|Notes on Conceptual Fiction
by Ted Gioia
Is it possible that the idea of "realism" as a guiding principle for
fiction is itself unrealistic? After all, there are no Newtonian laws in
stories—an apple can just as easily fly upward from a tree as drop
to the ground. Characters can ride a magic carpet as easily as
walk. Any restrictions are imposed by the author, not by any
external "reality," however defined.
The first storytellers understood this intuitively. That is why myths,
legends, folk tales and other traditional stories recognize no
Newtonian (or other) limitations on their narrative accounts. These
were the first examples of what I call "conceptual fiction"—in other
words stories that delight in the freedom from "reality" that
storytelling allows. Conceptual fiction plays with our conception of
reality, rather than defers to it.
In the past, conceptual fiction existed at the center of our literary
(and even pre-literary) culture. Nowadays it is dismissed by critics
and typically shuffled off into "genre" categories such as science
fiction and fantasy. Realism gained preeminence as a supposedly
rock hard foundation for fiction. From that moment on, Newton's
laws (and a million other laws) gave orders to the imagination, with
the stamp of approval of the literary establishment.
But here is the more interesting question. Is it possible that this
trend is reversing, and that conceptual fiction is now moving back
from the periphery into the center of our literary culture?
How important is realism in storytelling today? If one judges by the
comments (and, even more importantly, the unstated assumptions)
of critics as diverse as James Wood and Michiko Kakutani, then
realism is the foundation of our literary culture, and storytellers
ignore it at their own peril.
But take a look at the most formative and influential stories of our
age, namely the best-known motion pictures. (We will return to the
novel in a second.) Of the 50 top grossing films of all time, only 7
reveal even the slightest tendency toward realism. (And I need to
categorize Forrest Gump, The Titanic, Raider of the Lost Ark, and
Jaws as realistic to even get to seven.) You can denounce
Hollywood as much as you like, and ridicule the uneducated tastes
of moviegoers. Yet we see what they think of realism every time
we go the local multiplex.
But I can sense your scorn of Hollywood even from where I am
sitting across the great world wide web. And I am confident that
you have never debased yourself to the point of seeing and
enjoying any of these megahits. So let's turn to the novel. Is it
possible that even the novel—the serious novel--is now falling out of
the gravitational pull of realism? (Ah, I love that adjective:
whenever I hear "serious" used by a literary critic, I am reminded of
John McEnroe taunting the umpire at Wimbledon in his whiny voice:
"You can NOT be SERIOUS.")
Let's look more deeply into this matter.
During the middle decades of the 20th century, literary works that
experimented with language were seen as harbingers of the
future. These Joycean and Poundian and Faulknerian creations
were singled out for praise and held as models for emulation.
These works won awards, were taught in universities, and gained
acceptance (at least in highbrow circles) as contemporary classics.
During these same years, another group of writers, universally
scorned by academics and critics, were working on different ways
of conceptualizing reality. Unlike the highbrow writers, they did not
experiment with sentences, but rather with the possible worlds that
these sentences described. These authors often worked in so-
called “genre styles” of fiction (science fiction, fantasy), publishing
in pulp fiction periodicals and cheap paperbacks. Despite the
futuristic tenor of their writing, these authors were not seen as
portents of the future. And though these books sold in huge
quantities and developed a zealous following among readers,
these signs of commercial success only served to increase the
suspicion and scorn with which these books were dealt with in
In a strange quirk of history, literature in the late 20th and early 21st
century failed to follow in the footsteps of Joyce and Pound.
Instead, conceptual fiction came to the fore, and a wide range of
writers—highbrow and lowbrow—focused on literary metaphysics,
a scenario in which sentences stayed the same as they always
were, but the “reality” they described was subject to modification,
distortion and enhancement.
This was seen in the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez
and Salman Rushdie; the alternative histories of Michael Chabon
and Philip Roth; the modernist allegories of José Saramago; the
political dystopias of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro; the
quasi-sci-fi scenarios of Jonathan Lethem and David Foster
Wallace; the reality-stretching narratives of David Mitchell and
Audrey Niffenegger; the urban mysticism of Haruki Murakami and
Mark Z. Danielewski; the meta-reality musings of Paul Auster and
Italo Calvino; the edgy futurism of J.G. Ballard and Iain Banks; and
the works of hosts of other writers.
Of course, very few critics or academics linked these works to their
pulp fiction predecessors. Cormac McCarthy might win a Pulitzer
Prize for his novel The Road, a book whose apocalyptic theme
was straight out of the science fiction playbook. But no bookstore
would dare to put this novel in the sci-fi section. No respectable
critic would dare compare it to, say, I Am Legend (a novel very
similar to McCarthy’s in many respects). Arbitrary divisions
between “serious fiction” and “genre fiction” were enforced, even
when no legitimate dividing line existed.
Only commercial considerations dictated the separation. Literary
critics, who should have been the first to sniff out the phoniness of
this state of affairs, seemed blissfully ignorant that anything was
José Saramago’s Blindness might have a plot that follows in the
footsteps of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain or Greg
Bear’s Blood Music, but no academic would ever mention these
books in the same breath. Toni Morrison’s Beloved might have as
its title character a ghost and build its action around a haunting, but
no one would dare compare it to a horror novel—even though it has
all of the key ingredients.
It almost seemed as if the book industry (and critics and
academics) had reached a tacit agreement. “If you don’t tell people
that these works follow in the footsteps of genre fiction books, we
won’t either." Yet this was merely a commercial decision. After all,
what serious reader would buy these books if they had the taint of
sci-fi or fantasy? When would any Pulitzer or Nobel panel give an
award to a book that was explicitly linked to genre fiction? They
wouldn't. So a charade needed to be played, in which some works
of conceptual fiction were allowed to sit on the same shelf as the
serious books (ah, that McEnroe voice again), while others were
ghetto-ized in a different location, whether it be in a library or a
bookstore or something more intangible like your mind.
This state of affairs pointed to the fundamental flaw in viewing
works of science fiction and fantasy as similar to other genre
Other genre categories—mysteries, romances, etc.—have very
strict limitations on their plots, characters, narrative structures, etc.
A mystery book is expected to present a crime and a solution to the
crime. A romance book must have a love story that proceeds along
more or less familiar lines. These formulas must be followed at all
But the science fiction and fantasy categories were far more
freeform. Almost anything could happen in these books, provided
they played some game with our concept of reality. The only
promises these works made were to astound and delight us. This
was not a formula—indeed it was the exact opposite of a formula.
Just look at the names of the early sci-fi magazines: they were
called Amazing or Astounding or Fantastic or tagged with some
equally ambitious title. . . (my favorite: Weird Tales). Ah, what could
be grander than magazines that forged such extravagant covenants
with their readers? Not even The New Yorker promises that every
issue will be astounding.
In essence, sci-fi and fantasy never fit nicely into the genre
pigeonhole. And given their focus on surprising and delighting
readers—rather than following strict formulas of plot development
and resolution—it was inevitable that “serious writers” would begin
borrowing from these scorned writers who existed at the fringes of
the literary world.
Critics and academics and even readers have largely missed the
implications of this. They prefer to live in denial. A critic as astute
as James Wood—who ranks, for better or worse, among the most
influential writers on literature of our time—can continue to pretend
that the “realist” tradition in fiction somehow reigns supreme. Yet
any perspicacious reader should be able to see that tinkering
with reality is the real driving force in contemporary fiction, and
has been for a long time.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz differentiated between “thin” and
“thick” ways of describing cultures—labels that have since been
borrowed by other disciplines. The “thin” approach focuses on a
specific aspect of a social situation, whereas the “thick”
perspective also tries to capture the context as well.
Fiction can also adopt “thick” or “thin” perspectives. And it should
come as little surprise that many of the most notable examples of
“thick” storytelling reside in the world of conceptual fiction. J.R.R.
Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Frank Herbert’s Dune, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia,
J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical-realist
landscapes . . . these all stand out as marvelously thick,
ethnographies of the imagination. And why the connection
between thick descriptions and fantasy / magical / sci-fi stories?
Because these genres cannot take context for granted, as do so
many so-called “serious” novels. The meticulous creation of a vivid
and inspired context is usually essential to the overall effect in any
extended work of conceptual fiction.
In contrast, when a literary writer attempts a thick description in the
context of a traditional narrative—for example, in writing a novel set
during the time of the French Revolution or the Civil War—the many
telling details that establish the context are typically drawn from
research rather than from the grand leaps of the imagination that
created Middle-earth or Rowling’s magically-charged variant on
contemporary Britain. And when a literary novel is set in the
current day, the approach taken by the writer is, more often than
not, a thin one, since the context is largely familiar to all readers.
The writer working in conceptual fiction genres has no such
support. One might even decide to rename conceptual fiction as
“contextual fiction,” since so much of the power of these works
depend on the author’s ability to create a powerful context within
which the story is situated.
We should not make light of the difficulty—or, indeed, the artistry—
involved in creating a successful work of “thick” fiction out of pure
imagination. Yet how many literary critics will even deign to notice
a book such as Frank Herbert’s Dune, let alone praise it? The
invisibility of this “thick account” masterpiece in literary discussions
is hardly a sign of any failing on the part of Herbert. Rather it
reveals that the literary world, for all its espousal of open-minded,
egalitarian attitudes, has its own unexamined areas of snobbery
Of course, readers pay little attention to these things. The “thick”
works of conceptual fiction mentioned above by Tolkien, Lewis,
Rowling and Herbert are among the most widely read books of the
last century. According to many in the literary establishment, this
must simply be a sign of the stupidity of the masses. And they must
be especially stupid to read thousands of pages (since these are
usually long books or parts of series) of such poorly written books.
Then again, this glib dismissal from highbrow critics might itself be
suspect and worthy of scrutiny.
The term "science fiction" as it is applied to many of these works is
especially unfortunate, since the inclusion of science is not the
decisive factor in setting these books apart. Otherwise a book
such as Richard Powers' The Gold Bug Variations—which
rhapsodizes about science on almost every page—would be a
work of conceptual fiction. It is not. At no point is the reader's
sense of reality challenged by the straightforward narrative style of
Powers' novel, which is a fine book indeed, but with little in common
with the stories discussed here.
By the same token, it is easy to see how mistaken those fans are
who proclaim the superiority of so-called "hard" science fiction—in
other words stories with a large dose of "real" science in them.
Even a quick survey of science fiction books shows that the
science is almost always bogus, and simply serves as a gateway
for bringing imaginative elements into the narrative. The greatness
of these books does not derive from their chemistry or physics or
genetic engineering (which almost always prove to laughably wrong-
headed a few years after the book is published, if not sooner), but
in the writer's visionary reconfiguration of our conceptions of the
Given this situation, we need to return to the many masterworks of
conceptual fiction from earlier decades, and reassess their
importance. Authors such as Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Isaac
Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray
Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, Robert Silverberg, Alfred
Bester, Stanislaw Lem, and many others deserve a new reading
and a sensitive re-evaluation of their role in the evolution of modern
It will not be possible in every instance to “rehabilitate” these
authors. The pulp fiction environment in which they worked
encouraged sloppy writing and perhaps made it difficult for these
writers to develop to their full potential. Yet there is more substance
to this body of work than is usually acknowledged, and a sensitive
study of the history of conceptual fiction (which, in any account of
the history of the novel, would link back to Don Quixote, Gulliver's
Travels and Tristram Shandy, among other classic works) is an
undertaking both fruitful and necessary if we hope to understand our
current literary environment.
|Did sci-fi writers from the 1940s
and 1950s anticipate the future of
serious literature better than the
so-called "serious writers" or, for
that matter, the highbrow critics?