Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Real and irreal

Detail from the cover of Thaliad. Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
I picked this one for the post because it suggests a kind of leafing
and fruiting and singing that joins all good writers, maugre the mode!

This post is a wandering set of responses to another post, in which the ever-interesting Patrick Kurp talks about the literary loves and antipathies of H. L. Mencken. The portions about Mencken as a boy are full of charm, and the whole piece is of interest.

* * *

Having written two fantasy novels (grounded in the landscape and Scots-Irish/Cherokee lore of western North Carolina) and a number of short stories because one of my children was mad for fantasy, I find that am equally happy on either side of the "fanciful and unearthly" vs. "highly literal" divide. Oh, just remembered that I wrote a book-length post-apocalyptic poem, so that's tumbling into the fantastical, too, and I went back to the classical idea of the somnium for a chapter in a forthcoming book. Perhaps I am impossibly mixed--or mixed up--at this point. You see, somehow I fail to feel a keen, profound difference between what others view as various modes when I write. I like to frolic as and where I will, and as story leads.

I'm fond of mythic and fantastic classical works, and in English I like many of the fantastic-leaning poems of Old English and the medieval world. I find it curious that so many people have a pronounced love for or dislike of what we call irrealism. And yet how far it goes back in Western and world literature... So shall we toss Homer? Ovid? Portions of Shakespeare? What about Dante? Gilgamesh? The Mahābhārata? The Dream of the Rood? Or were those elements fine then but not fine now, or not fine for the novel?

In the end, I don't find the divisions of genre helpful for me--I mean, as a writer--and am quite willing to look for a good book under many sorts of labels. But I don't find it a fault that somebody else wouldn't feel the same way. Instead, I find the tendency to like or dislike in this way to be interesting and intriguing. (Of course, maybe that's because it says something about a person's makeup, so I'm off on a writer's nosey, personality-examining jag when I consider the subject.)

Such strong opinions are a challenge to my own stance, surely. And while I know my own mind, I'm not adverse to changing it.

I wonder what Mencken thought of the more fantastical creations of Twain. He may be labeled a realist for perfectly sensible reasons by literary historians, but Twain has some creations that fall strongly into another realm. Even Huckleberry Finn revels in the fact that people have very different angles of vision on the world and how to navigate it--a profusion of angles that just might suggest that we're already living in a kind of metaphorical multiverse, right here and now.

As to this matter of "realist" and "speculative" (choose whatever term you like for the latter--the sf/f/h world seems to expend a great deal of energy arguing that point) fiction, I believe it's all the same realm--a kind of continuum. A writer can move about on that continuum. A writer can stay put. Writers on many points of the continuum can strive to make a truthful and strong story. (Or they can strive for something lesser, but winning the world and losing your soul is a whole other dilemma and fish-kettle...)

Don't all narratives differ from reality and rejoice in making up a world? If a writer reached the point of absolute realism--impossible--we would have reality. And wouldn't that act of transforming words into complete realism be an irrealist tale?


  1. Wow! You've given me a lot to think about in new ways. I will ponder and get back to you. I feel as though I've stumbled into a grad seminar, and I am loving the challenge. More later.

    1. You are quick! I suppose there is a good bit there--many things I have wondered about, thought about, changed my mind about...

  2. Interesting post which I've had to come back to a few times, not knowing quite how to respond. "Irreal" is a word I don't think I've met before, but makes me think of "surreal".

    This makes me think of the many discussions as an art student and even as a practising artist about what style or "ism" one's work belongs to. To me those labels are sometimes limiting as one's style might be many "isms" at different times and with different works, while still be "oneself".... if I make sense...

    Anyway, I firmly believe we write or make visual art according to what feels right for expressing our own vision for the work at the time.

    1. Well, the sf/f/h community uses all sorts of words to describe the fantastical, the strange, the speculative... so I suppose I could have used many others!

      I'm not fond of genre boundaries, even though we know what they intend--and certainly there are story patterns that, if swallowed wholesale, constrict and demand. So I agree with you...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.