Wednesday 7 November 2012

Strangely Narrowed Horizons

This post is an observation about the critique of fantasy (or more broadly SFF). It might be described as a complaint, and will surely ruffle feathers if it manages to penetrate the circles I have in mind – an unlikely event given their inward-looking nature.

What this post most assuredly is not is a complaint about a specific critique or about the common or garden type of critique that seeks to tell the reader what a book’s about and to share the critter’s enthusiasm or distaste for the end product. The vast majority of bloggers who critique books are just telling it like it is, performing a useful service for other readers who want to spend their book dollars effectively.

I’m addressing a largely different beast. I’m talking about intellectual criticism. The sort that seeks to dig deeper, go past the plot, link the work into the wider world and traditions of literature.

If that’s something with zero interest for you then it’s probably best to bail now. Here’s picture of some ruffled feathers to reward your efforts.

So, a serious critique of a piece of literature can look at many things, including: relationships, the internal landscapes of the characters, themes, plotting, narrative arc, narrative voice, conflict, etc. A mixture of mechanics, thematics, and also the societal and existential dimensions. We’re taught this in our English classes at school. In university things become deeper, more involved, but it’s more of the same. When literary criticism lines up the classics of literature in its sights it employs these tools, it seeks the meaning behind the words, between the lines.

Generally genre fiction is not targeted for intellectual criticism of this nature. It isn’t deemed worth the effort. The topics that might be focused upon by such critique are held to be absent from the work. Even fantasy, the king, queen, and footman of genre writing, is regarded thusly. Mostly.

There is now (and perhaps has been for a while – I am no expert, simply someone with an opinion too large to keep in his mouth) a school of intellectual criticism targeted at fantasy. This school of criticism is armed with a hammer.

That hammer is societal deconstruction.

There is a mentality that expects (nay demands) that each SFF 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. The critiquer’s goal is to beat each book placed before them with the hammer of societal deconstruction until it yields its secret agenda. These dwarves are jews and Tolkein is a racist! These robots are a metaphor for women and their treatment is problematic. These actual women are actual women and their treatment is problematic – which must be what the book seeks to propagate. Et cetera.  

Why is the diverse and rich output of many intelligent and skilled authors being repeatedly hit with a hammer for meaning when the toolbox is crammed with instruments far more suited to the purpose in many cases?

It seems to me that, in part because of this poverty of tools, the intelligensia of genre critiquing mistake complexity for depth, applaud the compression of philosophy into aphorism, and only see subtext when it's monologued 'to camera' by the protagonist. I only have a narrow window on the genre, on genre criticism, and on literary fiction - but it seems to me that the critiques that try to reach beyond the plot in genre critting are looking for social messages rather than for the 'open questions asked about the human animal' that literary fiction poses.

Possibly this is a relic of a bygone era when science fiction (particularly in television (such as The Twilight Zone)) would be used to discuss issues such as racial oppression and gender roles which would not get aired in any other format. Today a great deal of critique is focused on feminist deconstruction of genre writing.

Many SFF books do contain or even focus on social commentary – both through the desire of the author and likely in response to the understanding that this is how they will be read. We may not have censorship in the same way now, but these approaches allow the subject to get under people's guards before they impose their knee-jerk responses. It’s all good – I’m certainly not trying to say this kind of book is not out there or to stop people from discovering what its subtext is.

However – this is not the be all and end all of what fantasy books are about nor the totality of how we may critique them. To me it’s far more interesting and appropriate to address existential issues in fantasy - we are human when removed from our society - human when deprived of our history - it takes more skill and reveals more truth to place a human in alien environs and explore them. Separate a man from the familiarities of class and society - build a new world around him and see what he is then - that raises more questions about what we really are than offering a slice of him in suburbia.

The deeper themes in much good fantasy 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. Can we not declare our genre worthy of full inspection, capable of bearing any message and exploring all dimensions, interior and exterior. Could our conventions widen the focus from 'gender in genre' and 'diverse sexuality' panels and spread their nets more widely? Could our literary elite look for a little more depth than yet another strained attempt to reiterate contemporary society’s issues in an alien culture? Could we not set down that hammer just once in a while and maybe use the screw driver or the drill?

I do realise of course that the very first and most predictable response would be to turn all those devices upon my own work and parade it as lacking in all other regards too – but that’s really not the point. Just because all you’ve got is a hammer doesn’t make me a nail.


  1. Hi Mark.

    I think that the role of fantastika (to use the John Stevens at SF Signal preferred word) as social commentary is something that has been in genre fiction almost as long as its pulp roots.

    By being divorced from the present, either in space, time or both, genre fiction has the *ability* to do social commentary, and many do feel that its "wasted opportunity" when it does not do so.

    Sometimes, though, I just want to be entertained, myself.

    1. I think the 50 (or whatever) fantasy books a day that come out afford a little more room. You can do social commentary in other genres too.

      Entertainment is fairly essential for success, but some folk are entertained by a spot of mental exercise. The point though is that in addition to entertainment (and in addition to, or instead of, societal deconstruction) a book may do other intellectually significant things and it would be nice if intellectual criticism of the genre occasionally looked for those things as it does in literary fiction rather than being blind to them and whacking away with the aforemention hammer.

    2. Entertainment is what gets the sales, in the end, something that I've discussed with our mutual friend Maz. Not everything has to be Joycean or aspire to literary fiction.

      You can do social commentary in other genres, but for some reason, Fantastika seems to have been given that hat.

      As far as what John and company are saying, their view is that all works of fiction can be put under that analysis and lens, as a way to get to the root of what a writer is saying, even subconsciously. Their comment about The Nubian, my response, and their response, for example.

      I'm not an academic, so maybe I'm not the right person to really understand it all.

    3. It's certainly true you can repeatedly hit things with a hammer and yes, eventually you will probably be able to say that they are flat or broken.

      I'm sure the exponents of the craft could extract social messages from the manual that came with my washing machine - but it would be a misguided effort and with a broader approach they might gain a better understanding of the work.

      If all you have is a hammer why wouldn't you occasionally want to reach for other tools? It's not a binary choice, we can analyse literature in many ways - I'm interested in why the methods commonly chosen for fantasy are so much narrower than the spectrum of questions asked of literary fiction.

      I don't know a John - a surprising fact given it's such a common name - so you've lost me there!

    4. Part of my interest was triggered by reading my daughter's thesis on Ballard. She's studying English at Cambridge and appears nailed on for a double first. The analysis she applied to Ballard's science fiction was multi dimensional, sophisticated and broad, exploring many of the issues/elements I mention above - social mappings were included but didn't constitute a majority of the work. The stark contrast between this and what I see online sparked my blog.

    5. John= John (Ginsburg) Stevens. from the SF Signal group.

      (but I know you aren't a fan of some of the stuff SF Signal does...)

    6. I'm not? I haven't an opinion as I never use the site. The couple of reviews of friend's work I read there seemed fine. I hope they're not thinking I mean them when I say intellectual critiquing? That would be embarrasing!

    7. @Paul My reading of the post is not that Mark is complaining about the books themselves or saying that they _have_ to be deep and meaningful, but that where analysis is done, it is limited in scope.

  2. to the Johnathan M who tried to post here - more than happy to entertain your comment but you'll have to post it here:

  3. I don't believe that "fantastika" (I'm not even sure if I like that word) is given the hat to do social commentary, Paul. All novels perform some form of social commentary, whether it is a societal statement (see Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) or a more intimate view of the individual and how that individual affects or is affected by his or her environment (let’s use Flowers for Algernon for our example here).

    All artists are out to show you something about the world around you and 99.9% of the time, they’re trying to show injustices, the ulcers that eat our collective souls. However, that isn't really what this is about.

    I see Mark’s post as more of a commentary on how readers/reviewers might want to think in broader terms about the stories they’re reading. Reviewers on a few fantasy and science fiction blogs have a tendency to step away from attempting to understand what an author is trying to show them. Instead, the reviewers spend a lot of time interpolating their personal worldview into the story, which is kind of a bass-ackwards approach to literary review. When these individuals are unable to see the through the narrow prism through which they are looking, they declare the story a failure. In fact, this lack of perception is usually not the failure of the story but is more of a certain near-sightedness on the part of the reader.

    I have read book “reviews” that only speak highly of young adult novels that perpetrate the reviewers’ personal worldview. There is no analysis and quite often, it’s a laundry list of criteria that has absolutely nothing to do with story, form, or structure.

    Frankly, I’ve stopped reading three or four review sites, because their reviews do not accurately reflect the totality of the novels they’re reviewing. Instead, the “reviews” turn into miniature political rants, which is fine if that’s what your blog is about; however, they purport that they “review” books.

    I don’t make this claim for all authors--I can only speak for myself, but I don’t write stories to make you happy. I write stories to show you something, in the hopes that if you see something ugly within yourself, you might think about life/the world around you/other people a little differently. I’m out to push you away from your comfort zone; however, I can’t give you new glasses.

    The reader has to be willing to extend his/her worldview too--open his/her mind and heart to new possibilities, and maybe, just maybe, once in a while look beyond his/her own prejudices to examine life in a different light. How far a reader grows, depends on the individual.

    1. Teresa, I am going to set up a personal shrine to you in my house. I have been trying to voice this specific opinion for some time, though with never the clarity that you just did. Praise be to you!

      In regards to the actual post ... Mark, I definitely don't think that every SFF includes social commentary, but as to whether there is a mentality that DEMANDS it ... I cannot say I have experienced this, although this may be a much stronger view in your circles/experience.

      What I recognise is that as people we cannot escape our own personal 'windows', things that have shaped us and that in turn shape the way we see the world. Stories will always been written from within the authors scope of their existence, and will be read/reviewed from what the reader/reviewer's scope. Stories (not only SFF) then will always inherently reflect the society and context in which it was written, which can only make it easier for people to find the commentaries between the lines. I think SFF becomes an easy vehicle for this; being removed from the 'real world' opens up a whole realm of what could potentially be metaphors (a la dwarves are Jews).

      I may not have addressed the issue you are raising specifically - it's not something I can say I have encountered - but I refer to my personal mantra of "Fuck 'Em" ... writing is an artform and no art/artist should be censored or pressured to produce something because of current expectations/demands.

    2. Oh, Josh! That is so sweet! I've always wanted shrine! Chocolate usually appeases me. ;-)

      This is dead-on: "No art/artist should be censored or pressured to produce something because of current expectations/demands."

    3. I use the word "fantastika", Teresa, as a shorthand and a synonym for the more inaccurate phrase "genre fiction".

      I also think that book reviews and literary criticism are disciplines that touch, but are not as intersecting as people think.

    4. Well, that comment turned into a blog post, Paul, and I'm not going to dominate Mark's blog with it. ;-)

      I've posted my response to my own blog with a redirect to this post.

  4. Thinking about the many fantasy novels I read, there is also the eternal "escapism" argument about it which is quite running contrary to the search for social criticism.

    How many fantasy novels I read do I believe to be intentionally or unintentionally a criticism of society or contemporary fantasy reflection of our lives? The Lord of the Rings criticisms going back to the time before the World Wars usually start there and then they end up with Sauron as Hitler/Stalin.

    The only fantasy author I can think of who would be interesting for this kind of criticism would be Terry Goodkind. I really can't think of other novels where this kind of analysis would be a useful approach. It's a bit like gender analysis which can always be used if one has no idea what else to write about. G.R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is a very good target for this kind of analysis, he always gets the shaft... :)

    You can always use a structuralist, deconstructive, hermeneutic, social, historic or whatever kind of approach to analyze literature.

    There is a difference between Mark Lawrence and William Shakespeare - Shakespeare can no longer /facepalm about some discoveries in his work.

    This sounds very negative, I do not want to bash all kinds of more or less scientific literature review. There are unfortunately the mentioned hammer instead of a screw driver approaches to screws.

    What happened? Did someone find a social message in Prince of Thorns? Now this would be a devastating message for sure... like ... be an asshole to win? Think outside the box, ignore social standards?

    But I am afraid you are preaching to the choir. People who would analyze Prince of Thorns this must really be mindlocked into doing it, no matter if it makes sense or not.

  5. "Could our conventions widen the focus from 'gender in genre' and 'diverse sexuality' panels and spread their nets more widely?"

    I wish they would. Not that these aren't valid topics for discussion, but they come around again and again and after a couple or three years on the convention circuit you get a sense of deja vu looking at the programme.

  6. Mark, you bring up a great question. I don't believe that we can ever fully understand the writer's purpose for something unless they explicitly explain it, so I'd say the idea of trying to lay a template over a book is just foolish.

    "Blast, this round peg is getting torn to bits. What fool makes a round hole with straight edges and four corners? Don't they have any idea how to make a round hole?"

  7. My prediction was correct too - it took about a four days.

  8. A thing to keep in mind is that an author is not always aware of everything he or she puts into the text. We're all products of society, we all have our own paradigms and assumptions, and sometimes even when we're trying to make up an entirely new world, we end up making social commentary without meaning to.

    Those in a position of privilege do this more often than anyone. All my life I've written things that sent messages about race I wasn't aware of, because I considered white perspective to be "neutral." When I write a speculative fiction story in which the only non-white-skinned person is in a subservient position (which I have done and been called on and apologized for), I may not personally or consciously be "making a statement" about race. But my text, absolutely, is.

    Text != author. Text even != author intention. Text is a collection of words, which readers reconstruct into meaning using the only thing they have: their -own- minds.

    1. Whilst this is possibly true it's not remotely interesting to me. It fills me with a particularly invidious kind of disappointment that so many good writers can write such diverse and meaningful work only to have the same people beat it with their hammers (the only tool they possess) and scrape from the fragments they've reduced once glittering edifices to, some half-baked claims about the author's view on race and women. There are, for the sake of every god, other things to talk about, other things of interest. We do not sit and listen to a long and ground breaking lecture on quantum physics and at the end of it turn to the next person and say, 'well that guy hates women and I'm not too sure if he's down with the gay community either...'

    2. I understand that it's often not remotely interesting to hear about social issues that don't personally affect us, but rest assured these issues are very real and deserve all the attention they can get, even if it means ruffling the occasional author's feathers to get people talking about them.

      I wasn't offended or upset by your work, but I stand by the rights to expression of those who were.

      Those in privilege see sexism and racism as "solved" and are "tired of hearing about them" because we aren't faced with these things daily. Even some women and minorities have been brainwashed into thinking certain inexcusable treatment and double-standard is "normal."

      Some people are fighting a horrible, messy battle to reverse these problems in society. If we can't help with their struggle, the least we can do is get out of their way. The least we can do is not add to the problem by painting them as villains when things we're proud of get caught in their crossfire.

      You know I've been an advocate for your work from the beginning; indeed before the beginning. And I don't see the least bit of sexism in your life or your work. But I can't advocate your repeated singling out of those you feel "read your book wrong." I've tried to stay quiet about it as long as I could, because quite frankly I'm terrified of being lumped in with the people you scorn. But I realized today that fear is a bad reason to do (or not do) pretty much anything.

      So here I go, tossing a torch on the bridge. Just so I can stop telling myself I'm a coward, and that I'm a poor ally of the women who are out there on the front lines of the struggle.

      I support your work, and I support the critics who tear apart its portrayal of women. I am awed and humbled by the reckless, passionate courage of both.

    3. But this is terrible straw-manning.

      "I stand by the rights to expression of those who were."

      Where, for one single instant, do I attempt, suggest, or hint at a desire to suppress the rights of expression of anyone? That's just nonsense.

      I very clearly make that case that feminist & social deconstruction

      a) fine
      b) very common (to the point it seems to be the _only_ attempt at more sophisticated analysis

      Suggesting that there are other tools in the box that we could use as well is absolutely not the same as trying to prevent people from swinging the hammer.

      With such glaring misrepresentation of what I've written here I wonder if you read it?