Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why realism does not equate to adult (or even good) fantasy

That foul smell in the air? There’s something rotten in the realm of fantasy fiction, and its name is realism.

Two of the blogs I frequent and another one I’ve recently stumbled across have all recently commented on (and lamented about) a new trend gripping fantasy these days: Realism, and the corresponding claim that it somehow makes fantasy more adult and serious.

Lagomorph Rex of Dweomera Lagomorpha says that the new trend leaves him cold: It’s no secret that I dislike the current trend in Fantasy. It’s almost as if every author has decided they will up the misery and muck quotient and see who can make the nastiest world in which to force their characters to try and survive in.

To read the rest of this post,
visit The Black Gate website.


Greg Gorgonmilk said...

Realism is a crock, agreed. One of the nice things about being an adult is that I get to decide what constitutes adultness. That's right. I don't need to confer with English professors or grad students or random people with tastes I find boring -- I can determine for myself what has depth and meaning.

David J. West said...

Great post Brian.
I find it absurd that any fantasy fan/writer would claim their pet piece is more realistic than anothers-MUCH LESS Tolkiens' lifetime grand opus.

Please until someone spends their LIFE working on it they haven't got a leg to stand on.

Wickedmurph said...

Interesting - I'm very much in favor of a dirtier, more unpleasant fantasy books. I'm tired of the shiny-ass shite that I've had to put up with in the past. And this is in no way recent - Glen Cook and the Thieves World series were doing it over 30 years ago.

So lament away - you can always cuddle your copies of REH's Conan to remind you of all that un-realistic... wait - no you can't, because that's really where the trend to more "realistic" fantasy started.

I don't see you complaining that "Red Nails" was too miserable and mucky...

Greg Gorgonmilk said...

@Wickedmurph: I don't consider any of those examples to be particularly realistic at all.

Eric D. Lehman said...

I'm pretty sure 'realism' is the wrong word for this sub-genre.

Andy said...

This trend reminds me very much of what went on in superhero comic books back in the mid-80s, when Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns came out - a lot of posturing by writers who thought they could get some quick notoriety by throwing more gore and sex in what were otherwise the same old stories. There was a brilliant Evan Dorkin comic strip parodying this by showing a single panel decade-by-decade, with the only changes being the increasingly foul language and the decreasing amount of clothing on a female character :)

I just started reading Paul Kearney's Corvus and it occurred to me that one of the things I like about Kearney is that he writes tough without having to be a show-off about it, looking like he's overcompensating for something. In fact, if you look harder, what you find is that underneath all the combat and the harsh societies he writes about, his work is often quite sensitive. Same with David Gemmell.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with realism by itself, but often realism is really a euphemism for brechtian relativism, as you would find in the works of alan moore who excoriates modern fiction for its lack of imagination while recycling the old and tired marxist tropes of bashing western civilization and heroism.
For most of the so-called edgy writers, their contempt for normal people is couched in realism, its a way of saying everyone who is like me is fucked because i see their hypocrisy and everything alien to me is noble because they prescribe to older savage notions that excite me. See George RR Martin for this.
Now to read the article.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Thanks for the mention, I'm practically a celebrity now.. I got quoted on Black Gate!

Wickedmurph said...

I'm down with agreeing that realism is a bad title for the sub-genre.

But if you're going to call books like "The Steel Remains" part of a specific sub-genre, which stylistically it is, then it's worth considering where the sub-genre came from.

I would argue that authors like REH in the '30 and Glen Cook in the 80's introduced different elements into the fantasy genre - elements like horror, military fiction and murky good/evil distinctions.

Those elements, with the addition of graphic sex, seem to be tied to the sub-genre that Brian's taking issue with here. Realistic isn't a great word for it though.

It's not a genre that's for everyone, though. Nice thing about modern fantasy is that there is plenty to choose from.

onelastsketch said...

Thanks for the mention, Brian. I plan on doing a post on fantasy & postmodernism (or at least poststructuralism) soon enough, which will flesh out my position a bit more.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Onelastsketch/Lagomorph: I hope you don't mind the plugs here and on Black Gate. Your blogs, combined with my own thoughts, coalesced into this post.

Anonymous: That's a great point: perhaps it's relativism, not realism, that I'm arguing against. Fiction that debases heroes by lowering everyone into the same mire and lacks any sort of moral compass is tiresome.

Wickedmurph: Red Nails has some pretty horrific stuff in it, but the difference is that REH doesn't wallow in it, or rub his readers' noses in the grue. Morgan could learn a thing or two about suggestive writing from Howard.

Odrook said...

I think part of the reason I prefer fantasy fiction over supposedly-realistic fiction is simply because it doesn't pretend to be realistic. I get sick of books, shows, movies, any instance of storytelling that pretends to be realistic because it eschews overtly surreal storytelling tools and yet uses the interactions of the characters and situations depicted not to simulate realistic personalities but to create a metaphor for human nature or some other theme. If two or three characters represent aspects of a single complete persona, why not just admit that's what's going on the way Philip K Dick did in VALIS?

Also - wow, someone other than me citing Prof. Drout? Kudos! Are you a former student of his as well, or is he finally getting real recognition in the wider world?

Lagomorph Rex said...

No, actually I've rather enjoyed the idea of saying something interesting enough to be quoted!

Brian Murphy said...

Odrook: That's an excellent point. Take Tolkien's orcs: Critics like to paint them as one-dimensionally evil, but in a sense they are one piece of Tolkien's statement about the multi-faceted nature of evil. Orcs are humans that lay aside loyalty when it conflicts with their own self-interests (i.e., they're selfish, and self-centered). Wraiths represent something twisted, the evil of a corporate bureaucracy or autocratic government that sets aside morality for profit and gain. And so on. See Tom Shippey's "Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien’s Images of Evil" in his recommended collection Roots and Branches.

As for professor Drout, no, I'm not a student, though I wish I had the opportunity to attend one of his classes. I was introduced to him through his audio book overview of fantasy literature Rings, Swords, and Monsters.

Jason said...

Sorry I have to disagree with a lot of what you are saying. In particular this part

' As for “humanity at its worst,” how can one forget the incredible pathos of Denethor, the poor deceived Southrons, the treacherous Saruman, and the unforgettable Gollum?'

A lot of what the so called 'realistic' fantasy authors are showing humanity at its worst. Not humans or wizards that have been corrupted through other means (im not 100% on my lord of the rings) but all of those characters are to some extent put under Saurons/the rings 'spell' its not through them being human. Maybe im a pessimist but real life is a - once you remove the 'fantasy' elements - hell of a lot more like the steel remains than the lord of the rings.

You use GRRM as an example of how the 'realist' fantasy can be done correctly, yet you say thats its better because of the superior plotting and characters etc. Yet isnt the point you are trying to make - in a round about way - that there is no need for excessive sex scenes etc? When Martin himself uses very graphic language to describe such scenes.

I for one like both the 'traditional' fantasy and the newer darker fantasy (though i do prefer the latter) yes everyone uses the genre as escapism to some extent but for the same reason as i dont like reading rubbish i dont want to read some half arsed story where the characters are more 2 dimensional than super mario brothers. However. i can see where your argument is coming from but personally i think you've just been dying to have a crack at Richard Morgan since he mocked the lord of the rings and now you are doing it

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Jason, that bit you've quoted is actually from Al Harron at The Blog That Time Forgot, not me, although I agree with Al's argument. The Lord of the Rings is not as black and white as its critics make it out to be.

You might think that Denethor, Gollum, etc. are acting selfishly or even evil because they were overcome by the One Ring, but there are many critics who've convincingly argued (Tom Shippey among them) that the Ring acts as a psychic amplifier: In other words, the evil is already in them; the One Ring just amplifies these qualities. They still have a choice. It's a pretty cool theory and I think it's probably the truth of the matter. It makes Frodo's actions at the Crack of Doom a true failure--he chose not to throw the Ring in the fire out of his own weakness.

The point of my post was not that grim/graphic fantasy was worse than stuff like The Lord of the Rings, but that it's not inherently more adult. Sex and violence are not adult issues, other than as designated by movie ratings and so forth. I happen to think that the issues Tolkien grapples with--including the nature of evil, absolute power, free will vs. predestination, etc.--are far more adult than a shallow pot-boiler of a novel that features disembowelings and blowjobs. That's the long and short of it.

As for Morgan, I actually gave The Steel Remains a 3 1/2 star review (flawed, but recommended). But yes, I still think his comment was incredibly unfair and betrays a profound ignorance of the material he was commenting on.