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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...

Monday, October 18, 2010


Even as I created a simple resource to deal with Dwight Swain's notion of the "focal character," here I'm creating a resource to sum up Frank Cioffi's idea of "the anomaly" as expressed in his 1982 critical book FORMULA FICTION, which I briefly reviewed here.

Cioffi's main purpose in the book is to suss out the attitudes found in science fiction stories toward that which seems anomalous or unusual:

“Status quo” science fiction. . . . opens with a conventional picture of social reality. . . . This reality is disrupted by some anomaly or change--invasion, invention, or atmospheric disturbance, for example--and most of the story involves combating or otherwise dealing with this disruption. At the story’s conclusion, the initial reality (the status quo) reasserts itself (ix).

Status quo science fiction served to affirm existent reality in much the same way that other popular genres of the troubled 1930s affirmed values such as family, the love ethic, manly heroism, the American Way, and the like (ix).

The “subversive” formula. . . [is] a variety of SF that comes directly out of the status quo formula and, in fact, closely resembles it. . . . In the subversive formula, the anomaly is not expelled, but somehow incorporated into society; in short, society is subverted by it (ix.)

Rather than demonstrating how society snaps back to normal after any disruption, subversive science fiction depicts how society adapts to and incorporates the anomalous. . . . The anomaly is making an impact on the social structure depicted: altering it, subverting it, destroying it (x).

However, Cioffi is careful to point out that any formula story is likely to use the same basic approaches to storytelling:

The “classic detective story” (as defined by John G. Cawelti) takes a similar structure [to that of the status quo formula story]. Into a fairly conventional and familiar world a crime intrudes, and by the story’s conclusion, the crime is solved, and the integrity of society is reinforced (40).

It even more closely resembles the “fantastic journey” variety of adventure story: the protagonist of a central group of characters journeys into the unknown or the forbidden but safely returns to the comforting, familiar world by the end of the story. Horror stories often exhibit a similar structure. The horror element is introduced into a conventional world (or sometimes arises through placement of conventional types in a horror setting such as a haunted house) and causes excitement, chills, and thrills; but finally the real world reasserts itself and order reigns (41).

An ur-text. . . is formed by looking for conventional plots, heroes, conflicts, and anomalies which appear in large numbers of stories but only rarely appear all at once in any one tale. The ur-text, then, is a composite picture of the most oft-repeated and conventional features of a formula. . . . The ur-text . . . is entirely conventional, containing more clich├ęs than a writer would ever be able to sell in one story. Conversely, no story would be able to sell without at least a good portion of these ur-text features (42).

(Brief pause to tip my hat to Gary L. Pullman of CHILLERS AND THRILLERS-- see bloglist-- for putting these references on the web.)

Now, though Cioffi's book doesn't reference Aristotle, clearly his structural summation of how anomalous presences impact on "conventional social reality" is of a piece with Aristotle's concept of the "Complication" (literally "Desis"= "tying or binding"), while the way in which the viewpoint characters (my term) respond to the anomaly comprises the "Resolution" ("Lusis"= "untying.") I don't agree with Cioffi that all responses to anomalous presences in science fiction or any other genre can be neatly categorized between a "status quo" type and a "subversive" type: for me a given story is better categorized according to the Fryean *mythos* its author dominantly follows. What's most valuable about Cioffi's formulation is that his analysis reveals that in much science fiction, and implicitly in other genres as well, the "anomaly," which in standard literary studies would be in the position of the "antagonist" to a viewpoint "protagonist," may actually be the focus of a given story while the protagonists are, in essence, rather forgettable.

For instance, Cioffi references A.E. Van Vogt's 1939 short story "Black Destroyer," mentioning that its first sentence takes place in the viewpoint of the rapacious alien Coeurl, prior to his ALIEN-like encounter with spacefaring humans. In Arthur Quiller-Couch's terms, this would be a "man vs. man" encounter even though Coeurl is only symbolically a "man" in that he is a sentient creature like his opponents. However, though the reader's sympathies will usually side with the human protagonists in this and similar stories, in "Black Destroyer" antagonist Coeurl is the memorable "star of the show," much as Dracula (to cite again one of Dwight Swain's examples) is the star of the novel named after him, rather than any of that novel's sympathetic viewpoint characters.

I don't plan to return to Cioffi in further essays on the "superhero idiom" theme, which is one reason I chose to isolate reference to him in this resource. But his FORMULA FICTION, despite its Marxist-sounding bias, remains valuable to the analysis of the complexities of genre fiction.

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