Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fantasy and Nihilism

It was news to me. Apparently my reading tastes are leading to the downfall of Western civilization. My teachers must be so proud.

On 14 February, a blogger on the ultra-conservative Web site Breitbart wrote about how modern fantasy is destroying the obvious pattern of easily recognized good and evil in the "good old stuff," especially Tolkien and Howard (http://bighollywood.breitbart.com/lgrin/2011/02/12/the-bankrupt-nihilism-of-our-fallen-fantasists/). In a nutshell, and in high-falutin' language as well, blogger Leo Grin says

But it was only recently, after decades of ever-increasing reading disappointment, that I grudgingly began to admit the truth: I don't particularly care for fantasy per se. What I actually cherish is something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old.

This realization eliminates, at a stroke, virtually everything written under the banner of fantasy today.

It seems Grin is well-read, based on his examples of fantasy "soiling the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths" but there are a couple of ways to argue with his vision that offer a more expansive and perhaps even mature view of how literature, and perhaps the world at large, actually works.

The first is to point out that perhaps he isn't as well read as he thinks he is, or perhaps not as close a reader as he would like. You see, I (and a lot of other people as it turns out) have a real issue with setting up Tolkien and Howard's works as stereotypes of a heroic form. Taken as a whole, Tolkien's works are about the fallen nature of the world, how everything seems to be getting progressively worse and worse since the golden age when gods walked the earth. In fact, this downward progression of civilization is a common point amongst most of the major Western mythologies, from Greek to Norse, and including Christianity—where man has been booted from the garden of paradise itself. Tolkien probably recognized this pattern as he appropriated it for his own use through his works. Remember, the end of The Lord of the Rings is not a triumphant celebration of the heroes' return, but a sad departure as those heroes leave Middle Earth for the Grey Havens, as there is no longer a place for them in the world of men.

Similarly, I think Howard would be appalled at the idea of using Conan as a role model. If anything, Conan typifies the attitude of doing whatever it takes to get by. He tries to spill as little innocent blood as he can, with varying degrees of success. He despises civilization, not for the advances it makes, but for the effect those advances have on individuals, that of often removing individuality and making them reject the moral values of independence for indolence and sloth.

The dichotomy of these two paragraphs also represents a dichotomy in the very nature of these kinds of works. I would argue that Tolkien represents heroic/epic fantasy while Howard represents sword and sorcery (for an excellent description of the differences and a history of sword and sorcery, I recommend again the introduction to Swords and Dark Magic, edited by Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan). The very goals of these two schools of fantasy are different, and to lump them together as though they are the same thing is a mistake. To be sure, they have the same roots, but their lineage and intent are far different. I would argue that sword and sorcery has always been about the individuals and the gray areas that they inhabit. In fact, the works of the three Big Names that Anders and Strahan cite as the seminal authors of sword and sorcery, Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock, are rife with moral ambiguity and gray areas. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are rogues and mercenaries, available to whomever will pay them the most money. Even their companionship is sometimes endangered by their taking different offers and finding themselves at odds with one another. The moral ambiguity of Moorcock's works I leave as an exercise for the reader, since it doesn't take much effort to refute the idea of Elric as moral icon.

So Grin holds up these two archetypes as examples of the golden nature of fantasy, and yet both Tolkien and Howard do not really contain the qualities that Grin pines for.

A second refutation would be to take a step sideways and talk about "taste." I find it odd that Grin (or anyone for that matter) clings to the idea that their decisions about what qualifies as good and bad writing are to be held out as the sole arbiter for that kind of decision. To be sure, it makes my position as an amateur literary and film critic difficult; here I am talking to people who read my blog about how I interpret the things that I read or watch. But I am always cognizant that it is my opinion, and that other folks may hold different opinions. I feel my job as a critic is to describe my perception of a work to such a point that a reader can use it as a touchstone upon which to build their own opinion. And sure, I can read Grin's blog as just his opinion, but there is a qualitative difference between discussing the relative merits of a work and saying that an entire genre is leading to the downfall of our culture:

In the end, it's just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It's a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field. They co-opt the language, the plots, the characters, the cliches, the marketing, and proceed to deconstruct it all like a mad doctor performing an autopsy. Then, using cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism, they put it back together into a Frankenstein's monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten.

One of the goals of my own writing is to open the door to conversation, for people to react to what I am saying and challenge me or expand on my thoughts, to help me better understand and appreciate the things that I am writing about. Grin's writing, on the other hand, seems intent on closing down conversation. It's hard not to read his long treatise without envisioning a petulant child, bottom lip poking out, muttering "it all sucks." And to that child, I would say—maybe, but perhaps it is just different than what you like.

So, here's the ironic thing about all this. On the same day that Grin published his diatribe, I posted my review of Steven Erikson's Dust of Dreams. And in his diatribe, Grin specifically calls out Dust of Dreams as an example of the fallen nature of modern fantasy, while I celebrate it for its power and effectiveness. It's interesting to note that Grin's opinion of Dust of Dreams seems to come only from his browsing through the Amazon reviews of the book, as his negative statements are quotes from them, without any opinion of his own added in other than a sort of "see, that's what I'm talking about." And it may come as no surprise that Grin cherry picks the reviews to find ones that reflect his opinion, leaving out ones with opinions to the contrary.

As you also can imagine, the response has been pretty harsh. I particularly enjoyed Joe Abercrombie's idea of a bunker from which civilization-ending fantasy writers irregularly expel their noxious books (http://www.joeabercrombie.com/2011/02/15/bankrupt-nihilism/). It's very odd to find people yearning for a return to a golden age that, upon closer examination, never really existed. But I'm also fairly sure that kind of fantasy writing is available to someone who really seeks it out. As for me, I grew tired of the same clich├ęs and tropes. I appreciate the "new" direction fantasists have taken, in part because I see that direction as growing the genre, expanding it beyond the elements that have caused it to be condemned as unworthy of critical merit. And the funny thing is that there's room for folks like Grin and for people like me, all of whom appreciate what the genre has to offer to us, though perhaps different aspects of it. But I somehow doubt that Grin has any appreciation for the fallen readers like me.

Forget my teachers…my mom would be so proud. From the day she "caught" me taking some fantasy novels with Frazetta covers on them to church to exchange with a friend, she's been pretty convinced I'm contributing to the downfall of something or other. And now it's been confirmed.

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