May has been an interesting month in terms of my reading. I read some really good books. And I read some stinkers. To be honest, I think I am in a mood for more science fiction and fantasy rather than realistic or literary fiction. I am also reading more books for research. And finding good and useful research texts is hit or miss.
Anyway, here is what I read in May:
I already reviewed Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (which I loved) and The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge (which I hated).
The best book I read in May was Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. It gets everything I want in a fantasy novel right. Just an awesome book.
I followed Kings of the Wyld up with Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele and Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. Both books are disappointing. I enjoyed Steele’s reboot of Captain Future better than Vandermeer’s phoned in biopunk new weird novel.
I reread Sappho translated by Mary Barnard. I enjoyed the poems, but the don’t have the same impact they once had.
Keeping with Greek mythology, I read Colm Toibin’s House of Names. There is so much wrong with this novel. Especially the lack of consistency in narrative perspective. A worthy competitor with The Night Ocean for worse book I read this month.
I reread two novel by Kawabata Yasunari this month. Thousand Cranes and Master of Go lack the impact that they once had. This is similar to my experience with the poetry of Sappho. Maybe I am turning away from the literature I once loved.
To round out my fiction reading, I attempted The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun. I like what I read. But taking a few days off to read other things ruined my desire to return to the book. I will return to it in a few months. Hopefully I will love it on the second attempt.
Before I touch upon the research texts, I want to skim over the graphic novels I read. I was not fond of Titans volume one “The Return of Wally West” (I do like the art though), Apocalypse Wars (a terrible idea in three comics), and Wonder Woman volume two “Year One” (the only part of Rucka’s jettisoning of the New 52 Wonder Woman I like is Nicola Scott’s artwork).
Now, what research books have I tackled?
The World of King Arthur by Christopher Snyder is a disappointing look at Arthurian myth. The First Decadent by James Laver is a disappointing (and likely dated) biography of J.K. Huysmans. The Road from Decadence, a collection of Huysmans’s letters is useful for Huysmans scholars, but not for what I want to write. I did enjoy the very useful Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World by Gary Lachman. Less enjoyable and useful is Janine Chapman’s The Quest for Dion Fortune. A. Norman Jeffares’s W.B. Yeats is an interesting if very dry biography of Yeats. The Etruscans by Raymond Bloch is not exactly what I want from a book on the Etruscans. Maybe a newer study/ history is in order? Another disappointing look at an ancient people is Jean Markale’s The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture.
I also read Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise. I enjoyed the book. Nichols raises many interesting and cogent concerns about current American culture. But I can’t help but point out that Nichols’s writing is hampered by repetition and the settling of political scores (who else is writing outside of their area of expertise besides Noam Chomsky, hmm?)
Finally, I want to return to novels before I close out what I read in May.
I am in a bit of a gay erotica craze at the moment. To satisfy my craze, I read Brad by Ken Smith. Where do I begin? I have so many issues with this novel that I want to do a detailed review. But would anyone want to read a review about a gay erotic novel?
That is what I read in May. On to June.
Is fantasy political? According to M. Harold Page’s “Why Medieval Fantasy is Not Inherently Conservative (Or Inherently Anything Political)” and Derek Kunsken’s “Is Fantasy Inherently Not Political?,” the answer is no. Both essays, which appeared on Black Gate, argue that fantasy is not inherently political. I fundamentally disagree with them.
First of all, what does “inherent” mean? According to Merriam-Webster’s, “inherent” means: “involved in the constitution or essential character of something.” So, is fantasy inherently political?
Well, yes, fantasy is political. You see, fantasy is a form of literature, a form of art. And art is political. No matter if that work is the highest grade of literary fiction or your average epic fantasy, the work is political. Why?
Simple. Humans are political animals. When a writer writes a work of fiction, a part of his world view, his politics, is embedded within the text. And readers, no matter who they are, engage in a dialogue with the writer because they interpret the text through their own world view, which has a political dimension. (Matthew Johnson’s comment to Kunsken’s post reflects my own views).
I have to wonder what Page’s intention is when he opened his argument with all of those essays looking at the politics of fantasy. He certainly didn’t use it to bolster his case. Hell, Mieville’s interview (the first link) challenges Page’s formulation of escapism. Bourke’s post on Tor (second link) raises some interesting questions that could (and should have been) looked into. And Moorcock’s seminal “Starship Stormtroopers” seems to have been an outright afterthought.
And that is what hurts Page’s argument. He doesn’t engage his sources. He uses them as a prop to rage against. Whether or not he is right about politics and fantasy is irrelevant. He doesn’t care. He reads for escapist purposes and reading deeper into the text doesn’t matter.
A deeper literary analysis will reveal the politics inherent in a work of fantasy.
But, you see, his own argument is political. Moorcock’s essay actually exposes the type of apolitical reading Page champions early on. And he himself reveals that he sympathizes with the more conservative elements (Paragraph 10, starting at the image of The Crown Tower). So, I wonder, is fantasy not inherently political?
Now, I will admit that I agree with the argument that fantasy is not inherently conservative. Not even medieval fantasy. Yes, many of the tropes would imply that fantasy has a conservative bent. And many works of fantasy are conservative. Maybe even the majority. But there are many fantasy writers whose works are not conservative. China Mieville and Michael Moorcock’s work come to mind. As does Ursula K. LeGuin and J.K. Rowling.
(But remember, politics is relative. And a work of literature is interpreted with myriad meanings possible. )
Kunsken’s essay is problematic because he doesn’t prove his case. He essentially declares fantasy inherently apolitical despite the fact that most of his essay leads a reader (at least this reader) to believe that, to the contrary, fantasy is inherently political. Or is the new weird not actually fantasy?
In my estimation, neither Page nor Kunsken prove their case. Instead, they rely on the knowledge that the comments will be, on the whole, friendly and back them up. In the end, their arguments, to me, ring hollow.
Reading for pleasure is great. Reading to escape the travails of one’s life is great. But, so too, is reading to edify oneself. Indeed, it is absolutely great to do all three at once. They are not mutually exclusive.