Sunday, November 13, 2016

Protective Detournement in Fantasy Fiction: Reification and the Anxiety of Influence

Sword & Hood: the current face
 of fantasy reification
Reification only occurs in regards to literary genres when the rubber hits the road in marketing. Genres become stable, recognizable things only when a literary form is transformed into a commodity. The "Fantasy and Science Fiction" section at Barnes & Noble only exists because books that fall into the category of "Fantasy and Science Fiction" have proven themselves to be profitable when marketed according to that rubric. It is the libidinal economy of the publishing market that dictates the categorization of literature; often, this is a four-way complicity between writers who fit their imagination into pre-established modes, publishers looking to profit from marketable categorization, literary critics who prop up the internal mechanics of categorization, and readers who are willing to put up with artificial boundaries structuring their experience of literature.

The effect of literary reification is (at least) two-fold: the candy-coating shell only goes on the chocolate when its becomes apparent that the chocolate is worth money; the shell is there because it is the part you can put a logo on.

Additionally, once the other hopeful authors smell blood in the water (or milk in the chocolate), they know that if they want to swim with the big fish they're going to need to make their competing products fit the already-in-place shape provided by reification. Successful examples of "genre writing" begets imitators and derivatives. When Twilight was the unstoppable juggernaut of the publishing world, suddenly all these other books with Twilight-esque covers and content appeared on the shelves too. Even Pride & Prejudice started to look like it had some sparkle to it:

Literary reification, then, creates walls. But what of innovation within genre, those works that attempt to tear down walls and assert the primacy of different literary modalities? What work do they do and how do they do it?

We might look at "sword & sorcery" as a paradigmatic reaction against, or innovation away from, the Tolkienian strain of "high" fantasy that preceded it and that had necessarily become a reified form of fantasy fiction. Indeed, the phrase "sword & sorcery" was concocted to define how the fiction of Robert E. Howard was different from that of his predecessors. An exchange of ideas between Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber in the pages of various fanzines led to Leiber asserting, "I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!" (Amra, July 1961).

Of course, with time and the acceptance of sword & sorcery as a term of definitional power, it too became a literary reification with expected boundaries and internal literary conventions. Walls were built anew from the rubble left by the vandals at Tolkien's gates. Due to that reification, we now generally know what to expect from a novel marketed as belonging to the realm of swords & sorcery: barbarians with mighty thews, decadent civilizations vs. the vigor of the natural savage, personal danger instead of imperiled worlds, and protagonists dispossessed of moral certitude.

In the terms used by Deleuze & Guattari, Howard's rebellion against Tolkien-esque fantasy is the matter of mapping versus tracing. Tolkien's world is fully traced; Middle-earth is a closed system of unitary distinctions between signifier and signified, between ring and power. Howard's world, in contrast, is a mapping of the ecstatic elaboration of Conan as a metaphor that changes as he becomes reaver, conqueror, king, et al.

But if we see a shade of rebellion in the way that Howard's sword & sorcery tales do not conform to the literary conventions of high fantasy, there is iconoclastic dissension within the ranks of swords & sorcery as well. Michael Moorcock's Elric, for example, seems crafted as the antithesis of Howard's Conan: Conan is a barbarian, Elric is the ruler of an effete and decadent empire; Conan is strong and physical, Elric is weak and must rely on drugs and magic to live; Conan is a warrior, Elric is a learned sorcerer better suited to the book than the sword; Conan's sorrow is the boredom of peace, Elric's melancholy is that his peace will always be interrupted by the cruel machinations of fate.

We could read Moorcock's Elric series as a detournement of Howard's sword & sorcery tales, and especially as a detournement of the economics of the fantasy fiction marketplace. Nevertheless, Moorcock's intentions with Elric might have less to do with moving away from Howard's mode of fantasy adventure and more to do with clearing away the detritus that accumulated around Howard's vision; Elric isn't the antithesis of Conan, he is the antithesis of the economic reiteration of Conan across thousands of characters who are Conan in all but name. Elric doesn't battle with Conan in the economic arena, he battles against imitation, the watering-down of the imaginative power of fantasy by genre-based marketing, and especially the copycat authors who would steal the gift of fire from Howard.

(Note that Karl Edward Wagner further detourned sword & sorcery fiction not by reacting against Conan and Elric, but instead by crossing the streams and combining them as an admixture in his character Kane.)

This "protective detournement" is a peculiar form of the anxiety of influence. Its goal isn't to silence the previous poet's voice or to bury one's artistic father figure, but rather to save the progenitor from being overwritten and diminished by those who are content to speak falsely in the poet's voice or to prop him or her up as an effigy. 

By using the phrases of their influences to speak new sentences, those who practice protective detournement seek to keep the voice of their inspiration vital. The agon is not to compete against the father, but rather to strive against the sons and daughters who would wear his mantle as their own without having earned it.

This phenomenon is observable in fantasy fiction outside the confines of sword & sorcery as well. Although on the surface it may appear that George R. R. Martin's project is to revise the optimistic thrust of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings cycle to account for the corruption in mankind's heart, the real aim is to keep Tolkien's form of storytelling current and accessible, modern and flexible. 

And yet, protective detournement itself is prone to the reification always already present in genre-creating, genre-bending, and genre-breaking--especially where economic success looms on the horizon. Martin may change the game from rings to thrones, but his detournement has already become another category of imitation and crass marketing; witness the rise and fecundity of the "gritty fantasy epic" that currently clogs the marketplace for fantasy fiction. And so the agon continues: swords against darkness and deviltry, certainly, but also against the reification of the imagination too.