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Criticism: The Positive and Negative

I’ve been thinking about criticism a lot lately. The problem, I think, is what is criticism actually good for? Are there times when criticism is alternately positive or negative? Or is it all negative? And really, what should the response be to criticism from creators, critics, and fans alike?

A Definition is in Order

A Handbook to Literature (Harmon and Holman) define criticism as “the analysis, study, and evaluation of individual works of art, as well as the formulation of general principles for the examination of such works.” Now, this definition is highly academic but still, I think, very useful. Especially for someone who comes from an English Literature major background.

Let’s try a definition from Merriam- Webster’s for criticize “to consider the merits and demerits of and judge accordingly” and “to find fault with.”  Very interesting definitions, I think.

To Help

Positive criticism, either focusing on positive, negative, or both aspects of a work can lead to improved works of art. The arts, of every kind, improve with continually engaging in it and listening to criticism geared toward helping to improve the work.

But I guess how positive criticism is worded makes as much difference as the intent. One must, I think, use kind and encouraging words when wanting to aid an artist in developing and improving their work. If a work isn’t doing it for you, explain why in as gentle and non aggressive way as possible.

The Place of Popular and Academic Criticism

Can reviews for popular consumption be positive? What about criticism for either popular or academic readers? This is a tough one, I think.

Maybe the issue is the intent on the part of the critic. If a critic intends to write a fair minded argument for or against, can that still be positive even if the verdict is negative?

Whenever I do reviews or critical analysis, I’m always afraid that I’m not being fair. Often times, I worry if I’m being too mean when I review things. Especially if I’m not a fan of the work. But even positive reviews can be problematic. If I really like a work, can my judgement be trusted. And vice versa?

I guess what got me started thinking about these questions is an article on After Elton. Com entitled “Hate Watching Glee.” From my limited experience of the show, I think Jurgens is largely spot on with his criticisms. And many in the comments section have excellent criticisms too. And I’ve gone on record with calling the writing atrocious and the narrative world building schizophrenic (and not in the good way).

But are we fair? Like I’ve said before, I have very limited experience with the show. But what about those who are passionate and know their stuff? The criticism seems right to me.

But, and here is the big but. How should “negative” criticism be taken?

Of Intent

I think the intent plays a large role in this.

If a critic’s intent is to be malicious, then their criticism is, honestly, worthless. Though his or her words may hurt, they offer nothing positive. Only vileness and negativity.

Now, if a critic is attempting to analyze and evaluate a work to see how and if it works, then perhaps there is something there to hold on to. Just like in the roles of alpha and beta readers (or Critters).

The Creator/ Artist/ Etc. Takes It How?

I think every one takes criticism differently. Some may genuinely take it to heart and use it to improve their art. And others may ignore it completely, even if it does have excellent points to think about.

But is that criticism good only for the creators targeted? I say, honestly, hell no.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not overly interested in working in television. But there have been tons of very useful advice coming out of After Elton’s articles concerning Glee (especially in the comments). Of course, there is also a ton (and I mean a ton) of worthless crap.

And I hope that other creatives take the time to appreciate good advice, too.

But What About the Fans?

The fans of a work can often be the most vicious when it comes to criticism. Both in attack and defense of the source of their fanaticism. Often times fans can be the most ardent criticizers of a work as well as the most savage when it comes to defense.

I think it is important to remember that no work is perfect. And never let the passions blind one’s judgement.

A Personal Example

I’m a fan of James Robinson’s Earth 2. I’ve fallen in love with that series. And it does hurt when comic book reviewers give individual issues ratings lower than I think they deserve.

Now, I will admit that most comic book reviews vary wildly in quality within even their own websites/ individual reviewers. And sometimes, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense in what they complain about.

But, I want to focus some on Sara Lima (of Comic Vine)‘s reviews of Earth 2. Do I think she was fair to give Robinson a lower rating for Sam’s death? And what about issue 6? Well, at first, I admit I was not happy. But the more I think about it, and reread the issues, I find that I’m actually starting to agree with her.

I’ve come to see that she has a point that Sam’s death is problematic. But isn’t the death of a loved one a powerful motivator for super heroes? Yes, but it sucks. Why can’t a hero be heroic for the sake of heroism? Why is that push needed?

And yes, Alan Scott’s defeat of Grundy is rather unsatisfying.

To Conclude

Damn it, this post is really long. And I wanted to touch on the role of bias in criticism. But, to be honest, I’m tempted to have biased criticism be adjacent to malicious criticism. I mean, if you can’t see the value in a work, why the hell are you criticizing it anyway?

Remember, Post 300 is coming up.  . .


I’m Back, with Random Thoughts

I’m back after taking a few days off. There is nothing really pressing today that I want to blog about, so I’ll throw out some random ideas and thoughts. Maybe they’ll provide the seeds for future blog posts.

So far, NaNoWriMo is a bust this year for me. The novel that I wanted to work on is just not gelling like I had hoped. So, I’m going to have to rethink the darn thing. Too many narrative voices and an unneeded secondary world, I think, are the main problems.

Plus, I’m getting the urge to work on more of my comic book ideas. Which I find more interesting and exciting. Though shouldn’t I aspire more to novels?

One good thing about today is Encore is airing Stephen King’s Storm of the Century. Apart from SciFi’s Dune. SotC is my favorite television miniseries. I haven’t seen it in years, though. I’m salivating for it. But, I’ve also got the Texans playing around that time. And Dallas tonight. Tivo is going to be getting a workout.

Speaking of tonight, I don’t know what it is, but I’m growing steadily apathetic towards The Walking Dead again. I don’t know. It just seems that the momentum from the first episode isn’t keeping my interest. But I’ll continue to watch.

Keeping on television, I wonder how “rigorous” or “thought out” much television criticism is? I know a lot of the academic stuff never sees the light of popular awareness. I just would like to see an increased willingness to critique television harder.

Maybe I just hang out too much in book and comic book circles. But now that I think about it, I wonder which great genre (prose fiction, comic books, television, movies, theatre, etc.) has the harshest critical culture in general?

Well, I think I’ll cut this post short. I should probably do a Critters critique sometime soon.

Here are some topics I may tackle in the coming week:

The possibilities of new media (I’ve been obsessing over this lately, and in ways I’d never expect).

Getting back into art (which might be a new series of posts).


New Directions and the Approach to Two Hundred

So, I was planning on getting a comparison of the novel and film versions of Howl’s Moving Castle posted. But, as with much of this blog, other events have preempted it. In addition to the Howl post, I was thinking of writing my thoughts on the role of the critic. However, I think I can actually incorporate that post into the present one. So, what is this post about?

Well, it’s about taking stock of things. Of analyzing where I’ve come and where I’m going. It’s about questioning ideas and directions. It is, largely, about revising.

For one thing. I’m not going to do a post, an essay, a research paper, etc. on the grimdark in fantasy. I’m interested in the topic. But, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to waste my time reading books that I don’t like several times to make sure I don’t mess it up. I certainly don’t want to waste my time reading a bunch of secondary sources and texts of influence that will bore me to death.

The simple fact is that I really don’t want to be a critic. I’m not a scholar. I don’t have the credentials or, honestly, the wherewithal to do it. For a while, I wanted to be an academic. To be a professor of English. But not any more. So, why should I beat a dead horse anyway? I shouldn’t.  Time to buy the damn thing.

And, finally, wasting my time with all of these genre fights takes time away from me doing what I really want to do. Which is writing fiction. And I don’t need distractions.

As many of you who read my blog on a regular basis know, I am keenly interested in writing comics. Lately, I’ve taken a harder look at that interest.

My harder look has convinced me to pursue both novels (prose) and comics. Some of my ideas clearly make better novels than they would comics. And some of my ideas positively demand to be comics.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of writing a manga influenced series. But I’ve changed my mind on that. For one thing, Deb Aoki’s recent posts on About Manga have explored the problems of “original English language” manga publication very well. To be honest, unless something changes, it is nigh impossible for “OEL” to even begin to gain in popularity. I hope that is not the case, but I’m not sure how the situation can change.

Another problem with me doing manga style is that I’m a writer not a drawer. I wish I could draw, but I don’t have the talent. My lines are crooked and never look right. I’m not very good at it, period. So, I’ll need actual artists to work on the art side of it. And manga style is largely a melding of the role of writer and artist.

Finally, the more I think about the differences between manga and American comics, the more I’m convinced that I’m split. I like the storytelling style of manga. But I love the artistic style of American comic books more.  And when I envision my embryonic comic book series, I see it being a series that would be carried in a comic book shop.

Now that I’ve got all of this hashed out, where do I go from here? Well, there is publication. I’ve looked into traditional publishing in addition to self publishing. Honestly, I don’t think self publishing is the way I want to go. If I were to go the route of self publication, I would demand of myself as nearly professional level of editing, book design, etc. that a traditional (and more experienced) publisher can bring to bear. Honestly, I don’t have that kind of money. And I don’t have a sense for business (yet). So, I think a more traditional publisher is the way to go, at least for now.

So, that’s it for now. There’s a few things I want to do before I go to bed in an hour and a half. But there is one thing I want to  do before I leave: a taste of the posts coming as I march to our two hundredth post. Next time will be the Howl post. Then comes a post on research. And I’ll cap off with Post 200- Why I  love Fairy Tail.

Well, since it is so near my bedtime, I’ll leave you with a goodnight.

No Time but Today

Sometimes, if I brood on something for a while, I get a better handle on things. I’ve been thinking a lot about fantasy, history, and reading lately. Obviously, it has been a somewhat regular feature of my blog (that and Bas Lag). So, I’ve been brooding, and I’ve come to an interesting and obvious conclusion. No matter what time a fantasy is set, it is always reflective about the concerns of the present.

We can all accept that most fantasy set on secondary worlds take place in historic periods relative to our own day. Typically, these worlds are highly inspired by the medieval period of Europe. My argument is that while interest in the roles of English queens may provide an intellectual inspiration, more often than not, the work is not really about an alternate version of Queen Isabella or Queen Margaret.

Take King Arthur. He performs different meanings for different times. For the early myths, he represents a national hero, a defender from invasion. For the Pearl Poet, he represents an idealized court. For Malory, he represents another form of the idealized court. For Bradley, his myth represents a religious conflict between nascent Christianity and the Old Faith. The story of Arthur is a reflection of the concerns of the writer’s present colored through the lens of a mythic past.

Howard’s Hyborian Age is another excellent example of writing with the present in mind. There is a strong concern about the decline of civilization, of degeneration, of a loss of vitality. These concerns play into an early twentieth century dealing with the effects of modernism and the Depression.

Even Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire can be seen in this light. I would like to know exactly how much of the series was planed from the start and how much of it developed in the writing. I’ve heard that Martin is a gardener when it comes to his writing, so it would be really interesting to see how the series developed. Part of my curiosity lies in whether or not Martin originally intended to focus most of the attention on the war for the Iron Throne or if it gradually supplanted the epic conflict with the Others as the main focus.

I suspect the fascination with A Song of Ice and Fire has something to do with concerns about our own political issues. That the political problem, instead of being shunted to an impediment, has become the main focus is one I think needs to be addressed.

China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels obviously belong in this discussion due to the highly political nature of the narratives. Each one, in one form or another, are highly suspicious of authority. The novels are also highly challenging to the notions of neoliberalism and globalization. And, I think, in Iron Council, Mieville questions the efficacy of protest, of fighting for change. Is it worth fighting for freedom, for political change if the protesters are getting their heads smashed in?

History, myth, etc. are inspiration in fantasy. But authors are writing with the concerns of the present in mind. Now, some of these concerns may be optimistic or pessimistic. Some writers may be playing intellectual games with their inspiration, but they still write with the present in the background.

The fantasy genre has been changing for some time now. New voices are entering the field bringing in new readers or supplying readers with protagonists little depicted in the past. Ambivalence and ambiguity have places of pride, and the former certainties of the past, of concrete good and absolute evil, are being challenged. In the end, some readers will find that the protagonists seem to resemble them a little more while others will feel at a loss without their sure hero.

The War for the Future of Fantasy: A Rant

My mood has not been a very good one over the past few days. For one thing, I’ve been battling a series of colds for over a month now. For another thing, I’ve been pretty annoyed by some recent fantasy criticism. This rant is mainly an extended response to Brian Murphy’s recent blog question over at Black Gate. So, on with the rant.

How big is fantasy’s tent? Just because the latest thing in fantasy is gritty, mature, etc. heroic fantasy does not mean that gentler, more whimsical fantasy  is no longer being published. If you look hard enough, scour the internet for more fantasy sites, read a lot of recent literary fantasy short fiction, etc. You are bound to find the type of fantasy you want.

But of course, Murphy’s post is really more about navigating the future of fantasy. Is fantasy going to succumb to this new, brasher, school? Or will the paragons of tradition save the day? The issue, the attempted binary, is very obviously muddied. The focus is in the politics, both as influence and expression, and its conflict with whimsy, with imagination, with transcendence. Now, are China Mieville and Ursula K. LeGuin the best speakers for each camp?

China Mieville is, obviously, known as a very political writer. But are his sentiments of 2000 the same as 2012? As someone who follows Mieville, he seems to have softened his views while still maintaining his keen interest in politics. And LeGuin  herself is a very political writer, especially in the realm of feminism. So while their quotes set up a nice binary, neither writer is really bound to either “pole.”

Here’s how I look at this whole issue. As a writer, I write for today. What interests me, forces me to think, ignites my imagination? After I’m dead, let the critics and readers of tomorrow parcel out whether or not my work is dated or for the ages. Shakespeare, Dickens, Wells, Howard, Tolkien, etc. wrote for the moment. That we, as readers, still read them is because their works speak to us today no matter what they intended.

Now, lets move on to some of the comments.

Personally, I think that George R.R. Martin is overrated. When argued that A Song of Ice and Fire is the greatest fantasy series in the world (barring The Lord of the Rings), I could not help but be amused. I liked the first three books, and haven’t read the recent two. Liked not loved. I get that Martin intended to write a sweeping epic saga that includes a cast of hundreds. But there is too much going on with very little plot development. How, in two books, is the series going to be resolved?

And I don’t know if I really buy that Martin is as bloodthirsty as he is sometimes depicted. Yes, killing Ned is shocking because the reader is fooled into believing that he is the protagonist. He isn’t. He is a false protagonist. I would argue that Jon or Dany is the true protagonist. Also, besides the Red Wedding, has any major POV character been killed off yet?

Keeping with Westeros, we can all accept that it is heavily based on 14th century Europe, especially England. Now, a constant argument that I’ve heard from some Black Gate commenters is that it (and other similar worlds) do not reflect the religious culture of the period they are inspired by. I argued that religious faith in ASOIAF is subtle, but I do not believe that absolute fidelity is a necessity.

But I think my question was not quite answered. Why? Why is it so important to have that religious fidelity (or even focus)? And, after thinking about it, I should have followed up with what. What would this religious take look like?

I remember from my own readings of medieval literature, especially the romances, that religion is not overly important save as a matter of course. That Gawain attends church several times a day and a prayer concludes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does not seem overly important to me. Now, I know that religious faith plays an important role (or is supposed to) in being a knight, doubly so for an idealized knight like Gawain. But there are other readings that are just as valid, and to me, more interesting.

And there is one thing to remember. Every scene, save for a few possible tangents, should be devoted to advancing the plot. Everything should be geared towards the inexorable, twisting path to a conclusion.

So, that’s my rant for today.

Fantasy Beyond the Feudal: Bas-Lag and Earthland

I’m an idiot. As I was working on this draft, I suddenly realized there are two series that encapsulate my argument that fantasy can exist beyond the common feudal setting: China Mieville’s Bas-Lag and Hiro Mashima’s Fairy Tail.

Yes, its steampunk, but the Bas-Lag novels are more fantasy than science fiction. And just because something is “punk” does not mean that it is science fiction.

As I’ve mentioned in my previous work on Bas-Lag, New Crobuzon, and other parts of the world, have a technological and cultural basis inspired by the later Victorian era. This is ameliorated by the many different and weird states that exist alongside New Crobuzon. And, or course, New Crobuzon itself is a city-state (which seems to be the dominant political form). Given the insanity of the environment, the city-state is likely the largest a state can grow without losing itself to some strange natural phenomenon.

In Michal’s post about black powder fantasy, the problem of magic in an industrial setting is brought up. I think Mieville solves that issue splendidly. Thaumaturgy has been industrialized. It is a foundational branch of the universe of Bas-Lag that can be studied. Thaumaturgy is a key part of many professions: Issac uses it in his theories, Bellis uses it to learn languages faster, and Judah Lowe made a fortune with golems.

Similarly, Earthland, the setting of Fairy Tail, is inspired by steampunk and is clearly more magic heavy than Bas-Lag.

Starting with the politics, the only country that the readers have familiarity with is Fiore, the home country of the Fairy Tail Guild. Looking at the world, it is pretty clearly inspired by a somewhat retro 20th and 19th centuries (it is mostly 19th but the clothes and some of the tech is later).

The thing about Earthland is how the problem of magic is dealt with. Here, wizards join guilds and perform various tasks for rewards (although other uses of magic in an industrial capacity is also obvious). If a person has a problem that needs a wizard, then they go to a guild to hire one.

Anyway, these two series show, I think, that fantasy is not exclusive to a feudal setting.

On Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth

Lately, I’ve been watching some of the various television documentaries featuring Joseph Campbell. For those who don’t know, Joseph Campbell was a “mythologist” who specialized in comparative mythology and religion. Famous for condensing much of mythology into monomyths and influencing George Lucas, Campbell is a difficult nut for me to crack.

Perhaps it is my innate fondness for deconstruction, suspicion of grand narratives, or historical/ cultural mindedness, but I find myself troubled by Campbell’s condensing of all mythology into monomyths, grand narratives that lead to limited, interior, and spiritually affirmative meanings.

Now, I personally am not a mythology expert, but I do know that Campbell’s is not the only interpretation in town. There is the historical interpretation similar to Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths. And there are cultural, literary interpretations that are, perhaps, not so popular with popular culture or television documentaries.

Watching the first three episodes of The Power of Myth, I am struck by nostalgia, a sense of loss, and questioning.  I’ve seen the series several times in the past (there are a few good points about PBS’s pledge drives), and I have the same criticisms that I’ve always had. I’m not sure I agree that all mythology can, or should be, squeezed to a single range of meanings. Does this strip away the cultural varieties, the culture specific meanings, that are present in the myths? For a writer of fantasy, does The Hero with a Thousand Faces provide a decent scaffolding in world building and storytelling? Or is it, like cultural myths stripped of their uniqueness, producing derivative works that in the end limit the imagination of storytelling?

Perhaps its the questions asked that trouble me. Campbell asks what is the psychological and spiritual meaning of this myth and the corresponding condensation as Campbell looks for a way to subsume it into his monomyth. I on the other hand, ask what do these myths reveal about these cultures and why these myths have to be as they are. Take an example from the first episode of The Power of Myth. Campbell tells the tale of an Iroquois girl who married a powerful magician/ snake. Gradually, she is troubled by the fact that her new relatives are snake people and an old shaman aids her in escaping. What I want to know is what is the problem here? Why the sudden fear? There is another example from Hero with a Thousand Faces that equally raised those questions to me.

Do I like Joseph Campbell’s work? I don’t know really. Campbell comes out of a psychoanalytic tradition (Freud and to a lesser extent Jung) that I personally dislike. I don’t like condensing myth down to a personal spiritual journey that strips cultural and historical meanings from the myth. I’m going to finish off The Power of Myth as well as the other documentaries that are available online (thanks to Netflix streaming), but I am unsure if I will change my opinion.

What saddens me, about all of this, is that Joseph Campbell is likely going to be the final word on mythology in the popular consciousness. The Power of Myth (among others) is a testament to the informational possibilities of entertainment. But with the decline of PBS and the condensing of cable to only ratings grabbing reality programming, it is unlikely that anything quite like it will ever appear again. And that is the shame.

Fairy Tail and Secondary Protagonists

Reading the “Mysteries of Fairy Tail” section in Volume Nine, I am intrigued by the question of who the female lead character is. Is it Lucy Heartphilia or Erza Scarlet? Mashima gives fans of both characters in out by allowing the fans to make their own decision. If reader A likes Lucy, she is the female lead, but if reader B likes Erza, she is the female lead. Having read the first twelve volumes recently and some of the more recent arcs (Edolas and Tenrou), I think that Mashima alternates the secondary protagonist among the cast of characters. In this reading, Erza and Lucy are both the primary female character at alternating times.

There is no question that Natsu Dragneel is the primary protagonist. He is the hero and the character most focused on (as well as the most mysterious). However, Natsu often shares protagonist duties with another character (usually a member of Team Natsu). These temporary secondary protagonists are typically arc-centric.

The first two arcs (Macao and Daybreak) serve as introduction to the series and initial character development as well as the formation of the trio form of Team Natsu. In this case, Lucy is clearly the secondary protagonist.

The third arc (Lullaby) features the inclusion of Erza and Gray into the five person version of Team Natsu. I am tempted to give Lucy the secondary protagonist role. But a better case exists for Erza. Erza is the primary actor in this arc. She forces the formation of the team, she leads the team, and it is her goal of stopping Eisenwald that drives the arc’s plot. So, I am giving this one to Erza.

The fourth arc (Galuna Island) is Gray Fullbuster’s characterization arc. So the secondary protagonist role goes to him with no question. His unresolved issues with Ur and Lyon, his desire to protect Ur’s legacy, and his willingness to sacrifice himself are all on display. And it is he who takes out the main antagonist. So, with this in mind, who is the female lead here? Lucy is a primary actor, but Erza has a more impacting role. Her confrontation with Gray is an amazing moment and starts the process of her opening up more. In this case, maybe Lucy is more important.

The fifth arc (Phantom Lord) is Lucy’s characterization arc. She is at the center of things as the woman of desire. Fairy Tail fights the war, in part, to protect her. Phantom Lord has been hired to take her back home so she can be married off for a business transaction. She is both heroine and damsel, and emerges from the arc a stronger character (her confrontation with her father is excellent).

The sixth arc (Loke) is a departure to the rest of the series (so far). The arc acts as Loke’s characterization arc, but Natsu is not involved in the plot as the lead protagonist. So, is Loke or Lucy the primary protagonist? I say Lucy. She saves Loke from death and forms a much stronger bond with the celestial spirit. This arc, I think, reinforces the idea that Lucy is the primary female protagonist, but following this brief arc is all Erza.

The seventh arc (The Tower of Heaven) is Erza’s characterization arc. To this point, this is the longest and most epic of the arcs. And Erza storms the gates as the secondary protagonist. Her characterization, her growth as a character, is extremely well done. While still a strong warrior woman, Erza becomes much more human as a result of this arc. And if one wanted to play the “who is the female lead” game here, Erza is far ahead of Lucy as Lucy plays a pivotal, but smaller role.

Skipping arcs eight and nine (Fighting Festival and Oracion Seis) because I haven’t read them yet (and I won’t until they are officially released), I’m going to jump to arcs ten and eleven.

Arc ten (Edolas) is Happy’s characterization arc (as well as Mystogan’s). Despite this arc being about Happy and Charle’s backgrounds, I don’t know if you can characterize them truly as being the secondary protagonists here. They do play a key role and grow as characters. But Wendy Marvell can also be seen as being the secondary female protagonist (and definitely the main human female character). Lucy and Erza’s roles are both rather reduced here. But, I will give the secondary protagonist position to Happy because he does grow as a character immensely in this arc.

Finally, arc eleven (Tenrou Island) is a pain to ascribe secondary protagonist status to. It looked to initially be Cana Alberona, but with her being knocked out, I’m not so sure. Maybe this longest, most epic arc (so far) is another departure of the normal structure. Maybe Natsu is the the sole protagonist with everyone else as greater or lesser supporting characters. Then again, this arc isn’t over yet.

To conclude, I think that the female lead character often switches between Lucy and Erza (and recently Wendy). Indeed, this method allows for the fans to decide for themselves who that lead female character is. Given the shifting nature of the secondary protagonist, I do not think a definite answer is possible.

Continued Thoughts, or, Why I’m Not Fond of The Blade Itself

This past week has been rather tough when it comes to my reading. I think I mentioned a few posts back that I had tried to read Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows and just could not get into it. I have to admit that of the five books on my plate, the only one I have enjoyed is volume 49 of Naruto. The Way of Shadows just annoyed me (and I didn’t care for the characters), Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover is, despite its lyricism, not very good fantasy or science fiction. I wanted to like it, but Jane’s problem is so silly and idiotic that I just could not get into it. And that brings me to Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. Lee and Weeks can take comfort in that I got further in their novels than I did with Abercrombie’s. Why is that? Why did I not like it?

The question of Abercrombie’s artistic merits, style, and vision have been talked about enough lately. I’ve participated in the debate and I find that I may be forced to reassess my position.

I still disagree fundamentally with Leo Grin’s take on Abercrombie (okay, his royally stupid insertion of politics into the essay), but I find that Theo over at Blackgate may have more points than I had originally given him credit for.

My own personal take on the matter is that I generally dislike medieval secondaries (secondary worlds with a medieval European culture/ civilization). I’m  more enamored of new weird works rather than the traditional fantasy.

That and character. I just didn’t find any of Abercrombie’s point of view characters interesting at all. In the end, The Blade Itself is a big meh (all of the thirty eight pages I read).

Even though I can’t be said to have really read the book, I think I can see more of what the attacks on Abercrombie’s work is about. He’s writing in an ironic mode in Northrop Frye’s formulation of the term.

The ironic mode is a form in which the characters are weaker than, less powerful than, more pathetic than the average reader. These characters are debased, cowardly, silly, and have little hope of redemption. I think this is what Abercrombie is writing, and I don’t like it much. Morgan writes in this vein too in his The Steel Remains, but I think that Gil and his comrades are greater than the average reader. They are genuinely heroic in a horrific world. Or it could be that Gil’s character captured my interest from the start while Abercrombie’s left me cold.

I can also see Theo’s objection to much of this type of fantasy. If you are going to utilize a medieval setting, use as much authenticity as possible. From history, religion, culture, psychology, etc. be as authentic as possible. The problem with this approach is that unless the writer (and the reader) is passionate and even a scholar of the period, then being completely accurate may not be the best option. A professor of mine said that most readers prefer the Romantics because their way of writing, their psychology, is closer to ours than those of other periods. And I think that is true of fantasy. I know I don’t want to read a novel of five hundred pages about Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, or any of those others. And I suspect most fantasy readers don’t either. That’s why so much of these novels are being written with “modern” point of views, I think.

I admit that I may be wrong about this. It could just be I don’t like Abercrombie’s style nor Weeks’s nor Rothfuss’s. So I may revisit this later (maybe). But for now, I have research to do.

Theories and Definitions

I have three The Scar posts waiting for editing, and I’m hoping to have them out over the next two weeks (of course I should finish the novel itself by the end of this week). But this whole debate about “realism” in fantasy just keeps dragging me in. Hopefully, this will be my last word and I can go back to talking about Mieville.

What do I think is going on? Part of the problem is certainly a lack of definitions, of a consensus of what is meant when we throw around terms like “realism” and “fantasy.” My definition comes from my edition of Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literature. In that book, “realism” is defined as a genre that attempts to explore middle class life in the nineteenth century. It is highly mimetic and emphasizes character and psychology over plot. From the late nineteenth century, realism has largely, in various permutation, influenced most of mainstream literature.  One can say that there are elements of realism in fantasy, as I said in various comments, that verisimilitude and character are important (read the writing blogs that I read). The idea is to make the secondary world as believable as possible so that the readers are not lost at the beginning (or at the first sign of the fantastic).

But I think that “realism” and “realistic” are being misused when other terms could be more appropriate. I posited that Comedy and Tragedy (as Aristotle and the Elizabethans understood it) and Northrop Frye’s theories might be better terms to explain the issues at hand. But I am not so sure right now (of course, they do work to explain fantasy in general).

Taking a cue from science fiction, I would like to posit the notion of “mundane” fantasy. Mundane fantasy, like mundane science fiction, is about secondary worlds in which little or no magic exists. And the magic, the supernatural, and the fantastic, might just be illusions or parlor tricks if it exists at all. And if we are talking about this mundane fantasy, then I agree with the naysayers, I don’t like the idea of it.

Now, if we are talking about the new violent, explicit strain in fantasy, I think that this strain has existed since Howard and the pulps (just not as explicit- hell read the old epics). I would posit you to take a look at SF Signal’s sword and sorcery mind meld from a few months ago. What we are seeing is, perhaps, a diffusion of sword and sorcery influence on the wider body of the fantasy genre. But if you still are not convinced or happy with that, then how about we posit a style rather than a genre- the “brutal” style of fantasy.

Now with this in mind, I think that for a lot of those who dislike Martin, Morgan, and Bakker for the explicitness of their work, you can rage about the brutal style and not bring in clunky old realism. And if it is a lack of fantasy, then tear apart the mundane secondary genre.

I won’t say categorically that there will be no more posts on this issue. But for now, I want to get back to Mieville. However, I do see the potential for a new series of posts where I hash out an analysis of fantasy. Unfortunately, that means I still can’t get rid of my monstrous theory anthologies! Augh!