Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review of Lucie Armitt's Fantasy Fiction (First Draft)

After reading Lucie Armitt’s Fantasy Fiction I had many mixed feelings. Overall, I had high expectations and was left disappointed. I feel that Armitt wrote this with the right intentions but did now follow through. I was very intrigued by the initial set up of the book. However, as I continued with reading the book, I felt there was a lack or organization within the chapters as Armitt frequently bounced back and forth between points instead of following through with clear concise points to support her over claims.

I enjoyed Armitt’s initial definition of fantasy fiction as she draws in a comparison to the psychoanalysis school of literary criticism. She states “What literary and fantasy and psychoanalysis have in common is their shared need to construct narratives to explain the utterly inexplicable: what drives us, what terrifies us and why, and what our greatest desires might be.” This provides a very strong definition of psychoanalysis as a form of literary criticism. However, she proposed the definition as if to say that psychoanalysis and fantasy fiction are parallel with one another. The fall back with this is that psychoanalysis in theory, was created to be applicable to all types of literature as many of the other schools of literary criticism do. She revisits the idea of psychoanalysis frequently in the book, but she fails to address any of the other forms of literary criticism and how they are applicable to fantasy fiction. For example, how would a formalist or structuralist critic approach fantasy fiction? What would a critic of post- structuralism say? By committing to the psychoanalytic criticism of which the main focus is on the author’s unconscious and “dreamlike” writing, it’s almost as if Armitt is taking the easy way out without providing a full, complete application of the different critical theories.

Armitt starts out once again with the right intentions in the next few chapters. First, she backtracks to the origins of fantasy writing which I thought was important in showing how it shaped modern fantasy. I like how she touched upon narratives from Ancient Greece and the Old Testament to show how they influenced fantasy writing. This was interesting because it allowed the reader to gain a better understanding of the origins of the “real vs. unreal”. In this chapter, she also grapples with the “dream narration” which suggests that in fantasy fiction, the narrator tells the story as though he or she is recalling a dream. Armitt manages to separate the “dreamlike narration” from being one of the components of psychoanalysis to being an element of fantasy fiction. Disappointingly, the next section, Early modern fantasy draws on the works of Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare’s work, though it may contain some fantasy elements, is no recognized as fantasy fiction. In other words, when anyone mentions “Shakespeare”, terms that come to mind are “sonnets” or “plays” or “tragedies”. But, never have I heard someone say they think of “fantasy fiction”. Armitt follows this unfortunate pattern frequently throughout the novel. She recognizes various elements found in fantasy fiction, but then goes on to speak of works that are not critically acclaimed as fantasy works. For example, in a later chapter, Armitt uses Dracula and Animal Farm as examples to support her claims. The issue with this is that neither is necessarily classified as a work of fantasy fiction. Dracula is typically associated with gothic fiction. Though there are striking similarities between gothic fiction and fantasy fiction, this takes away from the support of Armitt’s claim that fantasy fiction has its own definition. Instead, she contradicts herself and suggests that fantasy fiction possesses elements that can be found in practically any piece of literature.

The fourth chapter, “The Best and Best Known” where she give a distinct overview started out once again with the right idea, but managed to fall short. She included many stable examples of works that are accredited as works of fantasy fiction including: Gulliver’s Travels, The Alice Books, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Harry Potter series. Frankenstein and The Time Machine are once again debatable. Though they possess similar elements as those of fantasy works, I feel as though they are already classified into preexisting genres. Frankenstein for instance is categorized as a gothic or horror novel. The Time Machine is suggested to be an example of a science fiction novel. Therefore, once again the question is raised, what makes fantasy fiction fantasy fiction?

As Armitt goes into discussing the other works that are widely recognized as fantasy novels, she revisits the same examples over and over again in an effort to support her claim regarding the definition of fantasy fiction. Her focus on these selected works quickly turns into a description of each novel forgetting to tie together what makes them fantasy works. She starts out strong when describing the fantasy characteristics of each novel but then loses her leverage. She begins describing certain symbolism such as “the last supper” concept and the idea that a meal signifies unity when discussing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. She does make rational sense and is able to clearly identify this symbolism. The issue is that this example can hold up in all literary genres. So though she shows that fantasy fiction shares many of the same themes and symbols as other literary genres, she fails to address once again what makes fantasy fiction different from the rest. In addition, Armitt also overlooks many other popular fantasy novels that could have helped with her claims including The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Wrinkle in Time and The Giver. In the “Mothers and Mirrors” section of the chapter, she draws about multiple proposed elements of fantasy fiction that can be found in Harry Potter, however she doesn’t draw upon any other fantasy novels in this section. Therefore, though these elements can be found in the Harry Potter books, are they necessarily found in all fantasy novels? She goes from an argument about what characteristics fantasy novels include to an argument about what these suggested novels can be considered works of fantasy fiction. In both cases, she fails to develop either argument and does not concretely build on either one.

The rest of the chapters are dedicated to defining different elements that can be found in fantasy fiction pieces. These include the notion of “Utopia” and the implementation of ghosts. Yet again, is fantasy fiction the only genre where these elements appear. There are hundreds of horror novels that include ghosts and that also grapple with the concept of utopia vs. dystopia. This raises the question, If fantasy fiction and gothic fiction share so many similar qualities, why are they divided into different genres. Is gothic fiction simply a type of fantasy fiction? As said before, Armit builds many new claims, however she ends up contradicting herself in an attempt to support these claims. She attempts to define fantasy fiction but then uses examples that are not classified in fantasy genre. Then, she notes the elements of different fantasy works, but the elements she addresses are ones that can be found universally throughout literature. She also attempts to justify her claims using criticisms from the school of psychoanalysis. But again, psychoanalysis is a form a criticism of which its intention is to be universally applicable to all forms of literature. There is not concrete claim supported by concrete evidence. Instead there are many loose ends that fail to be tied up. I understand her intentions and admit that she was successfully in identifying many fantasy-like elements. However, the question still remains, what is it about fantasy fiction that makes it unlike any other forms of literature? What leads a novel to be classified as a work of fantasy fiction? Finally, What unique elements are found in fantasy fiction and only fantasy fiction?

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