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. Mr. Abercrombie,

    Just because some idiot says something does not mean it is worth listening to, let alone giving a rebuttal. People like that are just looking for attention – say something scandalous, it turns heads – and have no interest in being sensible or correct, only in drawing hits to their website. Pay them no mind.

    Joe Smith

  2. Perhaps LG hoped it would be read and posted on Joe’s blog…voici!

  3. @KatG:

    I don’t think Leo was trying to make any kind of literary point at all. It was spittle-flecked quasi-political posturing. Very little of it stood up to any kind of objective scrutiny. I think Joe caught the flak purely because with a new bestselling book out, his light’s shining pretty brightly at the minute, and that always attracts the moths.

  4. read the big hollywood article. found it slightly amusing.
    it’s like going to a restaurant and going mad at the fact that they serve chicken dishes AS WELL as beef dishes.

    the fact that a medium can encompass so many different viewpoints is something to be celebrated, not to be derided.

    However and Joe I hope you are listening.

    The bit where he said…

    “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 sew”

    sounds absolutelt brilliant Joe get writing and do a lord of the rings rewrite to show how to truelt subvert the genre…

  5. Bazooka Joe,
    Leo Grin is worth rebutting because there are parents out there right now who are checking their kids’ bookshelves because of what he has to say about modern fantasy.

    My parents made me smash my Rolling Stones and Rush albums when I was a teenager. Rush! The decentest band that ever was or ever will be! But there’s a crucifix and flames on the cover of Moving Pictures, quite enough to damn them in their eyes. At the time I couln’t argue with them, and I felt horrible for falling under the sway of that kind of music.

    Someone else out there may need to hear why modern fantasy matters and why it’s worth reading. I’m probably too emotional on this issue, but we can’t just dismiss it, and I’m very glad that Joe took it up. I’m going to go listen to some Rush now. And call my mom.

  6. A new peice by Leo Grin is up on Big Hollywod, Sanctity and Sanity: The Ennobling Fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien. The first half is actually a really lovely paeon to Tolkien, then it’s back to the usual. I could like this guy if he stuck to writing about Howard, Tolkien, and Lewis.

    I really wish Grin would read The Heroes. I don’t see how anyone could find it anything less than deeply moral.

  7. Joe, if I may refer to you in such familiarity, I would just like to add my two cents. I feel the criticisms cited in your article is not worth any time beyond scoffing at it belligerently. Bringing politics into any discussion, especially one centered on literature aimed to entertain, is pointless and more importantly it’s destructive.

    You should spend more time on criticisms that hold water. In my mind this includes things that you can improve and that in turn improve the reader’s entertainment value. An example of such criticism would be:

    “Throughout your 5 books I’ve immensely enjoyed the moral battles that transpire, especially the ones where you take a man we clearly would hate and despise from any other author’s version of a hero and turn him into someone we care deeply for. Of course my favorite example would be the moral dilemma Ninefingers faces upon returning to the north.

    With that being said however I must say that your fourth book, BSC; lacked the magic of the first 3 books in that the protagonists seemed to be clearly lumped into “dislike me” and “like me” categories. I can only speak for my own personal feelings but Heroes returned me to a state of affection for your work with a huge show of force. Centering heavily on the “Is this man a hero, or is he a villain” question.

    However, and now we reach my final criticism worth mentioning; in your latest books I feel a certain loss of the trait that really drew me to the First Law Trilogy. The question of (after displaying the question of “villain or hero”) does it matter if someone is a villain or a hero becuase it’s only what people remember/know you as and not what you actually are. Is it more important to be at peace with yourself for what you are? or to be forever conscious of what people think of you and react accordingly. Those are the questions that I want you to expand upon.”

    I love your books becuase I always like thinking that men like Ninefingers and Gorst (and women like Monza) are good men who simply don’t have the pleasure of living in a civilized world. Just don’t forget that for me at least I don’t subscribe to your books for the gore or even for the story (though it’s pleasant storytelling), I come for the moral problems and the villains who think they’re heroes. More please.

    Very sincerely,
    M. Optimistic

    P.S. When do we get to see more of Kanta? The country seems to be the most unknown and I’m looking forward to learning more about it.

  8. Does anyone else hear the echo of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind when reading Grin’s piece? In particular, I have in mind part two: Nihilism, American Style.

  9. MrOptimistic, regarding your final criticism, don’t Craw and Beck show how characters in these situations attempt to find some peace with themselves rather than be regarded as simply heroes? Craw is the old veteran and Beck the green recruit, but they face exactly the same moral choice.

    To borrow from Leo Grin’s quotation of Tolkien, wich might apply to Craw and Beck: “At the same time one knows that there is always good: much more hidden, much less clearly discerned, seldom breaking out into recognizable, visible beauties of word or deed or face — not even when in fact sanctity, far greater than the visible advertised wickedness, is really there.”

  10. ‘descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer’ must surely be a shoe-in for a the back cover of the next four books? Surely? No? Go on, I dare you.

    Ps. ‘ loved The Heroes.
    ‘what kind of a fucking wizard are you?’. Brilliant. Keep up the good work.

  11. I did enjoy Becks ending significantly but it wasn’t what keeps me coming back to these books. Both Craw and Beck have (from a removed viewpoint) very direct choices; they know what makes them happy and they can both return to it easily.

    The men like Ninefingers, Jezal, Shivers, and Gorst are the core for me becuase the choices hey make are not always clearly for the better. And yet they make them and for the most part each of them attempts (no matter how pathetically)to be “a better man.”

    I’ll site my reasons at the end for saying this so that anyone who wishes to avoid a spoiler can do so easily.

    Craw and Beck never bother about whether they are good people, they simply want to be happy. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying them but in truth the questions they face respectively are:
    “Do I want to always be scared waiting to die? OR should I return to what I now love and appreciate for the lack of that fear and death?”

    and then:
    “Do I want to die as a token warrior for some people who know nothing of me? OR should I live as the warrior I’ve always been?”

    Both Beck and Craw face no dilemma, it’s clear as glass what makes them happy and what they’re comfortable with. They know themselves. While “knowing oneself” is novel in Abercrombie’s books it isn’t something I ascribe to them for.

    Semi-Possible-Spoiler Ahead:
    To broaden what I meant in my first post I’ll try to demonstrate more clearly through examples what appeals to me about Ninefingers and the bunch.

    Ninefingers is effectively happy on his journey with bayaz becuase he isn’t concerned with anyone’s past or anyone’s future. He forges a connection with a woman and finds himself almost (aka completely) happy. Yet when the journey ends he realizes he’s been a terrible man and he should account for that. To simplify (at the danger of oversimplifying everything haha):

    Ninefingers knows what can make him happy yet a part of him (his conscience perhaps?) will not let him be simply happy, he has wrongs he needs to put right. Now it’s debatable wether that is exactly what the author intended us to see, perhaps Ninefingers was just a coward unable to love again ect. But the reason isn’t important. It’s the fact that someone could turn away from what makes them happy in an effort to do the right thing. In effect and to sum up:

    This is the appeal:
    “Someone who thinks the right thing means more than just personal happiness.”

    I don’t think that applies to Beck and Craw. Beck makes an effort to atone for his sins but Craw effectively absolves him easily. Until more (if ever) of Beck is revealed I just don’t see him facing this dilemma. Craw is a bit more complex and arguably his code is evidence of a conscience but once again, just not enough evidence.

    This is dragging out so I’ll sum up Jezal, Monza, Shivers and Gorst.

    Jezal is a coward and impotent and yet at the end of the LAoK you hear him still trying to be a good man while speaking to Glokta of rebuilding. Even a jaded man-child still wants to do good even if he is incapable. In BSC Jezal (though all think him a fool) is still trying to help everyone.

    Monza may not be directly responsible for her crimes yet she holds herself accountable and accepts the dark name people have given her. Nothing is ever for herself (until she wants revenge) and yet she always finds those she tries to help corrupted and/or dead. I loved Monza for her mercy at the end of BSC. Revenge gave her no pleasure, and the only way for her to be a even a shadow of a good person was to grasp at every chance she could to be a good person. The difference perhaps (the author seems to hint to us) between good and bad is that a bad person ignores the opportunities to be good, while a good person leaps on those opportunities.

    I’ll skip the rest, I clearly can’t control my tapping fingers.

    M. O.

    PS: Glokta, Cosca, and Calder are unmentioned becuase for some emotional reason I like them, and I cant begin to put that into words. 😛

  12. MrOptimistic, maybe Craw does know himself and makes his decisions accordingly, but Beck is still learning himself. I really think he’s the lynchpin of the whole story in the end. In horrific circumstances, what do you do? What’s the point of it all? I loved the contrasts between (and choices of) the two characters, but it’s the same hard wall they’re up against.

  13. Though I admit there are those who would call Beck the linchpin and not the lynchpin of the story.

  14. Joe,

    Good book. The guy is expressing an opinion, and we all know what opinions are like… everyone has one.

    Looking forward to your next book.


  15. I think, and pardon me for assuming anything MrH, that your feelings on war in general mirror those of Beck’s.

    Beck’s war: Horrors and needless killing

    Craw’s war: A job

    The difference there is of course Beck enters war as a romantic and leaves it with the viewpoint I’ve listen above while Craw held his even since he passed his bloody days.

    But the whole idea of a warrior’s “bloody days” is that they didn’t see war as horror after the killing and shock. My point was that instead of acting like the name he was given had been earned Beck immediately shrunk from it and the baggage that came with it. That’s wisdom way beyond his years in my opinion and the reason I had little taste for beck when compared to people like Jezal (given a “name” in a manner of speaking by bayaz thanks to his deeds) who acted far more human in my opinion.

    With Beck there was nothing for me to wonder about beyond “why did this boy not grab at the chance for glory like every other boy in the north?”

    I’m not saying his wasn’t an ending that I truly enjoyed though, it’s nice to see that the author can still write simple, good people into his world.

    This is what I meant when i criticized the heroes. Only Gorst really captured me in the way multiple characters have in previous books. In the first law trilogy everyone in fact held the hero or villain viewpoint depending on how you looked at them.

    The fact we can agree that beck and craw made peace with themselves and ended happily is PRECISELY the problem! There is no moral question they both made the right choices for themselves. Of course they did. Only Gorst really made me wonder in this book… and even he seemed weighted down to a simple villain.

    So while you may like Beck’s ending as I do, I feel as a whole Abercrombie is moving away from this feeling:

    “As I read, I suddenly realize that this man who I’ve come to root for and love could in fact be a monster.”

    And that feeling is what captured me completely in his first three books, and even significantly in BSC. If you’d like to frame a rebuttal please address this, since on the whole I feel we’re moving away from my meaning if we keep focusing on Beck and Craw.

    Sincerely, M.O.

  16. On a completely unrelated note. Why is the UK cover of THE HEROES so much cooler than the US cover?

  17. Being insightful, I will get right to the heart of the matter.

    Fiction is fact wrapped in fun and fantasy to make the fact less abrasive. This is ALWAYS the case because even the most absurd work is a product of the mind that wrote it and is a truth of that mind. So, what stories we read transmit the truth of that work into our minds. If we embrace it, then it will affect our behavior.

    If you don’t believe that, then familiarize yourself with how propaganda works.

    So, the author of the article was complaining that the classic books taught the reader courage and honor and the current crop teach the opposite, or worse. That’s a disservice to society.

    That leads us to a real life test of values! And, it can be answered by Mr. Abercrombie or any writer of fiction, which is exciting, in my opinion.


    I have found all of Mr. Abercrombie’s novels on several torrent sites and could have them all for free in a matter of minutes. Alternately, I could travel to the book store, spending gas money, and about fourteen per book, and that would be a seventy plus expense for me.

    Now, based that info, if I rest my decision on the lessons I’ve been taught by reading Mr. Abercrombie’s books, which option do I choose.

    As a famous ancient superbeing once said, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”

  18. Just finished The Heroes, and deffo your best work to date. Easily. Two other points:

    1) Leo is a bit of a spanner, IMHO.

    2) Chapter heading “Just Deserts” in the UK hardback. Is that a typo or was that an intentional play on words I missed? The North has a notable absence of sand, is all…

  19. Had Grin’s article linked, heard mention of this rebuttal, felt there were some things to say not so much about the tone of the piece, but some of the content.

    He brings up Serrano’s Piss Christ, for example, and the recently-censored video by (the late) David Wojnarowicz, “A Fire in My Belly.” I guess because there are crucifixes in both, that makes them the same damn thing. …Except that Serrano was a cheap provocateur and Wojnarowicz was expressing his own personal suffering with a crippling and widely stigmatized disease. (Elsewhere in the film, the artist sews his mouth shut with red thread. HIV-positive, he died before the work was completed.) The comparison is overtly simplistic, essentially meaningless, much like the quite literary Tolkienn and the more pedestrian Howard being, somehow, on the same “mythopoeic” playing field. (Howard, whose stories consist largely of rippling thews, heaving bosoms, and things being cloven by sharpened phalluses.)

    The funny thing about his argument is, as you’ve said above, that deconstruction is exactly what fantasy authors have always done, beginning with the guys he praises. Tolkienn did it with Norse tales which, in addition to being “mythopoeic,” were actually mythical. More than one element of Middle Earth (or “Midgard”) could be derived directly from the myths regarding the exploits of Sigurd. He has Regin the dwarf reforge the fragments of a broken sword (as Aragorn would later) into the sword, Gram, which he uses to slay the dragon Fafnir (or Smaug) and claim his vast treasure. (The origin of Fafnir the dragon, who was once a dwarf but was transformed by greed, also borrowed by C.S. Lewis for a set of events in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.) Among Fafnir’s treasures is a ring, Andvaranaut, which has been cursed by Loki to destroy its owners; Fafnir murdered the king of the dwarves, Hreidmar, to obtain it.

    Of course, even that could be a reinterpretation of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic. Certainly Tolkienn was aware of this story, even if the authors/recorders of the Volsunga Saga weren’t. Although personally I think a magical ring that makes you invisible but presents a singular temptation toward evil deeds is a little more interesting than a magical ring that makes you rich. (On the other hand, Sigurd already has a helmet that makes you invisible. Maybe helmets are cooler than rings.)

    That is, I think, the final nail in this argument’s coffin. Our mythopoeic heritage consists, by and large, of rewriting stories from other times and other places to suit contemporary grammar, interests, and attitudes toward gore and full frontal nudity. Andrew Lang even schlocked together some Greek myths without polytheism, in the midst of his fairly intriguing retellings of fairy tales. It seems to me that if you can do that with actual myths – and there are many-many myths which owe their origins to this, just ask Utnapishtim about that Noah business – then you might as well be able to do it with modern reboots of ancient myths. Certainly Tolkienn shouldn’t mind, as long as your magic follows its own rules and the fantastic happenings you describe are never dismissed as dreams or falsehoods.

  20. I think Mr J A writes like a dark angel. But I have more pressing concerns. Is Cas Shenkt a certain brother of an extremely powerful ‘someone’? As Yoru says in BSC as ‘he took a shocked step back…..”You,” he whispered..’ And who is Shenkt’s sister? And when will Logen and Ferro return? Would love to see a three way battle between Ferro, Monza and Ishri…..And yes Mr Abercrombie, I agree with the wise person who stated that the naysayers are just jealous. They arel entitled to their opinions, however bitter, misguided and wrong of head.

  21. very liberal of you Joe to link to the Psycosmic site. Seemingly another one of those bloggers who seems to confuse “different” with “bad” or “wrong” And anybody who bigs up Stephen Donaldson deserves (imho)our deepest sympathy :)

  22. I’m sending Leo a copy of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. That should warm his cockles.

  23. Tim H,
    I saw Leo’s new piece. Much less controversial, though he does still insist on speaking of the “backed-up commode” of books such as mine and Martin’s (with whom I am always delighted to be mentioned, of course). For a man outraged by the scatology of modern fantasy, the toilet-bowl of his critical writing really does overflow with poo-based metaphors, doesn’t it?

    Mr. Insight,
    Aaargh! Stabbed by mine own morally-absent knife! Or not?

    Mr. Optimistic,
    What’s a man with a name like yours doing in my cynico-nihilistic filth-sewer, may I ask?

    Sol Invictus,
    I think your arguments have the ring of truth about them.

    Trackbacks are good. People may follow them, and decide for themselves the validity of the arguments they find therein…

    I would think “Just Deserts” to be the correct spelling. Unless you were describing some very even-handed macaroons, or some such.

    No need! He can comment on it without reading it, like he did with the Heroes. Or consult it’s worst scoring amazon reviews, as he did with Erikson.

  24. Everyone has a right to their own opinion but there should always be a modicum of respect even in giving a critique. If someone reads a book and doesn’t enjoy it, why can’t he/she just say it’s not his/her cup of tea and leave it at that? Why is there a desire to insult and destroy the work and/or the author to such dramatic extent? It’s one thing to criticize plot, characters or other story elements, it’s another to claim it’s causing the downfall of western civilization. I didn’t even realize western civilization was so fragile it could be endangered by the works of a handful of authors. (I’m actually a bit envious of Mr. Abercrombie and his alleged co-conspirators — you must be feeling quite powerful.) It isn’t just the actual opinion expressed that matters. The tone and spirit of expression matter equally if not more so. The world would benefit from much more restraint and self-editing and much less hyperbole and incitement.

  25. Greg- I’m sure Bullington will be right up his street.Especially that naughty scene with the witch! But as Joe says not reading a book hasn’t stopped him from trashing it before.

  26. Making sweeping comments about peoples books without reading them is the way forward people!

    Why allow trifling matters such as plot,characters,realism or dragons (Not fantasy without a dragon eh?)to influence your opinions of people such as this ‘Abercrombie’ chap who has clearly ruined society and all humanity as well!

    (btw my mum was over the moon to receive her signed copy of the heroes thanks Joe)

  27. I think that he should have been more respectful in his article (this Leo fellow that is), and that he shouldn’t have compared him to Howard to modern fantasy authors. It’s just that while Conan IS in fact sword&sorcery, it’s still far form the diversity of styles in S&S today. And even though I was a big Tolkienist when I was 13 years old (I’m 16 now :D), I can now see that a lot of people are right to say he wasn’t writing fantasy or literature, he was writing a mythos. And if this Leo chap wants some oldschool fantasy why not buy Mistborn!
    P.S.I can’t wait for Before They Are Hanged and Best Served Cold to get translated in Bulgarian!! Keep up the good work Joe!

  28. Re: Just Deserts

    Well don’t I feel stoopid. Hat, coat, taxi for one…

  29. I’m sorry, what? Really, Leo? May I call you Leo, Leo?

    I’m going to have to ask to you to take your first world problems and invective and move to the back of the line. Please try to get a grip and some perspective in the interim. Some people like vanilla. Some people chocolate. That does not make those who like chocolate, or, dare I say, pistachio, the enemy.

    Seriously. Take a deep breath.

  30. nice rebutal and a good discussion showing that reason and good sense have not completely left humanity. We can leave Leo in his simplistic world suckling on his security quilt as he has every right to do.

    Really just wanted to say congratulations on the success of Heroes, I enjoyed it very much and it was the first book I have bought via Kindle on my ipad. Very impressed that it was available on the same day as in print (delivery was somewhat quicker) rather than as an after thought as most new kindle titles are. I am not sure if I will always buy by kindle as I like books and the cover art is largely wasted in ebooks. That said it was a pleasent experience all round. A minor suggestion for a book like Heroes where the map was more than just a place filler a sub menu in the ebook where you could call it up again without loosing your place in the text might be useful. Good to hear that you have a new contract and I will await more productions floating downstream from your jaded littery sewer.

    I have always held the view that the more sacred the cow the riper it is for slaughter so I guess I wouldnt be buying Leo a pint if I ever met him. Apologies for the txt like writing, ipads are great to view stuff but useless to type anything on.

  31. To me this basically sounds like someone saying “You kids and your rock and roll!!”

    Except…Grin is only 40.

    I don’t get it.

  32. I have to agree with some of the other comments this big hollywood writer is just trying to get some more hits to his website and maybe a bump in his paycheck. Today is the first time i ever heard of that website.
    I basically stumbled upon the First Law Trilogy on a Amazon “recommended for you” page. I quickly burned through the trilogy and then Best Served Cold. I found it enthralling.
    I believe what the author of that article lacks to pick up on is the reality in Joe’s (can I call you Joe?) fantasy work. I have had very long discussions with my grandfather who served in WW2 and my uncle who was an vietnam pow, and war is a nasty, perverted thing (admittedly i have no personal experience). The wars and skirmishes that these characters go through seem much more plausible than the unscathable characters that appear in many of the more classic works. (Don’t get me wrong i am a big fan of the classics too.)
    Keep up the good work Joe, the numbers don’t lie. You have a large fanbase.

  33. Ben C,
    You may call me Joe.

    I make that 200 comments and 17 trackbacks. People sure do love a scrap, don’t they…?

  34. Hi Joe,
    perhaps we should simply burn all of your books. Maybe then Leo would be happy. (Plus, just think how much you could charge for them on the black market!)

  35. Joe, I’ve been doing some thinking, and I think your books need to be in the genre of “Postmodern Blasphemy.” That sounds way more intriguing than fantasy or speculative fiction.

    “Oh, you’ll find that in our ‘Postmodern Blasphemy’ section. It’s right past ‘Young Adult.'”

    Love it.

  36. I find it funny that the literary arts tend to be the literary arts’ worst enemy. Rather than intellectuals writing unsolicited criticisms of an author’s work, I’d much prefer to hear their opinions of work they like. I am more likely to pick up a book that, for example, Mr. Abercrombie recommends than to ignore one he bashes. I agree with the few posts that assert he is only writing it for the attention it will bring his column, which makes me sad we’re actually talking about him.

    Mr. Abercrombie, the next time you see an article that is as clearly ridiculous as that one is, just ignore it. I’d much prefer to see an (as always) interestingly discussed piece responding to what you think are legitimate criticisms of your work (that may boil down to personal preference or style or whatever)

  37. Steve,
    Well, people do love hyperbole and an adverserial approach on the internet, as the two hundred and odd comments and twenty trackbacks to this post seem to demonstrate. It’s my most commented upon post in four years of blogging by a factor of more than 2:1. The two runners up, incidentally, are a less high pressure discussion about a review that found the cynicism of The First Law too much but without all the ridiculous hyperbole, and my story about being hit over the head by a banister. I think there is an interesting discussion to be had about the value of grit, realism (whatever that is) and cynicism in epic fantasy, but the political grandstanding and ludicrous exaggeration don’t help the case. Or rather do, if it’s attention you want…

  38. I think I see a new Joe Abercrombie back cover:

    “Josephine Aebercrom, philosopher of the Realist kingdom, has sworn to defend the values her people hold true, by any means necessary. She will set out to prove that, while her pen may be mightier than her sword, her prefered ink is red.

    Leonard Smiles, belligerant priest in the ancient religion of Tolkhow, has been preaching against the evils of Realism for years. However, a chance encounter with a forgotten race of metal opens a whole new world of posibility, one that will see the Realist kingdom fall.

    Over 3 years the battle for supreme ideology will be decided. But with both sides riddled by political grandstanding, ludicrous exaggeration, and attempts at character assassination, it is unlikely that the most mature, or even the sharpest mind, will prevail…”

    (Said completely tongue in cheek, of course :P)

  39. This is my favorite (from part 2 of the overly verbous rant).
    “The author [Tolkien] himself disliked academic dissertations, seeing them for what they usually are: examples of the writer trying to preen and peacock his intellectual superiority over the reader, not by understanding or empathizing but by dissection and vivisection. ”

    Interesting Leo, very interesting…

  40. “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.”


    Mr. Abercrombie, I cannot recommend Steven Erikson’s “Gardens of the Moon” enough. Devastating in scope and impressive in it’s (fictional) cultural depth, it is not a series (The Malazan Book of the Fallen) that you should miss. I’m a little surprised you haven’t read any of his stuff. Though George RR Martin is certainly skilled, unlike him Erikson can actually finish a series – book 10 just came out a week ago. Erikson has been writing, on average, a ~900 page book a year. Every year. For the past ~8 years. And they’re good. Now that is a feat.

    If you haven’t read Glen Cook’s works… for one, don’t admit such a travesty to anyone and two, correct it by picking up “The Black Company” immediately.

    I’m now curious to see who Michael Swanwick and Matthew Woodring Stover are; gonna look them up. Thanks.

  41. In my humble opinion Joe like many before him, came along and gave a jaded and tired old genre the right royal kick up the backside that it needed. I remember Tolkien in his preface, saying had he written the book as some sort of statement about current events, in other words had he intended it to be realistic…then the Ring would have been used as a weapon, Saruman could very well have forged his own and Mordor would have been occupied. In many ways this is what Joe Abercrombie has done with his books. When the second book saw the end of the “typical” fantasy quest for the sacred maguffin of evil doer smiting…and it had all the principal characters staring at the contents of a certain sacred box, I just about fell off my seat laughing.
    The books aren’t poison but an honest and engaging tale, were he has put all human frailties on the table. Heroism, cowardice, good old fashioned greed. Vested interests, egos, real-politic and some good old manifest destiny. In other words he made a fantasy world that is actually believable.

    I think the whole attack at Joe’s work is really nothing more than a cheap shot from an author who churns out by the numbers fantasy drudgery which is nothing more than cheap Tolkien rip off’s.

  42. I must raise the pint glass in praise to your thoughtful response to Leo’s criticism. However, I can’t help thinking of Wesley Snipes’ character from the movie Mo’ Better Blues responding to Denzel Washington’s character when he complains about a lack of black people in the audience, “Bullsh*t! Everything you just said is bullsh*t!” would have sufficed just as well.

  43. Might I congratulate you, Mr. Abercrombie, on achieving Sauron-type status? I knew you were good, but I’d no idea you’d achieved the position of Evil Overlord Intent on Ruining the Universe and Encouraging the Kiddies to Watch Porn, Not Brush Their Teeth Before Bed, and Similar Naughtiness.

    It’s reassuring to know that I finally have somewhere to lay the blame for my moral decreptitude, and the decline of civilisation as we know it. All those years of blaming fast music, and colourful computer games, when actually it was the bold books I was reading that were playing havoc with my fragile little mind.

    By all means, let us return to the days of fluffy unicorns, somberly-dressed damsels in distress, and barbarians that are never more vulgar than “Oh fooey, I burned the muffins”.

  44. Dear Mr. Abercrombie

    I have no idea what this argument is about because I just read fantasy books, where my judgement doesnt go beyond wether I was entertained and to some extent brought to think (it happens on occasion).
    Anyway I was just stuck on a small part of your post where you wrote about Steven Erikson, saying you had never read any of his books. I am wondering wether you are a nutcake or just a masochist? (I mean that in the nicest way possible, Im a nutcake, and proudly so) If you truely have not read any of the Malazan books I will think of you as that author (whose books I love) but who has this delicious chocolate cake sitting on his desk when he writes, and refuses to eat it. Honestly, eat it!

    About Tolkien, I recall that he was a professor of linguistics, and to me it seems very much as if he wrote the Lord of the rings for himself, and not for anyone else. It is frankly a very unmanageable story in the way its edited and imo, is not that well written. Im not going to deny the fact that it had a profound influence on bringing fantasy litt. to a mainstream level, and that he had an amasing imagination. I also think he had a deeply felt motivation to do something other than write a fantasy novel. Im not sure what it was, but the books never felt to me as an authors desire to entertain, share or even bring me into his mindscape. Its allways felt like a deeply personal endevour to me (but then Im a nutcake).Celebrating Tolkien as the end all and be all (in fantasy litt.)to me is like celebrating the wheel in its original form. The first ones were made of stone, but isnt it ok to say the rubber ones are a vast improvement?

    sorry for my english, Im not a native :)


  45. I’d like to know Mr Grin’s take on the Thomas Covenant books. For me, Donaldson’s world was a bleak and frightening place where even the hero was a self-loathing rapist and yet the stories still kept me entertained and probably are the reason that I enjoy darker fantasy.

  46. I find it fascinating how Mr. Grin managed to confuse realism and nihilism in Mr. Abercrombie’s work. While there are certainly dark themes present in his books, I never felt there has been any real misanthropy or pointless darkness. Likewise, if Mr. Grin laments the decline of the heroic character, perhaps he should read and examine the motivations of a certain Conan “crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women” the Barbarian.

  47. For some reason Grin’s piece made me think of how much I miss the skills of Sam Peckinpah at his best – so much talent wasted because he drank himself to death.

    Now that would be an awesome prospect, an Abercrombie novel filmed by Peckinpah!!!

    I find it informative that conservative bastion, Charlton Heston, fought to keep Peckinpah on as director of “Major Dundee”, and offered to waive his salary to see shooting completed on key scenes (the producers kept Heston’s check AND reneged on the scenes), when the studio balked at what Peckinpah was doing.

    I guess I have too much tolerance for all kinds of fantasy, from virtuous heroes to dark “noir” nightmares. Grin can stay safely in his corner, while I wander through the varied landscapes of the genre.

    If the characters are great, and plot fascinating, I’ll read it.

    — Seattle

  48. Loved this rebuttal, which said (with more panache) much of what I sputtered at the screen after slogging through the awful argument presented by Mr. Grin.

  49. Coming late to the argument, but thought I’d throw out my 5 cents.

    At the end of the First Law trilogy, I felt more than a twinge of disappointment. The characters–especially Ninefingers–had satisfying (if often less-than-ideal) conclusions, but the metafictional game of “Let’s Turn Tolkien on His Head” left me a bit cold. I could psychoanalyze myself and say that I expect a certain hopefulness in my heroic fantasy, that I turn to it for encouragement and a world in which political agency exists and can be used for good. In short, a genre that often is associated with idealism (and, at best, the resultant drive to make the world a better place) was turned in on itself–and I found that my desire for the old story overwhelmed the legitimate cleverness of this ending.

    This doesn’t, in my opinion, make it a bad book. I think the ending’s departure from fundamental expectations of the genre enlivens the field as a whole–if nothing else, it helps authors like Robin Hobb convince me, if only for a second, that their works will end on a similarly pessimistic note. And even if the ending were a failed experiment (which reactions of other readers make me doubt), it’s not like the First Law trilogy was the only book published that year. The Lies of Locke Lamora, for instance, exhibited a more earnest conventional morality (and even piety) beneath its brilliantly foul-mouthed surface. The Name of the Wind came out in 2007, and that may be the most respectful, rhythmic, mythic, and gentle-spirited fantasy book since The Last Unicorn. Tolkien’s influence–and conservative mythmaking–is alive and well.

    I have an odd sympathy for critics who feel deprived of a certain expectation of the fantasy field, even if his complaints are unfounded. Most people pick up fantasy books with the expectation of being treated to a constellation of delights. I wanted political intricacy, heart-pounding adventure, lovable characters, and an uplifting ending. I got three out of four, and was happy. If I had only wanted the ending, I might have felt much more betrayed.

    But the answer to the discovery that an author doesn’t give you what you want should generally be to read someone else, not to rant about the end of the world.


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