David Howe talks to co-author John Clute about the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Fantasy.
In 1993 a book was published which was, in many ways, one of the most important books on the science fiction genre ever to see print. This was the second – and much revised – edition of John Clute’s and Peter Nicholls’ The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. The book, costing £45 in a hardback edition of 1370 pages and over 4300 entries, became an instant essential purchase for all fans and historians of science fiction, and went on to win just about every major genre award for that year.
Now John Clute is back, this time collaborating with John Grant – an author whose latest book, Strider’s Galaxy, written as Paul Barnett, was published by Legend in March – on a companion volume entitled The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Once again published by Little Brown, the book contains around the same number of words (1,100,000) and entries as the previous volume, and attempts to chronicle the Fantasy genre with the same degree of enthusiasm and illumination.
John Clute is a tall, genial, Canadian with a grasp of the English language that others can only wonder at. His regular book reviews for Interzone often had even the most eloquent of readers reaching for their dictionaries as Clute brought more unusual words into play in his discussion and dissection of the genre.
‘I think Peter Nicholls always wanted to do a Fantasy/Horror encyclopedia that would complement The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction, which he began conceiving around 1975,’ explains Clute when asked about the origins of this new project. ‘In the mid 1980s, Peter (and I) proposed a fantasy encyclopedia, based pretty strictly on the lines and proportions of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction; at the same time, Maxim Jakubowski [an editor and writer] developed a quite similar project. The actual Encyclopedia of Fantasy was proposed to Colin Murray, the editor at Little Brown, in September 1992, on principles substantially different from those which ended up governing the previous entry structure. Although it looked superficially the same as the Science Fiction book – being divided into alphabetical entries on authors, magazines, films, TV, individual countries, and so forth – it was radically different underneath. Instead of one hundred or so theme entries, we promulgated a list of around one thousand theme/motif entries. They tended to be considerably less abstract than those which thematised science fiction; and the one thousand motifs, which grew to over two thousand tentative motifs, names and themes before being savagely trimmed when we actually began to write the book, ended up, on the whole, working as terms for describable elements of ‘Story’, rather than parcels of ‘Thought’. This distinction was not made to downgrade the previous entry structure, but to adapt it to the very different, and – in encyclopedia terms – unmapped regions of fantasy. The writing itself did not begin in earnest until well into 1994; there was too much to think about before plunging into words. The original guess that we’d be able to do the book in 500,000 words proved modest. By the time the last words of the Introduction had been written, in September 1996, we’d gone to over 1,100,000 words.
‘The publishers and John Grant and I agreed to ideal limits to the inexorable growth of the text on various occasions. Each time the limits were higher. We started at about 500,000 words, and ended, willy-nilly, at 1,100,000, from which total a lot of text had actually been cut. If we’d had another six months – and if Little Brown had had the paper mills ready to pour out free paper – we could have gone to 1,500,000 easy.’
One of the entries in the book is for ‘Fantasy’ itself, and in this, a definition of a fantasy story is offered: ‘A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative. When set in this world, it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.’
The entry goes on to define the terms used, for example: a ‘text’ is any format in which a fantasy story can be told: the written word, comics and graphic novels, illustration and fantasy art, cinema and television and music (notably opera and song). This gives some idea as to the scope of the project.
According to Clute, this definition was arrived at pragmatically. ‘We eliminated great regions of the Fantastic from our primary run of entries, ending with a core definition of Fantasy, for the purposes of the book, which centres on High Fantasy (a term I don’t much like) and shallows out gradually through Sword and Sorcery, Contemporary/Urban Fantasy, and Supernatural Fiction, with Horror at the edge, or Water Margin: a term given to two entries in the book, one for the television show, and one to describe the infinitely regressive peripheries that surround central empires (like fantasy).
‘Peter Nicholls characterised the central “move” of science fiction as that outward, extrovert passage into the new that he called Conceptual Breakthrough. The central move of Fantasy, on the other hand, could be described as an inward, retroactive passage we called Recognition, borrowing the term from
Aristotle’s Poetics, and using it very freely indeed. Genres in this century may be deemed counter-myths: if the counter-myth of science fiction is that – despite the contaminating evidence of history – the dream of the 20th century can be made to work, then the counter-myth of fantasy is that the 20th century is simply wrong.’
With any work of this scale, problems were bound to be faced. I wondered what the biggest problem for Clute was: ‘The biggest single problem for me – the biggest single problem John Grant had was getting me to finish writing my copy – was that of attempting to construct a pragmatic matrix or “raft” of entries by virtue of which it would be possible to write compact, cross-reference-full entries on individual topics (like authors), while at the same time writing those individual entries. It was a balancing act. I think we got safely to shore, though.
‘Another difficulty was attempting to co-ordinate the languages of the various relevant scholarships as the fields of the Fantastic are variously well-plumbed, as individual fields, but by writers with very different voices.’
When discussing the impending publication of this new work, Clute is anticipating the reaction of critics with some resignation. ‘I think that some of the comments are inevitable, i.e. those which make it clear that we can’t get away with it twice. But I (at least) console myself with a couple of considerations: 1) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was a second edition (the first appeared in 1979, the second, completely rewritten and twice as long, in 1993), which means it was a fully matured book whose predecessor had been tested and shaken down by over a decade’s use; 2) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was inherently easier to conceive: because science fiction can be understood as a field with boundaries, but fantasy is a fuzzy set of overlapping quasi-fields which we had to try to cast light into.’
It is certainly true that pioneering projects, by their very nature, are likely to attract adverse comment, and that, with a subject as vague as ‘Fantasy’, certain definitions are likely to be challenged and apparently major omissions questioned. However, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction showed that such a project is both worthwhile and hugely entertaining, and, hopefully, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy will do the same all over again. Certainly, on the strength of the material seen so far, and on the standard set by the previous book, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy looks like being this year’s must-buy.
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Edited by John Clute and John Grant. Contributing Editors: Mike Ashley, Roz Kaveney, David Langford and Ron Tiner. Consultant Editors: David G Hartwell and Gary Westfahl. Published 3 April 1997 by Little Brown, price £45 hardback.