JFA 21.1 (2010)

Editor’s Introduction

“Introduction: Cultural Work”
Brian Attebery

One of the most useful tools for fantasy scholars seems at first to have little to do with the fantastic. It is the idea of cultural work, a phrase introduced in Jane Tompkins’s revolutionary Sensational Designs (1985). In this book, Tompkins invites us to look at literature—she is focusing on classic American literature of the nineteenth century—not in terms of what it is or even what it says but rather what it does. This shift in perspective allows us to set aside questions of form and meaning (which is surprisingly unstable and reader-dependent even in familiar texts like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”) and look instead at performance, to think of a literary text as an action instead of an aesthetic object.

Why is this useful in looking at the fantastic in literature and other arts? Because it redefines the literary canon as something situated in history and therefore subject to political jockeying and changes in fashion. Tompkins looks at writers like Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe to see how literary reputations can be manipulated to advance particular agendas. We can’t designate any particular work as great, she suggests, without qualifying: great for whom? Who exactly are the readers that most appreciate the work, how do they read it, and what do they bring to it? Modernist criteria such as irony and complexity require a particular privileged circumstance; those facing dire poverty or injustice tend to prefer directness and engagement.

Even the “test of time” for classic literature becomes problematic when one looks at how texts actually function over time. The Hawthorne who became an American classic in the late nineteenth century barely resembles the one taught in the mid-twentieth. The former was a writer of sweetness and spirituality; his best-received works were sketches like “Little Annie’s Ramble” (11). The latter is the Hawthorne of moral ambiguity and psychological acuteness. The Stowe who was dismissed in the modernist era as a sentimental lightweight is nothing like the Stowe perceived by her contemporaries. To get at the importance of works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tompkins suggests that readers need to question their own assumptions about how fiction works:

Once in possession of the system of beliefs that undergirds the patterns of sentimental fiction, it is possible for modern readers to see how its tearful episodes and frequent violations of probability were invested with a structure of meanings that fixed these works, for nineteenth-century readers, not in the realm of fairy tale or escapist fantasy, but in the very bedrock of reality. (127)

I’m not wild about the comparisons she makes here. Perhaps Uncle Tom’s Cabin is good not because it is unlike a fairy tale but because fairy tales too are fixed in “the very bedrock of reality.” However, the larger point is that it is a mistake to dismiss an entire period or genre on the basis of some other era’s taste.

Why is this useful for students of the fantastic? First, the literary canon has not served us well. Like women’s literature, like socially activist literature such as Stowe’s, like literature written for children or by outsider groups, fantasy has been largely ignored or demeaned by the literary establishment on grounds that are presented as aesthetic but are covertly political. Genres such as fantasy and science fiction are dismissed not because the writing is weak or the imagination inferior but because they do the wrong things. Code words like “juvenile,” “time waster,” or “cult” are all clues that the critic disapproves not of the text but of the work it performs.

Second, Tompkins’s ideas can allow us to make distinctions within the fantastic. I want to be able to say that certain writers—James Morrow, say, or Laurie Marks—are more significant than others whose books sit next to theirs on bookstore shelves, who use exactly the same generic conventions and even offer comparable pleasures. The difference is in the cultural work their stories perform. The questions they ask are more unsettling; the symbols more complex. For me, in my circumstances, their work is great because I think the world needs to be unsettled in just those ways. Our symbols need to be made problematic. Too much of the fantasy I read lets us rest comfortably in our beliefs and absolves us of action.

A third use for Tompkins’s approach is to identify continuities across generic lines. The great divide of fantasy and realism and the lesser boundaries between children’s literature and adult; popular and elite art; and literary, dramatic, and visual modes of presentation can keep us from seeing analogies and affinities across the borders. A retold folktale, a graphic novel, and a poem by William Blake might have more in common than conventional wisdom (or the structure of English departments) would allow. In order to discover the common threads, someone must first be willing to ignore accepted categories and second be able to name the patterns that emerge. “Cultural work” is a useful name, for starters.

No one in this issue uses the phrase or directly cites Tompkins, but all the writers here ask questions about the cultural implications of cross-generic connections or category-violating texts. Therese-M. Meyer examines Nick Bantock’s best-selling series of epistolary graphic novels. The description alone indicates how difficult it is to pin down the nature of these books: art or fiction, puzzle or romance or utopian fantasy. Meyer suggests that part of their work is to “illuminate” the occult; i.e., both to illustrate and to annotate W. B. Yeats’s visionary system. The link to Yeats also indicates boundary-crossing, as Meyer finds affinities between the canonical poet and the popular storyteller.

Another such pairing is Terry Pratchett and Shakespeare in Kristin Noone’s “Shakespeare in Discworld.” Shakespeare is the canonical writer of the Western world—and so can’t possibly be a fantasy writer, except that he is. Noone looks at two Pratchett fantasies that interlock with Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, respectively, and shows how the novels both illuminate the plays. The novels perform their own work and also redirect Shakespeare’s texts, as I can testify from having taught Macbeth and Wyrd Sisters back to back (along with Eleanor Arnason’s Ring of Swords, which also examines the Scottish play’s cultural work on gender and power).

Daniel Bautista’s “Comic Book Realism” crosses the literary/popular boundary from the other direction. It examines a literary novel that engages with a popular form: the superhero comic. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is in itself minimally fantastic. Bautista asserts that Díaz uses an offshoot of magical realism that he calls “comic book realism,” a blend of popular cultural strands (including sf, fantasy, and graphic novel) with close observation; only such a blend can represent the full imaginative life of his young Dominican-American protagonist.

Tom O’Connor looks at two texts that are even less overtly fantastic than Díaz’s novel but that similarly focus on the power of fantastic narratives to script our lives. O’Connor applies Gilles Deleuze’s theory of becoming-art to revise Freudian approaches to fantasy as a dysfunctional evasion of reality. In the films he explores, Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin and Asia Argento’s The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things, characters adapt fantastic scenarios such as zombie movies and alien abduction narratives as ways of coping with childhood trauma. O’Connor’s analysis, echoing writer and editor Terri Windling’s discussions of fairy tales as a way of coping with abuse, might offer a way of accounting for the continuing power of fantastic narrative. In this case the psychoanalytic work of dream analysis can also be cultural work if personal coping mechanisms become public narratives capable of stimulating social change.

Orion Ussner Kidder stays mostly within a single generic category, the superhero comic, but makes distinctions within it by exploring different kinds of cultural work performed in different eras. His focus is on the most recent era, which succeeds periods generally called the Silver Age (the mid-1950s through 60s, marked by the rise of Marvel Comics and the reinvigoration of DC Comics heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman) and the Dark Age (mid-80s and 90s, characterized by increased violence and troubled heroes like Frank Miller’s reimagined Batman). According to Kidder, we are now in the Revisionist Era, and titles such as Alan Moore’s Supreme and Warren Ellis’s Planetary use metafictional techniques to investigate and critique their genre forerunners and their relationship to history. Revisionist comics rehistoricize the genre; by so doing, they not only uncover some of its earlier effects but also do some pretty powerful cultural work of their own.

Work Cited

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790–1860. New York/Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.


“Illuminating the Occult: W. B. Yeats in Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine Series”
Therese-M. Meyer

“Shakespeare in Discworld: Witches, Fantasy, and Desire”
Kristin Noone

“Comic Book Realism: Form and Genre in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Daniel Bautista

“Trauma and Becoming-Art in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin and Asia Argento’s The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things
Tom O’Connor

“Useful Play: Historicization in Alan Moore’s Supreme and Warren Ellis/John Cassaday’s Planetary
Orion Ussner Kidder

Review Essay

“Beautiful Genre”
Brian Attebery


Ann Martin’s Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Bed: Modernism’s Fairy Tales
Rev. by Cary Elza

William Gray’s Death and Fantasy: Essays on Philip Pullman, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and R. L. Stevenson
Rev. by Stacie L. Hanes

Elizabeth Miller and Robert Eighteen-Bisang’s Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition
Rev. by Jim Holte

John Drakakis and Dale Townshend’s Gothic Shakespeares
Rev. by Kristen McDermott

S. T. Joshi and Stefan Dziemianowicz’s Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopedia
Rev. by Stephanie Moss

Vincent Geoghegan’s Utopianism and Marxism
Rev. by Thomas J. Morrissey

Robin Mackay and Damian Veal’s Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development IV
Rev. by Roger C. Schlobin

Fred Botting’s Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic
Rev. by Isabella van Elferen

Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint’s The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction
Rev. by Jason P. Vest

Heather Masri’s Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts
Rev. by Monty Vierra