The OF Blog: Valuing agents provocateurs

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Valuing agents provocateurs

Been busy the past week with getting my department caught up (almost there!), so I neglected linking to this bit on M. John Harrison's blog:

Meanwhile, Larry at OfBlog has a quote from Richard Morgan with which I agree very wholeheartedly, although I’d add that despite their subject matter many “mainstream” novelists, from Nemirovksy to Eggers, have less a bleak view of life than a subtle one, which tends to take in its ups & downs. A knack that many “mainstream” readers have also cultivated, using ordinary life as a model. Good luck to Richard with his arguments for a realistically human view of humanity. I’ve been making them for many years & no one in f/sf has paid the slightest attention.
It's this last part that Morgan responds to first (as would I, if I had something to say there at almost 2 AM other than "thanks for linking to my post that copy/pastes Morgan's excellent points!". Maybe later...):

Kind of you, Mike – thanks.

I think you underestimate the impact of the arguments you spent so much time making, though. Attention was duly paid, and ploughed in – and the fruits of it are there hanging low for all to see in the orchards of Farmers Banks, Mieville, Robson, Hand et al. I have in fact grown the odd row of strawberries from it myself – the Altered Carbon harvest would have been a good deal thinner on the ground without fertiliser out of sacks marked The Centauri Device, Viriconium and The Ice Monkey…..

And that (as well as MJH's following comment which links into another post of his), is what made me stop and think for a little bit (dangerous when again I've been awake for 19 hours and will have to be awake in a little over 5 hours) about the value of being an agent provocateur. Generally, such people are not viewed with extreme kindness by many, in part because in a legal sense, they don't play fair with the ethical side of the law. But when it comes to long-held assumptions about certain things, whether it be how a story ought to function or how the authors and readers mix, mingle, and produce bastard interpretations willy-nilly of the resulting textual interpretations, aren't these agents provocateurs valuable because they make us stop and question if what we are doing is kosher, or if instead there might be another way to look at matters and that we damn well better at least consider it before our brains start to rot from a lack of mental exertion to question the whys of the universe around us?

Much has been made in certain circles this week about China Miéville's latest comments on Tolkien, where he praises five specific things about Tolkien's works. Some people are hyping the praise that Miéville gives to the dead old white guy that he once called "the wen on the arse of fantasy," but when I read it, I found it to be fulfilling another part of being that provocateur - the challenging of assumptions and getting others to react in such a way as to draw out their "true" feelings. Just as his 2000 article (since pulled, I believe) that contained the "wen on the arse of fantasy" quote antagonized and led many devout pro-Tolkien people to pour out all sorts of invectives against Miéville in support of "their guy," if this latest comment isn't an about-face (entirely possible, I'll admit, but I doubt it), then what does it say about those who suddenly want to use Miéville's comments to support their assertions in regards to Tolkien and those who model their writings on his Middle Earth setting?

Every so often, an author or blogger (even someone as obscure as myself) will say something that will spark a reaction. Usually, it leads to a vociferous rejection of that author/blogger's point of view, but isn't that very reaction just the sort of thing that is needed to generate some sort of dialogue in a literary mode that some fear might be too complacent and dependent upon formulae? The usual fate of a prophet or a voice crying in the wilderness is a short life and violent death. But don't their followers tend to take strength from the violent reactions and build toward something worthwhile to consider, at least on occasion?

Gotta love these agents that do what their name means - driving the action forward and making for some lively fun.

P.S. If any of this is fuzzy or unclear in wording, blame the sleep and I'll edit in the evening if possible.


Anonymous said...

I think the only fuzziness is that I don't think the post lives up to its own ideals. Who doesn't value contrary voices, and people speaking up with opposing opinions that may not be popular but that encourage a reconsideration of their own opinions? The importance of 'voices in the wilderness' is pretty much established dogma by now. If you agree with that dogma, as you seem to, you should agree with it through the mode of arguing against it vociferously!

Of course, people don't always value particular contrary voices. This is because what is valued is not the act of dissent but the institution of dissent - the existence of the phenomenon as a whole. This is a manifestation of the prologue paradox: we can belief that the existence of dissent is good while at the same time thinking, for each individual act of dissent, that it is bad. Just as I believe that some things I believe are false, yet will argue for any particular thing that I believe that it is true, just so will people believe that dissenters have important things to say, and value them, while at the same time disagreeing with, and even giving no value to, every individual dissenter.

I think you miss an opportunity by using the term 'agent provocateur' but then not actually talking about provocateurs. The agent provocateur is not, properly speaking, anybody who provokes - it is somebody who provokes insincerely. It would have been interesting to hear your words on those who dissent in order to provoke thought rather than out of their own convictions.

[I also think that, although I know you're a Harrison fan, talking about him as a prophet in the desert cursed by his courage to a short and brutal life, killed by us the unthinking mob, might just possibly be slightly overdramatising, and over-idolising, the man and his importance. He's not actually a martyr, he's just not as unpopular as other people. Popularity is not a right, and its absence is no deprivation. His stoning to death by the public consists in him being substantially wealthier, more influential and more popular than most of those who hold less 'prophetic' opinions. And this is not just a comment about Harrison, but about the general martyrdom complex in art - Schopenhauerian garrets are no longer as cholericly inimical as they were in the days of Great Artists, so our modern generations have to construct their own syphilises and consumptions to suffer through heroically. And what could be more torturous for an artist than not being popular, not receiving enough attention? How the centuries have turned, that tuberculosis and a pauper's grave have been replaced by the tartarus of not being the centre of the critical universe...]

Incidentally, if you didn't see it on the Westeros board, I've copied onto my blog some attempts to answer your question of a few months ago: why this 'worldbuilding' seems to be a big deal to some people even though M John Harrison doesn't like it.

Liviu said...

I used to respect RK Morgan comments but recently they started sounding like "hey my sales have dropped, how can I get some attention?"

A bit too much disconnect between his books and his rhetoric - some of the novels are great sff no question about it but have nothing to do with the mainstream novels he quotes, while comparing his decent fantasy with Tolkien who created a genre, is laughable...

Larry Nolen said...

As I said in my disclaimer, VW, some of this is a 2 AM deadening of the logic nerves :P No, I wouldn't compare authors to dead prophets, other than to note that there are vociferous reactions that led to each. As for the the post living/not living up to its ideals, that would be true if I wanted to do more than to introduce a point. I didn't, though; my head was hurting too much then (and now) to have attempted that Quixotic exercise!

Fair points on the others. Will think about this more later, when my head isn't as fuzzy-headed ;)


Interesting take, especially since he was just replying to another's blog and trying to say that he disagreed that MJH's opinions were not bearing fruit.

Liviu said...

I can take MJH or China Mieville as "agents provocateurs" but from RK Morgan it truly sounds as a I said, whining for attention.

It's a long pattern with many posts and I stopped paying attention after the "I am better than Tolkien" tirade...

Setting himself on the Banks or Mieville level is in the same vein

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