Monday, February 21, 2011

"Realism" and Nihilism in Contemporary Fantasy

Leo Grin over at Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood wrote an interesting piece about the decline of modern fantasy, entitled "The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists." By-and-large, the piece is quite reactionary (as is fitting a piece for anything Breitbart-related). Pat's Fantasy Hotlist said, "To me, it all sounds like someone caught in the past, refusing to see the genre we love evolve and grow." Roland's Codex dismissed it as pathetic, saying, "I found it extremely amusing in its fanboyish indignation and intellectual constipation, and would urge you to proceed with all due haste and read it. Hilarity and merriment are to be had!" But he had some very interesting points to make.

First, Grin yearns for a return to the mythopoeic stylings of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. This is an odd coupling, because both authors are extreme opposites in a great many ways. Howard wrote for the pulps, and it shows. His protagonists are often scoundrels living on the wrong side of the law, mercenaries escaping from a lost battle, or ne'er-do-wells of any sort. His prose style is fast-paced, action-oriented, and particularly bloody and violent. Tolkien, on-the-other-hand, is erudite, educated, a loremaster weaving a grandiose mythic cycle about an apocalyptic struggle between Good and Evil writ large. Regardless, they do have things in common these days, since Grin seems to see their similarities more as a function of their distance from current fantasy offerings, and especially cites Joe Abercrombie's work.

Second, Grin decries the over-reliance on violence, scatology, sex, and overall shock in order to subvert the established literary tropes.
Endless scenes of torture, treachery and bloodshed drenched in scatology and profanity concluded with a resolution worthy of M. Night Shyamalan at his worst, one that did its best to hurt, disappoint, and dishearten any lover of myths and their timeless truths. Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.
(Ironically, Abercrombie actually admitted that he found this scenario rather interesting, but also admitted that your mileage may vary.) If Mr. Abercrombie's aim was "to hurt, disappoint, and dishearten any lover of myths and their timeless truths," than I applaud his success. I've not read any of Joe Abercrombie's novels, I admit, but in the course of one week, through this article, Leo Grin has managed to polarize the entire fantasy community through his reference to Abercrombie specifically.

Now, for a week, the rebuttals have come pouring in. Adam at The Wertzone said in "Missing the Point" that "the problem is that the author bemusingly names J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard as his preferred flavours of fantasy. Which makes very little sense, as few fantasy authors are more nihilistic than Tolkien and Howard." Adam's argument is iconic of the rebuttals overall, but I'd argue that it is Adam and other respondents to Grin that are "missing the point." This is a straw man argument, especially with regards to Tolkien.

Sure, Beleriand is destroyed at the end of The Silmarillion, and the ending of The Lord of the Rings sees the passing of the Elves from Middle-Earth, the dwindling of the enchantment, a shell-shocked Frodo suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and unable to live comfortably in the Shire he struggled to save. However, what Adam and so many other critics of Leo Grin are missing is that this is not nihilistic, but should instead tug at a sort of pathos in our hearts. The Latin term "lacrimae rervm" or the Japanese term 物の哀れ (mono no aware) describe a kind of pathos, or sadness, for things mortal and temporary. This is not nihilism, it is the bittersweet nostalgia for things gone, and the idea that "you can never go home again." It's about change and how one deals with change. Indeed, when Grin's description of the hypothetical Abercrombiean Middle-Earth is rebutted with descriptions of everything that was lost as a consequence of the War of the Ring, I am tempted to rip my hair out in frustration and scream, "You're missing the point!"

Grin's right when he describes Tolkien's work as heroic. His characters are ostensibly Good. They show selflessness and self-sacrifice for a greater ideal at every turn. Their victory comes at a terrible cost, but it is a victory and more to the point, their victory is not hollow. Yes, the Elves leave Middle-Earth because the rich magic that permeated the world died with the Dark Lord, but without that loss, the victory would have been cheapened. The Elves had their chance, and Feanor's obsession with vengeance put them on a collision course with tragedy. Now it is Men's turn. Yes, it's sad, but it's sadness that has a point.

Similarly, Robert E. Howard's works are not all blood, gore, and violence. Solomon Kane is one of the most compelling of all Howard's characters and one of my personal favorites. The Puritan demon-hunter is driven by his faith in God and his unquenchable desire to right wrongs. He constantly faces horrors that would warp his mind, but he fights off (of all things) a Lovecraftian nihilism by relying on his faith and adherence to Good. Conan may be selfish and ultimately out for "number one" but he has a code of honor and, by-and-large, has little patience for tyrants and those who would slaughter innocents. He is not a morally ambiguous character--his morality is right there, up front. Yeah, he's an unscrupulous character, but that does not make him morally ambiguous. Nor does it make Howard's world nihilistic. Howard saw the barbaric characters of his stories as men walking a thin gray line between darkness and light, order and chaos, civilization and savagery, decadence and nature, and it was their will and their wits that brought them triumph, even against darknesses that were dredged up from the blackest pits of Lovecraftian nightmare. Yes, civilization would eventually be washed in the blood of Turanian, then Pictish, then Cimmerian invasion, and then cataclysm, but Howard didn't like civilization much anyway, and saw strength, honor, and will in the barbarian kingdoms of European yore. That is not nihilism.

I think that this over-adherence to nihilism on the part of so many commentators and bloggers is a desperate attempt to divert the main thrust of Grin's argument. It isn't so much nihilism, per se, but a matter of taste. Some say de gvstibvs non est dispvtandvm, but I'm not so sure.
The other side thinks that their stuff is, at long last, turning the genre into something more original, thoughtful, and ultimately palatable to intelligent, mature audiences. They and their fans are welcome to that opinion. For my part — and I think Tolkien and Howard would have heartily agreed — I think they’ve done little more than become cheap purveyors of civilizational graffiti.
Abercrombie himself responded to Grin's comment:
We’re on sides, now? No one told me about sides. What are the sides? Of what? And on which side am I? I love Tolkien, after all. I’d like to be on his side. Grew up with The Hobbit. Read Lord of the Rings every year. I’m a great admirer of his. Without Tolkien there’d be no fantasy as we know it, and certainly no First Law. When it comes to an epic tale with moral clarity set in a supremely realised fantasy world, he pretty much knocked it out of the park.
Abercrombie sets up another straw man here, and proceeds with it. Leo Grin is right--there are sides. Just because Abercrombie admires Tolkien doesn't mean he's not participating in a movement of literary degradation. If Leo Grin is to be believed, Joe Abercrombie's work utilizes "cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism" to put the tropes of the fantasy genre "back together into a Frankenstein's monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten." His book, The Heroes has been cited as an utterly ironic piece in which the main characters are most certainly not, and partake in the slaughter of innocent civilians (including women and children), rape, and murder. So, in order to avoid just another umpteenth retelling of The Lord of the Rings, modern fantasy requires foul language, scatology, immoral anti-heroes, graphic sex, sickening and upsetting violence, and rape. In other words, it needs to realistically depict the graphic realities of medieval life, warfare, and death because Tolkien didn't do that (although Howard approached it).

As I go through earlier 20th century works of fantasy fiction, I find them chock-full of sex and violence. It's just not graphic. I have to ask why George R.R. Martin finds it necessary to describe, in detail, one character's sexual experience in A Feast of Crows, where Poul Anderson simply ended a chapter of Three Hearts and Three Lions as Holger carries an elf princess off to bed. What was the rationale behind it? Sex is a part of life and shouldn't be avoided in literature, but I don't need a pornographic description of what happens. Similarly, Robert E. Howard's warriors would wade through buckets of blood, but it was always described with a certain panache that is most definitely lacking in a lot of contemporary fantasy. They seemed less like men and more like forces of nature in combat, and the violence of the scene was woven into the tale like thread. This is different from reading about some young maiden trying to hold her intestines inside herself after a mercenary decided to gut her. I'm trying read an adventure tale, not watching a Rob Zombie flick.

Nevertheless, de gvstibvs non est dispvtandvm. There is no disputing taste. Your mileage may vary. However, I have to ask, is the reason so much graphic and cold-bloodedly disturbing sex and violence being included because the authors can't actually write well otherwise? Everybody's known since Shakespeare that sex and violence on gratuitous levels will sell, but that real art is something that isn't readily accessible, and difficult to produce. Shakespeare purposely made Titus Andronicus an over-the-top schlocky gore-fest, either to capitalize on the crude "sex and violence sell" reality or to subvert it and show how hollow and mind-numbingly unartistic buckets of blood truly are. It's just another kind of spectacle, and anyone who actively enjoys reading about innocents being slaughtered in a novel needs to read about the much more recent (and true) Rape of Nanking and see if they still enjoy that sort of stuff. As an historian, I've read my fair share of civilians getting massacred and really don't need to spend dozens of pages dwelling on it in a fantasy novel.

Brian Murphy compares the over-the-top tasteless (in my opinion) graphic horror of Richard Morgan's The Cold Commands with Tolkien's description of how Shelob captures, tortures, and finally drains her victims. Describing Tolkien's passage he had this to say:
That to me is a great piece of writing. It tells you plenty about the cruelty and maliciousness of Sauron and his relationship with the giant she-spider (which he half-hates and half-fears, but tolerates as a valuable guardian into Mordor).

As for the gory details, it allows my mind to fill in the rest. Tolkien goes on to explain that Shelob cares not for wealth or power, but spends all her time brooding on her next feast. "For all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness," he writes. That's about as nasty and explicit as Tolkien gets.
When compared to Richard Morgan's excerpt, Brian went on to say this:
As for that passage, man, it’s brutal. It’s effective, and horrifying, and well-done. But it’s not why I read fantasy. It jerked me back into reality with its clinical descriptions of flensing and tearing blood vessels. Perhaps Morgan intended this scene as a condemnation of torture. It vaguely reminded me of the real-life practice of waterboarding, albeit turned up to 11. I don’t know. I read it and it just felt — too much.
Brian Murphy pretty much sums it up. We're dragged out of a story and thrown into the real world where people are tortured in Gitmo and religious fanatics blow themselves up. Fantasy is many things, but it is most certainly a brand of escapist literature as much as anything else, and to rob the genre of its escapist facet ultimately cheapens it. In the excerpt of Morgan's book that Murphy quotes, we're presented with a torturous execution that is intensely described, with little omitted. We're drawn a picture of agony, blood, viscera, and being eaten alive. It has an impact, but lacks the elegance of the Tolkien passage that Murphy quoted before it. There was no real vibrancy or flair to the description. Just a cold, calculated explanation of how these characters were dying. What ever happened to Hemingway's Iceberg Principle, where what's not said carries more weight than what is said?

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy nihilism in my literature, and graphic sex and violence--to a degree, and so long as there is a point to it all. I adore the works of James Ellroy because he grabs the hardboiled noir that Chandler and Hammett birthed and runs with it to it's logical conclusion. Noir is inherently nihilistic, but it's supposed to be. Ellroy's stuff is grim, gritty, shocking, upsetting, but that's because it is supposed to be. He's epitomized the genre. Reading a tragic and pessimistic novel like The Big Nowhere is an incredibly cathartic experience. It can be depressing, but my overall experience was actually cleansing. Fantasy wasn't designed to be nihilistically cathartic but instead nostalgic, perhaps a postmodern re-enchantment of an otherwise mundane world.

It's hard to feel nostalgic about a bunch of raiders lining women and children up in front of a fortress and burying axes into their heads until the garrison capitulates. That's not cathartic, either. It's simply disturbing and upsetting.

R. Scott Bakker has this to say to Leo Grin:
you might say that Grin thinks this is fantasy’s vocation, to endlessly eulogize, and that writing that strays into the baroque or revisionary are not only morally and imaginatively bankrupt, they are symptomatic of some great disease of the soul that is presently claiming the world and humanity.

Sound familiar? It should if you read fantasy. This particular salad of attitudes and concepts – moral certainty writ on a cosmic scale – is precisely what you find in almost all premodern works of fantastic fiction, everything from Upanishads to the Holy Bible. Consider the hyperbole. Consider the way he structures his oppositions in the above quote: on the one side you have the sacred, the treasured and the cruciform, while on the other side you have, well, shit and piss.

I'm tempted to break out Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, a landmark study in how "religious man" establishes the sacred by delegating it as "special" and "not profane"--that is, not mundane, mortal, or carnal. Indeed, fantasy often tapped into that throughout its growth and development in the early 20th century. The problem with Grin, apparently, is he sees fantasy itself as a sacred touchstone of our culture, and sees it's deconstruction and infusion with the profane to be blasphemous, a mark of Western civilization's self-loathing and willful self-destruction, and inherently political.
Soiling the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths is no different than other artists taking a crucifix and dipping it in urine, covering it in ants, or smearing it with feces. In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field.
Well, Grin, if it is a sacred touchstone, then in this postmodern world where religion has become evil, the sacred has literally become a profane force in the eyes of many, then one must expect this sort of reaction.

The deconstructing and subverting of genre tropes is not always a bad thing. One of my favorite fantasy series is Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, a trilogy which preserves the rich sense of re-enchantment that Michal at One Last Sketch talks about, while simultaneously subverting a number of fantasy's tropes. Loads of characters die, medieval warfare is bloody and horrific, the realities of medieval life are not ideal in the least. And yet that makes the actions of the protagonist all the more heroic. No, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn does not simply churn out the same old tropes, but subverts almost all of them subtly, delicately. Overall, author Tad Williams wrote a fantasy series aimed at adults that doesn't require the graphic sex, violence, or scatology of other authors in order to get its points across.

Now, I have yet to read Joe Abercrombie's work. I'm not a big fan of historical fantasy, mostly because I am a historian and I can't help but nit-pick what's wrong half of the time, and from what I've gathered, that's primarily Abercrombie's oeuvre. Not to say that Abercrombie does a bad job or has inconsistencies--I just prefer not to read historical fantasy. I'm not bashing Abercrombie. But considering how his name has fueled a lot of this divide, I cannot help but ask why? What about his work, specifically, did Grin (and others) find so damn objectionable?

I am , however, insisting that Grin's argument not be dismissed out-of-hand, like Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker, the Wertzone, et. al. have. Once you scrape away the political hyperbole from Grin's argument, you can't help but realize that everybody missed the point and ended up shooting the messenger.

Theo at the blog for Black Gate actually made one of the best defenses for Grin's argument I've seen. In his piece, "The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel," Theo argues that Grin is correct, the tragic heroism and mythic tenor of both Tolkien and Howard have given way to an ironic, barren landscape bereft of anything sacred or meaningful. There's nothing worth defending, and that's depressing and disheartening. For me, what I find depressing is the unnecessary gratuity of sex and violence making such literature more "adult" or more "literary." I find it quite depressing, and can't help but compare it to the gritty Dark Age of comic books during the early 1990s, when "adult" and "mature" wound up really being quite immature, adolescent at best, and unnecessarily graphic. Shock was not followed by awe, but by disinterest. (For more on this, see Michal's post on "Adult" Fantasy at One Last Sketch.)

I do not want to read a Tolkien knock-off. I've had enough of Terry Brooks' Shannara. I read fantasy to visit places that I wish were real and enjoy stories of heroism, adventure, and of individuals overcoming immense obstacles. I love books with strange monsters and magic. Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is a magnificent subversion of fantasy that tragically flies under everyone's radar as "just another fairy tale," when it should actually be a model for postmodern deconstructive fantasy. Indeed, Williams' work inspired George R.R. Martin to start A Song of Ice and Fire in the first place!

There's plenty of heroism in Martin's books, too. Although he was, unfortunately, lumped into this, I see Martin's books as trying to bridge a gap between the real and the fantastic. Yeah, Martin's got a lot of gratuitous violence, but to his credit, he's not a fan of it himself. He's writing the story he wants, or perhaps needs, to tell. One of the reasons that A Storm of Swords took so long to come out was because he had such a difficult time writing the Red Wedding scene. Events such as that do not make his work nihilistic, and indeed the career of Daenerys Targaryen, if anything, is full of heroism--her character grows to develop a strong sense of justice and good. The use of perspectives makes the various characters much more real and human, and therefore understandable--their own inward struggles can make them heroes or villains in ways that a simple straightforward narrative could not. I honestly do not find Martin's work to be nihilistic in any way. Pessimistic, yes, but nihilistic, no.

There's a long list of great books to which I can point that subvert fantasy tropes and do so tastefully, without resorting to the sort of stuff that Leo Grin decries. I just finished reading Glen Cook's The Black Company, a novel about a mercenary company that works for the bad guys. The book is fraught with pessimism and darkness, but I'd not go so far as to say it was nihilistic. Similarly, I'm rereading Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, and it deals with nihilism while still maintaining a sense of fantastic wonder--the very nihilism itself of Vance's stories is part of the overall enchantment and sense of awe, which is achieved without gratuitously graphic sex, violence, or scatology. In Lord Foul's Bane, Thomas Covenant rapes a woman, but Stephen R. Donaldson doesn't give us a thick paragraph description of all her cries and his thrusts, nor are we ever treated to a phrase like "engorged member." Indeed, the guilt of this deed is something that torments Covenant's conscience for the rest of the series--something that seems to stand in direct opposition to the current "nihilistic" and "morally bereft" trends to which Grin objects.

This is where I respond to Matthew David Surridge's rebuttal to Theo's article (the one that defend's Leo Grin). When Surridge evokes a number of early-to-mid 20th century examples of rape, murder, moral ambiguity, etc., I have to shake my head and reiterate, "you're missing the point!" It's all about the presentation, otherwise, why would Grin have made such a fuss about language, scatology, and graphic description of sex and violence? Yeah, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were cut-throat thieves, ne'er-do-wells, and sex-crazed. However, there were levels to which even they wouldn't sink. The same is true for Conan. When Surridge cites Conan's pursuit of the ice-princess in "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" as having "rape" as his intent, Surridge is being hyperbolic--Conan's intent is revenge because she tried to have him killed for sport and amusement. Again, it's about the description and the presentation of events, and someone seems to be missing the point.

Grin's point, I think, in reality, goes back to what Michal at One Last Sketch said about fantasy being "adult."
However, my problem with these “new takes” on the genre is that they don’t, actually, do anything new. Strip away the swears and the sex and you’re left with works not much different from their predecessors. Yes, there may be moral ambiguity, but Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith also wrote amoral worlds. Sara Douglass has much less depth than Morgan; ignore the strange creature sex and the novels don’t much reflect the lofty themes she urges writers to pursue. We are told to strive for realism in our fantasy, yet I don’t see much inherently realistic in the word “fuck.”

The only thing that makes these books adult is that we, adults, try to bar children from reading them. We often fail. Writing sex doesn’t make your book mature unless you do something with it. I used to sneak my mother’s romance novels when I was ten to skip to the dirty bits: it’s not, in itself, a particularly adult thing to write about, or even talk about. Head into any schoolyard and you’ll hear language that would make even, I warrant, Ms. Douglass blush.

It does, however, give a false sense of legitimacy to a work. Because we don’t want children reading them, we can automatically label such books “adult.” No longer need we piddle around in a sanitized Middle Earth where no orc would dare say “shit” even if he really wants to; we can be depraved as we like.

And there you have it. Strip away all of the sex and violence and I have to ask, do these works really mean anything? If Joe Abercrombie's books were bowdlerized, would their stories lose their impact? If so, why? I know R. Scott Bakker's work would suffer, not because his work is bereft of substance but because he is dealing with deeply psychological and philosophical subjects, attacking our assumptions through a gigantic thought-experiment of a fantasy series, and doing something that the genre honestly really hasn't done before. But can the same be said of Morgan, Douglass, and Abercrombie? Are they trying to be relevant by having their characters swear, smear feces on their swords before battle, and rape twelve-year-old girls while on chevauchée? Does this actually make them adult, sophisticated, literary? Do you need this stuff in order to be more realistic? What purpose does the inclusion of scatology, foul language, graphic violence, sex, and torture actually serve in the novel? Is this really going to prevent a writer from merely mimicking Tolkien?

Or perhaps somebody is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater?


Dennis Laffey said...

Well said. The essay I had in mind writing last week would have touched on many of these points as well, since it was a lot of the articles you'd sent me links for that got me thinking about it.

The only thing I had wanted to touch on that you didn't here was the bloat that infects so much modern fantasy fiction.

Dave Cesarano said...

Thanks, Dennis. I'm still interested in what you might have to say, so by all means, throw your 2¢ into the ring.

I avoided the bloat issue because I deal with it primarily in this essay. Granted, its about Robert Jordan more than anything, but I hope the message gets across. Yeah, my take on Jordan is somewhat hyperbolic, but I see a real, serious problem with what his influence has done with fantasy.

Michal said...

Excellent post. Grin's position got confused when he painted fantasy in terms of politics, immediately making others feel on the defensive rather than engaging the issue; thus the mass bandwagon-hopping in posts mocking Grin's politics rather than his point. However, I'm not sure if you can "separate" his politics from the discussion, thus my own reconsideration (but not retraction) on my blog.

The quieter debate arising from Brian Murphy's initial post at "Black Gate" has been, I think, more fruitful in examining what fantasy is, what it does, and what ends "deconstructing" (or, rather, disenchanting) the genre achieves.

I've found one review quite useful in articulating how both the Tolkien knockoff and the "realistic" blood, guts & cussing "movement" weaken the actual fantasy in a work:

The Morgan excerpt Brian featured does the same thing as Rothfuss's "bourgeois discursive style familiar from the modern realist novel"; both clash with their settings. Rather than feeling "real", these stylistic choices actually make a work feel less so. As Tolkien stated in "On Fairy Stories": you feel the artifice, and must suspend your disbelief, rather than simply believe.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Strange that there are only 3 comments here. Perhaps it is because there are too many themes, too many angles, and too many things upon which to comment. I could probably write ten or twelve; the only thing that keeps me from writing a post about this post is that I haven't read most of the books mentioned, and have no interest in reading them. I have always found the fantasy genre sterile and false; it does little or nothing to comment upon my perception of life, because it wraps itself too often in the argument that real life shouldn't limit the freedom of fantasy.

I don't see much here to dissuade me from that. The profanity of the "new era" is a fantasy - the fantasy of masturbating children, who wish only to prance about in a world where they need not grow up and become respectable. But that is the childhood fantasy: no rules, no consequences. Why shouldn't it include scatology and sex?

This comment is included only because I wish to make one point regarding Thomas Covenant's rape, and the lack of engorged members. Your position on the language, Dave, is all well and good - except that the scene as written is woefully short and vague, given that Covenant harps on an on about it for six books. The total wordage describing his feelings about the rape must exist in a ratio of about 200:1 when compared with the author's willingness to describe the nasty event. IF we're going to measure out the horror of the event by the thimble-full, and the guilt over the event by the oil tanker, the reader is going to feel somewhat cheated.

An 'engorged member' might have at least made me feel I was actually there, as opposed to being the poor sod at the bar who has to hear about it for the umpty-umpty eleventh time.