By the end of the 1970s, it was common inside the imaginative fiction genres to oppose Mervyn Peake and JRR Tolkien as being representative of more or less “realistic” ways of writing fantasy. That opposition quickly turned out to be simplistic, along with the schism it reflected. All acts of fantasy are equally not-real, however many realistic elements they do or don’t deploy; and most generic acts of science fiction are mimetic in the sense that they attempt to convince the reader there is a world that can be observed during the act of reading: they mimic mimesis. For me at that time, the opposition “fantasy versus realism” was already rolling smoothly downslope through “fiction versus nonfiction” to “writing about things versus doing them” –being alive in the world as opposed to pretending to be somewhere else, & then pretending, as did the supporters of both Tolkien & Peake, that the pretence is somehow more than a pretence.
The unresolved tension in Climbers lay between the fall and the narrator’s discourse about the fall. The difference between falls and discourses–things and descriptions of things or things and discussions about things or discussions about opinions about things–is opened by the narrator’s childhood failure to break through the mirror of the cafe window [pp8/10] to the imaginary world of the car park outside. It closes sixty or so thousand words later with his symbolic failure to break the surface of life the way a cormorant breaks the surface of the water [p232]. One or another aspect of the difference frames every incident in between.
Although a hybrid rose might well be seen as an entry in a discourse on roses, I would have said in those days, the discourse is not the rose. The map is not the ground. The ground is the grounding; anything else–the fantasy-fiction, the realist fiction, the memoir or travelogue, the presentation of a world via any mimetic device whatsoever–is just the thing you say about the ground. The thing you say does not ground the ground: the ground grounds it.
A photograph of a cast is not a broken leg. The ideological framing of a broken leg is not a broken leg. The sociological framing of a broken leg is not a broken leg. The cultural analysis of a broken leg is not a broken leg. The historical & economic analysis of the type of circumstances in which the leg broke is not a broken leg. The story you tell of a broken leg is not a broken leg. The only thing that is a broken leg is a broken leg. That would be what I believed then. It’s one of the more obvious reasons why the last section of Climbers is called “Fall”, not “Autumn”. The fall is still a useful central image for me. Presently I’m interested in the phenomenology of the one I’ve been taking for 77 years: the one that–all evidence suggests–won’t allow you to retreat into rhetoric & discourse on the last page.
This post has not been about generic fantasy, generic science fiction, climbing, or broken legs; or the question of what’s really real anyway. Don’t @ me if you think any of those conversation openers & talking points are an important part of the post. It is really about the decision to accept that there is a world & to live in it, and allow that decision to affect the rest of the writing you do, even (in fact especially) the imaginative writing–because fantasy as we know it escaped its constraints in the 1970s and became the ideological/rhetorical armature of what used to be called the Western world, to the detriment of almost every other system of thought in that world. As we now see.
The rediscovery of broken leg reality may, paradoxically, by putting acts of fantasy back in their place, reinvigorate and repurpose them. For forty years or so, fantasy made itself the frame through which everything else was visualised, organised & valorised. It became the uncontested lingua franca of economics, advertising, media, corporate environmental exploitation and politics: even science had to be storyfied towards its shadowy fictional other if it wanted to be represented at all; fantasy informed the edutainment of the toddlers who grew into the Randistas, disaster capitalists and conspiracy theorists who are now helping to rot & dissolve civil society. It led to the pure manipulated fiction in which we’re condemned to live. A bit of fantasy makes life bearable; it can be quite helpful in making metaphors; but once it becomes your explanatory framework, you are addicted. One narrative’s too many, a hundred aren’t enough. Someone’s always out there with the Unicorn Brand ice cream van, waiting to take your money and top you up.
You’d think that fantasy writers were ideally placed to identify and engage this abuse of their metier–reaffirm and strengthen the distinction between the real and the fantastic to the benefit of both–but somehow they don’t.