The fantastic as a category–or genre–of books has always been one that fascinates me. The first short stories that I wrote fell somewhere in the realm of either magical realism or the fantastic. When I wrote a review of an out-of-the-ordinary Philip K. Dick story, the comments section had me thinking back to my favorite genre and other works I think fall in this category.
In the aforementioned story, Dick deals with the possible breakdown of a marriage set in a familiar 1950s suburban melodrama, but what he does differently is add a possible sentient cuckoo bird who resides in the wife’s clock. This is a perfectly natural part of the story and allows Dick to investigate a scene of domestic life that we are so familiar with and then flip it. The story is fantastic and does not fall within his normal sci-fi oeuvre.
But before I continue, perhaps, it would be best if I try to define the fantastic, which is a concept formally originated by Tsvetan Todorov in his work, The Fantastic: The Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.¹ He writes,
In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world…The concept of the fantastic is therefore to be defined in relation to those of the real and the imaginary.
Citing just two sentences is a hyper-simplification of Todorov’s premise and he goes on to assign works as marvelous, uncanny, fairy tales, and because of certain reasons, excludes some texts from the genre of the fantastic. Todorov attempts “to create a theoretical methodology that would apply to genre study generally.”² The rules he sets tend not to allow for works to overlap; here my theory of the fantastic evolves from his proposal. Although, I do agree that a strange story that might first appear as fantastic, but ultimately can be explained by a very human force (think “madness” or mental disorders) does not fall into the fantastic genre. What comes to mind are “Diaries of a Madman” and Atmospheric Disturbances, which can be explained in outdated terms such as the result of an abnormal and deteriorating mind.
Here I proffer my definition of the fantastic based on Todorov’s original premise, influences from my university study, and own reader experience. It is designed to help a writer pen a story in this genre and for a reader to understand why they are accepting the unordinary.
- A story, which at first appearance, resides in our known human world.
- It becomes quickly apparent that something is unreal about the situation.
- The reader is able to believe the fantastic before them, because the author has skillfully presented the “rules of operation,” allowing them to accept notions of irrationality that, if appeared in reality, would make them hesitate.
Has this helped at all? Maybe, a little? Works of the fantastic that have succeeded are written by authors who have begun with something ordinary and then masterfully crafted the rules around it right from the beginning. The reader needs to have a sense of what is allowed in a fantastic story.
Below are examples of short stories and novels that I believe fall into the genre of the fantastic. Todorov’s methodology might not work for all of these and he would nix them if he was writing this, but based on my three-point criteria above, they are worthy choices. Like Todorov, I equate the fantastic with works of fiction and exclude poetry from my selections. This list is in no way close to being comprehensive, only those that come to mind right away and which I enjoy with the exception of one.³ Clicking on an image will call up further information.
¹ If you don’t have a copy of the book, free samples can be viewed through Google Books.
² From The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 20, No.2 (Summer 1976) accessed through the digital library JSTOR. This is a great resource. You might be able to access it for free through an affiliation with your university, library, alma mater, or other institution. Otherwise, you might have to pay a fee to view complete articles.
³ Okay, I really disliked Remainder. I think Tom McCarthy is super smart and an imaginative human being, but I wanted to hurl this book out of the window. However, it is an excellent example for this post and fans of existential investigations will be interested.
Finally, do you have any suggestions for the reading list? If so, please leave a comment.