Alejandro recently emailed me:
When we first met you expressed a disdain for fantasy novels. I told you about how "A Game of Thrones" is good and different. You said, and I quote, "No." Okay, please express to me what it is that you dislike about the fantasy literary genre, and why.
So my problem with the "fantasy literary genre" is that it's not especially, well, literary. While there are certainly exceptions, the vast, vast swaths of "fantasy literature" are more accurately described as fantasy pulps. What's the difference between literature and pulps?
Literature is created out of a desire for artistic expression, commentary on life, and contributing to humanity's understanding of itself. It's part of a giant, centuries-spanning dialogue that informs our identity as a species. Yeah, this is all high-minded, but really, it boils down to this: if the author sat down and wrote something they thought was important and worth others' time, it's literature.
The pulps, by contrast, are written purely for your entertainment. The author sat down and tried to figure out what you would like, and then tried her level best to serve you exactly that on a silver platter. There's no attempt to communicate there, nothing that the author thinks is important. The book or short story or whatever is purely intended to allow you to spend time enjoyably. It's fluff.
What's so bad about the pulps, then? Aren't they just innocuous entertainment? There are two answers to this. First, yes: that's exactly what they are, and there is nothing wrong about that — there's also nothing really laudable about it, either. Secondly, however, there is a very large difference between participating in a dialogue through the written word and consuming a product designed to make you feel good. They are, really, fundamentally, completely different things that share superficial similarities. It's all just reading, right? Wrong. When you read literature, you are a participant; when you read pulps, you are a consumer. An example is probably in order.
When you read Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, there's a passage in which a young monk is dazzled by the sacred architecture of a monastery he is visiting, and he itemizes how the numbers of sides or number of towers and so on betray hidden meanings: One steeple for the monotheistic god, two doors for the two testaments of the bible, three towers for the Holy Trinity, four walls for the four books of the gospel, and so on. The thing is, he goes from one to twelve, and has a special, arcane meaning for each number... which means it doesn't really matter how many sides the building has; however many sides it does have, it will "mean" something. Eco is showing the reader that meaning is as much a product of the person who interprets a work as it is in the person who created the work. As you read Name of the Rose, Eco is talking to you, telling you that you are creating the story as much as he is. You can agree, you can disagree, whatever, but you're a participant whichever you do.
When you read George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, you have a very different reading experience. Within the first page or so, you are assaulted with strange words and concepts, none of which are really explained. It's been a while since I read it, but one example I remember is when a character "waits three candlewidths" or something similarly arcane. This is thrust at you without context, but if you are the sort of reader Martin expects you to be — adolescent, introspective, considering yourself to be a little smarter than most of your peers, and versed in medieval and fantasy tropes — you will figure out "for yourself" that the culture the character comes from marks time by the melting down of candles. And you can give yourself a little pat on the back for proving to yourself that you really are a smart fellow. Which is exactly what Martin wants you to do, and is what he planned for your reading experience when he wrote that. You're his puppet. Now, certainly there is always some expectation on the part of the author as to the reading experience of the reader, but Martin is so cynical in his use and abuse of this exchange that I nearly stopped reading Thrones about twenty pages in because I was sick to death of these little nuggets. It was like Martin was patting my head every half-page and telling me how clever I was. I was supposed to be a consumer, and just sit back and enjoy the experience of being so damned clever. Of course, that experience was completely artificial, so how clever was I, really? Not very.
Now, there are more honest fantasy novels out there — Martin is a hoary old warhorse of the fantasy genre, and knows it a bit too well — and in these honest fantasy novels, you have an author who has thought of something that is really cool and wants to share it with you. I just finished reading His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik, and this is a good example of this. In super-short-form, Novik thought it would be really cool to pair Horatio Hornblower tallships with dragons of mythology. So you have the British fighting off Napoleon with ships of the line in the channel and dragon-riding aviators above. All of this is a pretty entertaining read, but at the end of the day, Novik has not communicated anything to me outside of, "Hey, isn't this really cool?" and I as the reader really have no part in any dialogue. There is no thesis to share, there's just her opinion on the cool-factor of dragons with Napoleonic manners. No characters grow or change, no decisive action is taken regarding any issue, in short nothing happens thematically.
Now, after all of that, answer #1 to "what's wrong with pulps?" still holds true. Nothing — it's mere entertainment, nothing more, and can even be implemented well and with flair. There is such a thing as good pulp (of which His Majesty's Dragon is a good example), but it is a wholly different thing than literature. The conflation of the two ("Oh, you liked Breakfast of Champions? You know what is also a really good book? Pelican Brief!") does tend to drive me batty.
However, there is also pulp like Martin's: manipulative, cynical, mercenary, pulp that makes me just another dumb geek. If that wasn't enough of an insult on its own, this sort of bad pulp works by coopting the tropes of actual literature that preceded it: The Chronicles of Narnia, I, Robot, The Wizard of Earthsea, Frankenstein, and so on. Books that helped establish the fantasy and science fiction genre by telling stories that were worth reading, not because they killed time in an enjoyable fashion, but because when you read them, you got participate in the dialogue that formed them. Which makes this stuff cheap knock-offs produced in the hopes that you won't notice the difference.
So my problem with fantasy literature? With a few exceptions, it's either just fluff, or it's downright insulting.