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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Fiction is not just fiction, fiction is a set of rules by which the author and audience agree to cooperate.-- Tim O'Neil, "An Argument for Rules," THE HURTING.

Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts.-- Aristotle, NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, pt. 3, translator W.D. Ross.

In earlier essays I've caviled against the commonplace use of the word "convention" in genre studies because the word oversimplifies the relationship of the so-called "conventions" to the reader, who may vary in his response to the genre from demanding total conventionality to preferring a mix of convention and invention. I have pretty much the same take on Tim O'Neil's definition of fiction as "a set of rules," as against Grant Morrison's alleged flouting of same in this Q&A response from the 2010 Comic-con.

In Part 1 I said:

...[for me] to express agreement on this one point is not to endorse an across-the-board dismissal of all verisimilitude. Tim O'Neil interprets Morrison as having said this, and though I think he's incorrect on the whole, it's also true that Morrison's answer may be too cavalier about the need for some types of verisimilitude in even the most fantastic fiction.

In a similar vein I noted in this essay that Joseph Campbell had arguably blurred the distinction between art and myth by representing art as purely counter-intellectual, as buttressed by a citation from A.E. Houseman. I remarked:

I would allow that all art begins with a desire to express emotion, and that intellect can be a stifling influence on the artist's vision, but still Houseman's assertion gives scant credit to the shaping influence of the intellect on art-- including, I imagine, his own.

So while I don't recognize functions of the conscious intellect as the foundation of art, I've gone on record as saying that the intellect-- whether directed to matters of verisimilitude or other cognitive concerns-- is crucial to the shaping of most if not all art, with perhaps different emphases for different types of art. In gauging such different emphases, Aristotle's caution about attempting to be overly precise with regard to subjects that don't admit of precision must be emphasized.

So, as should be obvious, I do think O'Neil's "fiction is a set of rules" is overly precise, and applies better to certain types of fiction than others. In future essays I'll giving at least two examples of fiction that O'Neil's definition doesn't fit.

But first I have to respond to this passage from O'Neil:

What does Morrison mean by "fantasy?" There are two colloquial meanings of fantasy at use here, seemingly interchangeably--

O'Neil goes on to describe these two meanings: one as a casual sort of activity that "could be used to encompass any variety of daydreaming or strictly impossible activity," while the other has more to do with a specific literary genre: "Fantasy is a literary genre, and like all type of storytelling it is dependent on rules."

Now, O'Neil's distinction is essentially valid, but there's one problem.

There's no reference in the Morrison quotes, as I've seen them represented, to "casual fantasy." Everything Morrison talks about relates to fantasy as an entertainment-genre: the ages of Batman characters, singing Disney crabs, and how Scott Summers' eyebeams work. I can find no passage where he just speaks of fantasy in the wider sense, though it's possible O'Neil's reacting to something Morrison has said elsewhere.

Now what's really interesting to me is that within the scope of his examples Morrison does mix two different types of genre-fantasy. One type is, in keeping with O'Neil's pronoucements for the whole of fiction, very concerned with the rules of a given game. X-MEN would be a good example of this one: it started out as superheroic SF-tinged fantasy with a certain set of rules and has pretty much stuck with that ever since.

However, Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID is a fantasy-- as well as a fiction-- that is not *essentially* about the appeal of the game's rules. There are what I term *expectations* in the Disney film, but most of the film's "rules"-- that fish can talk, etc.-- are not supported by logic but by *aesthetics.* There is no *reason* that the Disney fish can talk: it's just a given supported by the author's desire to tell a story involving talking fish and the audience's desire to experience one.

In Part 3 I'll go into more detail as to why I conceive "expectation" to be a superior concept that subsumes O'Neil's concept of rules without in any way compromising the definition he gives it.

1 comment:

RAB said...

Nothing to add here, but I wanted to mention that so far I've agreed with every word of the first two parts and I'm looking forward to the rest!