Thursday, February 19, 2009

Three Links Make a Post

Some of my recent online reading.
  • Hal Duncan writes about Battlestar Galactica, and, as on most topics, does so intelligently, forcefully, and at great length.  Lots of interesting ideas here: some more exploration of what it means that the show's premise maps more accurately to the Holocaust than to 9/11 (I hadn't, for example, thought of Gaeta as embodying the cliché of the victim made monstrous by his victimhood, mainly because I was too busy being aggravated by the fact that the show's one and only acknowledged homosexual character was being depicted as a villain who kept seeking out powerful, charismatic men to follow), some provocative meditations on just how telling it is that its writers have favored the 9/11 parallel, and mainly a lot of insights into the kind of story the writers produced as opposed to the one they thought they were telling.

  • Dan Hartland is rereading the Sherlock Holmes stories in order of publication.  I read these stories, and the Holmes novels, in junior high, and for years I assumed that this was a rite of passage for people growing up in Western countries.  Again and again, however, I've met people who knew Holmes as a character and cultural icon but had never read a single one of Conan Doyle's works, and eventually I realized that they were the vast majority.  Dan's series is a great opportunity to disentangle the iconic image of Holmes we all (including those of us who read the stories and novels) suck down from the aether from the actual fiction in which he appeared, and reevaluate them as works of fiction (thus far, to no great acclaim).

  • Richard Morgan writes about The Lord of the Rings, and argues that the only emotionally honest moment in the whole gargantuan work comes during a conversation between two orcs.  I'm beginning to wonder if there's a clause written into the contract of every author who sells a potentially paradigm-shifting work of epic fantasy obliging them to publicly excoriate Tolkien, because it happens quite often.  Moorcock did it.  China Miéville did it (sadly, the essay is no longer online.  There's an excerpt here, but all you really need to know is that he calls Tolkien "a wen on the arse of fantasy literature").  Now it's Morgan's turn.  What always gets to me about these essays is their blistering certainty that they're saying something new as opposed to something that the community of fantasy readers has been debating for decades (OK, "Epic Pooh" was first published in 1978, but I find it hard to believe that Moorcock was the first person to express those specific reservations more than a decade after The Lord of the Rings' popularity exploded).

    Most fantasy readers go through a phase where they realize that The Lord of the Rings is conservative, reactionary and, by certain very real yardsticks such as, to take Morgan's example, realistic characterization, not very good.  It's like figuring out that Narnia is a Christian allegory.  You take a deep breath, pick your jaw up from the floor, and decide if you can go on liking the book in spite of these flaws--because it has other qualities that you value, and because a genuinely good work of fiction is one that you can enjoy even if you disagree with the attitudes it expresses.  I really don't know who it is that Morgan and the other writers like him think is going to be blown away by their regurgitated criticisms, and I have an unpleasant suspicion that essays like this one are actually written for people who have already decided that they don't like Tolkien, and are looking for ammunition to lob at his fans.

18 comments:

Len said...

I assume such essays are aimed at the many fans who never, ever engaged with the notion LotR is conservative, reactionary, and by some yardsticks not very good.

Tolkien takes up a lot of space year after year, generation after fannish generation, his influence has helped foster quite a lot of the worst fantasy on the market, and I see no reason for people to stop saying so. True things can be said more than once, probably ought to, and I think you overestimate the number of people who've ever even heard the message, sadly.

Athena said...

BSG is just soap opera with a thin SF veneer and its creators have openly said that they're making things up as they go along. The last "talking heads" episode was proof enough of this.

Jenny Turner wrote one of the best critical essays about Tolkien in the London Review of Books:
Reasons for Liking Tolkien

Therem said...

Interesting links. I had some problems with Duncan's piece on BSG (surprise, surprise!) and commented on his blog.

I'll cop to being one of those who has never read any Conan Doyle. Not sure why not, really. I guess because I don't have much interest in Gothic or supernatural fiction, and I always vaguely suspected the Holmes stories were of that ilk. Maybe the new movie will push me to give them a try.

Re: Morgan slagging off tLotR... he seems to be saying that there is something childish about the book and the people who appreciate it, yet he himself comes across as petty and arrogant in his little screed. Funny, that.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I assume such essays are aimed at the many fans who never, ever engaged with the notion LotR is conservative, reactionary, and by some yardsticks not very good.

In which case, ending the essay by wondering why grown ups would ever want to read The Lord of the Rings is probably not the best move.

I get the same vibe off this essay as I do off statements by mainstream writers who dip their toes in genre writing and immediately start crowing that did you know that science fiction doesn't have to be all spaceships and tentacle monsters? A combination of arrogance and ignorance that leads people to assume that they're discovering uncharted territory when, really, the rest of us have been living here forever. It's entirely possible that there are fantasy readers for whom Morgan's essay will be an eye-opener - as I said, everyone has their first time experience with these issues - but I've seen too many examples of Morgan speaking intelligently and knowledgeably on other subjects to tolerate his seeming conviction that his first time is the first time ever.

David Moles said...

Yes, the old complaints about Tolkien's consolatory moral simplification are there (in three or four sentences), but Morgan's real point is about what he likes, not about what he doesn't. (I'd think that precisely because they've seen that complaint so many times, Tolkien's defenders ought to be able to read past it now, but from some of the comments here, apparently not.) Morgan certainly isn't claiming that it's original.

Maybe the fact that I've always loved Tolkien's few scraps of orc dialogue is coloring my interpretation, but I think by drawing attention to it Morgan is doing something different from what Mieville and Moorcock did. He's not after Tolkien on class grounds, in that special (and not unjustified) British way of being after Tolkien on class grounds; he's not slagging Tolkien's writing ability, only lamenting that there isn't more of the Tolkien that he (Morgan) finds most appealing -- more of the Tolkien that most inspires Morgan himself to write.

Athena said...

Morgan was using the Tolkien comment as a lead-in to his own fantasy novel, which is a departure from the subgenre in which he established himself. This splintering into ever narrower subgenres serves both writers and readers poorly.

I thought that Therem's comment on Duncan's blog about BSG hit several nails on the head. It boils down to the fact that the BSG creators mostly opted for lazy solutions instead of thinking through their own premises.

And I agree with Abigail that "mainstream" writers who wander into SF territory are surprised to see that it's not their grandfathers' rickety spaceship with lantern-jawed captains any longer (well, not exclusively, at any rate!).

Len said...

"I had some problems with Duncan's piece on BSG (surprise, surprise!) and commented on his blog."

Well, it's chock full of demonstrable falsehoods that indicate to me he's not really watching the show very closely, but given his overall frustration with it I guess that could partly be the show's fault.

Jakob Schmidt said...

First of all: great blog! Came here from Hal Duncans notesfromthegeekshow. And: excuse occasional bad English, I'm not a native speaker ...

I'm also slightly tired of the Tolkien bashing. China Mieville had at least a specific point to make about class, while Morgan takes the rwactionary charakter of LotR as a given. However, as someone els mentioned before, it is nice that he actually points out something about the book that he likes, opens up a new perspective.

I'be been planning to re-read LotR für years now, because I think that hidden between all the romantic nostalgia and the implicit racism, one might also find a book that has some legitimate things to say about the nature of fascism - most of this would be in the last chapters, when Saruman takes over the shire and a petit bourgois society is pretty smoothly transformed into an authoritarian regime. It is, interestingly enough, a motif that to my knowledge has never been re-used in any of the formula fiction based on Tolkien. i have the suspicion that, in it's own conservative way, LotR might be an honestly anti-fascist book.
(On the other hand, it might be the case that I'm only feeling that way because I just re-read Frank Herberts first two Dune-novels and was ahocked at how unabashedly they flirt with fascism. And to think that i read this stuff when I was about 11 years old ...)

By the way, I think it's not quite fair to blame Tolkien for the formula fiction that came in his wake. That guilt lies squarely on the shoulders of Terry Brooks. In fact, I would claim that in terms of style and narrative structure, most formula fantasy has very little to do with LotR and much more with Shannara.

Katherine said...

There is an old saw that one can philosophise for or against Kant but not without him; for a long time it's seemed to be the case that Western writers could write fantasy for or against Tolkien, but not without him. I think these essays are, in part, a symptom of a desire to get away from Tolkien; to exorcise his spirit, if you like, so that the writer can do something that is neither a variation on the themes he introduced nor a reaction against them. Certainly China Mieville strikes me as someone who's managed to come up with a new way of doing fantasy that isn't in Tolkien's shadow.

It's an overreaction, but it may be a necessary overreaction; which doesn't make the resulting essays any more interesting to read...

Jakob Schmidt said...

I think the question of whether you can or cannot ignore Tolkien depends in what kind of fantasy you write: From what I've read about "The Steel Remains", it would probably not have been very smart for Morgan to totally ignore Tolkien, because the story seems rooted in the classic Tolkien-narrative. Put differently, something like "The Steel Remains" probably depends on Tolkien. So does, in some ways, great epic fantasy like "The Song of Ice and Fire" by George Martin or "The Prince of Nothing" by Scott Bakker. It picks up a lot of the Tolkien elements, does something truly and engagingly different with them - but it is still dependent on Tolkien.
On the other hand, a writer like Jeff Vandermeer has little need do write either for or against Tolkien. He might get into trouble if he ignores Poe, though ...
I don't think China Mieville had any important businness ranting against Tolkien with regards to his own writing - I'd say his prime mission would be to write for or against Lovecraft. And Hal Duncan - well, he surely couldn't have ignored Gilgamesh ...

I'd say that there are many options for fantasy writers not to write for or against Tolkien. There are just so few writers who take them.

Andrew Stevens said...

Of course, it's obvious why modern writers feel the need to disparage Tolkien. They are baffled, bewildered, and hurt that Tolkien's works will still be loved and admired long after their own works are dead, buried, and completely forgotten. For the same reason, J.K. Rowling made one off-the-cuff remark about C.S. Lewis (quickly forgotten), while Philip Pullman has practically made a second career out of railing against him. Rowling is already bigger than Lewis; Pullman will be lucky if he is one-tenth as beloved as Lewis when he dies.

Tolkien built a mountain for the field so high that no one is going to climb it. Michael Moorcock has now written so many books that I literally wouldn't even know how to go about counting them. I must have read dozens of them when I was a pre-teen and his entire oeuvre contains less than one-one hundredth of the memorable and iconic moments that Tolkien managed in one book. And, of course, as a world-builder, everybody who has ever lived is in Tolkien's shadow. Moorcock, Mieville, Morgan, et al. probably are all better writers than Tolkien (it's not too hard), but as mythological storytellers, they are so far in his dust that they can't see the sun.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Athena:

Thanks for that link. Very interesting stuff and a great demonstration of how to look at The Lord of the Rings' flaws without losing sight of its strength or of the undeniable fact of its popularity and power. My only complaint is against Turner's assertion that the two other works of fantasy that stand alongside LOTR in importance and influence are Narnia and His Dark Materials. I'd argue against Lewis's inclusion in such super-canon, and Pullman doesn't belong anywhere near it. If there's an author who matches Tolkien's influence and originality as a fantasist, it is surely Mervyn Peake.

David:

Yes, Morgan is complaining that there isn't more of what he likes in LOTR, and if that were all he was saying I probably wouldn't have reacted as strongly (though, again, the observation that the orc exchanges seem to have come from another book is hardly original - as you say, you had the same reaction as Morgan, and so did I). But the last paragraph clearly transitions from 'Tolkien didn't write the book I wanted to read' to 'Tolkien didn't write the book I wanted to read and this was because of a failure of character.' Then comes the crack about adults being too good for the book and the whole thing devolves into the same familiar mud-slinging. You're right that class doesn't come into it and that Miéville focuses on that aspect of the book, but both he and Moorcock reach the same conclusion as Morgan - that LOTR was written by a person and for people incapable of dealing with the complexities of real life and eager to retreat to a world neatly divided between shining white good and deep black evil.

Jakob:

Welcome, and thanks for the kind words.

I think the best criticism of LOTR, such as the Turner essays linked to by Athena, recognizes that the book is a thing of its own variety, not even properly a novel, and not easily fitted into the familiar fiction categories we know or have developed in its wake. To reduce it to either its flaws, as Moorcock, Miéville, Morgan and many others have done, or its strengths, as so many lesser Tolkien imitators have done, is to lose sight of the whole and thus of the work itself.

Katherine & Andrew:

Both Moorcock and Miéville are admirers (one might almost say adherents) of Mervyn Peake, who is the moon to Tolkien's sun as far as influences over fantasy are concerned. Like LOTR, Peake's Gormenghast books are in a league of their own and not really novels as we tend to think of them (though I will note that authors who have tried to imitate Peake have almost invariably come up with stronger work than most of Tolkien's imitators). So I think it's not simply a matter of reacting against Tolkien for either one of them as trying to shore up support for the kind of fantastic worldbuilding they're interested in (I have vague memories of both of them writing in praise of Peake and citing him as a major influence).

I haven't yet read The Steel Remains, but as Jakob says my impression of it is that it lives in Tolkien's world if not by his rules. Which might go some way towards explaining why Morgan felt the need to set himself apart so strongly.

Jakob Schmidt said...

@Andrew:
I'm not sure if it makes sense to judge authors like Moorcock or Mieville by Tolkiens world-building standards. While Mieville's Bas-Lag-Cycle is set in a fascinating and innovative fantasy-world, it doesn't seem to strive to "build" this world in a strong sense. The world is just a backdrop for the charakters and motifs Mieville is interested in. The same is true, only even more so, of Moorcock - most of his fantasy stuff is the evolution of just one character (the eternal champion), occassionally mixed with pretty blunt political metaphors. World-building is simply no concern to Moorcock.

One could argue that both Mieville and Moorcock (and Morgan) took the easy route by attacking Tolkien on their grounds and not on his. Still, it's perfectly legitimate to do so. It's just the question if anyone after Moorcock really had anything new to say along that line of Tolkien-criticism ...

Andrew Stevens said...

The world-builder comment was simply meant to illustrate Tolkien's strength. Nobody will ever defeat Tolkien as a world-builder since all people who write in the field are looking to make a living at writing. Tolkien wasn't and therefore had the luxury of spending literally decades building his world purely for his own amusement. It is unlikely that any other writer will ever do that again. This is also why it's easy to attack Tolkien's writing style. Tolkien wasn't a fiction writer at all; he was just a man who happened to write some fiction. Tolkien was a world-builder and mythologist.

While Moorcock never made a serious attempt at world-building on a scale with Tolkien's (who has?), his whole Eternal Champion concept was clearly an attempt at mythological story-telling and he fell far, far short of the Tolkien standard as just about everyone does.

Athena said...

To Andrew: there are many tremendous world builders in F/SF: Ursula Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith, George Martin, Patricia McKillip, Ellen Kushner, C. J. Cherryh... just off the top of my head. Some, like Le Guin, not only have broken down genre walls, but their work is easily as good as "mainstream" literature.

Andrew Stevens said...

Athena, oh sure, lots of people have built worlds and done very good jobs of it. Nobody else has ever built one with anything like Middle Earth's level of detail and realism, though, and I doubt anyone else ever will.

Athena said...

Abigail, I agree with you about both Peake and Lewis. Regarding Pullman, we'll have to wait and see what else he writes after His Dark Materials trilogy.

Andrew, chacun à son goût -- I, for one, find the worlds in Le Guin's several universes exquisitely detailed and palpably real. We'll just have to agree to disagree on this issue.

ad said...

I am inclined to agree with Hal Dunacan:

It’s just that the writers seem incapable of asking a hard question aimed at either side of the political coin without immediately copping out by offering whatever easy answer springs to mind. Honestly, I’ve come to the conclusion that someone in power there is just chickenshit.

Then again, I think that is true of every film and TV show...

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