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Evaporating Genres

Essays on Fantastic Literature

Gary K. Wolfe

Publication Year: 2011

In this wide-ranging series of essays, an award-winning science fiction critic explores how the related genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror evolve, merge, and finally "evaporate" into new and more dynamic forms. Beginning with a discussion of how literary readers "unlearned" how to read the fantastic during the heyday of realistic fiction, Gary K. Wolfe goes on to show how the fantastic reasserted itself in popular genre literature, and how these genres themselves grew increasingly unstable in terms of both narrative form and the worlds they portray. More detailed discussions of how specific contemporary writers have promoted this evolution are followed by a final essay examining how the competing discourses have led toward an emerging synthesis of critical approaches and vocabularies. The essays cover a vast range of authors and texts, and include substantial discussions of very current fiction published within the last few years.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press


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pp. v

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pp. vii-xii

This book consists of a series of eleven essays on fantastic literature that for the most part initially were conceived and written, over a period of decades, without benefit of an overarching thesis or argument. My original intention was simply to gather some of the scores of essays that I had published in a wide variety of venues—some now long out of print, some incomplete or truncated...

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pp. xiii-xv

When all their roots are traced, the essays here represent more than three decades of thinking and writing about fantastic literature and genre fiction, but the thinking wasn’t all mine. I owe a considerable debt to all the editors of journals and critical collections (listed below) who commissioned and/or accepted some of these pieces in their earlier forms, as well as to my colleagues in...

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Part I: Genres

In the seven essays that follow, and for the most part throughout this book, ‘‘genre’’ is used largely as a term of convenience. From the pure perspective of literary theory, persuasive arguments can be made that none of the major fields discussed here—science fiction, fantasy, horror—are true genres in any taxonomic sense,...

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1. Malebolge, or the Ordnance of Genre

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pp. 3-17

Not all popular genres are meant to blow up. We pretty much expect from mysteries today something of the same thrill that readers expected a century ago; tempestuous romances only seem to get more tempestuous; and the Western long ago quietly faded away into elegiac ghost towns waiting for Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry to show up with more ammo. But the fantastic genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy have been...

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2. Evaporating Genres

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pp. 18-53

For the first several years of their history, the major publishers of American mass-market paperback books numbered each new title sequentially, providing what is now a fascinating chronicle of popular reading habits during the 1940s, as well as a valuable resource for tracing the prehistory of what we now regard as the major market genres of popular fiction. In May 1943, Donald A.Wollheim’s anthology The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction appeared as...

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3. Tales of Stasis and Chaos

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pp. 54-67

I first should explain that my use of the term ‘‘chaos’’ here has little to do with the relationship between scientific chaos theory and literature that we have seen in literally dozens of papers over the past few decades, such as in the work of scholars like N. Katherine Hayles. Instead, I am using the term ‘‘chaos’’ in its related but more traditional and generic sense of disunity and disorganization—the sort of chaos we experience everyday...

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4. The Encounter with Fantasy

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pp. 68-82

If there is one thing the still-narrow body of literary scholarship devoted to fantasy has made clear, it is that whatever we are to call ‘‘fantasy’’ must first and foremost deal with the impossible. In a 1978 survey of several scholarly works on the subject, S. C. Fredericks noted that ‘‘there is general agreement among the critics that Fantasy constitutes what Irwin calls ‘the literature of the impossible’ . . .’’ and that fantasy writers ‘‘take as their point of departure the...

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5. The Artifact as Icon in Science Fiction

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pp. 83-98

Science fiction, like many forms of popular literature, boasts a repertoire of recurring images that are emblematic of the major concerns and underlying anxieties of the genre. The most familiar of these icons, such as the intelligent machine, the spaceship, the alien or monster, and the futuristic city, gain power from their peculiar property of both revealing knowledge and withholding it; they are familiar, while at the same time they remain estranged...

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6. The Remaking of Zero

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pp. 99-120

In Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story ‘‘The Highway,’’ Hernando, a poor Mexican farmer who lives beside a highway from the United States, enjoying such odd fruits of this link to technology as sandals made from tire rubber and a bowl made from a hubcap, is startled by the sudden appearance of cars speeding northward in great numbers, all filled with mysteriously panic-stricken American tourists returning home. At the end of the flood comes an aging...

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7. Frontiers in Space

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pp. 121-137

My title is borrowed from a 1955 paperback science fiction anthology, edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, which bears on its back cover the claim that science fiction has ‘‘opened new frontiers to the pioneer hero, given him new worlds to conquer and marvellous means to conquer them.’’ Such claims were endemic among science fiction publications of the period, as publishers sought to position the recently emergent science fiction book...

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Part II: Writers

As the preceding essays have argued, genres do not always behave as expected, and this may be particularly true of the fantastic genres. And, as I hope my various examples have made clear, the reason for this is that writers do not always behave as expected, and are not always comfortable within the perceived strictures of the genres to which, by circumstance or marketing,...

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8. The Lives of Fantasists

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pp. 141-150

When one looks at the published memoirs and autobiographical sketches written by science fiction and fantasy authors, often for the benefit of their fans—the sort of thing collected in Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s Hell’s Cartographers (1975) or Martin Greenberg’s Fantastic Lives: Autobiographical Essays by Notable Science Fiction Writers (1981)—one initially is struck by the relative thinness and...

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9. Peter Straub and the New Horror (with Amelia Beamer)

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pp. 151-163

Horror has always been a notoriously difficult genre to define. Sometimes it’s described in simple terms of formulaic conventions of plot and character (often conflating fiction and film), sometimes entirely in terms of its so-called ‘‘affect’’ (horror is whatever scares you). As has often been noted, it’s the only popular genre actually named after the fear, terror, and similar emotions intended to be produced in the reader.1 Film scholar Linda Williams identifies...

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10. Twenty-First-Century Stories (with Amelia Beamer)

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pp. 164-185

Does a story inhabit a genre, or does genre inhabit a story? While such a question might at first seem to confuse questions of market with questions of aesthetics—after all, for decades some writers having been submitting their work to identifiable genre magazines, anthologies, and publishing lists, while others have been using similar materials in stories published outside of these...

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Part III: Critics and Criticism

By now, astute readers will have noticed that the ten preceding essays are not exactly governed by a single overarching critical methodology or theory. This is partly due to the variety of venues and times in which they were originally written and partly to the very slipperiness of the material under discussion, but it’s also in part quite deliberate. This book...

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11. Pilgrims of the Fall

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pp. 189-213

Since 1970, the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) has presented an annual award, the Pilgrim, for lifetime achievements in science fiction scholarship, and since 1986 another academic organization, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA), has presented a similar annual career award for the somewhat more broadly defined field of scholarship in ‘‘the fantastic.’’ While the genres of fantastic literature in general...


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pp. 215-235

Works Cited

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pp. 237-248


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pp. 249-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780819571045
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819569363

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2011