The Combat Fiction Bar & Grill by Hal Duncan – Notes from New Sodom

From Astounding Stories to The Wars My Destination

The SF Café is a curious place. Take a wrong turn when you step inside the door, and you can find yourself not where you expected at all. Or rather, not when you expected to be.

catch 22

You walk into the SF Café, and mostly you’re reckoning on seeing the shape of things to come — twenty minutes into the future, twenty years or twenty millennia — but there’s a corner of the SF Café that’s not the future at all. Take a step to the left, as the door swings shut behind you with a ting of the bell, and you may well find yourself in a today or yesterday where it’s not the science that’s strange but the history. This is the SF not of Suvin’s novum but of comparable errata, quirks of difference like the holes in your New Yorker’s Swiss Cheese, points of divergence and the oddities of a world evolved from them. You look around the café, find the posters of 1950s Sci-Fi flicks are gone, replaced by images of Confederate victories and Nazi triumphs. Where the salt cellars on the formica tables were once sleek chrome rocket-shapes, now they’re khaki and bulbous… grenades. What the fuck?

You step back out the door, gaze around. The downtown ghetto of Genre seems unchanged, but now when you turn and look up, you see the proof of your shift sideways across the timestreams: where the sign above the door should read The SF Café, now you’re standing before The Combat Fiction Bar & Grill. A parallel reality. An alternate history. And now, as you shrug and head inside, curious to explore this half-familiar elsewhen, the air shimmers around you; a jukebox comes alive with the sound of Swing. It’s bang in the middle of the 20th Century, and the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill has just opened for business.

Out of the pulp fiction boom, a new Genre has emerged, focused on warfare like that erupting in Europe even now. It comes from the industry of dime novels and magazines — Nick Carter Stories, Flying Aces, Marvel Tales, Buffalo Bill Weekly — draws on a 1920s/1930s recipe of hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths as perfected in the Boy’s Own adventure. Without its American flavour it might not be so very different from the even earlier tales of Haggard and Buchan, except that in the hands of a few editors, in the magazines and publishing imprints that they run, a more solid shape has been given, with something of a novel twist to it.

Where it might be just one more in the stable of Street & Smith’s pulp publications, under the editorship of John W. Macdonald, Astounding Stories in particular is bringing a level of rationalism to this mode of Industrial Age Romance. Clear guidelines demand a sharp focus on plausibility: weaponry must work the way it works in reality; strategies must be authentic; the combat must be extrapolated with rigour. And so a whole new Genre is born — inheriting from its romantic forebears but essentially Modern in its fusion of plot dynamics and intellectual mechanics.

Macdonald names it Combat Fiction.

As this Genre matures, that rationalist bent takes its effect. As a new generation of writers enters the field, many turn a cold eye on the sensationalist fluff that is their roots. Oh, they devoured the pulps as kids and they retain a deep love of the boldness to be found there, the sheer vigour of stories driven by peril; but as adults they now appreciate more mature themes. For them, the crass and pandering jingoism is something to be subverted. For them, warfare is not merely a backdrop for heroic adventure stories; rather it is an intrinsic element of plot and theme through which to explore the human condition. The 20th Century is a century of combat, after all. What other Genre is better equipped to address the big philosophical questions of life and death, of what it is to be a human in this world of war? Writing in response to what has gone before, working with the accrued toolkit of tropes or simply with the substrate of war-as-metaphor or war-as-backdrop, this new generation begins to explore these ideas in greater depth, find new angles. Those who are conversant with the Genre are increasingly aware of its potential, keen to exploit it.

Certainly, the pulp roots show through. The commercial impetus of the Genre is evident. Some Combat Fiction readers will buy any old shit as long as you slap a cigar-chomping sergeant on the cover — they want more of the same — and there are plenty ready to serve that up. But that dedicated readership offers a ready-made market for literate — even experimental — works dealing with war. Some readers have read all the permutations of the Combat Fiction novel, even the gritty realist ones, and they’re bored now — they want something original, something novel, something different. So, publishers can take risks on unconventional works which might otherwise fail to reach an audience; the uncritical fans of Genre supports the innovations of a non-generic aesthetic idiom — not Combat Fiction but simply combat fiction… the fiction of combat.

So, one writer called Alfred Bester, in his seminal novel, THE WARS MY DESTINATION, boldly flies his modernist colours in typographic trickery. In the opening pages of the book, he proclaims where he’s coming from in no uncertain terms, with the rhyme quoted above, directly based on a similar rhyme from James Joyce’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.

From The Naked and the Dead to Catch-22

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. The marketing of these works as Combat Fiction places them below the radar of many middle-brow readers. They look at Astounding Stories and they see only another Boys’ Own pulp. Little wonder — it’s sold as a Boys’ Own pulp, with covers of All-American GIs socking Nazis, storming bunkers, stopping tanks in their tracks with a well-aimed grenade. And amongst its siblings, there might be a subtler title like The Magazine of Espionage and Combat Fiction here and there, (espionage being a bedfellow of combat fiction from its earliest days,) but it’s mostly Bloody Battle Tales and Glory and Heroic War Stories.

And more than anything, the public perception of Combat Fiction is shaped by John Wayne movies, where hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths are still the order of the day. Not familiar with the written form, but seeing the lurid covers and sensational titles, they imagine all Combat Fiction to be written at that intellectual level; that’s how it presents itself. They’d only have to read THE NAKED AND THE DEAD to realise this perception was bollocks, but unfortunately, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD is on sale from one of the most successful Combat Fiction imprints, with a brauny GI on the cover, cigar clenched in his gritted teeth. It’s selling shit-loads, but not to those who look at that cover and think “John Wayne movie”.

(In another parallel reality, by the way, just another half-step to the left, Mailer’s novel is sold without the label, and is as widely regarded as a 20th century classic as it is in our reality. It’s not really regarded as Combat Fiction at all, in fact, much to the chagrin of the patrons of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill. This is just literary snobbery, they say. THE NAKED AND THE DEAD is clearly Combat Fiction, clearly of the same Genre as BIGGLES DEFIES THE SWASTIKA and 300 — and THE ILIAD, no less! But that’s another fold. In this one, those patrons need not worry; here, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD is where it belongs, shelved in Combat Fiction.)

Mailer’s novel is only the first of many to meet this fate. One day, a young writer called Joseph Heller sends his novel, CATCH-22 to an editor, and the editor finds himself in a quandary. It’s obvious from the first few pages of the manuscript that this is about warfare. But it’s also obvious that this is a literary masterpiece. To a public who thinks Combat Fiction means “John Wayne movies,” this non-linear, absurdist narrative might well be seen simply as what it is — a great work of fiction. To some reactionary fans of Combat Fiction, indeed, it might be too flagrant a breach of their expectations. But then again, to a public who thinks Combat Fiction means “John Wayne movies,” the first hint of a WW2 setting might be enough to turn them off. And to the progressive fans of Combat Fiction, this will be exactly what they’re clamouring for.

Marketed as General Fiction, it might stand a better chance of critical and commercial success. But its unconventional nature makes it a risky proposition. Maybe readers unfamiliar with Combat Fiction won’t understand it. Maybe readers wary of Combat Fiction won’t be open enough to understand it. Will they just see a confusion of conventions — brothels and bombing runs — and a silliness they can’t make sense of, lacking the protocols of combat fiction? Will they simply be alienated by the strangeness of it all?

And there is this ready-made market for Combat Fiction. There are the fans who will buy it simply because there’s an airstrip being blown up on the cover. There are a lot of them. And there are a whole lot of the others too, the ones crying out for a work just like this. The non-linear absurdism is a unique selling-point for them. This is an original take on the established tropes if ever there was one, a work which pushes the boundaries of Combat Fiction further than ever before. Within the genre, the editor is convinced, this will win instant renown.

And he’s right. Whole generations of readers too young for it now, readers who haven’t yet graduated to the mature works, readers who haven’t yet been born, will one day buy CATCH-22 as part of the Combat Fiction Masterworks series.

From The Sands of Iwo Jima to The Guns of Navarone

This is the death knell for such books, of course, in terms of wider recognition — to be shelved in a section of the bookstore that many readers simply will not think to browse. They don’t particularly dislike John Wayne movies, those readers, but they’re not fans of them, so why should they bother with that Combat Fiction section? If such a book gets reviewed it’s in the Combat Fiction magazines. It may be hailed as a classic by the patrons of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill, but when they try to persuade genrephobes of its value they’re met with arched eyebrows of doubt.

Their skeptical friend lowers the copy of NEUROMANCER he happens to be reading.

(He sighs. He’s only just finished arguing with a Crime Fiction fan that NEUROMANCER is not, as they were insisting, “really Crime Fiction” simply because it has criminals in it. In this fold, it should be noted, where fantasy is the third mask between tragedy and comedy, and where Marquezian magical realism has its bedfellow in Orwellian speculative realism, there is no question of such features rendering a work “genre fiction.” Still, those Crime Fiction fans will insist on laying claim to literature like NEUROMANCER that explores the noir idiom as part of its dystopian approach.)

He looks at the copy of CATCH-22 that’s being waved in front of him.

But that’s Combat Fiction, he says. That’s just formulaic dreck, isn’t it? All hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths.

The Combat Fiction fan tries; they really do. They list Combat Fiction works, detail their merits, insisting that the field is not intrinsically formulaic. The genrephobe is dubious that any Genre novel could really achieve the profundity of a Nobel prize winner, or stand the test of time, or satisfy a number of vague criteria of literary quality, that it could really be that good. The fan points to THE NAKED AND THE DEAD as proof. But the title doesn’t ring any bells to the genrephobe. Eventually the Combat Fiction fan must point outside the Genre simply to find something the genrephobe has read. So they point to Hemingway’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, a recognised classic. This is dismissed as at most an influence on Combat Fiction, a taproot text, not an actual work of Combat Fiction.

Finally the genrephobe is persuaded, against their will, to give CATCH-22 a go; he’ll find it funny, honestly. He approaches the book with skepticism, expecting something like that John Wayne movie he caught on the TV the other day. It immediately becomes apparent that this is not THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA, and by fuck, it turns out that he loves it. The blend of tragedy and comedy, the fragmented narrative, the dark humanism, the core conceit extrapolated not unlike the speculative realism that is their normal taste. An ambitious book like this is not really Combat Fiction at all. No, it belongs with FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, not WHERE EAGLES DARE.

When he returns it to the fan, he happily confesses his appreciation, oblivious of the dark look flashing across the fan’s face when he praises it as “not really Combat Fiction“. The exasperated fan is just about to hit their clueless friend upside the head when another mate happens by. one of two things happens. Also a patron of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill, but with more conventional tastes, Philadelphia Stein — Philly for short — can’t help but clock the book he hated. It’s “not proper” Combat Fiction as far as he’s concerned, not like Alistair Maclean’s 1957 classic, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Or Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal work from just two years later, STARSHIP TROOPERS. Now, that’s proper Combat Fiction.

As the two fans argue over what is and what isn’t Combat Fiction, the genrephobe turns the copy of CATCH-22 over in his hands. On the back of it, a blurb proclaims of how this work “transcends the genre”. Well, he thinks, it certainly breaks the boundaries that stretch from THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA all the way to THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.

So it goes.

From Perilous Visions to War Stars

What is and what isn’t Combat Fiction? It’s an argument that begins with Catch-22, if not before, and slowly comes to consume the discourse. With Vietnam and the sexual revolution as a backdrop, the 60s and 70s see a renaissance in Combat Fiction, much of it socio-political and experimental, treating the fractured world of war as a reflection of the confusing (post)modern condition. Dubbed the New Wave, some writers in this mode become uncomfortable with the very label Combat Fiction. Many works of Combat Fiction now deal with guerrilla warfare, terrorism, the Holocaust, the Cold War, civil unrest, psychological warfare, inner city gang culture, drug wars, even disputes between neighbours or the “war of the sexes.” Some of it is so abstract in its connection with war that confrontational fiction might be more accurate a term. It’s not combat that’s makes this fiction what it is so much as it’s the “confrontational element.” Though coined by Heinlein, that term is taken up by writers like Ellison, like the cohort of Young Turks who appear in his seminal anthology, PERILOUS VISIONS.

Many fans of Golden Age Combat Fiction consider these writers of the New Wave to be “not real” Combat Fiction. Where is the solid grounding in actual warfare here? they say. Where is the rigour in weaponry and tactics? Hell, where’s the damn story? Give me FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE any day.

Meanwhile, the fan who sees this strange modern idiom as a battlefield of any and all literary techniques and tactics, a free-for-all where the rules of engagement have long since been lost, can hardly mention Combat Fiction to a hardcore genrephobe without facing a dismissive sneer and a reference to those WAR TREK fans who go to conventions dressed up as Spock, in their khaki WAR TREK uniforms, with their papier-mache helmets, and toy rifles. It doesn’t help that, in their uncritical love for all things Combat Fiction, those with the most devotion refer to the Genre by the cute and clever moniker of Com-Fi (pronounced “comfy” by those in the know these days.) It’s hardly a damning indictment — a charge of enthusiasm to the point of silliness — but these strange subcultural shenanigans turn the brand image of Combat Fiction into a barricade.

The situation isn’t helped when a young director named George Lucas, in homage to the G.I. Joe comics he loved as a kid, makes a puerile but rollicking piece of hokum called WAR STARS. John Wayne movies are out of fashion now, so Combat Fiction isn’t a box office draw any more, but WAR STARS is a surprise smash hit. Kids and adults around the world fall in love with it, and it changes the face of cinema, ushering in a new era of blockbusters, many of which have strong elements of Combat Fiction, but few of which have the depth of the written form. BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS is no 2001: A SPACE ILIAD. Most of the those who lap up this Com-Fi would not class themselves as fans. While arching their eyebrows at the fans, indeed, they feel no shame at enjoying this cinematic junk food, because they don’t take it seriously, treat it on the level it essentially belongs, as a frippery. With disdain or disregard, they’ll tell the proselytising fan, they don’t mind spending a few hours on a flick like WAR STARS, but if they’re going to read a book they prefer something substantial.

But WAR STARS, some fans of the written form begin to declare, isn’t really Combat Fiction. With its plot revolving around stolen plans, the infiltration of an enemy base, and the rescue of a captive agent of a resistance movement, it’s clearly Espionage. Which is not a good thing, as far as they’re concerned. The cult of Fleming has exploded by now, and the 1970s sees a glut of derivatives, often hugely successful; most follow such a rigid formula in their tales of James Bond clones on missions to uncover and foil the Evil Genius’s plans for world domination that the term “espionage” becomes synonymous with sub-Fleming wank fantasy. Puerile wish-fulfillment, scorn the hardcore Combat Fiction devotees, hardly wrong but turning a blind eye to the subtleties of Le Carre and Greene in the idiom they abject, and to the testosterone-fueled power-tripping in their own backyard, in writers like Maclean. No, Espionage is the enemy. For some fans, anything from Perilous Visions to War Stars might be the enemy.

Genrephobes, knowing nothing of this territorial squabble and seeing no sense in the distinctions being made… nod and smile.

So it goes.

From Slaughterhouse Five to Harry Potter

Time passes. Down in the ghetto, in the Combat Fiction Bar & Grill, there’s unrest. One of the writers who’s pushed the boundaries the most, Kurt Vonnegut, author of the classic Combat Fiction novel, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, denies that his work is Genre in an attempt to escape the inexorable taint of formulaic shit that goes with the label Combat Fiction. Regardless of the blatant and direct tackling of the subject matter of Combat Fiction, he rejects the confines of a Genre dismissed by the general public as “John Wayne movies” and celebrated by many of its most ardent admirers on the basis of its “sense of glory.” A large proportion of fans who now vehemently reject Com-Fi as an implicitly derogatory term in favour of a less loaded CF — standing for combat fiction, confrontational fiction, or any number of alternatives — consider this a betrayal of the worst kind.

So it goes.

Time passes. Mainstream writers start turning their hand to combat fiction only to be regarded with extreme suspicion, if not outright hostility. Pat Barker’s REGENERATION, a novel set during World War One but taking place almost entirely in Craiglockhart War Hospital, is a point of controversy. For some fans, the problem is simply that Barker’s book is old hat, done before. If Barker were familiar with the genre she’d know that the War Hospital story was a hoary old cliche, done to death. For others, the problem is that Barker leaves the trenches in the background, which is utterly at odds with the conventions of this Genre of hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths. Barker, as a dabbling mainstream writer, doesn’t really understand the way Combat Fiction works, and so her novel doesn’t work as Combat Fiction. Barker compounds her crime by, in an interview, denying that she writes Combat Fiction, which she dismisses as “grunts with guns” stories. She accepts the label confrontational fiction, but few CF fans notice this.

So it goes.

Time passes. An Espionage series aimed at children and young adults — J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER books — takes hold in the public imagination. Adults who haven’t read a novel in years are suddenly obsessed with HARRY POTTER, with its secret weapons to be sought after, intrigues to be uncovered, plots to be foiled. People like reading about machinations, it seems, and given the choice between middle-class, middle-brow, mid-life crisis novels and books in which a trainee secret agent thwarts the schemes of the Evil Genius Voldemort, they’ll opt for the latter. Some of those writers who now treat Confrontational Fiction as an umbrella term for Combat Fiction and Espionage (“and stuff”) keep their fingers crossed that this will translate to an influx of new readers as fans of HARRY POTTER graduate to more mature works. Others simply see this as a mainstreaming of the confrontational genres in their most commercial and juvenile form, dubious that Rowling’s fans will really move on to Heller and the like.

So it goes.

From The Iliad to War and Peace

In the uptown district of Literature, in some bistro where contemporary realism is the order of the day and critique is always on the menu, a discussion kicks off about this trend in reader tastes. A bookshop assistant who hangs out down in the Combat Fiction Bar & Grill from time to time tries to explain. She describes the simple desire of readers for something more heroic, and the expectations readers have of Genre fiction fulfilling that desire. She begins to speak of the thwarting of those expectations by fiction which does not, in fact, fulfill this desire — but this last point is lost amid the horrified cries of the middle-class and middle brow regulars of the bistro, busy bewailing the debased taste of adult readers who would lower themselves to reading Genre, denying point blank that any work of Combat Fiction could be more than formulaic dreck. To the bookshop assistant they seem driven by some bourgeois neurosis about genre cooties eating away at the foundations of civilisation.

The bookshop assistant, as a reader of cf — in lower case as a marker of mode rather than identity, not a brand label but a shorthand for an aesthetic idiom — is all too familiar with this prejudice, knows that argument is futile. She might point to everything from the ILIAD to WAR AND PEACE as examples of combat fiction, but the very idea will be dismissed as ludicrous; these aren’t Com-Fi. She knows that FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS will likewise be disregarded along with any work that wasn’t published in the actual marketing category. She knows that SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE will be classed as satire or postmodernism. And there’s no point even mentioning THE NAKED AND THE DEAD; this will be entirely unfamiliar, having been published under a Combat Fiction imprint, consigned to the ghetto of Genre. Why should anyone take her word that there are cf novels of the very highest calibre? With a mind already made up about Com-Fi and its freakish fans, why should anyone sift through the shit of that section in their local bookstore for the gems these crazies claim are hidden in the muck?

As a last resort, the bookshop assistant draws a wild comparison to fiction which focuses on, for example, science as a metaphor or backdrop rather than combat. Imagine, she says, a hypothetical and absurd new genre label… call it Science Fiction. And then she traces out a strange counterfactual scenario where such recognised modern classics as Delany’s DALGHREN, Lem’s SOLARIS, Ballard’s THE DROWNED WORLD, a whole host of modern classics, are all lumped together under an arbitrary marketing label. She conjures a pseudo-history of the world, a parallel timestream where — crazy as it may sound — these sort of books are considered “genre fiction.” If the course of events only played out a little differently, she says, you can see how a disjunct could exist between the reality of this field and the popular perception of it. Just as it does, she argues, for combat fiction. Or confrontational fiction, as she prefers to call it. Surely, she says, you can’t fail to see the absurdity of a prejudice dismissing these works simply because they’re “genre fiction,” where this “genre fiction” contains a novel like DHALGREN.

(She doesn’t stop to think before picking DALGHREN as an example. It’s so familiar in its renown that the very name of its apocalyptic city-setting, Bellona, has passed into common usage as a term for any catastrophic collapse from civilisation to senselessness. Bosnia was “a real Bellona.” Rwanda was “a real Bellona.” New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was “a real Bellona.”)

Trust me, she says. CATCH-22 is at least as good as that, to my mind, maybe even better. The only reason it’s not considered a modern classic is because it’s seen as Com-Fi, and Com-Fi is seen as hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths — all that John Wayne movie shit. But the real combat fiction that’s out there is about as far away from that as you can get. It’s not all plot-driven Boys’ Own adventures. It’s not all about weaponry and strategies. The characters and themes and prose can be way more important than any of that — and are in CATCH-22. If it wasn’t for the misperceptions surrounding that Combat Fiction label, CATCH-22 might be as much of a household name as DALGHREN is today.

The genrephobe remains unconvinced. The sort of breadth of definition she’s talking about would cover everything from the ILIAD to WAR AND PEACE, and that’s not a Genre just a gesture.

From The Guns of the South to The Plot Against America

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

So our bookstore assistant heads back to the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill. She begins to wonder, on her way, how events might have played out for the field of confrontational fiction if the label had never been coined, if they just had “war novels” — like modernity novels, but focusing on combat rather than progress as their background and theme. She imagines a world where KELLY’S HEROES isn’t blithely lumped in with SCHINDLER’S LIST, or LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL with WHERE EAGLES DARE; where fans of John Wayne movies, Commando comics, Alistair Maclean novels and other such Combat Fiction don’t kvetch about some latter-day CATCH-22 not playing by the rules; where SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE doesn’t need to be validated with a tradition stretching back through Faulkner and Tolstoy and Shakespeare to the ILIAD itself; where there’s no bitter resentment of the lack of respect for “genre fiction” like THE NAKED AND THE DEAD or STARSHIP TROOPERS; no bitching about mainstream writers who deny their work is Combat Fiction when it’s set in a war hospital; no teacup tempests over how Combat Fiction is polluted by Intrigue; no cringing at the self-coined nickname of Com-Fi because that’s really just the movies and TV shows, which really just give confrontational fiction a bad rep.

It’s natural for her to think this way. Alternate History is part of the Genre, after all, with all its counterfactuals of Confederate victories and Nazi triumphs. She’s not that big on the whole GUNS OF THE SOUTH approach herself, but the sub-genre’s been a corner of CF from way back. She’s imagining a world where there’s no argument over whether or not Philip Roth’s THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA is “really combat fiction,” just at the point where she pushes open the door of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill. As she walks inside, takes a step to the left, she’s imagining a world where the lack of classifications means CATCH-22 isn’t “not really” Combat Fiction to either fan or genrephobe.

Because in her fold, there’s a double-bind of double-binds. As much as the genrephobes apply that notorious axiom — If it’s Combat Fiction, it can’t be good; if it’s good, it can’t be Combat Fiction — the fans have their own, it sometimes seems, those who’re looking for “more of the same” at least: if it’s “not really” Combat Fiction, it can’t be good, if it’s good, it can’t “not really” be Combat Fiction. That fan axiom is written into the very nature of Genre itself, the demand of readers for something that coheres as a Genre.

If it’s exceptional, it can’t be exemplary; if it’s exemplary, it can’t be exceptional.

It’s a real Catch-22, she thinks.


  1. I really like your alternate history thought experiment, but I think some of your examples could have been better geared to cf rather than translating real world sf (Rowling). In some respects, the parallels fall apart. Another thought I have, could the argument not work better using middle and high brow literary realism that sits atop the totem pole today as the despised genre?

  2. With Rowling, the difficulty of parsing Harry Potter as combat fiction is the point. It’s not combat fiction, indeed, in this elsewhen; it’s kid’s fiction following the Mystery/Adventure formula that has become synonymous with Intrigue — in this world where Fleming is to Intrigue what Tolkien is to Fantasy here.

    In that elsewhen, your hardcore cf fan would be quick to point out that Rowling’s fiction is most decidedly not cf. A notable cf author would write of walking out of the Hugo Ceremony in disgust, (the Hugo being named after Gernsback, pioneer of what he dubbed “combatifiction”,) outraged that this kid’s “sleuthing” novel was even nominated, seeing that sort of intrigue as a pernicious adulteration of the genre. In that elsewhen, subterfuge is to open conflict as magic is to science here for many readers. The “hard cf” reader would come out in hives at Harry sneaking around in his invisibility cloak.

    A better parallel might have been to posit the Alex Rider books as the Mad Craze in this world rather than Harry Potter, but the superspy idiom there is so close to James Bond that the Rider books are more like this elsewhen’s Eragon. So, just as HP isn’t the Tolkienesque secondary world epic that dominates the Fantasy genre here, it isn’t the Flemingesque superspy story that dominates the Intrigue genre there. But there’s a distinct Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew style sleuthing going on and a classic Epic Intrigue villain in the form of Voldemort — an Evil Genius bent on world domination.

    With other examples… well, with references like War Stars or 2001: A Space Iliad, I’m just messing around and leaving you to imagine the quite different movies those might be.

  3. In terms of positing Contemporary Realism as a pulp genre… it wouldn’t work, I think. I mean, that middle-brow/high-brow purely mimetic fiction is certainly amenable to codification as a genre or set of genres, but its core characteristic is really the absence of pulp dynamics. It’s a sort of “Existential Quandary Fiction” which takes its dynamics solely from the stresses of domestic life, eschewing even the sensationalist inflation of melodrama. When you try to posit it as a counterfactual pulp idiom, you can only do so by turning it into melodrama. And the scenario ends up playing out exactly the same as in our world, I’d say.

    See, the bedrock here is that 1920s/1930s pulp, the dime novels and magazines coming out of publishers like Street & Smith, all of which were Romance — not in the bodice-ripping sense but in the derring-do sense. Think Boys’ Own adventure. Without that romanticist dynamics, you don’t have a mode capable of being formulated into a commercial pulp marketing category; you don’t have Astounding Stories (whether it be of spacemen or soldiers, cowboys or detectives), you have… well, Ponderous Stories. Hell, the reason those marketing categories exist is the exploitability of that pulp dynamics.

    The point is, the stresses of domestic life aren’t a part of that pulp Romance, haven’t been for decades. That whole pulp milieu was born of the schisming of novelistic realism and commercial romanticism that took place in the previous centuries, partly from the domestic stuff being less popular, partly from the commercial stuff being viewed as trashy. You’ve got literary review magazines like the Strand that still mix it up in the late 19th century, but “sensation novels” are being scorned, as are most modes of Romance. By the time we reach the pulp boom, the schism is a stark dichotomy: novelistic realism is sold as literature; commercial romanticism is sold as pulp. There’s little overlap, so there’s little in that pulp milieu, in the way of fiction dealing with the stresses of domestic life, for a would-be Gernsback to codify and name as “domestifiction.”

    Except… well, strictly speaking, there is a sort of analogue. What you do have are the “true confessions” and “Harlequin Romance” idioms — essentially purely mimetic fiction which takes its plot-driving tensions from the stresses of domestic life but which achieves pulp dynamics by intensifying those stresses. Which is to say, though, to be mass-marketable it has to ramp things up unrealistically; it becomes sensationalist, melodramatic. It’s just that instead of soldiers or spacemen, it’s housewives; instead of Thrilling War Tales, it’s Shocking Everyday Stories or True Love Adventures. You do actually get pulp genres born out of that — Harlequin Romance and Soap Opera. And looking at it like that, we don’t have to imagine a counterfactual here at all. That was the “domestifiction” or our world. Still is.

    Still, could we then imagine a John W. Campbell coming along to turn this pulp idiom into “domestic fiction” by insisting on plausibility? That’s really the pivotal point in the counterfactual. What we’d be imagining is an editor of some True Confessions / Harlequin Romance magazine that offered “astounding stories” of domestic lives — seductions! betrayals! traumas! revelations! — laying down a New Way, in which the essential material of the genre — not combat or science here, but everyday human interaction — was to be treated with the utmost rigour. But to apply that sort of rationalism to the human interaction is to apply it to the drama itself and thereby dismantle the pulp dynamics that drives the story. What you’re left with is a novelistic realism indistinguishable from that which dominates the general fiction shelves.

    Unlike the science or combat that the pulp genres can cohere around, there’s no marker of difference. An Astounding Stories of “domestic fiction” doesn’t stand as the vanguard of a new genre; it’s subsumed into the mass of literary journals already publishing that type of material. It doesn’t find a whole new niche market of readers who want an essentially modern(ist) fusion of romantic plot-dynamics retro-fitted with hard-edged rationalism; it simply targets the existing market of readers who want the human dramas and who are already being catered for via Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and so on.

    So I don’t see a workable counterfactual there with that mode of Contemporary Realism as a pulp genre. You’d have to rewind over a century and posit a complete reversal of values, a situation in which sensation novels, and all the various modes of Romance which spawned the pulps — think Conan Doyle, Haggard, Buchan, etc. — held little mass appeal, while the penny dreadfuls were exploiting an insatiable public appetite for Proustian realism. To have middle-brow/high-brow novelistic realism despised as pulp, I mean, it has to become pulp — amenable to being formulated and mass-produced; and it has to be so in contradistinction to its polar opposite — the romance it’s eschewing precisely because of the “sensationalism.”

  4. 1.)Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Wells’ The War in the Air, The World Set Free and Things to Come; London’s The Iron Heel; Verne’s Nemo and Robur novels; Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Miserables; Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead; Jones’ From Here to Eternity; Hasford’s The Short-Timers; Forester’s Hornblower series; O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series; the collected works of David Weber, David Drake, John Ringo, Eric Flint, Jerry Pournelle, the Shaaras father and son, Herman Wouk, Vassily Grossman, David Nevins, Robert Conroy, Bernard Cornwell, the Flashman series, all are plainly combat novels, containing as they do, well you know, combat. Therefore combat novel is a useful marketing category, but otherwise these novels have nothing in common, so a genre label is useless, right?

    2.)Stories like Bronte’s Jane Eyre whose titular heroine repeatedly confronts Rochester; much of Henry James’ fiction, from the governess confronting Miles in The Turn of the Screw, the quarrels over The Spoils of Poynton or the disputes over The Aspern Papers; Zamyatin’s We, where one man faces society; Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two-Birds, in which a writer’s characters defy him; Thorne Smith’s fantasies where ghosts and goddesses collide with ordinary life; Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the most intimate yet most separated confrontation; Nadine Gordimer’s stories of South Africa under the apartheid regime, all have confrontation but eschew the tiresome imaginary genre conventions of combat. They therefore escape the limitations (whatever they may be) of genre, but are unfairly bought in the bookstores as if they were comfi, which is horribly unfair, right?

    3.)Domestic drama, unadulterated by Romantic excesses, are to be found in such authors as Dickens, Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham, Margaret Mitchell, James Michener, John Irving. Unlike genre fiction like comfi, these works and authors are not abjected. Like confrontational fiction they escape the limits of genre. So it’s terribly unfair for confrontational fiction to be dismissed, right?

    4. What is a discussion of comfi without duelling definitions?

    Try as I may to get into the counterfactual spirit, I run into problems. Looking at each paragraph above, we see that 1.) this list quite plainly divides into two groups and it has nothing to do with combat. In truth, war novels really are a type of story (and sometimes a marketing category.) In this list, we easily distinguish those that could drawn from reality, and those that could be project from reality. Any reader could like Wells’ War in the Air, the Hornblower series and Weber’s Safehold novels. But it is more likely that a reader who likes Hornblower will like Honor Harrington because those really are in the same genre. “Comfi” is not a genre. Unlike SF or fantasy, it isn’t a mode either. It’s just an awkwardly elaborated conceit.

    2.) General terms are useful in discussing general phenomena. Even in Combat Cafe, however, confrontation fiction is not a useful generalization to help discussion. If you try to apply it, you get Henry James and The Naked and the Dead in the same pot. Not all ingredients cook well together. Whether you call cf a mode or an esthetic idiom, overgeneralizing leaves you unable to discuss how (or if) a story is delivered in an intelligible idiom.

    3.) The problem with endlessly chewing over the unfairness of reviewers confusing marketing categories with genres, the problems of the critique of genres and the critique of modes/esthetic are left unexplored. A certain type of realism is privileged in elite critism. Frankly, this seems to have nothing to do with reactionary and progressive fans.

    4.) The difficulty in defining comfi lies in the tension between descriptive and prescriptive aims to be advanced by the definition. I suggest descriptive is preferable.

  5. 1) “…all are plainly combat novels, containing as they do, well you know, combat. Therefore combat novel is a useful marketing category, but otherwise these novels have nothing in common, so a genre label is useless, right?”

    Not really what I’m driving at.

    Firstly, I’d add a qualifier to that “containing as they do…” because these contain combat as a core focus in terms of theme and/or plot. Combat is setting and subject matter, a whole layer of the text. It’s like the “road movie,” maybe, where it’s more than just a matter of driving taking place, but the contents are not quite codified to the extent that, say a “courtroom drama” is. The travel is part of the fabric of the work, but approach is left largely open; the “road movie” could be ponderous existentialist drama, absurdist comedy and/or buddy action/adventure flick.

    So, secondly, that’s not what makes a useful marketing category. Stranger Than Paradise and Drive are in different marketing categories because tagging a work as Drama, Comedy or Action/Adventure is more effective. What might have made “combat fiction” a useful marketing category is the division of Boys’ Own style pulp into cowboy stories, spaceman stories, soldier stories, detective stories, etc. according to reader taste. There the marketing category already existed — Pulp Action/Adventure, loosely speaking — and it makes perfect sense to sub-categorise, name the niche and target it specifically. It makes even more sense if in exploiting that niche you’ve found a new direction (e.g. plausibility) that is a powerful additional selling-point.

    Thirdly, the works you list have distinct commonalities and differences. Looking at them all as “combat novels” (a la “road movies”) could be an interesting critical approach. There’s a clear division between Realist and Romanticist that it would be disingenuous to elide though. And if the frame we’re applying is not an abstract “combat novels” but Combat Fiction as constructed in the discourse posited (a subdivision of 1920s/1930s Pulp Action/Adventure consolidated and redirected by a focus on plausibility) for many of them, (including some of the most Romanticist,) that frame would be entirely inappropriate.

  6. 2.) “… all have confrontation but eschew the tiresome imaginary genre conventions of combat. They therefore escape the limitations (whatever they may be) of genre, but are unfairly bought in the bookstores as if they were comfi, which is horribly unfair, right?”

    Again, no. The genre conventions of Romance are the only limits here, and much of work in the marketing category that still deals directly with combat is not limited by them either. There are still many romanticists working in the field, following those conventions, but satirists and realists began redefining the field from the moment it came into being — c.f. CATCH-22. “Transcending the genre” (to “escape the limitations”) is the wrong way to think of it: the field as a whole is not prescribed to remain “more of the same”, only a traditionalist portion of it; much is actually sold on the basis of being “something different” — as indicated by blurbs using phrases like “transcends the genre.”

    Of the non-traditionalists working within the field, some may have been subject to editorial decision, but many are true believers. They loved the generic pulp as kids and still value key aspects of it — the vitality of its dynamics, the relevance of its subject matter. There’s a strong community, and the mass market for “more of the same” supports the smaller hardcore of afficionados looking for “something different” so there’s every reason to take that category label and little reason not to.

    If we’re talking about “fair” though, the fans of formulaic fare have a point when they attack CATCH-22 for not playing by the rules. These sort of works are changing the goalposts. The non-traditionalists have a point though too: that injection of rationalism has put intellectual integrity at the heart of the idiom, and the absurdism and non-linearity are actually about greater authenticity — using satire and fragmentation to model the madness of war.

    This dismissal of high quality combat fiction as comfi is not wholly unfair either; or at least, it has its reasons. There’s a disparity between numbers and notability within the field. The bulk of works are “more of the same,” but many of the high-impact works are “something different” — so you get “characteristic” works which are generic and “definitive” works which are anything but. The notable works are only notable if you’re a reader within the field though — unless the high-impact extends beyond it, and this largely happens with works traditional enough to be turned into Hollywood war movies. The general perception of comfi is inaccurate then, but not really unreasonable given the pulp marketing strategies that persist.

    The sort of works you list as “confrontational fiction” have actually gone a step further, generalising and abstracting from specifically military combat to conflict. (The comparison is, of course, to the New Wave’s shift of focus from technology and the hard sciences to things like sociology and psychology… modernity in general, really.) The general disregard of these works as comfi is no more unreasonable given that these writers have also opted to work within the pulp marketing system. It’s disingenuous to accept the social and commercial advantages (the community & the ready-made market) and then kvetch about the intrinsic downside (where uncritical enthusiasm leads to the cosplay and pandering junk fiction that shapes public perception.)

    Arguably, the fans of formulaic fare who resent this further shifting of the goalposts have an even stronger point when they attack it. The earlier generation of non-traditionalists have a point also when they reject this as proper “combat fiction.” The abstraction of combat to confrontation is stretching it.

  7. 3.) “Like confrontational fiction they escape the limits of genre. So it’s terribly unfair for confrontational fiction to be dismissed, right?”

    Actually, much domestic drama — like Dickens — has huge wads of sensationalist melodrama that undermines the pretence that privileges it — that intellectual integrity is about confining oneself to the domestic. All of these writer’s works fit into one genre or another — if only that of “the novel” — and are therefore working within limits of genre. These limits may not always be comparable to the formulaic plot-dynamics of Romance, but sometimes, I’d have to say, it rather seems they are — c.f. Michael Chabon’s comment about the “moment of apotheosis” story. And wholly mimetic fiction is clearly adopting one motherfucker of a constraint. The only thing it escapes, by not being pulp, is the pressure to conform to a certain romanticist plot-dynamics. Again, it’s not unreasonable for confrontational fiction to be dismissed by the general public given the presentation of it as pulp.

    If I don’t blame the general public for having this (mis)perception, right enough, that doesn’t make the perception accurate. If it were reasonable to expect a deeply informed and utterly objective judgement from the average joe regardless of commercial marketing strategies, well, then we could say this is unjust prejudice: they are not willing to look past that presentation to see that confrontational fiction largely eschews that plot-dynamics just as much as domestic drama. But I’d say the same about the earlier generation of non-traditional combat fiction.

    Indeed, I’d actually challenge the wholesale rejection of that plot dynamics, the prejudice against Romance in general. I have my aesthetic arguments with that approach as a writer, especially when it becomes formulated wank, but that’s a matter of personal taste, so unless we’re talking dubious ethical subtexts I see no reason to dismiss any solidly crafted work of fiction just because it’s adopted an aesthetic I don’t have much time for myself.

  8. 4.1.) I quite agree that one can easily parse that list into distinct groups. I’m not sure what you mean by “drawn from” versus “project[ed?] from reality” though. I’d split it in terms of realist versus romanticist myself — again plot dynamics. Existential drama versus Action/Adventure. I also agree 100% that a reader who likes Hornblower is more likely to enjoy Honor Harrington, that they’re in the same genre; that, indeed, is why we have the whole “military SF” classification. Seen as a whole, cf is not, I agree, a genre. Clearly sf also has its analogues of the war novel (again, I agree, a recogniseable idiom,) so my grouping of military Action/Adventure with such simply reflects the reality in sf. So… an “awkwardly elaborated conceit”? That’s a perfect phrase for how I see sf, actually — if we include under that gloss the New Wave, its precursors and inheritors. Leaving that part of the field out of the picture, one might say there’s an arguable mode, but if so, I’d say the same is true of the counterfactual cf if we excise its New Wave. See my first response and the comparison to the “road movie.”

    4.2.) I agree. This is why I don’t find the term speculative fiction useful. It seeks a generality that allows it to group radically disparate works, but in doing so simply abstracts to a quality present in the vast bulk of fiction. In so far as speculation can be tied to the device of the conceit, it’s a little less useless than confrontation — given that all drama turns on conflict, an agon — but the wooliness is part of my point in applying that term. The conceit of CATCH-22 is “speculative.”

    4.3.) I can’t see how this is anything to do with reviewers. My focus is on internal dynamics and how that affects public perception. The context of 20th century culture where pulp was abjected is taken as a given. I’ve tackled the privilege given to a certain type of realism elsewhere — taking Cervantes as a start-point for the rejection of Romance; pointing at the gradual separation of Victorian-era realism from Gothic Romance, penny dreadfuls, etc.; noting the acceptance of proto-Modern non-Realist writers like Conan Doyle in literary magazines such as the Strand, but pointing at the growing disdain for sensation novels and other “populist trash”; taking the pulp boom of the 1920s/1930s as a watershed where the gulf between “serious literature” and “populist genres” was cemented, became a division between Literature and Genre; and arguing that the backlash against Modernist opacity is what finally set contemporary realism in its 50-year-long position of privilege as the “proper” mode of serious fiction. But that’s not the subject of this column.

    4.) Descriptive is always preferable, I’d say. Though I’m not really aiming for an actual definition of combat fiction at all. At most, as I say above, you might argue a mode by excluding all that confrontational fiction, but it would be a mode in which SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE is grouped with CATCH-22 and Honor Harrington instead of THE SPACE MERCHANTS and… well, Honor Harrington. Or it would be one which groups it with CATCH-22 but not Honor Harrington, in which case I’d expect the parallel mode of sf to group it with THE SPACE MERCHANTS but not… well, Honor Harrington.

    Arguing the first position in that elsewhen seems almost as woolly as confrontational fiction — but I feel the same about arguing it in this world. Whether it’s a mode of cf or sf, you’re going to have to convince me with sound arguments that the grouping is not so broad as to be meaningless. To argue the second position, in that elsewhen or in this world, is to enter a clash of definitions of combat/science fiction with those who include Honor Harrington as part of the genre — if not the very core of the genre. And really I think it would be disingenuous to exclude the Action/Adventure in either timestream. Denying the contemporary versions of the good old-fashioned pulp just looks like a shallow attempt to win respect with those who cock their snoot at pulp.

    But to my mind, in critical terms, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE is better grouped with CATCH-22 and THE SPACE MERCHANTS, and Honor Harrington is not really relevant. Those three works all tread a similar terrain of satire and absurdism, with Vonnegut and Heller sharing the darker approach and subject matter — war — but with Vonnegut’s approach to his conceits less extrapolative than, I’d argue, Heller’s and Pohl & Kornbluth’s, less of a detailed caricature of our society, but with Vonnegut sharing the futurological tropes with Pohl & Kornbluth, but with Vonnegut and Heller fragmenting the narrative as part of a quite different approach in which plot is less of a concern… but for different reasons and to different effects. This is not to deny anyone the right to look at SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, CATCH-22/THE SPACE MERCHANTS and Honor Harrington as combat/science fiction, simply to assert my right to address three 20th century satires as 20th century satires.

  9. I asked “Therefore combat novel is a useful marketing category, but otherwise these novels have nothing in common, so a genre label is useless, right?”

    The answer is, that wasn’t what you were really driving at. In clarification, first, the definition of comfi includes a “core focus in terms of theme or plot.” Second, the existence of combat isn’t a useful identifier for comfi, because essentially comfi is a subgenre of boys’ adventure stories. Third, such a broad reading of comfi fails two ways, forgetting that comfi is a pulp genre but missing the essential distinction between Realism and Romanticism.

    I conceived the list in my paragraph one as an example to sustain a criticism that comfi was not a genre, nor even an idiom or mode, unlike science fiction or fantasy, making the whole notion an awkwardly conceived conceit.

    At this point, I have to confess that I messed up my pronoun reference. I spoke of how my hypothetical list could be divided up in ways that had nothing to do with combat, but neglected to actually divvy it up. My division is between satires/polemics, what might be called national novels on the one hand, adventure, etc. versus war novels. “This list” of actual war novels could easily be divided again into novels that could have been copied (drawn) from reality, and those that would have to be speculated/extrapolated (projected) from reality. To compound the inadvertent confusion, the first part of my hypothetical list, the Others, could also be subdivided that way!

    Now as to whether “genre” is meaningfully identified with formulaic, works that establish new genres or sub-genres by definition can’t be formulaic. Which is why the war novels tend to come after the markets have developed genres, and the Others tend to be before. There are exceptions, however.

    Further, something like The Naked and the Dead, which is a war novel, does more than just amuse fans by playing with the tropes of war novel.

    The apocalyptic battle that concludes the action in Connecticut Yanke has some of the same appeal as John Birmingham’s Axis of Time novels. You don’t get much more formulaic than those! Birmingham’s novels are war novels in an SF mode. Twain’s novel is a founder of the time travel story, an SF genre, using genre here to mean a particular type of story (as opposed to narrative form, like epistolary novel,) as well as a satire.

    Verne’s Nemo stories are all about war because Nemo is all about war, but they are straightforward adventure stories. Verne’s science is all wet but he certainly tried to get it right, which makes it Realistic. Yet, the adventure genre is Romantic! I don’t find the distinction between Realistic and Romantic to be very useful, much less a pervasive tension. The distinction that matteris I think is between the view of the world as intelligible or rational, versus a view of the world as chaotic, lawless, downright absurd (very loosely speaking, modernist or post-modernist. Emphasize very.)

  10. I conceived the list in my paragraph one as an example to sustain a criticism that comfi was not a genre, nor even an idiom or mode, unlike science fiction or fantasy, making the whole notion an awkwardly conceived conceit.

    That is kind of the point — being obscured by the shorthand of “comfi” and conflations of different periods in the development of the label. The genre that’s essentially a subgenre of Pulp Action/Adventure is “combatifiction.” You get an essentially new genre — Combat Fiction — when this is rationalised. This, you could well argue, almost immediately abandons conventions and ceases to be a genre, becomes a mode/idiom at best — “combat fiction.” By the time “comfi” catches on as a label, it’s not even that — even before the New Wave come along. “Comfi” is not and never has been a genre or mode/idiom — just a nominal label pointing in a vague direction… multiple vague directions at once, in fact. Were it not for the overload of meanings, “combat fiction” might be a good label for the sort of mode/idiom one might distinguish among the mass of works sold as Combat Fiction and indeed among the mass of works not sold under that label. But my point is precisely that I find this critically impracticable. As with “science fiction.”

    I do think “war novel” is useful, but you draw a line here that seems curious:

    My division is between satires/polemics, what might be called national novels on the one hand, adventure, etc. versus war novels.

    The exclusion of satires seems odd to me. I’d class CATCH-22 and GRAVITY’S RAINBOW as war novels, and I don’t think this is at all idiosyncratic. Its not hard to find people talking of the former as “not just a war novel” or “the greatest war novel I’ve read.” Which is to say, the term “war novel” is pretty open in conventional usage. It’s openly-defined, descriptive rather than prescriptive, a genre in my “aesthetic idiom” sense, your “type of story” sense which to me allows it to be both satire and war novel — c.f. satire and time travel story. Which of course is nothing to do with pulp marketing categories and the pressures that lead to formulation in them. There’s no reason for THE NAKED AND THE DEAD to be tropeplay for the fans just because it’s a war novel. But with the Combat Fiction label there’d be every reason for people who didn’t identify as Com-Fi fans to suspect it of such. Anyway, satire versus non-satire is just another sub-division of war novels, I’d say, like your drawn/projected from reality split, so I’m curious as to why you’d exclude satirical war novels? That’d be like saying a sonnet isn’t a sonnet if it’s funny, seems to me.

    Re your last point: That sort of overlay of genres in the “type of story” sense is where it seems quite meaningful to me to talk of Nemo as an adventure story and trace its Romantic precedents. The fact that he tried to get the science right makes it interestingly Rationalist in philosophical terms and arguably realistic, but actually it’s not at all Realistic in literary terms, which is to say it does not sit in any of the “Realist” genres which were and are ideologically codified to exclude precisely works like Verne’s. In contrast, Wells has little concern for the science and is therefore less realistic, but more Realistic in his less Romantic approach to story. That may sound like cause for exclamation marks (Both, you say?! Both?!) but if you care about that fiction manifesting a view of the world as intelligible or rational, the reason Verne isn’t “Realistic” is the reason, ultimately, that you’ve had fifty years of that sort of fiction being derided.

    Since modernism is a product of the two aesthetics, it’s not hard to trace the roots of each aesthetic in fiction from that era, the dialectic that leads to the present-day Literature/Genre divide. The distinction you make between (loosely) modernist and postmodernist worldviews is of interest in its own right, but I don’t see its relevance in terms of public perception. C.f. my response to 4.3. above, I’ve argued elsewhere that postmodernism develops as part of the backlash against modernism, as the ivory tower refuge of non-realists outside pulp, essentially rendered safe by irony. But that’s not the subject of this column.

  11. Catch-22 is lost to my in high school trauma, I’m afraid, and I’ve never read Gravity’s Rainbow, though I rather enjoyed The Crying of Lot 49. So, let me talk about The Iron Heel.

    The Iron Heel is a satire in the fashion of The Battle of Dorking, a warning of possible things to come. In the course of the novel, there is an extended description of an urban insurrection (imitated by Robert Heinlein in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, I believe,) as well as description of covert ops, espionage and agitprop. If this isn’t combat, nothing is. But as a whole The Iron Heel is not about (revolutionary) war, it is about why people should be socialists and what Jack London thought was a dreadful possibility for the struggle for socialism.

    The common feeling is that The Iron Heel is not properly a novel, since the narrative has no inner integrity, in one sense isn’t even about the character of Avis Everhard, despite the great deal of time spent on her “conversion” to socialism. The sense that a novel is a long story in which the point is the story is nearly universal. In a war novel, despite the many subgenres an expert or fan might distinguish, the story about the war, whatever kind, is the point. In a satire, the narrative element about war, whatever, is not the point.

    I can’t help but feel that subdividing war novel into those that try to copy reality and those that try to extrapolate reality is useful for those who find future war has a kind of extra kick that makes it entertaining, while those who find such flights of fancy tiresome. Book sellers have found that this is certainly true. There are aficionados of war novels who like both realistic war novels and military sf, but there are more who prefer one to the other, or possibly even detest the other. Thus book shops don’t put Honor Harrington on the same shelf with Hornblower.

    So much for my peculiar separation of satire.

    Practically speaking, if “comfi” really was a label that pointed in muliple vague directions at once, then arguments about what “comfi” really is would rapidly terminate in terminal confusion. The problem is, like SF, there is just enough objectivity to the term to support the arugments, even enough to make marketing SF practicable (or was, when SF was popular enough for separate marketing.) There is even enough objectivity to the term that everybody can poke fun at Margaret Atwood for saying she doesn’t write SF.

    My wish is that people would move on past the observation that something is in the SF mode and focus on the type of story, mystery, romance, adventure, whatever, which is where the useful discussion takes place. Saying something is SF is like observing something is historical fiction. You need to see whether the history (or science) is screwed up, and if so, whether it is screwed up to useful purpose or not. Then you move on to other issues pertinent to the actual genre of story. But if you can’t even decide that much, there’s no point in analyzing stories at all.

    Well, my wishes are not pertinent to much of anything. For example, I wished to get past Romantic vs. Realist. I don’t think Realist is a synonym for rational or intelligible, nor do I think Romantic is a synonym for irrational or unintelligible. Narrative, including romantic narrative, is a way of making sense, making rational, intelligible the world, even in feel good stories.

    Feel bad stories may be statistically plausible but that doesn’t make them any less an effort to make a coherent story of our experiences. Criticizing foolish optimism and foolish cynicism are not the same as rejecting the effort of narrative to make sense, which seems to me to be what so much modernism/post-modernism is about. Rejection of narrative as the illusion of rationality, deluding itself as to the intelligibility of the world, is an ideological tenet, not an esthetic one, I think.

    Stories, like the people who make them, always have the peril of lapsing into rationalizations instead of reasoning. It occurs to me that this is what criticism is about and why it’s important.

    Trying to think of an entirely different approach, from sheer perversity in one sense, as a check on my reasoning, thinking of stories strictly as entertainment, it seems to me there are the comfort stories and the shock stories. But the shock stories themselves come in two types, the shock of the new and the shock of recognition. The first rule is that mixing the types is bad. (Another rule is that there are no rules that cannot be successfully broken.) If you can’t quit equating Realist with rational and Romantic with, what, exactly, the anarchy of existence maybe, would this approach be useful for a new perspective?

  12. In a satire, the narrative element about war, whatever, is not the point.

    Unless it is. Unless satire is simply the lens through which that subject — war — is tackled. As with CATCH-22, say. As with both examples — two satires recognised conventionally as war novels — as opposed to your example of a satire which is not a war novel. That’s kind of like saying a sonnet isn’t a sonnet if it’s funny, then pointing at some other type of funny poem which shares some features of the sonnet but isn’t a sonnet, in order to say, “see, in a funny poem, the formal structure is not the point.” As I say: unless it is.

    Either that or presumably, with any work that’s satirical rather than solemn, whatever subject it’s focusing that lens on, that approach makes it essentially different from works tackling the same material non-satiricially. If the narrative element is (extrapolated) science, say, that narrative element cannot be the point. Right? So, with Pohl & Kornbluth’s THE SPACE MERCHANTS, Sladek’s Roderick books, THE REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEM & TIK-TOK, Vonnegut’s CAT’S CRADLE, GALAPAGOS and so on, these being satires, the narrative element about science, whatever, is not the point. But you’d class these as (in the mode of) science fiction, right? Similarly, most of us (I reckon) would class CATCH-22 as a war novel.

    (And if you’re drawing the distinction at the novel level… so DON QUIXOTE and GULLIVER’S TRAVELS aren’t satirical novels? Or Fielding’s TOM JONES? Or Sterne’s TRISTRAM SHANDY? A work can’t be both satirical and work as a story? Seriously?)

    With “science fiction” and “war novels,” the point is, I know I’d be completely happy using both labels as descriptiors like that, indicating openly defined aesthetic idioms — fiction of science, novels of war — except that with one you just can’t get away from the multiple mutually-incompatible closed definitions and the way the term has actually become a brand label rather than a descriptor. Like, although “personal computer” as a descriptor doesn’t actually specify a particular type of architecture, “PC” is now synonymous with “IBM-clone.” Even “desktop” is actually implicit in that term now for many; Googling “PC or laptop” brings up plenty of hits where those two terms are used to refer to discrete types of things. Or if you tried refer to contemporary American clothing customs/styles in general as “American apparel,” you’d be inviting confusion given that most understand this phrase as a brand label: American Apparel.

    Practically speaking, if “comfi” really was a label that pointed in muliple vague directions at once, then arguments about what “comfi” really is would rapidly terminate in terminal confusion.

    Absolutely. My point being, that’s how it is with “scifi”. It has a brand image as distinct as American Apparel and even as a descriptive label… it’s worse than “PC.” With “PC” it’s only a very few for whom any sort of “personal computer” will be covered under that term. For some laptops will be covered and for others they won’t, but that’s no big deal. For virtually everyone that label would exclude Macs. So if you want to talk about WIMP-interfaced computers for personal use, regardless of OS or desktop/laptop/tablet form, you might get away with using “personal computers” but using “PC” is likely to cause confusion given that you’re actually including Macs. With “scifi,” the problem is, those who would include the equivalents of this OS and that physical form are hotly contested by those who would exclude them. Many are, I think, doing the equivalent of identifying “PC” directly with Windows desktops, excluding laptops and Macs — excluding even Linux and Linux-based OS’s. The whole discourse is like a crazy turf war over what really constitutes a “PC”.

    Whatever, I say; I’ll just talk about “private computers” when I want to talk generally, and about specific OS’s and physical forms wherever that is relevant. While any Linux user kicking against the public perception of PCs might be better off acknowledging how much of the “always fucking crashing” stigma is an inevitable product of Microsoft’s “fudge it, flog it, fix it” philosophy rather than some rampant irrational prejudice against “personal computers.”

  13. But yeah, in terms of those “specific OS’s and physical forms,” or their literary equivalents…

    My wish is that people would move on past the observation that something is in the SF mode and focus on the type of story, mystery, romance, adventure, whatever, which is where the useful discussion takes place.

    I’m right with you here. While mode factors into this, I’d say that there’s more useful discussion to be found by focusing on the narrative grammar — Epic / Heroic / Adventure / Mystery / Thriller / Horror. And indeed there are aesthetics of worldscape (partly conjured in prose style) — neo-primitive, idyllic, baroque, noir, grotesque — that intersect with these. Often, I’d say, arguments over whether or not something is SF come down to what grammar and aesthetic it employs and whether or not that is allowable in this or that person’s definition of SF. I’m happy to leave that boundary dispute to those who care, and talk about a work in terms of grammar and aesthetic. Or at an even lower level indeed…

    Saying something is SF is like observing something is historical fiction. You need to see whether the history (or science) is screwed up, and if so, whether it is screwed up to useful purpose or not.

    See, this is where I’d agree with you 100% if you replaced “SF” with “futurological fiction.” Because then I think those are the first two questions to be asked: is the history/science screwed up? if so, is it screwed up to useful purpose or not? Actually, you could start with a baseline where the facts of history/science as known now are not screwed up at all — including by extrapolation — so that you have historical fiction and futurological fiction absent the modality-shifting “erratum” and “novum.” (The latter is Suvin’s term, the former mine, and both can, I’ve argued elsewhere, be located in the text, as objectively identifiable features. See my blog entry on narrative modalities: )

    Then you have works which utilise the erratum or novum, but where it’s entirely possible to say that the facts of history/science are not screwed up at all except by extrapolation; this gives you alternate history and what, I think, you’d classify as science fiction. To the extent that extrapolation is nevertheless screwing up those facts, well then, an important consideration is the protocols applied to limit that process. There’s that rigorous approach which allows for screwing up the facts but not for screwing up the principles, premises, methods of extrapolation from premises and suchlike — where the “proper” alternative history is allowed one point of divergence only and the reconfiguration of the worldscape is arguable if not directly argued, or where the “proper” science fiction novel is allowed to diverge in terms of technology but not theory, and where again the reconfiguration of the worldscape is arguable if not directly argued.

    Then you have works which allow for quite substantial screwing up of the facts but employ the One Impossible Idea and/or Paradigm Shift Caveats and/or what I’d call “contextual dewarping” to render the wildest fancy as a novum. The looser protocols here are utterly rejected by some, who don’t give a shit about their purpose. Those who accept these looser protocols may do so on the basis of purpose though — particular ends justifying various means. But they, in turn, will reject work of still looser protocols and different purposes as “not proper SF.” From previous discussions I get the sense that your idea of SF as a mode is partly about contextual dewarping, partly about purpose (articulating a rational, intelligible worldview.) That’s fair enough, but a position like that is in an interzone between traditional notions of SF that are more rigid on the one hand, more flexible on the other.

    In fact, it’s not just a matter of looser but of different protocols and purposes coming into play within the field — radically different. Different enough that many works conventionally labelled SF might well be better talked of in specifics rather than under that umbrella term, in case we end up judging them in terms of protocols and purposes that are really of little relevance. I mean, sure, one might decide that all works utilising the novum should conform to certain protocols and purposes, such that a work which doesn’t is “bad SF,” but if it’s playing by different rules it’s not trying to be SF on your terms. That’s where I want to get past the observation that something doesn’t fit well in “the” SF mode, and focus on the specifics of its own protocols and purposes.

    If you want to insist that your idea of SF as a mode is a definitive description of what “science fiction” is, to be honest, I think it could probably be articulated quite clearly and coherently within that theory of narrative modalities, built from the ground up. Credibility threshold, credibility shift and idea advocacy seem pretty strongly related to your focus on a rationalist worldview as a core feature.

  14. Actually, scratch that “futurological fiction” and replace it with “scientific” for the basic non-extrapolative mode. Futurological would be the next stage on.

  15. … rejecting the effort of narrative to make sense, which seems to me to be what so much modernism/post-modernism is about. Rejection of narrative as the illusion of rationality, deluding itself as to the intelligibility of the world, is an ideological tenet, not an esthetic one, I think.

    That’s certainly what postmodernism is about. But it’s the Grand Narratives / metanarratives of modernism that pomo is reacting against, in part because post-WW2 those were associated with fascist and communist ideologies — with good reason, some of the most notable modernists being seduced by those specific Grand Narratives. Though there are flavours of modernism that take a more existentialist approach, where narrative is seen as a way of making sense of a world within which sense must be made by active human agency. Which is to say the world is intelligible, but only procedurally, by experience, by experiment, rather than by projecting into it some essentialist system. I’d argue that some of these strains of existentialist modernism persisted, actually, (much of it in pulp, alongside more technocratic modernism,) even as pomo establlished its own Grand Narrative of the End of History and the world as merely a playground of symbols. (And I think I’ve made my view of that chickenshit retreat into the ivory towers amply clear.) But again, that’s another column.

    As for comfort stories versus shock stories… actually what I’m broaching in talking of strangeness and narrative modalities is shock as cognitive dissonance that includes, yes, the shock of the new but also the shock of the foreign, of the anomalous, of the other. (c.f. the “shock of the foreign” in the traveller’s tale.) And there’s a risk of overstating, I’d say, if we posit “shock” as the alternative to comfort, with its implication of blunt and brutal trauma-inducing radicalism, of a relatively crude effect. The shock of the new is often a more subtle estrangement. What we’re really dealing with, it seems to me, is “warp” rather than “shock”. Again, I see (strange) narrative as constructed from various different flavours of warp, locatable in the text. Comfort stories can actually be described in terms of specific strategies, specific modalities. I think a lot of comfort stories actually create warp — or shock, whatever — but only in order to declaw it (and cheaply, panderingly.) But I can’t really discuss this without going into technical jargon like “boulomaic modalities.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by the “shock of recognition” in this context, to be honest, but the way I’d use that term wouldn’t be incompatible to the “shock of the new” (or any type of warp as I posit it,) but would actually go hand-in-hand with it, as a purposeful double-whammy whereby, as we adjust to the strange, suddenly we see our own world in it — the familiar in the foreign. I’d tend to expect “comfort stories” to be absent this… though that’s not to say that anything absent this will be a “comfort story.” It’s actually a better criteria, I’d say, than “feel good” or “feel bad”.

  16. We seem to be getting to the point where we more or less understand where the other’s coming from, with a few contentious empirical judgments.

    You’re approaching all this as a practitioner and theorist of your praxis. By that standard the notion of SF as a mode of fiction that contains a fantastic element that is still somehow possibly real (in the near or far future, after radical new discoveries, inventions and theories, whatever,) can still be too restrictive. The finest precision in terminology is coupled with a determination to carry implications of concepts to new frontiers.

    But my interest as a reader is best served by addressing the issue of willing suspension of disbelief. This is partly an emotional reaction, not purely cognitive. But in practice it quite helps if the SF writer will throw me a bone, some sort of rationalization or extrapolation that has some remote connection to reality. Or at least not kickstart my disbelief with flagrant ignorance or nonsense. Hawthorne’s Gentle Reader always can willingly suspend disbelief, amongst his other wonderful traits, but it isn’t so with us real readers. I define SF the way I do as a way to clarify my thinking about this question, which isn’t yours.

    I don’t think the empirical disagreements are going to be reconciled. I think in practice critical analysis of SF do not collapse in mutual unintelligibility, because people actually start pointing at examples. I think the discussions in the end fail because people insist on defining SF as a genre, when it’s not. The counterfactual essay postulates comfi. But while I can proffer my (admittedly broad) definition of the SF mode, I can’t come up with a definition of Combat Fiction as a mode, which is how the parallel intended between the counterfactual CF and real SF isn’t.

    My empirical judgment is that the elite prejudice against anything other than the ideas of the ruling class, including disdain for the unwashed masses, is the cause of the literary/genre divide, not wrong ideas that can be corrected by rectification of terms. Theoretical work is not neeeded because it won’t solve the problem.

    Last, and least, considering that Gulliver’s Travels as a story means most of all the book is rejected, leaving a kid’s story about Gulliver in Lilliput, or that Fielding’s real satire Shamela is quite forgotten as a story or that most people don’t even know (I think) what Cervantes was supposedly satirizing or that Tristram Shandy is remembered for its plot, aka story, I think my view that in satire the story is not the real point holds up. Plainly you disagree, and I can’t see us ever seeing the other’s point at all.

    But please do answer this: What modernists bought into the communist metanarrative and ideology?

  17. My inability to type is truly appalling. Tristram Shandy is decidedly NOT remembered for its plot (i.e., story,). Which is the opposite of what I mistyped above. I couldn’t read it when in high school because I couldn’t figure out the story at all.

  18. But my interest as a reader is best served by addressing the issue of willing suspension of disbelief. This is partly an emotional reaction, not purely cognitive. But in practice it quite helps if the SF writer will throw me a bone, some sort of rationalization or extrapolation that has some remote connection to reality. Or at least not kickstart my disbelief with flagrant ignorance or nonsense.

    This is where I posit the construction of a personal sense of what works as SF as dependent not just on the type of quirk (i.e. only the “novum” and not the “chimera” — which is, I agree, too restrictive for most SFs,) but on credibility threshold and argued/evasive/contextual dewarping — which is precisely about those bones being thrown to the reader so as to not collapse suspension-of-disbelief. But my point is not, of course, that you should use my praxis, just that it’s an attempt to accommodate the different boundaries set by different readers, where some apply restrictions and where others don’t, what types of bones work to maintain suspension-of-disbelief for this reader but not for that one. It’s very much posited on the notion that real readers cannot always willingly suspend disbelief.

    My skepticism as regards example-based discussion is born of the fact that a mass of such examples sit beyond one reader’s boundaries but within those of another. And because defining SF as a genre largely consists of asserting the legitimacy of one set of boundaries over another, the examples simply become the focus of definition disputes between this reader and that. Or worse, the features of the texts on which those boundaries are predicated are misrepresented in order to assert a genre definition but include a particular work which sits outside it. On a cultural level, the turf wars seem pointlessly divisive; I don’t think they do much good. But on a critical level, the misrepresentation of features is where I really kick against the genre definitions; that’s where the discourse becomes garbled with self-contradictions. Still, this is to say that I’m actually situating the problem, to a large extent, in that same insistence on defining SF as a genre.

    With satires and novels, yes, I think we’re not going to agree here. But in terms of plot/story, I have to say I reckon you’re getting it exactly wrong. Sorry, I’d agree to disagree, but I think it’s warping actual history to set satire as distinct from novel on the basis of story qualities.

    I mean, the historical development of “novelles,” “novellas” or “novels” in the 17th century was very much in a process of contrast with “romances,” with the joys of Story (as Clute would call it) backgrounded to morally illustrative incidents, social critique with a tendency to incorporate gossip and scandal-mongering. In their commonly censorious/salacious intent and presentation as “true histories” these works functioned like PRIMARY COLORS in the present day. As faux “true histories” they naturally took a narrative grammar closer to real life, plotted but not in the easily glossed structures of heroic adventure; that’s precisely what set them out as novels in distinction to “romances.” The lack of story you’re pointing to in my examples, the non-heroic episodic approach, is what makes these works benchmarks in the development of the novel. That sprawl and application of observation/commentary — everything that is lost if you reduce GULLIVER’S TRAVELS to story — is what makes these satires “novelistic,” what makes them the acknowledged ancestors of the present-day novel. The formative and continued role of satire in the idiom of the novel is as transparent as the relationship between blues and rock.

    In terms of the modernists, Surrealists like Breton and Crevel were Party members. Lorca never joined, as I understand, but his work was heavily informed by socialist thought (c.f. his touring puppet show.) Bunuel was communist too. Generally Marxism played a big role in that whole movement; I think it’s less influential in modernist literature than it is in painting though. And I’m not aware of a big influence among anglophone writers, who tended more to elitism if not outright fascism — supported or flirted with. (c.f. also the support for fascism on the part of the Italian Futurists.)

  19. Yes, as a reader, the question of what breaks the deal for willing suspension of disbelief in a work of SF has to be answered for myself. Willing suspension of disbelief in a fantasy, traditional or absurdist, for me involves a willful effort to overcome a partly unconcsious disbelief, either in premises or in self-contradiction with premises.

    I daresay that on some level people who don’t distinguish fiction using the fantastic either have well-tame psychologies that can accept premises in contradiction to reality and self contradictions without hesitation, or at some level feel anything is possible and that the world, at some level anyhow, really is absurd. In either case, the reading experience in fictions using the fantastic (SF, fantasy or absurdist/modernist/post-modernist,) is different. So for me, distinguishing SF as fiction and drama containing the fantastic that tries to help willing suspension of disbelief by rationalizations (original or borrowed from previous works,) serves a useful purpose.

    Therefore, my churlishness in feeling a different experience when reading the kind that makes an effort to help me with suspension of disbelief will persist, I fear. And traditionalist and absurdist fantasy will still be like musicals: If you have trouble with the whole convention of people singing elaborate songs ex tempore, accompanied by invisible orchestras, you’ll tend to not like them, even if the ones will fantastic songs or unusually strong stories might be entertaining.

    As for the uselessness of examples, it is the examples of works in the SF mode that keep breaking the genre boundaries that cause discussion of SF as genre to collapse. Then, people talk about hybrids between SF and another genre. But when all SF is a hybrid, then there is no core SF. To phrase it another way, if SF were a real genre, there would be examples of the subgenres unique to SF. But it appears many people refuse to admit the validity of generalization. Thus the point is lost.

    I separated satires from war novels, explained that in satires the story (implicitly, war story,) then discovered we were discussing the novel as a genre. Well, the novel is not a genre, it is a form. You might as well say prose is a genre. But this is sort of quibbling, because what you’re talking about is the bourgeois novel (except that you reject that kind of political analysis.)

    The bourgeois novel is different from other kinds of novels like The Satyricon or The Tale of Genji or The Water Margin novel (All Men Are Brothers in the Buck translation,) or picaresques like Lazarillo de Tormes or romances like Amadis de Gaul or Eschenbach’s Grail romances or Rabelais’ comic/satiric tales by a focus on the individual, rooted in the kind of society where the individual as producer, consumer, trader, family member in a society where market relations are the social bonds. Insofar as the privileged stature of Realism in academia has a reasonable origin, it lies in the desire of the non-noble population to see themselve and their world in their fiction and drama.

    The origins of the bourgeois novel in Richardson, Fielding, Scott do not seem to me to be markedly influenced by “satire.” Fielding is the closest to being a satirist, but his genuinely satirical work, Shamela, is forgotten, as much as anything literary is forgotten. Voltaire’s Candide is well remembered and much loved, but is it influential in the development of the bourgois novel?

    There is a humorous, ironic tone which might be called satiric. But this isn’t a genre. There is a genre of satire in which the whole story is a means to an end, instead of the end in itself. This is why satire can so easily incorporate the fantastic, in premise, plot and characterization. Satire depends for its effects on the reader taking a critical or ironic attitude to characters, events and settings. But when you start messing with characters, events (aka plot, if any,) and settings, what’s left of story?

    Satire’s relation to such things as “story” is like that of caricature to portraiture. Saying the point of caricature is not to make a portrait is such a truism as to be hardly worth saying. To say that the point of caricature is in fact sometimes to make a portrait seems wrong-headed.

    I must confess that I had thought the Surrealists had abandoned party affiliation rather than change anything about their work. But thanks to you I will if possible learn for myself. Thank you.

  20. Saying the point of caricature is not to make a portrait is such a truism as to be hardly worth saying. To say that the point of caricature is in fact sometimes to make a portrait seems wrong-headed.

    Heh, and I’d say the exact opposite — that the whole point of caricature is to make a portrait. It’s a portrait which exaggerates the subject’s most distinctive features for comedic/critical effect, but the very point is to portray them. Caricature is just a technique to be applied in portraiture — and as Goya does in painting, so Dickens does in his novels. In writing, in fact, I’d say satire’s not just comparable to caricature, but in part constructed from it, with a caricature like Mister Bumble serving as an exaggeration of society’s most distinctive features for comedic/critical effect. It’s not a photorealist approach to portraiture but given the mass of portraiture in the history of painting that’s been commissioned by the subject and idealised, I don’t think one can really say a portrait must be 100% accurate to qualify as a portrait. Rather you have portraits of various types — recogniseable but idealised representations, warts-and-all accurate representations, and deliberately exaggerated representations.

    If THE SATYRICON counts as a kind of novel — and I’m happy to count it and THE GOLDEN ASS as Classical analogues — this rather speaks to my point about what features mark out a text as novelistic. THE SATYRICON is a Menippean Satire. Apuleus’s work, a similarly rambling Milesian Tale, is also considered satire. When we look at works of the Classical period, these are what we class as novels.

  21. The Satyricon and The Golden Ass are not novels in the modern sense and I doubt they, or the long Greek romances were influential in the development of the modern novel. (I get the notion of a bourgois novel is anathema to you.)

    As to caricature being portrayal, Pres. Obama as a monkey is a caricature but not a portrayal. The whole sorry tradition of racist caricature disagrees with you. In the US there is a well known satirical cartoonist, Garry Trudeau who caricaturizes public figures with icons, which are not portrayals of any sort. Caricatures which are so different from the reality they are unrecognizable are still caricatures, even if they have to be labeled to be recognized. A portrayal so unlike the original it has to be labeled is a portrayal?

    The counterfactual Combat Fiction exercise was quite thought provoking, at least for me, though it’s hard to be certain from the other responses. Thank you for the time, and for mentioning Breton, Crevel, Lorca and Bunuel.

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