Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A few thoughts on The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists

In joining with it seems everyone else on the internet I thought I would weigh in on Leo Grin’s The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists . I felt reluctant to do so at first and I still feel that way to some degree, since I respect Grin and the wonderful work he’s done at The Cimmerian, and I much prefer to comment on art and not the man (or woman) behind the works. But that’s what I’m doing here, commenting on the essay itself. So here goes.

Leo seems to be drawing most of his flak for the political commentary in his post. He would have been better served (in my opinion) to keep his post to a critique of art. But in his defense Big Hollywood is a political website and he feels passionately about that stuff. He's a big man and been at this for a long time; like it or hate it he said his piece.

I am not as adamantly opposed to grimly realistic fantasy literature as Grin, even if its terminus is “nihilism.” I’m on record as liking A Song of Ice and Fire. I have had Joe Abercrombie on my to be read list for quite some time. I enjoy some of this stuff as a palate cleanser.

That said, I don’t prefer a steady diet of realism in my fantasy (one Red Wedding is enough, thanks). As I’ve said before the new wave of shock and awe/ grim and dark/whatever you want to call it fantasy literature is not inherently better or more adult than stuff like Tolkien and Howard. In fact, I think it’s the work of an adult to try to make something of this life, not revel and roll about in the muck. Fantasy literature can shock, surprise, and provide edge-of-your-seat storytelling. It can strive to present an accurate depiction of the squalor of Medieval life and the terrible carnage of the battlefields of the era. That’s all fine. But it can also aspire to something more, and at its best it does.

I often ask myself: Why do I like fantasy? I like swords and armor and medieval settings. I like wizards, as long as their magic is dark and mysterious and unpredictable. Monsters are cool. In other words, I like the trappings of the genre. Although, like Grin, I also don’t have the patience anymore for multi-tome epic fantasy, which is why I studiously avoid series like The Wheel of Time. Tolkien gets some flak for starting this trend, but the hardbound The Lord of the Rings I have sitting on my bookshelf checks in at a slim 1,008 pages--all three "books" (Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) combined. To put that in perspective, Martin’s A Storm of Swords, alone, is nearly as long as LOTR.

I also like books that have something to say about the human condition. Tolkien does, and Howard and Poul Anderson do to some degree. I just finished listening to the audio book of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men: While not fantasy, that book certainly does. While it has many other fine qualities, I’m not so sure I can say the same (yet) about A Song of Ice and Fire. Then again maybe I'm being too hard on Martin; I think what he's doing with the character of Jaime Lannister for example is pretty amazing.

I also like fantasy works that are mythic. This is much harder to explain or quantify. It’s what draws me to Anderson, to E.R. Eddison, to Tolkien, and also to newer works like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Perhaps a better question to ask is, why do I like myths? Maybe because they provide a framework for how the world works, other than everything is crap. I already know that politicians are corrupt and war is hell; what else do you got?

In the end I have a hard time explaining this stuff, but I do know that works like The Steel Remains don't feel particularly mythic to me. They feel ordinary and de-mythologized, and not very, well, fantas-tic.


nephite blood spartan heart said...

I haven't felt like commenting much of anywhere about this (though I do enjoy Al's pieces)

I found it ironic that the three fantasy writers I have been enjoying most of late are Tolkien, Howard and Abercrombie.

and can I just add

DAMN! I wish the Cimmerian was still going.

Brian Murphy said...

Me too David, that was a fun time with shieldwalls-a-clashing.

Anonymous said...

My problem with fantasy has been precisely the opposite of Big Hollywood's. I find fantasy's conservatism - as in, its lack of new ideas or genre changes - to be its main problem. Its become hideously conformist, trapped within the fantasy trilogy style. "Genre" is an inherently conservative thing, but one can still hope that writers in a genre can find new ways to express the genre, new ideas and forms. To do this requires experimentation, and inevitably some of this experimentation is going to involve kicking back at or (to quote Big Hollywood) "soiling" the original forms. But so what? That's what change is built on.

Fundamentally Big Hollywood doesn't like this because it's change, and it might involve bring social or political critique into (shock!) art. They should relax. The novel survived Dickens and Hardy, I'm sure the fantasy genre will survive a bit of "gritty realism."

(Also, American critics should remember that what is profanity in America is dinner table conversation in the UK, and expect different things of British authors).

As an aside, I liked American Gods but I thought it was a huge drop in standard for Gaiman. The writing was pedestrian compared to his previous work.

Lagomorph Rex said...

my biggest problem with American Gods is.. apart from the fact Gaiman had obviously never had mead and thus had no idea what it tasted like (pickle brine.. really?) was well.. the fact that it sucked.. I've never really thought all that much of Gaiman.. I was unimpressed with Sandman.. didn't like good omens.. Star Dust was pretty good.. though i liked the film more.. and Beowulf.. well He deserves a good kicking for that mess.

Personally I don't have a problem with things not changing.. I prefer change to come slowly.. if it comes at all..

Anonymous said...

Gaimain's Beowulf is a perfect example. Not only did he feel the need to paint a heroic character as a liar and a hypocrite, its a complete charlton heston "damn you all to hell" on the fantasy genre for looking to this old method of heroism. Its a deconstruction that exists solely to say "bet you won't think highly of beowulf now, let's go read some marx"

Andy Bartlett said...

Bloody hell! Neil Gaiman's Beowulf is some kind of Marxist tract. That is some Breitbart loopy juice you are drinking there. Or perhaps, what counts as Communism in America is pretty conservative over here, working in a similar way to trans-Atlantic profanity, as Faustusnotes notes.

More on topic - I like my fantasy in many flavours, but it is perfectly possible to have an epic story on a mythic level with terribly flawed 'heroes'. Please see: all of Greek myth. Or, pretty much any Knight of the Round Table (excepting maybe Galahad and Percival).

Brian Murphy said...

Huh, I liked American Gods quite a lot and that's the only Gaiman I've read, outside of a short story or two. I should run out and pick up Neverwhere then, or perhaps the Sandman?

You make some good points, Faustusnotes. My biggest problem is the current delivery of fantasy, which seems to require multi volumes of turgid, 1,000-page at a whack "worldbuilding." My cynical side says it's all a function of publishing--why sell one good fantasy novel for $15, when you can sell the same novel, stretched over 5 books, for $75?

Regarding Beowulf, I definitely found it a mixed bag. The problem I had with it was it felt too ordinary. The film reduces an epic poem to this: Angela Jolie is hot, Hrothgar and Beowulf can't keep it in their pants, and the result is ruin. Ho hum.

Brer said...

In Neil Gaiman's blog he has stated that he has tasted sweet honey-flavored mead (usually given him by people who brewed it themselves) and commercial mead that tasted like pickle brine, and thought it funnier if his hero Shadow got the latter.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, "anonymous" shows about the level of "thought" required of cultural criticism in the new American right. Someone makes a movie where Beowulf isn't perfect and suddenly it's marxist? What crap.

I agree about the turgid modern fantasy novel, Brian. I'd rather read grim heroes using "profanity" than suffer through another 1000 pages of cheap knock-off Mills and Boon in castles. Of course no-one at Big Hollywood is going to consider it, but maybe these "grim, realistic, profane" stories are trying to tear down the structure of modern fantasy, and have nothing to say about its (well respected) origins.

About American Gods: the plot is fun but it's far below Gaiman's usual standard of inventiveness, descriptiveness or prose style. It's just weak. For a better idea of what Gaiman is capable of you need Neverwhere or Stardust, imo.

Trey said...

Good post, Brian.

In general, these sorts of debates frustrate me, because I find myself somewhat in the middle and never able to fully agree with both sides.

I like older styles of fantasy, and don't see that they need to be reconstructed or deconstructed. I'm not much concerned with the "moral deficiencies" modern readers might find in Howard or whoever.

On the other hand, it strikes me as silly that the desire to inject modern thought or different viewpoints in fantasy is viewed as horrible, or as a covert part of some "culture war." And the hyperbole of the rhetoric is sometimes risible: one may not like Gaiman's Beowolf (and I find it pedestrinian and a missed oppurtunity) but it isn't a left-leaning assault on the very nature of heroism by any means. The idea that heroes may be followed isn't a new thing (it's as old as the Greeks, at least) and to trip use of a hoary literary trope as revolution borders on paranoia.

Likewise, the pretend that new novels are wallowing in the muck by having anti-heroes, or less than morally unimpeachable and the like is also an overreach, I think. No matter how much you I've seen people jump through hoops to attempt to wring this reading from Howard, Conan is not a white knight--nor is Lancelot really, for that matter.

I guess I just wish people could not like stuff without having have to be morally bad.

Oh, and I agree on Steel Remains. While its got some interesting ideas, it doesn't have a fantasy feel really, it comes across more as science fiction, ad honestly somewhat mundane science fiction.

Andy Bartlett said...

Oh, and if you want fantasy written by a proper Marxist, try China Mieville - Iron Council is good fun.

Michal said...

You might find this interesting, Brian.

Brian Murphy said...

Trey: I'm in the same boat as you. While I prefer older forms of fantasy (Tolkien, Howard, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Poul Anderson, etc.) I like some of the newer stuff I've read, and I find it hard to get worked up enough to "take sides." That said, I am very interested in how fantasy works, its aims and objectives, and so on. I do find some of these newer works very different, and I've struggled to put my finger on exactly makes them such.

Which leads me to...

Taran: Good god, what a great article. That articulates far better some of the points i was trying to make in my "realism" posts. Thanks for the link.