Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism (Routledge Companion Encyclopedias)

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The distinction between mimetic and non-mimetic art forms—however ambiguous these terms may be—is critical for understanding speculative fiction, both as a genre cluster and as a field. This has been the aspiration of much Western art since Plato and Aristotle, whose pronouncements considered literature valuable when it seeks direct correspondence to life.

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Of course, as Erich Auerbach demonstrated in Mimesis , literary renditions of reality have always been subject to stylization and conventions. Nevertheless, it was the mimetic standard that became the Western norm. Reinforced by the now-untenable assumption that reality is objective and unambiguous, it deflected attention away from the non-mimetic—deliberate departures from imitating consensus reality that have persisted in Western art since its beginnings. Only in the 20th century did critical thought expose the realist fallacy: the fact that all literature constructs models of reality rather than transcriptions of actuality.

The mimetic and the non-mimetic have thus been redefined as twin responses to reality. Speculative fiction draws its creative sap from the non-mimetic impulse. The rise of speculative fiction is a historically situated process. While there are rich traditions of non-Western speculative fiction, the current use of the term emerged within the Western literary-critical discourse, albeit from a convergence of oppositional strands including feminist, poststructuralist, and postcolonial thought.

Indeed, no other cultural formation had put such a premium on the distinction between the real and the unreal, or had so reductively defined the real as the post-Enlightenment West.

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This distorted perception generated a counter-reaction, one facet of which was the meteoric rise of non-mimetic genres, starting with the gothic, horror, fantasy, and science fiction in the 19th century, followed by a rapid diversification and hybridization of these and other non-mimetic forms throughout the 20th century. In hindsight, the trajectories and permutations of these genres may be traced as individual strands in the same larger process that combined to create the field of speculative fiction.

In one sense, then, speculative fiction is a tool to dismantle the traditional Western cultural bias in favor of literature imitating reality. Lovecraft is the crux of horror and the weird tale. Theorized as a field of cultural production rather than a genre, speculative fiction is not limited to any specific literary techniques. Nor can its development be traced through a linear chronology.

The current understanding of speculative fiction reflects a quantum jump that connected several established and emerging traditions. An inherently plural category, speculative fiction is a mode of thought-experimenting that embraces an open-ended vision of the real.

This approach can be traced to Robert A. Speculative fiction, Heinlein proposed, captures the highest aspiration of science fiction and includes its top quality works. Defined as narratives concerned not so much with science or technology as with human actions in response to a new situation created by science or technology, speculative fiction highlights a human rather than technological problem.

This focus sets it sharply apart from the popular and formulaic science fiction. While successful, for some, in establishing parameters for quality science fiction, it created a counter-reaction against limiting science fiction to the kind of stories Heinlein appreciated. One of its most articulate critics, Samuel R.

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It failed to do so. As championed by Judith Merril, for example, it helped create feminist speculative fiction of the s and has remained a lasting influence on a number of female writers, including Ursula K. Most publishers, at least, still use it in this sense. The second approach has been to theorize speculative fiction as a category not synonymous with but opposite to science fiction. The distinction Atwood adopts hinges on probability, although not necessarily constructed in scientific terms. Science fiction, she claims, includes stories about events that cannot possibly happen, such as the Martian invasion and similar scenarios in the tradition of H.

Speculative fiction, instead, refers to narratives about things that can potentially take place, even though they have not yet happened at the time of the writing. As examples, Atwood evokes the tradition stretching from Verne to that part of her oeuvre that explores the not-yet- improbable futures of our planet. The argument for speculative fiction as an ideologically different enterprise than science fiction has not been particularly convincing.

James E. The only study that takes it seriously, Paul L. Either set in the future or located in an alternate reality of timeless present, these diverse narratives are protracted engagements in political speculation. The majority do not employ science fictional devices, which sets them apart, albeit not absolutely, from science fiction.

Nevertheless, in their blend of didacticism, warning, and entertainment, future fictions are best described as utopias rather than speculative fictions.

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By making possible futures the centerpiece of her approach, Atwood repeats—unknowingly perhaps—the same claims that were made about science fiction in the s, when authors such as Isaac Asimov proclaimed that the American space program was a vindication of the stories published earlier in Astounding Tales. However, the predictive value of science fiction, or any other non-mimetic genre for that matter, has never been clearly demonstrated. Rather, the general consensus has been that the appeal of these genres lies elsewhere, most of all in their evocation of wonder: supernatural, technological, bone chilling—as in horror—or other.

The third, more inclusive, less prescriptive, and increasingly widespread understanding of speculative fiction has been to adapt the term for the entire extremely diverse field of non-mimetic narrative fiction. Seen from this angle, speculative fiction does not denote a genre as it does for Heinlein, Merril, and Atwood. Nor is it confined to literature. It operates across the spectrum of narrative media, from print, to drama, radio, film, television, computer games, and their many hybrids.

Within literature, it thrives in many formats—the novel, short story, picturebook, comic book, graphic novel, and poetry—and offers a blanket term for the supergenres of fantasy, science fiction, and other non-mimetic genres that may or may not be derivatives of these two, but either elude relational classification or have been established as distinct genre traditions. These include, but are not limited to, utopia, dystopia, eutopia, horror, the gothic, steampunk, slipstream, alternative history, cyberpunk, time slip, magic al realism, supernatural romance, weird fiction, the New Weird, post apocalyptic fiction, myth, legend, traditional, retold, and fractured fairy tale, folktale, ghost fiction, New Wave fabulation, and other interstitial genres as long as they are informed by the non-mimetic impulse—that is, by the broadly conceived departure from verisimilitude to consensus reality.

This understanding of speculative fiction has been increasingly topical since the s, albeit mostly among readers, authors, and scholars who are either younger or speak from the minority perspective. It has not yet won much support among seasoned researchers.

The Writer and the Critic: Marilynne Robinson and James Wood in Conversation -- Radcliffe Institute

For some it feels too baggy, covering a range of texts that slip beyond fantasy and science fiction. One criticism has been that speculative fiction explodes genre boundaries of science fiction and fantasy in ways that are not productive—for example, by including counterfactual narratives with past and present settings, elements of which have often been taken to disqualify the text as science fiction, or by embracing texts without magic or the supernatural, which traditionally would place them outside the perimeters of fantasy.

Other critics have observed that speculative fiction may refer to texts that are speculative socially, politically, or philosophically, but not scientifically. Or it may not employ any fantastic devices. In that latter sense speculative fiction has not yet been defined in a rigorous way.

This lack of taxonomic clarity, pointed out in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction , accounts for why speculative fiction has been seen as too nebulous a tool for literary analyses based on close reading, which usually involve a consideration of generic boundaries, say, between post-apocalyptic dystopia and ghost fantasy or supernatural romance. Likewise, no entries on speculative fiction can be found in most genre-focused encyclopedias and companions. Speculative fiction, it seems, is one of these new labels, complete with its own unique set of questions, assumptions, and foci.

The dominant culture, however, is always challenged by the emergent culture, with its own structure of feeling based on a different set of lived experiences. The emerging culture, by contrast, has wholeheartedly owned the label of speculative fiction as a way to conceptualize its experience of new types of non-mimetic writing and to position them in a contiguous relation to older, ideologically loaded forms. Comprising younger readers, authors, scholars, grassroots initiatives, online resources, fanzines, and more, this emergent culture draws from a different structure of feeling.

In the model created by Pierre Bourdieu, field is a relatively autonomous domain of activity defined by its own field-specific rules of functioning, agents, and institutions. Like any other field, the literary field is structured externally in relation to the somewhat abstract field of power—the space of relations of force between agents and institutions that wield the economic or cultural capital that allows them to claim dominance in different fields—and internally in relation to the principles of heteronomy and autonomy. These indirectly correspond to the two poles in the field of power and may be thought of as the opposing ends on the spectrum of subordination of art to economic capital, as in the heteronomous principle, or rejecting it in favor of cultural capital, as in the autonomous principle.

Despite the difference between economic and cultural capital, however, any practices within a field, even these seemingly disinterested, are effectively economic practices in that they aim to maximize material or symbolic profit. Nevertheless, it was central especially in the early period when each genre fought for its own recognition and maximizing its own power within the field. This was happening through establishing genre-specific journals, organizations, conferences, presses, awards, courses, scholarship, and other initiatives. There was little effort, however, to advocate for the collective empowerment of all non-mimetic genres within the field of literature.

This move redrew the map of the literature field and reframed the power struggle within it. First, it abandoned border wars among genres; their exclusivist definitions; and squabbles over claims to cognitive, artistic, or other primacy that have long been the feature of genre criticism. Third, adopting speculative fiction as a blanket term opened up the field of literature to fruitful interaction with other fields, including drama, film, visual arts, music, computer games, even science itself.

It is part of modern global culture in a way that the relatively isolated and largely Anglophone genre fields were not, at least not from the start. The field of speculative fiction resists stratification that was part of individual genre field dynamics, especially rankings from masterpieces to failures and the pitting of genre fiction against literary fiction. Put otherwise, it offers a new way of allocating value by giving primacy to the system of relations within the field rather than to individual works themselves.

Even so, this trend is not without antecedents. It owes much to historically located traditions of critical reflection, especially the pioneering work of Judith Merril, Robert Scholes, Diana Waggoner, and Kathryn Hume.

Feminists were perhaps the first to point out that conventional concepts of possibility and rationality used to define science fiction, fantasy, and other non-mimetic genres were limited and value laden. To project speculative fiction as a new space for articulating feminist theory and praxis was, of course, a political move. It linked the cognitive estrangement effect of speculative fiction to priming the audience for questioning the dominant status quo and its androcentric biases.


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It also invested works of speculative fiction with the power, even responsibility, to voice alternative views that can move the world in the direction of gender equality. These authors used the textual power of speculative fiction to challenge the predominantly male literary establishment and patriarchal social reality—including the dominant androcentric traditions of science fiction. But speculative fiction for these feminist authors meant something more than science fiction.

The most socially transformative type of literature capable of capturing the modern, post-Einsteinian time-consciousness is, in his opinion, fiction set in the future that has a license to speculate about it. His focus is different though. Within this framework, realism has clearly been the voice of the dominant, materialist tradition.


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  • He then locates its development diachronically, identifying three historically staggered and ideologically distinct forms of fabulation. All these led to the emergence, sometime in the early 20th century, of structural fabulation. As this description suggests, the mutation of speculative fiction called structural fabulation transcends any single genre.

    Indeed, Scholes is careful to note that not all science fiction qualifies as structural fabulation and admits that certain works of modern fantasy share a structural perception of the universe in which magic, religion, and science become indistinguishable.

    Although he barely mentions other non-mimetic genres and implies that most fantasy may best be thought of as speculative rather than structural fabulation, Scholes deserves the credit for being the first to sketch out a spectrum of speculative fiction that encompasses three forms of fabulation across several genres and forms of time-consciousness. General and subject-specific encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks are a great place to begin your research. Use them to find topic overviews, definitions, facts, and dates and to fill in context on the subject you are studying.

    Use the Library of Congress Classification system to find the call number for your subject area. Then, browse the reference shelves in the library to discover encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other authoritative sources on your topic. Also try a simple keyword search on your topic with the added word "encyclopedia" to get a larger list of results. Encyclopedias "The whole purpose of any encyclopedia article is to provide a concise overview of generally "established" knowledge on its topic, written for a nonspecialist audience, with a brief bibliography of highly recommended sources for further study rather than an indiscriminate printout of "everything".

    Encyclopedias in GC Databases General and subject-specific encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks are a great place to begin your research. Brill Online Reference Works This link opens in a new window. A selection of Brill Online Reference Works. Ships with Tracking Number!

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