they create escape by pushing against boundaries. Horror confronts fears, sci-fi seeks utopias (of course, I generalise), but fantasy is a more pure escapism, by virtue of creating a new set of boundaries.

Why? What do we need escaping from? Those are the questions that fantasy as a genre should probe. It is the safe dream that can drift away on gossamer threads on waking.

What are we escaping?
What are we escaping?

One frequent defining aspect of fantastic worlds is that they are technologically primitive. We see, in real life, technology as solving our problems. And literally it does solve a lot of problems. Of communication, of resources, of warfare—so often the very stuff of fantasy literature. So the setting removes the possibility of simple solutions, of saying “why didn’t he just text her – why didn’t she just shoot him” (although for the latter see the cliché of the talky villain in film—even with the technological solution at hand, a writer introduces an irrationality into the actor that allows a last minute reprieve, it allows lingering hope, as a way of pushing back against reality [that the writer has created]–that’s a get-out cliché, laziness.) (And so maybe the fantasy setting itself is a get-out, itself a similar form of laziness. For those of us who aren’t good enough to plot, to create sensible interactions, to find original ideas, or to rationally explore our ideology, we can deal with some of the problems of reality by uncreating them. Fantasy as a cliché of form?)

But with technology, there is no human interaction—it distances us from one another in crucial ways. The very things that make us connect (in some way the very stuff of literature!) and so technology is dehumanising.

S-F embraces technology, and gives room to ask: what is left of the human when all of that is accounted for/taken away. From our needs, to the very planet we inhabit. And so maybe in a roundabout way fantasy is a cry of fear for that loss of humanism. That harking back to simpler times. We don’t want to think about losing those parts of ourselves and our interactions, the face to face, the slow living.

Horror can be seen as a different form of escape: first the literal escaping from the horror, but secondly as the horrific escaping from some fantastical beyond into the real world. It shows the intrusion of the unknown into the real…and that is its very frightening nature. To extend the psychoanalytic perspective, it is the unconscious manifesting in the real.

Genre are flavours/elements, rather than as definitions. Overlapping spectra on a wheel. Multidimensional continua. But if we accept the gross generalisations of these genre, we can thus look at them each as pure versions of escapism.

And so what about realist literature as a genre? Especially if we consider the more traditional genre as elements, then yes. Realist literature can be read as a restrained, implicit fantasy. The repressed and latent desires and thus so often the repressed emotions are the dominant themes…or maybe our socio-cultural context creates those feelings and creates the literature that arises from it. The causal elements cannot be separated, of course.

So how then does genre function? What does it achieve? What does any literature achieve? These questions are probably beyond my wisdom.

Because no genre is definitive (of the work), like no personality can be defined by any of a half-dozen narrow traits, or (to extend the metaphor—my agenda becoming clearer) no dream might be interpreted as a simple expression of one archetype, or the manifestation of a single unconscious desire—it is all multidimensional, all read within its context and in combination with all the rest.

So magic realism need not be defined and defended. It is parts realism, parts fantasy—but the important question may be: is it the work of a realist with a penchant for the fantastic, or is it a fantasist who is unable to escape the real? In other words, what is being repressed: the fantasy, which breaks its contextual chains, or an attempt to repress the manifest real, by reaching for the fantastic?

Dystopian S-F may be read in a similar way. If we (sinfully) generalise a pure form of S-F to be other world/space opera types, then dystopia may be S-F weighed down (literally—gravity) by realism. It is the result of speculation on the march of civilisation, but the realisation that the writer is unable to escape the stark reality seen around them. The idea that dystopian fiction is a comment on the real is a valid one, but perhaps it could be argued that such discontent that engenders the dystopic view is the very burden that limits the fantasist/S-Fist.

There is the idea that genre or fantasies play a significant role because once they used to be played out, or at least played for, in social and cultural thinking. For example, gods and underworlds and such were once a vivid set of moral codes, that affected daily life. And those dreams/fantasies had a real connection to people’s behaviour and the social milieu. But now the heavens have been demystified. Science has replaced superstition (somewhat). Our gods are earthbound. And for the most, daily life is reflected in our cultural narratives, our films and literature, even our dreams. What role is there for fantasy then?

Is it just harking back to that very naivete we crave? That we want to be mystified?

Why does it prevail?

In such mythical times, they didn’t need fantasy because the fantastic was part of their dominant narrative. Now it is separate. That very split, that neurosis, may be what is coming through—thus magical realism, horror, the parallel world stories.

So genres are escape, but perhaps it is the prison that deserves our attention.


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