We need a whole new discourse on fiction

“For a writer, there is a genuine difference between fantasy and science fiction, which has nothing to do with the commercial branding of books as “genre” or the categorical imperatives of critics. The difference is in how you write it – what you are doing as a writer. In fantasy you get to make it all up, even the rules of how things work, and then follow your rules absolutely. In science fiction you get to make it up, but you have to follow most of the rules of science, or at least not ignore them.


If you’re getting bored with this classifying, I’m sorry – I’m doing it to show that the whole vocabulary — “realism” “science fiction,” “genre fiction,” and the rest of it – doesn’t give even a remotely adequate description of what I write. Or of what many other serious writers are writing. We need a whole new discourse on fiction.


“I leave it entirely up to you, O Reader, to decide which volume of these two is the Real and which is the Unreal. I believe the science of deciding such questions is called Ontology, but I never learned it. I am strictly an amateur. I don’t know anything about reality, but I know what I like.”

(pages 7-9)

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories, Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands. Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2012. (ebook)

A formal elevated dullness which is part of the incantation

“It is safe to say that not a single law has been framed or one stone set upon another because of anything that Chaucer said or wrote; and yet, as we read him, we are absorbing morality at every pore. For among writers there are two kinds: there are the priests who take you by the hand and lead you straight up to the mystery; there are the laymen who imbed their doctrines in flesh and blood and make a complete model of the world without excluding the bad or laying stress upon the good. […] But Chaucer lets us go our ways doing the ordinary things with the ordinary people. His morality lies in the way men and women behave to each other. We see them eating, drinking, laughing, and making love, and come to feel without a word being said what their standards are and so are steeped through and through with their morality. There can be no more forcible preaching than this where all actions and passions are represented, and instead of being solemnly exhorted we are left to stray and stare and make out a meaning for ourselves. It is the morality of ordinary intercourse, the morality of the novel, which parents and librarians rightly judge to be far more persuasive than the morality of poetry.

And so, when we shut Chaucer, we feel that without a word being said the criticism is complete; what we are saying, thinking, reading, doing, has been commented upon. Nor are we left merely with the sense, powerful though that is, of having been in good company and got used to the ways of good society. For as we have jogged through the real, the unadorned countryside, with first one good fellow cracking his joke or singing his song and then another, we know that though this world resembles, it is not in fact our daily world. It is the world of poetry. Everything happens here more quickly and more intensely, and with better order than in life or in prose; there is a formal elevated dullness which is part of the incantation of poetry; there are lines speaking a half a second in advance what we were about to say, as if we read our thoughts before words cumbered them; and lines which we go back to read again with that heightened quality, that enchantment which keeps them glittering in the mind long afterwards. And the whole is held in its place, and its variety and divagations ordered by the power which is among the most impressive of all – the shaping power, the architect’s power. It is the peculiarity of Chaucer, however, that though we feel at once this quickening, this enchantment, we cannot prove it by quotation. From most poets quotation is easy and obvious; some metaphor suddenly flowers; some passage breaks off from the rest. But Chaucer is very equal, very even-paced, very unmetaphorical. If we take six or seven lines in the hope that the quality will be contained in them it has escaped.”

(pages 17–19)

Virginia Woolf, “The Pastons and Chaucer.” In The Common Reader. NY: Harvest, 1984. (First ed. Harcourt, Inc., 1925.)

Borrowed from my sister. Though I think I have my own copy, somewhere.

You want genre? I’ll give you genre

“Genre, a concept which could have served as a useful distinction of various kinds of fiction, has been degraded into a disguise for mere value-judgement. The various “genres” are now mainly commercial product-labels to make life easy for lazy readers, lazy critics, and the Sales Departments of publishers.

It’s not my job as a writer to make life easy for anybody. Including myself.

Three stories from my 1996 story collection Unlocking the Air are in the first volume of this collection. On my web site you can find a table of contents for that book. You want genre? I’ll give you genre. I described each story, not in such crude, vague terms as “realism” or “fantasy,” but accurately: Miniaturized Realism, Geriatric Realism, Californian Realism, Oregonian Realism, and Uncompromising Realism; Surrealism; Mythological Fantasy, Temporal Fantasy, Vegetable Fantasy, Visionary Fantasy, Revisionary Fantasy, Real Fantasy…. You won’t find any of the various subgenres of Science Fiction (Hard, Soft, Crunchy, Peanut-Free, Social, Slipstream, etc.), however, because Unlocking the Air doesn’t include any science fiction at all.”

(page 6-7)

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories, Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands. Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2012. (ebook)

Since the view is so much spoilt

“The state of the country, considering how poets go to Nature, how they use her for their images and their contrasts even when they do not describe her directly, is a matter of some importance. Her cultivation or her savagery influences the poet far more profoundly than the prose writer. To the modern poet, with Birmingham, Manchester and London the size they are, the country is the sanctuary of moral excellence in contrast with the town which is the sink of vice. It is a retreat, the haunt of modesty and virtue, where men go to hide and moralise. There is something morbid, as if shrinking from human contact, in the nature worship of Wordsworth, still more in the microscopic devotion which Tennyson lavished upon the petals of roses and the buds of lime trees. But these were great poets. In their hands, the country was no mere jeweller’s shop, or museum of curious objects to the described, even more curiously, in words. Poets of smaller gift, since the view is so much spoilt, and the garden or the meadow must replace the barren heath and the precipitous mountain-side, are now confined to little landscapes, to birds’ nests, to acorns with every wrinkle drawn to the life. The wider landscape is lost.”

(page 12)

Virginia Woolf, “The Pastons and Chaucer.” In The Common Reader. NY: Harvest, 1984. (First ed. Harcourt, Inc., 1925.)

Borrowed from my sister. Though I think I have my own copy, somewhere.

Nobody has ever been able to say exactly where “fantasy” begins and ends

“Nobody – for good reason – has ever been able to say exactly where “fantasy” begins and ends. It is immensely larger than the current commercial category of books labelled Fantasy. It cannot be limited to “the impossible,” or “magic,” or “the supernatural.” The origins of fantastic literature are lost to sight, because it is worldwide, and if myth and legend are included in it, it long predates history and literacy. It’s permanent, it thrives, because it’s infinitely adaptable. Magic realism was a brilliant modern use of fantasy to record a reality not accessible to the techniques of realism. Science fiction can be seen as a brilliant modern development of fantasy to use the imagination within the parameters of the rationally possible, or at least the plausible.”

(page 6)

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories, Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands. Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2012. (ebook)

Besides his indescribable zest for facts

“To learn the end of the story – Chaucer can still make us wish to do that. He has pre-eminently that story-teller’s gift, which is almost the rarest gift among writers at the present day. Nothing happens to us as it did to our ancestors; events are seldom important; if we recount them, we do not really believe in them; we have perhaps things of greater interest to say, and for these reasons natural story-tellers like Mr Garnett, whom we must distinguish from self-conscious story-tellers like Mr Masefield, have become rare. For the story-teller, besides his indescribable zest for facts, must tell his story craftily, without undue stress or excitement, or we shall swallow it whole and jumble the parts together; he must let us stop, give us time to think and look about us, yet always be persuading us to move on.”

(pages 11–12)

Virginia Woolf, “The Pastons and Chaucer.” In The Common Reader. NY: Harvest, 1984. (First ed. Harcourt, Inc., 1925.)

Borrowed from my sister. Though I think I have my own copy, somewhere.

A diplomatic intermediary between physiological processes

“The bodyworker is not an interventionist; he is a facilitator, a diplomatic intermediary between physiological processes that have lost track of one another’s proper functions and goals, between a mind that has forgotten what it needs to know in order to exert harmonious control and a body politic which increasingly utilizes disruptive demonstrations, terrorist tactics, and even the threat of all-out civil war to regain its governor’s attention. Touching hands are not like pharmaceuticals or scalpels. They are like flashlights in a darkened room. The medicine they administer is self-awareness. And for many of our painful conditions, this is the aid that is most urgently needed.”

(page xxix)

Deane Juhan. Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 2003.

From my own library – ordered online after reading an excerpt as part of a teacher training in a somatic practice.