Realism and Fantasy

Clark Ashton Smith

Mr. Miller's very able and urbane letter in the December issue makes me feel that my own recent letter on the problem of realism versus fantasy might be supplemented and qualified by a few remarks.

First of all, it should not be inferred that I have the least desire to prescribe limits for the development of science fiction or any form of fiction. On the contrary, I believe that all possibilities should be sounded and explored. When I decried realism in my letter, I was inveighing mainly against what I see as the limiting and sterilizing influence of a too slavish, uninspired literalism in modern writing. It did not, and does not, seem to me that science fiction would benefit by the adopting of such fetters—or, to vary the image, a clipping of the eagle's wings to a conformity with those of the barnyard fowl. Such literalism, as in the case of Zola, is the most quickly outmoded of literary forms. On the other hand, I do not think that the genuine, imaginative realism of Hardy, including an ever-present apprehension of the cosmic mysteries and fatalities that environ life, will ever be outmoded.

Also, in my letter, as Mr. Miller implies, I was considering ultimate artistic values, and not the question of expediency. Undoubtedly the realistic wave is entering science fiction, and the trend will have to work itself out. Like all other trends, it has both good and evil possibilities. I have merely tried to warn against the evil ones. The best possibilities lie in the correlation of observed data about life and human problems with inspired speculation as to the unknown forces of cosmic cause and effect that undoubtedly surround and play upon life. Tile evil lies in a meaningless Dreiserism, an inartistic heaping of superficial facts or alleged facts, which, after all, through our perceptual limitations, may be erroneous, or, at least, too incomplete to permit the safe drawing of dogmatic inference.

Tomorrow, the accepted theories of science and human psychology may be superceded by a brand-new lot; and it is partly because of this shifting, unstable ground on which the thing called realism stands, that I regard pure, frank fantasy as a more valid and lasting art-expression of the human mind.

In one sense, fantasy of one kind or another is about all that is possible for us, handicapped as we are by a partial and lopsided sense-equipment, and occupying a highly precarious position amid infinities and eternities whose concerns are perhaps wholly alien to our welfare or comprehension. Any true realism, it seems to me, must include a facing of this position, and not a treatment of life as if it were an air-tight compartment shut off from the unknown cosmos, and complete and independent in itself.

Mr. Miller's definition of the three main stages in literary evolution is well-drawn, I think. It may interest him, and others, to know that my own final preference for fantasy was reached through a varied course of reading that followed pretty much the outlines he has indicated. I began with children's fairy tales, went on through Haggard, Kipling, Balzac, Flaubert, France, etc. But through it all I have kept a profound admiration for Poe. My present enthusiasms include Blackwood, Lovecraft, John Tame, Machen, etc.—and, of course, Dunsany. I have also succumbed to the pervasive charm of Merritt.

To go back to the matter of realism, as an expedient for the furthering of science fiction, I must admit that I will not quarrel with Mr. Miller's viewpoint. And most assuredly I will not fling any stones or bouquets of asparagus at fellow-scribes who can win the attention of the main-guard of criticism. More power to them, if they can. I reserve the right to join the fray myself.

I am going to make a suggestion, which is, that the treatment of human "realities" through imaginative satire could well play an extensive part, as a corollary of this development. Perhaps, just as the present time, it would be more valuable than stuff done in the Hemingway vein. It could conceivably reach, I am sure, a large and receptive audience. We are badly in need of a new Swift, who could write the Gulliver's Travels of current folly, corruption, dullness and madness. Stanton Coblentz has done some fine things of this type; but there are vast, unsounded possibilities.

I feel like a Time Traveler, after reading Mr. Miller's quite flattering classification of my own work as being ahead of the age! Howbeit, perhaps I am merely one of those unfortunate and perverse individuals who are constitutionally "again the Government." When fantasy is acclaimed by Irving Babbitt, and is published regularly in Harpers and The American Mercury, I may take refuge in the writing of case-histories! That is to say, if I have not emigrated to the Abbey of The Theleme or gone to Mohammed's paradise in the meanwhile. Literature is a grand old merry-go-round, and like the serpent of eternity, it always has its tail in its mouth. Also, as Mr. Miller hints, there may be some additional hoops in the ringsnake.

My apologies for pied metaphors; also for the Einsteinian liberties I have taken with Mr. Miller's curve.

Appendix from Planets and Dimensions Mirage Press 1973.

The two essays "On Garbage-Mongering" and "Realism and Fantasy" originated in a published debate CAS had with P. Schulyer Miller in the pages of Wonder Stories in 1932-1933. Though the statements by CAS are clear enough to stand by themselves, a complete account of their context—the debate-- may be necessary to understand every reference.

In the February 1932 issue of Wonder Stories Abbey A. Shwartz made an attack on the magazine and its readers, saying, among other things, that "your quality magazine does not cater to a quality public; in fact, it is read mostly by wide-mouthed (not wide-awake) youths." This attack brought a response from P. Schuyler Miller (published in the June, 1932 issue under the title "You See What You Want to See") in which he admitted that it was difficult to write for a mass-circulation magazine and please the wide variety of its readers; Freudian realism, for instance, could not be printed. Not so long ago, he continues, such realistic fiction could not be printed in anything for general circulation, but recently a new school of realistic literature has grown up that permits such things in novels. And until publishers and writers realize (as they are beginning to do) that science fiction has possibilities in directions other than romance, adventure, and melodrama, there will be no chance to work out certain important problems of future life and relations, and of life in space ships and space colonies. Until radical changes in taste have come about, science fiction can "only hint at the real major problems of past and future life, gloss them over with action and local color." But, Miller admits, science fiction will have to improve from what it now is if it is to ever be recognized by "highbrows." Though none of the writers today are of the level of Galsworthy, Conrad, or Hardy, nearly every science fiction story has a kernel of truth worth thinking about.

CAS, writing two months later, in the August issue of the magazine, responded to Miller's apparent call for realism in science fiction.

However, the debate did not end with this letter of CAS's. Four months later, in the December 1932 issue of Wonder Stories, Miller replied to Smith's letter. In this letter (published under the title, "A History of Science Fiction"), Miller's tone was conciliatory: he too shares Smith's disdain for realism, but argues that since realism seems the dominant mode of modern literature, the science fiction writer should be aware of it, if only as an expedient means to sell his wares. If realism will cause the literary mainstream to take science fiction seriously, let us by all means use it. Miller goes on to posit three stages in the development of literature: first, children's fairy tales; second, hero tales which border on or perhaps include realism; and third, a second fantasy stage, an "adult fantasy" stage, represented by writers like Lord Dunsany and CAS. Most readers, he argues, have not evolved to this third stage; they must painstakingly work their way through the earlier stages, including realism, in order to attain appreciation of the kind of work CAS is doing. In short, the work of CAS transcends realism, and is the most sophisticated genre of literature.

Two months later, in February 1933 Wonder Stories, CAS responded with a second letter, here presented under the title "Realism and Fantasy."

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Printed on: November 20, 2017