Date of Degree
Access restricted until 07/03/2020
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
Florence Saunders Boos
Third Committee Member
Fourth Committee Member
When Ursula K. LeGuin revisited the world of Earthsea with Tehanu (1990), her return to an established classic of the fantasy genre came with a powerful desire to revisit its construction and reinterpret its assumptions from a female perspective. Drawn to the side of her dying former tutor, protagonist Tenar is repeatedly posed with the question of what to do with his lore books, which could never offer to her what they had his conventionally male students. Even if this time-honored tradition excludes her, however, Tenar cannot bring herself to discard or abandon the books, for all that they seem "nothing to her, big leather boxes full of paper." Traveling on foot, forced often to flee for her life and pack light, she feels compelled to carry these book on her back. For Tenar, the tomes are a considerably "heavy burden," and, given the context in which this novel appears, this female protagonist's struggle with the weight of traditional, respected patriarchal male text is particularly significant. In LeGuin's fantasy, the image of Tenar traversing her story with Ogion's great "lore-books" strapped to her back is emblematic of the struggle many authors have faced in negotiating the received texts and tropes of their generic inheritance in order to create female-centered fantasy. Indeed, the transformation of Ogion's great lore-books into Tenar's conflicted baggage literalizes what many other texts have more figuratively confronted.
My dissertation, "A Noted Departure: Metafiction and Feminist Revision within a Tradition of Fantasy Writing," considers the compelling frequency of such self-conscious textual moments in female-centered fantasy of the 80s and 90s and argues for their importance as a writing strategy that challenges the assumptions of more formulaic fantasy texts and tropes, especially those that inform expectations about roles for women. Examining this moment in which the legacy of a revisionist feminist impulse converges with a post-modern, post-structural metafictional critique of traditional narrative forms and the ideologies they encode, my dissertation sheds light on many critically ignored self-conscious fantasy texts which feature heroines whose critical, textual negotiations bring readers to reconsider the nature of fantasy and the danger and wonder, the limits and liberty, of fictional representation. Taken together, as important and largely overlooked entries in a genre which thrives on the tension between tradition and innovation, these works represent a significant transitional moment in the fantasy genre, bridging the gap between a relatively limited female presence and a more contemporary diversity.
My first chapter, "Doing the "Not Done": Wrede's `Improper' Princess and her Whimsical Revision of Fairy-Tale Expectation and Convention," demonstrates the fluid link between the established tradition of feminist fairy tale revision and the self-critical generic departure my dissertation presents as an important literary moment in the fantasy genre. As the archive my dissertation constitutes might be understood as the answer to Angela Carter's frustrated plea that we must "move beyond revision," this chapter acknowledges the fairy tale's potency as a purveyor of romantic archetypes and, thereby, of cultural precepts for young women in a reading of The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (1990-5). In threading seemingly simple and conventional plotlines together with unexpected and innovative departures, Wrede upsets narrative expectation and undercuts generic convention, particularly those associated with the `princess' trope. Achieving her critical commentary on the commonplaces of the genre by first invoking the traditional before establishing a heroine who positions herself against it, Wrede's plot also reveals the importance of textual negotiation and interpretation, and this chapter underscores the generative relationship this kind of critical interplay bears on the need for new plots and narrative options.
Chapter two, "`In Search of 'Something New': Metafiction as Critical and Creative Discourse" offers a sustained discussion of the theoretical work of metafiction. Opening with an examination of the historical precedent of feminist metafiction and its desire to create an alternative tradition to a limited masculinist tradition in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, I demonstrate how aptly feminist metafiction aligns with a fantasist's impulse to challenge the same constraints within genre. Examining how metafiction can function as a critical and creative narrative strategy within a generic context, I adapt the conceptions of theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jean Genette, Gayle Greene, Amie A. Doughty, and Brian Stonehill to an understanding of how metafiction functions in fantasy.
"Plotting Change, Imagining Alternatives: Metafiction as Revision in Feminist Fantasy," argues that while thematic or plot-based investigations into feminist fantasy are useful, understanding the way in which generic push-back occurs requires closer attention to the writing strategies which articulate such artistic feats and aesthetic negotiations. This third chapter examines several significant but critically ignored fantasy works which demonstrate how writers of this period signal their departure from generic tradition through key metafictional moments in which a heroine herself invokes text or turns, within her own story, to a text that exists within her own world. Alanna of Trebond in The Song of the Lioness series (1983, 84, 86, 88), Daikin of The Farthest Away Mountain (1976), and Talia in The Heralds of Valdemaar series ("Arrows Trilogy," 1987-88) all experience transformative and liberatory adventures that afford a break with tradition that is drawn along lines of both gender and narrative. Thus, texts occupy a central role in these adventures, providing opportunities to investigate the cultural role they play and the tensions they surface between providing inspiration and motivation on the one hand and limitations that must be overcome on the other. As revisionist quest-narratives which are also deeply internal feminist Bildungsroman, the frequently close relationship between heroine and text in these works is deeply telling; such metafictional moments allow their adventures to advance not only plot or individual story, but a critical conversation about the literary conventions and cultural traditions which condition their representation. In calling attention to the critical work of these metafictional moments, I reveal that the most fruitful feminist fantasy criticism must not be only about plot, but the possibility of plot. Indeed, as these heroines become legends themselves, their narratives not only deconstruct traditional discourses, engaging with the need to re-write tradition, to counter narrative expectation and convention with the creation of new stories; they also more collectively re-mythologize. In creating new stories and new patterns of storytelling, this chapter reveals how these writers do not just expose the cultural power of tradition and myth and critique the representation of women within them, but counter its absences and suppressions with their own mythopoesis. Taken together, such a wealth of significant but critically ignored examples demonstrates how writers employ metafiction as a strategy to enact criticism and imagine alternatives in the fantasy genre, particularly in terms of expanding narrative possibilities for heroines.
My fourth chapter, "Convention Undone: UnLunDun's Unchosen Heroine and Narrative (Re)Vision," examines China Miéville's UnLunDun (2007) as a deliberate response to a tradition of fantasy writing, lampooning, in particular, the portal-quest fantasy. Revealing narrative adherence to traditional patterns as false and hollow, and those who trust them uncritically as foolishly naïve, Miéville reminds readers of the importance of innovation, of critical interaction with narrative tradition, and the unfinished nature of both narrative and identity. In a tour-de-force of a self-and-genre-conscious metafictionality, Miéville explores the pit-falls of expectation and the potential which comes from the creation of an alternative narrative--and with it, an alternative heroine in Deeba, whose journey works both with and against the perspective traditions of `The Book' (a talking tome whose authority proves less than accurate). Ultimately, I argue that Deeba's quest and her transformation into a celebrated, unchosen heroine reveals the degree to which success lies in making the old useful again, and the narrative she reshapes is a vivid illustration of both what it means to revise or reimagine and the necessity of such a critical process. In a world of fragments and the discarded, this book speaks to the genre at large, asking what might be constructed from the inherited baggage of traditional understandings, and what can be done in spite of their limitations and previously established identities or functions.
Commonly engaged in the construction of questioning, questing stories, the writers I study have crafted pioneering, uncertain heroines who act out a self-conscious awareness that presses against the genre's limits. As these writers must struggle with the loaded material they wish to weave into new story shapes, so, too, do their fictional creations meditate upon the way in which their journey or character diverges from the expected. These are heroines in the making, heroines whose identities are not fixed easily in text but who must constitute it through an engagement with texts both familiar and new. As books which are also about books, as stories which take story as explicit subject matter, these works feature textual negotiation as a necessary critical process at the level of plot. Moreover, in presenting such metafictions as a critical, questioning comparison to a traditional norm, generic expectation, or narrative inheritance experienced as limited or confining, these works also shed light on the possibility of alternative plots and call special attention to the kinds of artistic and ideological negotiations necessary for such stories to be told in our own realistic worlds as well as in our fantasies. Thus, my dissertation highlights the importance of a writer's impulse to reflect and revise the tradition in which they participate and underscores the creative and critical potential of furthering dialogue between texts and conventions. As my readings demonstrate, the fascination fantasy holds as an enduring art form may well be contingent upon the genre's potential for self-conscious interplay and its protean capacity to refigure narration as a meaningful form of discourse.
fantasy literature, feminist revision, metafiction, popular culture, representation of women, tradition and departure
xiii, 321 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 313-321).
Copyright © 2015 Cassandra Elizabeth Bausman
Bausman, Cassandra Elizabeth. "A noted departure: metafiction and feminist revision in a tradition of fantasy literature." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2015.
Available for download on Friday, July 03, 2020