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Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn

Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008)

by Farah Mendlesohn

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Most theories, of course, really don't mean much at all until you try to use them in practice, which is something I haven't yet had much of a chance to do with Rhetorics of Fantasy, but hope to do someday. I like her formulation of the four types of fantasy (portal-quest, immersive, intrusion, liminal), and what they indicate about our ("the reader's") attitude toward the fantastic, especially as regards observation (but then of course I would, as I am obsessed with observation). Mendelsohn has a keen attention to detail and complications (her point that genres work differently in different media, and thus we can't assume what she says is true for novels is also true for Buffy the Vampire Slayer is well taken), and I look forward to digging into her work in more depth at some point.
2 vote Stevil2001 | Jul 31, 2013 |

In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn identifies four different ways in which fantasy writers engage with their book (and their readers). First is the portal / quest fantasy, where the hero leaves his or her normality to enter a fantasy world on a heroic journey. Second, the immersive fantasy, which is entirely set within an imagined world. Third, the intrusive fantasy, where the abnormal intrudes into the characters' reality. And fourth, the liminal fantasy, where we are not certain which is which.

These are not absolutes; many books combine writing in more than one of these rhetorical modes (eg The Lord of the Rings begins as a quest and becomes immersive, and I would say even intrusive in the closing section in the Shire; Perdido Street Station is an immersive fantasy into which there is also an intrusion from elsewhere). But Mendlesohn is convincing on the basic point that these are four very different ways of writing the fantastic, which call on writers (and readers) to approach the texts in specific ways. Four long chapters give specific examples for each of the four rhetorical modes; a fifth looks at exceptions to them.

I'm not acquainted with literary theory, and my academic training is in the rather different fields of hard science and history (where the words 'polysemic' and 'phatic' are not often used), so when I read books like this I am not really looking to participate in the intellectual debate that the author may want to have. I am looking for i) a better understanding of books I have already read and ii) for suggestions of books I might read in the future which may appeal to me, and Rhetorics of Fantasy supplied me with plenty of material on both counts (and I'm brewing a livejournal poll based on my reading of it). ( )
3 vote nwhyte | May 22, 2009 |
This is an academic book and may not be an easy read for non-academics, however I feel it was well worth the effort. Farah Mendlesohn's analysis of different modes of fantasy is insightful and illuminating. ( )
  Rivendell | Apr 15, 2009 |
Showing 5 of 5
NOTE: contains NFA prose.

Farah Mendlesohn sat down to grapple with the rhetorics of fantasy; she stood up with a taxonomy for organizing all of fantastic fiction, every last drop of it, based on the narrative strategies, the rhetorics used to establish the relationship between the normal, the disputable HERE of us, and the numinous, the ineluctable THERE beyond the fields we know—a sound basis for a system of describing (and not prescribing) fantasy as she is wrote, you’ll agree. (—What else is there?) —Her taxonomy, then, proposes four means whereby this relationship is inscribed, interrogated, upended and maintained:

1 - the portal/quest, in which we go from here to there;
2 - the immersive, in which there is no here but there;
3 - the intrusive, in which there comes here and must return;
4 - the liminal, in which there was here all along.

So. Four. (With yes an implied fifth, and an obvious sixth. —But for now, four.) —Why only four? Why these four? —Well.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0819568686, Paperback)

Transcending arguments over the definition of fantasy literature, Rhetorics of Fantasy introduces a provocative new system of classification for the genre. Utilizing nearly two hundred examples of modern fantasy, author Farah Mendlesohn uses this system to explore how fiction writers construct their fantastic worlds. Mendlesohn posits four categories of fantasy--portal-quest, immersive, intrusion, and liminal--that arise out of the relationship of the protagonist to the fantasy world. Using these sets, Mendlesohn argues that the author's stylistic decisions are then shaped by the inescapably political demands of the category in which they choose to write. Each chapter covers at least twenty books in detail, ranging from nineteenth-century fantasy and horror to extensive coverage of some of the best books in the contemporary field. Offering a wide-ranging discussion and penetrating comparative analysis, Rhetorics of Fantasy will excite fans and provide a wealth of material for scholarly and classroom discussion.

Includes discussion of works by over 100 authors, including Lloyd Alexander, Peter Beagle, Marion Zimmer Bradley, John Crowley, Stephen R. Donaldson, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, Gregory Maguire, Robin McKinley, China Mieville, Suniti Namjoshi, Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling, Sheri S. Tepper, J. R. R. Tolkien, Tad Williams

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:16 -0400)

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