Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Here's an interesting article entitled 'The Aesthetics of Fantasy', on the blog of Jonathan McCalmont, discussing the format that most people think of when they hear the word 'fantasy', to wit, epic fantasy, or what he calls 'fat fantasy' (referring to the thickness of the books). Some people seem to find the concept of 'fat' perjorative, which is not how he seems to mean it (anyway, let's have some respect for different body types here, people), but to avoid annoying anyone more than I usually do, I'm going to use the phrase 'tome fantasy' instead, as less alliteratively pleasing but possibly less controversial as well.
He makes, among many interesting points, one that I've thought myself but have seldom seen expressed: namely, that the fantasy genre has a strong streak of conservatism in it. It's not what you'd expect; fantasy readers tend to think of themselves as unconventional, and in a fantasy world you can have more or less anything, which ought to lend itself to endless variation, but in fact, the market drive for more-of-the-same means that many of your bestselling authors are going to conform quite closely to the conventions that this relatively young genre has quickly accrued, and new authors are likely to be judged in the light of these conventions by conservative readers whether the writers are particularly interested in those conventions or not.
I have a theory that when it comes to fantasy, there are two main ways to make a success: either you conform closely with the prevailing fashions and establish yourself as a heavy-hitting deliverer of the conventional goods, or you engage aggressively with them and write a book that directly challenges and subverts them. McCalmont opines in another article, 'The only good fantasy novels are those that set out to pick a fight with the very foundations of the genre.' It certainly can make for a successful fantasy novel - but there's a problem: by the act of rebelling against those foundations, you implicitly acknowledge their authority. The rebellious type of book can net you considerable admiration, as people who are accustomed to the tome fantasy traditions will see you as extremely innovative, but I personally have my suspicions: it's fairly innovative to do a new take on the wicked stepmother, comic sidekick or boy-who-would-be-king tropes, but it's much more innovative to simply come up with new characters and situations without referring back to the cliches at all. If there was a law saying you had to have a comic sidekick in every story ever written, then the most original stories would be ones where the sidekick didn't behave as expected, but as no such law exists - or at least, not if you set aside tome fantasy conventions - writers are free to be entirely original if they please.
Hence the third way, which is to ignore the conventions altogether and simply write a book the way you think it should be written - but that is likely to net you a smaller audience. If your book is sold under the label of fantasy (which tends to make an author dependent on the fantasy market, as it's one of those genres many people who aren't fans simply won't touch) but fails to acknowledge the conventions, a proportion of the fantasy market is going to have difficulty knowing what to make of it. The tropes are so present in the genre that, for people who read little else, how the author engages with them is as much a criterion for assessment as how they handle fundamentals like plot, pacing and characterisation. An author who doesn't engage with the tropes at all can be found as confusing as an author who eschews plot. Hence there's a pressure from the readership to perpetuate the traditions - sales figures - which encourages publishers to find marketable authors who will keep the conventions alive. Traditionalist readers read them, and so the conventions remain.
So fantasy has a tendency towards aesthetic conservativism, or at least, certain kinds of fantasy do. But McCalmont goes further, and raises the subject of political conservatism:
It is rare for fantasy stories to be about changing the world for the better, instead they tend to revolve around protecting the status quo against an evil threatening it (Lord of the Rings) or undertaking a quest that wrenches the protagonists away from an idyllic childhood (A Song of Fire and Ice). It also explains the popularity of setting fantasy novels in what are essentially post-apocalyptic dark-ages where some earlier age of enlightenment or advancement has passed leaving only ruins, relics and legends. This results in stories that are about recapturing a by-gone age either figuratively by seeking a powerful object from that age or literally by changing the current world so that it resembles the old one more ... The tendency of fantasy novels to look backwards rather than forwards combines with unpleasantly racist and reactionary genre staples such as a confrontational attitude towards the Otherness of non-European cultures to give an impression of unpleasantly right-wing politics. This is most unfortunate as this is not necessarily reflective of fantasy writers being particularly prone to reactionary views but rather a result of sticking too closely to tropes drawn up at a time when unthinking racism and hostility to Otherness was very much the norm.
By this logic, even a left-leaning author is handling an essentially authoritarian story structure, because of the time at which such stories were first popularised. He probably has a point, but there's another element that occurs to me, due to the nature of authoritarianism. (Credit for this theory should really go to my boyfriend, who pointed it out as we discussed the above article.)
I've already recommended Bob Altmeyer's oustanding online book The Authoritarians, and I'll probably recommend it again; anyway, one of the many things he says is that authoritarianism is intimately linked with a sense of crisis. Chapter Two discusses the roots of authoritarianism, and the main one is fear: the feeling that the world is on the edge of collapse. As he puts it, 'Authoritarians score highly on the Dangerous World scale' (referring to a test that asks if you agree with statements like 'Any day now, chaos and anarchy could erupt around us.'). He continues:
[Authoritarians] are, in general, more afraid than most people are ... Events like the attacks of 9/11 can drive large parts of the population to being as frightened as authoritarian followers are day after day. In calm, peaceful times as well as dangerous ones, [authoritarians] feel threatened.
In the mindset of an authoritarian person, the barbarians are always at the gate.
Now, think about the nature of the standard tome fantasy plot. There's a Dark Lord, right? And probably hordes of minions. There's a quest that needs to be undertaken, and if it fails, the world will be plunged into darkness. The barbarians are, in fact, actually at the gate. The world in a fantasy novel really is the way authoritarians believe it to be.
The real world is seldom this black-and-white, right is seldom entirely on the side of good Us as opposed to evil Them, and considering that people have been on record complaining that things are going downhill and society is on the edge of moral collapse pretty much since humanity worked out how to write*, I think we can assume that humanity as a whole, if not fragile individuals, is a bit more robust than the panickers imagine it to be. But the very fact that people have been saying we're going to the dogs as long as they've been keeping records suggests that there's a recurring personality type that considers the world at bay from the forces of darkness, no matter what the current political situation.
In a fantasy novel, in short, the world is beset by crisis in a way that very seldom happens in the real world - but to authoritarian instincts, such a scenario expresses how things actually seem to be.
Which is to say, the tome fantasy plot has an authoritarian ring to it not because fantasy writers are authoritarian, but because authoritarians are fantasists.
Of course, some fantasy writers may well be authoritarian, but the problem is more with the story structure than with the writers. Stories express a world-view, and, even to a low-authoritarian, easygoing novelist who's more attracted to the tome fantasy story by the shimmering swords and sense of adventure, it's difficult not to in some way express a world-view that lends itself to authoritarian thinking. I suspect that in less authoritarian writers, this may present something of a puzzle. I tend to be pretty low-authoritarian in my thinking, and this led to some story issues becoming essential in Bareback: the principle that if a society was divided into two groups, there had to be wrongs on both sides; the fact that thinking ethnocentrically leads even nice people to act badly; the belief that power is easily abused and that those who have power are just as fallible as those who don't; the presence of a somewhat unreliable narrator, as I have a lot of trouble creating characters who are right about everything - it goes against the grain of how I think people really are, and the more perfect they are, the more bored with them I become. But then, the thriller structure, which is what I was using, gives you a lot of flexibility, with everything from the square-jawed government enforcer to the humane, free-thinking maverick being perfectly possible. I don't think I'd ever write a stop-the-barbarians quest, because I'd either have to demonise the barbarians and get bored as all get-out, or I'd have to humanise them and then the quest wouldn't be a good idea. But then, no writer is a perfect yardstick for any other, and there may be other unauthoritarian authors who feel better able to handle the difficulties.
To a writer who does have an authoritarian temperament, on the other hand, handling such a story will be a snap. It's a simple structure that expresses what they consider to be a fundamental truth about the world.
Does this necessarily mean that tome fantasy is a politically questionable genre? Well, to a certain extent that's going to be subjective. If you're authoritarian, you'll probably consider it expressing a higher truth, whereas if you're not authoritarian, you're either going to consider it merely enjoyable and not bother worrying about the implications, or you'll find it, if not offensive, then possibly less engaging. One reason I could never get into Tolkien, despite many recommendations, was that I simply didn't buy the idea of a Dark Lord. Even though Tolkien tries for moral complexity, and I'm sure he was a moral person (I have no idea how authoritarian he was), the closest he comes to complexity is the temptation of good people; good is definitely over Here and bad over There. There is a simple acid test for morality: either someone wants the ring destroyed, or they want it preserved. I just couldn't swallow the idea that morality was that simple, and it left me feeling less interested in the whole thing. I wonder if boredom may be a factor with moral incompatibility.
Is there a connection between conservative plotting and conservative politics? I'd be extremely wary of making such a generalisation. McCalmont remarks that:
...fantasy frequently includes a strong moral element, but that it rarely actually discusses the content of the morality in question. Instead, people fight to destroy things such as the forces of evil or ancient dead gods or corrupting artefacts or they wage war on people such as demented wizards and witch queens. In essence, morality in fantasy is not so much a question of commandments or rights, it is about wanting rid of a certain object or being on the same side as some particular person.
This is a fairly authoritarian mindset: the law is the law and you have to find the grail/get rid of the grail because that's just how it has to be. Evil is a given at the outset. To a writer who's interested in genuine moral complexity, that's a rather stymieing standpoint, and you can handle morality more flexibly if you abandon it. But what about writers who try it and are genuinely uncomfortable with authoritarianism? I'd take J.K. Rowling as an example; she has a basic morality of alliances - pretty much nobody who sides with Voldemort can be considered a good person - but complicates it by including the fact that, while you can't be for the Dark Lord and good, you can be against the Dark Lord and bad. Consider Dolores Umbridge, Blairite inquisitor and Kafkaesque torturer of children, who subjects teenagers to scarring torments in detention if they question the Ministry's party line: she's not in favour of the bad guy winning, but there's no question that she's a nasty piece of work. And, it's worth pointing out, her politics are rather close to Blair's policy of Spin: making everybody believe that everything is all right is more important than admitting there's a problem and fixing it. Which is to say, she's satirising the authorities under which the book was written. All of which suggests a pretty open-minded and non-authoritarian author.
However, there's at least a case to be made that the morality of alliances remains in some ways essential to the structure. If you look at the anti-Voldemort-but-bad people, they all have an alliance as well: they're on the side of the Ministry. People can be irritating, or peculiar, or even mean, and on the side of good, but broken down to its essentials, Rowling's story complicates morality by a rather clever device: there are three sides rather than two. The Ministry serves the function of the other bad guys; bad guys who emerge as bad over time rather than presenting as bad right away, but still, follow the story of Percy Weasley, and you'll see how the moral trajectory works: either he sides with his family under Dumbledore and is a good guy, or he sides with the Ministry, in which case, nuts to him. Rowling makes a bold attempt, and is gifted enough at writing compliicated good characters that not all the evil is on the side of the Dark Lord - people on the good side do some pretty bad things, even among the Dumbledore-followers - but as the story requires a battle structure, alliance remains at least a strong hint as to someone's basic nature. (I say this as a Rowling admirer, by the way: her psychological insights, especially with flawed 'normal' people, are pretty sound, and on the whole I think she makes an excellent fist of writing a battle-fantasy structure from a non-authoritarian viewpoint. Her solutions are, I'd say, interesting examples of the kind of choices you have to make when you want to write a morally flexible story around a structure where alliances are an essential component.)
I suspect that a major reason for this difficulty is that everyone is more inclined to authoritarian thinking when the authority is their own. And an author has absolute authority over their own stories: characters live or die by their words, and nothing gets done without their will. If you say your own character is good or bad, you're right: an author cannot run a fictional world like a democracy, because unreal people are incapable of casting votes. As a result, authors are more likely to become authoritarian when they write. In the real world, it's generally incorrect to say that a particular person or group of people are bad, but if an author says it about their own characters, they can't be wrong. They can be unconvincing, but they can't be incorrect.** Hence, the tendency to pronounce on other people's characters that is a vice in overly authoritarian personalities becomes a practical necessity for a fiction writer.
You can get away with this if you avoid classifying good and evil sides, but if someone is definitely bad, then it's a slippery slope. I'd need a lot more space than a blog entry to explore the topic properly, but I think it is this reason, rather than the fact that epic fantasy as a genre began in a more imperial age, that explains why it feels so conservative. Authoritarian personalities tend to experience life more like an epic fantasy than most people, and such experience motivates their behaviour and opinions. Combine this with the fact that, when you're writing a book, you are the authorities, and it seems hard for a liberal author to escape falling into a plot that inadvertently views the world through more authoritarian eyes than the author's workaday ones. This may not be a universal rule, of course, and as my knowledge of tome fantasy is pretty limited, it not generally being to my taste anyway, there are probably counter-examples. But I do think that as a rule, tome fantasy, a genre that's heavily indebted to a few major influences, has a tendency to be structurally conservative, certainly artistically, and at least skirting the edges of politically as well.
What do y'all think? I should say in advance that if you cite examples I may not have read them, but in general?
*As witness the Classical poet Horace, who wrote in his Odes III thus:
aetas parentum, peior avis, tulit
nos nequiores, mox daturos
Which I've decided to translate thus:
Our parents' age, which didn't match our gran's,
Gave birth to us, a less impressive set,
And soon we'll keep disgracing all our clans
By breeding children still more rotten yet.
It's not a very accurate translation; click here for a better one (it's on page 108) - but at least mine rhymes.
That was in 23 BCE.
**Though someone pointed me towards a subsquently-rewritten Wikipedia article which accused Rowling of 'misrepresenting' a family tree in her fiction:
According to JK Rowling, Lord Voldemort is the last surviving descendant of Salazar Slytherin. This is extraordinarily unlikely to be the case: in a thousand years, the family would have spread itself enough to permeate most of the pure-blood families (even when the cousin-marriages of the Gaunts are considered), especially when the existence of illegitimacies is acknowledged. The Gaunt status probably rested on their being the last recognisable descendants of Salazar Slytherin. Rowling's statements are easy to explain however: when the 'extinctions' of noble families are talked of, distaff descents are rarely considered, and illegitimate descents even more rarely. In addition, one might consider the case of Harry Potter's family: Rowling has stated that he has no living relatives save the Dursleys, but not only is this logically absurd (he will have second, third, fourth cousins, etc), but Rowling herself may have demonstrated a relationship between Harry and the Black family, whereby at the time of Voldemort's fall, Harry still had a living great-uncle and great-aunt (although this possibility is still disputed, due to lack of confirmation and problems of various ages: see Black Family Tree). It is therefore entirely possible that in referring to Slytherin's descent, as in referring to Harry Potter's family, Rowling has simplified the matter, and thus misrepresented it.
But I suspect that this was either written by someone very young or a bit obsessive. It's a tribute to the illusionist's skill Rowling manifests that at least one of her readers is under the impression that she's more like a biographer or historian than like someone who's been making it all up, but I fear they're on the wrong track.
Later: oh look - Jonathan McCalmont has picked up on this post, and replies to it here. I'm pasting what he said in the comments, along with my reply...
Later again: McCalmont's article about my post seems to have attracted so much negative comment that he's decided to stop debating fantasy at all for a while. Oops. I hope I haven't started a fight there. Anyway, a couple of people in the discussion thread pointed out that the word 'authoritarian' hadn't been clearly defined, and they had a point, so here goes:
Briefly, it runs thus, according to Altemeyer: an authoritarian personality displays:
- A high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in your society
- High levels of aggression the name of those authorities
- High levels of conventionalism - meaning not only a desire to live according to the norms, but the belief that everybody else ought to as well
The cognitive traits associated with these three defining features include an: unusually frightened attitude towards the dangers of the world, and the belief that any deviation from the norms is likely to be the final straw that will cast the world into chaos; a tendency to compartmentalised thinking; double standards, particularly when it comes to judging the outsiders more harshly than the insiders; illogical thinking, specifically assuming that the if the conclusion is right, the reasoning must be sound, rather than the other way; credulousness towards people who tell you what you want to hear; ethnocentrism; dogmatism; and in general, a deep discomfort with having certainties questioned and a preference for having your certainties provided by trusted leaders.
Those are authoritarian followers. Altemeyer also describes authoritarian leaders, who may cast themselves as being similar in thinking to authoritarian followers to get support, but in fact are characterised by different qualities: a strong desire for power; a belief that the world is a jungle and it's every man for himself; a conviction that kindness is for suckers and it's better to be feared than loved; lack of sympathy for those weaker than themselves; an amoral belief that right and wrong are irrelevant in comparison to what you can get away with; and, in general, a desire to be on top and a willingness to lie, pretend and screw people over to get there.
Those two personalities are a natural fit for one another and often work together to everyone's detriment, hence, despite the fact that they're very different, it can be easy to assume somebody is talking about one when actually they're talking about the other, leading to confusion. When I said 'authoritarian' in my original article, I meant authoritarian followers.
Hence, it's possible to have a book written by an authoritarian follower - or else, in the style of thinking that an authoritarian followers displays - that posits noble leaders who are protecting their flock from the evil and chaos of the world, because that's the kind of leader that authoritarian followers want to believe in. It's also possible to have a book written by an authoritarian leader, or in the style of one, in which the hero gets what he grabs and the divvil take the hindermost. I wouldn't necessarily assume that somebody who write a book in the style of an authoritarian leader or follower must inevitably be one in real life; Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, for example, are heartily of the authoritarian leader persuasion, but in real life he was an extremely shy and unhappy man who shot himself at the age of thirty after the death of his mother, poor guy. A very sad story, but not at all an authoritarian one.
(Despite the running order, the two comments below were posted before this update. Just to avoid further confusion.)
Jonathan McCalmont replied:
Back in February, I wrote a couple of articles that were attempts, by me, to get inside the head of a fantasy fan and understand what makes the difference between good fantasy and merely bad fantasy. This little odyssey was necessary because I really quite profoundly dislike fantasy as a genre. Whenever magic rears its ugly head I tend to lose interest and the presence of an elf or elf-analogue is enough for me to want to throw a book across a room. In fact, it's remarkable that I still play Dungeons and Dragons from time to time once you think about it.
Anyway, in the wake of those articles R. Scott Bakker appeared and tore a strip or two of me for my reductive analysis and I kind of came to terms with the idea that I didn't get fantasy and concluded that, even if there was something worth getting, I probably wouldn't like it anyway. However, this morning I noticed that my articles had been commented upon by Kit Whitfield, a newish face on the fantasy scene whose name is familiar to me even if her work isn't.
Whitfield directs her attention to my claim that fantasy is an inherently conservative genre and makes a couple of interesting points that I'll address one by one.
Firstly, Kit suggests that artistic conservatism can be found both in a slavish devotion to the tropes that make up the fantasy genre and in a reaction and rejection of those tropes. She suggests a "third way" whereby the author sets out to write fantasy without having the laws and tropes of the genre in mind at all. This is a deceptively complex approach to an age old question as it contains a number of interesting ideas.
On one level, this observation is obvious. As has been pointed out to me, if you look at the shortlists for a big fantasy award such as the World Fantasy Award, you'll see a noted absence of elves and hobbits and wizard kings. Instead you see weird and wonderful ideas expressed without the philosophical limitations imposed by a devotion to the scientific method and current scientific thinking. Indeed, it's worth remembering that whereas SF artificially amplifies the importance of the "high-brow" award-winning novels to the point where they receive far more attention than their sales might suggest, the fantasy scene is unapologetically populist with its "low-brow", best-selling books getting far more attention than the perhaps more deserving and interesting books that only get picked up by critics and award bodies. So Whitfield is quite correct... there is a well travelled path to decent fantasy that isn't all about traditional genre staples, I tend to forget this in my haste to spit bile at the likes of Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin and their legions of passive, sheep-like fans. So point well taken Kit.
However, on another level, the remark is really quite a challenge as genres are defined by their tropes. So is it possible to set out to write a fantasy novel without any of the genre's tropes in mind and if it were possible, would that work still be fantasy? Magical Realism, for example, does not sit comfortably on the same shelf as Goodkind or Lynch and many critics have been uncharacteristically quick to defend the idea that McCarthy's The Road is in a different genre to Mad Max or A Canticle for Leibowitz. Whitfield comes to this issue from an interesting perspective given that, according to Wikipedia :
"Bareback/Benighted is a thriller with a whodunit structure set in an alternative world where most of the population are werewolves - although the word is not used in the story - and concerns the minority status of those who are, because of adverse conditions at birth, born with a disability that prevents them from 'furring up' on full moon nights. The novel's genre is a debatable question, as it is published by the science fiction imprint Del Rey in the USA and the literary imprint Jonathan Cape in Britain, while being reviewed under various genre classifications including by crime reviewers, and the author has appeared in The Guardian stating her opposition to genre stereotypes as an overly constrictive way of thinking about literature."
In fact, Kit wrote an article for the Guardian that is all about books that break through literary boundaries. Personally, I take this with a pinch of salt as while Whitfield's book clearly borrows from a number of different literary genres, I consider a degree of postmodernism and generic flexibility to be pretty much par for the course as far as contemporary fantasy is concerned. Indeed, given the influence of Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman, it's difficult to think of a piece of contemporary fantasy that does stay within its traditional boundaries. So Whitfield is quite correct that there's room for a healthier and more complex set of attitudes than being pro- or anti- traditional genre tropes but I don't think that there are as few options as three.
Secondly, Whitfield spins around my claim that fantasy is full of authoritarian thinking and argues that the problem is that authoritarians are prone to being fantasists. This is an interesting idea but I don't think it necessarily gets fantasy off the hook as it still suggests that there's a disturbing relationship between fantasy as a literary genre and political authoritarianism. My favourite example of this, as I mention in the Aesthetics of Fantasy articles, is the case of Stark, in the first book of A Song of Fire and Ice, carrying out his executions himself. Martin takes this to be proof that Stark does not sentence men to death lightly and takes the job so seriously that he carries it out himself personally but within that idea are the unexamined assumptions that capital punishment is necessary and that a willingness to kill someone yourself is somehow indicative of greater character than having an underling do it. If Gordon Brown were to insist that he be allowed to behead people for their crimes, most people would think that he was some kind of sadistic sociopath, but in the context of a fantasy novel, most people don't even blink.
My problem with Whitfield's idea is that I'm not sure that I can see a plausible causal history there. If I say that fantasy is inherently authoritarian then I am saying that the fantasy genre ultimately finds its roots in the political attitudes of a by-gone age that have since been rejected by society at large but remain largely unquestioned by lazy writers and passive readers. Given the influence of Tolkien and the attitudes towards race and society that were prevalent at the time of his writing it is easy to see how attitudes from the 1930's and 1940's might still be kicking around in modern fat fantasy. After all, if you can't be bothered to move away from elves and dwarves over a fifty year period, why should you be any less forgiving of casual racism and pro-status quo politics? Indeed, once you flip the theory and try to see authoritarians as fantasists then the causal link becomes muddied. Is Pat Robertson a big fan of Tad Williams? I think "authoritarians are fantasists" is a great line but at the same time I'm not sure if it's very much more. After all, I'm sure they say the same thing about us liberals with our fantastical notions that TV doesn't corrupt the young and that pre-marital sex won't rot the eyes out of your head.
In fact, the only way I think you could make any real meat out of this idea is if you applies it to something like Christianity. After all, the Bible is perhaps the most widely read description of a fictional world full of monsters and magical powers. Indeed, Tolkien wrote LOTR in order to create a new mythology and Lewis' Narnia books are essentially christianity described through the medium of unconvincing fantasy. It even has casual racism and misogyny.
So I think the question should really be, is it possible to write epic fantasy that isn't conservative? China Mieville's Iron Council can be seen as an attempt to ground fantasy in real politics but as Mieville himself seems to discover, even real politics lead to bloodshed and authoritartianism in fantasyland. I would argue that the very tropes of fantasy itself, with its reliance upon violence and moral simplicity, make it impossible to escape the whiff of authoritarianism.
thought where evil is more about distance from God than it is about equal sides slugging it out or balancing each other. However, I'm not convinced that this
To which I said:
Good grief, this thread has come a long way before I realised you'd read my article!
Hello, Kit Whitfield here. Very interested to hear what you have to say. Much of the thread seems to have been taken up with discussing George R.R. Martin, but I'd like to address a couple of general points, if you're willing...
'is it possible to set out to write a fantasy novel without any of the genre's tropes in mind and if it were possible, would that work still be fantasy?'
From my own perspective, I'm very chary of the whole concept of identifying works of literature by genre, whether fantasy, crime, romance or whatever. With all but the most deriviative works, it tends to result in a rather literal-minded oversimplification: it's got a murder in it, so it must be crime! It's got a wizard in it, so it must be fantasy!
As I've found myself, that can lead to simple disagreement about what kind of book something is - you can find me under the 'Crime' heading in UK Borders and 'Fantasy' in the US, for instance. Now, part of my discomfort with that is purely mercenary - if I can be fitted under both, I want to be under both, so I can sell more copies and thus have money for groceries, which is always useful - but it also concerns me that, unless I'm utterly unique and special (which I'd like to believe, but alas is probably not the case), then probably it's happening all over. And that means that all sorts of people will miss out on books they'd enjoy because a bookseller decided to put them on shelves they wouldn't usually visit.
But it's particularly an issue with fantasy, because in terms of classification, fantasy somehow seems like a dominant genre. I can't think of a less tasteless example, so sorry if this offends anyone of any persuasion, but: apparently in the antebellum American South, having any African ancestry at all classified you as 'black', even if you had one African great-great-grandfather and your great-grandmother, grandmother and mother were all impregnated by white men. There seems, in the minds of some people, to be a similar assumption about fantasy: it can have the structure of a romance and the style of a crime thriller and metaphysics of a comedy, but if it has anything at all supernatural in it, then forget about all that, it's Fantasy. I just don't find that logical.
You say that contemporary fantasy is flexible, but another way of looking at it would be to say that it that it's continually being flexed by the forcible inclusion of all kinds of books that have nothing in common except that there's something non-realist in them somewhere, and may actually have more in common with other genres. As you've said elsewhere, fantasy is governed by things, not rules, but the problem with that definition is that it means that any fantasy Thing gets a book classified as fantasy.
Which would be fine, except that when people think too much in terms of genre, many people assume that if it's fantasy, it can't be anything else. Which seems a very unreasonable assumption. This is why I enjoy going on different shelves in different shops; it makes me feel like I've got away with something. But I still think that classifying books by genre leads to some regrettable over-simplifications.
This is made worse by the fact that whether 'fantasy' means what you call 'fat fantasy', or just 'fantastical', is something that different people disagree on. So what tropes are we talking about? 'Boy-who-would-be-king meets wise-mentor'? Or just, 'Something happens that wouldn't happen in the real world?' It's all a big mess, and I don't buy it.
As far as politics go ... for my money, it's perfectly possible to be authoritarian AND liberal. 'Liberal' is a political standpoint that tends to favour policies like government regulation of business, curative rather than punitive justice and social benefits for the poor; 'authoritarian' is a personality trait that is inclined to assume that those in power are usually right and that those who challenge authority should be smacked down. Altemeyer points out in his book that studies of Americans under democracy and Russians under Communism showed that the more authoritarian personalities in each regime tended to be the most inflexibly convinced that their own side was right - that people with similar personalities can wind up with opposing politics depending on who happens to be in authority where they live. I don't know very much about Mr Martin's politics or personality, but it seems perfectly possible that an author could be an authoritarian liberal. Less likely, in today's current political climate, but possible.
Because of that, when you say...
'If I say that fantasy is inherently authoritarian then I am saying that the fantasy genre ultimately finds its roots in the political attitudes of a by-gone age that have since been rejected by society at large but remain largely unquestioned by lazy writers and passive readers.'
... I think you may be assuming that authoritarianism is the product of a political era, whereas I'm assuming that authoritarianism is a personality trait, which finds different expressions in different eras but is always with us. I don't think it's the era that produces authoritarianism, it's authoritarianism that produces the era.
I say potato, you say potato, perhaps - but from a writing perspective, you have to write about characters if you're going to have a story, which means that human nature rather than ideology is, at least in my experience, the basic starting point. I suspect that this is the case for many novelists, just as a matter of practicality. Non-fiction may be explicitly ideological, and some fiction is as well, but with most fiction, it's going to be the author's personality, and their understanding of the personalities of their characters, that's going to be the driving force. Hence, an author whose politics are liberal but whose writing is authoritarian may wind up finding that their work lends itself to politics that they don't agree with, as most authoritarians these days are not liberals.
In which case, I think I might lean towards agreeing with you that, given a structure that requires stamping out an evil to maintain the status quo, it's going to be extremely difficult not to be authoritarian - but that doesn't necessarily mean that the author is politically conservative.
In fact, you could use that as an argument in your favour - if you find writer X authoritarian, and someone says, 'But he votes Labour!' or 'He's a member of Greenpeace!', you can say, 'Pah. Doesn't matter. He's still an authoritarian, because you find them in every political group!' I think where we differ is that you're arguing that fantasy structures are inherently linked to politically authoritarians eras, and I think they're coincidentally similar.
... By your leave, I'm linking to this article from my own, and pasting your reply in my comments section to keep my own blog readers up to date, along with this comment; hope that suits you.
I can't think of a less tasteless example, so sorry if this offends anyone of any persuasion, but: apparently in the antebellum American South, having any African ancestry at all classified you as 'black', even if you had one African great-great-grandfather and your great-grandmother, grandmother and mother were all impregnated by white men.
This is entirely true, and is, strangely, still true for many people. (I live in the American South and I've still seen this attitude. Even among African-Americans, peculiarly enough.) However, a line of succession like that very rarely began with a black male back in the antebellum era--such unions were almost inevitably that of a white male master and his black female slave.
A minor point of clarity. Your analogy is otherwise sound.
But that black female slave would have a black father, wouldn't she? Given that slaves were originally taken from Africa, there's got to be a black forefather if you go back far enough.
Ah, but I think you *could* write a novel about someone crusading against the barbarian hordes. History is full of genuine humans (who are annoyed when their mums tell them what to do, and occasionally hit themselves with stray drops in the loo) who nevertheless went off to respectively teach a lesson to the bloodless marauding imperial bastards / protect home and civilization from barbarian aggression.
The fact that you, as an author, may see the humanity of both sides doesn't mean that they do. Plus you get situations like the current middle east, where each side has an absolutely rock solid bona fide case that the other is doing/has done unspeakably inhuman attrocities. And both sides has people with clean hands who deplore the nastiness of the other side that have been visited on their extended clan, while being more forgiving the the nastinesses of their own extended clan. An eye minus an eye rarely sums to zero, when people are concerned (or at least, when there's been an exchange of an eye for a nose, both sides are always convinced they came out on the short side of the bargain).
Shortly after I followed your link at Slactivist to this post, I got referred to this excellent poem, "Waiting For Barbarians".Post a Comment
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