Archive for the Writing Category

On Dradin, in Love; or, VanderMeer ephemera

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 13 July 2017 by Ben

Part of the reason I wanted to write about Jeff VanderMeer is Dradin, in Love, the 1996 novella that became the first section of “The Book of Ambergris” in City of Saints and Madmen. It is a very strange story insofar as it is set in a secondary world but includes few of the trappings of fantasy. I am currently trying to wrap up my chapter on the Ambergris novels and was committed to shoe-horning my thoughts on Dradin in there somewhere. Overall, the chapter discusses how the Ambergris books take up both postmodernist poetics and the secondary world-building of fantasy. These two things do not exist with one another easily, as the skepticism endemic to postmodernist fiction tends to destroy the naive worlds found in fantasy. However, I argue that Ambergris is a world, a materiality, entirely made up of its textuality. Whereas in fictions such as House of Leaves, textuality becomes an abyss without a bottom into which characters and events might fall, in City of Saints and Madmen this textuality is the bottom, the condition. You will have to read the book to get more about that.

That all said, I am so focused in the chapter on Duncan Shriek that maintaining the discussion of Dradin became untenable. As such, I have cut it and provide it here, for your consideration and amusement. Enjoy. Or not. (BTW, the last line of this refers to the title of this subsection of the chapter, “This is Ambergris,” which is a line from “The Strange Case of X,” the fourth section of City of Saints and Madmen.)

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On the history of fantasy scholarship

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 18 October 2016 by Ben

This is some writing I did for Here at the end of all things that will not make it into the final ms in this form. I have cannibalized quite a bit of it, but much of the overall point of this section was lost as I did so, especially the point about fantasy scholarship largely avoiding any attempt to historicize the genre. This point has become increasingly less necessary as I have developed my argument for the overall project. Nonetheless, I thought someone, somewhere, might find this lit review interesting or useful (or even wrong). There are no doubt some typos and other mistakes here, so I present it as is.

Framing the discussion

If, as I suggested in my introduction and will continue to make clear in below, fantasy suffers vis-à-vis science fiction as a genre incapable of doing what science fiction does, namely think through the problem of history and think through problems in an historical manner, some of the blame for this state of affairs must be placed at the feet of the scholars who have sought to identify what the genre is and describe what it does. Albeit without any ill intent, the critical reception of fantasy has generally not included strong arguments about the genre’s historical status since it (the critical reception) began in earnest in the 1970s. Numerous critics have rightly noted the historically recent invention of mimetic fiction and that fanciful treatments of reality had long been the norm prior to the rise of the novel, even if such treatments should not be taken as generic fantasy or even fantastika in a broader sense of the term. Likewise, and following from this acknowledgement, critics of the genre and related forms have noted that the distinction between “fantasy” and “reality” is itself historically determined (arriving at something more similar to its present form than ever before in the late eighteenth century, at the moment when, as Clute suggests, the future becomes visible and therefore threatening). However, such acknowledgements made, the scholarship has tended to focus more on defining what fantasy is than investigating the specific conditions under which it emerged or the ways in which it reacts to those conditions.i In the last decades of the twentieth century, these debates mainly focused on four unevenly distributed topics: the literary history of fantasy, its antecedents in folklore, fairy tales, epics, the romance, the pastoral, etc.; the question of the impossible; the distinctions and relationships between fantasy and the fantastic; and the rhetorical strategies through which fantasy achieves its ends. In recounting this history, as well as its aftermath, I shall focus more on some of these topics than others in order to show how these early discussions set the terms of the debate, terms which not only influence my intervention here, but are themselves interesting from an historical perspective. Even where these terms do not prove to limit such debate absolutely, they nonetheless enjoin the later critic to address them. Such is even more pressing a concern for the critic of fantasy, an object that has yet to enjoy the wide and varied scholarly conversation that has been conducted around, for example, science fiction.

Although early studies of fantasy acknowledge the historicity of the genre (as well as the manner in which distinctions between realist/mimetic fiction and the fantastic generally are products of specific historical formations and conditions), these studies tended to focus more on drawing boundary lines between fantasy and its various others and with defining the positive features of the genre in terms of its formal and conventional properties. In short, these studies tended to be concerned with genre in a relatively ahistorical sense. For example, in his 1976 study The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy, William Irwin notes, “Late in the nineteenth century various authors turned to writing fantasy,” perhaps because they felt confined by the limitations of the social realism that dominated the moment.ii This historicization remains incomplete, however, for the fact that, first, it does not account for the historical transformations of the late eighteenth century which provided the conditions for both social realism and for fantastika or, second, for the distinction between those fantasies which appeared prior to The Lord of the Rings and those which appear after. I argue that only the latter can be included in the genre properly understood (for reasons I shall elaborate in chapters two and three). In any case, Irwin’s goal is not to situate fantasy in its historical moment so much as to describe its formal features, and to do so with an eye towards differentiating between the fantastic (for Irwin something that appears at the level of content) and fantasy (which involves rhetorical devices specific to fantasy as a form). As such, he offers what has become a highly influential definition of the genre as that which “plays the game of the impossible.”iii He goes on to further claim that “a narrative is a fantasy if it presents the persuasive establishment and development of an impossibility, an arbitrary construct of the mind with all under the control of logic and rhetoric. This is the central formal requisite.”iv Irwin not only firmly establishes the concept of the impossible with regard to fantasy scholarship (which I shall further discuss in chapter XXX), but also makes clear in this claim that he is less concerned with the nature of the impossible than with the rhetorical devices which establish impossibility in the mind of the reader. Fantasy is a sort of sophistry insofar as it seeks to trick its readers into imagining impossible things for the sake of a game (however serious) than with the political implications of such thought. As such, history is largely irrelevant, as this game can be played at any time and in any place. That the game comes to be in a specific time and in specific places does not seem to be a concern. Not only would the notion of impossibility (and Irwin’s specific formulation of it) become important in subsequent years to critics of fantasy, but his focus on rhetoric has likewise been influential, as suggested by at the titles of at least three important books on the genre, Rosemary Jackson’s A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy (1992), and Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) (although each of these later works considers rhetorical form in more sophisticated, and even historico-political, ways).

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A glossary for Here at the end of all things

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 September 2016 by Ben

No one asked for this, but here is a glossary for my current book project, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History. Among other things, the project develops a complex vocabulary for thinking about fantasy as a discourse both in its own terms and in relation to science fiction and horror (in the context of history). These are some of the key terms, many of which are adopted and adapted from other writers (especially John Clute and Bernard Stiegler).

In any case, they may not mean very much on their own, but taken together I think they are suggestive:

affectivity: the nature of story’s relationship with other historical objects and concepts

aftermath: the final stage of disappointment characterized by a permanent state of problem and a final and irrevocable sundering of meaning and being, i.e. subsistence (adapted from Clute’s term)

arrival: the final stage of paradigm characterized by the final joining of meaning and being and therefore an end to existence (replaces Clute’s term “topia”)

cognition: the third stage of paradigm in which the subject assimilates to the novelty produced by the novum—willingly or unwillingly, for good or for ill—which had previously caused her to feel estrangement (replaces Clute’s term “conceptual breakthrough,” which he borrows from Peter Nicholls)

consistence: the perfect congruity of meaning and being characteristic of story and destroyed by paradigm (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

desirability: the elimination of story’s relationship with other historical objects and concepts, held always in abeyance and never arriving, but ideally achieved by either by return or in aftermath

disappointment: the grammar of horror which begins with sighting and proceeds to thickening, revel, and aftermath; a process of moving from existence to subsistence although this movement is, in the end, finally unrepresentable; associated with anti-history (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

estrangement: the second stage of paradigm in which the subject becomes confused by the novelty brought into the world by the novum (replaces Clute’s term “cognitive estrangement,” which he borrows from Darko Suvin)

existence: an out-of-syncness of meaning and being, but ideally a temporary one that paradigm overcomes (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

fantastika: the collective name for the genres inaugurated by the Enlightenment, including fantasy, science fiction, and horror; its various genres react to the Enlightenment and its rationality in various ways (adapted from Clute’s term, although used by many)

fantasy: the genre of fantastika which rejects the Enlightenment and its historical mode of thought as a corruption of story, the true essential state of the world and the grammar of fantasy

horror: the genre of fantastika which rejects the Enlightenment and historical thought as falsehoods which hide the fact that meaning and being are always already permanently out-of-sync; the grammar of horror is called disappointment

novum: the first stage of paradigm in which novelty is introduced to the world which transforms the history of that world in a fundamental, totalizing fashion (adapted from Clute’s term, borrowed from Darko Suvin and Ernst Bloch)

paradigm: the grammar of science fiction which begins with novum and proceeds to estrangement, cognition, and arrival; a process of moving from existence to more existence, although it promises consistence; associated with history (adapted from Peter Nicholls and, more so, Thomas Kuhn)

positivity: both the fact of story as something with a history as well as its relationship with other historical objects and concepts

recognition: the third stage of story in which the subject comes to understand her place within story, which is to say that her being and meaning are at one with one another (adapted from Clute’s term)

return: the final stage of story in which the subject no longer exists but consists (adapted from Clute’s term, which replaced “healing”)

revel: the third stage of disappointment in which the subject accepts her subsistence and either celebrates this acceptance or laments it, either of which likely involves inebriation (adapted from Clute’s term)

science fiction: the genre of fantastika which accepts the Enlightenment and modernity as both problem and the solution to problem; the grammar of science fiction is called paradigm

sighting: the first stage of horror characterized by the subject becoming aware of something already present in the world that conflicts with and thereby destroys the fictions by which she gave meaning to her being (adapted from Clute’s term)

story: the grammar of fantasy which begins with wrongness and proceeds to thinning, recognition, and return; a process of moving from existence to consistence, although this movement is, in the end, finally unrepresentable; associated with ahistory (adapted from Clute’s term)

subsistence: the final and irrevocable sundering of being from meaning characteristic of disappointment and feared by existence which tends to produce it nonetheless (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

thickening: the second stage of disappointment characterized by the subject becoming increasingly aware that there is more to the world than can be accounted for by the narratives she tells about it, including the narrative called history (adapted from Clute’s term)

thinning: the second stage of story characterized by the subject becoming aware that the world is becoming less than it was during its prelapsarian period prior to wrongness (adapted from Clute’s term)

wrongness: the first stage of story in which the subject becomes aware of a corruption of the world’s essential truth that has caused it to fall from consistence into existence (adapted from Clute’s term)

ICFA 36: Fantasy, theory, and arguing

Posted in Conferences, The Profession with tags , , , , on 24 March 2015 by Ben

So, at ICFA this past weekend I ran afoul of the old saw about academic arguments being combative in inverse proportion to the size of their stakes. I mainly followed the Fantasy Literature stream of the conference, which meant I was in the same sessions with the same people for the duration. The Fantasy division, in my humble opinion, seems to suffer from an inferiority complex stemming from the lack of regard that fantasy, as an object of study, has within the academy generally and within the study of fantastika specifically, vis-a-vis science fiction. I won’t name names here, but here are some of my thoughts following the conference on fantasy scholarship and theory and whatever.

  1. Fantasy scholarship needs theory. Badly. I don’t mean criticism, of which there is plenty. Rather, I mean an engagement with a related but separate discourse. SF studies benefit greatly from engagements with Marx and media studies, for example. Fantasy scholarship tends to think about fantasy in terms of fantasy. Engagements with folklore studies, myth studies, and philology/linguistics exist, but not enough to force the field to progress as none of these engagements offer fantasy scholars tools to think about fantasy as a contemporary phenomena, in the context of late capitalism, the society of the spectacle, etc. Of course, sf and Marxism have a somewhat happy relationship as they “move in the same direction,” that is, they both think about questions of progress and history and tend to do so in similar manners (not always, I know). Fantasy does not enjoy such a relationship with any type of theory as theory itself tends towards the progressive and fantasy tends towards the conservative. But we’re smart and we can figure this out.
  2. I have thoughts on what type of theory fantasy might need, but more to the point here: whatever theory it chooses, it needs to use that theory to develop critical terms for the study of fantasy. We seem to be relying still on terms Tolkien gave us in the 1940s. John Clute has developed a complex and rich vocabulary for discussing fantasy, in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, but no one really seems to take it too seriously, which is a shame. I don’t always think Clute is “right” and believe that his terms could be developed, but he is always provocative and provides a very useful place to start conversations about what fantasy is and can do (especially in relation to sf and horror).
  3. But “critical” I mean “not deriving simply from the poetics of fantasy.” It seems that the critics tend to use terms given us by writers. I want to have a productive dialogue with writers, but we can’t simply accept the distinction between primary/secondary worlds or the notion of “world-building” as it comes to us from the production side of the discussion. One audience member at one session mentioned the theological dimensions to these terms and that maybe we need to develop them (or, again, new ones), after which another audience member said that she forgot about the theology so therefore does not worry about it. The latter attitude is, to me, a problem. We can’t, of course, keep all ideas in our heads at the same time, but we can’t simply accept what is given to us because we have not bothered to think hard about it.
  4. I mentioned, at the conclusion of my talk, that fantasy tends to be conservative. At another panel, someone mentioned that I mentioned this (although I guess he could have been referring to someone else) in such a way that seemed to me to suggest that he thought I am wrong. Fair enough. I very well could be. However, I want to make clear that I don’t mean that fantasy writers are voting Republican or that Frodo wants to seal the borders of the Shire against illegal immigration from Bree (although he might). Rather, fantasy, as a genre, tends to seek the past, some form of restoration. It need not do this, but when it becomes progressive it works against a central tendency in the genre, the manner in which it has been stated (by Tolkien, by its medieval settings, by positing worlds in which all forms of progress-technological, political, social–have stopped at some point in the past). I think that fantasy’s conservatism is a sort of strength, not because I identify with it but because I don’t. Given that many notions of history, many modern philosophies, conceive of the world as progressing in some form or another and given that we can;t seem to  imagine a way out of history (and capitalism) by going forward, perhaps fantasy–the tendency of which runs counter to progress, again–offers at the very least a model of thought that would help disrupt historical/progressive thought.
  5. All of this said, and all of my arguments aside (some here, some at the conference), I have nothing but the highest respect for the people I met and listened to, even when I do not agree with them. In fact, I suspect I am in greater agreement with them than I think (some discussions in the wee hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning confirm as much). What is and was frustrating about the whole thing was my sense that we were speaking very different languages and that I was not able to make myself understood. I guess there is always next year.

Some more thoughts on other matters:

  • Apropos of nothing but the fact that I was at a conference: during the first paper of the first session I attend at every conference I have ever been to, I think: “This is a really weird thing we do as academics. Everyone is sitting silently, some with looks of boredom-if-not-pain on their faces, listening to someone read something they don’t really care about so that other people will do them a similar courtesy in a few hours or days.” I can only imagine an alien-anthropologist explaining this ritual to its peers.
  • I very much enjoyed my panel on “Mere Genre,” which featured Gerry Canavan and Lisa Swanstrom. Gerry and I are editing a special issue of Extrapolation on this theme and have already done an MLA panel on it. Given the quality of the papers I have heard so far, it promises to be awesome. At ICFA, Lisa talked about Sweet Valley High as a kind of horror text, in the context of an idealized capitalist society. It was brilliant and super interesting. Can’t wait for the essays to start rolling in shortly.

That’s it.

ICFA 36 paper: Here at the end of all things: An Archaeology of Return

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 March 2015 by Ben

Here is my paper from this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, on the problem of ending in fantasy and John Clute’s conception of return.

Here at the end of all things”: An Archaeology of Return

Benjamin J. Robertson

This paper considers the final stage of John Clute’s grammar of “full fantasy,” first known as healing in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and renamed as of 2011 when Clute questions “healing” as a useful term in Pardon this Intrusion and substitutes “return” as a “placeholder.” (116). It argues, first, that return is an irreducibly problematic and contradictory concept—not necessarily through any fault of Clute’s, but because of the historical problem of the end to which return is bound—and, second, that the extent to which fantasy involves return derives from its own historical condition.

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“the end of all things”

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 13 August 2014 by Ben

Here is a paragraph from chapter one in Here at the End of All Things in which I trace the uses of the phrase”the end of all things” in fantasy. Probably needs some revision, but I wanted to share:

The second way fantasy pursues the end has to do with its avoidance of the end of all things, a central preoccupation for fantasy in the heroic/epic/portal-quest tradition that begins with Tolkien. References to such ends abound in fantasy, including numerous direct citations of the statement made by The Lord of the Rings as Frodo lies on Mt. Doom anticipating his own death and the permanent loss of vitality Middle-earth will experience with the destruction of the ring: “For the Quest is achieved and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

  • Jewel the unicorn offers the following, in The Last Battle: “This is the end of all things.”
  • Par Ohmsford experiences the following in The Scions of Shannara: “He felt himself buffeted and tossed, thrown like a dried leaf across the earth, and he sensed it was the end of all things.”
  • As Jane prepares to assault the Sprial Tower, we read this in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter: “They were embarked on a quest of destruction, going up against the greatest Enemy of all, to die and in death seek the obliteration of history. It was the end of all things.”
  • In The Runes of the Earth, Esmer states, “The Dancers of the Sea desire the end of all things.” (The third volume in the series that contains Runes, The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, is entitled Against All Things Ending, reminding us yet again of the tension between one sort end and the other.)
  • The following comes from The Hero of Ages: “‘If this truly is the the end of all things, then the Resolution will soon be hers.”
  • We have this from Shadowplay: “Of course he did not belong, here at the end of all things.”
  • We find the following in the final volume of The Wheel of Time: “‘they will keep on searching, but these notes contain everything we could gather on the seals, the prison and the Dark One. If we break the seals at the wrong time, I fear it would mean the end of all things.”

Dalben offers a strangely punctuated variation on the theme, more apposite the sort of ending fantasy desires: “The Book of Three can say no more than ‘if’ until at the end, of all things that might have been, one becomes what really is.”

Epigraphs to Here at the End of All Things, chapter 1

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 12 August 2014 by Ben

These are the three epigraphs to the first chapter of Here at the End of All Things, entitled “Regressive Futures: An Archaeology of Fantasy”:

I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire.1


There were dragons in the sky and, within him, a mirroring desire to get closer to the glory of their flight, to feel the laminar flow of their unimaginable power and magic as close to his skin as possible. It was a kind of mania. It was a kind of need.2


Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies.3

1 J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964), 39 – 40 original emphasis.
2 Michael Swanwick, The Dragons of Babel (New York: Tor Fantasy, 2009), 2.
3 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 59.