Bankrupt Nihilism

Posted on February 15th, 2011 in opinion

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while (I am reasonably confident there are at least two) will be aware that at times in the past I’ve picked up and examined negative criticisms from around the web, but always in a positive and respectful way (ahem), using them as a springboard for a deeper understanding of my own work (ahem), keen, always, to engage with critics in meaningful discourse.  I must confess that I’ve become jaded of late, though.  The internet brimmeth over with stuff, and after a while it all starts to look the same.  I just don’t feel the slings and arrows like I used to.  Which is why I am deeply grateful that Leo Grin has jerked me from my self-satisfied stupour with his searing indictment of modern fantasy over at BigHollywood.  He sure is unhappy about something…

“The mere trappings of the genre do nothing for me … when placed into the hands of writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.”

It’s a very simple argument he advances, really.  A kind of literary battle of good against evil, you might say.  On one side are the towering mythic geniuses of Tolkien and Howard, who wrote “in blood and lighting” according to Leo, although presumably on extremely hardwearing paper.  On the other side are, well, me, Steve Erikson, Michael Swanwick, and Matthew Woodring Stover, apparently.  I’ve never met those guys, or read any of their work, I must admit.  But that doesn’t mean they’re not down here with me in the evil postmodern myth-destruction bunker.  It’s a big old bunker we’ve got, and there’s lots of us down here.  Though I’m not entirely sure who.  

I’m a little suspicious, I must say, of any argument that lumps Tolkien and Howard together as one thing, although Leo has made the photos of them in his piece point towards each other in a very complimentary fashion.  I think of them as polar opposites in many ways, and the originators (or at least key practitioners) of, to some extent, opposed traditions within sword-based fantasy.  Tolkien, the father of high fantasy, Howard the father of low.  Howard’s work, written by a man who died at thirty, tends to the short and pulpy (as you’d expect from stories written for pulp magazines).  Tolkien’s work, published on the whole when he was advanced in years, is very long and literary (as you’d expect from a professor of English).  Tolkien is more focused on setting, I’d say, Howard on character.  Leo’s point is that they both celebrate a moral simplicity, a triumph of heroism, but I see that too as a massive over-simplification.  Howard celebrates the individual, is deeply cynical (could one even say nihilistic) about civilisation.  Tolkien seems broadly to celebrate order, structure, duty and tradition.  And I celebrate, well …

“Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.”

That sounds … kind of interesting to me, actually, but I dimly percieve that Leo doesn’t like it.  Your mileage may vary, of course.  But why all the fury, Leo?  Relax.  Pour yourself a drink.  Admire your unrivalled collection of Frank Frazetta prints for a while.  Wrestle the old blood pressure down.  When an old building is demolished to make way for a new, I can see the cause of upset.  Hey, depending what’s lost and what’s gained, I might be upset myself.  Let’s all take a look at the plans together and see if we can work something out.  But books don’t work that way.  If I choose to write my own take on fantasy, what gets destroyed?  What loss are we bewailing here?  If the mere notion of moral ambiguity, explicit violence and some swearing chills your very soul, I daresay you can still find something on the shelves with “the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves” as Leo has it.  You want Tolkien and Howard?  I’ve got a very handsome leather bound Complete Conan and I’m reasonably sure Lord of the Rings is still in print.  Something newer?  There are still plenty of established authors very succesfully writing very traditional stuff, if that’s your bag, and many more authors of what might be called these days a somewhat more YA-ish bent (absolutely no disrespect intended) writing interesting work without swearing or graphic sex and violence.  I wish the best of luck to them and their readers.  Many of their readers, after all, will be my readers too.  And I think that’s the key point here.  This argument is so cartoonishly simplistic.  There just aren’t two neatly defined camps in this.

“The other side thinks that their stuff is, at long last, turning the genre into something more original, thoughtful, and ultimately palatable to intelligent, mature audiences.”

We’re on sides, now?  No one told me about sides.  What are the sides?  Of what?  And on which side am I?  I love Tolkien, after all.  I’d like to be on his side.  Grew up with The Hobbit.  Read Lord of the Rings every year.  I’m a great admirer of his.  Without Tolkien there’d be no fantasy as we know it, and certainly no First Law.  When it comes to an epic tale with moral clarity set in a supremely realised fantasy world, he pretty much knocked it out of the park.  But that means there’s not much point in my writing it again, is there?  Forgive me for saying so, but it feels as if folk have been writing Lord of the Rings again for a while now, and I think we could probably, you know, stop.  Howard’s less of a personal influence for me, except at distant second hand through the film Conan the Barbarian, D&D and so forth, but there’s no doubting his tremendous influence on the genre, and I’m a big fan of some of the guys who picked up the sword & sorcery baton from him, like Fritz Leiber.  Hell, I’d like to be on Howard’s side too.  Can I be on his … oh.  Apparently I’m on the other side:

“bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field. They co-opt the language, the plots, the characters, the cliches, the marketing, and proceed to deconstruct it all like a mad doctor performing an autopsy. Then, using cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism, they put it back together into a Frankenstein’s monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten. In the case of the fantasy genre, the result is a mockery and defilement of the mythopoeic splendor that true artists like Tolkien and Howard willed into being with their life’s blood.”

I’m in the bored middle class, college educated liberal creative camp, apparently.  Unlike Tolkien, who would have had no truck with that middle-class educated creative crap.  He was the son of a bank manager and the Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Merton college, with a fistful of honorary degrees and fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature, by the way.  This adverserial picture of the world just doesn’t seem, to me, to stand up to the most casual scrutiny.  In the words of Mr. Pink, “fuck sides, man, what we need is a little solidarity here.”  To me, it’s not really about politics, and it’s got nothing to do with sides, just various writers coming at a genre with their own set of unique concerns, influences, interests.  Why must it be steak OR chicken?  Can I not enjoy both?  Can I not think the two compliment and improve one another?  Can I not even think that a solid diet of steak, however much I may enjoy it, may become dull and boring, and long for chicken to explode upon my jaded palet?  Hell, let’s go mad and add vegetables too!  Where’s the harm in a varied diet?  If rocket’s worthless, the fad will soon be over, we can all go back to lettuce.  Don’t like something?  Eat something else.  And why be so upset about what other people choose to eat? 

“Soiling the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths is no different than other artists taking a crucifix and dipping it in urine, covering it in ants, or smearing it with feces. In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing.”

It’s so shrill.  So absurdly over-the-top and apocalyptic.  Surely the hallmark of western civilzation is variety, richness, experimentation.  If we all settled for repeating the same-old we’d still be stuck in the dark ages, no?  We’d certainly have no Tolkien and Howard, who were bold enough to try to do new things with established forms, cook up new combinations of influences with their own stamp.  Isn’t that what it’s all about?  I don’t honestly see myself as nihilistic, really.  Cynical, for sure.  Surprising, I’d hope.  Occasionally filthy, no doubt.  Bankrupt, certainly not, thank you, baths in my literary sewer are in great demand as my new four book deal certifies.  But it’s got nothing to do with tearing anything down, and certainly not with suicidal self-loathing.  I see myself as working within a form.  Experimenting with the same stuff Tolkien and Howard pioneered.  Tweaking, commenting, examining, hopefully in the sort of way that Sergio Leone does with John Ford, and Clint Eastwood does with Sergio Leone.  That’s how genre works, no?  Darkness, despair, and lack of moral clarity in fantasy isn’t even anything radical.  Look at Lovecraft.  Look at Howard, for that matter.  Look at Tolkien’s Silmarillion.  Neither is filth and grime a new development.  Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, anyone?  But shiny and simple had long been in the commercial ascendant.  A correction was bound to come.  Grit, slime and moral ambiguity seem popular now.  Probably the pendulum will swing back (if it ever really swung away).  What’s the big deal?  Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend, and all that jazz.  My favourite quote from Leo, to be found in the comments, on The First Law:

“That’s not realism, it’s nihilism, and it’s poison to both the reader’s mind and culture.”

I can only scratch my head at the insidious power I appear to have amassed.  Whether or not my own work is nihilism seems to me very arguable, but poison to the reader’s mind and culture?  Really?  If you feel your mind and culture might collapse under the weight of a surprising ending involving an unpleasant wizard, a rubbish king and a couple of swear words, it seems to me you really need to dig them some deeper foundations. 

Incidentally, Adam Whitehead gives his own take on some of the issues here, and SF writer John C. Wright seizes the overwrought football of Leo’s argument and runs it into the end-zone of strangeness on his blog:

“It is my judgment, shared of many ancients, that there are certain proper emotional reactions and relatins one ought to have, and improper ones one ought not. A child raised to curse and despise his parents, trample the crusifix, burn the flag, abhor kittens and Christmas scenes and motherhood but adore torture porn and satanism and deformity, that child’s tastes are objectively perverse and false-to-facts. He has been trained to spew his mother’s milk and drink venom. Fair to him is foul, and foul is fair. In the same way that to say A is not-A is an offense against logic, to hate the lovely and love the hateful is an offense against aesthetics, a disconnection from reality … the literati (or, to be precise, anti-literati) make inroads into the realm of elfland itself, to erect the smog and graffito of their beloved Mordor.”

Okaaay.  I’m stepping away now.  I’ve gone on far too long and now I’ve got Stover AND Swanwick on the phone demanding I get back to the bunker to plot the downfall of western civilisation.  Load the kitten-powered zepellins with defaced Christmas scenes and set course for elfland!  Mwa ha ha haaaaaah, fools!  We’re coming for your myths!

Oh, and usual comments about comments apply.  Let’s keep this clean and respectful please, people.

EDIT: I have returned to my computer after a day away and see there’s been all kinds of interest in this post.  Apologies to those first-timers whose comments have not been moderated until now.  I try to keep a light touch on moderation, but some are sailing close to the wind.  A couple I’ve had to strike for overstepping the mark, as I see it.  Peter Collinson, your comment was fascinating and highly perceptive but, I would say, a touch too inflammatory for this particular forum.  I encourage you all to comment in future, though.  Some specific fallout:

I may find John C. Wright’s views outlandish but he takes it in good part and shows dignity and a sense of humour in his reply, so kudos for that.  Perhaps, to paraphrase his own comment, I am allowed to find the blog insane without necessarily doubting the mental health of the blogger

Further discussion at Black Gate, at Ominvoracious, from author Scott Bakker (who I daresay might be down here in the bunker somewhere), of the lack of female authors in all this at Floor to Ceiling Books, of … something relating to it … from the inimitable BC Woods, and that’s just scratching the surface…

FURTHER EDIT: A lot of comments dwell on the politics, which is inevitable I guess as Leo made that a centrepiece of his argument.  I’ve let pretty much everything stand that isn’t beyond the pale, but for my own part I’d rather this did not descend into a partisan slagging match.  As I’ve said above, I don’t see this as a political issue, and I feel that Leo’s assertion that “new” and “old” fantasy are utterly separate camps, and further that one camp is fundamentally of a different politics, or level of education, or class to the other is the most utterly bogus part of a bogus argument.  Likewise there’s a fair bit of ad hominem about.  It is the internet.  But it doesn’t help.  Let’s keep it calm going forward, please.

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  1. I guess he never read the 19th century Russian classics, Albert Camus, or the Greek tragedies for the matter. Nihilism, grittiness and moral ambiguity are nothing new and have been written to death since the dawn of civilization, starting with the Sumerian epics written in cuneiform on clay tablets.


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