It came to mind that a backdoor approach to the key question—What is Visionary Fiction?—might yield valuable insight into this genre’s elusive definition. So let’s take a look, for a lark, at what is not visionary fiction.
To spice up an otherwise bland exercise, I’ll follow the analogy of vetting candidates for a professional team; and, since this is NBA playoffs time, let’s stick with basketball.
1st Round Cuts: Mainstream Fiction
It starts with an open tryout. We assume that, regardless of skills in other fields, only athletes (think quality works of fiction) show up. The initial group of candidates is too large to test individually, so a general rule is applied—no one who didn’t play college varsity, for example—to narrow the field.
Most writers would like to think their work is visionary. Enter the eminent Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, who, in a 1929 lecture, “Psychology and Literature,” split artistic production into two divisions, saying, “I will call the one mode of artistic creation psychological, and the other visionary.” (His description of what is visionary is covered in two articles on the VFA site.)
How are we to understand the fiction type he designated psychological, and thus not-visionary? Remember that Jung was a psychologist addressing other psychologists, and in 1929 any discussion of genres in fiction had barely begun; fiction was fiction then, and Dewey had decreed that all fiction just be shelved together.
Of works on the left of his divide, Jung explained, “The psychological work of art always takes its materials from the vast realm of conscious human experience—from the vivid foreground of life.” Today, we would substitute mainstream or realistic for psychological.
Flo Keyes, in The Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today, elaborates, quoting Jung in places:
In these works, the psychological components of the characters and their behavior have already been scrutinized by the author and little room has been left for interpretation by the reader. […] It is preoccupied with exploring why specific characters are the way they are and act the way they act, not the larger issues of why humans act this way and what it means for the world.
Most mainstream fiction would fall into this category; these are the stories of “love, the environment, the family, crime and society.” In such a story, “everything that it embraces—the experience as well as its artistic expression—belongs to the realm of the understandable.” Scant interpretation of the psychological implications is needed; everything is spelled out for the reader. Mainstream fiction as described here would encompass everything from Madame Bovary to the latest Danielle Steele novel, all of which concentrate on revealing our psychological motivations and responses to us rather than letting us discover them for ourselves in our reactions to what we have read…we are more often left to judge at the end rather than to interpret.
Jung’s partitioning of literature into psychological (mainstream) and visionary is akin to the divide between players and fans. Fans take seats in the stands while players take to the court. Jung’s criterion, cleaving away the mainstream, thins out the VF applicant pool in a hurry.
2nd Round Cuts: Straight Fantasy Fiction
Showing up at every tryout are shallow-rooted wonders who have perfected a few flashy moves to impress the judges but without the broad skills or discipline required of fulltime players.
Much fantasy writing goes beyond the mundane to glimpse and record some scenes from a realm beyond, but without bringing back any significant meaning to the normal consciousness. Such works make readers shudder, thrill, scream or dream throughout, but at the end of the story it is still “make believe.”
Nevertheless, many types of speculative fiction/fantasy (paranormal, supernatural, utopian, dystopian, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, science fiction, magical realism, alternative history) have substance beyond the sensational, some enough to be genuine VF. Here, “intention” comes into play according to Margaret Duarte in the “Relevance Of Visionary Fiction”: “What separates VF from other speculative fiction is intention. Besides telling a good story, VF enlightens and encourages readers to expand their awareness of greater possibilities.”
3rd Round Cuts: Straight Religious/Spiritual Fiction
- “Religious fiction is a phrase that generally means Christian fiction. The most famous examples would be the LEFT BEHIND series. In this kind of fiction, plot is driven by a religious topography. Whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu in base, religious fiction is a footnote to the already written topography of the religion itself.”
- “Where religious literature is pre-structured by a religion, ‘new age literature’ tends to be the opposite: employing loose adventure formats which can be laden with personal wisdom teaching. The topography or structure of the narrative is not very important in new age literature: the teaching is most important.
- “I make a distinction between ‘spiritual fiction’ and ‘visionary fiction’ that others may find to be too fine…. In spiritual fiction (as in new age literature), spirituality rather than mental ability drives the plot. Spiritual fiction is more like new age fiction: adventure, quest plots, which primarily serve as vehicles for wisdom and spirituality teaching.”
Because VF does have a spiritual component, cutting all religious, spiritual, and new age fiction would be reckless. Gurian recognizes this qualifies his above exclusions:
It’s true, however, that a lot of visionary fiction is very spiritual (my own certainly has spiritual elements and elements of spiritual teaching). And it’s also true that right now, in the publishing market, visionary fiction, spiritual fiction, new age fiction and even new age nonfiction all blur together for marketing purposes. But I think there is a distinction to be made over the next decades between novels that are written for the purpose of teaching spirituality and novels that are written about our growing mental abilities per se, with the story itself breaking new ground.
Another rule of thumb: check if the novel’s spiritual focus is passive or active. Does it feature an external power (an institution, dogma, charismatic leader, practice, or talisman) that affects the individual? Not VF. Is the power generated and changed from within, flowing outward to affect the person’s environment? That’s VF.
Too Close to Cut
Remaining are a few fiction types somewhat like athletes who make the team because of a specialized skill that will come into play only occasionally; for example, the three-point man or defensive specialist in basketball. Since these types actually survive all cuts, they rightly belong to the discussion of what is Visionary Fiction rather than what is not. So just a brief mention.
The Book Industry Standards and Communications System (BISAC) lists Visionary & Metaphysical as a single Main Subject Category under Fiction in its code. The genres are brothers but not identical twins.
Metaphysical Fiction, better known as Philosophical Fiction, refers to fiction “in which a significant proportion of the work is devoted to a discussion of the sort of questions normally addressed in discursive philosophy. These might include the function and role of society, the purpose of life, ethics or morals, the role of art in human lives, and the role of experience or reason in the development of knowledge.” Novels by Albert Camus, Herman Hesse, Philip K. Dick, Ayn Rand, Umberto Eco are categorized as such.
While the philosophical novel’s subject matter, including the spiritual component, is often identical to that of visionary fiction, if it features the thought rather than the thinker and his thinking process, it would not be visionary fiction by the logic given above.
Just athletes who aspires to play two or more professional sports are discouraged from doing so by owners and managers usually for administrative reasons, so too are writers advised against mixing genres. However, as has already been demonstrated with books like Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, hybrid works can produce spectacular effects. Dual citizenship is advisedly recognized by the VF team.
Since BISAC has not yet supplied Fiction/Visionary & Metaphysical with subcategories, all works of the two types are simply listed under the main heading. Visionary fantasy and visionary realism play on the same team with the same ball. Until the BISAC Main Category is further refined, keywords should be used to indicate sub-genres for marketing and reader convenience.
A reminder about the material above and in linked articles: The definition of Visionary Fiction remains a work in progress, which we, its writers and readers, see as a cooperative effort to be concluded among ourselves. Heavyweights like Jung or Gurian are quoted only to suggest. Your well-considered opinion is as valuable as theirs. So, if something here sparks your admiration or ire, tell us about it in the Comment section below. Or if you want to contribute at greater length, contact us here and propose a guest post for publication. Thank you.