Tom Simon (superversive) wrote,
Tom Simon

‘Civilizational graffiti’: Comments and answers

My recent post on Leo Grin’s essay about nihilism in epic fantasy provoked an unusual amount of discussion, much of it intelligent and valuable, some not so much. I should like to respond to some of the points made in post form, rather than scattered through threads in the combox.

Let’s start, since it was the first comment posted, with an unusually silly remark by mythusmage, who in my experience usually has better sense:

I can see his point, how dare fantasy grow up. How dare fantasy reach beyond romanticism and tweener angst. How dare fantasy concern itself with adult matters? Why, you'd think it's a genre for adults instead of the thoughtless young.

Of course, this is not Mr. Grin’s point at all. His point is that much of the so-called ‘adult’ content in current epic fantasy is simply pornographic violence, lovingly detailed, in the service of a stories where all the characters are either villains or victims (or both), where heroism is merely hypocrisy, where the idea of the good is removed from the universe of moral discourse, leaving only competing varieties of evil to gnaw on each other’s warped and diseased bones. To borrow the terminology of TV Tropes, it is the conflict of Evil Versus Evil, set in a Crapsack World — as it has to be, because the least touch of virtue or heroism would blow the gaff. The result, for me, for Mr. Grin, and for many other people, as TV Tropes warns us, is very often Darkness Induced Audience Apathy, which in turn leads to the Eight Deadly Words:

I don’t care what happens to these people.

Following me so far? Good.

I have been under various kinds of treatment for chronic depression for more than twenty years; I am frequently accused, and sometimes by my nearest and dearest, of obstinately seeing only the worst in every situation. And yet even I am aware that we do not live in a Crapsack World. I don’t object if other people like reading about Crapsack Worlds — I do myself, in certain moods — but let’s be honest about it. Crapsack is not ‘realism’. Crapsack World is not a profound statement about Reality As It Really Is; it is a device suited to satire, and to what Northrop Frye called the ironic mode in fiction. If you habitually write about such worlds, and you can’t think of any better reason for it than the blatant lie that you’re being ‘realistic’, I suggest that you take a long look in the mirror and admit that you’re writing a species of pornography. Professional help may even be indicated.

Let me offer up a couple of examples where I uttered the Eight Deadly Words and threw a book against the wall, and the precise point at which I did so.

First, there is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which, I admit, is in some technical respects a brilliant tour de force. However, as volume follows volume, the heroic characters are betrayed and killed one by one, or sometimes in clutches and battalions, and I find less and less interest in the assorted villains and scum who increasingly dominate the POV palette. Both in writing and in painting, I love chiaroscuro; but that technique requires chiaro as well as oscuro. Martin gradually throws away one colour after another, until by the end of A Storm of Swords, he has hardly anything left but black. The magnificent chiaroscuro of the earlier books is lost, and the only distinction left among the major plot-movers is how much black paint is gooped over a given bit of canvas. Impasto is very much less effective than chiaroscuro; a painting should not require you to read it in Braille. And neither should a story.

Still I persevered until the very end of that third volume, when the eldest of the Stark offspring, the shining hope of his house, retrieved his fortunes by a stroke of strategic genius: an alliance by marriage with one of the families hitherto attached to the house of Lannister. This would have been a heavy stroke against the Lannisters’ power. Alas, it was a trap. Young Stark was murdered, along with all the Starks present, their servants, retainers, and well-wishers, at the wedding feast itself.

This jarred me right out of the story, permanently. With Stark’s death, every character I had been cheering for was gone. The remaining cast were either villains of the blackest stripe, or comically ineffectual, or pathetic victims — or combinations of these; Tyrion Lannister was all three at once. There were a few characters with conscience, and a great many characters with agency, but no overlap between these groups.

Furthermore, I lost all confidence in Martin’s world-building; and also, by the bye, in the judgement of those who consider him a realistic writer. In every preindustrial civilization that I have any knowledge of — preeminently in the feudal-aristocratic culture of late mediaeval Europe, on which Martin chiefly draws for his kingdom of Westeros — marriage and hospitality are buttressed by the strongest taboos and the most frightful sanctions. A man who had eaten your bread and salt, while he remained under your roof, was inviolable; to raise a hand against him was a more heinous crime than to attack your own brother. As for marriage, a matrimonial union between two ruling families was the only reliable way to secure an alliance; if a prince betrayed his in-laws, he as good as guaranteed that no other noble house would offer its scions in marriage to his family again. Combine the two crimes — murder of a relative by marriage, and attacking one’s own guests at a feast — and you have the blackest villainy, short of outright parricide, that a feudal magnate could possibly commit. Yet the murderers of young Stark and his party committed their crime, not only without any qualms of conscience, but without any fear that their neighbours might think less of them, or that their treachery would give them a bad reputation that might damage their political power in the future.

The second case I can deal with more shortly, because it occurred in the very first scene of a book — in the prologue, in fact. Steven Erikson’s ‘Malazan Book of the Fallen’ series is widely praised for its gritty realism by critics and readers, as well as for its general literary quality. I therefore ventured to buy a volume of the series; the first, I think, though I may have been mistaken. I took it home and settled in to read it. The story began with a snapshot of a recruiting drive by the press-gang of some Evil Empire — which is a legitimate place to begin a war story. But when the press-gang recruited a twelve-year-old girl to serve in the military, my suspension of disbelief snapped with a report like a rifle-shot. A twelve-year-old child has a military value of just about zero; in the kind of low-technology warfare that Erikson appeared to be depicting, where strength and physical training are paramount, a child’s value is less than the cost of its food. If the Evil Empire was so desperate for soldiers, it should have sent the press-gangs into combat. They were doing nobody any good by combing the landscape for twelve-year-olds. Even Hitler, when he called up the dregs of German manpower to serve in the Volkssturm units of 1945, did not trouble to draft anyone under the age of about fifteen. Indeed, children under fourteen were not even old enough to serve in the Hitler Youth. Erikson’s press-gangs were not merely scraping the bottom of the barrel; they were grubbing in the dirt under the barrel for drippings from any possible leaks.

The estimable fpb, further down the thread begun by mythusmage, had these very wise words to say:

If the world is a moral shithole, then there is not much demand for you to do more than the bare minimum. If morality is possible, on the other hand, then there is no excuse for you behaving like a swine.

Indeed. I find it bitterly humorous to see the fans and purveyors of nihilistic fiction accusing the rest of us of ‘escapism’. It strikes me that there is nothing so escapist as turning your back on all the moral and social obligations of real life, and immersing yourself in a fictional world where nobody has any standards whatever.

My good personal friend sarah_dimento offers this:

Anyone who equates gratuitous sex and violence with maturity is someone who lacks maturity. A lot of YA fiction is more mature than so called "adult" fiction because it actually deals with mature issues instead of just throwing a bunch of sensational pointless wankery at the reader.

This is even more to the point. In the course of my readings and researches over the years, I have gone into the literature about sociopathy in some depth. One striking thing about that disorder is that it is never diagnosed in adolescents; for they, and adolescent boys in particular, are naturally inclined to antisocial behaviour, their empathy and self-mastery not being equal to the burdens placed on them by the endocrine firestorm of puberty. Broadly speaking, every adolescent is clinically insane if judged by the criteria used to diagnose adults. What can we say about people who remain in that state all their lives? There is some excuse for a teenage boy feeling his oats to be deeply interested in pornographic violence; it is a fairly natural phase to pass through; but for a grown man, there is none. And in fact a lot of young readers never do develop that fascination with splatter, which is why YA fiction can be aimed at that demographic.

kateelliott, after a somewhat irrelevant plaint about the absence of female authors from Mr. Grin’s indictment, says something I quite agree with:

I feel that new gritty/torture porn (if you will) is written to be read and enjoyed by people who themselves live fairly quiet, pleasant lives. "Edgy" stuff rarely strikes me as edgy. I've seen it all before; there is so much worse going on in the real world to real people in ways that have real consequences that the attempt to raise that aversion stimulus in my brain fails.

The difference between torture porn and real atrocities, of course, is that torture porn can be blissfully free of larger consequences. Real atrocities tend to get the perpetrators in trouble. At the very least, they are not generally approved of by the people who report them. If you want an inside dose of atrocity — if you want to live in the torturer’s head, and thrill to the feeling of power and cruelty as each detail of the torture is lovingly conveyed to you — you will not get that from even the goriest nightly newscast; you have to get it from fiction.

What we are dealing with here, I am afraid, is an objective depravity of taste. Like any outré stimulus, torture porn is mithridatic: you have to keep increasing the dose to experience the thrill. The addict seeks worse and worse horrors to satisfy his bloodshot physical craving, until either he gives up the quest, or becomes so dependent upon that one thrill that he loses the appetite for anything else. Long before reaching that point, the event horizon of addiction, he is routinely imbibing fare that would disgust anyone not habituated. This happens with all kinds of addictions — to drink, drugs, pornography, gambling, sexual excess, even food. I had a roommate once who kept a packet of habanero peppers on top of the refrigerator; he was used to eating food so hot that he put habaneros in everything he cooked, even scrambled eggs. He had literally singed off most of his taste buds, and normal food had become insipid to him. Only the habaneros could coax any response out of his burnt and jaded palate; and nobody else in the house could eat his cooking.

A couple of decades ago, when horror was suffering a similar declension of taste — a vicious cycle which led, within a few years, to its near extinction as a viable commercial genre — Harlan Ellison had this to say about it, in a review in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine:
When a literary form begins to run out of ideas, the last stop before the abyss is the escalation of the elements, the coarsening of the themes, the amateur’s belief that simply to shock is enough. And so, if we begin with the discreet shadowing of the scene as the vampire bends to the throat of his victim . . . and we move a little further into the light with each succeeding vampire story . . . then we come, at last, to the crude writing that describes in detail every spurt of blood, every diseased puncture hole, every last bit of minutiae of bodily functions, abhorrent perversion, disgusting child molestations, exploding heads, morsels for rodents, overstated and purple-prosed phobias. In short, the salting of the land.

It saddens me to see the same degradation overtaking epic fantasy. But I suppose something of the kind was inevitable, once the parasite of splatter sucked the last blood out of the carcass of horror and had to find a new host. This stuff used to be euphemistically called ‘dark fantasy’; what could be more natural than to drop the adjective, if you have so blinded yourself that you no longer believe in the existence of light?

Let us return for a moment to kateelliott’s complaint about the lack of female authors in Mr. Grin’s screed. I offered the suggestion that they were absent because they seldom pander to the particular depravity of taste that Mr. Grin was writing about. sarah_dimento expressed agreement in these useful terms:

Well you have to admit, he did leave out the kind of fantasy porn that seems to be particular to women, but that's probably because he's never had the urge to pick up a vampire romance novel. ;)

Still, it would have been a more comprehensive criticism of current pornographic trends in fantasy if he had also addressed authors like Anne Rice, Laura K. Hamilton
[sic], and She Who Must Not Be Named in fear of stirring up a feminist shit-storm due to her romantic portrayal of abusive relationships.

True enough; but none of those authors can be said to write epic fantasy. This business of mooning over vampires because they are just so dead sexy (pun not intended, but inevitable) — this is, I suspect, another instance of a subgenre falling down the rabbit-hole of pandering to its own addicts; but it is a different drug, and a reader looking for the next Conan, or even the next Frodo, is not liable to be tempted by it.

jonathanmoeller derides ‘the idea that a harsh viewpoint is necessarily the real viewpoint’, and rathe archly offers this Gedankenexperiment:

P.G. Wodehouse comes to mind (mostly because I just read "Right ho, Jeeves"). I suppose a modern "gritty reboot" of the Jeeves series would have Bertie Wooster as a shellshocked Great War veteran, unable to cope with the horrors of the Somme, hallucinating an all-knowing valet named "Jeeves" to cope with his trauma.

To which fpb replies:

Actually Bertie as a shellshocked Great War veteran has been done. He was called Lord Peter Wimsey.

I beg to demur. Lord Peter Wimsey had a quality that Bertie could scarcely dream of: he was clever enough to be a detective. Bertie Wooster couldn’t detect a bass drum in a phone booth. The frothy farce of Wodehouse would sort very ill with the ‘grit’ and darkness of the shellshocked veteran, and it is to Dorothy Sayers’s credit that she did not generally attempt to involve Lord Peter Wimsey in froth.

However, rysmiel’s topper is so perfect that I can only offer it with no comment but applause:

Think about it for a bit; wealthy social butterfly, no visible parents, oft on the edges of trouble with the law, highly dependent on competent manservant, add mental trauma. You can even keep the initials the same; the gritty reboot Bertie Wooster is Bruce Wayne.

paulwoodlin, whom I fear I often find myself sharply differing with, says this, which I differ with scarcely at all:

I read Tolkien on two levels, one is following his vision with admiration, the other is noticing his limitations, such as the Shire being a ode to a rural utopia that didn't exist, the White Man as Slayer of Black Evil, etc. Some writers only see his limitations and write their fantasy dragging out the darkness, forgetting to ask themselves, what is heroism in this new world I created?

I quibble a bit about the Shire as a rural utopia. There are some implausibilities about the Hobbits (‘No hobbit in the Shire has ever killed another on purpose,’ says Frodo), but these are introduced, successfully on the whole as I believe, in the service of a rather subtle satire. Orwell once observed that life in England was demilitarized and ‘soft’ to a degree that continental Europeans found staggeringly implausible. The Shire exaggerates the sheltered and pacific nature of English life (as it was in Tolkien’s time) to the point of caricature, so that even an English reader should feel the strangeness of it. And he makes the point, very forcibly through the device of ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, that such peace depends entirely on the willingness of others to make war on one’s behalf. The hobbits were protected, says Tolkien, but they had ceased to notice it. In consequence (like many a present-day European) they had the same attitude towards their protectors that Kipling found in the English and described in the mordant phrase: ‘Making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep.’

The bit about ‘forgetting to ask themselves, what is heroism?’ — that I fully agree with. I suspect, in some cases, the authors forget because their all-pervasive cynicism will not let them conceive of genuine heroes. To such people, anyone who appears to be a hero is simply a hypocrite, or the beneficiary of undeserved PR. This is one place where Tolkien has the advantage of them, both in ‘realism’ and in the ‘adultness’ of his subject-matter. As he himself once wrote, he had known genuine heroes, and seen real acts of heroism, in his personal experience of war; and his claim is strengthened by the fact that he made no claim at all to be a hero himself. In fact he was rather overawed by the resilience and courage of the men under his command, and considered them (though mostly of an ‘inferior’ social class) superior to himself as men. Sam Gamgee, you might say, was one of Tolkien’s men on the Somme, extricated from the mud and the blood and the machine-guns and barbed wire, and set to work in a milieu where his heroism could have some effect beyond adding to the casualty figures of the day. I find this approach infinitely healthier and more admirable than the game of pretending that heroism is beneath ‘adult’ notice.

shelestel asks a bizarre question:

What are your thoughts on the contemporary myth of the zombie apocalypse?

My thoughts are that it is perhaps the silliest idea I have ever encountered, and I have never seen any tolerable treatment of it that did not use it simply as fodder for low comedy. And my taste for such comedy is sharply limited. I thoroughly enjoyed Mel Brooks’s send-ups of classic horror stories, in Young Frankenstein and even in Dracula: Dead and Loving It, precisely because there was such thematic depth and sophistication in the originals.

Frankenstein has important things to say about the Faustian impulse in man, and about the moral imperative of respecting the dignity of our own creations; it is the maker’s failure to respect the Monster that chiefly makes the tale a tragedy. Dracula is, among other things, an extended meditation upon the baleful erotic attraction of evil and enslavement. There is something in the psychological makeup of a great many women that responds to overt displays of masculine dominance; this has been held by many writers to be a universal quality of feminine sexuality, though I would not presume to go so far. What could be more dominant than a man who promises to make you his slave, not merely for life but for ever; and what, on those terms, could be sexier than being such a slave with your youth and beauty eternally preserved? Brooks made a lively contribution to both those motifs, even though in the form of (affectionate) parody, because at bottom his stories respected the humanity of the characters. His Dr. ‘Fronkensteen’ redeemed both himself and the Monster by respecting the Monster’s tortured humanity and risking himself to save it; his Harker and Mina, though their relationship was a studied send-up of Victorian prudery (how shocking, that after being engaged only five years, they actually touched one another!), redeemed themselves by the underlying strength of genuine love against the meretricious attractions of the vampire.

The zombie apocalypse has no such underlying seriousness to play with. I am firmly of the opinion that a humorist can only be as funny as his subject-matter is serious; that is why I shall always prefer George Carlin, even at his cynical worst, to Bob Hope, and why my admiration for P.G. Wodehouse is limited by the featherweight situations of his comedy. A film like Shaun of the Dead (which, however, I have not yet seen) is probably the best anybody could do with such a thin and implausible conceit.

In a somewhat similar vein, nancylebov asks:

What current fantasy do you like?

Since I don’t want to give the impression that I merely disapprove of everything being done in the field today, in comparison with some imagined belle époque, I gladly seize upon the chance of answering this question.

I have not in fact read a great deal of fantasy in the last few years, since my reading time has been largely taken up with history and linguistics and other things related to my formal studies. However, there have been some (fairly) recent books and authors that I hold in high regard.

For one, I quite liked Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though the latter half of that book is beset by endless longueurs; it could with advantage have been 200 pages shorter. The ‘Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair’ still strikes me as the most successful fictional portrayal of the inhuman and amoral elves of later Germanic folklore. And Clarke managed to put across the eldritch evil of the Gentleman without pornography, without lavishing detail on gore and splatter, without so much as a single bucket of stage-prop blood. And she did it without even implying that the heroes who rescued the Gentleman’s victim were no better morally than the Fair Folk themselves.

I have, like Mr. Grin, a certain natural bias in favour of the kind of fantasy that tends to be written largely by men; but I find that the majority of the recent stuff I have liked was written by women. Sherwood Smith’s Inda series (which, however, I have not yet finished, having been distracted by studies); Vera Nazarian’s Lords of Rainbow; some of Robin Hobb’s earlier stuff (the later books I have not been exposed to): these things all quite appeal to me. I can also appreciate the technical quality of Beth Bernobich’s Passion Play, of which I was an (unsuccessful) early reader; but the story itself left me cold, because it is inextricably bound up with a close and searching examination of a kind of sexuality that I find painful to contemplate.

Among male authors, I have been reasonably taken with Donaldson’s Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Again we have the endless longueurs, but (in sharp contrast to much of Donaldson’s early work) the principal burden of agency is placed squarely on the shoulders of his female protagonist, Linden Avery. In fact, she is so very much an agent that her mistakes in the past (for this is, among other things, a very intricate time-travel story) are the chief proximate cause of the world-wrecking perils she faces in the present. Thomas Covenant himself, by contrast, is largely passive and ineffectual; indeed, he is actually dead for the first two volumes of the series, until Linden resurrects him.

In short, there is still quite a lot of good work being done, not only in fantasy, but in the specific subgenre of epic fantasy. But there is also a lot of bad work, and some of it is very bad indeed. That readers like Mr. Grin are being frightened off by the bad work, and consequently miss out on the good, cannot be auspicious for the future health of the field. It is for this reason above all that I wish the purveyors of splatter-porn would take up their maggoty wares and peddle them somewhere else.

  • The twelfth day of Christmas

    One likes to close on a high note, and since I began this twelve days’ journey in the Baroque period, I shall end there. ‘Adeste fideles’ is one of…

  • The eleventh day of Christmas

    And now, a 12th-century piece that needs no introduction: ‘Veni, veni, Emmanuel’. Read and hear the rest at

  • The Tenth Day of Christmas

    Here is another fine old English carol. After the discussion in the combox about the Middle English pronunciation of yesterday’s selection, I should…

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 

← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →

  • The twelfth day of Christmas

    One likes to close on a high note, and since I began this twelve days’ journey in the Baroque period, I shall end there. ‘Adeste fideles’ is one of…

  • The eleventh day of Christmas

    And now, a 12th-century piece that needs no introduction: ‘Veni, veni, Emmanuel’. Read and hear the rest at

  • The Tenth Day of Christmas

    Here is another fine old English carol. After the discussion in the combox about the Middle English pronunciation of yesterday’s selection, I should…