“We don’t have to think about what we like, but thinking can be part of our pleasure, rather than opposed to it.”
“… fairy was delusion, so was the law. At any rate, it was a sort of magic, moulding reality into any shape it chose …
“… the law plays fast and loose with reality – and no one really believes it.”
— From Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
For a very long time, I have been thinking about the relationship between detective stories and fantasy fiction, and between detective stories and fantasy fiction and other forms of British genre fiction. In my opinion, all literary genres worth thinking about originated or matured in late 19th and early 20th Century British fiction and hence my continued, even obsessive, perhaps pig-headed, use of the term “British genre fiction.” I have also been giving some thought to what makes British genre fiction, whatever its form, “British.” These “thoughts” are meant to be taken only as the seriously idle observations of a seriously idle fellow. A picture, though a decidedly fragmented one, has since emerged in my head and I have tried my best, over the last one year or so, to articulate glimpses of it (here, here, here, and here). Some of these fragmented thoughts seem worth isolating, scrutinising, and assimilating into the following deductive argument (or at least the outline of one):
- The best works of fantasy are spun around a bare minimum number of fantastic mutations in the fabric of our own reality or parallel realities similar to our own. Hence, they are essentially axiomatic systems: the set of consequences of assumptions that are taken to be self-evident.
- The best works of fantasy fiction achieve what they do by effectively trading off between the inevitable inconsistencies and plot holes due to the constructed nature of fantasy and the demands of story-telling driven by age-old traditions and mythological templates.
- Any work of British fiction, whatever the genre, inevitably has the structure of a detective story: the central conflict and hence the source of narrative thrust is a conundrum, one that is not necessarily a murder mystery. The form of the plot is dictated by a conviction that there is always a solution to this central conundrum and that it’s only a matter of re-casting it into a solvable form.
- A golden age British detective story is an idiosyncratic artifice, a fantasy. And hence, any piece of British genre fiction is an artificial construct, an axiomatic fantasy.
- British genre fiction is literary. Literary not only in the sense of being adaptations of literary material, but also in the sense of taking sheer pleasure in story-telling, the magic of story making, and an inherent awareness of the constructed nature of fiction. (This is not to suggest that British genre fiction is inherently self-reflexive or postmodern, only that the playful sense of a story in the process of being told just doesn’t go away.)
- The ability to inspire, simultaneously, both unfettered joy in the very artifice of story-telling and a willing suspension of disbelief is one of the key characteristics of British genre fiction in any form.
- Works of British Genre Fiction play not only “fast and loose with reality,” they are also capable of “moulding reality into any shape.” And this ability is almost always anthropomorphised: amidst a cast of typical British, English, characters there is always an extraordinary man, woman, boy, or girl (Doctor Who; Sherlock Holmes; Eric, Gwendolen, and Janet Chant; Lyra Belacqua; Jeeves; Sir Humphrey Appleby et al.) with the prodigious ability to play fast and loose with reality and mould it into any shape they see fit. And more often than not they’re quirky and irreverent, yet benevolent, individuals. And this in my opinion is the other key characteristic of British genre fiction.
To conclude, so to speak, all genres and forms of British genre fiction are variants of literary fantasy. However, two key characteristics make British genre fiction “British”:
- The ability to inspire, simultaneously, both unfettered joy in the very artifice of story-telling and a willing suspension of disbelief.
- The anthropomorphising of the ability to play fast and loose with reality and mould it into any shape, in the form of a quirky and irreverent, yet benevolent, individual.
It occurs to me that some of you might be inclined to believe that I too am playing fast and loose with reality. And that let me assure you is exactly my intention.