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Thursday, September 06, 2007


Reading the whole series

Anthrophile and I have been having a discussion about - well, a whole buncha stuff in the 'Conservative controversy update' post. Anyway, she raised an interesting point that I think is worth pursuing.

I was saying, you see, that I don't think you have to read a whole series before you can judge it. Anthrophile disagrees.

I said: 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.

Then she said: 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."

What does everyone think? Come on, pick a side and join us! (Without talking about George R.R. Martin, if you please, as if you do that I can't join in.)

What I'd say in response to Anthrophile's (pretty reasonable) argument has to do with sensibility, and probability. To my mind, it's silly to say that you can't know anything about how an author thinks because of what they write. Writing is a form of self-expression, and self-expression is how we always learn what other people are like. If it's reasonable to form an opinion about someone's character from what they say - and we all do that - then it's reasonable to form an opinion from what they write.

What they write is more hemmed in by the necessities of story than what they say, but that in itself can be revealing. Think of people you know, and ask yourself: what kind of anecdotes do they tell? Those anecdotes express something about them, because the stories we tell are the stories that represent the world as we see it. Somebody self-righteous will tell stories about wrongs being done and fought against; somebody melancholic will tell stories of misfortunes; somebody who wants to be upbeat will tell funny stories; somebody who thinks well of people will tell stories about kindnesses and heroics. If someone is always telling stories about how they got back at people who cheated them, you can be pretty sure that they're a suspicious and aggressive person. Nobody always tells exactly the same kind of story every time they open their mouths, of course, but if you look at the general trend of the stories they tell, you're looking at their worldview in microcosm.

Because of that, you can get a sense of how someone's stories are likely to go quite early on. There might be a massive twist ending, of course, but did you really not see it coming? You may not have foreseen how the twist would happen, but I'd be prepared to bet that you had the sense that the story might have a twist in store from fairly early on. A story that slaps you with a totally unexpected twist takes the risk of leaving you feeling cheated and confused: it has to signal that, at the very least, the idea 'things are not always what they seem' is part of its ethos. Similarly, if you read a first chapter and find it's about a woman eating chocolates on the sofa because her boyfriend has left her, it's a fairly safe bet that romance is probably going to be seen as important. If, in the first chapter, the hero triumphantly blasts his way out of a tight spot, you probably won't be wrong to assume that this story will consider violence to be an essential part of life. If the first chapter involves nothing but nasty characters trying to screw each other over, it seems likely that this will be based on a dark view of human nature.

Having got a flavour of that, I think you've got at least a blood sample of the kind of beast you're reading. You may not be able to construct its skeleton, but you've got its DNA. In writing, every word is down there on the page because the writer made a deliberate decision to put it there. Writing is profoundly decisive; what is writer's block other than chronic indecision? And in many ways, personality can also be expressed as a series of decisions. Everyone has thoughts sometimes that are paranoid, affectionate, greedy, naive, self-sacrificing and mean; which thoughts we decide to trust are a good indicator of character. Confronted with the thought, 'Is my brother trying to get more than her share of the inheritance?', for instance, one person will think, 'I bet he is, everyone's out for themselves,'; another will think, 'No, I shouldn't mistrust my own family, I'm a bad person even to think it,'; still another will think, 'I'm not going to worry about this, everything usually works out for the best.' That's a hostile, a dutiful and a laissez-faire personality, all expressed in a single thought. Similarly, morality is a question of decisions. We may all have hostile thoughts sometimes; moral people are the ones who decide not to act upon them. Writing, worldview and morality all involve choices - and while it's not an exact forecast, we can usually take a pretty good guess as to what kind of choice someone will take next time, based on how they chose the last ten times.

Given that, I think it's reasonable to at least guess that you don't like the morality or worldview of a series you haven't finished. You don't know how the last book will end, but you know how the first chapter ended. Every plot is made up of a series of incidents, and every incident can be a holographic minature of the larger story. That's why I think it's legitimate to decide that you don't like an author's worldview without having read their whole series. After all, we don't apply that standard to non-series authors; you don't have to have read all of Graham Greene before you're entitled to say he was pessimistic. And every book is, or should be, a complete work of art in itself.

So that's what I think: a series may sometimes surprise you with its ending, but its general ethos should be evident from pretty early on. If it's not, it's an inconsistent work of art, and nobody likes those. I think you can get a feel for an author's morality almost as quickly as you can get a feel for their quality, and it's fair enough to make a call on that basis.

What do you think?

I'm with you, Kit. If the book doesn't stand on its own, then why am I reading? If I'm not allowed to say what I think about it until it's done, then no book reviewer would be able to review any books in a series until the series is complete. You can imagine how that would go over. Doesn't the publisher like to put snippets of positive reviews for the earier books in the series into the front pages of the later books in the series?

Oh, I see. We're only allowed to comment on the books in the series if we like the book. Is that it?
"Oh, I see. We're only allowed to comment on the books in the series if we like the book. Is that it?"

Now, I don't think that's even remotely close to fair.

I'm not saying that it's invalid to look at the first book, or the first chapter, or the first page of a book and say, "I don't like this, this is not for me, this is not my cup of tea" or even "well this is a lousy setup, goodbye." (And if someone isn't into the milieu in question I can easily see and understand why they wouldn't be interested in Martin, no matter where he eventually goes in the series.)

I'm saying it's kind of silly to run down a list of "The author is clearly doing A, B, and C here, which I disagree with and find downright immoral" based on an incomplete reading, especially when it's pointed out that no, the author has actually done, and intended to do all along, was F, G, and Q, which you said you LIKED and wanted to see more of in fantasy."

One should admit that it's the milieu one has the problem with. One can admit that it just leaves a bad taste in one's mouth from the get go. Which is fine and doesn't cause any loss of face in my book.

Especially in a series, I feel an author should have the right to create some setup. I don't have to go along for the ride -- I have every right to not have the patience for it, not put up with it, not bother, go do something more to my liking. But if I don't get in the vehicle with the rest of the class, I'm certainly not going to then try and tell them where they've gone, what they've seen, and what they did there.
(Actually, this is a major drawback of the fantasy genre, actually, in my book --- too much reliance on these three-plus book series.)
Can we widen the discussion beyond fantasy? Because, at least as far as I was talking, I think the same issue can apply to any book in any genre.

It's not so much what the author's 'doing' in any one chapter that's likely to put me off; it's more how they see things, their general persona. You don't, for instance, anticipate everything that James Ellroy is going to do in his books - in fact, he's remarkably good at hinting that nasty things are happening and then surprising you with something even nastier than you would have thought - but you don't have to read more than a chapter or two to pick up that he's writing about a world where corruption, alienation, machismo, aggression and cynicism are essential parts of the day-to-day experience. And if the first chapter is dark and cynical, then it doesn't seem silly to me to assume that the book as a whole is probably going to be cynical.

That's not necessarily a problem with the milieu. (Not that I have a particular problem with James Ellroy; he's just a good example of an author with a strong ethos.) It can be more like getting stuck on the bus listening to the rantings of someone whose attitude you don't like. You don't know everything about that person, but you know that you don't like their company. It's perfectly possible for someone to like, say, Sara Paretsky and dislike James Ellroy, who are writing in the same milieu, purely because they prefer Paretsky's company.

It sounds to me as if you're seeing ethos as evidenced in the plot, and I'm seeing it as evidenced in the tone. Does that sound right?
I'm seeing ethos evidenced in the plot in one particular example which I want to move beyond but keep getting sucked back into! :-D I blame myself. (My inability to quickly think up examples is the bane of my existence. Well, one of the banes. I'm sure I'll wake up at three AM tonight with a full essay of what-I-should-have-said in my head.) I am not sure where the narrative sympathy lies, which is why I'm still into the darn thing -- for me, that's pretty new.

As I said -- I think the particular reliance on long, drawn out series is a detriment to the fantasy genre for just that reason. Ideally, a novel should be self contained. In my (subjective) opinion, nearly all the best ones are. So is it fair that I'm giving fantasy special dispensation? I don't know if it's fair. I don't know if that's even what I'm doing. (I do think that it's probably part of what's keeping the genre from being taken very seriously.) And I do know that it's specifically the market-genre of fantasy where I keep hearing about authors taking one long book and splitting it into two or three, sometimes just because the physical paper binding just can't take it. Can I legitimately do an in-depth analysis of part one without part two just because it's divided into those (essentially arbitrary) pieces?

All this to say, no, I don't think the first novel in a fantasy series has to be self-contained; it would be nice, but that's not among my own, personal criteria for finishing it or tossing it to the wayside.
Because the standards are different; there is the whole question of world creation, from the writing side, and especially marketing, from the, er, marketing side, that operates differently for high fantasy works than for other types of literature. (I've been told that your average U.S. publisher won't even touch a high-fantasy one-shot unless an author is the King of Luck, or established.) At this point in my reading life, I do believe the serial nature of most fantasy works against it, in terms of quality if not sales -- but I also believe that especially with fantasy, it's more publicly acceptable to hurl judgments against it as inherently flawed, juvenile, low-brow, et cetera; often dressed up in fancier terms and justifications, but essentially boiling down to "those are baby stories." (aka simplistic, aka not literary, aka "for sheep.") Which is a dismissal of the milieu in a way that other genres are simply not judged. So yeah, defensive over here.

"After all, we don't apply that standard to non-series authors; you don't have to have read all of Graham Greene before you're entitled to say he was pessimistic. And every book is, or should be, a complete work of art in itself."

Again, I find myself almost on board with this, but not quite. If I read a non-serial work by Graham Greene where the predominant theme is pessimism, I don't know that I'm free to then conclude that Greene is pessimistic. I can conclude that perhaps he was in a pessimistic period at the time, or postulate that he saw literary value in pessimism, but I can't without greater familiarity with his oeuvre just conclude that he was a pessimist -- I can't be that much of a New Historicist critic. And if others with greater familiarity come back at me with "no, actually he wrote that one on a lark, and here is his large body of humorous farce works" or "here is his flip-side companion piece he wrote to make fun of pessimists that was meant to be bound and sold with the book you have there" I'm gonna have to take their word for it.

So no, I don't have to read everything he wrote to conclude that the one novel I have in my hands is pessimistic overall (or to, quite reasonably, conclude that I'm not interested in finishing it), but I should probably read more than the first chapter of this particular pessimistic novel before I specifically conclude that Greene supports Communism as a social structure, or gives to charity, or doesn't know anything about the time period he's using, or voted Green, or believes childhood innocence is the pinnacle of all virtues, or beats his wife, or ignores the working classes...or that he is just generally unaware and oblivious to a set of criteria I have set up in my heart as comprising the whole duty and function of responsible literature. Reading one book of the hypothetical fantasy series is akin to reading the first chapter of the hypothetical Greene.

We can make the assumptions, sure, and they can be valid assumptions, but it's based on a limited sample. One can say with perfect accuracy that this particular snippet/chapter of a tale embraces yadda yadda such and such a type of world view. But a story isn't a milk jug. Nor is a writing career. One has to accept, when making such a judgment, that one may later be proven wrong -- otherwise what's the validity in, for example, a twist ending? (God, I used to hate those. I'm better now. :-)

I don't like Terry Goodkind. (Back to fantasy. Kit, I am so sorry.) I can say this without reservation or the slightest twinge of guilt. I will never finish his magnum opus, and I knew I was going to hate it from the first chapter of "Wizard's First Rule."

But my decision wasn't based on -- and I'm not going to go and write extensive essays or online arguments about -- the scary, objectivist, murderously anti-pacifist, Randian philosophies he's become famous for -- I haven't read them, and didn't gather them from the selection that I read. I can only say that I tossed the book based on the fact that his descriptions were trite and unappealing (I ought to have known I was getting another wizard-on-the-mountaintop tale from the title, huh), and his sentences clunky. I can comment on the way he talks (down) to fans, and the fact that I think he's not a very nice person -- this I've witnessed, and I have no problem extrapolating from that that I probably wouldn't approve of any world view he espouses.

I'm never going to read the "Touched By Dragons" trilogy by Janine Cross -- this is supposed to be a deeply feminist work, which I am in favor of, but what I read of the thing depicted in great detail a radical clitoridectomy and then utterly glossed over the logical consequences of such a thing in later life. I have no idea if the book succeeded in illustrating some feminist principles. For certain readers, it apparently did. I cannot judge them, I didn't finish the thing. But I know that I found it sensationalist and careless, and I don't and won't like it.

I can say "I don't like this," I can even go so far as to say with some accuracy "this is going to be the ethos/tone/atmosphere." But I don't believe I can say "this is what it's saying, and this is its merit, and this is what the author intends, and here are its themes, and this is its place in history/canon/etc." To attempt to do so... blows my mind. (And I feel that's what JMcM tried to do.) Same as critics get lambasted when they write reviews of movies they walked out of, or books where they only read the blurb. Same as people fail classes if they're caught pulling those stunts.

I don't think any snippet should utterly define an author. Am I making the arena of argument too broad?

For assignments and just to challenge myself, I've written short stories from the POV of characters that I hated. Orson Scott Card (who just confuses the hell out of me, let me admit it right now) is a homophobe, if I go by essays he's written and statements he's made, yet he's been able to write gay characters with depth and loving care. When does a writer get to experiment, or challenge his/her comfort level?

I'm not saying that to infer is bad, I'm saying it can be taken too far.

And this is all pretty difficult for me to sort through and hash out because I agree with much of what JMcM said, although my own problem with the issue he lists (e.g. fantasies have a tendency to focus on, shall we say, maintaining/restoring the status quo) is less ideological and more abject boredom.

Not that I want to oppress the working classes or anything.
Dude. You need to rein me in.
Well ... I have the feeling that a fair amount of what you say is still kind of arguing with what McCalmont said, about sheep and politics and stuff. If you wanna rein in, all I can say is, it wasn't me said any of it!

I wouldn't conclude that an author was a pessimist in their personal life because of their books; often your writing persona and your living persona are different. But then, the writing persona is all I'm likely to come into contact with, so the living persona isn't really my business.

Obviously you can't say everything about a writer based on a small sampling of their work; that would be silly. All I really think is that you can often take a fairly good guess.

It comes down to what you're capable of, in my experience. I've written surreal comedy, graphic chick-fic sex, action and thriller stuff and magic realism - but the thing is, all those different stories have a certain quality in common. They're like different tunes written in the same key. That's because, to quote Ogden Nash, 'I only write like me'; I can't write like anybody else, and whatever I'm writing, it's always got a certain quality to it that's created by my personality. There are certain moods and states of being that I'm not capable of, so I can't put them in my fiction. The same applies for every other writer.

So if I put, say, pessimism in my fiction, it doesn't prove that I'm entirely pessimistic, but it does prove conclusively that I'm capable of pessimism. And that in itself is a personality trait. And while you could argue that everyone is capable of everything, I don't think everyone is capable of everything to a sufficient degree to write convincing fiction out of it. You have to believe in it enough to make other people believe in it.

Of course someone might get proved wrong in making a judgement based on this, but that's true of anything we ever say. (Including this.) Doesn't mean we're wrong to say it. If we let fear of being wrong silence us, we'll never talk at all.

A single aside...

'Which is a dismissal of the milieu in a way that other genres are simply not judged.'

Dude, I've got one thing to say about that: romantic fiction. Fantasy ain't the only ghetto out there.
By the way, I did want to mention earlier, and now seems an opportune time to sneak it in, that I like your quote from the other comment thread very much, Kit:

...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.

(And I think that for just the reason you state here, the word "morality" is still the one that's tripping me up, far moreso than the issues of ethos, tone, or quality of work. Which is also disturbing, as I don't know how much of a relativist that makes me.)


Well ... I have the feeling that a fair amount of what you say is still kind of arguing with what McCalmont said, about sheep and politics and stuff.

Touche, and:

Dude, I've got one thing to say about that: romantic fiction. Fantasy ain't the only ghetto out there.

Touche, touche, tooSHAY. And also ouch. There are ghettoes enough to go 'round, it seems. I wonder if that's a function of gender bias, a little bit?

If you wanna rein in, all I can say is, it wasn't me said any of it!

You know, it did occur to me I was probably having the wrong debate, there. I must be more organized in my thinking! Especially in other people's blogs.

Essentially I think there is far more agreement than disagreement here: Of course you can take a pretty good guess, in general, based on a sampling -- I do so myself, fairly regularly (see above examples), otherwise I would go into bookstores and buy everything I set my hands on like some form of psychopath. The dismissive tone that I was protesting wasn't yours, and I ought to have been clearer about differentiating. (I was getting sort of obsessive-compulsive about particulars -- it's those particulars that were making my heart palpitate, there. Did I mention I copyedit for a living? We have mental issues.:-D)

I have to confess -- "anyone being able to write everything" convincingly is sort of a pet ideal of mine, though, which influences my... what, impluse to play Devil's Advocate? Kind of like Nirvana -- the chances of my encountering it any time soon are less than zero, but I like to dream of genius.
Are we talking about series that are supposed to be some defined number of books long, or series that just keep going with the same characters? (The first seems more typical of fantasy, the second of mystery.)

Especially for the latter example, I don't think you can judge a series based on a single book; I've seen too many that change, over the years -- I don't get the impression that the entire series is planned out in the same way that a set of 3 or 7 or 11 books is planned. You can like -- as I often do -- early books by some author, and not later books by the same one. Because in large part, I find these books are very responsive to readers, and possibly the authors get bored of some characters.

But of the defined series ideas -- I think you can judge it based on one book, sometimes, but you need to be careful. Taking, as an easy example, the Harry Potter books, Philosopher's Stone was light (and short), while the books got progressively darker and more adult. Now, this isn't a surprise: you can tell in book one that it will end with some sort of fight between good and evil, that as Harry grows things will get more complex -- but you cannot entirely know how this will happen, so you're lacking a lot of information to judge the series. I don't think you can really judge the worldview of something half-done -- sure, you might know there will be a twist, but the way that twist plays out is crucially important to an overall message. You can discourse on the message intended by this book, but it's incomplete information.

It's like judging a short story collection based on a single story -- you can tell if you like the author's style, but you cannot say if the collection is coherent, etc.

Generally one book is enough, but if a large number of people say that X book is not representative of the whole series, then it's time to consider that in this case you're missing something.

(I've never read Martin, having been entirely unable to get into book one.))
When I'm writing, I try to get across the characters' worldview(s), not my own. Of course it'll seep in there, but reading my alt hist novels you might be forgiven for attributing to me views I don't hold. If you don't, I probably haven't succeeded in my aim of presenting the character, not me.

I remember reading a story in slush not so long ago and thinking, "well this character is obviously a total shit, so perhaps it's a redemption story, but honestly I don't care enough about this person to want them redeemed." And I stopped reading. Is it unreasonable to judge the whole story by the opening? Yes. It is unreasonable to decide you don't believe readers will engage with it? No.

I'm still scratching my head over Liz Williams' "Banner of Souls", which I've read twice, coming no nearer to deciding who's the protagonist and/or whose side I'm meant to be on. Perhaps that ambiguity is part of the point--I'd have to read more of her work to find out. Perhaps it's just me. The more you read of an author's work, the more you're able to detect patterns. Perhaps moral ambiguity is a hallmark; perhaps it's a mistake.

Judge each book by its contents; judge the author (if you must!) by their body of work. It's often struck me that if I'd started reading x author's work with y book, I'd never have carried on. So much depends on where you start.
Me, I'm talking about more or less anything... I think there's another distinction worth making: series that are planned to be, say, a six-part series because the author has worked out the structure and six books are what it needs, and, on the other hand, series that have six parts because the author just kept going that long.

The former is more likely to support a 'you have to read it all' argument, as the author will have known in advance what everything tends towards and deliberately left stuff out. In effect, it'll be one book in six parts.

With the latter, each book is more likely to be entirely representative, as each had everything the author could think of at the time put in there, because they're six separate books. The one you've got in your hands may not be the best example, but it's a reasonably representative one.

(Of course, the author themselves may have changed considerably between writing books one and six, in which case they may not match each other very well, but that's another situation again. They start representing a changing consciousness, and in that case, I tend to find the change the author is undergoing more interesting that their books.)

Anyway in the latter case, there's two variations: books that depend on you having read all the previous ones, and books that are self-contained. I'd guess that the former are more like fantasy and the latter more like mystery.

With series where you'll miss a lot of the point if you come in halfway through, but which are not planned as a definite structure, I'd say there's more scope for slack plotting. That doesn't mean every book of that kind is slackly plotted, but I think an author can bury carelessness more easily in a series that has no fixed endings, either the end of the series, or the end of the has-to-be-self-contained book.

I think that's one reason why I personally prefer self-contained books, on the whole: they make the author be more disciplined. I'm not entirely consistent on that - one of my favourite authors is Antonia White, and her autobiographical novels are definitely a sequence - but then, no rules about reading work if they're entirely rigid.
'Judge each book by its contents; judge the author (if you must!) by their body of work.'

... Sounds pretty sensible to me.

On the other hand, just to be contrarian, I think sometimes you can be right about authors based on a small sampling. I've read the whole of The Fountainhead, heaven help me, and also a biography and several articles about Ayn Rand - but having read the first chapter of The Fountainhead, none of the rest of it surprised me. Of course, Rand was a very extreme personality; with more normal authors it may be harder to call...
Having explicit didactic goals, as Rand had, tends to make it easier to pick out details about an author's intentions in just one work.

I'd certainly agree with the idea that a planned series is more like a novel in parts, and that drawing conclusions from the first part of a novel may not be all that wise when dealing with many (perhaps even most) authors.
Well, yeeesss... But then, it's an essential element of Rand's personality that she was didactic. It wasn't just theoretical, it was temperamental: didacticism was present in cases where it was not called for. Couple of examples to back up that assertion:

- Rand insisted that it was a moral imperative for right-thinking people to smoke. Her rationale was that a lit cigarette symbolised the fire of the creative mind - but as she wore a dollar-sign brooch, she proved through her own actions that it was possible to symbolise her philosophy with non-carcinogenic accessories. The fact that she would cast a simple nicotine addiction as a theoretical stance suggests a personality for whom a physical desire had to be presented as resulting from a moral imperative, even when the moral imperative was clearly a rationalisation of the physical desire.

- In hospital recovering from surgery after lung cancer (which she insisted couldn't be, as she had no 'false premises' to make her sick), doctors advised her to get out of bed and walk around, to reduce the risk of embolism or pneumonia. As walking around was painful, she angrily refused, with, according to biographer Barbara Branden, the phrase 'It's irrational to demand it'. The fact that she was refusing to do something that greatly improved her chances of staying alive, purely because she (understandably) didn't want to do something that hurt, but felt that the only way to object was to call it 'irrational', again suggests a personality that couldn't or wouldn't separate 'I don't want' from 'It should never be', that didn't know how to present personal wishes except as didactic mandates.

And that didacticism comes out in her extremely emotional writing. It was the high emotional tone rather than the philosophy that leaped out at me from the first chapter; I was unsurprised ever after because her temperament was clear from the first page, and I found everything that she did and wrote consistent with such a personality - more so, in examples like the ones above, than with her official philosophy.

You see what I mean? You can often pick up an author's personality faster than you can pick up every element of their philosophy. But people choose philosophies that harmonise with their personalities: at least when it comes to fiction, I'd say that personality is more of a ruling force than anything more theoretical.
Interesting anecdotes about Rand. Goodness.

I do get what you're saying. The very act of wanting to inform or educate or entertain can say something about the personality of the individual. The more overt this goal is in the fiction, the easier it'd probably be to pick out the individual behind the words.

Assuming that's right, it would then seem to me that those who are, by temperament, didactic wear their hearts on their sleeves a bit more than those who "simply" want to entertain (of course there's nothing necessarily simple in that). Looping back to the controversy about epic fantasy, I think many writers in the genre see themselves as entertainers and storytellers first.

I can figure out something of Guy Gavriel Kay and Terry Goodkind and Stephen R. Donaldson from their works. Robert E. Howard, too. But ... I don't know, David Gemmell? Michael Moorcock, circa the first Elric stories? I'm not so sure. Then again, I just realized that the last three would be placed as sword-and-sorcery rather than epic fantasy, and maybe that makes a difference.

Maybe Raymond Feist would be a better example of an epic fantasist whose personality strikes me as rather inscrutable based on what I've read of his writings in the genre.
Gonna have to take your word on all of those writers, as I've read little to nothing of any of them! :-)

But yes, I think that didactic-minded writers are inevitably easier to make a judgement call on. Often they reveal a lot about themselves without intending to; I'm not sure Rand, for instance, intended to communicate that she was a sadomasochist (or at least had the tastes of one), but it's hard to miss when you read her books.

With more 'storytelling' books, especially ones where authors try to give lots of different characters well-rounded personalities, I think you get books that are more open to different readings. People see their own personalities reflected.

That takes us back to some pretty fundamental definition requirements. How can a work 'be' authoritarian, or anything else? You can, assuming you use caution and common sense, make a reasonable assessment of the personalities of other people, so if you've got good grounds for saying that the author was authoritarian, then you can probably tie that to their work.

But what if you want to separate the work from its author? Can it be authoritarian? I'd say not: authoritarianism is a personality trait, and books aren't persons. Do we mean that it lends itself to an authoritarian reading more easily than a non-authoritarian one? That it'll attract authoritarian readers? That it'll influence people to be authoritarian?

The last of those is one of those horribly unprovable speculations, but I think the first, at least, can be considered. Some stories lend themselves to a wide variety of different interpretations; the Godfather movies, for example, get seen totally differently by different people. I see them as the story of a perdition; my boyfriend sees them as the story of a man so consumed with the desire to be secure that he winds up with nothing left worth securing; his dad sees them as the story of a man doing what he has to do with no other choice ... Our varying personalities saw varying things. Tolkien, another epic fantasy author I haven't read much of, gets variously interpreted as a bastion of imperialism and a radical anti-capitalist; it's hard to see how he could be both, but there's grounds for both views in his work, because it's complicated.

On the other hand, didactic, aggressive personalities are more likely to produce works that have less flexibility in interpretation. There's no reasonable way you could see The Fountainhead as a treatise on Christian charity, or Sin City as a feminist plea for liberal policing.

So if someone wanted to separate the authors' personalities from those works, but still call them authoritarian or something similar, I think they could manage it, working with the definition 'lends itself to this interpretation far more readily than to its opposite'. But arguements often get confused when the terms aren't clear, and words like 'conservative' and 'authoritarian' are in themselves open to different interpretations and applications...
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