Thursday, April 14, 2011

Something to Ponder

Over at Ferretbrain, Daniel Hemmens has a very long, very detailed, and very negative review of Patrick Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear, the long-awaited sequel to The Name of the Wind.  The whole review is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by this observation:
What annoys me about Kvothe is not so much that he's a gratuitous Mary-Sue, but that despite this fact he is taken incredibly seriously by critics. People bitch about how unrealistic it is that everybody fancies Bella Swan, about how stupid it is for teenage girls to indulge in a fantasy where powerful supernatural beings are sexually attracted to them. People laugh at characters like Sonea and Auraya because they're just magic sparkly princesses with super-speshul magic sparkle powers. But take all of those qualities – hidden magic power, ludicrously expanding skillset, effortless ability to attract the opposite sex despite specifically self-describing as being bad at dealing with them, and slap it on a male character, and suddenly we get the protagonist of one of the most serious, most critically acclaimed fantasy novels of the last decade.

Of course you can't ever really say, for certain, how a book would have been received if you reversed the genders of its author and protagonist, but something tells me that a book about a red-haired girl who plays the lute and becomes the most powerful sorceress who ever lived by the time she's seventeen, and who has a series of exciting sexy encounters with supernatural creatures, would not have been quite so readily inducted into the canon of a genre still very uncertain about its mainstream reputation.
I haven't read either of Rothfuss's novels so I don't know whether the comparison to Twilight and other novels of girlish wish-fulfillment is apt, but it certainly seems that Hemmens has raised a fair question that deserves a little more discussion.  In particular, his observation puts Penny Arcade's recent praise of the book, in the same post in which it is said, of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, that "I think I would have liked this book if I was a girl. I’m not a girl though and so it just made me mad," in a very interesting context.

19 comments:

Jonathan M said...

I also thought of the Penny Arcade post when I read the review... it also hooks up with the reaction to the first wave of negative responses to the Game of Thrones TV series and I think we can see a pattern beginning to emerge:

A lot of male fans are stupid and pathetically misogynistic arseholes who possess all the aesthetic sensibility and self-awareness of particularly stupid and ugly primary school children.

Martin said...

Yes, Gabe almost seems to be playing up to the childish, blood-thirsty, sex-scared sterotype of the average fantasy reader:

I love Kvothe the most when he is out slaying bandits and being rad. The few times that happens in the new book had me literally shouting out loud as I read but I could have done with a lot more... I want action and while all the sexing in this book was cool, that’s not the sort of action I’m after.

Nicholas said...

Good lord... so that's what happens when one's gold standard of words on paper has a Star Wars logo on the cover. If anything, Krahulik/Gabe is playing up the "I'm new to this reading thing" that PA's constructed for his persona, but Holkins/Tycho is hardly better... it's more of the same old us-and-them as regards escapism, but put forth in two very different styles on a gargantuan platform.

Matt Hilliard said...

The elevation of Gabe's taste, or lack thereof, has been the subject of multiple strips in the past. He's probably a good example of how, as Martin puts it, the "average fantasy reader" reacts to Rothfuss. The review Abigail quoted is talking about critical reaction. I guess it depends on one's definition of "critic".

jamie said...

It's interesting, because that review was easily one of the better ones I've read, and I agree with it almost completely. At the same time, I absolutely loved A Wise Man's Fear, and I finished it in two days, so I suppose guilty pleasure much?

I think there as a good point to be made that, considering Twilight is ragged on so much by (predominantly) male fantasy readers, you'd think they'd be able to see the hypocrisy in complaining about Mary Sues, then embrace a (male) one.

I mean, I'll admit to writing a stupidly over-the-top good review of A Wise Man's Fear, but clearly I wasn't thinking about too much. Even thinking about it now, realising that I didn't properly work out what I enjoyed about it, it still seems like a good book, which means I clearly can't complain about Twilight, until I read the bloody thing.

Oh god, now I want to read Twilight...

Standback said...

Jonathan - can you expand on the Game of Thrones comment? I seem to be out of the loop, and you've made me curious.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Nicholas, Matt:

I'm only vaguely familiar with Penny Arcade, and what's not clear to me from anything I've seen is how much Gabe and Tycho are meant to be send-ups of the geek mindset. I gather that there's a self-parodic element to the strip, but it's hard to see that element in comments like the one Gabe makes about The Hunger Games.

Jamie:

I think there are several issues here. On the level of quality, I'm perfectly happy to stipulate that Rothfuss is a better writer than Stephanie Meyer (though, going by the quote in the review, perhaps not much better). The criticism that Hemmens is making is that the same plot elements that are a source of derision in female-authored, female-centered novels are ignored or even praised in male-authored, male-centered ones. The comparison to The Hunger Games is important, I think. Especially when compared to Twilight, Collins's novel is decidedly un-girly, full of those plot elements that, per the quote Martin brings, should be right up the alley of the kind of fantasy fan Gabe is supposed to typify. And yet that series's audience has been overwhelmingly female, and I can't recall seeing any reaction to it from the corner of fandom that has embraced Rothfuss.

Standback:

Jonathan is talking about this article by Myles McNutt. And while we're at it, let me plug Jonathan's series Horizonal Connections, at the Strange Horizons blog, which collects interesting genre-related links.

Eddie C said...

The big thing the review is ignoring is that 90% of the story is told using a frame narrative (Yes, this fact is not ENTIRELY ignored, instead it's dismissed with a sarcastic comment in 1 sentence). The bulk of the story is told by... Kvothe. We have our attention drawn to the fact that he's a liar (about himself particularly) multiple times. He's a super unreliable narrator, and arrogant at the same time.

I read the story at least partly as an examination of how (relatively) factual stories descend into legend. I mean, legendary figures are all ridiculous Mary Sues. "I am Perseus! See me kill Medusa! Rescue Andromeda and have her immediately shag me! Found Mycenae! (Oh, and invent quoits)."

So yes, Kvothe-as-described is a Mary Sue. I think he's supposed to be. Just as Kvothe in the frame narrative is supposed to be (and is) pretty pathetic. That doesn't make him immune from being an annoying character, which he occasionally is, certainly, but I think there's more going on that Rothfuss writing an unconvincing Mary Sue.

George Pedrosa said...

You guys might be interested in reading this article, about a Penny Arcade strip with a rape joke that sparked controversy among readers. Might clear more than a few doubts about their sexism: http://thephoenix.com/boston/life/116456-gaming-rape-culture-and-how-i-stopped-reading-pe/

Foxessa said...

Kvothe strikes an old school USian as one of those figures we delighted in during Middle School, when they were usually introduced -- the Tall Tale Hero or Heroine: Pecos Bill and Slough Foot Sue, Mike Fink, John Henry -- even actual figures of our frontier history morphed into Tall Tale figures, like Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone. President Lincoln was part and parcel of that deep borderland tale telling legends of bigger than life exaggeration.

I have always loved them.

Love, C.

Dan Hemmens said...

Woo! I got linked by somebody *way cooler than me*. Win!

On the unreliable narration point. I did actually consider that - I just didn't address it in the article because I don't actually think it helps much.

I mean either Kvothe is a gigantic Mary Sue, or he's telling us a story *in which* he is a gigantic Mary Sue. I kind of think those two things are effectively the same.

I'd also point out that if Kvothe is really lying about all this then he's got *massively* inconsistent characterization. Everything we know about Kvothe-as-Kote from the framing story is that he's a broken-down wreck of a man, jaded and cynical, and he seems to derive no pleasure from recounting tales of his own glory (for example, he deliberately glosses over his swashbuckling adventures on the way to Vintas) - indeed Bast has to specifically instruct the Chronicler to lead him towards stories of his own daring and cleverness. Unless the third-person framing story is *also* being unreliably narrated, or Bast is *also* lying to us it simply doesn't make sense for Kvothe to be exaggerating his achievements when from everything we know of his mental state he should be downplaying them.

Andrea K Höst said...

I haven't read it (and will put off deciding whether or not to until after the series has been completed), but it sounds like much of the attraction of "The Name of the Wind" is in the beauty of the writing. The small extract I have read had a lovely fluidity.

The Mary Sue factor won't necessarily turn me off a novel - if we describe all our heroes as Mary Sues, we start dismissing whole sections of the genre - but strangely enough I've never heard a compelling description of TNotW beyond that it's a beautifully written story about a kick-ass guy. That just doesn't hook my plot-junkie nature.

As you say, it would be interesting to see how TNotW would do with a female lead. It's so rare to see epic fantasies with a female main character (as opposed to high fantasy, etc). They show up in the massive multi-cast novels, but usually as part of an ensemble revolving around a man.

I'd love to know what part of "The Hunger Games" made Gabe from PA mad.

Eves_Alexandria said...

I mean, legendary figures are all ridiculous Mary Sues. "I am Perseus! See me kill Medusa! Rescue Andromeda and have her immediately shag me! Found Mycenae! (Oh, and invent quoits)."

Er, you do realise that Perseus' story wasn't the creation of a single author, right?

Joshua Herring said...

...it certainly seems that Hemmens has raised a fair question that deserves a little more discussion.

Hemmens has raised a fair question that deserves a little more discussion only to the extent that he's documenting a trend, rather than a single pairing. How anyone reacts to a particular book is obviously hugely complex, dependent on a large number of tangled variables. Since I don't have any independent reason to think that people like Ursula LeGuin and Robert J. Sawyer are lax in self-examination on issues of unconscious gender-based double standards, I think I'll prefer to take their appreciation of this book at face value. In fact, I think it's a bit unfair to accuse people of bias - even unconscious bias - without making a case. If the critics liked TNotW, then they liked it. If there's any reason to think that any one of those critics is overlooking faults in TNotW for biased reasons, let's hear the case for that individual. If the point is rather that there's a society-level double standard on Mary Sues, it will take more than a single pairing of novels to be convincing. My subjective impression, for what it's worth, is that there's no such double standard. Adolescent male wish-fulfillment fantasies are routinely parodied in pop culture.

Eddie C said...

@ Eves: yes, your point? Rothfuss makes it clear that the 'Legend of Kvothe' is built up from a number of different stories originating in different places.

@ Dan: I don't agree that the 2 things are exactly the same, but I take the point re the inconsistent characterisation. I have an inkling that Rothfuss may be doing something interesting with this, but I could be being entirely too charitable to him. I guess we'll have to see what happens in the final (?) book... although on its own terms, as opposed to part of a series, Wise Man's Fear is significantly less successful than Name of the Wind.

Dan Hemmens said...

@Eddie C

I do, in fact, still recognize that Rothfuss could be doing something clever and interesting, and in fact after reading /Name of the Wind/ I'd have put money on it. Basically /The Wise Man's Fear/ undermined most of my confidence in him.

I do see your point about figures-out-of-legend being kind of Mary-Sueish by default, but that's sort of exactly my problem with TWMF.

Basically in the first book it is very clear that there are two Kvothes, the Kvothe of legend, and the real Kvothe who is far smaller and more human. This is part of why the unreliable narration argument doesn't work for me - the whole point of the books as far as I understood it was to compare the true story of Kvothe as he tells it himself with the legend of Kvothe as told by other people. If we assume Kvothe is lying as well, then that leaves us without an anchor. And if it turns out that the truth behind Kvothe's legend is just ... that he was a legend, that sort of undermines what I originally thought the point of the books was.

@Joshua

I think this is just a matter of perspective, the problem with any sort of broad trend like this is that either you see it or you don't (you don't have to look very far to find people who insist that men and women aren't treated differently in any way at all anywhere, never mind specific examples).

I do, however, think that there's a big difference between the gentle, affectionate ribbing that boyish fantasies get ("we all know they're silly but they're still fun") and the *genuine hostility* that is directed towards girlish fantasies (people won't flinch from describing Twilight readers as *literally retarded*).

Again, a good example of this is the Penny Arcade post that Abigail references. Gabe loved the Wise Man's Fear, and he seemed to love it most when it was at its most juvenile and wish-fulfilley, but apparently the Hunger Games made him "mad".

As always, you can never, ever, ever, ever "prove" that gender bias is an issue for anybody, but I think it's something that it's interesting to bear in mind.

Jodie said...

I thought the section of this post http://sarahtales.livejournal.com/151335.html called 'If He Was a Girl, Even Just For One Day' seemed relevant to this discussion (although it's presenting a slightly different slant by asking why readers don't like female characters who are as awesome as male ones, not who are as Mary-Sueish perfect as male ones).

Anonymous said...

NYCfan

This is an old dead thread, but I just came across it, so...

But take all of those qualities – hidden magic power, ludicrously expanding skillset, effortless ability to attract the opposite sex despite specifically self-describing as being bad at dealing with them, and slap it on a male character, and suddenly we get the protagonist of one of the most serious, most critically acclaimed fantasy novels of the last decade.

Of that set of Mary Sue characteristics only the 'ludicrously expanding skillset' is actually in the novels. He does have enormous magical talents, but his once in a generation genius level skills are made clear both to him and his family right at the start of the first novel and then from his very first moments at the University all the Profs there instantly recognize that as well, after he does his absolute best to impress it on them. As for his attractiveness to women - far less than it should be. The guy never even gets laid until late in the second novel. Yet he is a brilliant musician who hangs out a top notch mixed gender clientele music club where everybody is in awe of him and plenty of alcohol is served. He is also good looking if not stunning. This in a society which seems to have similar sexual mores to ours. And yet there is one serious crush from a fellow students, a few tentative attempts at picking him up at the club, and one direct pass which terrifies him. It is only at the end of the second novel, when in addition to his other qualities he is a living legend, wealthy, and quite self-confident does he start actually getting anywhere with women.

I agree that the books are in general following the Generic Fantasy Novel template quite closely, including in their protagonist. There is nothing original about them. But it is all done very well and if you actually like or ever did like classic adventure fantasy, you'll have enormous fun reading these books. The objection I've heard to the Meyer books is that they suck even when taken as just escapist teen lit or generic urban fantasy with superpowered kick-ass female protagonist.

A better case could be made for those who object to urban fantasy on the grounds that they find those superpowered women completely unrealistic, but at the same time don't object to superpowered men in secondary world fantasy lit. E.g. a poster on a blog I saw once objecting to Buffy because it is unrealistic that she is so strong, vampires and demons and magic being apparently all ok, but explicitly magical strength and agility not so much.

NYCfan

Anonymous said...

That article at Penny Arcade just comes across as spiteful and stupid: apparently China Mieville should feel bad about being cleverer than the author (who says of THE CITY AND THE CITY: "His next book should be called “I’m Smarter Than You” and he can just take a shit inside it.").

Then again, I'm not surprised that someone so proud of his own stupidity would fail to notice that THE NAME OF THE WIND is painfully badly written. It's just... awful. The prose is horribly pretentious and leaden. As soon as you begin to think about the clumsy metaphors and similes they break down. Take the first page, for example. What is a "cut-flower sound" when it's at home? Is it the snick of some scissors cutting a blossom? Is it the barely-there, muffled thump of the cut blossom hitting the ground? Is it the minute chopping noises and tuneless hum that might accompany carving a carrot into the shape of a flower, as they do in Thai restaurants? I don't know. Do you? I confess my first thought was of the carrot.

Maybe that was because of the red hair. Not just ginger, by the way - "true-red hair, red as flame". But what does that actually mean? (Apart from being a cliche). Flame can be all sorts of different shades of red. Does he have multi-coloured hair? Flame always struck me as being more orange than red, anyway. Certainly more ginger than carmine. The whole first page is littered with these misguided stabs at literary effect, let down by the hopeless lack of anything resembling thought or intelligence behind them.

Whatever else you say about this pompous, pretentious stuff, please don't say that it is well-written.

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