JFA 30.2 (2019)

Introduction: Robert Scholes, Fabulation, and the Canon

Brian Attebery

Robert Scholes was a major literary scholar who wrote brilliantly and humanely about Modernism, semiotics, and the structure of English as a discipline. He was also an early academic booster of fantastic literature, especially science fiction. The significant thing about these two aspects of his multi-faceted career is that he didn’t treat them as separate things. That is, he was not one of those who bracketed off genre fiction from the real stuff, in his scholarship or in his teaching. I was a student of his in the 1970s, and he played a major role in my choice to specialize in fantasy and science fiction and in my ability to do so—he was not only a reader of my dissertation but also helped me get it published as The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature and lined up an encyclopedia entry gig that resulted in my meeting Ursula K. Le Guin.

I have been thinking about Scholes a lot lately. He died in 2016 and my last exchange with him was a few years before that. I wrote to ask if he would be willing to be nominated for the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Award, and he answered that he didn’t feel he had made enough recent contributions in the area. Structural Fabulation came out in 1975 and Science Fiction: History, Science Vision, co-written with Eric Rabkin, in 1977. Yet Scholes remained interested in fantasy and sf, and I suspect his teaching always inclined toward the mainstreaming of such narrative forms. I took a contemporary literature course from him at Brown University, and the syllabus for the class turned up in my files not long ago. Here’s the course description:

In this course we will consider the interface between ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ fiction by examining three ‘kinds’ of contemporary novel: the spy story, the western, and science fiction. In the first two sections of the course we will first consider a flagrantly popular or ‘hard core’ novel and then examine two consciously ‘literary’ re-workings of the form. In the case of science fiction, we will begin with an accomplished piece of space opera (rather than the worst of star dreck) and go on to examine three pairs of novels that use the sf form to achieve various ends. Most of the works we will be reading have some ‘literary merit’ and man of them have a good deal of this elusive quality—in my judgment. Just what constitutes ‘literary merit’ will be one of the primary subjects of the course. Limited quantities of two critical works have been ordered in as ‘recommended texts’: one of the western and one on sf. They are indeed recommended and concepts taken from them will be employed in class.                   

The scare quotes around terms like “literary merit” reinforce the idea that there are no real divisions in literature, only degrees, and that, as he was to suggest in Textual Power (1985), literature is something we do with texts rather than an inherent quality in some of them.

Scholes thought that any form of expression that people produce and consume is interesting enough to study, and that designating certain works as “great” and reading them in isolation does them no service. Hence his design for the course, in which we read a spy novel by John le Carré in conjunction with one by Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt and one by Anthony Burgess. The Western was The Ox-Bow Incident but also a novel by Louis L’Amour and John Hawkes’s experimental The Beetle Leg. Fully half the course involved science fiction, and here Scholes didn’t bother to include any lesser stuff but started with Pohl and Kornbluth and then went on to Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany and Stanislav Lem.

Note that this wasn’t a course in popular media but in contemporary fiction. I’m sure some of his colleagues would have found the material abhorrent—and they wouldn’t have seen any difference between the workmanlike and the ground-breaking. In 1975—so long ago that the syllabus was mimeographed and included a recommendation that we start the semester with a new typewriter ribbon—the canon wars hadn’t even started. And once those began, the opening salvos had to do with bringing women and minority writers into the classroom, not Westerns and science fiction. Yet I think Scholes knew that genres were going to be even more problematic than gender and ethnicity, that genre and identity are linked, and that the highest-status forms are those “owned” by the elite. By treating contemporary literature as a continuum, Scholes encouraged us to look at the peaks as part of the same formation as the valleys, and to see the inept as a useful key to finding hidden patterns within the excellent. By holding off on making judgments about literary value, of doing the usual triage, we can learn what each text has to teach us about itself and its fellows.

The article in this issue are evidence that Scholes’s side won the war. Not that any of them deliberately set out to rescue neglected works from the trash heap or to argue against standards of discernment, but rather that they take for granted that any work in any genre can be worth close attention. It’s all a matter of paying attention and of asking the right questions. Here are some of the questions being addressed.

Natacha Vas-Deyres and Patrick Bergeron’s “Of Ants and Men: An Entomological Journey to the Heart of Proto-Science Fiction” was the 2016 winner of IAFA’s Jamie Bishop Award, given to a critical essay on the fantastic written in a language other than English. The essay, which was translated from French by Ashlee Joyce, looks at a set of texts that insist on being read in multiple contexts rather than simply as works of literature. They are stories of ant societies and insect invasions, published before the category of science fiction existed but anticipating many of the narrative devices and interpretive practices of the genre—and hence belonging to the category Brian Stableford has labeled “proto-science fiction.” Reading these stories requires juxtaposing them with a variety of other text types: utopian speculations, scientific papers, both true-life and fictional tales of exploration and adventure, and selections from the science fictional canon that had not quite come into existence.

Jennifer Cox’s article “From Stage to Page: Adaptation as Survival in Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Punch” focuses on a writer whose work spills across generic boundaries. Gaiman has his literary credentials—Newbery and Carngegie medals, a Mythopoeic Award, hardcover books from mainstream presses—but he refuses to stick to canonical forms. Cox looks at a graphic novel that, as she puts it, “updates lost connections between the modern and mythological and helps keep fantasy literature within the larger discourses of cultural relevance.” The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch: A Romance was a 1994 collaboration with illustrator Dave McKean in which myth, ritual, and popular entertainment meet and exchange cultural energy. Readers of this journal will remember Cox from her term as Editorial Assistant; I am delighted to see her take on the new role of contributor.

Susan Vanderborg’s contribution deals with subversive uses of a thoroughly respectable form: experimental poetry, in this case, the work of the postmodern poet Margaret Rhee. Rhee has, in Vanderborg’s words, “devoted four years to imagining the forms and politics of sf love lyrics between humans and robots.” Vanderborg shows how Rhee’s experiments with form reinforce her critique of the marginalization, with robots speaking to and for Asian Americans, gays, and other outsider groups. The ideal reader for such poetry would be as familiar with Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick as with John Donne or Emily Dickinson—and also with the videos of Janelle Monae and the iconic uses of robots in political rhetoric and advertising.

Masaya Shimokusu’s contribution will serve as an introduction for many European and American readers to the work of a major Japanese writer of fantastic texts. In “Writing the Fantastic in the Twilight Zone,” Shimokosu reads the work of Kyōka Izumi through the critical lens of Tzvetan Todorov’s 1970 Introduction à la littérature fantastique (which gave the structuralist seal of approval to at least some fantastic fiction) but also through Izumi’s incorporation of ideas and techniques from Tolkien and le Fanu and Lovecraft. Adapted to Japanese culture, this heady mix of fantastic tropes became a new genre called gensō bungaku —which is also the title of Todorov’s book in Japanese translation. Some of the borders crossed by texts (and whose transgressions readers need to follow) are not figurative but literal.

Finally, Elena Anastasaki takes us on a journey through genres with author Jasper Fforde, best known for his metafictional romps featuring reader-heroine Tuesday Next. In “Nursery crimes: A tough egg to crack. Wordplay, genre and metafiction,” Anastasaki looks at Fforde’s unlikely hybrid of nursery rhyme and detective fiction, The Big Over Easy (2005). In many ways, Fforde’s novel, and Anastaski’s analysis of it, reproduces the dynamic of Scholes’s contemporary literature class, if only the multiple instances of each genre were mashed together to produce a single text of high-low, derivative-innovative art.

Such mashups were rare in 1975, but when children’s picture books such as David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs (2001) introduce kindergarteners to metafiction and game narratives and fan fictions can be studied alongside Booker and Pulitzer prize-winners—which might well be works of science fiction or fantasy—then the continuity of culture that Scholes perceived is now accepted by the academy, and we who value all sorts of imaginative leaps find our intuitions validated.


Introduction: Robert Scholes, Fabulation, and the Canon
Brian Attebery

Of Ants and Men: An Entomologial Journey to the Heart of Proto-Science Fiction (1890–1950)
Natacha Vas-Deyres and Patrick Bergeron (trans. Ashlee Joyce)

From Stage to Page: Adaptation as Survival in Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Punch
Jennifer K. Cox

“I still want all the bits of you”: Margaret Rhee’s Robot Love Lyrics
Susan Vanderborg

Writing the Fantastic in the Twilight Zone: Kyōka Izumi’s Analysis of Supernatural Discourses and Tzvetan Todorov’s Theory of the Fantastic
Masaya Shimokusu

Nursery Crimes: A Tough Egg to Crack. Wordplay, Genre, and Metafiction
Elena Anastasaki


Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914–1918
Rev. by Bruce A. Beatie

Ailise Bulfin’s Gothic Invasions: Imperialism, War, and Fin-de-Siècle Popular Fiction
Rev. by Naomi Simone Borwein

Diana Adesola Mafe’s Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film and TV
Rev. by Kay. K. Clopton

Maura Grady and Tony Magistrale’s The Shawshank Experience: Tracking the History of the World’s Favorite Movie
Rev. by Lynda Haas

Josephine Sharoni’s Lacan and Fantasy Literature: Portents of Modernity in Late Victorian and Edwardian Fiction
Rev. by James Hamby

Christopher Bolton’s Interpreting Anime
Rev. by Steven Holmes

Cynthia Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper’s What’s Eating You?: Food and Horror on Screen AND Lorna Piatti-Farnell’s Consuming Gothic: Food and Horror in Film
Rev. by KC Lynch

Nancy L. Canepa’s Teaching Fairy Tales
Rev. by Jessica Stanley Neterer

Calum Waddell’s Cannibal Holocaust
Rev. by Gregory Vance Smith

David S. Dalton’s Mestizo Modernity: Race, Technology, and Subjectivity in Postrevolutionary Mexico
Rev. by Stephen C. Tobin

Lorna Jowett’s Dancing with the Doctor: Dimensions of Gender in the Doctor Who Universe
Rev. by Daniel Van Jelgerhuis

Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer’s Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology
Rev. by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock