The OF Blog: May 2007

Monday, May 28, 2007

Keeping it "real": Reader values, Textual controversies

There is an interesting post over at Westeros that has raised some interesting points in regards to a particular series, that being R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy. Many readers there have taken issue with how the sordid topic of rape and the treatment of women has been presented when juxtaposed with similar traumas suffered by certain male characters there. Some have accused the author of being misogynistic in his writing, of "glorifying" female rape, while not showing the male rape in as "graphic" terms. Others have pointed out that the differences are negligible in descriptive terms; that unlike most other fantasy authors, Bakker has dared to show males suffering sexual violence; and that even if there were more female rapes to male rapes (bean counters?), that such occurrences would be within the norms of the type of society (late antiquity/Crusader era Mediterranean model) presented within the storyline.

But underlying this, I find something deeper and less easily shown than just reactions to one specific problem within one specific epic fantasy series. It appears that despite the claims of many that they read for "escapism" (a claim that I've used enough electronic ink in the past here and elsewhere to refute), that there are indeed certain core Reader values (I'll use this term instead of "cultural baggage," as it sounds more neutral) that are brought to the table
when a Reader begins to read and interpret a Text.

Claims to the contrary, it appears to me that most fantasy readers like a sense of "realism" to their stories. While they might enjoy imagining a "world" such as a Middle-Earth or Westeros or Three-Seas to name just a few of the myriad epic fantasy "secondary world creations," they appear, on the basis of numerous website messageboard posts, to eschew situations or ethics that run counter to theirs. In societies such as most "Western" ones where terms such as multiculturalism and gender equity have become grudgingly accepted at the very least, notions of a fair-skinned, light-eyed colored group battling swarthier, hairy, strange-speaking hordes of malicious intent seems to be at best quaint and at worst downright racist. Hot, sultry babes in latex-like leather fitting, eager to throw themselves at the mercy of the "Hero" have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur, replaced by competent, sophisticated, equal to any male-type of women who combine beauty, brawn, and wiles to make a more perfect package that is intended to symbolize the increasingly equal ground that women play in our own lives, even if there are still some idealizations left to be corrected. And same sex relationships, for centuries in many societies "the love which dare not speak its name," those are being shown more and more frequently as being as mutually loving and committed relationships as more "traditional" heterosexual relationships within the confines of fantasy literature.

All well and good. But what happens when there are discontinuities, when societies are based not on a loving patriarchal model (almost akin to some antebellum Southern comparisons of slavery to a kind-hearted master watching over and keeping his "children" in line, as if they were little more than livestock that needed to be fenced in and managed for the greater good of society) but on more brutal and cynical power structures, where people are not always people in the eyes of the privileged, that women and slaves were little more than chattel, and that rape was viewed as the release of sexual energies rather than as being the brutal imposition of force upon another to make the subjugated feel possessed and owned? In those cases, is the problem of the fantasy society being too "unreal" or being all too "real?"

From what I've observed, it seems that two seeming opposites are conflated at times. Talk about traumas such as rape, and many are going to want it to be more "off screen" or handled in a way showing the rape survivor's (incidentally, my use of this word shows a societal shift in the terms employed when discussing the passive sufferers of such traumas) dignity rather than being treated to any viewpoints of the rapers (rapist being a word that is not active enough, as it implies to me a singular, completed action rather than an ongoing system of unequal power relations) and how they view the world.

But yet our attitudes have changed. In as recent as the two World Wars of the 20th century, it was not uncommon or unexpected of advancing soldiers to "have their fun" and "release their frustrations" on unwilling recently-subjugated peoples. Torture, death, rape - these three all occurred quite a bit. Maybe not exactly encouraged, but certainly condoned on occasion by commanding officers and even practically accepted (in the same way that criminals accept that they will be punished after being sentenced) by the victims. Such a mindset is almost totally alien to us, but yet is often hinted at or displayed explicitly within the confines of many epic fantasies to show not just the "otherness" of these societies, but to demonstrate a bedrock "realism" that such fantasies based on medieval societies in particular must have in order to make their alterations and idealizations of a vanished past more palatable for the readers. Very real and yet unreal at the same time to many.

Is there any "fault" to assign here? Should writers be held accountable and be asked to consider how our society wants to view gender relations, power dynamics, attitudes towards the concept of being "human," etc. rather than almost slavishly (yes, I used this word quite intentionally) taking elements from our own past, from our own presumed and actual crimes, and dressing them up and presenting them in their full grotesqueness to a "modern" audience that wants to consider itself above such misogynistic (I think misanthropic would be a better word to use here, seeing how it's not just one gender but all of "humanity" that I'm considering in this piece, but I'll use for now the term thrown about in that one debate linked to above) notions? To a degree, I would say "yes," but not in the sense of requiring authors not to be sparing of the details of atrocity. I think that in the hands of talented and daring authors, such nasty and brutish details about our past can be used to turn a mirror on ourselves, to see our injustices that parade about in full display, to force us within the confines of an "imagined world" to consider the implications of our beliefs, our actions, and perhaps to inspire us to do something about it. If a writing is particularly brutal but is written with the intent to confront us with our blindness to such inequities, then such a writing might be considered a "moral" story, just as similar plays, poems, and stories (especially the Greek and Roman tragedies of Antiquity) over time have come to symbolize (hu)man's mistreatment of (hu)man. To accuse someone of "glorifying" things such as rape or murder or slavery would mean that the writer would have to not just mention it in detail, but would have to condone it, at least implicitly, rather than just showing how truly "evil" we have been in our pasts and in our presents today towards each other. Referring back to the book in question that sparked this post, I do not see any such glorification of such brutality. Instead, I recall quite vividly (not just in the reading, but in email exchanges with the author as I conducted two interviews with him in 2004 and 2005) that there was a sense of pessimism about our ability to cast off such nasty details of our collective past, especially when so many of us willingly blind ourselves to such horrors by use of things such as certainty in belief or in idealistic codes. So no, I wouldn't think of Bakker as being one condoning such atrocities (as we now at last see them), but rather pointing them out as being part and parcel of humans being blind and needy creatures who want order but yet cannot establish where order emerges from "the darkness that comes before."

However, such reader reactions are neither "right" nor "wrong." They reflect how we see the world. The novelist on the other hand, well... I think I will leave you, dear Reader, with this quotation from Stendhal's The Red and the Black:

A novel is a mirror which passes over a highway. Sometimes it reflects to your eyes the blue of the skies, at others the churned-up mud of the road.
And sometimes, as Stendhal full-well knew, the novelist is castigated for the mud reflected, being accused on occasion as being the creator of such filth. C'est la vie, o como prefiero decir en español, así es la vida.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

"Elitism" is such an ironic title

Ever and anon such accusations are cast about, with some interesting rebuttals, such as this one by John C. Wright. But I cannot help but think there is a better word to describe the various sides/facets presented: insularism.

Go wherever you may go, on the web, around town, at work/school, and you're going to find this rather aggressive strain of provincialism. People not only unwilling to explore other vistas or to consider other viewpoints, but they are harsh and sometimes eager to stop up any discussion that does not center around them.

On the web, fansites in particular can be quite clannish, often displaying this insular attitude that I suspect is near the heart of this seemingly-interminable debate over "elitism." I post regularly at wotmania and have come across quite a few individuals who do not want to consider reading other fiction, much less that of a speculative strain, than that of Robert Jordan's. To a lesser degree, I have encountered similar attitudes at Westeros and Malazan Empire. It seems to be pandemic, only changing its outward forms.

Related to this is an interesting complaint that I have received lately from a few of the regulars at wotmania's Other Fantasy section. On occasion, I will see interesting discussions on other sites/blogs and I will post links to them, in part because it is a matter of common courtesy to the original posters to provide links to their contributions without appearing to have taken a substantial portion of their writings without attribution. Furthermore, when said links tend to be multi-page format with many commentaries (as in the case of blog entries), it becomes quite cumbersome, one would imagine, to provide this for readers who can just as easily click a link and read what they are inclined to read as to make their way through thousands of words to a rather incomplete, unrebutted end.

But yet there are those who refuse to follow links to other sites. It must be "ours," is what they seem to be implying when demanding that most anything of a discussion-oriented (or even sometimes news-focused) fashion be strictly copy/pasted or left unposted. Perhaps I am doing these people a disservice by thinking of them so, but part of me cannot help but wonder if this is but another manifestation of that insularism that I mentioned above. If it be not mine/ours, it is no good to me/us - is that what is happening on the web when it comes to the discussion of ideas? That intellectual theft is better than following a link to see what others are thinking/arguing elsewhere? That the boundaries of discussion stretch only as far as a single URL address and no further?

Perhaps not, but sometimes I begin to wonder if this might be the case. If so, perhaps there's no place like no single home for the wanderers seeking to know and to discuss more than what lies in any single locale.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Shakespeare's Memory

Although I originally intended to write this just for consideration at wotmania, I thought that I would post it here as well for people outside that site to see one of my preferred ways of giving my personal reflections upon a book just read.

I just finished reading the last-written collection of short stories that Jorge Luis Borges wrote before his 1986, collected as La memoria de Shakespeare (Shakespeare's Memory in English translation, contained within Andrew Hurley's omnibus translation, Collected Fictions). Written around 1983, there are only four stories contained within, but I feel that some, if not all of them, ought to be talked about in much the same fashion as his earlier stories from Ficciónes or The Aleph are discussed.

Before I did the virtual version of sitting down to write this review (having already had my tookus in park for a while), I scoured the web for reviews of Shakespeare's Memory. They were scant, perhaps in part because at first they were only available within the omnibus Collected Fictions. Perhaps it's because many reviewers are drawn to the first sparkles of creative light and are not willing to reflect upon the last refractions cast before the life's sun sets eternally. Whatever the reason, I want to devote some words to two of the four stories contained within, "Blue Tigers" and the eponymous story of "Shakespeare's Memory."

"Blue Tigers" is that of searching too far, of having the miraculous given unto you, in the guise of stones that multiply or disappear at will. It is a story that can be viewed as a reflection upon the Almighty and all of His names, or perhaps of our attempts to make order out of things beyond our ken. It was for me a cautionary tale, with multiple possibilities, but also rather straightforward in its storytelling and language. It is not another Tlön, nor did it need to be - it was its own story, possessing a unity of voice and style that did not hearken back to an earlier tale, but instead felt more as if it were written by a more world-wise and weary Borges, one who wasn't content with asking simply "What if?" but rather "Why this, perhaps?"

"Shakespeare's Memory" is one of the better tales that Borges has written. It is a reflection of how the Bard has had an influence on how we have perceived people and motives, but also a musing on how impossible it is to contain that dead man's "memory" within that of the living, vibrant souls, regardless of how "inferior" of a talent that person might possess in comparison. It is also a tale of personality conflation, of a confused jumble of images, emotions, and loves. It is a memory to be passed on rather than kept for oneself. It is, perhaps, a personification of the transmission of literature and ideas and how they are altered and transmuted by each person in line from the past to the now-present towards the future.

These two stories, along with "August 25, 1983" and "The Rose of Paracelsus," represent a Borges that still was continuing to probe questions about Self and Others, among other things. He just wasn't being as whimsical about it as he might have been earlier in his writing career. It would be a grievous oversight for people to neglect his latter fictional works in favor of the earlier work. One would miss out on the maturation process that took place through the various experimental stages that made up the last 50 years of his life. Borges was not a static stylist; his pieces have their own tunes. We just only have to open ourselves enough to consider that the old dog still had tricks to show us that he hadn't done before his last years and not judge the new act by the memories of before, lest it all become jumbled and hazy in our minds.

Hunting for post-modernist allusions in scifi and fantasy

I have to say, this has been bugging me for quite some time. Probably a year and a half ago I was discussing some book review related issues on one of the Polish message boards and wrote that it must be a typically Polish thing to hunt for post-modernist games in fantastic fiction literature. By post-modernist games I mean not only the structure related experiments but mostly all the intertextual tricks so often used by post-modernist writers.

Since alles schon dagewesen it becomes pretty obvious that, whether they want it or not, writers often repeat what their predecessors had written, but there is a certain group that clearly loves dropping various hints and allusions to other works of art (be they literature, paintings or films). This has recently become a popular habit in Poland to use such cultural allusions. What probably started 20 years ago with the publishing debut of Andrzej Sapkowski, currently is a popular thing, obviously loved by authors and readers alike.

We, readers in Poland, are passionate about hunting for such allusions, probably because we believe that makes us 'smart' and 'educated'. While this thesis may be argued, I must say that ever since I started various online discussion, I may have never seen foreign (meaning everyone but Poles) readers discuss such things about popular Western writers. The only example that axtually comes to my mind is a series of posts called 'Climbing Olympos', written by Dan Simmons French translator, when he was working on French edition of 'Olympos', which can be found here, here, here and here

But coming back to that online discussion I had and the argument I raised, namely that Poles must be particularly good in discovering all those little allusions, be that due to their experience or simply cause they are simply better educated. My opponents argued that I cannot know that but in fact I've been visiting various online message board or reading some notable usenet groups for almost 10 years now and honestly can't say that I've seen such discussions led by Brits or Americans. I wouldn't like to sound pretentious or start a war - I'm just curious why it so and why don't you find it interesting to discuss and delve into the background of the same novels or stories we all love reading so much?

Friday, May 04, 2007

In Fantasy Do I Believe?

I have been devoting some time lately to pondering how best to respond to comments I've seen by Gabe Chouinard, among others, regarding how reviewers of the speculative ought to strive to make their reviews something more than a Two Thumbs Up or a Five-Star rating short piece that reflects the USA Todayization of all forms of printed and electronic media. The above-linked piece about the "Two Cultures of Fandom" is interesting, but despite agreeing to a point, I feel there are certain limitations to that train of thought.

I rarely write reviews anymore. I write occasional commentaries over books that I particularly enjoyed, but it's not necessarily to discuss the innards of the book in detail or to hawk it to someone who might want to buy it in the future. I follow, it seems, a third path. I often will write short pieces on the effect that a book had on myself and why such a work was important for me and perhaps how it could influence others. Perhaps is this due to my unwillingness to divorce literature/fiction from greater questions of symbols, values, and inquisitions that are rooted in material cultures.

As I was trying to think of how I was going to crystallize my thoughts on the topic, I happened to read three books, two of them in the original Spanish and the other in an English translation from the Italian, that seemed to offer echoes of why I seem to "believe in fantasy" and why there are those who are not going to see literature as being anything else but a TV-like mode of engaging oneself with symbolic situations.

The first book I read was Carlos Fuentes' En esto creo (available in English as This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life). It is an A through Z book full of thoughts on issues such as God, Jesus, Sons, Education, Experience, Kafka, Faulkner, Time, and so on. In the section on Novels, Fuentes says an interesting thing (my rough translation is below:)

The novel is a re-introduction of the human being in history. In a grand novel, the subject is presented anew to his/her destiny and his/her destiny is the sum of his/her experience: fatal and free. But in our time, the novel is also a letter of presentation of cultures that, far from being drowned by the tides of globalization, have emboldened themselves to affirm themselves with more vigor than never before...

There is no novel without history. But the novel, introducing us in history, also permits us to search the road outside history in order to see history with clarity and to be, authentically, historical. To be immersed in history, lost in its labyrinths without recognizing the exits is, simply, to be a victim of history...

The novel gains the right of criticizing the demonstrable world, in the first place, its capacity for criticizing itself. It is the the criticism of the novel by the novel itself that reveals such a labor of art such as the social dimension of the work. James Joyce in Ulysses and Julio Cortázar in Rayuela/Hopscotch are superior examples of what I want to say: the novel as critic of itself and its procedures. But this is a heritage of Cervantes and the novelists of la Mancha.

The novel proposes to us the possibility of a verbal imagination as reality not less real than history itself. The novel constantly announces a new world: an imminent world. Because the novelist knows that after the terrible dogmatic violence of the twentieth century, history has converted itself into a possibility, never more into a certainty. We believe in order to know the world. Now, we ought to imagine it.
Perhaps in a commentary or review of a book, especially a novel, one ought to not just denote what World X that Story Y is taking place, but also perhaps consider the possibilities contained within that novel/writing and how it might affect oneself and those others who will read and consider the imagined worlds presented within the pages of a book.

The second book that I read these past few days that touches upon related issues is Jorge Luis Borges' Otras inquisiciones (Other Inquisitions is one possible translation title for the English). The majority of that book is devoted to particular authors and themes (Hawthorne, among other American authors, has a chapter devoted to his themes and times) related to their works. Borges does an excellent job of setting up the background for the stories, looking not just at his own viewpoints, but the possibilities that could have influenced the authors' decisions when writing their works. Perhaps this is something that is most in need of being revitalized in genre reviews; the consideration that authors have influences and perceptions that are going to influence the understandings of their stories just as much as the readers' own mental/emotional baggage may influence the interpretation of the text. But yet that is a difficult task to accomplish, one might think, in the world of dungeons and deadly dragons, of wench and rogues, of orcs and elves, and of all the tropes that might contain idealizations of our past. I believe it can be done, however, provided of course one accept first that the literature being considered is just as much a part of contemporary material culture as the legend of Wilt Chamberlain's 20,000.

And finally, today I read Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality. Such a fitting title, "hyperreality," or the art of mimicking that which is "real" to us. After all, this field abounds in those whose ability to suspend disbelief in some ways is oddly less than those who are more enamored of Romantic or other genres that touch upon the fantastical. I have said my piece elsewhere on those who are so in search of the "real" within the imagined world, so suffice to say that in writing about fantasy, or perhaps capital F Fantasy would be more suited for this occasion, one often will find others who cannot imagine as much as reasoning themselves toward an imagination, however pale or distorted that might possibly be on occasion.

In the end, I believe in the fantasies that I read or hear, not because I view them as being "hyperreal," but because there is something in the process of imagination that ties me not just with my own world and time, but with those of the authors I read and of others with whom I interact. To discuss a book without discussing how it might possibly influence your own thoughts is to leave something out. Say what you feel about the book; only just "ground" it in a common "reality" that might help others consider what you and what the book might have to offer in terms of interpretations of the thoughts that follow the readings.
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