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Monday, September 03, 2007

 

Conservative controversy update

Incidentally, if anyone's been following the debate on Jonathan McCalmont's blog about the article I wrote a few days ago, it would seem that the response he's had has been so distressing to him that he's decided to stop talking about fantasy altogether for a while. I hope that isn't my fault, but I don't think it is; actually, calling it a debate about my article is not really accurate, as most of the debate seems to have been people arguing over whether one of the examples he used when talking about conservative fantasy, George R.R. Martin's books, as a fair one. As I said nothing about Martin - I've read a few of his books, years ago, and have very few opinions about them and none at all about his politics - I suspect that I may have acted more as the spark to a barrel that had been filled with gunpowder by his previous comments on Martin's work. Oh well. Let me once again take the opportunity to thank all the lovely people who post on my blog for always being so polite to me. (And, indeed, to all the lovely lurkers for at least failing to write in and tell me I suck.)

A couple of people on the thread pointed out that 'authoritarianism' wasn't being properly defined on McCalmont's blog. As I'm the one who brought the word into the discussion - his word was 'conservatism', which has a somewhat different ring - I figured I ought to clarify it, so I've pasted a definition to the original post I wrote, in case anyone wants to read it over and update themselves.

Comments:
Don't worry Kit... your article was neither here nor there really. The only thing it did was allow me to draw attention back to my old aesthetics of fantasy pieces and therein lay the seeds of my own undoing :-)
 
From previous: Having finally read the whole, exhaustive, fascinating, and at times very uncomfortable discussion, rather than doing any work at work (slow day :-), I think I'm actually less troubled. I'm inclined to defend GRR Martin with verbal guns blazing and such, because I like him (and despise Goodkind and Jordan, for different reasons) and did take the sheep comment pretty personally. Even objectively, that particular accusation seemed unfair and unfounded, but I can't dispute Jonathan's main, if carelessly-stated, premise -- that a lot of high fantasy is the same old same old and can easily be read as stagnant (for me the term "conservative" is too vague and too loaded, and I find it difficult right now to divorce it from its political baggage what with the #$&*((&*#$(&(# depressing US primary elections coming up). Perhaps the cessation was a good idea, as it got to be going in circles toward the end, but a lot of points were made nearly all around.

Was it Norman Spinrad who wrote that parody fantasy ("parody" isn't the word I want, as the work was not funny in the least; nor is "satire"): a novel within a novel, about young man writing a quite typical fantasy book about a shining knight of a protagonist going forth to exterminate the dark orcish hordes that threatened the bright hilltop kingdom of righteousness with their insidious orcishness (or whatever) -- the big reveal being, the young author is Adolf Hitler making plans for the future, shall we say.

So this Eurocentrism and aristo-centrism (is that a word?) is definitely a dusty-hoary trope in fantasy that more people should try to disturb. But I think that a good 90 percent of most genres, including "mainstream," is comprised of cotton-fluff works. So it's not fair to pick on fantasy as being somehow more plebian than any other genre -- one should just admit it's a milieu that doesn't appeal to one's particular entertainment tastes. (I love Neal Stephenson to death, I kid you not -- the man actually managed to write an engrossing, humorous, and accessible book about computer operating systems -- but I have been trying to finish "The Baroque Cycle" for about five years. It's good stuff, and the man is very, very smart -- and L'il Isaac Newton will never not captivate me -- but about 40% of his more recent books are treatise and not fiction and dangit, I am trying to relax. It's "interruptus," is what it is. Takes you out of the tale. He could do with James Morrow's editor.) And to keep insisting Martin fits the naughty "authoritarian" bill despite 1. So many examples to the contrary given in the posts and 2.The fact that the series ain't over yet -- and add to that 3. We're four books in and to be quite honest, the ultimate protagonist hasn't been established yet -- everyone I think is going to fill the role winds up dead (I'm beginning to suspect there simply won't be one; rocks will fall, and everyone will die) -- and I have to chalk that up to just stubbornness on the part of the blogger. Especially when it's just one author that winds up being the bone of contention.

And it's a firm belief of mine that, lit-wise at least, anything that can be done can be done well. It might be hard, it might be unlikely, but it's not impossible. So I don't like to write off a trope, or -- especially -- a subgenre, wholesale.

(I may have to read Scott Bakker now. I think I like him. Plus... er... I already own three of his books. I need to get on that.)

So it's interesting. I'm finding validity in a variety of the comments, and while reading I find myself feeling righteous and embarrassed by turns. I became the SF/fantasy geek I am via CS Lewis and Tolkien and Terry Brooks (although, from age 12 to now, I've never managed to slog through "Return of the King.") When I was 14 I totally wrote one of those dreadful "fat fantasies," complete with a lost boy prince, a sorcerous girl, and a Quest to Find Her Father and Dethrone the Despot. Also, there were "gypsies." I am particularly humiliated by the "gypsies." I oppressed them and everything. (Yah -- so here I am, a little Caribbean girl in New York City writing about green-eyed, raven-haired beauties and "gypsies" in Medieval Quasi England. And then feeling really guilty about writing them. And then feeling imprisoned and bitter about the guilt. It's complex. As well as a complex, probably.) I pacify myself by insisting, to myself at least, that anyone who ever learned to do anything started out by imitating. :-)

But what I tend to read today... Well, I'll read anything (unless it's terrifying), but the knights and castles tend to be low, low down on my list.

Except for Martin. :-)

So, I don't know. I took great comfort in your anti "guilty pleasures" post, I think for this very reason -- I'm grown. Why the guilt? And why cut myself off from entire worlds of new and possibly great stories for the sake of my sour little inner snob?

(I have a very healthy sour little inner snob. I am beating her with sticks.)
 
I would muddy the waters a bit because I'm stubborn like that -- but something I've tried to argue since my senior thesis days is that fantasy really isn't even a genre. It's a mode of writing that can be applied across genre, in contrast with Aristotelian mimesis -- he argued that Art by definition was a frivolous and unworthy pursuit and could only be redeemed by attempting to imitate or portray the real world as closely as possible. As a fantasist and supporter thereof I'd say hell with that. What drew me to the genre as a child was the very fact that you could take fantasy and throw it upon the bones of any genre -- romance, detective, political, thriller -- and have a viable work. IMO sci-fi is a subgenre of the fantastic, as is horror, as is alternate history, as is half of Twain's writing and all of Poe's...

So I desperately want a new terminology for the Jordans of the world, please (as distinct from, say, the Samuel Delanys and U.K. LeGuins).

I am aware that I'm pretty much having a different argument, all by myself over here, though. :-)
 
Hm, very interesting. Lot of points, lot of thoughts... I'll try to answer them in chunks, in the vain hope of some kind of comprehensibility.

Fit the first: politics

I thought it needed to be emphasised that 'conservative', which was Jonathan's word, and 'authoritarian', which was mine, are two entirely different things. The former's political, the latter psychological. It can be difficult to divorce the two in the current political climate, as most of the authoritarians seem to be voting Republican - but I personally think that's largely because the Republican pundits are better at writing rhetoric that appeals to authoritarians, rather than because authoritarians are always politically conservative. (Frankly, as a foreigner, I think it's high time the Democrats got their heads around that fact and improved their rhetoric.)

So yes, I think you're right to say that small-c conservative, meaning artistically middle-of-the-road, is a concept best kept separate from politics. That's one reason why I talked about authoritarianism instead - the other being that I always believe that an author's psychology influences their work more than their politics.

Re 'Euro-centrism': just in defence of Europe - it's not our fault if American writers write bad books based on garbled versions of our history! Right at this point in history, we're hella less authoritarian than America. (Not that you were saying we weren't, but when patriotism calls...)


Fit the second: art

I agree, anything can be done well, and that's the only thing that really matters. Quality is self-justifying. I do think it's an interesting question to wonder whether a particular story structure lends itself to a particular worldview; a difficult one to resolve, but still perhaps worth asking. But in any case, 'authoritarian' doesn't necessarily mean badly-done.

(That last sentence sticks horribly in my throat, but as a non-authoritarian liberal I have to respect other people's abilities, otherwise I'm just a hypocrite. I don't like authoritarian art, but it can be well executed.)


Fit the third: the actual blog stuff

I thought it was a shame that a potentially interesting discussion got sidetracked so fast into a single-issue argument about whether a fairly throwaway example was legitimate or not. I think it was the commenters as much as McCalmont who were responsible for that, in fairness: he kept disputing the Martin comments, which kept the Martin debate open, but nobody else seemed interested in discussing anything but Martin. It's an amusing lesson in relative celebrity, from my perspective, because boy were people more interested in discussing Martin than in anything I had to say! Oh well. :-)

Actually, I think there was a reasonable way to resolve the Martin argument. I didn't bring it up because it isn't my place to tell other people what to say, but what I'd have said in McCalmont's position was this: the basic point he was making with his Martin example was that morality in high fantasy is generally a matter of alliances rather than codes, ('We oppose the Dark Lord' rather than 'We believe killing is never justified even in wartime', for instance) - and the reason is that whenever you have a specific example of morality, it's likely to divide reader opinions as to whether the behaviour depicted is actually moral or not. He cited the fact that a character of Martin's beheads with his own hands everyone he sentences to death, on the grounds that you should take responsibility for your decisions. McCalmont said that he personally found that creepy, and others disagreed - but the fact that McCalmont found it creepy and other people didn't only supports the original point: examples are divisive. That one, in fact, was so divisive that it distracted everyone from the point it was proving.

I think the issue got a bit smudged in that discussion, but to answer what you said about picking on a genre: I think there's a difference between picking on fantasy as a genre and talking about a certain kind of story, which is a common one in fantasy but not the whole picture. In a way, people in that thread seemed to keep confusing the two: I thought there was some sense among some people that by saying he didn't like quest narratives, McCalmont was saying that every fantastical story ever was no good, which I don't think was his intention.

To take minor issue with you on something - I have to say, I've never understood the argument that you can't judge a series unless it's completed and you've read all of it. Of course, you can't judge how well it ends, but you can judge whether it's well-written, with good characters, suspenseful plot handling, perceptive insights and all the rest of the things that go towards making a book good or bad. If someone doesn't like how the first book in a series handles those things, I wouldn't blame them for taking an educated guess that they wouldn't like the other books either. I noticed that some of Martin's defenders seemed to feel that you had to read all his books before you were allowed to call his writing good or bad, and I thought that was unreasonable. To paraphrase Teresa Nielsen Hayden, you don't have to drink the whole pint of milk to know whether it's sour or fresh.

I feel at a bit of a disadvantage with the examples you cite, as all of them fall under the headings of authors that I either haven't read or don't like ... But frankly, if you enjoy Martin, that's reason enough to read him. It's the only reason ever to read anything. He's never been my cup of tea, but stuff it, everyone's entitled to enjoy reading whatever they please.

And hey, everybody writes nonsense when they're fourteen! It's like gawkiness: most people get it then grow out of it.
 
Ah, my last post crossed yours. Personally, I'd like to see the whole concept of genre abolished, so anything that chips away at it is good for me... The head of my agency once asked me if I was a fantasy writer or a mainstream writer, and I said I was a fantastical mainstream writer. Frankly, the idea of getting called a fantasy writer, and only a fantasy writer, because I happened to include something non-realistic in my book, is one I find frustrating.

The thing is, you can apply the same argument to other genres too. You can have a romance structure in any setting, for example.

I don't mind you having a one-woman argument; it's an interesting one! Maybe other people will come along to join us...

Mmp. I'm up past my bedtime, so I'll have to think about this one a bit more and see if I have anything more to say about it tomorrow, as it sounds like something worth discussing.

I haven't read Jordan's novels, but if you don't like them, I'd try 'bad books'. That's at least clear about your opinion!
 
Yah, I did find myself falling into the same trap there of harping on Martin instead of the main point. (But Maaaaaaaa, all the other kids were doing it! ^__^ And c'mon, the "sheep" comment was just bait; it even snagged me and I think I more or less AGREE with the guy.)

I have to disagree very slightly -- I'm with you inasmuch as I don't feel I should need to read an entire series in order to tell you whether or not I like it or am willing to put up with it, but if I'm going to write a treatise on its moral merits, overall message, and world view -- well, frankly I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that even now, and I have read all the existing books in the series so far. So it depends on how we define the word "judge" and exactly what it is we're judging -- and hoo boy, was that the Comp Lit major in me talking. I promise not to try to redefine the word "is." But yeah, I can cite some literary works (and films) that I personally can't stand, but have to admit are still skillfully done, as well as some deeply flawed crap that I still have unreasonable affection for. I'm not keen to conflate "I don't like" with "this is objectively and unequivocally bad," or vice versa. I'm not convinced this is what McCalmont is doing, but in certain places early on (e.g. "There is nothing clever about Martin"), it did come across that way, and for anyone who has read the whole thing (I can't even remember, really, where the first book left off) it's going to sound unfounded.

Now, I did like the series intensely from the first book; to me it did seem different and not derivative. Not so much with the wizards and magic, for one, and for two, I liked the realization that I didn't at all know who to "root" for right off the bat. I'm oversimplifying, as it's been a while -- those gaps being the biggest drawback to all these serials, to my mind.

Jordan I find annoying less because his fantasy is heroic or "fat," and more because he is purposefully stretching a five-book series into eleventy million, plus re-releasing old bits of it under new covers, all for the sake of milking as much cash out of it as possible. His literary morality or lack thereof aside, that sort of behavior (and to be fair, it's very likely his publisher and not Jordan alone behind all this stretching) makes for lousy, padded, clunky filler-writing by default. I mean, I started reading his series back when I was seventeen. And now...er... I am not. (Oh, hell with it: I am thirty-three.) There are limits.

I did, once upon a time, like the fact that his conflict setup seemed to be one of, I don't know, ultimate religion? that is to say, a quest to fix the way the world works at an objective, fundamental level, as opposed to defeating ideologically different "bad guys." Unfortunately, the "bad guys" soon showed up and it became same old same old.

(As for Goodkind, I find his politics abhorrent via hearsay, but really I gave up on him because his debut novel bored the crap out of me after about three chapters. Make. It. New!)

But McCalmont is absolutely right that people should read Neal Stephenson. Just in case I obfuscated that point, before.

And DRAT, I've gotten off onto harping on specific examples again.

What's becoming clearer to me the more I type this is that I'm less concerned with whether an author embraces my politics (in a broad sense of that word) and more with derivative versus original -- is this fresh, is this creative, or is this being done in exactly the same way using exactly the same words I've seen a million times? Even some possibly delightful works fail on that score with me, as I've been voraciously immersed in this genre for... oh god, way too long. So every time I'm reading the words "authoritarian" or "conservative" my brain is replacing them with "been there, done that." I do understand the difference being discussed, but I find myself unintentionally juggling three concepts here, and the one resonating most with me is "the story is all" -- do whatever you like, but do it well.

But in any case, 'authoritarian' doesn't necessarily mean badly-done.

(That last sentence sticks horribly in my throat, but as a non-authoritarian liberal I have to respect other people's abilities, otherwise I'm just a hypocrite. I don't like authoritarian art, but it can be well executed.)


What you said, there. Kind of how I feel about, say, the movie "Hero" -- it's beautiful, and transporting, and possibly a work of genius, and also one of the most intensely upsetting and angering films I've ever seen. (I can think of US films that piss me off equally, but I'm not a big enough film buff to also think of ones that are "genius" at the same time.)

Just to clarify -- setting the relative merits and detriments of our respective twenty-first-century societies totally aside, when I said "eurocentric," the actual political-body/continent of Europe was the farthest thing from my mind!! It's hard to be politically correct and accurate simultaneously, sometimes! I was trying to find a diplomatic way to say that in fantasy, perhaps even particularly in fantasy, the default race of people more often than not is white (or... having the physical characteristics associated with "white" in our world), and the default mindset is Western (although I'm not convinced it is the job of Western writers to remedy this. Possibly Western publishers). This has nothing to do with America versus Europe and more to do with who is producing most of the genre today, or at least the stuff available to me in the languages I can either speak or muddle through. And also something to do with the way the genre is defined and not defined in various regions of the world (I don't think French bookstores even bother to separate speculative fiction from "mainstream" unless things have changed recently -- and that's without even getting into how Caribbean, African, and South American etc narratives often incorporate religion and other supernatural tropes into all kinds of stories without having that define the work's genre at all -- I'm pretty sure "magic realism" is a Western-, "first-world"-imposed term. (German?) Not to mention, there's just not a heck of a lot of, say, Bulgarian and Burkina Fasan spec-fic being translated into English nowadays, and English is for better or worse the international language. I'm overjoyed we finally got some Andreas Eschbach up in here.)

I touched on this in a comment earlier, when new to your blog -- I forget where, but I was being a bit flippant about it -- the way that within the literary tradition to which I, frankly, belong (the western one), the tendency is that people are people, but nonwhite people have that nonwhite caveat attached -- you get sentences like "a skinny boy in spiked hair and parachute pants stood near the door, while at the bar, an Asian couple were making out" (what KIND of Asian at the very least??) or "a petite, elderly brown-eyed woman in a worn tweed coat stared across the street at a black man with a briefcase," and that's the end of the description. As if the visual were complete! But for some people, it is complete, and unless some qualifier is attached there is no doubt that the elderly woman in question is white, brown eyes notwithstanding.

A couple of years ago, I was on a binge, so to speak, where I refused to read anything that was originally written in English. (Yes, I have book binges.) Part of the intrigue, for me, in reading translated Japanese works, for example, is witnessing that same blithe assumption of default, but having the default be different -- seeing, for example, how a Japanese author describes facial features and differences between individuals when there's no easy shortcut of hair and eye color.

I should have been clearer, but I also don't want to seem like the strident angry black woman, because I don't think I am (I could be wrong), and because frankly I find the whole strident angry thing to be counterproductive, boring, and cringeworthy, not to mention it forces people to be excessively careful around you (and who wants that to be their defining Internet characteristic?). If I am honest with myself I don't necessarily believe white authors should have to twist themselves into pretzels to have main-characters-of-color; I think it would actually be nicer and more natural-sounding to have more writers of color doing fantasy and sci-fi, and we are getting there, but I am just one person and can't remedy this sort of thing all by myself.

(So I didn't mean to ruffle your patriotism at all!! Some of my best friends are European... ;-)

That's what I was getting at before, a little bit -- the fact that first, I wanted to be a fantasy writer (okay, first I wanted to be Judy Blume, and then Kenneth Grahame, but I mean after that), and second, that without even thinking about it, I started right in, writing medieval Europe land, even though at 14 the closest to "Europe" I'd ever been was the old bits of Quebec City, because that is how the fantasy genre was defined in my head, without my even realizing it. Even more, it took maybe more than a decade for me to see it differently. And even more twisted, I had to deal with the flip side, the feeling of guilt and restraint, that I should somehow feel obligated to write only black people and feel bad if characters who were not black popped into my head in that form. (So to some extent, my love of the fantasy genre might be it's the arena where I get to write purple plaid people and not get castigated for it.)

(And on that note, at some point I am going to send you a detailed treatise on exactly why I think your book is so awesome. It's related to the previous.) (But only if you promise not to be freaked out.)

It's why people liked "Firefly," somewhat -- it wasn't about the big-shots, the grand and stately governmental movers and shakers; it was about the little guys whose main concern was a paycheck and dinner. Dudes like me. :-)
 
'The default setting is white/Western'.

That's probably right - and you don't sound strident, I think it's a fair point. As a white Westerner myself, it's an issue I have to keep an eye on in my own writing; people tend to use themselves as a yardstick, and that extends to race. My own copyeditor pointed out in Bareback that there were a couple of points where I was doing the 'so and so is black' thing - explaining as she did so that being black herself made her more conscious of it. (Actually, I did it once, and the other occasion was a reference to the character's black-framed glasses combined with some very slipshod grammar, oops.) It was very useful to hear from her perspective.

I think that, with the more liberal-minded writers at least, it may come less from the assumption that 'black' or 'Asian' covers everything than from the sense that you can't have every character in a modern setting be white - but it takes some complicated phrasing to express that without continually naming races.

I mean, you can say someone has skin the colour of antique oak, and that conveys that they're probably black, but there's a lot of middling-brown skin tones that could equally apply to Latino, Indian Subcontinent, Oriental, Middle Eastern and Spends-Way-Too-Much-Money-On-Sunbeds. If someone has black hair, cork-coloured skin and is called Mohammed, then most people will be able to work it out - but with a lot of the examples you've given, part of the problem is that they're walk-on parts. I think sometimes naming the race is an attempt at avoiding overcomplicated description - which of course, can tip over into sounding as if you're saying, 'Well, heck, the guy was Arabic, what more is there to say?' - because the character just isn't onstage enough to justify too much verbiage.

I can think of at least one walk-on character in Bareback who was non-Caucasian in my own mind, but I never mentioned it because I wasn't mentioning anybody else's appearance in that scene either. The result may well have been a scene that sounded all-white, but I couldn't think of a better solution that wouldn't end up sounding like a conversation between John, Don and Bob The Token Black Man.

It's a linguistic problem, partly. Words for race are heavily contaminated by misuse, and words are all you've got at your disposal. Which ones do you use? It's an ongoing problem.

Have I said all this before? I remember saying something to this effect, but it was in a comment so my Blogger search function doesn't turn it up...

The do-you-have-to-read-it-all-to-judge-it question is an interesting one. I think what I'll do is take some time to sort out my own opinions, write another post, and then we can argue happily, possibly with lots of other people weighing in too!
 
Incidentally, there's an intereting discussion thread here:

http://jamesenge.livejournal.com/29073.html

... about the psychological implications of return-of-the-king stories, in which some very sensible observations are made.
 
"I can think of at least one walk-on character in Bareback who was non-Caucasian in my own mind, but I never mentioned it because I wasn't mentioning anybody else's appearance in that scene either. The result may well have been a scene that sounded all-white, but I couldn't think of a better solution that wouldn't end up sounding like a conversation between John, Don and Bob The Token Black Man."

And you know what -- I wouldn't consider that very much your fault at all. There are assumptions that any reader brings to a narrative that 1. makes it inherently a dialogue and 2. that they have to take responsibility for.

Ursula Le Guin went on at some length about how she envisioned her Earthsea characters' appearance -- some deep russet, some quite dark, some pale white -- and how these things were indeed indicated in the text even if racial code words weren't used. So it's hard to fault her if, say, the televised version (or several incarnation of the jacket illustrations) made everyone, for example, a dishwater blond.

(I don't think I should be allowed to use "very much" and "at all" in the same sentence that way, actually. I'm claiming my wishy-washy Libra status on that one -- it has to be good for SOMETHING. :-)
 
Oh, and you're dead right -- it's a linguistic problem, and an ongoing quest, for me.

This leads to unfortunate things like my staring really intently at strangers on the New York subway, trying to compare and contrast their respective nose-to-upper-lip ratios and to calculate the various deviations from a 90 degree angle, there. I'm going to get myself in trouble one of these days...

But that's the challenge, isn't it?
 
Now that's got to be an interesting way to pass a train ride! I think I'm going to try it next time the Tube goes haywire on me. (Probably next time I get on the Tube, in other words...)
 
(I'm giggling at my desk now -- the fact that New Yorkers don't make eye contact, especially in the subway, is the one thing saving me from bodily harm, probably.)

The really interesting thing -- even though it's completely not new and it's what anthropologists and the like keep saying, over and over again -- is that there really is always more deviation and range within any given race than between the races themselves...

I love finding out the different types of language and phraseology people use, too. I'm reading a North Korean novelist right now who talks about people's "long eyes" versus "tall eyes."
 
'Tall' being what we'd call 'round' and 'long' what we'd call 'almond-shaped'? Or the other way round?
 
I think "tall" does equate with "round." As far as I can tell from context, though, she seemed to be saying that the young woman with "long" eyes has a double eyelid crease. She also calls the character "clear eyed" and calls her creased lids "thick."
 
I hate to say it, but at some point you end up wondering what exactly "is" means.

When "is" something authoritarian, whether you're defining this in terms of politics or psychology? Especially when discussing fiction, where the authorial intention and the reader understanding can be hugely different?

I know that, philosophically, Terry Goodkind's work is avowedly Objectivist. I know that, politically, Dan Simmons's controversial message is obviously reactionary. I suppose that, psychologically, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has something of the authoritarian in it (there's a quote of his, which I can only paraphrase poorly, along the lines of the fact that a farmer doffing his cap to a passing member of the gentry does nothing for the gentleman, but it's good for the farmer; a particularly British way, I think, of expressing a worldview that was very much concerned with class and authority).

But whether the genre of epic fantasy can be described as "conservative" (in a political sense, as opposed, I suppose, to the more artistic sense of 'small-c conservatism') or "authoritarian" (in either political or psychological senses), I'm not sure.

In the end, I think it comes down to the author.

The one part of the worldview of epic fantasy that does seem to be consistent is that it has, as Bakker has put it, epic stakes -- fate of the world and so on. These are big things well-removed from the real world, which tends to move in very small causal steps with myriad interpretations. Some epic fantasies partake in this sense of crisis more (Donaldson's Thomas Convenant series is concerned with the "dark lord" wanting to destroy time itself) and some less (Martin, where a big part of the narrative is the fact that political feuding has led to people ignoring the looming hostile ecological change), but still, there's some sort of big, major thing going on that will decide the fate of the world, etc.

Is that psychological? I can see the idea that people who tend to construe the world as a series of crises having some particular psychological cast. I am not sure that this is necessarily only an authoritarian cast, but I can buy that authoritarians (or maybe some authoritarians) are one particular group who do see the world in these terms.

Maybe it's better to say that authoritarianism tends to come out of crisis, but I'm not sure that choosing to write about crisis is inherently authoritarian.
 
Yes, that sounds like a reasonable way of putting it. As a mild modifier, I'd say that based on the research Altemeyer's book reports, it's a feature of authoritarianism to see crisis where other people will see the mixed blessings of normality, so while authoritarianism sometimes comes out of real crises, it can also come out of a false sense of crisis when actually nothing much is wrong...

I wouldn't say it's inherently authoritarian to choose to write about crisis - you need the story to be interesting, and crisis makes for drama. I think it's more that a crisis-ridden, everything's-about-to-collapse plot ends up being closer, perhaps inadvertently, to an authoritarian mindset to a more free-thinking one.

But how that translates in the real world? That's an extremely tricky question. Does it attract more authoritarian authors? More authoritarian readers? Influence people's levels of authoritarianism? Frankly, those are such big questions that I think you'd need to do some proper research in order to be able to say with any kind of - well, um, authority.
 
So does writing about massive world change automatically equal authoritarian writing? Or is it that there are certain factors within the portrayal of that massive societal change that euqal authoritarianism (in which case you could do the societal change but avoid the authoritarianism)?

I'm going on the assumption that authoritarian writing is something to be avoided, at least for purposes of this discussion.
 
That's a very interesting question. I think there's a difference between massive world change and 'the world will end if we don't destroy the Dark Thingamabob and all its followers', which is the stereotypical quest structure. 'Massive societal change' could involve more or less anything.

Authoriatarian writing to be avoided? I don't know. It would be ten kinds of wrong to say that authoritarian people are without worth; as a personality trait, as described by Altemeyer, we're talking about unquestioning obedience, lynch-mob aggression and personal hypocrisy, all of which are bad things; but as fiction? Probably it depends on the quality. The one thing I'd say is that as authoritarianism involves compartmentalised thinking, swallowing inconsistencies and double standards, that can't be good for art. It involves shutting down parts of your intelligence, and to produce good art, you always have to think with your whole mind.
 
Hmmm... you're reminding me, actually, of a couple of Sherri Tepper (sci-fi) novels in which there was massive societal change, but it's because the society in question was based on lies and/or exploitation. In the first example, there was exploitation, but it was based on misunderstanding of an alien culture, which eventually got bridged. In the second, there was exploitation based on a lie; the religious structure of a world was set up so that the humans wouldn't find out that something not so pleasant was happening to their dead. That second example set up the good versus evil/human vs other dichotomy more blantantly (it was also one of Tepper's earlier works), but I might still call it not-quite-authoritarian, because among other things the nonhumans were given a point of view: we saw that they were in an untenable situation either way, if I remember correctly. And the humans, particularly the ones in charge of the religious structure, weren't anything like bright heroes. It was an intensely disturbing book, really. Brr. I think I might reread it.

This gets back to the principle of "nearly anything that can be done can be done well -- but it might be hard" idea from before, I suppose.

Which is in turn taking me to the idea that (to simplify) the way to avoid authoritarianism is to produce quality work, which opens up a host of new questions and criteria.

(I have two half-baked novels in my life, set in the same world -- one of which is about The Common Man, so to speak, the other which is about Those Damned Nobles, and the idea of opening myself up to "authoritarian" criticisms is terrifying me -- not quite enough to abandon it but maybe change it radically. I know, I know, you can't avoid criticism. :-D)
 
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