I wrote most of this a while ago and then, for reasons I don’t really understand, left it in the Dustbin of Not-Quite-Finished Drafts. But a post from Phil Tucker knocked some of these thoughts loose again. So here we go.
The first thing I did with my Christmas Kindle was download Steven Erikson‘s book, GARDENS OF THE MOON. I did this because I was in the mood for a big epic fantasy series, but I hadn’t gotten into one for a while, in part because of physical constraints on what I can carry on the train; and because I’d been hearing good things about Erikson, starting a long time ago with this SALON article by Andrew Leonard. I’m into THE BONEHUNTERS now, and my experience is more or less the opposite of Leonard’s; I think GARDENS OF THE MOON is a really excellent book, but instead of finding myself “more and more willing to trust Erikson,” I’m finding myself a little bit frustrated with the fusillade of new characters, new history, new continents, and so on — and then, when the old ones come back, I’m frustrated again because I don’t really remember what Quick Ben and Kalam were up to, what I’m supposed to know about Fiddler, &c. I say this only because some kind of reviewing sentence seems apropos here; what I’m really interested in isn’t Erikson, but Leonard.
“Successful fantasy does not require magic swords, or the triumphant overthrow of whatever Evil Dark Lord of Black Shadow Midnight Murk is currently torturing the poor denizens of Happiland. It doesn’t even require a subplot involving a teenage boy (or increasingly often, girl) who becomes a Man (or Woman) while on a dire quest to find (or destroy) the Holy Trinket.
“Give me, instead, the evocation of a rich, complex and yet ultimately unknowable other world, with a compelling suggestion of intricate history and mythology and lore. Give me mystery amid the grand narrative. There’s no need to spell it all out; no prefaces, please, elucidating the history of Middle Earth as if to students in a lecture hall. Instead, give me a world in which every sea hides a crumbled Atlantis, every ruin has a tale to tell, every mattock blade is a silent legacy of struggles unknown.”
“Readers of “Gardens of the Moon” are confronted with a world where very little is explained as it happens — like the characters in the story, we have to piece together what is going on from cryptic utterances by gods and warlocks and seers and the fragmentary record left behind by the detritus of previous empires. To leapfrog this process by making sense of it would defeat the purpose of the author.”
First, as Leonard acknowledges, there are magic swords (and at least one anti-magic sword), quests, and dragons; he does not acknowledge, although it is the case, that there is at least one Dark Lord of Black Shadow Midnight Murk, and although he observes that there aren’t many teenagers, two of them are main characters who are definitely discovering themselves and growing up. I observe this by way of suggesting, not that Erikson’s fantasy is in fact derivative or lazy, but that it isn’t the tropes per se that are the problem with the fantasy that Leonard doesn’t like.
(As an aside: Both Leonard and Stephen King tar Robert Jordan with the “peddler of derivative mass-market dreck” brush, with an explicit accusation of hobbit-baiting from King, and I just don’t buy it. Jordan has a reasonably well delineated set of Good and Evil characters, which can be tiresome, but his heroes face the kind of Sophie’s choices, realpolitik issues, and intermittently victorious inner demons that Leonard praises Erikson for evoking, and his world and cosmology are, if not his own, certainly not all that derivative of Tolkien’s. Jordan has serious problems — with women, most notably, and organization, and a certain flaccidity of prose — but, again, it’s not the tropes. And, by the way, whatever his flaws, it’s not as though David Eddings is obsessed with elves and dragons either; there’s a fair amount that’s original in his work as well. It’s tempting to use tropiness as a shorthand for poor quality because [a] it’s easier to score points on that than, say, prose style or deftness of character, and [b] everyone except nerds will believe you. But it really is beside the point. George R. R. Martin has fucking JOUSTS in his books; Pat Rothfuss’ child-prodigy street urchin has leveled up to sex with ninjas. It doesn’t have to be your thing. But it WORKS.)
Now that we’re back on the right side of the parentheses: The point of the extensive blockquoting above was to flag what Leonard likes about Erikson. He likes trope-avoidance, although again, the tropes are not all that assiduously avoided, and it’s not clear that they should be. (To be fair, Erikson also has lots of nonstandard characters, like military sappers, a fence, a sort of twisted Virgin Mary, a philosophical zombie, etc.; and his tropey characters often subvert expectations. But it’s plausibly argued that this latter treatment is more the rule for tropes than the exception.) He likes the complexity of history and society deftly suggested rather than presented as lecture or timeline; he likes the complexity of personality and moral judgment well and thoroughly explored.
Which brings me, finally, to my point — what fantasy is Andrew Leonard reading?
I have a perspective here, and by now it’s pretty obvious, so let me try to defuse accusations of bias: I know I pick books a certain way. Broadly, I go for things that Michael Moorcock praises in WIZARDRY & WILD ROMANCE and don’t go for things he pans. Moorcock introduced me to Gene Wolfe, K. J. Bishop, and Jeff VanderMeer; he speaks well of Fritz Leiber and China Mieville, and has an entire chapter on Tolkien titled “Epic Pooh,” in which I think he also lumps Narnia and WATERSHIP DOWN. The principle generalizes fairly well to, “I read what writers I like, like.” Wolfe alerted me to Jack Vance, Samuel Delany to Joanna Russ; Neil Gaiman bounced me over to Nalo Hopkinson; Pat Rothfuss has raised Peter Brett to my awareness, although I have yet to read THE WARDED MAN; another reason I picked up Steven Erikson was that he’s engaged in mutual blurbsturbation with Glen Cook. I guess the point is, I am mostly not going to the fantasy shelves and picking based on covers or blurbs or whatever; I have a reasonably-sized backlog and a relatively sophisticated scheme for adding to it, which amounts to a biased sample. And I’m aware that this is true, not because I am a superior human being, but because I am a bit of a genre whore. So when I say “what fantasy is Andrew Leonard reading?”, it’s not meant to be read with some silent pejorative (“that cotton-pickin’ muggle”) prepended to his name. But it is meant to be a gentle suggestion that, if he can’t come up with even a handful of writers who break the strictures of genre fantasy he finds so tiresome, it may not be because they don’t exist.
And it’s meant to point out that these things he’s praised in Erikson as exceptions to the rule are actually kind of viewed as best practices. And it’s meant to point out that, if I went to the “literature” shelf in the bookstore and made a bunch of generalizations about the “genre” based on random selections, a reasonable person would respond to those generalizations, not by disputing that my sample approximates the mean, but by opening up the world of possibilities — by pointing me toward the good stuff. And, along the way, that person might point out that my call of “Give me psychological depth! Give me beautiful language! Give me the human heart in conflict with itself!” is in fact amply, if not on average, answered by the body of work I thought deaf to it.
The tor.com blog hosts a fair amount of vitriol about genre these days (or did back in late 2009/early 2010). I’m not super-comfortable with the politics of the idea that sf readers have a particular skill set that non-sf readers don’t — it may be true, it just doesn’t sit well with me, especially given that sentiments of similar condescension seem to undergird the occasional spurts of intolerance from the community. And it’s not apparent to me that “mainstream” readers and viewers especially need crutches to deal with mainstream literature’s borrowing from the sf toolbox — THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION did just fine among non-sf readers, as did THE WEST WING (which is an alternate history, with the facts of its uchronia revealed subtly and at necessity as in the best sf). As did THE HANDMAID’S TALE, as did NEVER LET ME GO, &c &c &c. And let’s not even speak of YA, which is pretty much 100% post-apocalypse and paranormal romance these days. If your common-or-garden teenage Barnes & Noble customer can read sf by the boxload, I don’t think we have much to congratulate ourselves about.
So I’m not much interested in the critique of the sf and fantasy genres from the literary side, and I’m not much interested in the critique of literary fiction from the genre side. Controversial, I know. And if I can attempt to induce a little bit of wisdom about it, I think both critiques come from a sophisticated reading of one’s own side and a nonselective or indiscriminate reading of the other.
To which, happily, the only possible remedy is more reading. Because there really is no shortage of top-shelf books out there. Not even close.