If you’ve followed recent posts at VFA, you’re aware of the ongoing discussion about what distinguishes visionary fiction from other genres listed under the umbrella of speculative fiction, including sci-fi and metaphysical.
Although our internal deliberations and debates have led to some interesting revelations and “ah ha” moments, I figured it was time to invite in an outside source to shine fresh light on the enduring conundrum.
Enter publisher, writer, editor, and lecturer Hal Zina Bennett.
The Puzzle of Visionary Fiction
I contacted Hal Zina Bennett because he contemplated the rise of visionary fiction as a new book category as far back as 2002, and I haven’t yet found anyone who’s come close to addressing the genre with such expertise (though he doesn’t lay claim to that distinction).
As he says in a previous post at VFA, The Puzzle of Visionary Fiction: “I think I have some understanding of spiritual non-fiction, and have written one moderately successful ‘visionary fiction’ novel, but sometimes I’m not sure I really ‘get’ visionary fiction at all.”
That post was written over a year ago, and, since the “puzzle of visionary fiction” is still missing some key pieces, I called upon—or should I say pestered?—Mr. Bennett again, hoping that during the interim he had located a few of those elusive shape-shifting dodgers.
The Lens of Perception
The too obvious answer to your last post/email may be that visionary fiction like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
Folk stories, specifically stories I’m familiar with from the Zuni and Hopi story tellers, easily mix spiritual visions, fantasy, magic, and everyday reality. Is that visionary fiction?
Well, here’s the long explanation: A young Hopi woman, in her 20s or early 30s, I guessed, came up to me after a reading I did from my book “The Lens of Perception.” That’s a non-fiction work but has “visionary” anecdotes. It’s about “visions” we have that dramatically change how we live our lives–including near death experiences, peyote induced visions, spiritual visions, intuition, even visionary stories. The young Hopi woman told me how important The Lens of Perception had been for her getting back to “the old ways,” since it confirmed something for her and her friends about the nature of “visions.” (She said reading the book taught her and her friends a way of talking about visions that allowed them to be taken seriously by the “old ones” on the rez, who then took them on as students of the old ways.)
She talked to me for a long time about how a vision takes us into a place of knowing that is beyond our own fantasies and hopes and fears, so that we see the reality that exists outside the perceptions of our five senses and beyond what I’d call “consensual reality,” or even traditional teachings. For example, she talked about the Hopi and Zuni stories (visions) of coyote and raven, the animals assume human qualities. They speak with human voices and think like humans. They have families, mates, and so on. In these stories, coyote often depicts how we humans get undone by our own inability to see the “Big Picture” beyond our selfish needs; raven is often depicted as coyote’s nemesis, manipulating coyote so that he gets tripped up by his own efforts to manipulate other people (or animals, as the case may be). Of course, sometimes coyote is godlike, too, and raven can be the carrier of great wisdom.
The point my young friend was making was that stories like this were not just entertaining; they provided perceptions (not just moral lessons) beyond everyday reality; they were rooted in the visionary, not because they were imaginative and clever stories but because the teller had glimpsed a truth beyond everyday reality. The vision came from, and mirrored back to us, that which we cannot see or understand through the perceptual mind, that is, through what our brains make of the information they receive from our five senses, from memory, from intellect, or even from our dreams. They transcend linear tradition–that is, the teachings of the family, the tribe, our peers. You can have a “traditional” story that seems very similar to a visionary story, told simply from rote, or derived from imagination, which is not visionary. It’s awfully difficult to distinguish one from another unless the listener or reader also has a touch of the visionary in them.
Do discussions like this inform us about what’s visionary fiction or not? In the moments after that conversation with the young Hopi woman that day, I believed I was pretty clear about making that distinction but it has since slipped away. It’s a piece of the puzzle from my own perspective though I am never convinced that I communicate it well to others.
In my better moments, I’m sure my most impeccable research and most thoughtful writing is pure fantasy, stories my ego desperately wants me to believe.
HAL ZINA BENNETT, Ph.D.–Author/Writing Coach/Publishing Consultant