Renaissance heroes

Charles Butler hannibal at
Sat Aug 9 02:45:35 EDT 2003

> Which in a way means that all fiction is fantasy? But then how do we
> describe the special books DWJ writes? More fantastic than most?

This is a perennial problem, and I think there have been quite a few
attempts to solve it. One I like a lot (though in summary it's impossible to
do it justice) is Brian Attebury's in the first chapter of 'Strategies of
Fantasy'. He divides fantasy into three: mode, genre and formula.

Fantasy as mode is the broadest: the fantastic mode is at the opposite end
of the scale from (adapting Northrop Frye a bit) the mimetic mode: all
literature can be placed on a scale that is nearer or further away from one
of these, and all literature partakes to a greater or lesser degree of both
(hence it is legitimate though perhaps not very useful - except when facing
a full-on fantasy-bashing antagonist - to point out that all fiction is, or
at least involves, fantasy).

Fantasy as formula is the narrowest - think Tough Guide cliches. Though
Attebury points out (IIRC) that working with a tight formula and a limited
number of elements (a sonnet, a classic detective story) is a great
technical challenge and when well done can produce work that is, in a
meaningful sense, 'original'.

Fantasy as genre is the kind of fantasy Attebury (and I think most of us on
this list) is interested in: narrower than fantasy as mode, broader than
fantasy as formula. But it's also the hardest to define. DWJ would certainly
come into it, though! After some talk of fuzzy sets and how the borders of a
set of texts like this are the hardest part to be precise about, I think he
does settle for saying that the distinguishing feature of genre fantasy is
that it should evoke a sense of 'wonder'. (But then what is 'wonder', etc.?)

Confusingly, formula fantasy under Attebury's definition is more or less
what most people I know call genre fantasy. Sigh... But I still recommend
the chapter and indeed the book.


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