Seventy or so comments in, the discussion over my post on Thursday, entitled Inferior Fantasy, has finally leveled out - which isn't to say there weren't cogent arguments being made throughout, only that they were rather lost, rather sadly lost, in the great vengeance and furious anger of the aftermath of my suggestion that perhaps a genre we all hold dear could be... better.
And rather than simply stirring the hornet's nest up all over again, I'll accept my share of responsibility for that. I don't have a world of time to labour over the blog posts I write: firstly, foremostly, I blog because I enjoy blogging. I blog about speculative fiction in particular because I love speculative fiction - primarily fantasy. I had thought eight months of news and reviews and the inherently opinionated (and often rather snarky) commentary I've offered up to you all would have been an ample assertion of my credentials in that regard. As per the note I originally concluded on, I'm "a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the form," the form here being fantasy, and so I took it as a given that people wouldn't automatically assume I'd somehow turned on them - them, and a genre they love, as evidenced by the fact they'd come to TSS to read about it in the first place.
Evidently, I couldn't have been more wrong. Almost immediately, despite my attempts to couch the difficult question I had hoped to ask in assurances that it was a question, not - not by a long shot - a statement, a flood of readers chimed in to tell me, in essence, what a back-stabbing ass I had turned out to be. In and of itself, that wasn't entirely unexpected (though the particular people who did so did take me aback); I understood going in that for many, the notion that fantasy falls short in some respects would be a hot-button topic. I hadn't, admittedly, expected that those readers who disagreed would do so with such vitriol. Beginning with an anonymous commenter - never something, I'll admit, that sits well with me, though it's something I allow because not every reader has an account with Blogger, and most such commenters have the good grace to sign their contributions to the discussion in lieu - beginning with an anonymous commenter, then, the backlash: "all told," anon asserted, "this is a spectacularly dumb conversation."
I disagree. Strenuously. As did many of the other commenters, among them Vector Reviews editor Martin Lewis, Mike Johnstone, Eric M. Edwards, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Charan Newton, solarbridge, Jeff Vandermeer - who, needless to say, I've clashed with in the past - and Robert Jackson Bennett. Some of whom have taken the conversation I'd attempted to have to their own blogs - away, and wisely so, I would say, from the wilful misinterpretation thereof that had overpowered it here on TSS. Not all of the above agreed with me, of course; some did, certainly, but before someone accuses me of taking things out of context, let me be clear: I'm not saying that they did. But they did engage with the question, rather than, as I joked in the original article, losing their lunch.
But let's put all that to one side.
Celine Kiernan, author of The Poison Throne, and Paul Charles Smith of Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream - both of whom I have a great deal of respect for - as well as several others I'm surely forgetting, agreed with anon. Various commenters iterated much the same sentiment.
Amanda Rutter of Floor-to-Ceiling Books dismissed my question thus: "This blog post was ill-conceived, IMO."
Gav of NextRead stopped by to say "Sorry but this is really a load of bollocks."
Isn't constructive criticism a fine thing? And those comments, though it pains me to say so, were among the more considered non-responses to Inferior Fantasy.
Alex, for instance, asserted: "Sounds like you've had some time off, read something more mainstream and supposedly a bit more highbrow, and have come back thinking you're hot shit and Fantasy's a load of rubbish. LOL."
The Evil Hat simply called it as he (she? Sorry) saw it: "Fantasy is inherently inferior? Bull. Shit."
All of which came from... where? Search me. In the original post, in fact, I contradict the very (offensive) sentiment I've been accused of issuing: "Don't for a minute think I'm asserting that fantasy is an inherently inferior genre of fiction. That's borderline bigotry, and... utterly repugnant to me." Perhaps as the day wore on and my hackles were raised by understandably defensive readers (or commenters, I should say; I'm not entirely convinced all those who commented had actually read the article itself) whole sole goal seemed to be misconstrue my position and indeed my intent - the better to tell it like it is, one presumes - I responded in the heat of the moment, and talked myself, as is all too often my way, into ever-decreasing circles that I might reframe the debate before it became completely sidelined by the shitstorm which had resulted from the mere suggestion that, as fantasy fans, should we not demand more from our genre of choice rather than heralding good fiction as great fiction?
Yet the perception - that I believed for a second that fantasy was inferior - proved pervasive. Weirdmage asked, "If you really think Speculative Fiction is an inferior genre, why start a blog about it?" while LEC took after Alex's tactic, wondering "Are you trying to become the Literary Scotsman, Niall?"
Let me stop for just a second to say: no. I have none of the delusions of grandeur, as if blogging about literary fiction - so called - would somehow grant me such grandeur, that so many commenters seem to assume. I blog as the speculative Scotsman for two reasons. One, because I'm Scottish, and two, because I adore speculative fiction (and by extension fantasy) in all its forms. In film, in literature, in video games, in comic books - wherever there's speculative fiction, you can be sure there's at least one Scotsman determined to adore it.
I fully accept that I could have taken more time to raise the issue in question, and more care in doing so. As Ran asserted, "You've put your thumb on the scale with the specific comparisons and the definitions you provided, Niall," and yes, I surely did; guilty as charged. Perhaps Brandon Sanderson's almost universally acclaimed new fantasy isn't the equivalent of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. China Mieville or Guy Gavriel Kay would have been better contenders, authors I'd happily pitch against the best of literary fiction with the expectation they stand up to any such comparison, or at the least put up a hell of a fight. But I had a point to make - a question to ask, I should say - and a simple way to make it. I could take more time and more care composing everything that goes up here on TSS - except that I only have so much time to spend. To paraphrase Joe Abercrombie, I spiked a few definitions to fit my argument.
Isn't that the way of things, though? Isn't that every academic argument in a nutshell right there? Selecting the evidence that reinforces your assertion all the while dismissing the evidence which does not?
But I won't make too much of a fuss about that point, Ran's point. I could have substituted Brandon Sanderson for Ian McDonald and crafted my argument more carefully to compensate. My point, I hasten to add, would (in my view) still stand. Ian McDonald is awesome, but how many Ian McDonalds are there in this field? Five? Ten? Wouldn't it be nice if there were more authors of that caliber, that ambition, to point to?
Some, I suspect, will take that paragraph as a tacit admission that I wrinkle my nose at the thought of... let's say new Mark Charan Newton. To which accusation I would ask, how did you enjoy Mark Charan Newton week? For myself, I had a hell of a time. I don't need for every fantasy novel I read to be academically and intellectually remarkable. I don't demand that all of fantasy must suddenly devote its attention entire to impressing notoriously hard-to-please critics. That's not what I want from the genre by any stretch. I understand that what matters most of all, in terms of the experience of reading, is that, as @NextRead put it, we have a good time. I had a good time with The Way of Kings (more on which later, and elsewhere, in fact). But is having a good time truly all that matters? In a vacuum, that kind of argument might fly. As one genre among many, however, and as a staunch supporter of that genre with high hopes that it be less often on the receiving end of snooty, derisory and dismissive attitudes, the likes of which we're constantly complaining about across the blogosphere, I want twenty Ian McDonalds where I've suggested there might be ten, as it stands. I want a hundred Ian McDonalds, damn it. And how is that such a horrendous thing to hope for?
I made this very argument on Twitter the other evening, in fact, in (woefully restrictive) increments of 140 characters. Salvaged and re-appropriated from amidst a flurry of often spiteful, condescending responses, then:
"So let's have another go at this. I love fantasy; let's begin with that. I love speculative fiction as a whole, but in particular, my bag is fantasy. Thus, I want others to love fantasy. But the market for the genre is not what it could be, because, I think, it gets a bad rap. People - mainstream critics, literary fiction aficionados, bookstore buyers and so on - seem to think fantasy is a bit childish, a bit "below" them. They view the genre in the same light as they do comic books, video games... the same way people (now proven wrongheaded) used to view cinema, television and crime fiction. Which isn't to say those forms of storytelling are inferior either - they're not. Within reason, no one form of anything is. But snobbery.
"Snobbery prevails. Critics decry fantasy as juvenile. They're wrong - of course. Categorically, they can't say an entire genre is juvenile based on one or two or even ten instances of it. Those instances may indeed be juvenile, but they are not in and of themselves representative of the genre. But one wonders. What are these critics reading that's made it so easy for them to dismiss fantasy according to their prejudices? They're reading fantasy that isn't representative of the best the genre has to offer, clearly. Sit even the snootiest critic down with The Dervish House or The City and The City and their views would surely be untenable.
"But reviewers - 'gatekeepers,' as Mark has it - don't, as a rule, pick and choose what they devote their energies to. They're given a couple of books to review, books that someone, somewhere has decided are sure to be a big deal; books which certain somebodies have intuited are likely to be what these critics' respective audiences want to hear about. These sorts of decisions are made based on buzz, hype, the strength (or perceived strength) of such and such an author's back-catalogue.
"And so, my point. I feel like fantasy fans (myself included) are so enthusiastic about the form that we will champion, and so help to create that buzz, that hype, just about anything we enjoy. For instance, The Black Prism, or The Way of Kings. Both of which are very fine reads, in their way (and here we're getting subjective - there's no getting around that that I can see), but not, I would argue, the genre figureheads they're made out to be. And so snooty critics sit down with The Black Prism, say, thinking, 'this is the best fantasy has to offer?' And no, it isn't. But we portray it as if it were. And they read it under the presumption that it is. Snotty mainstream critics everywhere have their preconceptions reinforced, fantasy at large suffers - insofar as it doesn't benefit - and who do we have to blame but ourselves? If we're to hope fantasy will one day be respected in the way we respect it, the way we love it, we need to be more careful, more reserved, with our praise. We need to set the bar for what is truly great in fantasy that much higher."
Which reiteration of the argument I'd hoped to pose earlier in the day met with some interesting debate - but I'm digressing already. Had I thought to substitute Brandon Sanderson for Ian McDonald, I wonder, would the initial majority of responses have been any less outraged? Did I, as @Murf61 suggested on Twitter that night, write a post without thinking about the consequences? No. I don't believe I did. The knee-jerk defensiveness it met with, however, the siege mentality Martin has talked about on Everything is Nice, was not among the consequences I'd considered in the writing of Inferior Fantasy. Cara is bang on the money insofar as saying I hit a raw nerve with the offending article, but was it thus, as she further asserted, "the wrong subject for discussion"? Are we simply to hold our tongues when it comes to debating difficult subjects?
I dearly hope not. From the very depths of my soul, I hope that isn't the case.
In any event, I find my own appetite for such debate completely and utterly deflated after all the fuss that followed. After the thousands of words I've written on the subject, or rather around the subject, defending and reframing the particulars of my argument rather than addressing the very things I'd imagined it might lead to - which as of now, it has (thank the dead) - I'm spent.
Which isn't to say the issue is dead in the water, as so many would no doubt like it to be. Several authors and erstwhile bloggers have picked up the torch to offer their own thoughts on the matter, many of whom have made the point I'd aimed to make more elegantly than I could have hoped to. So. I refer you to the following:
On the Orbit blog, Robert Jackson Bennett, author of Mr Shivers and The Company Man, forthcoming from that esteemed publisher, gives us a piece he thinks might land him "neck-deep in shit." Probably, Robert... probably! In any case, it's called On Content, Execution and the Future of Genre. It's here, and it's highly recommended reading.
Robert has also been blogging about the merits of eating babies, and not entirely coincidentally, I suspect. I haven't meant to eat any babies, honest I haven't!
Over on Everything is Nice, meanwhile, Vector Reviews editor Martin Lewis gives us Inferiority Complex, which begins with a rebuttal I'm sure many of you will disagree with - "Yesterday Niall Alexander put forward a reasonable point of view... needless to say, everybody lost their lunch" - but goes on to make an alluring argument of the comparative mess I gave you in the first instance. That's here.
On Speculative Horizons, which I'm such a fan of I'll link to given the slightest inclination, thank you very much, James puts his $0.02 into the hat as part of his Friday Links post. Not to worry, James: I'll still be here when the dust settles! Whether anyone else will be, well, that remains to be seen...
And please, if you haven't already, do take the time to read through (the more cogent) comments, in which the likes of Jeff Vandermeer, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Charan Newton, Sam Sykes and Celine Kiernan have made their diverse opinions plain. Just look at all the pretty authors! :)
I'd also urge you to check out the comments from E. M. Edwards and Mike Johnstone in particular, each of whom appears to agree with me - to differing extents - but irregardless engage with the issue in exactly the way I'd hoped more readers would. In fact, let me conclude this already ridiculously-overlong rebuttal with a quote from that latter's thoughts on the matter:
"I think Niall is in fact asking a very relevant and important question that has implications for a wide range of issues related to speculative fiction. Moreover, I think he's coming at the issue from an honest and searching perspective, one that ultimately bears directly on the possible function(s) and significance of reviewing -- or, criticism.
"Thus, this discussion is not in any way "spectacularly dumb" or "bollocks" or "Bull. Shit."
"The question of quality in speculative fiction compared to literary fiction is definitely a fair one. Above, Sam Sykes writes, "Art exists to comment on humanity," and he's right in a broad sense. However, this statement also suggests that, in effect, all Art can be judged based on this broad criterion.
"Regardless of genre (or marketing category), works of speculative and literary fiction are equally Art, broadly considered. Even more specifically, the predominant form in both is the novel, and so we have a further broad, common criterion of judgment for assessing the quality of each (i.e., a novel is a novel, whether it's sword-and-sorcery fantasy or [a literary chronicle of middle-aged men having affairs]).
"In this light, Niall's discussion has a great deal of merit.
"It has merit because there are objective, concrete measures of "quality" for literary art and then for prose narratives in the form of novels. As Niall mentions, these measures are in part "technical," or matters of craft: grammar, paragraphing; dialogue; plotting; description, exposition; point of view; consistency of characterisation and in the setting; genre conventions/tropes, and so forth. These measures are also in part "artistic" (let's say): style, voice; metaphor, allegory, simile; rhythm and sound patterns; layered meanings, and so forth. Together, these technical and artistic measures make up a novel's "comment on humanity," whether that novel involves sorcerers and dragons, spaceships with FTL capability, or real places and times such as New York City or the antebellum era in the southern US.
"Based on these objective, concrete measures, much speculative fiction, unfortunately, does fall short on "quality" in comparison to much literary fiction. As written art, speculative fiction generally is simply not very good.
"Yet when it is very good, it is the equal of the best literary fiction out there, past and present."
Fucking spot on, Mike. Well said.
Thank you and good day.