Visionary and Metaphysical Fiction: Wedding Bells?

BY VICTOR E. SMITH WITH KAREN RIDER

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?

YinYang3 REVIn 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.

Karen’s conclusion:

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.

Yin Yang2 REVRather 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?

Karen’s response:

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?

Yin Yang1In 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.

 

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About Victor Smith

Victor E. Smith, a lifelong generalist with a diverse resume, sees himself as a scribe of the realm “in-between.” Writing largely visionary and historical fiction, he seeks to observe, absorb, and express those close encounters between the spiritual and material universes that form the unique adventure called human life. Vic is the author of The Anathemas: A Novel of Reincarnation and Restitution (2010) and Channel of the Grail (May 2016). He is a core team member of the Visionary Fiction Alliance. For further information, visit his website, victoresmith.com.
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19 Responses to Visionary and Metaphysical Fiction: Wedding Bells?

  1. Admin - Eleni says:

    I caught the show, Believe, and one of the reasons the show didn’t grab me was due to the lack of philosophical depth. That isn’t to say the show isn’t entertaining or well written. I just need a little more subtext, symbolism and story to chew on. Lost was a great example of visionary fiction, even though I didn’t appreciate how the writers ended the show.

    And Vic, just what did you mean by VF being right brained, female and introverted? Hmmm? No wonder you muttered quite a cuss! VF should be objective. I just posted a response in the VFA page on FB where I remarked that my subconscious writes the story and my conscious mind does the editing. It’s a balance of the masculine/femine, logical/irrational, right/wrong, love/hate, blah, blah, blah…think you got my point! Somewhere in the middle of those dichotomies exist the visionary writer, not judging their existence but rather observing them through an objective lens. With that said, I’m somewhere in the middle of this debate. While I can see the need of differentiating VF from metaphysical fiction, I think separating them will create a bigger categorical mess for readers to sort through than if we leave them together.

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    • Hi Eleni– You ask: "And Vic, just what did you mean by VF being right brained, female and introverted? Hmmm?" I hope you got that this expresses a passing stage in the process of thinking through the situation. I upbraid myself in the very next paragraph and then come to the same conclusion that you do. So hope that settles any seeming sexism in the quoted remark.

      And again in all this there has to be a distinction re what is said about the content of VF and what needs to be done to clean up what is still a "categorical mess for readers."

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      • Admin - Eleni says:

        Yes, I know. I was having a little fun with you there. Sorry. I couldn't resist. Regarding the categorical mess, I don't think readers are necessarily confused more so than they just don't know what VF is. Sites like this should help.

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  2. I'd keep them together. That way readers looking for one genre might stumble on something interesting from another. Personally… I've always felt all the genres to be frustrating. When is any book merely one genre? Usually the better the book, the more genres it could be popped under, in my opinion. The whole reason a book becomes a classic is because it encompassed more. So War and Peace becomes a spiritual journey, a romance and a war story… or Lord of the Rings becomes Epic Fantasy, Visionary and so much more.

    Why put limits and sub sections? I'd rather the genres embrace and overlap than be used as a rigid pigeon-hole system.

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    • Thanks, Michelle. Yes, keeping them together is more for categorizing and marketing purposes, but that is the main bugaboo we are trying to overcome here. My own books intentionally contain several genres and I believe every book, other than a pot boiler, has a unique fingerprint. But a goal here at the VFA is to get our brand and its objective, raising consciousness through fiction, known and loved. A very worthy cause for an otherwise very independent group of writers.

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  3. K.M. Rider says:

    Sometimes I think all this debating is preaching to the quire 🙂 I think what is great about keeping them together is the greater potential for discoverability. It seems though, that bookstores, independent book sellers, digital book stores…are going to shelve as they see fit most of the time…not as the author labels the work, not as the publisher labels the work…. these are just Keywords to point readers in the direction in which they want to be traveling..er, reading.

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    • May I inquire which quire you mean, Karen? 🙂

      In my third BISAC my third BISAC post I mention a disconcerting field trip to our local B&N and finding almost complete ignorance in the staff about either VF or MF. You are right, they will shelve to sell, which is why we have to advise them of the demand. I'll be happy to have my next book stamped "Visionary and Metaphysical."

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  4. Denice says:

    Believe is cancelled, I did get the "vision" of the show..Bo is an empath, starchild, rainbow warrior, Indigo kid, etc…those of us who do understand the meaning of these terms do understand what the show was after…well in my opinion…but the world is yet not ready to hear there are children, even adults like this in the world..true not to her extent of abilities, but what do we know? I knew it would not make it, I think they needed to loose "Orchastra" and let Bo just go out a do her thing…helping to change lives for the better using her abilities and discovering her true nature on the way. I love this marriage of visionary/metaphysics with paranormal…I fit in that catagory like a well worn pair of slippers….I really was not happy with just the "fantasy" genre, my writing was much more. But do we get too caught up in all the "terms". Most people give me that glazed over look when I try to tell them my genre.

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    • The subject of empaths, indigos, and perhaps people labeled autistic is wide open for VF. In the "between" zone and relevant to the state of many misunderstood people in our modern world. I only read the excerpt so far, but I believe Margaret Duarte's Between Now and Forever goes there.
      I know, to some people all this stuff is "Fantasy" but 100 years ago so were airplanes. TVs and computers. Some writers tell it like it is; VF writers tell them before it is.

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  5. I love the marriage between metaphysical and visionary fiction, especially since I always believed I was writing both. Never could clearly separate the two in my mind. Way back when I came up with my brand statement and my readers' walk-away impressions, I wrote about synthesizing heart and mind, science and spirituality and inspiring people to activate their gifts, retire their excuses, and stand in their own authority. I wanted to encourage readers to step away from conditioned responses and follow their intuition and internal guidance to step into their own life stores. Yes, I wanted to write with intention beyond entertainment. Well done Victor and Karen.

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    • Thanks, Margaret, Glad to have you on board. Your brand statement is spot on.

      So far, other than Eleni's objection to my lopsided description of the bride (an expected faux pas from the rare male on the team!) looks like the marriage is on.

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  6. barbaraland1 says:

    During the process of publishing my book on Amazon, I came to the part where I needed to list the genre. I got a bit panicky. There’s some romance, a bit of historical fiction, a mystery to solve, and finally some science fiction, but the book doesn’t completely fit into any of those categories. While writing, I was influenced by ideas I initially discovered many years ago at the Bodhi Tree in Los Angeles, a bookstore then referred to as “new age”, but new age is no longer a classification for fiction. I was so relieved when I drilled down past Science Fiction and found Metaphysical and Visionary. A genre for me!

    I see VF and MF as two sides of the same coin so I’m advocating a marriage, with visionary relating more to spiritual matters and metaphysical being more practical (similar to Victor’s right/left brain theory). I say this knowing that technically metaphysical is supposed to be “beyond” the physical but for me, “meta” physical subjects are just things I take for granted in my everyday life.

    With respect to the show “Believe” – I didn’t know it was cancelled, but I’m not surprised. I felt that the writers lacked the courage of their convictions to fully embrace the story they were attempting to tell and that left me with a rather lukewarm feeling after watching each episode. It was as if they didn’t quite “believe” their own narrative, which made it rather difficult for those watching to do so either. Having said that, I’m still encouraged each time I see a show like this make a try for it on mainstream TV, as it raises everyone’s consciousness up just a bit further.

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  7. I think the marriage of the two is a good idea – mostly because I don't think readers will care about the nuance of difference. You explained it well, Vic, '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.'

    There is a difference but I think it is more important to writers than readers. And, as usual, I am going to say I would definitely substitute the word 'consciousness' for the word 'mind' in that articulate synopsis you made.

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  9. libredux says:

    I too would say, the labelling marriage is fine. For marketing purposes the line is blurred. I'm with Jodine when she says the difference is more important to writers of VF, at least right now. It's my personal feeling that as and when VF becomes a mainstream phenomenon, the collective consciousness of its readers will probably decide what is VF and what isn't. I imagine some surprises will make it in – and out!

    I've also believed from the start that VF is ultimately about whether or not the fiction has a focus on opening human potential (whatever "potential" means, whether by "expanding mind" or "consciousness"). Since "human potential", at least at present, implies the "unseen" realms that empirical science has not reached, that means it will also almost definitely be didactic to a universalist degree (so, not preachy), quite likely metaphysical, and contain paranormal and magical realism elements.

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  10. Thanks for your vote, libredux. And a good synthesis of your understanding of VF, which jives well with that of the VFA. Seems like we are close to the point where we have labeled the object of our quest, and now can get back to the creative process of exploring the myriad paths that go there.

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