Fantasy in Contemporary Literature
Fantasy in Contemporary Literature
The following entry presents discussion and criticism of literature incorporating myth, legend, and other fantastical elements through 2003.
Fantasy, legend, and myths have been an integral part of literature through the ages. From such early allegorical texts such as Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene to modern works like J. K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” series, writers have used fantasy in novels, poetry, and short stories. Although fantasy is often studied as a genre, especially in discussions of books that focus on science fiction, the use of the fantastic as a literary element in books, poems, and drama has been a consistent trend across many genres and over many centuries. In the twentieth century in particular, fantasy has assumed a central place in literature, specifically as a structural and allegorical element that has allowed authors from varied backgrounds to tell their stories to a universal audience.
In explaining the importance of the fantastic in modern literature, T. E. Apter comments on the appropriateness of fantasy, writing that the essential purpose of fantasy in literature is, in effect, the same as realism, except fantasy literature often relates logical stories from the premise of the fantastic. However, Apter cautions against a too-literal interpretation of the correlation between fantasy and realism, noting that in modern literature in particular, fantasy is an integral element of an author's efforts to convey his or her ideas to the reader. The impact of the fantastic relies on the fact that the world presented in these stories seems to be real, yet everything is different. This discontinuity and disconnect imbues each phrase and all images in the text with layers of meanings and associations that almost create a new language. Discussions of fantasy in literature, especially that of female authors, often focus on this issue. The works of Toni Morrison, Susan Cooper, Anne Rice, and others have often been critiqued both in terms of their place in fantasy literature and as examples of works that creatively use language through the construct of the fantastic. Lucie Armitt notes that women writers often use fantasy elements, traditional myths, and legends to convey an alternative point of view. Similarly, Nancy A. Walker proposes that fantasy and irony are often used as interdependent narrative devices by female authors, who change the traditional usage of language in their works in specific and complex ways to convey the message of their text. Citing Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Walker points to the opening sentences of the work as proof of how Atwood revises the mythologies of everyday life through her use of language.
Although elements of the fantastic have been a continued presence in literature through the centuries, especially during the Romantic and Gothic eras, in his overview of the fantastic in contemporary literature, Richard Alan Schwartz specifically comments on the importance of fantasy in modern literature. According to Schwartz, many modern writers have mined the world of the fantastic “as a way of combating the bleak aspects of our age,” and he cites works such as John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor (1967) and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) as examples of how the “fantastic can be used to deal with truth's uncertainty.” Neil Cornwell, in his study of the growth of the literary fantastic, has also made note of the fact that the fantastic was a dominant element in many works of modernist literature during the early part of the twentieth century. Identifying science fiction and horror literature as significant tangents of the literature of the fantastic, with which works of the pure fantastic share many characteristics, Cornwell draws a distinction between the two types of writing, proposing that works that belong to the realm of the pure fantastic often “stress on interfacing worlds” that seem to lie elsewhere, and yet have “mysterious connections with … normal reality.”
While a number of critics view the use of the fantastic as an effective means of confronting issues that are important in reality, an equal number of critics and authors believe in the sustaining power of fantasy because of the escape and release it provides. In their essay summarizing the reasons behind the popularity of such characters as Harry Potter and the commercial success of the film adaptation of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt point to the power of fantasy as a means of participating in worlds that play by different rules, ones that have their own histories, language, and vocabularies. Equally powerful, theorize Brottman and Sterritt, is the human compulsion to “immerse ourselves in the lives of others,” especially in cases where the protagonist offers a welcome refuge from the details of ordinary life. In addition to providing an escape, novels and stories dealing with the fantastic routinely deal with issues of sociological and theological significance. Thus, write Brottman and Sterritt, the most powerful fantasies operate on a dual level, using a combination of allegory and literal meaning to explore recognizable and pertinent human conflicts in a setting that is imaginative and extraordinary.
The Saliva Tree and Other Strange Growths (novel) 1966
White Mars; or, The Mind Set Free: A 21st Century Utopia (novel) 1999
The Cretan Teat (novel) 2002
Life before Man (novel) 1979
The Handmaid's Tale (novel) 1985
Nightspawn (novel) 1971
Birchwood (novel) 1973
Doctor Copernicus (novel) 1976
Kepler (novel) 1981
Mefisto (novel) 1986
The Newton Letter: An Interlude (novel) 1982
The Sot-Weed Factor (novel) 1967
Fahrenheit 451 (novel) 1953
Dandelion Wine: A Novel (novel) 1957
Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines: A Fable (novel) 1998
One More for the Road: A New Short Story Collection (short stories) 2002
William S. Burroughs
*Junkie (novel) 1953
The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (novel) 1971
Cities of the Red Night (novel) 1981
The Place of the Dead Roads (novel) 1983
Queer (novel) 1985
The Western Lands (novel) 1987
**Il castello dei destini incrociati [The Castle of Crossed Destinies] (novel) 1973
The Passion of New Eve (novel) 1977
Nights at the Circus (novel) 1984
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Apter, T. E. “Introduction: Fantasy and Psychoanalysis.” In Fantasy Literature: An Approach to Reality, pp. 1-11. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1982.
[In the following essay, Apter explores the role and significance of fantasy in literature, contending that psychoanalytic theory offers a useful means of studying the unique difficulties posed by fantasy literature.]
The aim and purpose of fantasy in literature are not necessarily different from those of the most exacting realism. What is called ‘truth’ in fiction is often hypothetical: if a character has certain traits, then one is likely to find, or enlightened by finding in him, other, related traits; also, if a character has certain traits then his actions and responses are already to some extent circumscribed. Yet hypotheses in fiction, however ‘realistic’, must be imaginative as well as plausible. At each state in the work the artist is faced with choices and decisions that may not have been foreseen at a previous stage. The ‘truth’ of fiction is attributable not only to the integration of character traits, the balance of motives, the consequences of actions and the development of events, but also to the ways in which new plausibilities are spotted, and the ways in which the artist's decisions create possibilities which throw light on various characters, their motives, or their conditions. Truth in fiction is...
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SOURCE: Schwartz, Richard Alan. “The Fantastic in Contemporary Fiction.” In The Scope of the Fantastic—Theory, Technique, Major Authors: Selected Essays from the First International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by Robert A. Collins and Howard D. Pierce, pp. 27-32. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Schwartz reflects upon the resurgence of fantasy literature in the twentieth century, theorizing that this return to the fantastic is a means for modern authors to create a sense of order in a fast-changing and chaotic world.]
The turn to the fantastic in literature represents in some ways a new method if not for imposing a sense of order on our chaotic world at least for turning the chaos into something positive and useful.
The world of the fantastic has become the world of much of our foremost contemporary literature. Art is no longer Stendhal's mirror on the highway of life, reflecting accurately and unbiasedly all that passes; rather, it has become a fun-house glass, wildly distorting everything that appears in it and furthermore reveling in the distortion. Associated with the fantastic quality of modern writing are a sense of energy, vigor, and vitality and a celebration of the imagination itself. Moreover, at least in the stories told by our finest writers, a real concern for the human...
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SOURCE: Rougle, Charles. “On the ‘Fantastic’ Trend in Recent Soviet Prose.” Slavic and East European Journal 34, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 308-21.
[In the following essay, Rougle expounds on the increasing use of fantasy elements in Russian literature, especially during the 1970s and later. He also examines the major sources for fantasy elements as they are used in modern Russian literature, as well as common themes in these works, attempting to determine a common ideological ground in order to place this trend in a historical perspective.]
Until relatively recently, Soviet literature was very much dominated by normative definitions of realism which dictated, among other things, the mimetic depiction of reality. Fantasy and the fantastic—used here in the broadest sense of Kathryn Hume to mean all “departures from consensus reality recognizable to the reader as such”1—was frowned upon and, for the most part, relegated to science fiction and children's literature.
Slowly at first in the 1960s and then more rapidly in the 1970s, this situation began to change, until by the middle of the decade it could be observed:
Today there is a clear tendency in realistic Soviet literature to incorporate more often and more boldly into the style and artistic thought of works, images and devices that were previously peculiar only to science...
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SOURCE: Brottman, Mikita, and David Sterritt. “Allegory and Enigma: Fantasy's Enduring Appeal.” Chronicle of Higher Education 48, no. 17 (21 December 2001): B16.
[In the following essay, Brottman and Sterritt discuss the renewed popularity of traditional fantasy elements, such as wizards and goblins, in contemporary literature, contending that the idealized settings of many modern works of fantasy provide a welcome escape from the mundane and ordinary aspects of life.]
Harry Potter's enormous popularity and moviegoers' keen anticipation of The Lord of the Rings reconfirm the enduring desire of both children and adults to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds—a desire that might have swelled further since the events of September 11, given the time-proven power of escapist art in troubled times. In the age of the Internet and MTV, why do these old-fashioned fantasy realms of wizards, goblins, hobbits, and orcs still manage to pull in such eager crowds?
In an interview with Newsweek's Malcolm Jones, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, claims she regularly gets letters from youngsters addressed to Professor Dumbledore—headmaster at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the books' main setting—begging to be let into the school, convinced that it really exists. Children of all ages are clearly entranced by this world of dragons, trolls, flying...
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Criticism: Language, Form, And Theory
SOURCE: McCaffery, Larry. “Form, Formula, and Fantasy: Generative Structures in Contemporary Fiction.” In Bridges to Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, pp. 21-37. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
[In the following essay, McCaffery expounds on the “inadequacy of the concept of fantasy” as it is currently defined as useful in understanding the “nature and purpose of much contemporary literature” identified with that label.]
It may be that men ceaselessly re-inject into narrative what they have known, what they have experienced; but if they do, at least it is in a form which has vanquished repetition and instituted the model of a process of becoming.
Roland Barthes, Image—Music—Text
The Poet, without being aware of it, moves in an order of possible relationships and transformations. … Here is the final and noblest game of skill and hazard, the wager against odds, number and calculation versus chance and probability.
Paul Valéry, Aesthetics
In “The Library of Babel” Jorge Luis Borges creates an image of writing and of the universe which haunts the contemporary literary imagination. The universe, Borges suggests, can be compared to...
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SOURCE: Walker, Nancy A. “Language, Irony, and Fantasy.” In Feminist Alternatives: Irony and Fantasy in the Contemporary Novel by Women, pp. 38-74. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
[In the following essay, Walker identifies language and the means to expression as a central component of women's writing, further explaining that language has a special and interdependent relationship with such literary devices as fantasy and irony. According to Walker, fantasy and language are tied together in unique ways, and she illustrates this connection through an analysis of several works of fantasy by women writers.]
In Marge Piercy's Small Changes, Beth, one of the two central characters, dissolves in angry tears after an argument with Phil: “Oh, I wish I was better with words!” Beth views words as weapons in the battle for selfhood—a battle in which she, as a woman, is disadvantaged. She has difficulty arguing because “it's crossing taboos. You know, asserting myself, contradicting somebody. … I only want to use words as weapons because I'm tired of being beaten with them. Tired of being pushed around because I don't know how to push back.”1 In the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale, language is all but forbidden because the ruling class recognizes the power of words as weapons that can free people from bondage. Piercy's 1973 novel is set in the...
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SOURCE: D'Haen, Theo L. “Magical Realism and Postmodernism: Decentering Privileged Centers.” In Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, pp. 191-208. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, D'Haen defines the origins of magical realism and postmodernism in literature, examining the use of the former in the works of Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter. D'Haen proposes that elements of magical realism and fantasy are often used by writers who are writing from a non-centric point of view.]
Because the term “magic” or “magical realism” has persisted for over half a century but is not yet entirely current, it is useful to trace its origins and use briefly before situating the mode with regard to postmodernism.1 Most commentators agree that it originated with the German art critic Franz Roh, who in 1925 coined the word to, and here I am quoting the Oxford Dictionary of Art, “describe the aspect of Neue Sachlichkeit characterized by sharp-focus detail … in later criticism the term has been used to cover various types of painting in which objects are depicted with photographic naturalism but which because of paradoxical elements or strange juxtapositions convey a feeling of unreality, infusing the ordinary with a sense of mystery.”2Mutatis mutandis, I will take the same...
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Criticism: Major Writers
SOURCE: Harger-Grinling, Virginia, and Tony Chadwick. “Djinn by Alain Robbe-Grillet: Or the Architecture of the Fantastic.” In Reflections on the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Michael R. Collings, pp. 25-31. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Harger-Grinling and Chadwick address the ways in which Robbe-Grillet uses the image of the traditional Arabian genie to guide readers through fantastical elements in Djinn while setting large parts of the book in a realistic world.]
For the first decade or so of the nouveau roman in France, critics focused on the excessively realistic aspect of works as diverse as Les Gommes of Robbe-Grillet, Le Planétarium of Nathalie Sarraute, and La Route des Flandres of Claude Simon. Critics tried various labels in an attempt to pin the specimens to the display board. Having with difficulty accommodated their thinking to existentialism, they now wrestled to measure the distance from the text to world by applying the rules of Euclidean geometry to novels that refused either to submit to traditional collecting methods or to lie quietly ensnared by the lilliputian strands of traditional literary concepts. Gradually, however, criticism based on the naive relationship of text to world, itself a reflection of saussurian linguistic...
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SOURCE: Olsen, Lance. “Misfires in Eden: García Márquez and Narrative Frustration.” In Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy, pp. 85-100. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Olsen focuses on the narrative frustration commented upon by many critics of García Márquez's work, noting that the uncertainty and nebulous nature of the writer's work is intentional, and very much in line with many other works of postmodern fantasy which resist the idea of closure or completeness.]
These are not the times to go around thinking about weddings.
García Márquez (One Hundred Years, 98)
Gabriel García Márquez' projects approach the conventionally improbable and impossible as though they were mimetic, as though they were just “everyday” happenings, so that José Arcadio commits suicide and a trickle of blood from his wounds winds its way across town, down steps and over curbs, around corners and under closed doors, hugging walls so as not to damage the rugs, all the way to Úrsula's feet, as she stands in the kitchen preparing to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread. And his projects approach the conventionally mimetic and “everyday” as though they were sparkling with mystery and magic, to the point where ice is not ice, but the “enormous, transparent block with infinite...
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SOURCE: Olsen, Lance. “The Presence of Absence: Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians.” In Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy, pp. 101-13. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Olsen analyzes Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians as a groundbreaking work of postmodern fantasy, one that “recharts, interrogates, challenges, and dismantles dominant cultural myths.”]
There is only a blankness, and desolation that there has to be such blankness.
Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians, 73)
John M. Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940. He grew up in the midst of an unwieldy and corrupt system of apartheid—a system capable of destroying opposition before it has had a chance to get its message out, before it can articulate its cause. Coetzee attended school in South Africa and America, studying computer science and linguistics, then returned to teach at the University of Cape Town, lecturing on linguistics, American and English literature, and producing criticism on, among others, Defoe, Gibbon, Swift, and Kafka. He has often acknowledged the presence in his projects of Kafka's absurdity, unintelligibility before the Law, paranoia, and textual terrorism; Faulkner's concern with isolation, decadence, and the language of consciousness; Beckett's...
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SOURCE: Cummins, Elizabeth. “Earthsea.” In Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, pp. 22-64. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Cummins provides a detailed analysis of Le Guin's “Earthsea” trilogy as a coming-of-age journey set in the realm of the fantastic, where fantastical elements resonate with “ethical, emotional, and aesthetic meaning.”]
The impetus for the Earthsea series was Le Guin's invitation in 1967 from Herbert Schein, publisher of Parnassus Press, to write a book for an adolescent audience. That audience, Le Guin explains in her essay “Dreams Must Explain Themselves” (1973), led to her choosing the main theme of coming of age and the genre of fantasy. “Coming of age,” she writes, “is a process that took me many years; I finished it, so far as I ever will, at about age thirty-one; and so I feel rather deeply about it. So do most adolescents. It's their main occupation, in fact.”1 In the trilogy Le Guin narrates the coming-of-age process as a journey into the self. In the same essay she says, “Fantasy is the medium best suited to a description of that journey, its perils and rewards. The events of a voyage into the unconscious are not describable in the language of rational daily life: only the symbolic language of the deeper psyche will fit them without trivializing them.”2 (Le Guin's comments and the...
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SOURCE: Smith, Jennifer. “Supernatural Genres: Horror, Gothic, and Fantasy.” In Anne Rice: A Critical Companion, pp. 9-18. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Smith traces various literary influences on the writing of Anne Rice, including the Romantics, the Victorians, and writers of Gothic fiction.]
To analyze Anne Rice's work by genre or kind of fiction, it's necessary to go all the way back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was then that writers developed a fascination with the modern ideas of the supernatural. These writers, the Romantics, rejected the idea that everything could be explained by science and instead insisted that there were many things unexplained and unexplainable, including the individual human spirit. Romantic literature emphasizes strong ties to nature as both wild and true, an acceptance of the supernatural as a real force in life, an appreciation for passion over logic, and a rejection of conventional rules or rituals. The Romantics' fascination with both the importance of the individual and the supernatural led them to explore new areas in the two genres that Anne Rice most often draws on: horror and gothic fiction. But Rice's similarities to the Romantics go beyond the genres they both write, for Rice is a twentieth-century Romantic writer, a throwback to dreamers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Mary Shelley....
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SOURCE: Gooderham, David. “Fantasizing It As It Is: Religious Language in Philip Pullman's Trilogy, His Dark Materials.” Children's Literature 31 (2003): 155-75.
[In the following essay, Gooderham places the trilogy His Dark Materials in the context of modern works of fantasy literature, noting that although the work has been enthusiastically received by critics and readers, the resistance it has inspired in religious groups can be largely attributed to Pullman's language usage.]
Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials,1 has received enthusiastic reviews during the years of its publication; there have, however, been quite other responses from some religious groups. The problem has not been, as in protests about the Harry Potter books, with magic, but with “the Church,” unmistakable in the text with its priests, cardinals, Consistorial Court and Magisterium. It is represented as a powerful and ruthlessly repressive organization, determined to root out sin and to control weak human beings for their own good at any cost. When this policy is put into practice by a kind of lobotomizing of the child population, these are just the texts which Roman Catholic churchmen, already troubled with charges of actual child abuse, could do without. More generally, Christian beliefs in God, the fall and the afterlife are all radically called into question, so that even those who...
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Criticism: Women Writers And Fantasy
SOURCE: Spivack, Charlotte. “Fantasy and the Feminine.” In Merlin's Daughters: Contemporary Women Writers of Fantasy, pp. 3-16. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Spivack provides a brief overview of fantasy literature and theory, focusing on ways in which women writers have modified the fantasy genre to demonstrate self-fulfillment and the preservation of community.]
In spite of the pervasive critical ambivalence toward individual works of fantasy, the theory of fantasy literature has attracted much critical attention in recent years. Pioneering attempts to define the nature of “the fantastic” were Harvey Cox's The Feast of Fools (1969), which stressed the element of festive release in the impulse to fantasy, and Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970, tr. 1973), which narrowly perceived fantasy as a moment of hesitation experienced in the presence of an apparently supernatural event.1 More recently, W. R. Irwin and Eric Rabkin have also dealt with fantasy theory, stressing respectively “the impossible” (The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy ) and the reversal of the ground rules of narrative (The Fantastic in Literature ).2 All of these studies are essentially concerned with “the fantastic” as an element in much of the world's literature rather...
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SOURCE: Armitt, Lucie. “The Grotesque Utopia: Joanna Russ, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, Jane Palmer and Monique Wittig.” In Contemporary Women's Fiction and the Fantastic, pp. 15-38. London, Eng.: Macmillan, 2000.
[In the following essay, Armitt discusses the significance and use of utopian fantasy worlds in the writings of several women authors.]
And once the old world has turned on its axle so that the new dawn can dawn, then, ah, then! all the women will have wings …1
Fictional utopias can be deceptively unsatisfactory. Elsewhere I have even claimed they may be threatened by redundancy, being “among the most rigid (and rigidly reductive) of generically bound forms”.2 Literary fantasy in general has always had to negotiate the establishment's determination to trivialize it as mere narrative formula. While increasingly successful challenges to these attitudes are mounted by such magic realist writers as Allende, Carter, Márquez and Rushdie, utopia still tends to carry a reductive stigma. Nevertheless, readers and writers of fantastic fiction continue to return to that space with an almost melancholic constancy, always looking to find a “shared identification with the trajectory of the ‘beyond’”.3 One might adopt, as a definition of that impulse, Susan Stewart's term “longing”, for, as she...
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Cart, Michael. “Carte Blanche: Fantasy Is Flourishing.” Booklist 97, no. 16 (15 April 2001): 1546.
Brief overview of contemporary fantasy fiction, noting the continued popularity of the genre with a new generation of readers.
Cooper, Susan. “There and Back Again: Tolkien Reconsidered.” Horn Book Magazine (March-April 2002): 143-50.
Evaluates Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, remarking on the sustaining power of its themes.
Gamallo, Isabel C. Anievas. “Subversive Storytelling: The Construction of Lesbian Girlhood through Fantasy and Fairy Tale in Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” In The Girl: Constructions of the Girl in Contemporary Fiction by Women, Ruth O. Saxton, pp. 119-34. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Analyzes Winterson's text as an example of the subversive way in which women authors use storytelling and fantasy to convey their understanding of women's lives.
Krips, Valerie. “Finding One's Place in the Fantastic: Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising.” In Functions of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Thirteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, Joe Sanders, pp. 169-75. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Examines the ways in which Susan...
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