To prepare for the upcoming World Fantasy Convention, Damien Walter recently penned an article on modern Fantasy in which he noted that the genre has changed since Tolkien was writing (nearly 60 years ago).
While exploring this utterly unremarkable idea Walter managed to make a few comments which momentarily swept across the plains of social media, being widely condemned. I suspect some of that criticism was born of a defensive reflex ingrained into sci-fi/fantasy readers since high school and reinforced by those who continue to dismiss or demean genre fiction. In other cases the criticism seemed to me to be a genuine misreading, or misunderstanding, of Walter’s point. I suspect he sees his article as being a largely sympathetic treatment of Fantasy and its audience. This is not how it was received, I think for two reasons.
1. The changing nature of the battle(s) between good and evil.
Walter says “It would be very easy to assume those books are just generic copies of The Lord of the Rings, cashing in on the apparently endless thirst for Tolkienesque fantasy…” and though he goes on to suggest that there is more to the genre now than such an assumption would allow, the damage is done.
Why is that the ‘easy’ assumption to make?
Do we assume of any other genre that it is merely reproducing the works of a seminal author half-a-century after that author’s success?
Do we assume modern Sci-Fi is just repeated re-workings of Asimov? That modern crime is merely derivative copies of Agatha Christie?
For Walter to make that assumption so easily, or even to acknowledge that others will, reinforces the negative perception of Fantasy that so many modern Fantasy writers have worked so hard to change. This attitude recurs in the following paragraph, where in celebrating Vance, Leiber, Moorcock and Gemmell, Walter says that their “remarkable novels… belie their origins in pulp fiction.” Here then is that condescending arrogance that ruffles the feathers of so many readers who are sick of being told that their preferred reading is somehow lesser, that Fantasy is (ironically) ‘unremarkable’.
Referring then to the successful authors of modern Fantasy (Abercrombie, Lawrence, Brent Weeks) he uses that lazy and ill-defined pejorative Grimdark. I have discussed the term before, as have others more qualified to comment than myself.
Walter claims that “while it claims greater moral complexity, grimdark fantasy frequently offers a disappointingly one-dimensional portrayal of the battle between good and evil, where evil usually wins because it is the only game in town.”
What Walter fails to recognise is that the characters and worlds of Abercrombie and Lawrence (I haven’t read Weeks, yet) are far from mono-dimensional. Even to make that suggestion calls into doubt his knowledge of the authors he has named.
He then goes on to misdiagnose how the treatment of concepts of good and evil has changed.
Tolkien had a simple view of good and evil. A good race, or rather an alliance of good (white) races…
have to defend their homes from an encroaching menace: the evil (dark) races.
By this world-view the enemy is utterly defeated when the leader is defeated. The battle between good and evil is fought between an army of each, with battle lines drawn, to the death. This is perhaps a view to be expected from a man who had experienced trench warfare; who had returned from the hell of chemical weapons to the bucolic surrounds of English pastoralism; who had seen all the power of industry turned to the destructive effort of war, and thus rejected industry as being itself destructive.
How could we, the modern readers, share this view? We are now more than a decade into the War on Terror. We have witnessed the fall of Sadaam, the killing of Bin Laden, Gaddafi murdered in a ditch by revolutionaries. We have seen Egypt fall and rise and fall again. Seen tyrants overthrown and replaced by corruption or chaos, have seen the empires of democracy spying on their own citizens. I cannot see a world in which good gathers its (white) people to its cause to defeat the encroaching evil (black) people. But that doesn’t mean that good and evil no longer battle.
Modern Fantasy does not show a world where evil is the ‘only game in town’. It shows a world in which the battle between good and evil takes place not between people, but within. Each character has good and evil within them, and each must allow that battle to be fought. In some evil wins, but not in all. Interestingly, the protagonists are seen by others as evil, perhaps even acknowledge that evil in themselves, but wish they could be better. The characters we hope to see succeed, Logan, Glokta, Shy, and yes even Jorg and Monza, (and why not throw Jaime Lannister in for good measure?) believe themselves to bad, but hope that they can be better. (For Jorg that hope comes late, and slow, and even as it comes he resists it – because he’s not one to be pushed – but it is there).
Sometimes these characters don’t achieve ‘goodness’; sometimes they are trapped by circumstance or history or any number of other forces, just as some good characters are corrupted, unable to maintain their goodness in the face of circumstance.
I want Glokta to succeed because I want for him the same thing he wants for himself, it’s just that he has given up on achieving it, while I hold hope. I want Logen to find peace because I want to believe that men can redeem themselves of past misdeeds, especially when those misdeeds weren’t entirely voluntary. I want Jorg to be a better person, because he’s not a very good person.
This isn’t to say that the battle between good and evil doesn’t take place. Many such battles are taking place, fought by independent splinter cells and sleeper agents, the battle-lines ill-defined and constantly shifting.
Which brings us to…
2. Fantasy is not just for boys.
It’s frustrating that this even needs to be said, but for Walter the success of evil he believes defines Modern Fantasy “says more about the psyche of the young male readers and writers who dominate grimdark fantasy than anything else.”
This is just so wrong-headed that I can’t even bring myself to invest much energy in the debate.
On Goodreads, the 5 star reviews for ‘The Blade Itself‘ include reviews from Maria, Kat, Inara, Annie, Faye, Sara and many other female readers. Likewise for ‘Prince of Thorns‘ we find Amanda, Rose, Natalie, Georgia, in the top dozen or so.
I could go on, but really – why bother.
As to only young men writing Modern Fantasy…
Ursula LeGuin, Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Marion Ziommer Bradley, Janny Wurts, Anne McCaffery… of course JK Rowling. These authors aren’t mentioned as Grimdark, but I wonder if that’s because of how subjectively applied is the label. I do know that from my own experience in Australia I have met many talented women writing Fantasy and Spec-Fic. I struggle to believe that they are the exception.