Notes on Conceptual Fiction

by Ted Gioia


Is it possible that the idea of "realism" as a guiding principle for
fiction is itself unrealistic?  After all, there are no Newtonian laws in
stories—an apple can just as easily fly upward from a tree as drop
to the ground.   Characters can ride a magic carpet as easily as
walk.   Any restrictions are imposed by the author, not by any
external "reality," however defined.

The first storytellers understood this intuitively.  That is why myths,
legends, folk tales and other traditional stories recognize no
Newtonian (or other) limitations on their narrative accounts.  These
were the first examples of what I call "conceptual fiction"—in other
words stories that delight in the freedom from "reality" that
storytelling allows.   Conceptual fiction plays with our conception of
reality, rather than defers to it.  

In the past, conceptual fiction existed at the center of our literary
(and even pre-literary) culture. Nowadays it is dismissed by critics
and typically shuffled off into "genre" categories such as science
fiction and fantasy.   Realism gained preeminence as a supposedly
rock hard foundation for fiction.  From that moment on, Newton's
laws (and a million other laws)  gave orders to the imagination, with
the stamp of approval of the literary establishment.  

But here is the more interesting question.  Is it possible that this
trend is reversing, and that conceptual fiction is now moving back
from the periphery into the center of our literary culture?   


How important is realism in storytelling today? If one judges by the
comments (and, even more importantly, the unstated assumptions)
of critics as diverse as James Wood and Michiko Kakutani, then
realism is the foundation of our literary culture, and storytellers
ignore it at their own peril.

But take a look at the most formative and influential stories of our
age, namely the best-known motion pictures.  (We will return to the
novel in a second.)  Of the 50 top grossing films of all time, only 7
reveal even the slightest tendency toward realism.  (And I need to
Forrest Gump, The Titanic, Raider of the Lost Ark, and
Jaws as realistic to even get to seven.)   You can denounce
Hollywood as much as you like, and ridicule the uneducated tastes
of moviegoers.  Yet we see what
they think of realism every time
we go the local multiplex.  

But I can sense your scorn of Hollywood even from where I am
sitting across the great world wide web.   And I am confident that
you have never debased yourself to the point of seeing and
enjoying any of these megahits.  So let's turn to the novel.  Is it
possible that even the novel—the
serious novel--is now falling out of
the gravitational pull of realism?  (Ah, I love that adjective:  
whenever I hear "serious" used by a literary critic, I am reminded of
John McEnroe taunting the umpire at Wimbledon in his whiny voice:
"You can

Let's look more deeply into this matter.


During the middle decades of the 20th century, literary works that
experimented with language were seen as harbingers of the
future.   These Joycean and Poundian and Faulknerian creations
were singled out for praise and held as models for emulation.
These works won awards, were taught in universities, and gained
acceptance (at least in highbrow circles) as contemporary classics.

During these same years, another group of writers, universally
scorned by academics and critics, were working on different ways
of conceptualizing reality.  Unlike the highbrow writers, they did
experiment with sentences, but rather with the possible worlds that
these sentences described.  These authors often worked in so-
called “genre styles” of fiction (science fiction, fantasy), publishing
in pulp fiction periodicals and cheap paperbacks.  Despite the
futuristic tenor of their writing, these authors were not seen as
portents of the future.  And though these books sold in huge
quantities and developed a zealous following among readers,
these signs of commercial success only served to increase the
suspicion and scorn with which these books were dealt with in
highbrow circles.


In a strange quirk of history, literature in the late 20th and early 21st
century failed to follow in the footsteps of Joyce and Pound.  
Instead, conceptual fiction came to the fore, and a wide range of
writers—highbrow and lowbrow—focused on literary metaphysics,
a scenario in which sentences stayed the same as they always
were, but the “reality” they described was subject to modification,
distortion and enhancement.  

This was seen in the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez
and Salman Rushdie; the alternative histories of
Michael Chabon
and Philip Roth;  the modernist allegories of
José Saramago; the
political dystopias of
Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro;  the
quasi-sci-fi scenarios of
Jonathan Lethem and David Foster
Wallace;  the reality-stretching narratives of David Mitchell and
Audrey Niffenegger;  the urban mysticism of Haruki Murakami and
Mark Z. Danielewski;  the meta-reality musings of Paul Auster and
Italo Calvino;  the edgy futurism of
J.G. Ballard and Iain Banks; and
the works of hosts of other writers.   


Of course, very few critics or academics linked these works to their
pulp fiction predecessors.   Cormac McCarthy might win a Pulitzer
Prize for his novel
The Road, a book whose apocalyptic theme
was straight out of the science fiction playbook.  But no bookstore
would dare to put this novel in the sci-fi section.  No respectable
critic would dare compare it to, say,
I Am Legend (a novel very
similar to McCarthy’s in many respects).   Arbitrary divisions
between “serious fiction” and “genre fiction” were enforced, even
when no legitimate dividing line existed.  

Only commercial considerations dictated the separation.  Literary
critics, who should have been the first to sniff out the phoniness of
this state of affairs, seemed blissfully ignorant that anything was

José Saramago’s
Blindness might have a plot that follows in the
footsteps of Michael Crichton’s
The Andromeda Strain or Greg
Blood Music, but no academic would ever mention these
books in the same breath.  Toni Morrison’s
Beloved might have as
its title character a ghost and build its action around a haunting, but
no one would dare compare it to a horror novel—even though it has
all of the key ingredients.   

It almost seemed as if the book industry (and critics and
academics) had reached a tacit agreement.  “If you don’t tell people
that these works follow in the footsteps of genre fiction books, we
won’t either."  Yet this was merely a commercial decision.  After all,
what serious reader would buy these books if they had the taint of
sci-fi or fantasy?  When would any Pulitzer or Nobel panel give an
award to a book that was
explicitly linked to genre fiction?  They
wouldn't.  So a charade needed to be played, in which some works
of conceptual fiction were allowed to sit on the same shelf as the
serious books (ah, that McEnroe voice again), while others were
ghetto-ized in a different location, whether it be in a library or a
bookstore or something more intangible like your mind.


This state of affairs pointed to the fundamental flaw in viewing
works of science fiction and fantasy as similar to other genre

Other genre categories—mysteries, romances, etc.—have very
strict limitations on their plots, characters, narrative structures, etc.  
A mystery book is expected to present a crime and a solution to the
crime.  A romance book must have a love story that proceeds along
more or less familiar lines.  These formulas must be followed at all

But the science fiction and fantasy categories were far more
freeform.  Almost anything could happen in these books, provided
they played some game with our concept of reality.  The only
promises these works made were to
astound and delight us.   This
was not a formula—indeed it was the exact opposite of a formula.

Just look at the names of the early sci-fi magazines:  they were
Amazing or Astounding or Fantastic or tagged with some
equally ambitious title. . . (my favorite:
Weird Tales).  Ah, what could
be grander than magazines that forged such extravagant covenants
with their readers?  Not even
The New Yorker promises that every
issue will be astounding.  

In essence, sci-fi and fantasy never fit nicely into the genre
pigeonhole.  And given their focus on surprising and delighting
readers—rather than following strict formulas of plot development
and resolution—it was inevitable that “serious writers” would begin
borrowing from these scorned writers who existed at the fringes of
the literary world.   


Critics and academics and even readers have largely missed the
implications of this.   They prefer to live in denial.  A critic as astute
as James Wood—who ranks, for better or worse, among the most
influential writers on literature of our time—can continue to pretend
that the “realist” tradition in fiction somehow reigns supreme.   Yet
any perspicacious reader should be able to see that
with reality
is the real driving force in contemporary fiction, and
has been for a long time.  


Anthropologist Clifford Geertz differentiated between “thin” and
“thick” ways of describing cultures—labels that have since been
borrowed by other disciplines.  The “thin” approach focuses on a
specific aspect of a social situation, whereas the “thick”
perspective also tries to capture the context as well.  

Fiction can also adopt “thick” or “thin” perspectives.   And it should
come as little surprise that many of the most notable examples of
“thick” storytelling reside in the world of conceptual fiction.  J.R.R.
Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Frank Herbert’s
Dune, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia,
J.K. Rowling’s
Hogwarts, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical-realist
landscapes . . . these all stand out as marvelously thick,
ethnographies of the imagination.   And why the connection
between thick descriptions and fantasy / magical / sci-fi stories?  
Because these genres cannot take context for granted, as do so
many so-called “serious” novels.  The meticulous
creation of a vivid
and inspired context is usually essential to the overall effect in any
extended work of conceptual fiction.  

In contrast, when a literary writer attempts a thick description in the
context of a traditional narrative—for example, in writing a novel set
during the time of the French Revolution or the Civil War—the many
telling details that establish the context are typically drawn from
research rather than from the grand leaps of the imagination that
created Middle-earth or Rowling’s magically-charged variant on
contemporary Britain.   And when a literary novel is set in the
current day, the approach taken by the writer is, more often than
not, a
thin one, since the context is largely familiar to all readers.   
The writer working in conceptual fiction genres has no such
support.   One might even decide to rename conceptual fiction as
“contextual fiction,” since so much of the power of these works
depend on the author’s ability to create a powerful context within
which the story is situated.  

We should not make light of the difficulty—or, indeed, the artistry—
involved in creating a successful work of “thick” fiction out of pure
imagination.  Yet how many literary critics will even deign to notice
a book such as Frank Herbert’s
Dune, let alone praise it?  The
invisibility of this “thick account” masterpiece in literary discussions
is hardly a sign of any failing on the part of Herbert.  Rather it
reveals that the literary world, for all its espousal of open-minded,
egalitarian attitudes, has its own unexamined areas of snobbery
and intolerance.  

Of course, readers pay little attention to these things.  The “thick”
works of conceptual fiction mentioned above by Tolkien, Lewis,
Rowling and Herbert are among the most widely read books of the
last century.   According to many in the literary establishment, this
must simply be a sign of the stupidity of the masses.  And they must
be especially stupid to read thousands of pages (since these are
usually long books or parts of series) of such poorly written books.  

Then again, this glib dismissal from highbrow critics might itself be
suspect and worthy of scrutiny.


The term "science fiction" as it is applied to many of these works is
especially unfortunate, since the inclusion of science is not the
decisive factor in setting these books apart.  Otherwise a book
such as Richard Powers'
The Gold Bug Variations—which
rhapsodizes about science on almost every page—would be a
work of conceptual fiction.  It is not.  At no point is the reader's
sense of reality challenged by the straightforward narrative style of  
Powers' novel, which is a fine book indeed, but with little in common
with the stories discussed here.

By the same token, it is easy to see how mistaken those fans are
who proclaim the superiority of so-called "hard" science fiction—in
other words stories with a large dose of "real" science in them.  
Even a quick survey of science fiction books shows that the
science is almost always bogus, and simply serves as a gateway
for bringing imaginative elements into the narrative.  The greatness
of these books does not derive from their chemistry or physics or
genetic engineering (which almost always prove to laughably wrong-
headed a few years after the book is published, if not sooner), but
in the writer's visionary reconfiguration of our conceptions of the


Given this situation, we need to return to the many masterworks of
conceptual fiction from earlier decades, and reassess their
importance.   Authors such as Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Isaac
Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray
Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, Robert Silverberg, Alfred
Bester, Stanislaw Lem, and many others deserve a new reading
and a sensitive re-evaluation of their role in the evolution of modern

It will not be possible in every instance to “rehabilitate” these
authors.  The pulp fiction environment in which they worked
encouraged sloppy writing and perhaps made it difficult for these
writers to develop to their full potential.  Yet there is more substance
to this body of work than is usually acknowledged, and a sensitive
study of the history of conceptual fiction (which, in any account of
the history of the novel, would link back to
Don Quixote, Gulliver's
and Tristram Shandy, among other classic works) is an
undertaking both fruitful and necessary if we hope to understand our
current literary environment.  
Did sci-fi writers from the 1940s
and 1950s  anticipate the future of
serious literature better than the
so-called "serious writers" or, for
that matter, the highbrow critics?
conceptual fiction

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by Ted Gioia

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fiction? Perhaps the leading candidate is James Tiptree,
Jr., an author who was just as fictional as his characters

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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Auster, Paul

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.
Bloodchild and Other Stories

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Evenson, Brian
A Collapse of Horses

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Gibson, William
The Peripheral

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Joe
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leckie, Ann
Ancillary Justice

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Liu, Cixin
The Three-Body Problem

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

McDonald, Ian

Miéville, China

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Russell, Karen

Saramago, José

Saumders, George
Lincoln in the Bardo

Scalzi, John
Old Man's War

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Shteyngart, Gary
Super Sad True Love Story

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Whitehead, Colson
The Underground Railroad

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wolfe, Gene
The Book of the New Sun

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Yu, Charles
How to Live Safely in a Science
Fictional Universe

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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