I can thank Brian Murphy’s “Why Realism Does not Equate Adult (Or Even Good) Fantasy” post over at Black Gate for finally eclipsing One Last Sketch’s chief reputation as “that blog that shows up when you google ‘centaur porn’,” but I’m finding my own position getting clumped together with a series of recent posts perceived as reactionary complaints against “gritty” fantasy and its rising popularity in the fantasy field. What began as a low-key debate has been complicated somewhat by Leo Grin, formerly of The Cimmerian, and his piece “The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists,” which has gained a great deal of attention.
I can’t agree with Mr. Grin for a number of reasons. His assertion that gritty fantasy constitutes “postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage,” should make that point clear enough. Joe Abercrombie, ironically, addresses many of my concerns in “Bankrupt Nihilism.”
As Abercrombie asks, “We’re on sides, now? No one told me about sides. What are the sides? Of what?”
What side am I on? The initial blog posts quoted in Brian’s article expressed a dissatisfaction with some recent fantasy trends, but were otherwise unrelated. Above all, confusion stems from the term “realism”. Over at Nerd Redefined, sftheory1 noted that “part of the problem is certainly a lack of definitions, of a consensus of what is meant when we throw around terms like ‘realism’ and ‘fantasy.’”
I agree. Part of the reason I wrote “‘Adult’ Fantasy” was a confusion over the term as used by authors. It was response to those who claimed that Tolkien’s work was childish and that their work was adult. Why? Because, apparently, their work was more realistic. As such arguments usually go, the only defining feature attributed to realism was, well, that it was adult.
What I regret most is using the term “new fantasy”; there’s nothing new about “raging against Tolkien”, Michael Moorcock has been doing it for decades. A good many of the authors I’m apparently “against” are ones I quite like: George RR Martin, China Mieville, heck, even Michael Moorcock. My experience of Joe Abercrombie is limited to Best Served Cold, which was entertaining enough.
As for the crop of “fluffy” fantasy I’m apparently defending, I’m at a loss. Most post-Tolkien imitative fantasy showcased what happened when imaginative literature is written by people with no imagination, surface elements from Tolkien skimmed away and added to a dull “find the magic item to defeat the dark lord” plot (which, I might add, is exactly opposite to the plot of The Lord of the Rings).
In which case I reconsider my position through a magical word-swap: I am not against realism in fantasy, because my only definition for the term is a modernist one, which is not a universal definition. Therefore, I am against modernism in fantasy. Fantasy, to me, represents the “storytelling” Walter Benjamin wrote we lost when we decided to impart single, obvious meanings to our texts during the Enlightenment. “The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales.” (“The Storyteller: Reflections of the Works of Nikolai Leskov”)
It might well be that I’ll always be dissatisfied with a good portion of fantasy, one way another, due to authors continuously feeling the need to disenchant their texts in both the fluffy stuff and the gritty stuff. Yet I still think fantasy has a potential that few others forms can readily attain, and that potential is expressed in the works of Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay (post-Fionvar), George R.R. Martin, Ellen Kushner, and a cadre of fantasists who make bookstore shelves worth navigating.
The issue then, is really a much wider one for me. David Cesarano Jr. from The Caffeinated Symposium made the point quite well:
In trying to somehow be relevant, this “adult” or “realistic” fantasy ends up becoming a slave to “authentic realism,” often at the expense of whatever enchantment or sense of wonder that fantasy could (and should) provide.
It goes back to the whole academic disdain for fantasy as a genre, and the likes of Douglass, Pullman, and Morgan aren’t infusing fantasy with any literary merit, despite all of their wheedling, needling, and complaining about Tolkien. The fact is, Tolkien’s in the literary canon, and Douglass, Pullman, and Morgan never will be. They’re far too myopic. Great literature isn’t about pushing some “relevant agenda,” but about the human experience as a whole; it should ask questions, provoke thought, and generate an emotional reaction, but it should never spoon-feed us meaning, be simple morality tales, or myopic agenda-driven texts for social criticism.
I’m sceptical of the idea of a “literary canon”, but otherwise, I quite agree. Great literature equates Benjamin’s idea of storytelling, where meaning comes from the reader rather than the author. Fantasy is no different. And if this is what the debate comes down to, it becomes obvious that one trend or another is irrelevant. In fact, change is good, it encourages new approaches, new ways of seeing, and, most importantly, new ways of writing.
I suppose there’s not much left to do than try to live up to my hefty expectations for fantasy when writing my own fiction. So be it.