Dr Charul Palmer-Patel on the boundaries of genre and building a space for contemporary scholarship on Fantasy and Science Fiction.
What is ‘Fantastika’? And why is there a need for it?
Fantastika embraces the genres of Fantasy, Science Fiction (SF), and Horror, but can also include Alternate Histories, Gothic, Steampunk, Young Adult Dystopian Fiction, or any other radically imaginative narrative space1. The term itself is appropriated from John Clute (from a range of Slavonic languages) in “Fantastika in the World Storm” (2007): “Fantastika consists of that wide range of fictional works whose contents are understood to be fantastic” (20, original emphasis). Clute further revises his definition and approach to ‘Fantastika’ in the first edition of Fantastika Journal in “Fantastika; or, The Sacred Grove” (2017): “What seems today a basic assumption – that mimetic literatures and fantastika differ – depends on the visibility of what we deem to be significant distinctions” (17). Clute rightly suggests that the evaluation of Fantastika literature as fantastic would be dependent on the reception of these elements of Fantastika as either realistic or supernatural. For example, these is a world of difference between the English-language formula-driven Fantasy Epic which I discuss in my upcoming monograph and modes of Magic Realism that has abounded in other parts of the world; each development may differ based on the reception of the Fantastic and Mythology within the culture that produces it.
The term Fantastika then deliberately encompasses a wide boundary. As a Fantasy scholar, I have found it difficult to situate myself within the abundant genre conferences that I have attended in UK in the last few years. While both SF and Gothic conferences are inviting of Fantasy scholars, too often I would find myself speaking on a lone Fantasy panel, distinct and demarcated by the very nature of being ‘Fantasy Fiction,’ regardless of my fellow panellists’ chosen topics or texts. There is a vast difference, for example, between a paper on gender and bodies in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and eco-linguistic elements in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, one that cannot be united simply by both being defined as Fantasy texts.
My goal then in creating the annual Fantastika conferences – and the resulting Fantastika Journal – was to bridge this divide between genres and genre scholarship; to focus on subject matter and themes that are common to Fantastika as a whole. There are topics that are shared by many of the Fantastika genres: the first five conferences discussed visuals, locations, global, performance, and temporal aspects respectively. The aim of Fantastika Journal and its annual conference is to bring together academics and independent researchers who share an interest in this diverse range of fields with the aim of opening up new dialogues, productive controversies, and collaborations. Often, the boundaries between genres are not as clear cut as we would like them to be. There are places of overlap, of tangling and disorder.
That is not to say that we should not differentiate and define genres within this Fantastika umbrella term. For instance, I will often identify as a Fantasy scholar. There is a scholastic necessity in defining genres: we must do so in order to demarcate the boundaries of our research, in order to say that ‘these texts are within my purview because of x reasons.’ But Fantastika Journal has two major objectives: first, as I described above, to focus on the commonalities that can occur between genres and to create a space for dialogue in order to express these harmonies. We hope to discover or create critical vocabularies that will enable us to convey, explore, and understanding these cross-webbings. This does not mean that an individual article or researcher needs to express these ideas within their own work, but we hope that our publications will express a narrative with each issue, one in which parallel themes and ideas are explored. Second, Fantastika is also a home for those who might struggle to define themselves. Where do we place ‘Weird Fiction’ for example? Is it a subgenre of Science Fiction? Fantasy? Horror? Can it be in its own category, and if so, how do we start to discuss it in relation to the existing critical field? Is it, in fact, not a genre at all, but rather an aesthetic category, ‘The Weird’? Oddly enough, as my experiences above indicated, Fantasy itself seems to struggle to find a home. It is a binary of SF? A sister genre of the Gothic? Does it have ties to Folklore and Fairy Tales, or is it distinct?
My own approach to studying Fantasy Fiction has focused on a central narrative pattern, specifically the ‘Heroic Epic,’ rather than concentrating on defining the ‘Fantasy’ elements of a particular novel. This approach has allowed me to examine works that have similar narrative structures, regardless of its genre demarcation. Focusing on narrative patterns of the Heroic Epic has allowed me to discuss ideas that are common to many Fantastika genres, without feeling the need to compartmentalise or distinguish between them on the basis of being ‘Gothic’ or ‘Fantasy’ or ‘SF.’ This approach also allows me to explore narrative trends between different types of ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Fantastika,’ again, without needing to label the distinction between the two. As such, I have found the umbrella term of ‘Fantastika’ to be useful for many purposes. Chiefly, because I can discuss ideas and themes that are common to multiple genres. This is not to say that our readers need to approach Fantastika genres in the same way – there are, of course, plenty of Fantastika works that have very little narrative to speak of, or, indeed, works where reader’s affect or reception of the text may be of greater significance than elements of narrative structure. Nonetheless, viewing Fantastika as an umbrella term that spans multiple forms enables one to approach such a proliferation of genres, modes, and mediums, and gives us an anchor in which to discuss them as a unit. It allows us to draw useful, precise definitions of genre – of the type I identified above – whilst still maintaining a wider sense of interrelation, a controlled super-discourse.
How to get involved
We invite those of you who have an interest in any of the Fantastika genres to take part in our evolving research community. Just as the term Fantastika incorporates a space of merger, of crossing or dissolving boundaries, and unifying common themes and elements between genres, so too is Fantastika Journal a space to explore ideas and controversies that are shared between literatures. As my well, Fantastika is not restricted to the textual field. Indeed, the fiction reviews that are part of every issue exemplifies the wide field of Fantastika that is currently being produced. We’ve attempted to include reviews from books, short story collections, films, television shows, video games, conferences, and even soundtracks. As such, Fantastika itself is not restricted purely to the field of literary criticism.
We invite researchers of all mediums: film studies, art scholars, theatre and performance practitioners, and so forth, to emails us at email@example.com if you’d like to submit an article for consideration or request a review for publication. We are also an interdisciplinary journal. Those that have taken part in the Fantastika community so far represent a diverse range of humanities and even science disciplines, from religious studies and linguistics, to computer studies and theoretical physics, and we encourage out-of-box thinking when publishing with us. Our next issue will be available out this month; keep an eye on our website at www.fantastikajournal.com to download the latest issue; or follow us on Facebook or on Twitter (@FantastikaPress) to see journal announcements.
One final note that should hardly need to be said: Fantastika Journal will not offer a defence of the study of these popular genres and forms. At times, Fantastika is literary and/or artistic. At others, there may be little artistic value to the production, but nonetheless the Fantastika production under study may still offer an insight into the cultures and peoples of the time. As the wide range of fiction and non-fiction reviews in each issue demonstrates, Fantastika is constantly being produced, constantly evolving, constantly influencing and being influenced by current cultural moments and movements; it offers a creative and engaging perception of humanity today. As such, Fantastika Journal moves beyond the question of why people engage with these genres – that way leads to stagnation in research. Instead, we take it as evident that these literatures and mediums are of academic value, and instead provide a space for the developing discourses of this emerging critical field. We invite further contributions from those with an academic interest in the Fantastika fields to join us in excavating and examining Fantastika genres, as we continue the development towards new research frontiers.
- Except for the rare instances in editorials, throughout all the articles and reviews in this journal we have decided to capitalize genres as proper nouns. This is in order to differentiate the word as a genre as opposed to the common usage of the word. For instance, ‘Fantasy’ as a genre, which is distinct from ‘fantasy’ as ‘imaginary’ or ‘make-belive’; or ‘Horror’ as a genre to distinguish from ‘horror’ as emotion or affect.
Clute, John. “Fantastika in the World Storm.” 2007. Pardon this Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm. Beccon Publications, 2011, pp. 19-31.
—. “Fantastika; or, The Sacred Grove.” Fantastika Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 2017, pp. 13-20.
Charul (Chuckie) Palmer-Patel is Head Editor of Fantastika Journal. She started organising the Fantastika conferences in 2013 at Lancaster University, UK, and has expanded the conference to journal form in the hopes of maintaining and expanding the Fantastika community after moving back to Canada in 2017. The conference is currently continued on by the editing staff of Fantastika. This blog is an adapted version of Palmer-Patel’s editorial in the first issue, “Excavations of Genre Barriers: Breaking New Ground with Fantastika Journal” (2017). For a longer explanation of the heroic pattern, please visit www.fantastikajournal.com to access the editorial, or a lengthier version will be published in Palmer-Patel’s upcoming monography, The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic Epic Fantasy, expected out late 2019 or early 2020 with Routledge.