“Introduction: Value Added”
Every year in the middle of March, I fly off to Florida to take part in the gathering known as the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. The flight not only takes me from the mountainous northwest to the semitropical southeast but also from one dilemma to another. At home, I’ve been trying to help students bridge the gap between their experience and knowledge and the demands of some literary text. When I arrive at the conference hotel and see the assembled writers, editors, and publishers, I’m always reminded of another sort of gap—the distance between producers of literature and mere consumers. For scholars and teachers are not so different from our struggling students: we too find ourselves awestruck by powerful and elegant stories and unwilling to believe that mere mortals produced them.
This recognition can lead to a crisis of confidence. Who are we but a bunch of older and grayer students in an endless discussion section? How do our learned essays differ from our pupils’ fumbling efforts at explication? Is our work merely parasitic, as more than a few writers have intimated (though not, thankfully, those who come regularly to the Conference)?
By the time I fly home each spring, however, the crisis is over. I bring home a renewed sense of the interdependence of writer, critic, teacher, student—and not just because I sometimes see the same individuals undertaking all of those roles. In the paper sessions and panels, I have acquired pieces of information that illuminate literary texts. I have been invited to make connections that even the author probably did not make consciously. I have new categories to try out, new questions to ask. And I remember that I have been learning these things all along from scholars and critics and teachers.
Perhaps if there were a name for this insight I might not forget it and go through the same soul-searching every year. I hereby propose calling it a VAT—not quite the VAT one encounters when traveling to Europe, but sharing the first two words. Instead of a Value Added Tax, this is a Value Added Theory.
The basis of my VAT is the fact that works of literature do not really speak for themselves, nor do they remain the same thing over time, even if the words on the page have not changed. For one thing, the words are not just signs on a page—they function within a living language that can add or subtract or alter meanings. For another, even though they look like solid objects, books are really actions. As acts of communication, they take their meaning from the interaction of sender, receiver, context, and code. Three of those four things change every time a book is read, and some kinds of changes make for a better experience, a more profound act.
My own reading practice has been altered for the better many times. Reading Jane Tompkins’s work on the sentimental nineteenth-century novel transformed Uncle Tom’s Cabin for me—turned it from a piece of polemical claptrap into a rich and still-relevant piece of work. J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairystories” informs and enriches my reading of virtually every work of fantasy (even those written in opposition to Tolkien). John Cawelti’s work on popular formulas has given me ways to value modes like the Western that I had previously dismissed. Value has been Added.
An additional bit of historical or biographical information is often enough to increase the Value of a text. A good example is the way Robert Darnton contextualizes French fairy tales in The Dead Cat Massacre. A whole generation of scholars imbibed Stephen Greenblatt’s witches’ brews of literary, legal, religious, and other documents and found themselves authorized to produce new readings of Shakespeare. Sometimes the catalyzing piece of information is a powerful question: sometimes a newly recognized category, like Cyberpunk or the Cyborg. It may even be just a suggestive phrase, like Raymond Chandler’s “mean streets,” out of which arose a whole theory of hard-boiled detective fiction. As in the case of Chandler, many of the best insights come from writers themselves when they critique themselves or others or the forms they work in. Regarding the fantastic, besides Tolkien’s essay, there are invaluable pieces by Ursula K. Le Guin, E. M. Forster, George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Gwyneth Jones, Joanna Russ—Value Adders all. One literary work can even Add to the Value of another. Philip K. Dick is a more important writer— maybe even a better writer—because of William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, and others whose work interacts with his.
My VAT has a number of possible applications, besides making me feel better about what I do. It might be obvious by now that I don’t see the primary work of the critic as separating good literature from bad, or major from minor. Canons add nothing to one’s pleasure in, or understanding of, any given text. But other things we do as students of literature (at any level) might actually contribute to the significance of a writer’s work. Rather than being parasitical upon the creative community, we are part of that community, or at least in a symbiotic relationship with it.
Taking a cue from other art forms, interpreters of texts can Add Value as curators of literary art. Gallery owners know that the way a painting is framed and displayed can have a significant effect on its real, cash value. Anthologies and course reading lists are like museum displays; a critical article is a kind of frame. The metaphor I connect with even more strongly, though, as a semi-pro musician, is that any literary text, even the most expansive novel, is just a script or a score. Until it is performed by a reader, it is just a stack of paper. Literary scholars are like professional actors or musicians: the people whose training and talent we rely on to give us an entry into a Verdi opera or an Ibsen play. My own playing of, say, the Bach cello suites may not match up to Yo Yo Ma’s, but the Value of what I do is greater because of my having been exposed to his musical intelligence, and to Janos Starker’s cool clarity, and to Pablo Casals’s passionate idiosyncrasy.
So I come home from the Conference on the Fantastic every year poorer in dollars but richer in Value Adding ideas, and I try to share the wealth with my students in turn. There are still gaps between me and the writers with whom I’ve been hobnobbing, and between student and professor, but I remember that those gaps are not impassible. Sparks can cross. Gaps may even be useful, like synapses.
The contents of this issue illustrate several sorts of Value Added. As a record of the 29th Annual Conference on the Fantastic, it includes the luncheon talks of two of the honored guests: Vernor Vinge and Roger Luckhurst. Vinge has contributed greatly to the Value of science fictional discourse by being not only an innovative writer of fiction but also a working scientist and turner of reality-altering phrases. In addition to his own piece on the future of fantasy—containing the wonderfully evocative phrase “Reality Remixed”—we have chosen to include the witty introduction by former guest of honor Joe Haldeman, which Adds its own kind of Value both to the address and to the reader’s sense of the occasion. For the same reason, we lead off Roger Luckhurst’s discussion of photography as science fiction with Sherryl Vint’s introduction. As Vint points out, Luckhurst has long exemplified the best interaction between cultural history and genre studies, and his talk demonstrates exactly how that double perspective can redefine the world we think we see in a photograph, a text, or outside a window. Luckhurst illustrates the way frames can transform art, both by the examples he cites and by his own act of imaginative framing.
The third guest at the conference, Greer Gilman, was scheduled only for panels and a reading, not for a talk, but we decided to give her a virtual podium here in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. In response to my request for some sort of contribution, she sent an essay that is, not surprisingly to anyone who knows her fiction, dense, elegant, erudite, funny, and elusive. Within the labyrinth she constructs, one can find many sorts of treasures with which to Add Value not only to her own work but to that of many other fantasists. Her essay is framed by an introduction from longtime friend (to Greer and to the JFA) and scholar Faye Ringel.
The two other essays in this volume also come from last year’s ICFA. Greg Bechtel’s essay on Canadian writer Thomas King was the winner of the Graduate Student Award, but, like last year’s winner, it was such a strong piece that we elected to put it through the peer review process and publish it as a regular contribution. Bechtel finds a number of innovative and rewarding ways to read King’s novel by reframing it as what he calls “syncretic fantasy”—a term that could Add Value to a number of other works. The final essay is Karen Sands-O’Connor’s “Impertinent Miracles,” a fascinating look at two very different but equally influential fantasists: Edith Nesbit and H. Rider Haggard. O’Connor Adds Value to both writers and their work by tracing an unexpected link between them: the Egyptologist Wallis Budge, whose ideas made their way into Haggard’s masculine romances and Nesbit’s larkish adventures for children. I look forward to teaching She and The Story of the Amulet again to see if I can communicate the Added Value of reading them together, and both in conjunction with late nineteenth-century colonial ideas.
I look forward, too, to more contributions to this journal that will further enrich my experience of literature and the world. One of the corollaries to my VAT is that there is no limit to the amount of Value out there.
“Vernor Vinge: An Introduction”
“What Future for Fantasy?”
“Roger Luckhurst: An Introduction”
“Contemporary Photography and the Technological Sublime, or, Can There Be a Science Fiction Photography?”
“Greer Gilman: An Introduction”
“Girl, Implicated: The Child in the Labyrinth in the Fantastic”
“The Word for World Is Story: Syncretic Fantasy as Healing Ritual in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water”
“Impertinent Miracles at the British Museum: Egyptology and Edwardian Fantasies for Young People”
“A Specter Is Haunting the Humanities: Colin Davis’s Haunted Subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Return of the Dead and Christopher Peterson’s Kindred Specters: Death, Mourning, and American Affinity”
Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock
Benjamin Szumskyj’s Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays
Rev. by Gerald M. Adair
Jason Mark Harris’s Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction
Rev. by Timothy H. Evans
C. W. Marshall and Tiffany Potter’s Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica
Rev. by Lacy Hodges
Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction
Rev. by Rob Latham
Stacy Gillis’s The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded
Rev. by Graham J. Murphy
Milly Williamson’s The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy
Rev. by Kelly A. O’Connor-Salomon
Marek Oziewicz’s One Earth, One People: The Mythopoeic Fantasy Series of Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, and Orson Scott Card
Rev. by Amie Rose Rotruck
Donald E. Morse’s Anatomy of Science Fiction
Rev. by W. A. Senior
Stephen Keane’s Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe
Rev. by Roslyn Weaver
Christine Cornea’s Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality
Rev. by D. Harlan Wilson