Sunday, February 6, 2011

Realism does not equal adult: A followup

My Thursday post generated a lot of comments here and on Black Gate and some personal e-mails, which was great, but at least one person didn’t seem to understand my argument or feel I made it clearly. I’ve also had a few additional thoughts on the subject. So here goes.

My main point was (and remains) that realistic fiction does not equal adult fiction. If someone writes a story about elves and dragons in which violence is de-emphasized, and another writes about humans killing each other graphically with swords in a faux-medieval/historical setting, the latter is not inherently more adult. I define adult in this context as a work that appeals to mature, adult sensibilities. As I stated in the article The Lord of the Rings grapples with very adult issues, as does The Once and Future King and Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series. In contrast, The Steel Remains struck me as rather shallow and without any insights on the human condition. In fact it seemed purely reactionary, written as a grimy, alternative viewpoint to traditional stories of heroism. It certainly features a much higher degree of graphic violence and sex and shades of gray morality, but these elements alone do not make it a superior book for adults.

Some enjoy this style of fantasy fiction, obviously. Others don’t like to have their noses mashed in suffering, to be immersed in cities that resemble the worst of our own urban decay, and stories where (almost) everyone dies. This type of writing is certainly realistic, but is it more adult, is it a more serous form of literature? What do these works seek to accomplish? Unlike the three works of traditional fantasy I mentioned above, reading The Steel Remains did not cause me rethink my life, the nature of my humanity (providing examples of what it could be, instead of the depths life frequently descends into), or my place in the universe. It merely reminded me of the worst life has to offer. There are no heroes: A hero is just someone who is stronger or better with a sword than another. Concepts like honor and principled stands are meaningless. Materialism is king and all else is relativism.

To reiterate, I’m not opposed to realism. As I said in my first post I like A Song of Ice and Fire quite a bit. I plan to finish it (if and when Martin gets around to it). Although I will add that I found A Feast for Crows to be a marked drop in quality, in part due to page bloat and a weakened narrative thrust, but perhaps also because many of the characters I cared about were killed off. I lost interest in reading POV chapters of characters with whom I did not identify and in whose fates I was indifferent (we all know what happened to the lone principled hero of ASOIAF).

It’s also worth noting that my argument is partly a matter of taste. I’m not fond of extremely graphic sex and violence in my casual reading. I’m certainly not a prude; I love reading about historical combat and my interest is piqued by weaponry and armor and tactics and the like. But I have a problem with books that revel in gore, either for shock value, as deliberate reaction against traditional fantasy, or as some ham-fisted metaphor for how the world “really works.” I wrote a post a while back for The Cimmerian about my disturbing venture into the dark recesses of horror films, and while I’m not equating The Steel Remains with Cannibal Holocaust the theory is the same.

Right now I’m reading Bernard Cornwell’s The Burning Land and there’s a scene in which the Dane Harald tries to force Uhtred to give back his captured wife Skade. When Uhtred refuses, Harald orders a line of Saxon women and children out of the forest and nods to one of his men, who splits the first woman’s head in half with a war-axe. Blood gouts like a fountain and soaks her screaming daughter. The killer moves to the next in line. Uhtred gives up Skade, and the Saxons are whisked offscreen.

Yes, events like these really happened (and still occur in some parts of the world, sadly). This is the ugliness of the Dark Ages and Cornwell doesn’t whitewash it, which is a good thing. Reading Cornwell wakes you up to reality circa 800 A.D. Of course, Cornwell is writing historical fiction, and as such has some obligation to historical accuracy. In another example I rated Flags of our Fathers as a five-star (highest rated) book and that includes first-hand accounts of soldiers who witnessed real atrocities, graphically recounted. I have no problem reading this stuff. I don’t agree with whitewashing history.

But I think fantasy can aspire to something different than historical realism. That’s why I ended my essay with an examination of fantasy and the element of escape, which I think is part of the appeal of fantasy and a quality to be embraced, not shunned. I happen to like this aspect of fantasy. I know realism has been around since the days of REH and Clark Ashton Smith and Glen Cook, but while these earlier authors may be of kind with George R.R. Martin or Richard Morgan, they are often very far apart in degree. I wonder at what point grim, brutal, realistic fantasy ceases to become fantastic, and becomes something else altogether.

Am I off-base here? Do people understand my argument? I’m interested in your thoughts and comments, pro and con.


Trey said...

I agree with your overall thesis completely, though I disagree with your take on Steel Remains--an honestly it reminds me of a lot of reviews of recent fantasy fiction wherein dislike of style and content (in terms of violence or sex or whatever) seems to overwhelm (I feel) accurate assessment.

I don't know that any of three protagonists of SR are demostrably more venal, worldly or less "heroic" than Fafhrd and Gray Mouser or Conan? (and remember one of these 3 is a rapist, and another an attempted rapist, and all are killers--and not for ideals). They start out cynical and rejecting of principled heroism, certainly, but the novel as I recall certainly hints they're going to have to find their way to that to bring events to ultimately resolution.

The same things occurs to some degree in ASoIF. Jaime Lannister is certainly a more nuanced and in many ways more heroic character than he initially appeared.

I don't faulty people for preferring certain styles of storytelling over others,the frequent tropes of pitting idealized past vs. grim/unpleasant present I think is unfair.

I'd also offer the a counter-example. I think Blood Meridian certainly is "adult" and says something about the human condition (or at least, poses questions about it), but does so without any heroism, or particularly sympathetic characters, really.

Chad Thorson said...

While I enjoy books like "Game of Thrones" for it's realistic portrayal of life (I thinks it's supposed to be based on The War of the Roses), good old fantasy fun is my preferred genre. Like you said, if we wanted realism we'd read Steinbeck.

Tolkien, Lewis, and Anderson all dealt with real subjects in a fantasy setting better than any gritty dark fantasy writers ever could.

Fred said...

I think you made your points very clearly and unambiguously in your first post and again in this one.

I also agree with what you are saying. I avoid those that come with excessive and explicit violence and those that suggest everybody is a serial killer, or would be, given the opportunity. I can find sufficient examples of that in the daily news reports, and I don't need it in my readings.

I read fantasy because it is a change from the everyday. Those works that just reproduce the daily headlines really aren't fantasy, regardless of how many dragons and wizards and magic swords are scattered about among the body parts.

migellito said...

I understand your position, and I largely agree with it as well. I can't really address the specific (modern) pieces you mention, since I haven't read them.

One thing I try to keep in mind when working on my own writing is an aphorism I picked up somewhere. At this point I can't remember who said it, but I believe it was a film director. 'If you're going to put action in, it has to be for a reason. Action just for the sake of action never works.' Or words to that effect.

Also, I think many elements have far greater impact and meaning if the reader is trusted to do their part. Is it possible that some of HPL's abominations were truly scientifically indescribable, immune to any examination of detail? Or did he know that the unknown thing inside the dark closet isn't nearly as scary when it's on a table under floodlights?

Not only does the terrifying chance to become merely repulsive under the microscope, so can the erotic become merely puerile, and the gripping battle become only butchery.

James H. said...

You do a much better job here than in your first post. But you (and anyone else who have dealt with this topic, including me) fail to define "realism." All fantasy has some realistic elements to enhance the verisimilitude (and thereby enhance the fantastic). What you really mean is the highest form of literature (according to Aristotle): Tragedy.
I think that the discussion should be conducted in terms of Comedy and Tragedy in the classical or theoretical sense (not in the modern comedy= haha). Tragedy can be gory, pornographic, and dystopic to such a degree that the reader rejects it. But that does not and should not disqualify it from fantasy. Like I said in my own post, I like the tragic as much as I do the comic.
I like The Steel Remains. And I disagree that there is nothing beyond the violence. Gil has to deal with a lot of crap in his world, and how he negotiates that tells us a lot about the depths of humanity, not just the heights.

Brian Murphy said...

Some great comments here, thanks everyone. I'd like to address them but find myself running out of time at the moment. I'll start with James'.

I don’t know, I’m afraid tragedy vs. comedy won’t help here. If we accept that The Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King are tragic (they are), and The Steel Remains and ASOIAF appear to be (which they seem to be, though they’re not complete), we’re back to square one. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech asks all the big questions; while I wouldn’t expect a fast-paced action novel like The Steel Remains to do the same, I don’t see anything resembling that sort of depth.

Realism seems to me to deny any hope of escape or consolation. It is concerned with replicating material things as they are (or were) in our world. A Song of Ice and Fire has been cited by many as retelling of the historical war of the roses, for example. Again, this stuff is fine, it’s realistic, but it’s not necessarily fantastic (or as fantastic as I’d like in my fantasy). The Steel Remains feels like an attempt at recreating some of our own cultures (the Majak are analogous to Native Americans, for example), and the fantastic elements to me seem bolted on and don’t feel organic. It does not create a secondary world I believe in.

Maybe I’m giving The Steel Remains a bit of a bad rap here (my review is here, if you care to read it, and I actually recommended it, although think it’s got some hefty flaws):

Trelayne may feel “real" but it has less wonder in it over 400 pages than Fritz Leiber (a far superior fantasist) conveys in 28 in “Bazaar of the Bizarre.” As for characterization, Ringil is a pretty well done character, but Egar felt like a generic barbarian and I found Archeth completely forgettable.

To defend The Steel Remains, I will add this: The concluding act, in which Ringil, Egar, and Archeth reunite to fight a desperate last stand against the duenda was perhaps the once scene in the book in which I felt some measure of concern and identification with our heroes. Ringil’s rousing speech is of the stuff with which great heroic fantasy is made. I wish there was more like this. I know this is the first of a trilogy and so Morgan may surprise me. But after The Steel Remains I don’t have a lot of incentive to pick up the second book.

Brian Murphy said...

To address some other comments:

Trey: You raise some good points, and with Jamie Lannister Martin is doing something brilliant: Turning a slug of a man into a somewhat sympathetic character. You can see my comments about The Steel Remains in my first response to James; I just wasn't that impressed with it, story-wise or in substance. Ringil may surprise me ultimately, but I don't know if I have the desire (or fortitude) to press on with the trilogy.

Atom/Fred/Migellito: Yes, that's how I feel. Migellito, you raise a great point, here:

Is it possible that some of HPL's abominations were truly scientifically indescribable, immune to any examination of detail? Or did he know that the unknown thing inside the dark closet isn't nearly as scary when it's on a table under floodlights?

Not only does the terrifying chance to become merely repulsive under the microscope, so can the erotic become merely puerile, and the gripping battle become only butchery.

A skilled writer knows when to use suggestion and let our minds fill in the blanks.

Jeremy Murphy said...

I'm glad you did a follow-up here, since the first post mostly dealt with your reaction to Lagomorph Rex's post. This one is more thought-out and clear.

Of course, that doesn't mean I agree with you, cause I don't.

I wrote a whole bunch here, but it got too long, so I put it up on my blog. Hopefully it won't be too much of a pain to read it there.

James H. said...

Titus Andronicus, The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil, etc. I could go on. All brutal and still examples of tragedy.
Go back to Aristotle's definitions of tragedy and comedy, and Northrop Frye's definitions of romance, epic, irony, as well as tragedy and comedy. But to be honest, I don't see how "realism" has a role in the discussion besides verisimilitude and a focus on character. Just because there is a darker, grittier, pornographic take on the constructed world does not make it realistic or more realistic. Westeros, Trelayne, and Bas-Lag are as fantastic and wonderous as Middle Earth or Narnia.
Realism as a genre has radically different concerns to what Morgan or Martin, Mieville or Howard, etc. are doing and concerned with. Indeed, the only influence that realism has on fantasy is the verisimilitude and a focus on character. That's it.
However, if you were tearing them apart for a lack of magic, of the fantasy element within a secondary world (a world as mundane as ours with no magic, fantastic races, etc.) then I could agree with you. But as several posts and comments have pointed out, one can't do that. For all of its grittiness, The Steel Remains is heavily fantastic.
Now, about The Steel Remains, perhaps I felt more sympathy to Gil as a character because I connect to him as a gay man (and Archeth too). I don't know. To each one's own taste and analytic faculties, I guess.
But on some level, I wonder if using the term "Realism" is designed to expel the gritty fantasy from Duncan's construction of the SF Cafe. And for some morons in the mainstream to claim them as "not being fantasy" because they are ashamed that they like this stuff.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I think that Fiction tends to be a magnification or minimalization of reality, it's distorted by the cut of the lens which it is viewed through. The fundamental difference is, one is a reflection of the world as it is, while the other is a reflection of the world as it Should be.

I doubt very much, despite your complaints about the Lord of the Rings, that you would rather live in, say, K.J. Parker's Mezantia rather than The Shire? Perhaps I'm wrong, but I know which I would prefer. I think the modern world is greatly flawed.

If I want to depress myself with cruelty and the depravity that some humans are wont to engage in, I'll read non-fiction, or watch CNN.

I read fiction to reinforce my bulwark, lest despair wins.

Anonymous said...

My own post ("Adult" Fantasy) had more to do with the way authors, readers and critics equated "adult" with "realism", that is, the self-labelled "adult" fantasy novels were adult because they were more "realistic," and my counterpoint was "no, not really".

As for my terms, I used realism according to the modernist use of the word in literary criticism, something I explained in much later detail in a post on fantasy and postmodernism. See:

Anonymous said...

Er, "much later detail" should read "much greater detail."

Dave Cesarano said...

There's been a lot of discussion about this subject, and I've a notion to throw my hat in the ring, although I feel the need to bring up one or two things.

Robert E. Howard's Conan was awash in gore and violence, especially for the 1930s. Perhaps he wasn't graphically describing things blow-by-blow. In a Howard tale, you'll not read, "And Conan severed the Pict's arm with his backstroke, and as he gazed in shock at his spouting stump, the Cimmerian hacked into his foe's belly, spilling his entrails." Howard never did write like that. However, you will read that Conan was "a whirlwind" of steel and would leave the deck of a ship "awash in blood and brains and severed limbs" or something like that. Graphic, but not specific. The exact details are up to the reader's imagination.

Lately I shy away from "realistic" historical fantasy because there's not enough room for the magical there. As Michal Wojcik at One Last Sketch said about postmodern fantasy, it's best when it's a re-enchantment of the world. I like fairies and goblins, magical swords, robed wizards who summon demons to learn dark secrets, and armored heroes who find grails and rescue princesses. In much of the historical fantasy stuff, there's not enough room for the enchantment. Thus, I usually prefer constructed worlds from the author's imagination, because then the world can be shaped and molded to the needs and demands of the author.

I feel that too many authors allow their work to be constrained by historical realism and never manage to inject enough fantasy and enchantment into their "historical fantasy" works. Although I think realism is great for world-building and creates a suspension of disbelief when characters' actions have believable consequences, it too-often hobbles what the author could otherwise do with his/her narrative.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Steel Remains yet but I watched the decline of the anti-hero over the period of Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs series, and I think the problem you might be having is not so much with realism vs. not realism, as with the intense anger in the books. Morgan seems to put a lot of anger and aggression into his characters by the end of the 3rd one, and I suspect this is entering his other work too.

I can't think of any obvious comparisons in fantasy, but if you want uplifting and insightful but very realistic work, which is not tainted by anger but has every reason to be, I think Primo Levi's work is a good starting point. Or Solzhenitsyn. There's no reason that realism should be gritty, dark or angry, no matter how nasty the content it covers.

jason said...

I agree with your main point. The real issue may be really comparing different sub-genres. How I look at realism--I prefer that books I read do not insult my intelligence. If the world is fantastic then I can accept fantastic situations--such as the essentialized evil of the orcs in LOTR. I go back to Aristotle saying an iconsistent world must be consistently inconsistent (dealing with realism). And I agree that for many, myself included, escape is a good thing. Sex and violence are fine, if necessary to the story. For some folks the titillation could be part of the escape. When one gets realistic for nitpickery or creating a detailed idea of what a particular world would be like, that seems to be a different kind of work all together (as an example of this kind of difference consider _All Quiet on the Western Front_ as a war novel vs any Tom Clancy novel with endless descriptions of weapons and gadgetry).

off topic--thanks for your Blind Guardian posts in November. I checked them out and bought a few of the albums and caught them in Denver--Fantastic show--we were about 15ft from the stage.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could take the time to address this properly, since it's a topic I revel in. I'm primarily a historical fiction guy and I tend to like fantasy that is close kin to HF. So, there's a bias in these two cents.
1. "Realism" is often not very realistic. The grimmest of realities often kick up moments of acute wonder and beauty. Any one-note depiction is not realistic and it's bad art.

2. I very much doubt that dying of a septic arrow wound is more noble or pleasant than being cut down by a Maxim gun or blown to kingdom come by an artillery shell. It is well to grapple with this in any pre-modern story, historical or fantasy. Score one for realism.

3. Hyper-graphic depictions of sex and violence: Everybody's got different boundaries, but "realists" often dull their effect by being over-detailed (Ceserano has the right of it, vis Conan). The difference between erotic and pornographic is not a moral one so much as one of aesthetics and skill. Let's face it, there's a LOT of crude and clumsy writing out there. Really good stuff is hard to find in any genre.

I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that I require "realism" in fantasy or HF, but much of what passes for realism is just cheap grandstanding.

Your old TC comrade,

Jim Cornelius

Brian Murphy said...

Dave: You make a couple of great points. I definitely don't mind the violence of REH's stories, which is graphic but not specific. It lets the reader's imagination fill in the details. Above James H. says that The Steel Remains is heavily fantastic: While it does contain many fantastic elements, to me they feel out of place in the gritty, solidly material atmosphere of the rest of the novel. I never experienced that sensation of "reenchantment" that the best fantasy delivers.

Faustusnotes: You may be on to something there: It might be the overall grimness of tone, bleakness, and humorlessness of these works that turn me off. I love Norse myths, and all roads in those legends end in Ragnarok and ultimate defeat, but there's a grim sense of humor behind it all and levity injected throughout.

Jason: Excellent points, and I'm very glad I was able to turn you on to Blind Guardian. Great band.

Jim: Great to hear from you and thanks for finding my bit of cyberspace post-Cimmerian.

I agree about grandstanding and using realism for effect: Some of the scenes in The Steel Remains (and truth be told, occasionally ASOIAF) reminded me of the "splatterpunk" genre of horror in the late 80s/early 90s, artificially upping the gore for effect, not for art's sake.

Anonymous said...

Being transgressive for the sake of being transgressive is essentially a juvenile impulse and it doesn't make for great writing. And I think that's exactly what's at play in The Steel Remains. Now we'll probably get a nice screed from Mr. Morgan...

"Realism" is still stylized, still a means of creating an effect. It's not literal. You can write dialogue that creates the effect of real speech, but if you simply transcribed actual real speech you'd have a messy, hard-to-follo, boring transcript.

Be as hard-boiled as you want — I'm good with that. But I've known men (actually, a few women, too) who use "fuck" so frequently it serves basically the same function as a teenaged girl saying "like" like every other, like, word, you know?

Mind numbing. Who would read that?

Nice topic. Thanks for taking it on.

Jim Cornelius

Anonymous said...

Brian, maybe a further part of the problem here - and it's not unique to Morgan - is that it's really hard to construct anti-heroes without giving them some fundamental, unlikable flaw. Consider Thomas Covenant, for example, rapist and unbeliever. It's extremely hard to make a Flashman-type character, who is an anti-hero but enjoyable. Many people will fail at this and even being a good writer (and I think Morgan is) is not sufficient to get you out of that bind.

The easy approach then is to overload your anti-hero with a single character flaw (isn't this the essence of shakespearean tragedy?) (In fact, isn't this a pretty basic model for construction of literature?) Then you'll get a bunch of readers who enjoy reading that particular flaw (e.g. me with Kovacs - I enjoyed the build up to his angry destruction of his enemy) and a bunch of readers who don't (e.g. you with Steel Remains).

The challenge is to build a Holmes or a Flashman, and it's not necessarily a sign of terrible writing that Morgan hasn't been able to make it to that level. It's just that he's maybe not up to achieving the pinnacle of the project he is aiming at (or we think he should be aiming at).

Brian Murphy said...

That could be, Faustusnotes. And again, to be fair to Morgan, The Steel Remains is the first book of a trilogy. It remains to be seen what Ringil's character arc will look like after the series is finished. Though I will add that I found Ringil--war-weary, jaded, and drifting through life--to be a fairly likeable character, but the other two main characters rather forgettable.

Martin said...

Wickedmurph: you are wrong in every way. Age quod agis.