Karen Rider’s Original Post
In a recent series of articles on VF as a genre, I noted that the Book Industry Study Group’s BISAC code assigns address FIC039000 jointly to Visionary & Metaphysical Fiction. This, of course, raises the question: What are the similarities and differences between these two emerging genres, which BISAC (arbitrarily, perhaps) has made bedmates?
In January 2013 author Karen Rider wrote a seminal guest post for this site entitled Setting the Stage: Visionary & Metaphysical Fiction, which explored this exact question. That stage since has been alive with dialogue over the definition of Visionary Fiction and how to distinguish it from other forms of speculative fiction.
To summarize Karen’s article, which, with its extensive comment thread and diagram, rightly deserves a second look:
Visionary Fiction and Metaphysical Fiction…have broken out from the fantasy market and public interest in “new age” subjects. My hypothesis considers that both Visionary and Metaphysical fiction have roots in Spiritual Fiction.
Visionary Fiction, as defined by the Visionary Fiction Alliance, are stories or novels that portray esoteric wisdom and experiences that awaken or catalyze transformation within the reader by way of character/plot…. True visionary fiction is not preachy and does not focus on specific belief systems. It does focus on teachings and traditions concerning human consciousness and enlightenment. VF may incorporate fantastic elements (e.g., dreams, visions, the occult, psychic abilities) as plot devices.
Unlike visionary fiction, a metaphysical novel or story makes the metaphysical/otherworldly element the focus of the story, rather than a just plot device. To me, it suggests speculative fiction and magical realism with a metaphysical basis…. Metaphysical Fiction encompasses topics like energy healing, past lives, intuition. Metaphysical (“beyond the physical”) refers to events or experiences that we may be able to subjectively experience or sense but cannot objectively measure or explain. In the narrative, metaphysical phenomenon is part of ordinary human experience in ways that create conflict for the characters, propelling the story forward to find out how will the character deal with these events.
The metaphysical element is the key ingredient within the plot. For example, characters possess talents (or objects) that defy physical laws, which other characters want to possess and control.
Examples for the two types:
Visionary Fiction: The Celestine Prophecy by James Redman, What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson 1978 (book and film)
Metaphysical Fiction: The Book of Lost Fragrances by MJ Rose, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom.
It’s clear to me that visionary fiction has a deeper spiritual aspect than metaphysical fiction. An emerging genre, metaphysical fiction will find a readership among those who enjoy otherworldly tales and magical realism without having to depart from contemporary settings.
While preparing the forthcoming article, “Visionary Fiction,” for Wikipedia, I restudied Karen’s piece and, as I was still puzzled on several scores, engaged her in conversation, some of which is in Comments under her article.
Two Flavors of “Metaphysical”
In a parenthetical statement, Karen says:
I would consider a novel dealing with the more philosophical aspects of metaphysics (the nature of the universe, cosmology, search for truth and meaning) to also be visionary, maybe even literary fiction. The popular notion of metaphysical fiction, however, deals with things like mind over matter and energy medicine, while placing that which is beyond physical measurement, beyond the ordinary, into the very ordinary and mundane world we human beings inhabit.
As someone who both studied philosophy in seminary college and now attends a metaphysical church (New Thought), this popular preemption of an classical term seemed high-handed, if not sacrilegious. To me it seemed to advise that a novel dealing with classical metaphysical topics could be considered visionary, while those based on the word’s revised meaning were true metaphysical fiction.
Rather than cling to my purist point of view, I dug around to determine the extent of this transfer in meaning. The closest an online dictionary gets is the popular definition is: “highly abstract, subtle, or abstruse.” While Wikipedia has no entry for Metaphysical Fiction, it has a stub for Philosophical Fiction, “in which a significant proportion of the work is devoted to a discussion of the sort of questions normally addressed in discursive philosophy.” In other words, metaphysical fiction in the classical sense might better be called philosophical fiction. Getting deeper.
However, as mentioned earlier, the terms Visionary and Metaphysical are used and paired in the current BISAC code (although neither BISAC nor anyone else defines, to my knowledge, if the term metaphysical here is intended in the classical or popular sense, or both).
Caution is certainly advised when using the term metaphysical fiction. To assume it is limited to its popular sense is to risk confusion among writers, vendors and readers. And yet that’s what we have to do to move the conversation along here.
Did BISAC Create a Mismatch?
My major question to Karen:
BISAC has assigned “Visionary & Metaphysical” a single Main Subject Category under Fiction in its code. In light of your distinctions between the two genres above, do you think it helps or hinders the two genres to be placed together like that?
I am not familiar with how BISAC reaches its decisions to categorize fiction. If it in anyway relates to the way the common public consumes media in all its forms, then metaphysical has taken two paths: One, the traditional, philosophical path as you describe. And, second the path of all that is psychical/supernatural but not of the order of the occult, paranormal etc. I have many friends who consider themselves Energy Healers/ Metaphysical teachers and not because they are philosophers or espousing a philosophy. They are dealing with what is beyond physical explanation, for sure, what is extraordinary that lies within the ordinary of human experience. If you will, the discovery, realization and activation of the spiritual in the human; the divine in the human. Perhaps, at one time this was “new age”…. Today, the once “new age” consumer now pursues “metaphysical teachings and wisdom.”
Let’s look at the new TV drama “Believe”—the premise, I believe is metaphysical by the current usage. The main character is a 12 year old child with incredible psychic abilities. However, psychic isn’t the word they use in the show (or not often). She has special abilities that are related to a gene (enter the science, but the focus is not science fiction) that only few people in the world have activated. These gifts, as they are often referred to, can be dangerous in the wrong hands—and, can be dangerous to her. There are two camps, of course, laying claim to the girl. There is no visionary element — though I sometimes reach a personal realization while watching this program, it is not (at least, not overtly) the intent of its writers that the audience awaken in some way. I think this is the most important difference between visionary and metaphysical, today. Visionary authors have an intention beyond entertainment.
My comment back:
Your example of “Believe” (will have to get over my aversion to network TV and check the show out) may have finally cleared a misunderstanding in your differentiation of metaphysical and visionary. In my vocabulary, which is revisable, I would have labeled “Believe” as neither MF (because of the lack of a philosophical element) nor VF (lack of intention to raise consciousness) but simply paranormal, a sub-genre of Fantasy. I realize now that the definition of “metaphysical” has morphed into something more since I studied classical philosophy in a Catholic seminary where New Age was anathema.
Let me make sure I now have it right: Metaphysical fiction focuses on the paranormal/spiritual phenomena itself with the impact on the mind incidental. Visionary fiction focuses on the mind itself with the impact of the phenomena incidental.
Should We Fight?
Our discussion and my attempted (over-) simplification got me pondering further. I came up with:
Metaphysical Fiction is more objective, left-brained, male and extroverted (material), while Visionary Fiction is more subjective, right-brained, female and introverted (spiritual).
I then looked at what I had written, a very neat dissection, and muttered quite the cuss. Wasn’t this like trying to figure out which was more important to conception: the sperm or the ovum? Or cutting the brain in half to see which sphere worked better on its own?
I posed this as a question to Karen:
Is it actually possible to write a decent novel that objectively explores, say, reincarnation (metaphysical) without in some way raising the consciousness (visionary) of the characters and readers? How about a novel that substantively elevates awareness (visionary) without presenting the perennial spiritual principle (metaphysical) that underlies the epiphany? Maybe it can be done, but it is too fine an operation for me to attempt, especially as I see no point in doing it.
To which she replied:
It has been done. In MJ Rose’s series that begins with The Reincarnationist. MJ is known as a novelist of suspense. But….Everything about that novel and most of the 3 novels that follow deals with the topic of reincarnation within the context of novels that are at times historical fiction or weaving between periods in history AND contemporary suspense (there’s one in the series that, to me, is purely suspense with otherworldly plot points). She’s not intending to teach, philosophize, awaken…she entertains and if any such realizations take place it is based in the reader’s experience of the novel not in the way the novel is written.
Or Marry and Lived Happily Ever After?
In her original article Karen describes her worldview as a human being and a writer, stating that “the world is far more mystical than mundane for those who are willing to see with more than their eyes.” I don’t believe there is a visionary or metaphysical fiction author out here who would disagree.
I took those words, uttered a year and a half ago, as an invitation to engagement and suggested to Karen:
Perhaps those nerdy BISAC categorizers knew more than they let on when they gave VF and MF a joint address in their code. To paraphrase a famous biblical injunction: “What BISAC has joined together let no writer put asunder.” Instead of arguing whether it is VF or MF, perhaps we can settle for V&M, with separate studies and/or bedrooms provided for the persnickety.
To which Karen replied:
I think this is the direction we have to go “both / and”— a work cannot at once be both visionary and metaphysical. It will lean more to one side or the other, depending upon the author’s intention, the reader’s interpretation, the premise, story and character arcs. The two types of works do belong together on book shelves and in digital catalogs.
And somewhere, someone is just shucking it all together under “supernatural.” I’m sure of it!
If you’ve followed us this far, you must have formed an opinion on this proposal. Let us know what it is in the “Comment” section. And if you are 100% behind the V&M match, please show your endorsement by posting congratulations to the bride and groom below.