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
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 highbrow circles.
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 must have 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 costs.
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
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 deign
even 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 and intolerance.
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 real.
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 fiction.
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.
Published on April 4, 2009
|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?
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction