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How Come China Miéville Never Blogs About His Award Eligibility?

with 16 comments

Once upon a time fandom was confined to fanzines and letters of comment, meetings and conventions. In other words, interaction existed but was limited. If you nominated someone for an award it was probably because you liked their work or had met them in person. Then along came the internet. Hooray! Among the many other awesome things the internet did, it massively increased interaction between fans themselves and between fans and authors. A good thing, obviously. Then one author had the bright idea of posting their award elibility so that their fans would be encouraged to nominate them. This idea soon caught on.

And why not? Authors obviously have a right to promote themselves, increasingly I would imagine they would say have they have a duty to do so. If you have a platform that speaks directly to your fanbase, why not use it for this purpose? Well, there are a couple of reasons why not. Firstly, it is unbelievably crass. By posting your eligibility you are implictly saying that you are worthy of nomination which means you are saying that your novel or story is one of the five or six best published in the entire field that year. Obviously, authors never come out and say this which only makes the situation worse. Secondly, and more importantly, it pollutes the awards themselves. If you move the discussion from the field as a whole to you as an individual author then you are changing awards from being an attempt to identify exemplary texts into a popularity contest. Unfortunately, although those who were critical – people like me – had the moral high ground, they still lost the battle: over the last couple of years, authors posting their eligibility has become endemic.

Apparently authors really, really want to win awards. Given that, you would hope they would look at award shortlists and think “wow, there is some really exceptional work on there” and aspire to produce something of a similar standard. Instead it would appear that they look at shortlists and think “wow, there is some really mediocre work but heavily self-promoted work on there” and take that as their inspiration. To hear authors tell it, they are trapped in an arms race; if they don’t post their elibiligy then their work will be drowned out by all the authors who do. It would be more accurate to say that there has been a vicious circle of the increasing prevelance of such posts weakening social norms which in turn increases the prevelence of the posts.

Something different happened this year though. As awards season came round and authors started to make eligibility posts it became clear that they weren’t satisfied with having won the battle, they wanted to take the moral high ground. A good example of this can be found in Juliet McKenna’s post on information, self-promotion, plugging and pimpage. She describes her personal evolution from being brought up to consider self-promotion “utterly reprehensible, no ifs or buts” to being an author in the modern publishing industry were some level of self-promotion is necessary before sensibly concluding that “ultimately every reader and writer will find the level of self-promotion that they’re comfortable with.” Exactly right.

The post becomes problematic, however, when McKenna suggests that “one of the most valuable functions of awards is to prompt the debate and discussion so vital for keeping a genre developing in ever more interesting ways for readers and writers alike” and that authors posting eligibilty supports this. That valuable function is certainly right but I’m extremely sceptical of the ability of such posts to support it. I’ve chosen McKenna’s post as an example of this new meme because several people (including me) try to unpick this point in the comments with limited success. I’d recommend reading the comments for the detailed discussion but it is abundantly obvious that if your goal really was to promote debate and discussion then posting your own eligibility is a singularly poor way of doing so. Charitably you could say that it might be a potential positive side effect of self-promotion, less charitably you could say it was a figleaf intended to give legitimacy to such self-promotion. I have to say, I tend towards the latter view (in my grumpier moments I considered entitling this post “Don’t Piss On Me And Tell Me It’s Raining”) but, if you want to prove me wrong, then Niall Harrison makes a very good point in the comments:

If I ever saw an author make a post that said, “Hey, Hugo nominations are open — I think you should read and consider nominating this book, because I think it is awesome for these reasons” I would probably forgive them a hundred posts promoting their own books for awards. But somehow that never happens.

Some of this comes down to taste. I think there are strong argument against eligibility posts but perhaps if I was an author I would weigh things differently (although the authors I admire don’t). As McKenna says, everyone will draw their own line. So worse than the overstated case for eligibility posts as a social good is the way she characterises critics:

So why should [authors] be discouraged by online hostility insisting they’re not allowed (and who exactly decides this anyway?) to tell me about their eligibility, nominations etc? With that insistence followed by threats that if they do, such behaviour should automatically stop any right-thinking person for voting for them now or in the future!

Quite obviously authors have not been discouraged in the slightest but this language of “hostility” and “threats” is troubling. Others have gone even further than McKenna in suggesting that not only is posting your eligibility socially positive but that this means that any criticism of such posting is inherently socially negative. Consider this Tweet from Cheryl Morgan: “The main reason why established fandom hates pimpage is that it encourages more people to vote.” This is initially deeply confusing since you would be hard pressed to think of a more established member of fandom than Hugo maven Morgan. Is she speaking on her own behalf? Presumably not. Then who? Well, if you know Morgan then you know she is a paranoid fantasist and you will quickly twig that not only is “established fandom” an imaginary construction, it also consists of imaginary people. That is to say, as is typical of Morgan, it is soon revealed to be a baseless smear. But what of the substance of the smear: if you criticise authors for posting their award eligibility then you are deliberately attempting to suppress the vote. Extraordinary. We are truly down the rabbit hole now.

Written by Martin

11 January 2012 at 13:17

Posted in awards, genre wars

What’s The Opposite Of Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes?

with 75 comments

As you will have noticed from my short story projects I tend to find genre short stories frustrating. For this reason I subscribe to none of the magazines and rarely read any of the freely available material on the internet. The exception is at awards time. This is, after all, part of the point of awards: to filter a huge field and identify the best of the best. By reading only shortlisted works I should avoid all frustration and experience only excellent literature.

Ho, ho, ho.

Not only does awards season mean I read short fiction, it also means I get an opportunity to talk about it. This year Karen Burnham has been running a short story club at Locus Online. It is a welcome development, although it is a shame to see no other contributors to Locus taking part. The club covers all the short stories and novelettes that received two our more award nominations this year.

One of these stories is ‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’ by Eric James Stone, which was shortlisted for both the Hugo and the Nebula. It subsequently won the Nebula. This means, theoretically, that the membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America – professional writers all – thought that this was the best short story published in science fiction and fantasy in 2010. That is quite an accolade. Theoretically.

Before going on to try and puzzle out what has gone catestrophically wrong with the Nebulas, I suppose I better mention the story itself. My first encounter with the story was when Nick Mamatas refered to it as the “Mormon space whale rape story”. Then I read Abigail Nussbaum’s scathing review as part of her overview of the Hugo novelette shortlist. (Nussbaum has also written about the Hugo short story and novella categories. Poor sod.) As such, although my expectations for the short story club had already been lowered by ‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’ by Aliette de Bodard and ‘Ponies’ by Kij Johnson, I was confident that ‘Leviathan’ would be much worse. And it was.

I tweeted the story as I read it at #whalerape (now lost to the ether) and I’ve left several comments on the Locus post so I’m not going to rehearse why the story is so bad (it is also worth reading the David Moles post linked there). If you think the story has any merit at all, feel free to try and convince me in the comments. Instead, my interest now is in how it won the Nebula. The voting system might well play a part. As Sam Montgomery-Blinn pointed out, unlike the Hugos:

the final vote is a winner take all, unranked vote: pick one of these 5-6 stories. This is precisely the voting system you would expect to produce a mediocre winner with strong hot/cold reactions, while 3 or 4 more potentially outstanding stories split the remaining votes.

But that would still mean a chunk of people had to actively vote for ‘Leviathan’. How many members of the SFWA vote for the Nebulas and how many of them voted for this story? I’ve no idea because this information isn’t published. The Hugos are very good about publishing their nomination and voting statistics and I can see no good reason why the Nebulas shouldn’t do the same. I emailed the SFWA to ask for the statistics but I’ve had no response. Because of this fundamental lack of transparency around the award, I am reliant on anecedotal evidence. For example, Rick Bowes gave a partial answer but I’m not sure what his source is:

it appears that fewer than 20% of the membership recommend on the preliminary ballot or vote on the final ballot. It’s possible for a very small number (even single digets) of recs to put a work on the final ballot.

The combination of First Past The Post and low voter turnout is exactly the sort of situation where you would expect logrolling to succeed. And, chances are, that is exactly what has happened here. Mamatas has since mentioned that Stone is a member of the Codex writers group. He is not the only one. Here is the shortlist for the Nebula novelette category:

  • ‘Map of Seventeen’ by Christopher Barzak
  • ‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’ by Aliette de Bodard (Codex)
  • ‘The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara’ by Christopher Kastensmidt (Codex)
  • ‘Plus or Minus’ by James Patrick Kelly
  • ‘Pishaach’ by Shweta Narayan
  • ‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’ by Eric James Stone (Codex)
  • ‘Stone Wall Truth’ by Caroline M. Yoachim (Codex)

It is the same old story, you vote for your mates, regardless of how good their work is. Of course, the Nebulas have always had this reputation but even so you would hope people who voted for this story would have the good grace to be embarrassed. ‘Leviathan’ is not the best story of 2011, it is not even a good story; in fact, it can probbaly be counted amongst the worst stories published in 2011. Couldn’t the Codex writers group just have bought Stone a cake? That way I wouldn’t have been tricked into thinking his story was worth reading, that the Nebulas retained an vestige of value and that the SFWA was an organisation interested in literature.

Written by Martin

17 June 2011 at 11:43

“The endlessly arse-achingly expressed complaint from genre that no one takes us seriously”

with 6 comments

As you will probably know by now, the Guardian devoted Saturday’s Review section to science fiction. Since I like to spend my Saturday mornings reading both the Guardian Review and science fiction, this is obviously something I welcomed. My anticipation was slightly soured by a comment piece from Iain M Banks that was published online on Friday in advance of the Review. He opens with a long analogy about a young writer pitching a hackneyed detective story to his agent before revealing his target:

Now, even the most gifted literary author will be sufficiently aware of the clichés of the detective story not to let an initial burst of enthusiasm for a new idea involving any of them get beyond the limits of his or her own cranium, and even if they were foolish enough to suggest something on these lines to their agent or editor they’d immediately be informed that It’s Been Done . . . in fact, It’s Been Done to the Point of Being a Joke . . . and so all the above never happens.

Or at least, it never happens quite as described; substitute the phrase “science fiction” for the word “detective”, delete the 1930s murder-mystery novel clichés and insert some 30s science fiction clichés and I get the impression this scenario has indeed played out, and not just once but several times, and the agent/editor has – bizarrely – entirely shared the enthusiasm of their author, so that, a year or two later, yet another science fiction novel which isn’t really a science fiction novel – but, like, sort of is at the same time? – hits the shelves, usually to decent and only slightly sniffy reviews (sometimes, to be fair, to quite excitable reviews) while, off-stage, barely heard, howls of laughter and derision issue from the science fiction community.

The subs have entitled the piece “Science fiction is no place for dabblers” which seems a fair enough condensing of Banks’s argument and it pissed me off for two reasons. The first is that it is such a depressingly squandered opportunity; Banks has been given the chance to connect with a new audience to discuss something he is passionate about but instead treats them to a tired moan. It is the tendency alluded to by my title, a quote from China Mieville that appears in Justine Jordan’s profile elsewhere in the Review. Haven’t we got anything better to talk about?

The second problem is not Banks’s topic but the way he makes his case. Specifically, the way he scrupulously avoids any specifics and never names names. Who are the writers he has in mind? Who are dabblers who need to be taken to school? We’ve no idea because he doesn’t tell us. People in the comments are quick to make suggestions though and the usual suspects are soon trotted out: Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy. Once someone is named as a dabbler, the validity of applying such a label can be debated (as it is in the comments). Banks doesn’t allow us that opportunity though. Personally, I am pleased that The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go and The Road exist but then I doubt Banks actually had those particular authors in mind. But who knows?

The result of his vagueness is that all writers of non-genre SF are tarred with the same brush. By reducing a disparate bunch of artists to a monolithic Them, he makes a real conversation about the way writers from outside the genre engage with the genre when they write science fiction impossible. Because there is certainly a kernel of truth to what Banks is saying. Elsewhere in the paper Ursula K LeGuin says the same thing: “You can’t write science fiction well if you haven’t read it, though not all who try to write it know this.” However, she continues: “But nor can you write it well if you haven’t read anything else. Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup.” Dialogue is a two way street.

Banks concludes with an attempt at magnanimity that comes close to saying something similar:

However, let’s be positive about this. The very fact that entirely respectable writers occasionally feel drawn to write what is perfectly obviously science fiction – regardless of either their own protestations or those of their publishers – shows that a further dialogue between genres is possible, especially if we concede that literary fiction may be legitimately regarded as one as well. It’s certainly desirable.

It certainly is desirable and we should be positive but that is a bit rich coming at the end of such a negative piece. Further more, Banks’s point is made far more eloquently by the very existence of the edition of the Guardian Review in which it appears. It is therefore rendered both irrelevant and rather graceless. The contrast is further made by the Review’s lead feature in which leading SF writers – including LeGuin – choose their favourite novel or author in the genre. Here is their list of “leading SF writers”:

Brian Aldiss
Margaret Atwood
Stephen Baxter
Lauren Beukes
John Clute
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Andrew Crumey
William Gibson
Ursula K LeGuin
Russell Hoban
Liz Jensen
Hari Kunzu
Kelly Link
Ken MacLeod
China Mieville
Michael Moorcock
Patrick Ness
Audrey Niffenegger
Christopher Priest
Alastair Reynolds
Adam Roberts
Kim Stanley Robinson
Tricia Sullivan
Scarlett Thomas

I think it is safe to say that this is not a list a fan would be likely to come up with and I’m sure a lot of people would turn their nose up at the idea these are all leading SF writers. It is, however, a list of interesting authors saying interesting things about science fiction. More than that, it is a list without boundaries; it is a list that is open and optimistic and interested in dialogue. So let’s all be positive.

Written by Martin

15 May 2011 at 22:45

A Long But Necessary Response To Athena Andreadis

with 14 comments

Athena Andreadis is infamous within the science fiction community for a couple of things. Firstly, there is her drive-by spamming of magazines and blogs with links to her own blog. For example, she posted a link on my review of The Heroes Joe Abercrombie and then, three days later, posted the exact same link on my summary of the “bankrupt nihilism” debate around Abercrombie’s fiction. The initial comment from her on the review reads, in its entirety: “You must be aware of the recent epic fantasy dustup. My view thereof.” I was indeed aware of the dust up and had written about it at length but Andreadis was clearly unaware of this, despite the summary post being linked from the review. Not only hadn’t she been reading my blog, she hadn’t even read the post she commented on. It is an extremely rude form of discourse and perhaps “discourse” is being to generous: it is barging into a conversation and shouting your point of view. And this is a pattern, not a one of instance.

Secondly, as you would perhaps expect form someone who communicates in this way, Andreadis holds her own words in very high regard and believes everyone else should as well. This translates into the belief that she has a right to a response to everything she writes. Now, I don’t respond to every comment on my blog, I don’t think every comment deserves a response; if you don’t reply to Andreadis she will email you to demand to know why. I fundamentally believe that a conversation begun in the public sphere should stay in the public sphere. Partly this is personal preference (if there is something you will only say to me in private, I probably don’t want to hear it) but it also avoids the problem of communicating in two separate but linked spheres. A good illustration of this problem starts with this comment from Andreadis on the Strange Horizons blog:

I had an exchange recently with a regular contributor to Strange Horizons who was convinced it had gender parity, if not female dominance. I countered that it was actually the usual one-third (which seems to register as “female excess”).

Because there is no attribution, there is no way of knowing if this is true yet it is impossible to rebut. When someone queries whether they are the supposed source comment it is ignored but doesn’t stop the comment being repeated on the Aquaduct Press blog. Andreadis then doubles down by referring to public statements are well but still refusing to attribute them:

“After both private and public interactions with some of the Strange Horizon reviewers, I have come to the sorrowful conclusion that the venue may end up becoming the SF/F version of The Valve.”

Again, no response was forthcoming to requests for clarity on just what those interactions might be. So when Andreadis posted a long piece on her own blog about Strange Horizons yesterday I thought it might contain the answers. Well, sort of. Here is Andreadis’s core complaint:

So I read SH fiction less and less but continued to browse its columns and reviews. Then in the last few years I noticed those shifting – gradually but steadily. They were increasingly by and about Anglosaxon white men and showed the tunnel vision this context denotes and promotes. The coalescent core reviewers were young-ish British men (with token “exotics”) convinced of their righteous enlightenment and “edginess” along the lines of “We discovered/invented X.”

It is ironic that Andreadis used Niall Harrison’s The SF Count post as the starting point for her own; Harrison’s post is all about building an evidence base, her post is all about throwing around accusations with an almost total lack of evidence. I only count two pieces of actual evidence in the post. Unsurprisingly, neither of these are attributed, nor are they directly relevant to her core complaint. Abigail Nussbaum, reviews editor for Strange Horizons, has responded but I would like to specifically address one of those pieces of supposed evidence. This is because it is about me, although, of course, you can’t tell that from the post.

I should start by saying that this is a conversation I should be having over on Andreadis’s blog, where the accusation was made and where people who read her side are more likely to read my side. I can’t do this, however, because she has refused to moderate my comment and instead delete it. As justification for this, she has added a note to the end of her post:

Note to readers: I am aware this will lead to polarizing and polarized views. I will not engage in lengthy back-and-forths, although I made an exception for the expected response by Abigail Nussbaum. People are welcome to hold forth at whatever length and pitch they like elsewhere.

This is incredibly bad form but not unexpected from someone who values her words above everyone else’s. So I will just have to hold forth at my own length and pitch here. The reason I need to hold forth is because paragraphs five and six of Andreadis’s posts are devoted to me and my review of Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding. As I said, you wouldn’t know this from her post; it neither names me or links to the review. Andreadis’s justification for this is that: “I didn’t name names because I’m discussing general trends.” This is such transparent bullshit that it is hard to know how to respond. Suffice to say, I am unsure what possible general trend about Strange Horizons one could derive from a single review on my blog. Rather, I suspect the real reason for not name names is that actual evidence would undo her argument. With that in mind I am going to go through each paragraph line by line and respond to Andreadis:

I caught a whiff of the embedded assumptions that surface when these self-proclaimed progressives relax,

I don’t think I’ve ever proclaimed myself a progressive. Indeed, I’d consider it a primarily American identification so why would I? As for “relaxing”, I find the idea of writing a blog post as well earned breather from toiling in the SH salt mines hilarious. And you never get round to saying what the “embedded assumptions” actually are.

safe from prying eyes.

That’s right, safe from prying eyes on the bloody internet. On a blog linked from my SH bio, no less.

One of them recently reviewed a story on his site and characterized its protagonist by the term “cunt”.

Well, a novel but yes. However, whilst this sentence is factually accurate, I am amazed you would devote two paragraphs to attacking me without naming me or providing a link to the actual words that you are paraphrasing. Doing so also elides the sex of the protagonist which is surely of relevance here. I also fail to see any direct – or, to be honest, indirect – connection to Strange Horizons.

He used the word repeatedly, as a synonym for “empathy-lacking sociopath”.

Why are you using quote marks here when I didn’t say that? In fact, I don’t use it as a synonym, rather that is your characterisation.

Having accidentally read the entry,

WTF? I am truly fascinated to hear how you managed this.

I remarked that, feminism bona fides aside,

I still have no idea what this actually means.

the term doesn’t ring friendly to female ears

You can tell me it does ring friendly to your ears, you don’t get to speak on behalf of every woman in every country. There is a well known and long established difference between the reception of the word cunt in America and other Anglophone countries. In your comments to my review, you claimed to accept this.

and even the canon definition of the term (“extremely unpleasant person, object or experience”) is not equivalent to psychopath.

Again, this characterisation of equivalence is your’s, not mine. Also I’m not sure why I have to accept your definition of the word cunt but, as it happens, that is exactly how I am using it.

Perhaps not so incidentally, I was the only woman on the discussion thread.

Apart from the second commenter, Nic Clarke, who says “I came to much the same conclusion”. (The fact Nic agrees with me doesn’t mean I am right but it does mean you are factually wrong.)

The reviewer’s first response was that only Amurrican barbarians “misunderstand” the term.

Again, why are you using quote marks here when I said no such thing? Nor did I suggest any of the things outside the quote marks. I merely suggested that this is only an issue for Americans.

I replied (in part) that I’m not American,

It is true you are not American, you just live in America and speak American. I think I can be forgiven on this point since I was clearly correctly that this is the reason it was an issue for you.

and presumably he wishes to be read by people beyond Britain and its ex-colonies.

Here is where you realise that your attempt to impose American cultural assumptions on me is not going to have any traction so you instead have the massive presumption to lecture me about who I am writing for. It should have been obvious by this point that I certainly wasn’t writing for you and I had zero interest in who you thought I should write for or, indeed, what I should write.

At that point he essentially told me to fuck off.

Fair call.

His friends, several of them SH reviewers or editors, fell all over themselves to show they aren’t PC killjoys.

Here is where you finally try to tie an old, irrelevant fight you had into a new argument about SH. There were three further responses: one from Jonathan McCalmont (reviewer for SH) agreeing with me, one from Patrick Hudson (no connection to SH) disagreeing with me and one from Niall Harrison (editor for SH) linking to a feminist discussion of the word cunt.

They informed me that US cultural hegemony is finally over (if only),

Jonathan, in fact, said the opposite.

that “cunt” is often used as an endearment (in which case his review was a paean?)

Patrick did note this in passing but it was hardly his main point nor was it made in relation to the review.

and that women themselves have reclaimed the term (that makes it copacetic then!)

Niall presented the link without comment, presumably because he thought this fact was relevant to the discussion. Since you make the blanket declaration above that “the term doesn’t ring friendly to female ears” I would suggest he was right. As for the word copacetic, unless you want only Americans to read this as intended, you may think about word choice.

You seem to have wanted the conversation to be entirely on your terms. It didn’t go. Being unable to continue the conversation on somebody else’s terms you decided to pointlessly get the last word by saying: “Heh heh. Love it when the boyz get feisty.” The fact you didn’t get your way – and perhaps the fact I generally haven’t engaged with your heavy-handed comments on my blog – has obviously festered. However, our discussion about the word cunt in the margins to a review on my blog has nothing to do with a discussion about the supposed increasing “tunnel-vision” of Strange Horizons.

Written by Martin

27 March 2011 at 11:38

Lewis’s Revelation

with 10 comments

Today I saw someone on the internet say that 90% of everything is crud. Now, I have complained about Sturgeon’s Revelation before. It is, in a word, balls. I know, I know, someone is wrong on the internet, so what? But the thoughtlessness of the statement still offends me and its persistence depresses me.

Then I remembered that I love evidence. I could, in fact, test Sturgeon’s Revelation against the 54 novels submitted for the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award, a selection of novels that we’ve agreed form a pretty good proxy for British science fiction as a whole. So, was 90% of everything crud?

Taking a liberal approach to the word “crud”, you could perhaps claim that 72% of science fiction published in Britain in 2010 was crud. So now we can obviously extrapolate from this that 72% of everything is crud. I call this Lewis’s Revelation. But wait! What if I asked one of my fellow judges to provide their own percentages? Or I repeated this exercise again for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award? Or I took it upon myself to read every science fiction novel published in the US in 2010? Or every thriller? Wouldn’t the percentages change? Why, it is almost as if Lewis’s Revelation is meaningless. Funny that.

Written by Martin

17 March 2011 at 20:44

At Least It’s An Ethos

with 14 comments

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

Black Gate summarised the conversation for their readers. More interestingly, they featured a couple of essays taking differing views on the merits of Grin’s post. Theo Spark is pro-Grin:

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.

Written by Martin

27 February 2011 at 16:08

Posted in criticism, genre wars, sf

Tagged with ,

L-Dimensional Bibliographic Phase Space

with 3 comments

John Mullan has been reading a lot of debut novelists recently. This has produced two things. Firstly, you get this TV programme about the 12 best new novelists. Secondly, this article about the state of British literary fiction. Early on we get this remark: “What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction.”

Rather wonderfully, Sam Kelly responds in terms of Lq, Birdbolts and Moons:

Science fictions are peculiar things, a sheaf of complex curves plotted by an entire troop of drunken ramblers on a walk through L-dimensional bibliographic phase space. One set of dimensions (let’s call it Lq) we can describe as the quality of the book; part, but only part, of Lq is the reflexivity and self-conscious nature, the metatextuality, of the work. Mullan himself says, [Wolf Hall and Never Let Me Go] are both “literary” novels because they ask us to attend to the manner of their telling. We can, I hope, agree that no value of Lq can render a book “not science-fictional”. Sadly, neither Birdbolt nor Moon agree with us

M John Harrison also responds in typically pithy fashion (and with a brilliant post title):

Literary fiction as described here is the fiction of a generation which discovered “good” novels via B-format in 1980. It is a fiction so very clearly generic that when I read John Mullan’s description of it (complete with successful business model, strict boundary conditions and committed fanbase which won’t read anything else) as not genre fiction, I weep with laughter at the sheer depth of his self-deception.

Having announced a decade ago that the Hampstead novel had migrated to Hackney, I see that MJH has now tracked it down to Clapham. It is good to keep on top of these things.

Written by Martin

26 February 2011 at 16:13