The Encyclopedia of Fantasy

John Clute interviewed by David J. Howe.

On April 3 1997, Little Brown published a book which was possibly the most important Fantasy work to see print since Tolkien first put pen to paper. I have long felt that works about a given field are often far more interesting that works in a given field, and so any project of the sheer size and scope of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy excites by definition.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy1994 saw the publication of John Clute and Peter Nicholls’ Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, a massive 1,370 page, £45 volume of everything you ever wanted to know about Science Fiction in all its fields, but were afraid to ask. The book became an instant requirement for the bookshelves of any serious science fiction fan, and it looks as though the sibling volume, edited by Clute and John Grant and looking at all the many fields of fantasy, will become a similar “bible” for fans of Fantasy.

Through the wonders of electronic communication, the Newsletter was able to track co-author John Clute across the wastes of America, in order to find out more about the background to this mammoth project.

‘I think Peter Nicholls always wanted to do a Fantasy/Horror encyclopedia that would complement The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction, which he began conceiving around 1975,’ explains Clute. ‘In the mid 1980s, Peter (and I) proposed a fantasy encyclopedia, based pretty strictly on the lines and proportions of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. The actual Encyclopedia of Fantasy was proposed by me to Colin Murray, the editor at Little Brown, in September 1992, on principles substantially different from those which ended up governing the previous entry structure. Peter demurred from some of the implications of this presentation, mainly its downgrading of Horror. Although it looked superficially the same as the Science Fiction book – being divided into alphabetical entries on authors, magazines, films, TV, individual countries, and so forth – it was radically different underneath. Instead of one hundred or so theme entries, we promulgated a list of around one thousand theme/motif entries’.

‘The entries were arrived at by several processes. I created an initial theme list that included all relevant themes from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction plus any other book I could find; at this point, the list was a few hundred terms long. We (me, Paul Barnett, Roz Kaveney, Helen Nicholls, and others) then brainstormed for motifs, structural terms, characters of paradigmatic and carrying importance (like The Wandering Jew), literary references, etc.; ending up with about 2000 terms. Some of them were clearly similar in ultimate meaning to other terms, and were dropped or demoted to cross references; others simply didn’t attract any interest from any of us as we wrote entries (i.e. if nobody cross references to a term, then that term may well be useless, and not just ignored in error), then those terms would tend to be cut from the entry list. I don’t actually know at the moment how many terms remain. I’d guess at over one thousand, though’.

‘The terms tended to be considerably less abstract than those which thematised science fiction; and the final one thousand or so motifs, ended up, on the whole, working as terms for describable elements of ‘Story’, rather than parcels of ‘Thought’. This distinction was not made to downgrade the previous entry structure, but to adapt it to the very different, and – in encyclopedia terms – unmapped regions of fantasy. The writing itself did not begin in earnest until well into 1994; there was too much to think about before plunging into words. The original guess that we’d be able to do the book in 500,000 words proved modest. By the time the last words of the Introduction had been written, in September 1996, we’d gone to over 1,100,000 words’.

‘The publishers and John Grant and I agreed to ideal limits to the inexorable growth of the text on various occasions, and each time the limits were higher. We started at about 500,000 words, and ended, willy-nilly, at 1,100,000, from which total a lot of text had actually been cut. If we’d had another six months – and if Little Brown had had the paper mills ready to pour out free paper – we could have gone to 1,500,000 easy. I was sad with every exclusion for reasons of space’.

‘There were numerous people working on the book. Paul Barnett (writing as John Grant) and I had worked together for years, primarily on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. We felt (rightly) that our areas of interest and skills in general were convergent: I did rather more of the confabulating of initial structure, and more author entries than Paul; he did virtually all the cinema entries, and shaped the final manuscript’.

‘The other contributing editors were:

Mike Ashley: came in fairly late, due to other commitments. Mike wrote a great deal (about 200,000 words), scrutinised whole manuscript, and was a joy to work with.

Roz Kaveney: associated from the first. Her primary input was in the shaping of the initial structure, in thinking hard about the kind of theme/motif entries which would actually work as a descriptive matrix for the field we were trying to define – in Encyclopedia terms – as we went. She also contributed about 25,000 words of entries.

David Langford: associated from the first. David helped Paul enormously by (for instance) constructing complex WordPerfect macros that (amongst other things) tested out the cross-references, saving hundreds of hours of raw labour. He also controlled all the rest of the computer conversation and even managed to find time to write some important entries.

Ron Tiner: came in fairly late. Ron basically shaped the comics and illustrators sections, and wrote most of the relevant entries.

We also had two Consulting Editors:

David Hartwell and Gary Westfahl were both with the project from the first. They read vast stretches of manuscript, commented positively and negatively, pointed out omissions, etc. Gary also wrote some entries.

I don’t think we could have done it without the massive input from all these people, and credit is most certainly due to them.

One of the early tasks was trying to define what the field of Fantasy actually was. We ended up with, and there is a far longer version in the book: A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative. When set in this world, it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms’

‘What is important here is the phrase ‘fantasy text’ which we defined as being any format in which a fantasy story can be told: the written word, comics and graphic novels, illustration and fantasy art, cinema and television and music (notably opera and song). This was arrived at pragmatically and great regions of the Fantastic were eliminated from our primary run of entries’.

‘Dream stories, pure surrealism, stories in which the fantastic elements are treated either as image or illusion; all of these went. Ultimately, we tended to eliminate or downgrade categories of literature in which the elements of the fantastic work – often in a Modernist or Post-Modernist frame – to make problematic or disrupt the narrative element of a text, to stymie the way in which fantasy materials are told’.

‘For the purposes of the book, we ended up with a core definition of Fantasy which centres on High Fantasy (a term I don’t much like) and shallows out gradually through Sword and Sorcery, Contemporary/Urban Fantasy, and Supernatural Fiction, with Horror at the edge, or Water Margin: a term given to two entries in the book, one for the television show, and one to describe the infinitely regressive peripheries that surround central empires (like fantasy)’.

‘Peter Nicholls characterised the central ‘move’ of science fiction as that outward, extrovert passage into the new that he called Conceptual Breakthrough. The central move of Fantasy, on the other hand, could be described as an inward, retroactive passage we called Recognition, borrowing the term from Aristotle’s Poetics, and using it very freely indeed. Genres in this century may be deemed counter-myths: if the counter-myth of science fiction is that – despite the contaminating evidence of history – the dream of the 20th century can be made to work, then the counter-myth of fantasy – I feel – is that the 20th century is simply wrong’.

‘The biggest single problem for me – the biggest single problem John Grant had was getting me to finish writing my copy – was that of attempting to construct a pragmatic matrix or ‘raft’ of entries by virtue of which it would be possible to write compact, cross-reference-full entries on individual topics (like authors), while at the same time writing those individual entries. It was a balancing act. I think we got safely to shore, though’.

‘Another difficulty was attempting to co-ordinate the languages of the various relevant scholarships as the fields of the Fantastic are variously well-plumbed, as individual fields, but by writers with very different voices. For example, Jack Zipes. His work on fairy tales, tales of wonder, etc., is incisive, profound, extensive and intensive; our coverage of these areas borrows (with acknowledgement) from him, but certainly does not attempt to emulate his intensity or depth of field’.

‘What I am most pleased with overall, I suppose, is the fact that the book is pretty coherent. On a more personal level, I’m pleased with some of the theme/motif entries that either described terms not previously used or not previously given any prominence in any similar context. These included ARABIAN NIGHTMARE (taken from Robert Irwin’s novel), or BONDAGE (referring to everything but ropes), or EDIFICE, or GODGAME (from John Fowles), or INSTAURATION FANTASY (a term I trailed long ago in an Interzone column, asking for a better term: but we didn’t find one) or KNIGHT OF THE DOLEFUL COUNTENANCE (from Cervantes), or SLINGSHOT ENDING (from Kim Stanley Robinson), or TECHNOFANTASY (one of Paul’s inventions), or THINNING, or TROMPE L’OEIL, or WAINSCOT, or WRONGNESS. To find out what they are…; you’ll have to get the book!’

‘I think that some negative comments may be inevitable, i.e. those which make it clear that we can’t get away with it twice. But I (at least) console myself with a couple of considerations: firstly, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was a second edition (the first appeared in 1979, the second, completely rewritten and twice as long, in 1993), which means it was a fully matured book whose predecessor had been tested and shaken down by over a decade’s use; and secondly, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was inherently easier to conceive: because science fiction can be understood as a field with boundaries, but fantasy is a fuzzy set of overlapping quasi-fields which we had to try to cast light into’.

‘In the end, if I have to choose between children, I do think the Fantasy Encyclopedia is a denser, better, more enjoyable book than its predecessor; and more daring.’

Taken from The Best of Prism UK (The BFS Newsletter), published for the World Fantasy Convention 1997, ed. David J. Howe; reprinting material from Prism UK – Editor: Debbie Bennett, Commissioning Editor: David J. Howe.