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A Rant of Hot and Cold

I don’t like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I remember fully reading A Game of Thrones and being impressed that it wasn’t the usual dreck that I read. Which consisted mostly of the old Tor Conan pastiches. This was ten years ago. Then, about 2o03, I picked up A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. I skimmed those two novels. And I was not impressed. Now, almost a decade later, I have no desire to go back and give them another look. Why?

My problem with ASoIaF is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. At first, the historic-political elements of the novels are balanced by the high/ epic fantasy elements. But as the series gains in popularity and the series has to be approaching its conclusion (if there are still to be seven novels), the stronger fantasy elements seem to be thrust into the back seat. And the game for that damned Iron Throne takes center stage. (As an aside, I also think the series is too bloated).

The series, when advertised for the HBO adaptation, is described as The Sopranos meets The Lord of the Rings. Am I the only one who goes ugh? Am I the only one who really does not want this kind of fantasy?

I think I shall start calling the school of fantasy that has developed around Martin the historicist school of fantasy. Or just historicist fantasy. Now what is this new genre? Well, it is a constructed world fantasy that utilizes history as inspiration and the basis for world building. It is separate from historical fantasy in that it does not take place on Earth.

And I really don’t like this type of fantasy. If I wanted to read fantastical visions of history, I’d read historical fantasy. Or I would actually read a history book. Which would be more entertaining.

What I want is fantasy not history. I want myth not realism. Often, verisimilitude and the suspension of disbelief is brought up in critical discussions of fantasy. Maybe I just have an easier time of accepting the world building, but I could give a crap if a writer inserts bales of hay or gets the weaponry wrong or neglects religion. I don’t care. Is the story good? Can I see it in my mind’s eye?

This brings me to the grimdark fantasy. I’m honestly not very interested in them, either. I did enjoy reading Morgan’s The Steel Remains and liked Polansky’s Low Town far more than I thought I would. But Bakker, Abercrombie, etc.? No, thank you.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of darkness in what I read. But, I like that darkness mixed with almost an equal measure of light. I want joy with sadness; I want hope with despair. I don’t want a continual parade of despair and horror.

I guess what I’m yearning for is a rediscovery of the fantastic, of pushing the boundaries of the imagination out from what we have.

Will I ever write a historicist fantasy? Maybe. But if I do, I want to do it right. I want to write the type of story that I would enjoy.

 

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Theory: Influence and Interpretation

It is not uncommon for some writers to utilize a theory to influence or provide the foundation for their work. The best example, I think, would be China Mieville. His Marxism is clearly a foundation to his work. Now, it is sometimes problematic when an author’s politics, religion, or pet theory so heavily influences a work that the work is either unintelligible for those unfamiliar or ejects readers who do not agree,

This post is aimed, hopefully, at exploring the role of theory as influence and questioning the need to fully understand an author’s influences. Personally, unless you are a scholar or academic, I don’t think a reader needs to be expert in any or all theoretical systems a writer uses. But, I do think that one should try to gain a good foundation of the various theories out there. Both to understand theoretical frameworks as well as to expand one’s own interpretive framework.

The Bakker Fracas among other recent issues has forced me to think harder about the role of theory in speculative fiction. I am unfamiliar with much of Bakker’s theoretical basis. I’m working on the assumption that he bases much of his writing in an evolutionary psychological framework. Furthermore, his citation of Jonathan Haidt’s work places him in a specific camp of evo. psyc.  I know a little bit about evo. psych. I flirted with literary darwinism a few years back and determined that it does not make a good theory of literature. I have not, however, gone into much depth.

With that in mind, I decided to read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. And I did not complete the first chapter before putting it down. And people say Derrida is a nightmare. . .

So, I’m wondering if the whole Bakker Fracas is nothing more than a competing theoretical frames. Bakker has gone on record that he dislikes the literary establishment. A Cracked Moon utilizes a rhetoric that is highly reminiscent of oppositional discursive tactics deployed by feminist and postcolonial influenced writers and critics. Makes me wonder. . .

As I mentioned in a comment on another blog today, I had an uncomfortable experience last year during round one of the Great Grimdark War. This event illustrated the need for the Russ Pledge to me. I do need to read more fantasy by women. And I do need to reacquaint myself with feminist literary theory.

Given the state of speculative fiction today, it is clear that some knowledge of feminist and postcolonial theory is very necessary. When my goal was getting a doctorate in English Literature, I was strongly interested in critical theory. But, I only have a smattering of it. And it has been years since I’ve read those works. A refresher is necessary, thankfully I still have my critical anthologies.

In some respects, I wish some of the more academic writers working in the genre would get together and work on a theoretical primer. This may increase understanding and give a common foundation when these debates rear up every few weeks.

It is important to learn about other cultures, other ways of seeing the world. But it is also incredibly hard. Maybe it is even impossible to fully understand another person, another culture, another gender, another sexuality. In the end, however, one must ask this question: Is it not worth it to try, even if one is likely to fail miserably?

 

 

Another Post of Random Thoughts

Thought 1: The television adaptation of The Walking Dead is better than the comic book.

Thought 2: What does the title “Sins of the Star Sapphire” mean? I cannot find anything resembling a sin (either present or past) that the Star Sapphires committed. So, did the alliterative title sound cool? Is that why it is used?

Thought 3: I’m getting tired of the whole Bakker fracas. But I’m also fascinated by it. I get that Bakker feels that he is being grossly and unfairly criticized. But, does his intentions really matter. Is he, as the author, a determining factor in how his work is interpreted by others?

Thought 4: Hell no. Remember- the author is dead. A work of literature does not have a single reading, a single  meaning. There are countless readings and interpretations. Now, Bakker’s intentions, influences, etc. can play an informative role, but Bakker himself does not own the “right” interpretation.

Thought 5: Maybe getting rid of my Lit Crit books is a bad idea. Damn it, I really need to do some research papers here.

Thought 6: I read “7 Reasons Why OEL Manga Falters in the US” by Deb Aoki for Manga.com (July 13, 2009). On the whole, the panel synopsis is very interesting and illuminating. To a degree, I think the problem is how Japanese comics are marketed in America. Is there a fetishization of Japanese comics that prevents non Japanese series from succeeding? Also, the argument that publishers mishandled (and abused) young artists is on the mark. The Japanese comics industry is built around apprenticeships (what the assistants are). Editors actively work to foster talent. Now, traditional American comics utilizes art schools in a similar fashion, but there is a demand for immediate return on investment. How many series need to build up before they become successful? Are comics companies (particularly those focused on “OEL”s) really patient enough for those series to be successful?

And as an aside, I find that the argument that young manga style artists are little more than fan artists more than a little insulting. If they are that bad, why even accept them for publication? The issue is marketing.

Thought 7: And damn, maybe I need to do a research paper on this subject, too.

That’s it for today.

Two Days of Rant, Day Two: Foot in Mouth, or Jumping the Gun

One thing about criticism originating on the net that irritates me to no end is the tendency to jump the gun. The world we live in now demands instant comment, instant views often before all of the facts are known. This sucks because a lot of bullshit does not get corrected when it needs to. Now, some errors are corrected, but how many?

Take for example the Shirley Sherrod incident from 2010. While she was vindicated in the end, for several days she was absolutely vilified in the press. A woman was forced to resign from her job because of a bullshit story. Luckily for her, it did not take long for her to be vindicated, but how many similar victims are not so lucky?

And, there is the Red Hood and the Outlaws controversy at the beginning of DC’s New 52. Yes, the depiction of Starfire looked sexist, but six issues in and Starfire is not the bimbo fanservice that she initially appeared to be. As a serial comic book, it takes time to build up characters and story lines. Now, how many people even know that their initial reactions to Starfire are disproved by later issues?

Do not get me wrong, one of Starfire’s roles is to provide fanservice. It always has. And, depictions of women in comics and a lack of women comics creators are still issues that desperately needs to be addressed. But it should be done in thoughtful and well researched ways.

Now, this brings me to the continual controversy of whether or not R. Scott Bakker is misogynistic. I now go on record and state that I read The Darkness that Comes Before several years ago and have not read anything else by him. Do I think he has a problem with women? I honestly am not sure. Is it sexist to have as the lone female protagonist a prostitute? A prostitute that does have at least one very disturbing sex scene that borders on rape? I remember that she is a strong character, but does that strength of character negate (or is negated by) the nasty things that happen to her?

It has been years since I have read that book. I am not sure whether or not he has a problem with women (and with LGBT). Bakker’s comments on his criticism can be taken as either: 1) he is playing around with his readership’s expectations and pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable or 2) he doth protest too much. It could also be a case of readers not being able to divorce writer from work. Not everything a writer writes comes from the inner recesses of his or her soul. Not everything is autobiographical.

The problem, in the end, is controversy and debates do not last long. While remnants of the nihilism and fantasy debate still lingers a year after it first flared to life, the argument largely lasted about a month or two. Is that enough time to really interrogate the subject from all angles? Personally, I hate having to jump guns. I like to stew my thoughts on a subject for a while. I acknowledge that my first impressions are usually wrong and that it takes me time to come to better approaches. Pity there is so little stepping back and thinking.

Research and Realism

Research:

Reading Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s blog the other day, I began to think more about researching. How extensive does one need to be? How experiential? Can the research be minimal or does it have to be on the level of a lay doctorate? In reading a lot of writing advice sites, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is likely up to the reader (as much of the advice is colored by the experience of the writers themselves). In the end, I think, the amount of research is up to the writer. There is no universal “goldilocks” level of research.

But, I do think certain genres in speculative fiction require more depth in the research compared to others. I think Schmidt is right that hard science fiction demands doing the research, of being as well informed as possible on the science of today and extrapolating out.  I also think that urban fantasy needs quite a bit of research (at least to get the setting right- though it probably helps to actually live in the city one writes about). Of course, the other major fantasy genre that demands getting it right is historical fantasy. While I question if getting the world and details absolutely right is absolutely necessary for the “suspension of disbelief,” I do think taking the time to get it right is important. It reveals a commitment to the writing, a commitment to getting it right.

Now, how much research does a constructed world fantasy need? That is a tricky one. I would say as much as the writer wants to put in it for the world building. But at the same time, you don’t need to have every little thing planned out. I mean George R. R. Martin only created a few words of Valyrian and Dothraki, but the politics of Westeros is excellently well done. Compare to Tolkien who has several immense constructed languages, but the politics of Middle Earth are rather shoddily sketched in, if you ask me.

The amount of world building and research in constructed world fantasy  is, I think, up to the writer. Do what feels best for the story, and play to your own strengths as a researcher. If you are better at anthropology, do that. If you are a stronger historian, do that. You get the idea. Just because someone else argues that a world building should be this way or that way does not mean that they are right.

Realism:

Moving on to realism. I read a post yesterday by A. Lee Martinez complaining about the usage of adult languages (and the portrayal of Catwoman, period) in Arkham City. His argument got me to thinking about my own attitudes towards more “mature” content in fantasy. I am beginning to wonder if it is necessarily appropriate to use “realism” as a defense against critics who desire the tamer works of yesterday (and today).

Perhaps now is a good time to define the realism defense. The realism defense is an argument that posits the acceptability of including objectionable or mature content into genres that have, until recently, been seen as exclusively for children or young adults. Therefore, it is likely that the recent inclusion of mature content is as a means of titillation for older young adults or as a means to maintain an older audience who continue to read the material long after “one is too old” for that material.

So, maybe realism isn’t the best defense. Maybe the best way to go about it is to argue that adding mature or arguably objectionable content is two fold: to acknowledge that this work is aimed at older consumers and to acknowledge that the work at present is a reaction to the old sugar coated reality of the genre.

Batman is a fantasy whether he is the goofy Adam West or the hyper serious Christian Bale. The Joker can be just a clown prince of silly crime or a truly terrifying and psychotic monster, he is still a fantasy either way. Indeed, the darker Batman (and comics in general) of today is a direct result, I think, of being bottled up by the comics code for decades.

In a similar way, I think that fantasy is undergoing a similar process. Some older fantasy readers don’t want to read sugar coated idylls of the Shire. They want the nasty, the brutish world of Earwa.

Post Script:

Damn, I did not want this post to be so long. Another thing on research: don’t let it consume you! Find a point and stop, write the story, and do further research in the editing phase. You don’t want to have a story gestating for a decade or more doing research. By that token, you might as well write a dissertation on the subject.

Myth and History in Fantasy: A Rant

This post is, in part, a response to Daniel Polansky’s guest post on The Night Bazaar entitled “The Slums of the Shire.” Largely an advertisement for his debut novel, Low Town, the post is notable for positing a clash between Polansky’s type of fantasy and Tolkien’s. Low Town sounds interesting, but I’ll wait and ILL it through my local library in a few months. What interests me about the post is a lack or inability to understand Tolkien’s fantasy. The reason, I think, is perspective and how one views the mythic or imaginative element in fantasy.

Polansky describes himself as a “history buff” and professes an inability to understand the fantasy of the Tolkien school. There are two things to note, I think. One: what is Polansky’s view of history? Two: How does Tolkien see fantasy?

To answer question one: From reading the guest post, I would guess that Polansky has a rather dystopic view of human nature. He posits that humans would, perhaps, gleefully eradicate an elf species that lived alongside our ancestors, and he expresses an interests in the seedier, darker, nastier aspects of history (hence, the slums of the Shire). This dystopic vision of human nature is highly contestable and uncertain. The histories I have read often (especially new scholarship) display as much about our own and our predecessor’s ignorance about history as it does the actual events of the past. Often I wonder, were things truly as brutish as the “Dung Ages” imply?

To answer question two: Tolkien’s vision of fantasy is highly mythic. With The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien creates a work, a world, that aspires to the level of Homer, Ovid, Mallory, Beowulf, The Pearl Poet, etc. Middle Earth is not meant to be taken as a form of history, but it is meant to be taken as a form of modern myth making. One of the themes of The Lord of the Rings is the coming together of various distrustful races to combat an even greater threat to all of them. Rather or not humans and elves would historically have attempted to eradicate each other is immaterial, what is important is what they represent symbolically. And that it is at times the least of us who make the greatest contributions (like the Hobbits).

So, Tolkien, while being inspired by history, does not allow history to dominate the text. Middle Earth is a “fairyland,” a world where myths, legends, and fairy tales walk among average people. And depending on the vision of the author, rather an epic, romantic, comedic, tragic, or ironic mode is at play within that world.

I would argue that the reaction against the Tolkien Clones has produced a movement towards focusing on history over myth. Basically, a type of mundane fantasy in which there is little magic and myth. Historical fiction set in a secondary world focusing on the excesses of the nobility and the absolute squalor of the peasantry is not something I am especially fond of reading. Though I am a fan of Sword and Sorcery, I prefer the sorcery over the sword every day of the week.

The interplay of myth and history plays a key role in the current debate over the direction of modern fantasy. There seems to be a growing movement towards a brutal, dystopic fantasy which can play out for some readers as nihilistic. But is there something missing from these works? Is the mythic element, which is key to fantasy’s true success and power, missing? I don’t know. I’ve read some of the “brutal” fantasy, but not all of it. I have read Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before. Personally, I think anyone familiar with Herbert’s Dune should be able to figure that one out (to an extent).

But, all of this is really a matter of perspective. What histories do you read? When were they published? What audience are they intended for? How do you “read” fantasy? How do you analyse what you read? All of these questions are important in understanding how an individual author or reader looks at the world and what he/ she reads and writes. Take myself for example. I tend to prefer rather more academic (published by academics from university publishing houses) over popular histories (even though there are some popular histories that are quite good), and I tend to be more of a literary critic when I read. I am more prone to see things as constructions, including history. The events happened, but those events are artificially formed into a narrative that is intended for a specific audience. Take the attitude towards the medieval period. Shortly after the “Middle Ages,” they became the “Dark Ages” to contrast the with old light of “Classical” Rome and the new light of the Renaissance (“rebirth”) and the subsequent Enlightenment. The Romantics’ view of the “Dark Ages” is colored by their rejection of the “Neoclassical” rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the Victorians’ view is a conflict between the two. And let’s not even mention the Modern and Postmodern rejection of anything, everything, and nothing.

Would I want to live in another time period? I don’t know. The 1960s and 1970s sound interesting. The 1920s are a possibility. Would I really want to live during the American Gilded Age, the High Middle Ages, the Pax Augusta, or the reign of Ramesses II? I don’t think so. But when writing fantasy, is things really about when one would like to have lived?

In my earlier rant about research and historical knowledge, I mentioned my strong belief  in experimentation. For fantasy to grow as a genre, it has to be willing to move beyond the shadows of the medieval. It has to be able to dance between myth and history, between utopia and dystopia, between symbol and versimilitude, and between the imagination and the real.

Fantasy set in a secondary world that fully explores a setting inspired by early Plantagenets is just as valuable as a crazy mishmash of cultures and inspirations. But it is the talent and skill of the author that makes each work succeed or fail. Manga does, can fantasy?