Monday, 16 June 2008

On bad fantasy lit. and losing my innocence

I was lurking around a secondhand English bookshop in Tokyo last week with the firm intention of getting myself some big, chunky fantasy literature. It wasn't an idea I'd thought about much; it was just one of those whims that sweep across you like a powerful, raging storm and seize you with their enthusiasm. Going into the store, I had this image in my head of picking up a great thick doorstop of a book and losing myself in it for days as its beautiful and richly imagined world swept over me, immersing me in its details and nuances.

Of course, when I got to the fantasy section reality hit me. It's not that it wasn't well-stocked (it was), it's just that faced with the reality of what fantasy literature is actually like, I felt my enthusiasm drain from me, to be replaced within seconds by a kind of frustrated, tetchy bloody-mindedness. I would find something to inspire and lift my imagination. Nothing would stand in my way. It was my quest. My destiny.

But honestly:
In the aftermath of the brutal murder of his father, a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, appears in Richard Cypher's forest sanctuary seeking help... and more. His world, his very beliefs, are shattered when ancient debts come due with thundering violence.

In their darkest hour, hunted relentlessly, tormented by treachery and loss, Kahlan calls upon Richard to reach beyond his sword -- to invoke within himself something more noble. Neither knows that the rules of battle have just changed... or that their time has run out.
Who can read crap like this without retching? Perhaps I'm being a bit unfair here by picking out Terry Goodkind as an example, since from what I can gather he's a particularly odious example of the sort of hack bollocks that seems to comprise most of the pantheon of fantasy literature, but honestly, almost every single book I perused slapped me in the face with some similarly flaccid blurb, similarly self-assured and pompous in its own blatant mediocrity.

My hunt continued...

There was a complete set of Tad Williams' Otherland series, and I seem to remember finding his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series satisfying, with likeable enough characters and just enough playful nudging of the genre stereotypes to occasionally tip them over into unexpected flourishes of near-originality. The premise of Otherland does not fill me with dread and I had good times with the similarly-themed .Hack//Sign anime. Still, Tad Williams is the place where another of the harsh realities of fantasy literature must be confronted. His work suffers from a terminal case of stuffy over-writing.

I stumbled through the first four lines of the first page of one of the books [Edited Jun 25th 07: initially I thought it was the first book but I checked again and the first book actually opens pretty well] and nothing interesting happened. If Williams has already started padding it out at the first line, I thought to myself, what hope for the rest of the four gargantuan telephone directories that await? I foresaw interminable descriptive passages of tangential relevance to the plot, I foresaw frustratingly drawn-out setups to long-foreshadowed events left dangling ad nauseam as the word count piled up behind them, I held the book open before me in the one-handed reading pose and weighed the pressure on my little finger. I backed down from the challenge. I was not ready. Not yet.

Part four of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series was dismissed out of hand. I thought book one was excellent when a friend forced me to read it, but I refuse to touch the series further until all seven volumes are complete. Plus, what's with all that "R. R." stuff? Plain old George Martin not good enough for you? Or did your publishers think the old "R. R." in the middle gave you a bit of Tolkienesque cred that lifted you above the pack?

By this point, I was becoming more and more crotchety and cynical with the whole trashy business of fantasy fiction. I remembered that anything that reminds me of Tolkien makes me want to puke. Nothing turns me off a book better than those endless pull quotes from lazy reviewers who call every new piece of cookie cutter genre trash the "best fantasy novel since Tolkien". I remain impressed with the obsessive detail he put into the mythological and linguistic background of his world, but the casual sexism and racism, the unquestioning adherence to a system of feudal patriarchy turns me off, particularly when I see the same kind of bilious goo vomiting forth from contemporary writers who should know better. I felt my blood running a little redder and my inner Trot began to awaken.

According to China Mieville, who I admire but don't necessarily agree with as both a writer and as a revolutionary socialist, Ursula LeGuin is a full-on anarchist so her books might be politically acceptible for me. There weren't any in the book shop though so my search continued. I'd read all the Iain M. Banks that they had and the same went for the Philip Pullman.

I could go on, but Alec Austin has already outlined most of the pitfalls in his excellent Strange Horizons essay Quality in Epic Fantasy.

Nevertheless, there is a little nugget of self-discovery that came out of this whole, honestly rather small and insignificant episode of my life that I have so zealously overdramatised above. Something in the conflict between the feeling that I used to get from fantasy writing and cartoons as a child and my increasing difficulty accepting such things at face value as an adult. When people say to me, "It's just a story" and I tear my hair out and scream vile obscenities at them, this is the internal conflict that lies at the heart of the external drama. The frustration from applying grown-up critical standards to work that prefers not to recognise those standards.

So in the end, the call of the familiar drew me away from the fantasy section and into the comforting embrace of Graham Greene. Within half a page of Our Man in Havana, I was overwhelmed with a sense of joy that cancelled out the bitter sting of defeat. Why do writers of fantasy literature so rarely employ such clean lines in their sentences, such elegance and order in their structure, such beautiful, almost mechanical simplicity? Why can't such simple tools be applied to the construction of extraordinary worlds and situations?

In fact, I'm pretty sure that they can be. SF writers don't seem to feel quite so bound by the need for archaic linguistic tropes or figures of speech, and are far less prone to overwriting. Arthur C. Clarke is an endlessly readable author and there are plenty of others. As LeGuin (herself admirably economical in her prose) points out in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, fantasy works with a more old-fashioned setting, which naturally requires that the writer adopt a voice appropriately distanced from his present time and location, but there is no reason why that can't be done within a stylistic and structural framework like Greene's.

As Austin points out in his essay above, a lot of the problems with fantasy literature stem from the nature of the market, which requires sequel after leaden sequel. Such an environment inevitably benefits talentless hacks like David Eddings, and I would imagine the likes of Goodkind, Brooks and Jordan (R.I.P.) all fall into the same category. SF tends to be friendlier to the standalone novel and the science aspect of the genre naturally draws the focus towards neat concepts and ideas to the benefit of the genre, whereas fantasy, based on the creation of worlds, is more abstract, its focus less clearly defined. Perhaps this aspect, with its less obvious conclusion and greater scope for reader to become lost in the world and writer to become lost in his or her own ego, makes it more vulnerable to the dictates of a greedy market.

The greatest fantasy writer of all time, Jorge Luis Borges, never wrote a story over twenty pages and one flicker of a great imagination can say more than a thousand shelf-bending sagas.

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