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Am I a Fabulist?

I recently read a critique of Toni Morrison’s Beloved that labels it as fabulism. There is a ghost, which we might say is not strictly realistic, but why that novel and not others?

Another story that’s recently been embraced as fabulist is Lord of the Flies by William Golding. And lists of fabulist writers now include The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I cannot find an instance of either author calling their own work fabulist, but I do see fable-like qualities to both stories. Each might be said to use fantastic, exaggerated elements in order to make a point about society from which the reader could take away something meaningful, as one might from traditional fables. Does this make them modern fables—which then might be synonymous with fabulist? But if so, then why do we need a new term?

There are other experts who point to very different works as quintessentially fabulist: Illustrated treatises that look like nonfiction, except that their subjects aren’t real, such as Leo Lionni’s Parallel Botany, a scholarly book about plants that don’t exist. Similarly, Luigi Seraphini’s Codex Seraphinianus goes into the intricate details of a place that doesn’t exist. To make it even more fantastical, his encyclopedic book is written in a made-up language.

The premier early fabulist is said to be Jean de la Fontaine, who rose to fame in France and beyond for his collections of fables. In The Sculptor and the Statue of Jupiter, he concludes that “All men, as far as in them lies,/Create realities of dreams,” which speaks not only to the moral of that story but also to a dreamy quality that is likely to get writing labeled as fabulist. Dreams are often an odd and wonderful combination of realistic and unrealistic components jumbled together by our unconscious. Works of published writing and art are usually more coherent than dreams, but may be dreamlike in the way they skip repeatedly across the line between real and imagined, seemingly tapping into the unconscious.

I’m puzzled by the fabulist label, but also excited by it. It’s on my mind now because my middle-school-aged daughter is taking a short course from Interlochen Center for the Arts on Fabulism. And wow! What a cool course! The first story assigned is Karen Russell’s Saint Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. It’s an imaginative, fantastical plot, and lurking behind it may be a commentary on Catholic schools, or perhaps on the abuses of the so-called Indian boarding schools Native American children were forced to attend. Still, I’d have called this story a work of fantasy fiction, at least before I heard of fabulism.

The class also looks at recent screen works, such as The Umbrella Academy, which combine magical or supernatural powers with more realistic elements.

Whatever precisely it is, fabulism has its linguistic roots in fable, as in Aesop, the Ancient Greek slave whose stories have been passed down. Some contemporary commentators name Aesop as the first fabulist.

Here’s what one of my favorite writers had to say about fables. It’s a quote from Henry David Thoreau (of Walden Pond fame) from his travel journal, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:

“When we read that Bacchus made the Tyrrhenian mariners mad [crazy], so that they leapt into the sea, mistaking it for a meadow full of flowers, and so became dolphins, we are not concerned about the historical truth of this, but rather a higher poetical truth.”

He goes on to point out that “we seem to hear the music of a thought.”

Modern fabulism certainly meets Thoreau’s definition. It’s not about factual truths so much as higher poetical truths. The writer does not convey thoughts in a literal or factual way like a reporter or historian, but rather in a poetic or musical manner.

It may not matter that artists like M.C. Escher (appearing on newer lists of fabulists too) and writers like Kafka were not thinking that they were part of the creation of a new genre. Critical analysis combines works and artists to make macro sense of cultural and aesthetic expression. Keeping that in mind–that fabulism is an imposed category with fuzzy boundaries–we can take the term itself non-literally. It probably should be considered inspirational, not taxonomic.

In Ancient Latin, fabula meant story. Fable obviously comes from this source. So too does fabulous: something so interesting or amazing that it’s told about in stories. But where is the magic, the mythical, the imaginative element that seems to be core to fabulism? It seems to be the folk element or the so-called primitive: Ancient, mystical, or mythical stories with magic and other improbabilities make stories fabulist. Contemporary fabulists may weave in elements from traditional stories and myths, or make up magical or mythical elements of their own.

I’ve always embraced the imaginative freedom of the fantasy genre, especially when I write for younger readers. Now I’m wondering if I’d be more inspired by thinking of my genre as fabulist instead. Seeing as lists of fabulist artists and writers include many of my favorites, why not?

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key, available on Amazon.

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