Thursday 18 October 2012

Murder’s bad m’kay?

 For the record: I think that murder, torture, rape and stealing are bad things. They’re wrong. You shouldn’t do them.

Shortest. Blog-post. Ever!

Well no. There wouldn’t be a blog post at all if it wasn’t for the fact that some people although they know that murder is bad, aren’t sure that you do, and feel that the fact I don’t spell out in Prince of Thorns that these are things you shouldn’t indulge in means it’s a book that should be condemned.

This does seem to be an approach that takes a staggeringly low view of one’s fellow readers, but there you go.

One of the first things to note after a year of feedback is my discovery that people like to use any book that has a high profile in order to bang a gong about whatever issues are most prominent on their mental landscape. People like to bang that gong without interruption (who likes to have a rant interrupted?) - despite being totally available and doing dozens of interviews, nobody with any of these complaints has _ever_ asked me about them, even when side by side with me on a comment list etc. The fact is that unfailingly people with an issue they want to talk about and who pick at my work to reinforce it, just want to say their piece. It’s their own points they want to make. They don't want the inconvenience of my opinion!

There is a mentality that expects (nay demands) that each book is a tightly wrapped social commentary, a distorting mirror of our society crafted with the sole point of making socio-political points, usually to educate the unwashed masses through parable in the business of how society should be. Thus every fantasy story whether it be about bugs or robots or whatever is really an agenda either supporting or making war on the pundit’s world view.

I do not subscribe to this mentality. I don’t play those games. Any deeper themes I have are about what happens within the confines of one person’s skull – existential stuff – the enduring stuff of classic literary fiction – not the transitory business of social structure which holds far less interest for me. The game of deconstructing every single story for its social message is one that bores me. We might hope that literature as a whole gives good messages about equality and diversity. It’s not the task of _every_ _single_ book to make that its raison d’etre within the slim confines of its covers.

Let’s put that aside and return to murder (it’s bad, m’kay).

The argument goes that I have written a book in which bad things happen but I have not told you that those things are bad. Worse still, cry the people who have read the book and hate Jorg, I’ve tried my level best to make you like Jorg. The fact that they hate him . . . well I guess they’re just immune to my evil plan – it’s the rest of you who don’t know that murder is bad who will be helplessly seduced by Jorg and go out murdering common folk the moment you close the back cover.

“are we supposed to like Jorg?” – a question I often see posed by people who then go on to make it very clear that my intention was for them to like him (it can’t be a fantasy book without a hero!) but they manfully (or womanfully) resisted.

Well here’s the thing. I was interested in whether the combination of first person and charisma, of youth and some measure of doubt would draw readers to the character. I never decided that the reader should like Jorg. I was interested in challenging the reader with a complex character. To have him do terrible thing but to muddy the waters a little, to consider how long a shadow the crimes of youth cast down our years - to consider to what degree if any youth and background extenuate - to see what elements of the character resonate with readers - to examine our own reaction when the evil-doer is charming and witty, and how that contrasts with our feelings when a coarse and ugly villain does those same deeds.

I do all that and people often appear to insist that whilst they end up hating/disliking/condemning Jorg ... _I_ am desperately trying to make them love him? Surely that would mean I've done a piss-poor job of it? If I wanted to make everyone love him wouldn't I just make him a nice person who does nice things?

The fact I get a wide variety of reactions to Jorg is (to me) welcome confirmation that I pitched the question just right and that readers (a diverse bunch) fall on every side of the fence (a clever multi-dimensional fence).

Prince of Thorns isn’t a book that sets out to make you cheer bad deeds or a bad person  – it’s a book that sets out to challenge the reader with a character – to make you think about a real (albeit unusual) person and about the issues of what makes us bad, what is and isn’t forgiveable, what role nurture plays over nature, how we react when the badness is done by someone clever, intelligent, charming. And it doesn’t answer those questions. The trilogy as a whole stumbles toward an answer, but it won’t ever get there. It’s what we scientists call ‘an unsolved problem’.

Above all it’s not a guide for life, not an instruction manual, not a political statement or social commentary. It’s a book that treats you as an adult, accepts that you’re not an idiot and already know murder is a bad thing, and presents you with a puzzle. Jorg.


  1. I find it quite interesting that people somehow got the idea to take Jorg as an example how to live... or something like that.

    Jorg is indeed a fascinating puzzle. Who doesn't ask himself why Jorg is how he is and what drives him and other characters in your books?

    If people don't care about that, well, they won't like your books. Jorg is by far too central and important to them.

    It's always dangerous to transfer literature to reality. To make assumptions about the author based on the book he or she wrote and about possible intentions.

    Nevertheless, we sometimes do. For instance I had my "WTF" moment with Terry Goodkind after reading "Faith of the Fallen". I got the impression he started preaching his beliefs in this book of the Sword of Truth series, I found it fairly irritating. He started to preach too much "objectivism" based on ideas by Ayn Rand in the following books, in my opinion at least.

    This turned me off. Jorg didn't turn me off yet. Why?

    I have not yet read anything in your books that tries to shove any kind of ideology down my throat. I find it quite interesting that some people feel you do... I would not even know what you want to communicate. Do they really think you or Jorg want to advocate being a bastard and to murder people?!

    In the end it's that some people can't deal with Jorg or too much violence. That's a pity, but well. We/You will have to respect that, even if it doesn't make much sense to us. Many people could not understand what put me off so much about "Faith of the Fallen".

  2. "There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is 'idiot.'" --Larry Niven.

  3. I don't like Jorg, some of the time. But I do love him terribly, the way I love all wounded things.

  4. I'll be honest. Jorg left me torn. And it's not because I was confused about the morality of his actions, or about how you were trying to manipulate me into liking him. It was because I found a small part of myself in the Prince of Ancrath. I found it to be a disturbing revelation, but also an insightful one. No, Mr. Lawrence, I didn't love Jorg because of his sins, but because of his humanity.

  5. I feel that a book that you think about in a quiet, private moment, alone, is always worthwhile, a bit like music, it hits you both hard and yet soft!

  6. It puts me in mind of the people who say RPG's are dangerous as kids will think they have magic powers and jump off buildings, trusting their flight spells to kick in or that they will worship Satan. Or that computer games make children violent (because before computer games children were never violent, not ever).

    The thing is, I suspect that people like that will be immune to your logic and rational argument. I hope I'm wrong about them though.

  7. Excellent post. I'd wax more eloquently if I wasn't brain tired after coughing up a couple of thousand words, but since I can't do that, and you were deserving of something that approached a pat on the back, here's one. Nicely done.