Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Suspension of Disbelief --or-- a Stodgy Review of an Article on Fantasy Fiction.

How do you feel about fairy tales? Fantasy fiction? In the experience of Christopher Noel, author of the essay, "Keeping Open the Wounds of Possibility: the Marvelous, the Uncanny, and the Fantastic in Fiction," people either love fantasy fiction or they loathe it. He references people, himself included, who cannot usually relate to otherworldly fiction, insofar as elements in these kinds of stories are too alien, or else ethereal, New-Agey, and rainbow-strewn, "with soft light and transcendence everywhere one looks." I think I probably belong in the latter camp.

But then again--there's Kafka, who is amazing.

To be sure, there's an appeal in fantasy fiction/fairy tales; it's a popular fictional genre, and there's a reason for this. The reason is that the best authors in this genre have constructed otherworldly aspects of fantasy fiction in ways that make it inhabitable and allow it to be, dare I say colonized?-- by both the story's characters and it's readers. Noel calls it "groundedness." I like his perspective on this. The idea is that the best fantasy stories maintain certain conventions that can "ground" the reader in a sense. Sometimes it's the presence of familiar and mundane articles or physical objects, that ground the story,  like in Gabriel Garcia Marquez' The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, in which the attention to detail in the story--the mud, the pecking hens (the mundane, farmhouse sort) looking for parasites in the old man's feathers--ground the story, giving the readers a point of reference and allowing  a "what-if?" to occur in the mind of the reader as the fantasy story progresses.

Back to Kafka: Somehow, the main character, Gregor, is relatable, and we humans empathize with him, even though he's a bug. A creeping, crawling bug. In fact, Noel says that certain aspects of Gregor's bugginess  capture what it means to be human better than the best expose on how it may feel to be ostracized in society could. I would agree. We relate to Gregor because, despite the fact that he's a cockroach, other aspects of his life are familiar. He's uncomfortable in bed, because he can't sleep on his right side (his "condition" prevents this). He feels melancholy when he looks outside and see the rain beating against his windowpane. He feels the same tensions we feel, between external image, and who we are inside. He feels the same feelings we sometimes feel, of being small and alone in this world.

This is what really good fantasy fiction does. It gives us some familiar signpost, to help us along in the fantastic. It gives us some aspects of the mundane to help us along in our suspension of disbelief.

“To be matter of fact about the world is to blunder into fantasy -- and dull fantasy at that, as the real world is strange and wonderful.” --Robert A. Heinman

1 comment:

  1. I definitely am a fan of fantasy fiction but like it was said, the genre much more accessible when grounded in reality. Latin American literature has a strong tradition of infusing fantastical elements into tales of everyday life (see: Isabel Allende) and I feel like that really is the ideal middle ground between "realistic" fiction and fantasy.

    It's a balance I always try to strive for in my own writing.



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