At Least It’s An Ethos
1) Someone Says Something Stupid About Joe Abercrombie
Leo Grin warns us of the bankrupt nihilism of contemporary fantasy authors. Chief amongst these writers is Joe Abercrombie:
Abercrombie’s freshman effort, the massive First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Were Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings) was more than enough for me. Endless scenes of torture, treachery and bloodshed drenched in scatology and profanity concluded with a resolution worthy of M. Night Shyamalan at his worst, one that did its best to hurt, disappoint, and dishearten any lover of myths and their timeless truths. 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.
I imagine most authors can only dream of having a jaded literary sewer. Other writers named as paddling in this sewer are Matthew Woodring Stover, Steven Erikson and Michael Swanwick. They stand in stark contrast to Grin’s heroes, JRR Tolkien and Robert E Howard, who he elevates because:
I don’t particularly care for fantasy per se. What I actually cherish is something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old.
In case you thought this was merely a case of his personal tastes not happening to be universal, here come the politics:
In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: 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.
2) A Fan Responds
Well, lots of fans responded, it was all over Twitter. However, Adam Whitehead posted the first substantive response:
I think the author is conflating two separate issues here, the nihilistic/gritty/realistic ‘New Fantasy’ of the last two decades or so (a sweeping generalisation), which isn’t really that new, and the proliferation of overt sex/violence/swearing in recent fantasy books. Dealing with the first issue, it’s an odd point to make. The problem is that the author bemusingly names J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard as his preferred flavours of fantasy. Which makes very little sense, as few fantasy authors are more nihilistic than Tolkien and Howard… Of course, one brief look at the mythic inspirations for Howard and Tolkien, the great Norse sagas, the Arthur legends, Greek myths and so on, reveal stories far more tragic, blood-drenched and horrific than anything the likes of Abercrombie or Martin has ever come up with. This notion of pure black vs. white heroism ever being a dominant force in either mythology or fantasy literature seems to be illusory.
3) Joe Abercrombie Responds
As is now the way of the world, Abercrombie himself weighs in:
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.
He notes that he is an admirer of both writers which chimes with my belief that he is at the heart of Third Wave Fantasy. Abercrombie then turns to the personal stuff; he deftly makes Grin look an arse but there is no real need to read it.
4) The Pros Respond
Next we have contributions from some other fantasy novelists. First up is mentally ill bigot John C Wright. As you might imagine, he is fully onboard with the decline of Western civilisation:
Mr. Leo Grin in his essay makes clear that he upholds the right of those who adore such degraded things to write and read their chosen poison. He is more generous than I. 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 crucifix, 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.
We don’t need to read any more from Wright but it is worth pointing out he hopes Grin’s post “will be studied seriously, both now in and in years to come, by all who read, write, and review in the genre.” Yeah.
Next we have the somewhat less insane R Scott Bakker who identifies Grin as falling into the fourth tribe of fantasy fans:
There’s the largest constituency, the Adventure Junkies, who want their fantasy to be as kinetic as Clive Cussler. Then there’s the two smaller constituencies: the Weird Junkies, who love smoking from the possibility-for-possibility’s sake bong, and there’s the World Junkies, who want something massive and, most importantly, believeable… What Grin has showed me is that there is fourth tribe of fantasy fans out there: the Nostalgia Junkies. I’ve spilled more than a few gallons of electronic ink over the years suggesting that much of fantasy’s appeal lies in the way provides readers the kinds of worlds that humans are prone to cook up in the absence of science, worlds adapted to our psychology, rather than vice versa. Scriptural worlds. Pondering his essay I couldn’t shake the sense that it was more the tone of Tolkien and Howard that he was missing, not the ideological content (which he seems to so clearly misread). The very tone that I have worked so hard – too hard, according to some critics – to recreate in my own fantasy fiction. Elevated, and serious unto lugubriousness. The tone of Believers.
I also enjoyed his characterisation of Grin as “an honest-to-God ‘Flat-Brainer’: someone who literally thinks that his yardstick is not bent, that he has not only won the Magical Belief Lottery, he has obviously done so.”
5) A Conversation At Black Gate
Last week, I read with great interest the discussion that began with Leo Grin’s comparison of the heroic fantasy fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard with the anti-heroic fantasy fiction of Joe Abercrombie. As this is a topic that has interested me for years, I have a number of thoughts regarding it. However, since I am a political commentator who is correctly said to be well outside the ideological mainstream of the SF/F community, I think it is best to begin by pointing out to those on both sides of the spectrum who may be eager to turn this into a political debate that this is not a political subject, but rather a historical, literary, and philosophical one. And as such, there is no need to argue over whether the trajectory over time that Grin observes is desirable or not, since that is a matter of perspective and personal opinion. Regardless of one’s ideological self-identification or opinion on the specifics of Grin’s observations, it should be eminently clear to all and sundry that something material and significant has changed within the field of fantasy fiction in the 71 years that separate Howard’s final publication from Abercrombie’s first one and the 52 years that separate the publication of The Return of the King from The Blade Itself.
It is hard to imagine a less inspiring introduction to an essay than this but luckily they provide a counter-point to this wrongheaded banality. Matthew David Surridge is anti-Grin:
Would it be accurate to say that other early fantasy writers, let’s say from the start of the twentieth century through to at least 1956, when The Lord of the Rings was published, depicted a traditional moral framework and featured traditionally heroic protagonists whose actions were held to be unequivocally just? Were they more or less prone to featuring blaspheming anti-heroes? The answer, it seems to me, is not as obvious as one might think. William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and James Branch Cabell were all religious skeptics, and their work to various degrees displayed not only irreverence but sometimes outright cynicism about moral proclamations and the accomplishments of heroes and warriors. It’s fair to say that E.R. Eddison, somewhat like Howard, featured heroic characters acting out of a specific moral code; but Eddison was even more pagan than Howard, essentially seeing the world as a product of the interplay of Jupiter and Venus. His characters were based on Renaissance nobles, but it was a Renaissance without a church, the Renaissance at its most Machiavellian.
If you only read one of the follow up posts, this is the one.
6) The Stragglers Respond
And, of course, the discussion continued to rumble on. Paul C Smith wonders if Grin actually knew what nihilism is:
The charge of nihilism is ridiculous because fantasy, especially epic fantasy (whether high or low), remains essentially moral fiction. Even when the protagonists are violent and self-serving, they are considered anti-heroes, ergo they still exist inside the sphere of morality, they are just on the other end of it than more heroic characters. If these novels were truly nihilistic, like McCarthy’s brilliant Blood Meridian, these sort of moral pronouncements would never come into play. In nihilism there can be no right or wrong because nothing can ever be known, therefore it follows that there can be no heroes or anti-heroes, just characters committing acts that have no value. In McCarthy’s world, we cannot even proclaim the monstrous Judge Holden a villain, because the parameters of the novel do not allow it. These gritty fantasy novels may be as far removed from Tolkien in terms of morality as Lolita is from Jane Eyre, but they still exist in the same moral universe.
As Matt Hilliard points out in the comments, the charge of nihilism is actually an interesting one in relation to Abercrombie’s work. This is a conversation I would like to return to but it is clear this is a far too nuanced argument for Grin.
Finally, My Elves Are Different pitch in. I think you have to be American to get it.