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.

0 Responses to “The Pretension Stick”

  1. shadawyn

    I wish I had something more constructive to add, other than “yeah, what you said,” and “I like my fantasy, fantasy, not trying to be something else.”

    But I’m afraid the only thing I can add is, “Yeah, me too.”

    Which I suppose isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  2. elizaeffect

    I can’t wait to have my work this summer analyzed by the pretentious rabble in my English department. Crazy bastards called me “Joycean”. I don’t even know what that means.

    I wanted to give them a run for their money, so it’s an adventure story. If I have time I’ll write some masturbatory nonsense on the side and give them that too and we’ll see which story comes out their favorite.

    I

  3. wishwords

    Oh good lord. Fantasy is a genre. If you write flat fantasy with no human element, that’s bad fantasy. I you write fantasy that sucks people into the lives of your characters and what is going on around them, that’s good fantasy. Either way it’s fantasy.

  4. bakkhos

    Yeah, I hear Terry Goodkind likes to put his foot in his mouth a lot. And chew on it.

    Aren’t his books just godawful garbage? On sff.net that’s all I hear about them, so I’ve stayed miles away. Specifically that he loves torturing women and has them love every minute of it. ::shudder::

    • Marie Brennan

      Actually, WFR had fem-dom of the male main character, but I couldn’t vouch for the later books. It felt very formulaic to me, with few original elements, and while I can like a good formula fantasy when done well, I didn’t care for any of the characters enough in this case.

      • anima_mecanique

        I didn’t read past about a third of the second book, but I hear tell that Kahlan becomes an uber-damsel in distress, getting kidnapped and tortured and almost-raped a lot.

        Basically it seems like women in his books are either whip-wielding Domme goddesses or helpless torture victims.

        I mean, I’m used to poorly veiled dominatrix themes in fantasy (check out the drow), but a 200 page plot digression where a leather-clad blonde makes the main character crawl on all fours like a dog is, um, kind of excessive. Also it gave me the uncomfortable impression that it was written with one hand.

        • wadam

          My problem with it is that sexual domination is portrayed as a weapon, and through association with the other villains of the piece, is linked to pedophilia, and then, oddly enough, to communism and vegetarianism.

          He has this wierd complex of traits that he thinks are evil, and juxtaposes them with something that seems a lot like the Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman farmers and small holdings of private property, which is what the heroes are trying to preserve.

          It’s kind of twisted.

          • anima_mecanique

            I didn’t read that far into the series :/

            A lot of bad fantasy writers tend to use sexual sadism as a short hand for ‘evil’. Sometimes I think it’s more due to laziness than the author’s particular thoughts about sexuality — instead of creating a believable villain, it’s easier to just go “HAY THIS PERSON GETS OFF ON TORTURING THE HERO LOLOLOL!!11!” and leave it at that. Like having the villain hurt children for no reason, it’s an easy, cheap way to creep most readers out.

            Of course, Terry Goodkind seems JUST crazy enough that he might actually trying to mIake a statement instead of just being an idiot. My memory isn’t clear, but doesn’t the dominatrix-type character in the first book eventually get her comeuppance, as it were? Egh.

  5. anima_mecanique

    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.

    I believe the phrase “Ha ha ha, oh wow” was invented to react to this statement.

  6. mrissa

    This is why I list “stitial arts” as well as “interstitial arts” on my interests list: while I’m interested in things that fall between the cracks or expand our notion of genre, I am also interested in things that fall smack dab in the middle of traditional genres and do cool things there. It doesn’t have to be absolutely and totally unlike anything else ever ever ever in order to be a good book — and in fact the odds are kind of skewed the other way.

    Sigh. Bleh.

    When China Mieville’s New Weird manifesto was in Locus, a favorite bookstore clerk read out bits of it to me while I was shopping, so we could mock it together — things like [paraphrase], “The New Weird draws from whatever influences it likes.” Oh, yah, totally unlike the old weird, which only drew from influences it hated? or which regretfully declined certain projects because their influences were not on the acceptable list? Nobody’s ever been influenced by stuff they liked before! How new! And weird! (Happily, I hear that he has rescinded at least some of the manifesto. But this is why I don’t issue manifestos.)

  7. cheshyre

    Why does that quote remind me of Margaret Atwood’s comments about Handmaid’s Tale.

    Methinks the author doth protest too much.

    • Marie Brennan

      That too, but at least in her case you can see certain arguments pertaining to marketing and where her books get shelved. Goodkind is and always has been smack in the middle of the fantasy section.

  8. wadam

    “religiose moralism and consolatory mythicism” … speaking of Terry Goodkind.

    Wow. Goodkind’s comment was really … something. Especially coming from him. Especially considering that if you read far enough into the Wizard’s First Rule series, it’s clear that he himself could in fact use a little bit of worldbuilding practice, and that his “metaphysical reality” and “human themes” are in fact misogynist, imperialist, and terrifyingly, radically conservative.

    I have a whole thing with Goodkind, but suffice to say here that my feelings about him are strong enough that I won’t subject you to the relatively incoherent rant that will ensue should I get too far onto my high horse.

  9. Anonymous

    Goodkind

    Goodkind has been saying stuff like this for years; I’ve come to regard him as a crank who doesn’t realize that his fanbase is made up of mostly young adults and kids who WANT fantasy. That’s why most of them read his books. He’s alienated most other writers in the genre with comments like that; if I were his agent, I’d advise him to stop shooting his mouth off, before he does damage to himself. Just because you sell millions of books doesn’t mean shit in this business; there will always be someone who does that, and not all of them are pretentious assholes. You can find yourself out of a job faster than you think.

    -jsb

  10. kitsune_zen

    I wonder whether that New Weird description was written for the benefit of readers, or if the intended audience is publishers. Creating a space where the deliberately unclassifiable can be classified seems to me to be mainly an effort to get publishers to go near works they might not otherwise touch because in publishers’ minds “unclassifiable” is often synonymous with “unmarketable” and “unsaleable”.

    It’s my experience that author complaints agains genre fantasy often have to do with the perception of the boundaries of the genre not being very porous in the publishing industry. Similarly, I think the vitriol towards genre fantasy has to do with authors’ perceptions that a bad genre fantasy novel is much more likely to get accepted and published than a good innovative fantasy novel, simply because it is viewed as more easily marketable. I think there’s a good deal of validity to this perception.

    I’m really interested by the attempts to hack this system of artistic control by creating uncategorizable categories like Magical Realism, Speculative Fiction and The New Weird. I think the pretension rhetoric that is associated with them is a problem, but again I wonder who is responsible for that, and who is the audience…authors, readers, or publishers (probably all of them to some extent)? Who has most to gain from legitimizing the “genres” through deligitimizing other associated genres? Authors, obviously, but again it seems to me that the publishing houses are the gatekeepers on this. But then again, I’m a g/localizing zapatisterrist. I’m all about hacking overarching systems of control.

    As for Goodkind. Never read him, never had any interest, don’t know anything about him. His comments remind me of the comments that LeGuin made in “From Elfland to Pookeepsie”. And I have a rather intense hate-on for LeGuin because of that article (fuck with my favorite author, will you? I will pwn you).

    • Anonymous

      Hmm

      I’ve never really thought about my writing in conceptual terms; fine, clinical analysis is really an alien thing to me. I can do it, but that’s not the way I live or tend to think. I write stuff with heart; I put everything I have into it, and hold nothing back. If I had to put a label on it, I’d call it High Amerindian Fantasy Bred With the Adventure Story and the Character-driven Mainstream Novel. Kind of like Cooper with mythic and mystical elements, but with a more mainstream approach to characters.

      -jsb

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t see that writeup as creating such a space: I see it as attempting to claim all the worthwhile space. (I didn’t include the whole thing, since it wandered off in less vivid directions, but there was another sentence near the end that attempted to define the New Weird as “the only fantasy left that doesn’t suck,” basically.) As it was a panel description at Readercon, I doubt it was aimed at publishers; readers would be the main audience (with authors making up another large percentage, given the guest list for that con), but is that really an effective way to pitch it to such people? When they might be very fond of some of the works being dismissed? Not to mention that most of it has nothing to do with what I, or the friends I talked to at the con, associate with the New Weird. (Which I’ve never found all that unclassifiable, honestly; the examples I know of it turn rather significantly on the incorporation of the grotesque.)

      I’d disagree with you about the Goodkind/Le Guin comparison mostly because he’s saying “I’m not fantasy because I’m important,” whereas she says “that isn’t fantasy because it isn’t important.” (Doing a gross injustice to her actual point, but I understand and sympathize with why that article of hers annoys you.)

  11. unforth

    When I was in high school, I fancied myself something of a writer. Me and a friend, Irina, would sit in class and write, and trade each others writing back and forth to edit it and review it and the like. Irina, though, had an obsession: she wanted to write something original. It didn’t matter how good it was or how much I liked it, if I couldn’t peg the word original to something she had written, she was unhappy. Soon, this degenerated: she wouldn’t write any more; she spent all her time developing concepts, and then pitching these concepts to me and asking if they were original. And of course they never were. Her ideas were sound, of course, but there is no such thing as original in the sense that she meant it – we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before; writers don’t, as you wrote, reinvent the wheel. Eventually, Irina grew so frustrated with this that she stopped pitching ideas to me, also. We stayed friends, but she didn’t really talk writing with me. She just couldn’t handle that originality wasn’t the primary force necessary to write an awesome book. I always thought it was very immature of her.

    Goodkind and these others you talked about seem like they are doing the exact same thing…except that Irina was 15. What’s their excuse? ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Marie Brennan

      I hope college or some later experience helped teach her more about the history and role of originality. Otherwise she really would be doomed to eternal frustration.

  12. kleenestar

    You know, I may be coming to this discussion much too late, and I may be offering up my throat to some very friendly wolves, but I can actually kind of understand what Goodkind’s saying. Not that he isn’t a pretentious ass, but it sounds to me like he’s having an argument with someone who isn’t actually there.

    Take a conversation I had this weekend, which boiled down to the other person repeatedly saying, “But why does all this made-up stuff MATTER to you?” My eventual response was, “Fantasy doesn’t matter to me. Fiction that moves me does. Good stories do. I happen to get those things out of fantasy – but I also get them other places, like mainstream fiction with its imaginary worlds and lives, just for example. Fantasy does some things really, really well, and I appreciate it for what it does. It’s also not the be-all and end-all of my existence just because I enjoy it. Neither are mysteries, and I read those too.”

    Now, I read fantasy and I enjoy it and I’m not embarassed to read it (ok, I’m a little embarassed to admit I still reread some of the bad fantasy from my childhood, but I don’t think that counts). But this person seemed to be under the impression that I had some kind of obsessive interest in magic powers and fantastic beings, and that the story-as-story didn’t matter at all. Unlike my experience with other genres, I’ve met a number of people who seem to think that because you read fantasy, a) you believe it’s real, b) you’re intellectually unable to engage with other kinds of culture, or c) you’re completely uncritical and unable to be critical about your literature. This really gets me annoyed.

    So maybe – and this might be being overly charitable – Goodkind is just arguing with someone that, in his head, all the time, and that’s where a lot of his obnoxious comments come from.

    On the other hand, he could just be a pretentious jerk.

    • Marie Brennan

      I just don’t think the text supports that reading, sorry. ๐Ÿ™‚ I understand what you were saying to your conversational partner, but it strikes me as a totally different kind of thing.

    • anima_mecanique

      *shrug* If that’s what he was going for, he wouldn’t have spent so much time bashing all other fantasy authors and trying to say that he’s better than the entirety of the genre because he deals with “important human themes”, whatever the hell he means by that. Even if he is reacting to the very real prejudice against fantasy in the literary community, he is reacting in a horribly pretentious manner that does nothing to open people’s minds and only serves to reinforce stereotypes about the genre and his fellow fantasy authors. I prefer the reaction of Susannah Clarke to people trying to dissociate her book from the fantasy genre — she basically said “No. This is a book about WIZARDS. If that’s not a fantasy novel, what is? You need to accept the fact that you reacted well to a fantasy novel, instead of classifying everything you think is good as ‘non-fantasy’.”

      Also, I don’t think there IS anything wrong with being interested in the fantastic for its own sake. You can go on about ‘important human themes’ all you want, but frankly…I expect solid writing and characterization and thoughtful statements from any book I read. It sort of goes without saying, at least for me. When I read a fantasy book, I expect all that PLUS a well-thought-out, engaging, and truly ‘fantastic’ fantasy element. Anyone who doesn’t think that imagining the fantastic is important probably doesn’t have any business writing fantasy ^^; at least in my opinion.

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