Fantastical, My Ass

I must protest against Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl.

From today, NPR’s Morning Edition: “Because while these stories do have a touch of the fantastical, in Maureen McHugh’s hands, you start with these ordinary situations and when the fantastical occurs, you’re so comfortable with the world that she’s created that you don’t question it as being strange as unsettling.”

Um, isn’t this the point of all good books? That, irrespective of genre, the reader believes in the world created, whether it be Ian Rankin’s highly detailed Edinburgh or the preposterous premise of Rupert Thomson’s Divided Kingdom which Thomson himself single-handedly gets you to believe?

While Pearl was likely trying to get the fuddy-duddy NPR listeners to consider the speculative fiction genre as they sucked down the morning’s brew from their expensive homemade latte machines, this still strikes me as an extaordinary conceit. Why must Pearl perpetuate the great white lie that anything dealing with the “fantastical” has to be subjected to these ridiculous handicaps? Cannot these books be considered on their own terms? Besides, isn’t truth stranger than fiction? Isn’t life “fantastical” in the curve balls it often throws? Or is literary worth at large now confined to such safe septuagenarians as Phillip Roth and John Updike. If so, so sorry to have muffed up that L.L. Bean scarf, old sport, with a bit of that New Crobuzon grit!

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  1. Well, this fuddy-duddy NPR listener (sans expensive latte machine) is sorry she missed the interview but will be sure to give it a listen when she gets home from work. You bring up good points!

  2. Well, I should point out that, could I afford an expensive latte machine, I suppose I’d be fuddy-duddy too. As it stands, NPR is piped in through a very strange, square-shaped clock radio that I’ve had for four years. 🙂

  3. I think that probably all fiction stories–and possibly all nonfiction stories–have at least a touch of the fantastical. But some stories are more fantastical than others, especially in content. The more fantastical the content, the more difficult it often is for many to suspend disbelief. In that way, science fiction/fantasy writing can be harder work; successfully writing such otherworldly, anti-day-to-day-reality stuff sometimes requires more persuasion, more seduction, a subtler writing hand, which is one reason why (among many) that I think it’s unfair when those genres are slammed as if they’re not really writing, as if they’re inherently not “literary.”

    Not everything in the fantasy/sci fi genres is necessarily about elves and lasers, not that those things are fundamentally bad or anything. Just maybe a bit overdone and so already-known that they probably don’t require as much persuasive skill when depicting them.

  4. I haven’t heard the interview, but it sounds like Pearl is using “fantastical” in this context the way one might use the word “tall.” (Why is anything perceived as tall, except in relation to what is around it?) Are these stories in which the so-called fantastical elements stand in such stark contrast to otherwise familiar, mundane situations that suspension of disbelief is threatened? In any case, it does sound like Pearl is addressing a more conservative type of reader who isn’t comfortable with a lot of genre-bending. It’s certainly easier to accept “weird” stories on their own terms if you’re familiar with unconventional narratives. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ease the fuddy-duddy reader into more adventurous storytelling styles. Pearl in any case certainly isn’t the type to twist readers’ arms. In one stroke, Pearl is (gently) telling the fuddy-duddies out there that it’s OK to read these “fantastical” stories, while alerting the rest of us that this is not gonna be your daddy’s Updikean snoozefest.

  5. Surely equally to the point, being strange and unsettling is in no way an inherently bad quality. Presenting the strange as commonplace can produce good stories; presenting the strange as strange can also produce good stories.

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