This essay examines the entanglement of Galin Tihanov’s three regimes of relevance of literature—literature as art, literature as high-minded social engagement, and literature as popular entertainment—in the encounter between a literary theoretician (Tzvetan Todorov) and a science fiction writer (Stanislaw Lem). The overt clash takes place in a polemical article by Lem, in which he attacks Todorov’s theory of the fantastic. Not so obviously, the writer’s revolt against the theoretician imbues Lem’s masterpiece “The Mask.” Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis” plays a considerable role in both Lem’s polemic and in his fictional response, raising questions of genre (and its dependence on the market and the entertainment industry), of subjective agency (and its philosophical and political implications), and of artistic ingenuity vis-à-vis despotic power. Although Lem’s reading of Todorov involves considerable misunderstanding, it nevertheless produces fascinating results and exemplifies the impossibility of relegating literary theory to a single regime of relevance.

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