Fixing the Fuzzy Set? On Brian Attebery’s “Fantasy: How It Works”

By Timothy S. MillerDecember 15, 2023

Fixing the Fuzzy Set? On Brian Attebery’s “Fantasy: How It Works”

Fantasy: How It Works by Brian Attebery

FEW SCHOLARS HAVE done more to shape the field of fantasy studies than Brian Attebery, longtime editor of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and author of multiple monographs and essays. Attebery’s most recent book, Fantasy: How It Works (2022), is his fourth dedicated to fantasy in a career spanning over four decades. His first, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin (1980), numbered among the earliest monographs on the fantastic, and helped the study of fantasy begin to catch up with science fiction studies as a serious academic field. It was Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy (1992), however, that became his most frequently cited work, particularly for its articulation of a then-innovative understanding of the genre as an unfixed and negotiable “fuzzy set,” members of which are recognizable through their “family resemblances” with one another, rather than due to an inherent set of characteristics common to all examples.

If readers expect Fantasy: How It Works to supersede Attebery’s earlier foundational intervention in the field with a new key to all mythologies, it must be admitted that the book fails to deliver on the sweeping promise implicit in the title. Its 10 short chapters (plus an introduction) range widely and impressionistically over a heterogeneous array of primary and secondary texts, and Attebery’s arguments can seem incomplete, as indeed he himself finally gestures towards the unfinished and unfinishable cultural work that fantasy itself performs.

The central ironic insight, ultimately, of a book claiming to explain how fantasy “works” is that fantasy is not one singular thing, and it is certainly not something that one person in a single book can presume to explain the workings of. While Fantasy: Some of the Ways It Works would have made for a less snappy title, it might also have more accurately reflected Attebery’s rather modest ambitions. It may not offer the final word on fantasy, but the great strength of Fantasy: How It Works lies in the way it draws on and showcases a lifetime of careful reading of and thinking about the fantastic, marking another invaluable addition to fantasy studies.

The book’s first sentence acknowledges that “[t]he nature of fantasy literature keeps changing,” and Attebery hopes to provide “a snapshot of the current moment” while reckoning with the long past of the fantastic as a form, which he also defines broadly. A tall order, to be sure, and the scattershot approach in these 200 pages means that the book touches on almost every subject relevant to the study of fantasy—quite a remarkable feat—while treating none comprehensively or systematically.

Even the chapter titles promise more than they deliver: for instance, the seventh and eight chapters, “Gender and Fantasy” and “The Politics of Fantasy,” prove much narrower in scope, the former concentrating on the theme of masculinity and a small set of works by “men who have employed fairy-tale motifs in exposing damaging patterns of masculine behavior and attempting to construct more eutopian models of gender.” This chapter’s consideration of how male protagonists, authors, and readers interact with the story world of the fairy tale is original and intriguing, but it addresses only one small corner of “gender and fantasy.” Of course, Attebery knows that each of these topics merits its own monograph, and he has himself written another entire book on gender in speculative fiction, Decoding Gender in Science Fiction (2002).

The second chapter, “Realism and the Structures of Fantasy,” similarly treats a single realist subgenre—the family story for young readers—and via only a few examples, limiting its capacity to comment more generally on how “[r]eal-world settings and plots are always more conventional, more genre-driven than they appear,” and how “realism and fantasy can coexist in the same text.” Even so, nearly every chapter contains sensitive readings of understudied fantasies alongside plenty of glancing references to more familiar canonical works, and Attebery’s granular readings of individual texts often persuade more effectively than many of the book’s grander and more abstract gestures.

Attebery’s favorite literary theorists include authors of fantasy such as J. R. R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, whose nonfiction he tends to cite more frequently and make more central to his own reading practices than the work of contemporary scholars. Thus, the first numbered chapter after the brief introduction, “How Fantasy Means,” shows Attebery following Tolkien and Le Guin in rejecting a model of fantasy that would read it as a form of allegory built on one-to-one correspondences. Rather, fantasy, like the oral forms from which it derives, gains its power from the ability of narrative and metaphor to “generate meanings beyond the literal” in more complex ways.

While Attebery writes that fantasy studies has less need today to defend the genre against literary snobbery, this chapter draws contrasts with realism that seem to privilege fantasy over realistic fiction. Attebery writes, “Realism is very good at depicting form: social forms, forms of selfhood. Fantasy is better at probing hidden structure.” In part because of what Attebery perceives to be the genre’s tendency towards metafiction, he elaborates that, “[b]y renouncing surface fidelity, a fantastic tale can reveal fundamental patterns of stress and support.” I do not see any reason why various forms of realism cannot also do similar work, but elsewhere Attebery provides more compelling explanations of “fantasy’s particular affordances”: he writes that “[p]art of the cultural work of the fantastic is to tell us that things need not be the way they are,” or even to “offer us scenarios for survival.” One may disagree with some of his conclusions about where fantasy’s affordances may or may not lie—for example, Attebery does not count “representation of real-world power dynamics” among them—but in drawing on the idea of affordances, he has imported a useful concept to fantasy studies, one that has recently been widely adopted across disciplines.

The arguments that the book puts forth about fantasy are eclectic and difficult to summarize; fortunately, Attebery’s last chapter provides an overview of them all condensed into a few pages. Rather than trying to recapitulate each, I will emphasize the most unifying common interest, namely the relationship between conflict and fantasy, or rather how fantasy enables a transformation—and possible transcendence—of ideological or social struggle: “Fantasy offers ways to situate conflicting beliefs within alternate narrative frameworks,” as well as “alternative scripts for interaction, ways to bypass rather than engender conflict.”

The third and fourth chapters share this interest in conflict most plainly, although the sixth also returns to some of the same ideas, building on them more clearly. That chapter, “Young Adult Dystopias and Yin Adult Utopias,” decries “a shortage of young adult literature that gestures toward utopia,” tours some past critical utopias, and sketches some ways to locate utopia in small communities and individual acts of transformation. But before grasping at the ever-receding utopian ideal, Attebery frames the fourth chapter more specifically as a refutation of the idea that fiction itself must be driven by conflict, and he proposes multiple new metaphors for narrative propulsion: “dissonance, friction, resistance, and occultation.”

I associate the idea of conflict defining narrative less with the scholarly study of literature than with popular understandings of fictional form, and not coincidentally Attebery himself quotes from a “how-to website on novel-writing (one of many making the same claim)” in order to position his alternatives. This curious choice makes it difficult to parse the more scholarly conversations about narrative that Attebery may wish to enter, although of course one of the selling points of this book is its wider accessibility.

Similarly, chapter five proposes alternative models of literary allusion and reference, yet Attebery does not satisfactorily explain what is wrong with Julia Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality, only very briefly referring to it as “misleadingly abstract” and not centering readers. His own fanciful mitochondrial metaphor—living texts that have engulfed other living texts in a consumptive symbiosis—is not likely to replace Kristeva’s model in academic discourse.

Where the book shines, once again, is in its individual readings of specific texts. In chapter four, for instance, the examples Attebery deploys to illustrate his alternative metaphors, in characteristically encyclopedic fashion, include classic works by Lewis Carroll, Edward Eager, and Diana Wynne Jones alongside G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen (2012) and Patricia A. McKillip’s The Bards of Bone Plain (2010). The third chapter likewise highlights comparatively recent but less studied fantasies such as Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni (2013), Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen stories, and Laurie Marks’s Elemental Logic series. Here Attebery is concerned with fantasy’s capacity to reflect on how “cognitive minorities” view the world in different ways but still find ways of living with one another, thanks to what he, following Tolkien, claims is “the inherently reconciling dynamic of the fairy story.” The chapter’s conclusion sounds wholehearted agreement with the Tolkienian proposition that fantasies must end with a harmonious resolution:

Because these are fantasies, the narrated world itself favors accommodation and renewal. The fairy-tale structure of fantasy requires resolution: it is part of the form, like the concluding couplet of a Shakespearian sonnet. […] A fairy story, with or without fairies, must end in what Tolkien called eucatastrophe, the sudden breathtaking turn toward harmony and wonder.

Attebery traces how the fantasies under consideration operate very well in this way, but he leaves one wondering if all fantasies must really work in this fashion.

In fact, coming from a scholar whose name has become synonymous with the definition of the fantasy genre as a fuzzy set, some of Attebery’s pronouncements about fantasy in Fantasy: How It Works can appear surprisingly rigid, even prescriptive. This seems especially true if one has skipped to that final chapter, which contains capsule versions of his arguments, though it is important to understand that Attebery does not intend to be programmatic but rather to open up debate, to extend ideas, and to overturn some outmoded assumptions. Attebery’s approach thus becomes reminiscent of the rhetorical posture of another milestone monograph on fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008), which, despite its superficially taxonomic framework, the author describes as “intended to function as a jumping-off point for discussion” rather than “to create rules” or “fix anything in stone.”

Likewise, Attebery self-consciously offers most of his readings and conclusions as the opening gambit in a critical dialogue, invoking Kenneth Burke’s image of scholarship as an unending conversation. Some academic readers may feel that Attebery leans into the conversational style a little too enthusiastically, and he does divulge that each chapter originated as a public talk. In parts, the book can even seem like a quasi-memoir, explaining the author’s critical methods and other assorted predilections: “These chapters represent my usual working method. I’ll notice a loose thread in the fabric of literature, start tugging at it, see where the seams come apart, and ask what that tells us about the original garment. If I’m lucky, some sort of thesis emerges along the way.”

The seventh chapter, on gender and fantasy, illustrates this tendency towards academic memoir most clearly: it recounts Attebery’s process of arriving at the arguments previously put forth in a 2018 article published in the journal Marvels & Tales. The chapter version, which is shorter than the published article, uses some of the same material and wording, yet it reads not as a revision of that text but instead as a kind of retelling, a retold tale of its own. There is a charm and ingenuousness about this self-reflective chapter, but there are other times when Attebery’s rhetorical choices can move beyond the idiosyncratic to the inscrutable. For example, in a chapter that seeks to articulate a crucial and definitive distinction between fantasy and horror, Attebery distances himself from the latter genre, describing himself as “the worst person to talk about its nuances and aesthetic achievements” because, he says, “I don’t get it.” Here Attebery surely carries humility too far; moreover, I remain unconvinced of the relationship he seeks to establish between fantasy and horror. Attebery holds that “horror is fantasy truncated, cut off before the dynamics of story can redeem world, characters, and the reader’s sense of order,” appearing to insist on a rigid and limiting conception of the genres and their potential cultural work that seems to diverge from the fuzzy set perspective on genre he himself pioneered.

To appreciate this book, it is therefore necessary to accept it as a series of interconnected but fundamentally impressionistic essays—essays in the original sense of the word: excursions, attempts. While Fantasy: How It Works cannot really function as an introduction to or overview of fantasy, the book remains highly accessible, relatively brief for a scholarly monograph, and surprisingly inexpensive for a title from an academic press. There is no book quite like it, and it is best approached as just what Attebery intended, a conversation starter about how fantasy means and what it does, the important work it performs in the world.

LARB Contributor

Timothy S. Miller is an assistant professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, where he contributes to the department’s MA degree concentration in science fiction and fantasy. His most recent book is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea”: A Critical Companion (2023).


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