(updated and enlarged from the abstract that appeared with the article in the Journal of the Kafka Society of America (31/32:1+2,18-26). For a copy of the article itself, contact the authors or the Kafka Society of America)
n its thirteen years online, The Cafe Irreal has been publishing what we call irreal fiction with the goal of establishing it as a distinct literary genre, one rooted in the work of writers such as Nikolai Gogol, Kobo Abe and, especially, Franz Kafka.
A necessary first step toward this goal was to define the parameters of such a genre so that we could, among other things, formulate an appropriate and comprehensible writer's guidelines. In order to develop such a description of irreal fiction, we utilized the work of various writers and scholars addressing the work of Kafka and fantastic fiction in general. These included Shimon Sandbank's description of Kafka's work as allegories that were "so many pointers to an unknown meaning"; Jean-Paul Sartre's illustrating of Kafka’s underlying ontology with a depiction of a cafe gone "topsy-turvy," in which the means have revolted against the ends that the cafe's patrons had determined for them; Eric Rabkin's description of "diametric reconfiguration," wherein reality is "turned precisely 180 degrees around" and our prevailing perspectives are directly contradicted; Amaryll Beatrice Chanady's emphasis on the importance of a "sustained antinomy" in the text of a certain kind of fantastic story, wherein the simultaneous presence of two conflicting codes--the code of logical reasoning and empirical knowledge, and the code of the fantastic--must be sustained for the duration of a story; and Clayton Koelb's delineation of "apistic" fiction (those texts in which the reader realizes that the author neither believes the text nor expects the reader to believe it) into two sub-categories, the "alethetic" (which still relates to the real world in that there is still, as in the traditional allegory, the "hidden kernel of truth") and "lethetic" (in which any claim to discover the true and hidden reality of the text is renounced).
If these authors provided us with the foundations of our description of “irrealism,” the practical experience of reading and deciding the fate of thousands upon thousands of submissions since we went online has not only strengthened our sense of what constitutes an irreal story, but also allowed us to further refine our definition of irrealism. Particularly useful in this context was Darko Suvin’s use of physics (as in the study and description of the physical world) in his typology of literary genres, in which the physics of "naturalistic" fiction endeavors to faithfully "reproduce empirical textures and surfaces vouched for by human senses and common sense," whereas "estranged," or non-realist, fiction utilizes a radically or significantly different formal framework of our physical world.
The ways writers have responded to this putative literary genre has been both varied and instructive. One interesting example of this has been the way that the writers have tended to avoid directly emulating Kafka, a reservation they don't seem to feel about the work of Jorge Luis Borges--even though, in general, we believe Borges' work to be further from our definition of irrealism than Kafka's.
In conclusion, we believe that the body of work that we've published so far (by over 250 authors from 28 different countries), even if it hasn't always fully addressed the "anxiety" of Kafka's influence, has shown that there is a basis for considering this a distinct literary genre.
G.S. Evans and Alice Whittenburg are the coeditors of The Cafe Irreal.
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