ICFA Fantasy Theory Roundtable: James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy

Here is the proposal (since accepted) I put together fora fantasy theory roundtable at  ICFA 2019. The SF division has been doing this sort of thing for a long time, and I have been discussing doing one for the fantasy division for some time with division heads and some other interested parties. Thanks to Tim Murphy, who helped get me going this; Dan Creed, who offered advice and enthusiasm; and James Gifford, who wrote the book we will be discussing and agreed to come be a respondent to the panel.

As of now, the panel is scheduled for Thursday, March 14, 2019 4:15-5:45 p.m. at ICFA in Orlando. Hope to see you there.

If you need the reading, send me an email (to your right) or  find me on Twitter. I think that the reading will be made available through the IAFA site at some point as well, likely here (login required).

The Proposal

James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (2018) eschews the impulse to define or taxonomize genre fantasy that preoccupies so much of the scholarly work on the topic. Rather, it engages directly with criticisms, mainly from historical materialist scholars, that genre fantasy offers no politics and, thus, no engagement with capitalism or the labor of history. Gifford argues that a good deal of fantasy before Tolkien, and a fair bit that comes after Tolkien, exhibits a form of subjectivity and a challenge to authority very similar to those offered by anarchism. Marxian historical materialism, which tends to ignore the role of the individual in political contexts in favor of a consideration of class and the widespread determination of the superstructure by the base, has a long history of dismissing anarchist politics. In Gifford’s argument, this dismissal is of a piece with the dismissal of fantasy from this very same school of thought. This argument, therefore, opens up fantasy to political readings and distinguishes the genre from science fiction in a manner that avoids claims about its inherent inferiority. Beyond this important work, Gifford also offers in A Modernist Fantasy a close reading of the genre’s history, one focused on writers (from Morris and Mirrlees to Treece and Peake and on to Le Guin and Delany) who mainly exist outside of the generic conventions and constraints most readers know through Tolkien. Thus Gifford offers a theoretical paradigm through which to understand the genre by way of considering an understudied period of the genre’s history. Moreover, Gifford’s focus on the political possibilities of fantasy and the scholarly argument over those possibilities, fits well with the conference’s theme, “Politics and Conflict.”

For the roundtable itself, participants will be asked to read an excerpt from chapter one of A Modernist Fantasy. This section of chapter one, about 35 pages long, focuses on how the understanding of magic in several popular fantasies (by Brooks, Eddings, and Le Guin, for example) mirrors anarchism’s understanding of radical subjectivity. This reading would, I believe, be of great interest to members of ICFA’s fantasy division insofar as it takes up and engages with historical materialist readings of fantasy even as it moves past them. At the same time, it offers numerous readings of specific fantasy texts that will be recognizable to this group.

This session will be run as a discussion. I would offer a very brief opening remark about why I chose this reading and then open the floor to a conversation that, ideally, would be directed by the interests and desires of session attendees. James Gifford plans to attend the conference and is willing to be a respondent at the session. As such, I would set aside ten minutes at the end of the session for his comments and any final responses to those comments.

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