Sunday, July 10, 2016

SHORT REVIEW: Brian Attebery's Stories about Stories

One of the weak areas of my dissertation, I know, has been studying Strauss and Tolkien almost exclusively during my "research phrase." Of course, even here I have only scratched the surface of the available secondary literature on either figure, but I am ambitious enough that I want -- even need -- to situate my work within wider fields. So I have been, surreptitiously, catching on up on fantasy criticism in general on the side. I've gone through most of the major works, and Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy thoroughly impressed me. And while I've heard of Brian Attebery before and may have even included him in my senior thesis on Stephen R. Donaldson way back when, I couldn't remember anything about his theories. So when I saw that he'd won the most recent Mythopoeic Award this year, I immediately ordered his book off interlibrary. I also wanted to see what beat out Michael T. Saler's As If: A Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality.

Having just finished Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth, I'd still have to give the edge to Saler, but it's close. Saler excels in his grasp of theory and has more detailed close readings. (Both writers, though, are clear and highly readable.) Atterbery's main project is basically a survey of mythopoeic that brings us up to contemporary areas in literary studies. Thus he has chapters on colonial fantasy (i.e., fantasy writers appropriating the mythologies whose believers still lay claim to it), postcolonial fantasy (the empire writes back sort of stuff), and postmodern or "situated" fantasy. All his observations are insightful and nuanced. Attebery usually never takes the daring or contentious opinion; for example, when discussing Patricia Wrightson's use of aborigine myth, he suggests a "middle ground" first employed by the folklorists, when suggests that writers can employ the myths so long as they don't claim to speak for the culture or to present the definitive word. That strikes me as a pretty fair statement of the issue.

For me, though, the most interesting issue was his discussion of religion in fantasy literature -- especially those evangelical Christians who wanted to burn Harry Potter. Attebery's main argument -- again, I agree -- is that these debates are as much about interpretative models as the books' individual content. Proponents of literalist readers of biblical content see a danger in any book that is not the Bible, and the challenge presented by religious fantasy substantially threatens that model.

Attebery's observations would work great with the theologico-poltico problem as defined by Leo Strauss (whom himself took it from Spinoza), and I think Attebery could have gone even farther on this subject. One reason that Plato disparaged the poets, for example, was because of the "lies" they told the gods. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, the author had to contend with teaching The Great Gatsby to students who automatically dismissed the novel because Daisy was an adulterer. And even today there's one fundamentalist movement in India where this "religious" leader has gotten extremely litigious with anyone critical of his religion, basically equating any critiques to an infringement on his freedom of religion. (I can't remember who this was; I read about it in the New York Review of Books.)

Anyway, good book. Highly recommened.

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