The Pretension Stick
Earlier today, Anima Mecanique quoted an excerpt from a review with Terry Goodkind that was truly mind-boggling. Copying her added emphasis:
Q: “What do you think distinguishes your books from all of the other fantasy books out there, and why should readers choose to read your series?”
TG: “There are several things. First of all, I don’t write fantasy. I write stories that have important human themes. They have elements of romance, history, adventure, mystery and philosophy. Most fantasy is one-dimensional. It’s either about magic or a world-building. I don’t do either.
And in most fantasy magic is a mystical element. In my books fantasy is a metaphysical reality that behaves according to its own laws of identity.
Because most fantasy is about world-building and magic, a lot of it is plotless and has no story. My primary interest is in telling stories that are fun to read and make people think. That puts my books in a genre all their own.
Wow. Just . . . wow.
I made a decision a while back to post recommendations for books on my website, instead of reviews. Partly it’s because I’d rather spend my time pushing people toward good books, instead of ranting about the bad ones, but politeness was another factor: if I might end up on a panel with someone at a con, I’d rather not be thinking, oh god, I hated your book and told the world about it. (And, for the record, I didn’t hate Wizard’s First Rule. I’m not saying that just to cover my ass; if I’d hated it, I wouldn’t have finished it. That doesn’t mean I particularly liked it — I didn’t go on and read the rest of the series — but it’s not on the list of Books Not Worth The Trees. Takes a lot to get on that list.)
But man . . . that quote makes me want to throw things. I hate hate hate every time I hear the equivalent of, “this isn’t fantasy, because it’s Good.” It bothered me when they said something along those lines about the LotR films, and it bothers me now. To throw around statements about “important human themes” and “metaphysical realities” as if nobody else in fantasy has ever thought about it that way, thus making you a Genre All Your Own — do you really have to step on all your shelf-mates to make yourself look good? Are we really that afflicted with plotless, story-less fantasy? Fantasy that conforms to standard plot outlines, perhaps, but that isn’t the same thing, and a certain saying about glass houses comes to mind besides.
Pretension gets up my nose like nobody’s business, and I say that in the full awareness that I went to Harvard and would probably count as pretentious myself in a lot of people’s eyes. Look at it this way: if it’s enough to bug me, it must be bad. And Anima Mecanique’s post reminded me of a gem from the recent Readercon panel writeups:
The New Weird renunciates hackneyed fantasy by taking its cliches and inverting, subverting, and converting them in order to return to the truly fantastic. It is secular and political, reacting against “religiose moralism and consolatory mythicism,” and hence feels real and messy. And it trusts the reader and the genre in two important ways: it avoids post-modern self-reference, and it avoids didacticism, instead letting meaning emerge naturally from metaphor.
Combination hookah and coffee maker! Also makes julienne fries!
I liked Readercon a lot, but the panel description that comes from was almost enough to make me swear off the New Weird forever. I mean, man, we’re all so very lucky to have them around to save our beloved genre from itself, because otherwise we’d be just doomed, DOOMED I TELL YOU! (I found myself wondering what the writers who consider themselves New Weird made of that. I would have been embarrassed.)
Seriously, what’s with people being so ashamed of their own genre? I’m a fantasy writer and I’m proud of it. My writing draws on a variety of sources, all of which I’m more than happy to acknowledge; I don’t need to pretend I’ve invented a wheel unlike all wheels that have come before. Yes, fantasy has its cliches, but a) find me a form of artistic expression that doesn’t, and b) cliches are not inherently evil. Inept use of them may be, but inept use of anything, up to and including the poor abused English language herself, is not to be applauded, and you can achieve just as bad (or sometimes worse) of an effect by doing a poor job of iconoclasm as you can by flubbing your formulas. (I mean, at least the formulas have been proven to work.)
I won’t pretend the fantasy genre as a whole doesn’t have traits I consider problems, nor that I don’t make my own attempts to push at its boundaries or do something I think will be fresh and new. But if I ever start talking about my own work in a way that makes it sound like the Salvation of All Fantasy, then please, for the good of everyone involved, pull the Pretension Stick out of my ass and hit me with it until I stop.