Thursday, August 18, 2005

Reading Protocols

So you don't understand what the hullaballo is all about regarding fantasy, science-fiction and speculative literature? Go then and read this interesting post by Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, Tor editor extraordinaire, on why fantasy is hard to read. More interesting was the discussion that followed.

In the post, Patrick cited a New York Times book review of Kelly Link's latest offering, Magic for Beginners, that reads:

...Link puts a metafictional twist on the narrative voice (“This is a story about being lost in the woods,” she says), but the story doesn’t quite come together, and those zombies—are they supposed to be a metaphor?

and compared it to a response by SF writer Scott Westerfield:

Sure, zombies can “be a metaphor.” They can represent the oppressed, as in Land of the Dead, or humanity’s feral nature, as in 28 Days. Or racial politics or fear of contagion or even the consumer unconscious (Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead). We could play this game all night.

But really, zombies are not “supposed to be metaphors.” They’re supposed to be friggin’ zombies.

Patrick put it best when he said:

This is the best expression I’ve seen lately of the gap between people who get fantastic fiction and people who don’t. It’s almost a secular version of Flannery O’Connor’s answer to someone who praised the “symbolism” of the Mass: “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it.” ... Of course any work of fiction with more substance than a Kleenex can support a reading that teases out metaphors and symbolic resonances, but it’s critical to SF and fantasy that the fantastic elements are, first and foremost, real.

What's more insightful is this comment by Patrick's wife, Teresa, who says:

The most basic reason the genre's handling of metaphoric or otherwise figurative languge is different from the mainstream's is that in science fiction and fantasy, such language can misfire badly. Phrases like "her world exploded" or "she turned on her left side" or "the man she married proved to be a beast" might turn out to be literally true. Since readers are confused and distressed when they can't tell whether "she was a magnificent creature" means "statuesque blonde" or "thirteen feet tall, with bright pink fur," it's best to avoid the careless everyday use of metaphors.

Interesting indeed.

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