Rhetorics of Fantasy (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Rhetorics of Fantasy. By Farah Mendlesohn. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. 336 pp.

Rhetorics of Fantasy, by Sarah Mendlesohn, should sit on the bookshelf of the dedicated fantasy reader who yearns for quality research on this popular, yet rarely systematically analyzed, genre. It belongs beside earlier generic classification projects: John Clute and John Grant's The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), Michael Swanwick's The Postmodern Archipelago: Two Essays on Science Fiction and Fantasy (1997), Diane Wynne Jones's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996), David Pringle's Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels (1988), and Baird Searles, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin's classic Reader's Guide to Fantasy (1982). These nonfiction works have placed diverse stories into historical and thematic clusters, mapping the mega-genre of fantasy—which imagines life, as Lord Dunsany famously defined, "beyond the fields we know." Today the reach of this "beyond" expands into new territories, from high fantasy to "weird fiction," from urban horror to fairy-tale adaptations, from contemporary takes on magical realism to paranormal romances—making taxonomy virtually impossible. Fantasy, like its rationalist twin, science fiction, contains subgenres, conventions, and modes without neatly delineated borders; Brian Attebery called its scope a "fuzzy set" of works, instead of consensually chartable canon(s).

This challenge has not dissuaded Mendlesohn, faculty member at London's Middlesex University, from categorizing nearly two hundred famous books of fantasy from the late 1800s to the present, using the tools of literary theory, particularly from rhetoric, narratology, and semiotics. In Rhetorics of Fantasy she poses the question, "Where are we asked to stand in relationship to the fantastic?" (xviii). Her rubric evaluates how an author positions the implied reader with respect to a story's fantastic elements: "How do we meet the fantastic? In what ways does this meeting affect the narrative and rhetorical choices? … [I]n what way does the choice of language affect the construction of the fantastic and the position of the reader? What ideological consequences emerge from the rhetorical structures?" (xviii). She foregrounds, through close textual readings, the implied reader's relationship to the fictional protagonist: specifically, the implied reader's affective experience of the protagonist engaging the fantastic. This reader-centric methodology is her major contribution to fantasy studies.

A speculative fiction editor and leader in the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts and the World Science Fiction Convention, Mendlesohn draws upon professional knowledge and colleagues' opinions to place fantasy works into four rhetorical categories: the portal-quest fantasy, the immersive fantasy, the intrusion fantasy, and the liminal fantasy. Evaluating about twenty works for each mode, Mendlesohn sidesteps commonsensical taxonomies of [End Page 178] genre: by predictable themes, plotlines, or character types; sociohistorical contexts; authors; or symbolic/ideological meanings. Instead, she incorporates these factors into evaluating how the rhetorical modes shape an author's narrative patterns and thus the story's narrative structure; then how these formal elements, in turn, influence the author's rhetorical positions and therefore the linguistic choices through which the author connects the implied reader to the fantastic in the story. This structuralist logic allows Mendlesohn to analyze emotional effects of the author's style, tone, and voice, on the implied reader, and to assess the implied reader's agency vis-à-vis the implied author.

In the portal-quest fantasy the protagonist "leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place" (1). The rhetorical strategy blocks the implied reader from asserting readings of the text different from those set by the dominant narrative pattern, thus reducing her to the protagonist's passive companion on a predetermined journey. Reverie, a stylistic trope, over-narrativizes the protagonist's exact thoughts to the implied reader. The plot device of the protagonist's heroic destiny emphasizes the teleological nature of history within the story world, minimizing the protagonist's and implied reader's abilities to develop interpretive agency and alternative actions. Touristic maps are offered to the implied reader as "truthful" knowledge of ambiguous lands to be explored/colonized by outsiders. Lacking "real depth, history, religion, and politics," these lands are "orientalized into the 'unchanging past'" (15).

In the immersive fantasy, set...