What is NOT Visionary Fiction?

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

Basketball 2 REVIt 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

Although we generally agree that Visionary Fiction must contain a spiritual component, Michael Gurian warns against equating religious or spiritual fiction with VF:

  • 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

Basketball 1 REVRemaining 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.

Metaphysical Fiction

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.

Cross Genres

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.

Sub-genres

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.

In Closing

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.


 

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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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11 Responses to What is NOT Visionary Fiction?

  1. Admin - Eleni says:

    Great article, as it will surely stir up a lot of reaction. I like your distinction between a VF story being passive or active; however, the problem with attempting to define and label what is not VF has made it sound too restrictive and paradoxically dogmatic. There are certainly some shades of gray here. For instance:

    1. It's not necessarily, either the mental or spiritual driving the plot that differentiates VF from spiritual fiction. In VF, spirituality and mental strength oftentimes work in tandem, which leads to:

    2. An external source doesn't necessarily make a story lack VF qualities. Star Wars is a great example as everyone is influenced by the force, yet all the character changes and advancements happen from within, demonstrating both spiritual growth and mental drive and advancement. The force is there for Luke to work with; however, it is up to him to either choose the dark side or advance. And when Darth Vader took off his mask, I felt that evolutionary growth within him, and I realized that redemption happened from within, and that changed my whole outlook on the aspect of good vs. evil. (Inner truth pulled out of my sub-conscious as an audience member).

    Metaphysical fiction novels also include the supernatural. Karen M Rider even mentioned the difference between it and VF in a VFA article.

    “Unlike visionary fiction, a metaphysical novel or story makes the metaphysical/otherworldly element the focus of the story, rather than a just plot device.” She then goes on to explain, “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.”

    Regarding metaphysical authors, some of Ayn Rand and Philip K. Dick books would fall under the category of visionary as defined by Carl Jung. This reader’s consciousness expanded alongside characters of both their books, an important feature of VF!

    I think an answer of “yes” to the following questions make a story VF:

    1. It there an evolution of consciousness in the character(s) or story world?

    2. Does the change happen internally as opposed to the character(s) being led to the proverbial light? (passive and active is a great way of stating it).

    VF are the stories where change and evolutionary growth isn’t on-the-nose; therefore, allowing the reader to feel those shifts without being lectured to. It is also the reader’s reaction that makes a story VF. Are any inner-truths being pulled out of them as they’re reading or watching a movie? Have they evolved during the reading journey? Really, as I’m thinking about it—it’s three elements: author, story, and reader, that transcend together.

    Okay, now I can get back to my assignment for class!

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    • Thanks for the detailed response, Eleni. For some reason, perhaps because they were shorter, I answered the posts below before yours. My mistake as most people don't read upwards. In any case, won't repeat what I wrote to Margaret and Jodine.

      A point I'd like to make here is that I don't assign mental and spiritual to two separate universes. Strictly speaking, the mind, with its function of thinking, is a spiritual (non-material) realm, brain theories aside, or perhaps an area in-between material and spiritual. Why perhaps Gurian coopts the mind as VF's specific territory. A chimerical place where things constantly shift, and neither all physical or all spiritual rules remain hold constant, very similar to what it's like to live as an intelligent human.

      I like your 2 questions as criteria for VF but feel they need qualification. Would the portrayal of evolution of consciousness a patient receives while undergoing psychotherapy (from neurotic to normal, say) be considered VF? Not according to Jung.

      One of these posts, we need to address the similarities/differences between Visionary and Metaphysical Fiction. I've read Karen's piece and don't quite get her point–would like to see that tackled.

      Good stuff. Good discussion. Out of time for now.

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  2. Paula Cappa says:

    Victor, I have a question about "metaphysical fiction." A reviewer (Midwest Book Reviews) coined my novel "a metaphysical mystery." The story is not philosophical or anything like the authors' works you've named above. In terms of the marketing genres out there, how would you define a metaphysical mystery?

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    • Paula–
      Thanks for the question. I looked at the blurb for your book, The Dazzling Darkness, on Goodreads. Not sure that's the title you are talking about, but it could well be classified as a "visionary mystery," a sub-genre of VF. Since Visionary and Metaphysical are grouped together by BISAC, it still remains to differentiate the two genres by definition. I made no attempt to cover that acre in the above post beyond saying they are closely related. I expect that subject will be covered shortly.

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      • Paula Cappa says:

        Thank you Victor. I did read Karen Rider's post. Very good! I love what you do on this site. I like Eleni's two questions above. My answers lean to yes regarding both my novels, even some of my short stories.

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  3. Hello Vic and thanks for another thought-provoking post. I believe the way we're digging deep and coming up with thoughts and counter thoughts about "what is" and "what is not" visionary fiction is leading in a good direction, and will maybe, someday, lead to clarity. I fall back on the quote in your post: “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." I find it hard to take (non religious) spirituality out of vf. For me, spirituality is another name for enlightening and encouraging readers to expand their awareness of greater possibilities. I can't separate spirituality from consciousness expansion and growing mental abilities and changes generated from within, etc. I'm working on a post for VFA now, where with the help of Hal Zina Bennett, I will continue to add to the conversation. Because the conversation is definitely far from over.

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    • Thanks, Margaret.
      Glad to see you agree with your own criterion on "intention." Got a chuckle out of that–would hope you did.

      I am NOT for taking spirituality out of VF at all and agree that your definition of spirituality (intrinsically active) has to be in VF. What Gurian is exorcising is externally-based spirituality sometimes found in New Age fiction: e.g., where a tarot or psychic reading drives the plot. True spirituality, finding the God [by whatever name] within, seems to be the goal of raising consciousness by whatever route.

      Looking forward to your post with Hal.

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  4. Vic,
    Great analogies that help to clarify your points. And your points are well articulated. Boy is this post going to stir the pot…and hopefully lead to some well thought out discussions!

    I admire your work and many of your clarifications, and I do have to respectfully disagree with some parts of what you say. Most of my disagreements are in line with Eleni's and Margaret's (who was posting her response at the same time I was) so I won't repeat.

    I like your analogy of player vs. spectator to illustrate what we are trying to achieve in writing VF – which is an internally driven shift of awareness from reading the story.

    Where you say that spiritual fiction is like New Age fiction and that adventure and quest plots serve as vehicles for spiritual teachings…I think that too narrowly describes spiritual fiction. Not all are quest plots and not all spiritual fiction (or VF) are mere vehicles for spiritual teachings.

    I question the comment that teaching spirituality within a storyline is not VF; and that writing about growing our mental abilities is more in line and likely to make the cut to VF. Depending on how you define mind, I would say that it is more shifts in consciousness that is more descriptive of VF. Mind might, I emphasize might, be too linear. Even 'big mind' excludes many facets of consciousness for me. So I avoid that word, mind, altogether in describing VF. And I have read, and written, VF stories that embed spiritual teachings within the story – but in no way preach. Sort of like how every author embeds a theme and weaves it throughout their story. Or any well driven story with a transformational character arc does that at least.

    I commend your post on bringing up these subtle nuances we are trying to discern when it comes to defining and categorizing VF. It is all good stuff to contemplate, rub up against, and see what fits and what doesn't. An organic evolution.

    Paula – you may want to read Karen Rider's post (Vic linked it in his post) to answer your question. Karen's article has some more explorations about metaphysical fiction that couldn't be contained in the topic of Vic's post.

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    • Thanks much, Jodine–

      I should point out that, even though the post is a bit heavy with quotes from Michael Gurian, those are his opinions, not necessarily mine. I feel I am with the rest of you, someone exploring the subject, what has already been written about it, what I can contribute, and what we eventually conclude is the VFA VP. So, sort of defending myself against the idea that I fully endorse what I quote.

      Personally, I feel we have too many names for the same or similar genres. As a writer and reluctant marketer of my own stuff, I believe we have to adopt a label and push it like Hades, not slice and dice among ourselves too much. The Visionary/Metaphysical section in Barnes and Noble is itself a phantom at this point, much less its shelves full. Titles a bit to the left or right of true-blue VF (whatever that is) are certainly welcome as long as we get a place where our readers know where to find what we write. (Wow, that got the synapses fingers and fingers flying!)

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  5. good point that you were quoting many of Gurian's views.

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  6. Excellent article!!

    My humble opinion, about the cut at "Religious/Spiritual Fiction" and the statement, "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.":

    To me, the "external power" cut-criterion is all about Dogma—yet, I can see a Visionary Fiction work employing the "external power" of the "Mind of the Universe" not being cut—though, again to me, the Mind of the Universe is paradoxically "external" and "Internal"………

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