Thursday, July 4, 2013

Why Fantasy is Dying


Recently I picked up the Eye of the World at the local library -- this is the first novel, published in 1990, of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  It's 688 pages, which is about average for a contemporary fantasy epic.  I've had it for weeks now and can't make it past page 20.  This isn't unusual for me when it comes to fantasy these days.  The same thing happened with Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven.  I think George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones is the last fantasy novel I've completed, and I thought it was terrible.

It's a weird feeling, realizing that I'm not an active fantasy fan anymore.  What happened?

The purpose of story-telling is to experience without experiencing.  The picture that comes to my mind is our hunter-gatherer ancestors sitting around the fire, learning better ways to avoid a tiger without actually having to try them, because Urg the daredevil is also a master story teller.

It's not much harder to imagine the origin of myth.  Why expect that the most effective way to teach something is to tell a true story?  Maybe Urg is telling us what he should have done to get away more safely.  Or maybe he's imperfectly remembering a helpful story is grandfather told him.  Not all religions can be completely factually true, but all the different stories they use ultimately teach the same universal moral truths.  Aesop's fables feature  talking animals, but they've survived for thousands of years because they're not only helpful but concise and easy to remember.

We should not be surprised that humans, who have been telling stories for maybe 100,000 years, have developed an inborn taste for good stories.  All of fiction is developed, at least in part, to satisfy this taste.

And it makes sense for taste to vary and also have certain constants, like anything else inherited.

Really old stories have a magic about them, probably because stories without that magic die away.  What makes really old stories interesting is that literal truth tends to be scant, especially if they were passed down orally for a while, as with folk tales, myths, and medieval romances.  These old stories are distinctive in just these ways:  (1) they have a strange, unearthly beauty, and (2) tend not to make literal sense.  Certain readers and writers have developed a taste for such mythic stories, and an entire literary genre has arisen in an attempt to emulate it -- fantasy.  If you look at the earliest fantasy authors in the Western tradition, such as Novalis, William Morris, George MacDonald, or even later ones like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, they were all inspired by medieval literature, especially medieval romances -- Arthur, etc. -- which originated as folk tales.

Most of these authors have had a moral purpose in mind with their work, attempting to illustrate with allegory certain values they thought important.  Others, like Lewis Carrol, were looking primarily to entertain, but for such books to be interesting they've generally had to be really weird, and yet comprehensible at the same time, serving the useful function of stretching people's imaginations. 

I wonder if modern fantasy has lost sight of this original purpose, merely spinning attractive or scandalous tales for their own sake.

Martin is a good example of this.  His work is unrelentingly cynical.  In an attempt to portray, I guess, how dark the dark ages were (or could be?), Martin has created a fantasy where unbridled violence and evil tyrants continually dominate.  His world is supposedly based on the history of England's War of the Roses (1455-1485), the same period dwelt on in Shakespeare's tragedies.  But I think Shakespeare's plays, despite having their own elements of fantasy, provide a more accurate portrayal of how tyrants tended to fall in those times.  Martin's work is sensationalist, bloody, and glories in how brutally evil men can murder those who stand up for what is right.  Shakespeare's work acknowledges the existence of evil but shows how it tends toward self-destruction. 

It is fashionable these days to criticize morally satisfying endings, whether tragic or happy, as being "unrealistic."  The view implicit here is absurd, even applied to the Middle Ages.  (For a second to this opinion, see this article by Daniel Abraham.) Continual rule by tyrannical kings and nobles, without any victory for justice, would have led to a collapse of all government.  Today, we may not consider medieval law to be particularly just, but that is no excuse for pretending that there was no law, nor any capable defenders of that law at the time.

The sort of dialectic I've just gone through will strike many modern critics as old-fashioned, focusing on dry moral or political issues.  The point of the Game of Thrones series, they would like to tell me, is that it parodies (mercilessly!) the unjustness of patriarchal hierarchies (see for example, the New Yorker review of the HBO series.).  Women, bastards, and cripples were unfairly treated in the middle ages, and in Martin's series we see just how badly treated they were (or might have been in another world?) and fantasize about how they might take revenge for it in the goriest way possible.

I don't buy it.  A satire is supposed to be funny, or better: unbearably painful.  The last thing you're supposed to want to do with a satire is make it into a several-season TV show that sensationalizes all the sorts of behaviors you were supposed to be criticizing.  If you did the same with Voltaire's *Candide* it would be outright obscene.  If Martin's series is satire it's a poor, overwrought, obscure one.  As Daniel Abraham points out, Martin fares best when judged by the standards of the horror genre, but even then does not hold up well.

Perhaps it was naive of me to expect better from Guy Gavriel Kay, who is as popular these days among critics as Martin is among the general reading public.  To his credit, he is less gory and a little more historically faithful than Martin, and he writes about non-Western fantasy civilizations such as Kitai, which is based on ancient China (Kay is Canadian).  Also to his credit, I made it almost 60 pages in, pulled in by his elegant and poetic prose.  The story opens with a self-exiled prince, living as a hermit, burying the dead from a long-ago battle to put their souls at rest.  I loved this potrait, at first. 

Then the poor ghosts started wailing audibly, their ghostly forms floating visibly like transparent Caspers.  Come on.  And then the sexy assassin female warriors showed up and there were kung fu sword fights and countless prostitutes referred to as "courtesans with perfumed hair" and I said forget it.

Kay's got a less violent style than Martin.  He's got very poetic prose, I'll give you that, and some intriguing political intrigue inspired by true historical events. But none of this is the point of fantasy.

So what is the points of fantasy?

Let's get back to the fundamentals.  It's a kind of storytelling; it should edify us.  It expands our minds as teenagers, refines our sense of ethics as adults.  What gives it potency is that it is unhindered by scientific facts, letting us explore new imaginary worlds without having to work out all the mathematical details.  I'm not sure you can get much more specific than this -- our brains are incredibly complex, so I'm sure much of what literature does for us is subconscious and varied.

The fantasy series that has influenced me most is Lord of the Rings.  I'm sure it has something do with how detailed and rich its world is, how it shows normal people making extraordinary choices, how it is permeated with a love of the Good and the Beautiful.  Uncovering all the subconscious reasons for its importance for me and others would be an entire project in itself.

The most common critique I hear of Lord of the Rings is that it shows a sharp and comforting division between good and evil.  (See Moorcock's famous essay, "Epic Pooh".).  This objection is fairly easy to answer if you've actually read the series (e.g. "Knocking some stuffing out of Moorcock".) ).  Suffice it to list a few characters that display characteristics of both good and evil:  Gollum, Saruman, Boromir, Faramir, most of the riders of Rohan, the entire race of elves (who remain largely neutral during the war), the dwarves (who hate the elves as a race), and everyone who is ever bribed or seduced by Lord Sauron.  That's almost everybody.

I won't deny that there is something weird about the way the two sides of the War of the Rings are lined up.  Sauron's side is obviously evil and includes many grotesque monsters.  Gandalf's side is obviously good and his allies are usually beautiful.  But if you think about it, WWII wasn't a heck of a lot different.  Sure, we were allied with Stalin, but doesn't Aragorn recruit an entire army of cursed undead to help him out? 

Enough of this.  I haven't even gotten to science fiction yet, which is my primary interest.  But I'm sick-and-tired-enough of all of these poor modern attempts to imitate or outdo Tolkien to present my own desiderata for good fantasy.  If you know of anything recent that satisfies these requirements, let me know, because I'd love to read it:

(1) As with anything you write, have something to say.  I think every writer should spend several years thinking about the meaning life and the nature of human values before writing a single word.  The number one thing that destroys literature is the writer who writes to shock people, to make money, to become famous, or simply to become a writer.  If you don't have a better reason for writing fantasy, you will only help make the genre (and our entire culture) shallower.

(2) Fantasy must transport you somewhere completely new.  All creatures and magic should either come directly from mythology or be original with the author.  Elves and dwarves are great, but they're Tolkien.  Vampires and zombies should be abolished.  The point is to experience something strange enough to border on the mystical, not to feel like you're watching a cartoon or playing Dungeons and Dragons.  George MacDonald, the originator of the genre, is the exemplar here.  His fantasy novels were spiritual meditations on the meaning of life.  Mystical is always more powerful than magical.

(3) Hold yourself to the same standards that any other literary writer does.  MacDonald wrote 51 books and only 7 of those were fantasy and only 2 of these fantasy novels were for adults.  Don't depend on having an original idea -- actually take the time to hone your craft and become a good writer.  Having good ideas is not enough.  You've got to be able to express them clearly, or they'll die on the page, even if you've written a bestseller.  And it's the ideas that are important, not the sale.

(4) Make it beautiful.  Fantasy doesn't have truth to rely on, so it must rely on goodness and beauty instead.  By shirking realism, fantasy allows itself to explore ethics and aesthetics in more depth than any other kind fiction.  If you're not making use of this freedom to create something beautiful and good, you're missing the point.

(5) Everything I've said here holds equally well for magical realism, soft science fiction, and horror.

That's it.  If a book breaks with scientific fact at all, it must be beautiful, well-crafted, creatively new, and possess purpose and meaning.

If you find such a book, tell me.  If you can imagine such a book, write it.  Meanwhile I've got better things to do than read an 8,000-page series of meaning-whitewashed epic violence.

6 comments:

  1. I disagree--fantasy isn't dying, it's changing. As you said, fantasy must transport you to somewhere new. Rehashing stories that have already been told and commenting on events long past would be more of a death of fantasy, in my opinion (such as Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara).

    GRRM's stories aren't traditional fantasy, and dislike them as you may, I believe they meet most of your four requirements (which I like and agree with).

    1) While the HBO series may be focused on shock, awe, and money (as shown by their treatment of the Red Wedding), GRRM's writing shows clear purpose, and exhibits corollaries with the modern political climate just as Tolkien's work mirrored WWII. Much of the books are taken up by his characters telling stories, and we slowly learn more about the past as current events unfold. Accounts of the past differ, sometimes significantly, and showcase the lies that are perpetuated. Regardless of untruths however, with each telling of a story, we learn more. GRRM's purpose is to tell a story about stories--about how they shape our lives, and immortalize those in them long after their lives (and families) have ended. The beheading of Eddard Stark as a traitor was not "meaning-whitewashed epic violence" nor was it done to say everything is hopeless and tyrants will always rule. It was a warning that those who control the dialogue or the story of our time can use that control to become tyrants (compare to the way Fox News affects modern politics).

    2) GRRM's endless summers, white walkers, wargs and skinchangers, warlocks, and children of the forest are all novel creations (or innovations, at least). His rich treatment of religion (monotheistic vs pseudomonotheistic vs primal/tribal) goes where none (in my reading) has done well before.

    3) GRRM's writing style started to really annoy me in the fifth book. He overuses cliches, and refuses to alter his style when writing from the POV of different characters, and end up sounding monotonous. While his page to page style can be frustrating, however, I think his ability to weave stories is masterful. Also, no writer is perfect, Tolkien had plenty of flaws in his writing style.

    4) A Song of Ice and Fire is dark. Grimdark even. But it contains beauty-- Arya's "dancing lessons", Sam's courage, Jaime's transformation and "romance" with Brienne, Daenarys' first flight, the dire wolf pups, and the list goes on.

    And I think there's a fifth requirement for good fantasy, which GRRM might embrace a little too much: hope in the face of overwhelming despair (Frodo vs Sauron, the Starks vs the world), and beauty in ugliness (Gollum, the Hound).

    Anyway, I'm not saying you need to appreciate his books, or even read them. I just think that holding them up as a monument to the failure of modern fantasy is wrong, and that the RR's have much more in common than you might realize.

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  2. Matt,

    This is what I get for never checking my spam filter -- I never saw this comment and only just let it publish today, 3 years later!

    But I appreciate your thoughts and I think this is a worthwhile conversation to have.

    To respond your comment (with extreme belatedness, granted) I am not denying that Martin might have something to say in his series. But his message, as most interpret it, is quite politically correct. It is an appeal to the people, and thus basically moot. There's nothing wrong with having a modernist, liberal message in your work. But this is a story that's supposed to take place in a medieval age. If it's about the present, why isn't it set in the present? On the other hand, the message of Tolkien's work is supposed to be timeless. It goes against the current popular grain. It has the courage to honor the medieval values of the time period it evokes, rather than simply demeaning them.

    To see what I'm saying more vividly, imagine that our society finally collapses and gives way to a new medieval age. Whose work will be more relevant at that point: a noble, bright, and hopeful Tolkien, or a cynical, grimdark, modernist Martin? From this point of view, Tolkien's work is broader, deeper, and more powerful. It is the sort that can promote cultural health in ages both golden and dark.

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    1. "His message, as most interpret it, is quite politically correct. It is an appeal to the people, and thus basically moot."
      I'm not sure what you mean by this, or how LotR is not an appeal to the people.

      "There's nothing wrong with having a modernist, liberal message in your work."
      Again, you need to specify the message that you take issue with. Also, it doesn't matter if you disagree with the message, only that it is there and resonates with most who read it.

      "If it's about the present, why isn't it set in the present?"
      You're assuming that GoT will not stand the test of time, and using that assumption to prove that it will not stand the test of time.

      "On the other hand, the message of Tolkien's work is supposed to be timeless. It goes against the current popular grain."
      I would say the same about GoT. Stories are as old as time, and lies will continue to be told until the end of time. Finally, writing a true tragedy is, despite the current obsession with grimdark, most definitely against the grain. Killing the main character is still quite rare.

      "It has the courage to honor the medieval values of the time period it evokes, rather than simply demeaning them."
      You're upset that GoT demeans bigotry, slavery, torture, and war while honoring loyalty, charity, and logic?

      "To see what I'm saying more vividly, imagine that our society finally collapses and gives way to a new medieval age. Whose work will be more relevant at that point: a noble, bright, and hopeful Tolkien, or a cynical, grimdark, modernist Martin?"
      You're saying that tragedies can't make a lasting impression? Explain Macbeth to me then. In fact, explain why half of Shakespeare is literary tripe. Just because something is dark, does not mean it isn't worthwhile.

      "From this point of view, Tolkien's work is broader, deeper, and more powerful."
      I disagree.

      "It is the sort that can promote cultural health in ages both golden and dark."
      I believe GoT will be the same. It is important to note, however, that discussing the literary merit of GoT right now is a little like discussing the literary merit of LotR without having read it past the part where Frodo gets captured by Shelob. We still don't know how it ends.

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  3. Recently a person who shared many of my other literary tastes said, "But I still don't understand your aversion to Grimdark."

    I told him that I worry that Grimdark is simply a product of modern decadence. It breaks the ancient rules of tragedy (see Aristotle's Poetics), and I think this destroys the engagement between protagonist and antagonist that allows, for example, Greek and Shakespearian tragedy to so effectively explore deep moral problems. There are many 19th-century "dark" writers that follow these rules, and which I find to be invaluable reading, including Poe, Dostoevsky, and Thomas Hardy. In the 20th century, Tolkien's Silmarillion, film noir, and Umberto Eco's novels explore very dark moral territory in an edifying way by respecting these ancient laws.

    I said: "His message, as most interpret it, is quite politically correct. It is an appeal to the people, and thus basically moot."
    Matt replied: "I'm not sure what you mean by this, or how LotR is not an appeal to the people."

    For some examples, take another look at Emily Nussbaum's "The Aristocrats" [http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/television/2012/05/07/120507crte_television_nussbaum]:

    "On a public stage, Ned Stark was beheaded, on the orders of the teen-age sadist King Joffrey, a sequence edited with unusual beauty and terror—-birds fluttering in the air, a hushed soundtrack, and a truly poignant shot from Ned’s point of view, as he looked out toward his two daughters. This primal act suggested the limits of ethical behavior in a brutalized universe, and also dramatized the show’s vision of what aristocracy means: a succession of domestic traumas, as each new regent dispatches threats to his bloodline."

    It's politically correct to despise aristocracy, but I think in certain contexts aristocracy is the optimal political system. To exaggerate the violence of the middle ages and then blame this on its non-democracy is not only uncharitable toward our ancestors but shows bigotry and lack of philosophy. But it is a great way to make money.

    Matt said: "Also, it doesn't matter if you disagree with the message, only that it is there and resonates with most who read it."

    No, none of that matters. What matters is whether the message is true. We should not ask "Is it popular?" Rather, we should be asking "Is it good for people?"

    Matt said: "You're assuming that GoT will not stand the test of time, and using that assumption to prove that it will not stand the test of time."

    No, I am arguing that it will not stand the test of time because its message is so strongly anti-traditional that it contradicts most truths which *have* stood the test of time.

    "Writing a true tragedy is, despite the current obsession with grimdark, most definitely against the grain."

    Truly said. I agree 100%. We need more good tragedy. But Martin is not it.

    I said: "[Tolkien's message] has the courage to honor the medieval values of the time period it evokes, rather than simply demeaning them."
    Matt replied: "You're upset that GoT demeans bigotry, slavery, torture, and war while honoring loyalty, charity, and logic?"

    No, I'm upset the GoT demeans courage, honor, faith, respect, and fidelity while honoring violence, defection, fickleness, contempt, and impiety.

    Matt said: "It is important to note, however, that discussing the literary merit of GoT right now is a little like discussing the literary merit of LotR without having read it past the part where Frodo gets captured by Shelob. We still don't know how it ends."

    If Martin’s ending is sad he must follow the rules of Tragedy. But if it's a happy ending he must follow the rules of Comedy or Romance. None of this is possible at this point. He's already broken the rules of both Tragedy and Romance by employing violence meaninglessly. As for Comedy, he long ago broke its cardinal rule: brevity.

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  4. Sam, I think that your appraisal of GoT's "anti-traditionalism" might be on shaky ground here. I'll refer specifically to the scene of Ned Stark's execution, because that’s the one you discussed.

    Sam, you said: "It's politically correct to despise aristocracy, but I think in certain contexts aristocracy is the optimal political system. To exaggerate the violence of the middle ages and then blame this on its non-democracy is not only uncharitable toward our ancestors but shows bigotry and lack of philosophy. But it is a great way to make money."

    We simply must look to the beginning of the first novel "A Game of Thrones" to see that Martin agrees with you about aristocracy. Ned Stark, despite ruling over a vast and bitter northern frontier, is beloved by his subjects. He is just and wise. And his claim to the throne in the north runs deep. The Stark bloodline runs back to the First Men. The Stark house is nothing if not ancestral. They observe old rituals and customs. They do not employ executioners because of an ancient ethos that one who passes the sentence must swing the sword. They keep the old gods of the forest while the southern folk observe the Faith of the Seven. Ned Stark is a wise, traditional, decidedly non-democratic, successful, and deeply moral ruler within his realm. He is a paragon of benevolent monarchy. His death, at the order of Joffrey Baratheon, is signal to the beginning of an age of chaos.

    Joffrey Baratheon in contrast to Ned Stark is a monstrous and capricious child. He is the product of adultery and incest. His mother and biological father’s house is House Lannister. House Lannister is descendant from, Lann the Clever, a hero in family legend but a trickster and thief in deed. The unknowingly cuckolded father who raised him, Robert Baratheon, was a usurper, drunk, and whoremonger. Joffrey is a walking transgression against tradition.

    I think that, with this wider context in mind, the anti-aristocratic interpretation of the scene becomes less tenable. It is a tragedy of a miscreant child-king ordering the execution of fidelity, wisdom, and tradition embodied and thus bringing destruction and war onto his lands and untold misfortune to himself and his family.

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  5. Well spoken, Alex. I'm half-convinced to pick up the second book.

    But I still have aesthetic reservations. Martin's world is excessively violent and deemphasizes the natural beauties, subtle graces, and rustic charms that Tolkien so eloquently evokes. Both authors are preoccupied with politics and war, but Tolkien's world seems much less hostile to healthy domesticity, while in Martin family dysfunction is taken for granted, even among the Starks. Shakespearean tragedy is not nearly so cynical, if it can be called cynical at all, because it never goes so far as to normalize immorality as Martin does. When Ned is killed, tragedy is lacking. Why? Because so few in Westoras seem to care. A Martinesque Hamlet would return home to Denmark and see nothing rotten.

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