The OF Blog: September 2006

Friday, September 29, 2006

Free the Mind

It is fun living in the fishbowl called spec fic blogging. Articles written months or even years before can be brought up in some backwater (or prominent, depending on one's perspective, I suppose) site, perhaps a blog such as this or even on a messageboard, and points can be argued that go well out of the bounds of that original article. It has taken some time, but I see that my words are generating discussion elsewhere.

Oddly enough, it began back in June 2006 with a little "rant" that I wrote at wotmania in response to the commentaries inside the Quickpoll for that day. I wrote a little bit about how I believed fantasy was much more than the epic form, that it was not just literature, but an essential part of our material culture. The rant, written in a few minutes, generated over 50 responses in its original form on the OF Messageboard and as is my custom when I write pieces that I think might be worth reading for people outside of wotmania, I posted it here on my blog. Just a nice record of my thoughts at the time on the genre and on the connections between people's lives and the forms of stories that they tell each other.

So it was of interest to me today when I was browsing through a few sites that I haven't had time to glance at for weeks due to my new job to see this. At first I just shrugged it off as being just merely an attempt to cause me to make an angry reply, but then I read some of the responses. Interesting to see how illuminating responses sometimes (not always, though, but merely sometimes) can be. So I shall now, as an apologia, take some of the comments contained within that thread and discuss them here.

In the end, I think dylanfanitac/Larry fails to convert his valid observations to a viable conclusion. Though he attempts to separate fantasy from literature, the distinction rings false.

Literature, be it fantasy or not, does engage those issues. Some books and stories do a good job of it, others not so much.

Fantasy is a subset of literature. Like horror, historical fiction, romance, "mainstream" fiction, or any other, there are good examples and poor examples.

Cutting through it all, where I suspect this is coming from is his perception of Terry Goodkind's comments about fantasy. This really needs to be put to bed. He has talked and continues to talk openly about using fantasy to write about human themes, as recently as the podcast mystar posted this morning. To Terry, it is no different than using romance or anything else; it is one element of many. What he rejects as invalid is precisely what dylanfantic says he is railing against: empty-headed fantasy for the sake of fantasy.
This is from a longer response that did agree with some of my comments. First off, I wasn't stating that fantasy was separate from literature or needed to be, but rather the opposite: fantasy (and literature as a whole) is in the end but merely a subset of material culture, those tangible, visible artifacts of a society that enable the cultural historian/cultural anthropologist to make some presumptions as to what were the values/ethos of that particular society. How we use our imagination, how we construct our "fantasies," is a very key part of understanding how we have come to develop the societies that we've held. I was not railing against "empty-headed fantasy for the sake of fantasy," but instead against the narrow view that only X is "fantasy" and not A-W or Y and Z as well.

As for the comments on Goodkind, that shall be addressed later on. Now for another excerpt:

That blog is pure crap. Yes, there are a couple of factual statements included. Mostly, however, it is a rambling monologue about the disconnect between what is termed 'the fantasy genre' and fantasy itself. The genre of fantasy is defined historically by what is traditionally in fantasy novels. Period. That does not mean that there is no fantasy involved in other writings. It does not mean that a fantasy novel cannot have a deeper meaning. It simply means that classic fantasy has certain elements inherent in it and that the purpose is escapism. That is why Goodkind says that he does not write fantasy; his books do not fit into the rigid mold that has historically defined fantasy. So Larry is unhappy with this rigid definition of fantasy. So what?
Ignoring the subjective commentary on the quality of the discourse, there is something interesting here. The commentator seems to be making the argument that my post was about the "disconnect between what is termed 'the fantasy genre' and fantasy itself." There is a bit of truth to that in that I do see differences between the two, but I believe that the commentator goes a bit too far afield in arguing that "classic fantasy has certain elements inherent in it and that the purpose is escapism." While I certainly am not denying that escapism is an important element in a great many fantasy (especially epic fantasy) works (and in what leads a great many readers to read secondary world fantasies set in mileau different from their own), that is simply too simplistic of an answer. Take Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings or even moreso his Silmarillion writings. There are quite a few messages embedded within those texts. One of which is that of Loss and the "passing over the sea," never to return. From the Three Silmarils to the Three Rings of Power, from the Fading of the Elves to the decay of the Númenoréans in exile on Middle-Earth, there is a sense of melancholy that pervades Tolkien's writings. I could talk at much greater length on this (and many others before me have done so, including Tolkien himself in his published letters), but for now it suffices to say that this "purpose" that the commentator perceives to be true is but incomplete, if not misleading for some works within the field. Furthermore, there is the fallacy of presuming that there is indeed a "rigid" definition of "fantasy." There is not. If that were indeed to be the case, then there would not be the number of debates that there have been in recent years over how to perceive this work or that work in regards to their inclusion in this nebuleous thing called "fantasy."

Fantasy for fantasy sake is a dying genera.
Not true, very far from true. Ignoring even the gains in sales within the marketing area called "Fantasy literature," a subset of human material culture that deals with the utilization of the imagination to confront or to describe elements that are pervasive in human cultures just cannot be written off in such a fashion. Considering that was what I was addressing and that I had a concern about those who defined "fantasy" too narrowly (i.e. as being that late 20th century alteration of a prose epic form to display certain idealized forms, such as the "proto-Fascist whiteboy whooping up on Dark Lord Satan/Suge Knight in his crib" form that I did mock in my earlier Blog entry), it is a bit much to make bald statements such as that without having a clearer definition of what the genre entails.

Fantasy like any other genre should be a tool for conveing ideas, struggles, convictions, and political views... An exceptional fantasy can become a classic like any other genre. People change and all genres evolve to reflect what will satisfy the audience, fantasy is no different and authors new to the genra seem to reflect this.
I agree. There is indeed plenty of room for fantasists of all political/social persuasions to write stories utilizing the fantasy form to address issues that are near and dear to them. Now some seem to think that the point of my earlier post was to attack one Terry Goodkind. yes, I did mention him and Robert Newcombe in passing as writing what I consider to be "shit." That is my opinion and I have never denied it. However, it is a bit much to go from there and to presume that the point of my earlier wotmania post/Blog entry was to attack Goodkind. If you go to the wotmania link inside this article, you'll see an opening paragraph that I edited out of the Blog entry for readability issues (as in the context changed a bit when further removed from the wotmania Quickpoll that started the original post that in edited form became the Blog entry). That opening paragraph states quite clearly why I wrote the rant back then.

You might notice that the blog is almost 4 months old, and hasn't a single comment. Which tells me he either doesn't know anyone from the site (or guests, if they're allowed to post) who agrees with him, and/or the only responses were in disagreement and he deleted those responses.

Or, he's just a pathetic loser with no friends trying to prop himself up by knocking others down.
This made me smile and wonder if this moderator was projecting here. The only features I have turned on this site is a verification box to keep 'bots from spamming the posts, like what happened a few months ago. If he had bothered to go to the link embedded at the top of the original article (and which is also first in this article), he would have seen over 50 comments to my original post. But nope, this blog isn't heavily advertised. Actually, considering that it mostly exists as a repository of posts/interviews from wotmania's OF section, it is quite interesting to see how a certain someone came to read that article in the first place. But I must admit that I'm amused by the final line there, considering the reality of my situation now. Keep trying!

Maybe I am reading too much into your particular choice of words, but my interpretation is that you are suggesting that these attacks on Terry are a minor issue. I do not agree with that at all. WFR is going to be made into a mini-series by a well-known producer. As a result, I am thrilled: 1) for Terry; 2) that more people will become conversant with the SOT series and I will be able to discuss my favorite books with more people; 3) most importantly, that many more people will be exposed to Terry's philosophy. Call me crazy, but I believe that this is an opportunity for Terry to have a major impact on America. Ayn Rand started the movement of objectivism, a major element of which is personal responsibility, but it still has languished in our society. Her books take too much effort for most people to read and, despite large numbers of sales, objectivism remains a relatively obscure philosophy as far as mainstream America is concerned. Terry can change all of that that. His writing is much more accessible to everyday people. This exposure is going to be HUGE. Let the naysayers like Larry enjoy their last few moments of fun. When mainstream America, particularly the younger generation, really starts to understand what Terry is saying, expect a sea change in American politics. Maybe this is why Larry and his ilk badmouth Terry; they are afraid of these changes.
Ummm....ummm....did someone just drink the purple Kool-Aid? I don't deny thinking that Objectivism is no more than just a daft pseudophilosophical viewpoint, but the main reason people have fun at Goodkind's "expense" (and sadly, I have to devote time to this topic, since my original post dealt with fantasy as being more than just this marketing tool for a limited number of books that shared a few superficial features in common) is because of what is perceived to be his shoddy writing, illogical plot developments, and yes, hyperbolic statements such as the one I quote above. Oh yes, I'm quaking in my boots (err...sneakers) right now over this impending Objectivist Revolution. And some wonder why Objectivists aren't taken any more seriously than they are now...QED.

Those that would seek to tear down someone like Terry, simply because such an action makes that person feel better about himself, is someone that I consider evil.

For quite some time, mystar has attempted to mobilize us against these "enemy forces." Speaking about these issues amongst ourselves, or debating individual enemy combatants when they come to this board, don't seem to be particularly effective. Going to other sites, either singly or in groups, and defending Terry only seems to get us labeled as "Goodkind fanatics." There has to be a better way. Darned if I know what it is.
And therein lies the biggest problem that some at this one site have had with my post and perhaps with other writings of mine. I don't devoting my waking hours to badmouthing Goodkind - I spend much more time talking about how much the New York Yankees suck than I do about an author that I consider to have ideas that are the opposite of my own. But when I am talking about one thing and it seems that some have interpreted it in such a way as to turn into an "attack" on Goodkind (who was mentioned specifically as much as Newcombe was), it is rather telling as to how certain people (not all the ones that I cited, but just merely certain ones) view the world.

Now excuse me while I return to dividing my reading attention between Roberto Bolaños's Los detectives salvajes and Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven. There are things still left to be learned, things to be remembered, and still other things to be forgotten for a time before they reappear as if new in my imagination. There be dragons over there, ahí, y los buscaré. And that is the spirit of Fantasy, that quest to find what is around the corner or over the hill, not just what is written about some "heroic" character. Free the mind.

Free the mind.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Tales Told by Idiots

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of record time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.

There have certainly been quite a few tales told by idiots lately. Sometimes the sound and fury that they create influences our actions, so perhaps the part about it "signifying nothing" is false or at least misleading. It has been a while since I've written a thought piece here, but a couple of articles that I've read recently have compelled me to state my piece. Of course, I'm nobody special, nobody all that influential (on a good day, this blog won't attract more than a few dozen views, many of them for the Spanish-language literature that I review), but I have no problems in stating (and in some senses, restating) my opinions.

The first casus belli for me is a discussion of a post-Hugo rant found at William Lexner's blog. Although the matter appears to be resolved now, I couldn't read the developing "discussion" without feeling a ton of disconnect. I'm at that weird stage where I'm neither "old" nor "young," being 32 and having been involved in the running of wotmania's Other Fantasy section for virtually five years now. For some people in "fandom," however, I'd be little more than a mere pup, I suppose. Which is fine, because whether it's right or wrong, over the years, I've been developing this feeling (based on reading quite a few blog exchanges, anecdotes from various conventions, etc.) that the powers that be in WSFS and elsewhere are little more than bourgeois types, more focused on parliamentary procedures and how to protect the "purity" of their awards than about how to recognize the wide diversity of spec fic writings that abound. Oh, sure, some will argue against this, stating things such as: 1) It's their game, so play by their rules if you want to win their awards; 2) OK, smartypants, how would you define which awards should be awarded and how would you go about establishing procedures and protocols; 3) Do you have anything constructive to offer in all this?

For the hypothetical first point, my answer would simply be a shrug of the shoulders and the acknowledgement that the middle-aged, well-to-do, aspiring Grammy set can have their party with their awards that won't mean jackshit the vast majority of the spec fic reading public anyways. I'm just having fun here commenting on the amusing snipe fire when some just think that there are things that need to be corrected with the WSFS and related agencies. It's not like I'm a Big and Important person anyways, just a lowly schmuck who's bored of all this roundabout talk about how to tinker with a process that is already guaranteed by the nature of its balloting system of producing finalists that are going to be middle of the road, "safe" novels. Novels usually (not always, but usually, going by the finalists for the past few years) written by WASPs, with forms and stories that usually tend to harken back to the so-called "Golden Age" of SF. Which of course for some such as myself, it harkens back to an age of shitty, wooden dialogue, with this notion of a Big Idea dominating the plot/theme, and with furries/almost humans apparently symbolizing either humanity's corruption or its hope. While all nice and good I suppose, it really doesn't excite me and apparently not a lot of others. Sounds like something more befitting to the 1950s than to the dawn of the 21st century. At least those damn robots are fading out of the stories...somewhat.

Now as for what I'd do, I'd simply break shit up. No need for a single award or even a set of awards. There has been so much specialization of sub-genres and now cross-genre hybrids that to define works as being "the best" of a single field is kinda difficult to do. I would say either drop the pretense of 500-600 voting members deciding which bourgeois-leaning story is going to win, or just divide things up into a variety of categories - SF, Epic/Multi-Volume Fantasy, Magic Realism/Urban Fantasy, etc. That way, there's a better chance for more recognition of quality works that aren't feeling like they've been pausterized or which have the imprint of a previous work stamped all over them.

And as for the third point, of course not! I'm just a relatively small-time blogger/reviewer/moderator at a website devoted to some epic fantasist's work who is just only out to spread the glories of socialist writings, avant-garde writings that include works from outside the UK/US axis of SFdom, and who thinks that some of the best spec fic works in recent times weren't written in English or if they were, many were written by women and people whose skin color doesn't shine like a computer monitor on during the night. I guess it's good there are other awards for people writing in other traditions, because it's hard to recognize any of this in the "bigtime" awards like the Hugos. Ho-hum. I guess I'll have to read juried award finalists like the WFAs or the Spanish-language Alfaguara (technically mainstream, but not always) for some variety in the types of books up for consideration.

But enough sound and fury on that topic. Another blog exchange that I read about recently (thanks to Hal Duncan's blog) is yet another tired rehash of the Literary/SF issue, except this time it deals with Young Adult fiction as well. Scrolling through it, you'll see the usual stances about why "literary" fiction is this, while "genre" fiction has to be that, while others point out that no, they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive terms. I must say that I agreed mostly with Duncan's responses and his general attitude toward this farce of an argument, but I would add one little point here: most of the time, those arguing for/against the merits of spec fic in comparison to "literary" fiction fail to address adequately the social/cultural issue here. There is a lot of merit to either "side" in terms of reading them (although again, the limited-perspective, societal-confirming narrative tends to bore me personally, as it just reeks of a smugness that truly can be called "bourgeois" in its 19th century sense; it's as if Madame Bovary has come to dominate the story telling), but frankly, I've seen little to no focus on the world-views that are involved in these novels. Sometimes, what is not stated explicitly in a novel is of interest to the cultural historian, even if for the literary reviewer it would only be of limited value.

I guess I better elaborate more here: What do the pulps of the 40s and 50s have to say about our views of the world back then? What do novels such as The Tin Drum and Night have to say? Why the hell did The Lord of the Rings become so popular in the first place? To answer those questions, you have to step outside the literary debates and go to the sociological/historical epistomologies for possible explanations. But do these ever really come up in the usual herpes-like outbreaks of literary vs. genre fiction arguments? Apparently not.

But it really would be refreshing for someone to explore why and how 'sacred texts' such as that of the Gilgamesh legenda and the Flood 'switched' to being "fantasies." Now that is a prize-winning Ph.D. dissertation in the making, if one dares to travel down that road and to question everything. Until then, we just get a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing, including this half-hearted 'rant' from a bored individual such as myself.
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