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.

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I bet you are anticipating

I bet you are anticipating this, but I have to disagree with you on Novik, but not for the reason you think. I think His Majesty's Dragon is fantasy literature - although I haven't read the other novels in her series so they could devolve into pulp. You also may have missed a major theme that was important and spoke to me directly because you haven't had the opportunity to enjoy it yourself. That would be the notion of parenthood.

You say that none of the characters changed, but I'd argue that the main character, William Laurence went through profound changes. Not just in his social life or career, but how he viewed the world as a whole and how he felt about dragons, Temeraire in particular.

Emily, who is almost done with this book, and I have already discussed how Laurence's changes are almost a perfect mirror for what a new parent goes through and how the act of becoming a parent changes a person in ways they'd never guess or even understand before actually being a parent. What's even more excellent and rare is that the parent in question is a single father. A character concept that is virtually unheard of in any literature.

Novik could've just written a technically superb, in-depth and ultimately boring novel about an actual single father living in some real American city with real American problems and I'd have applauded her for being the next Great American Novel Masturbatory Aid (Please, won't someone poleaxe this damn concept - and do in magical 'realism' at the same time.). But she instead chose to set this story of parenthood in a time that she obviously loves, and definitely knows, and a place where the single father can raise a young child that just happens to be a dragon (sometimes I thought that maybe the dragons were an example of autistic children). Which not only ended up being technically superb (her dialogue and prose were superb for this genre), but also hell of a lot of fun to read. Plus, unlike Card, Lewis, and Pullman she didn't have to preach at us to get her point across.

P.S. I'd LOVE to be able to

P.S. I'd LOVE to be able to submit this comment on LJ...but if not I'll just post it later to my own journal. :)

Parenthood is more of a motif

Parenthood is more of a motif than a theme, though -- Novik does not seem to have any thesis about it; she just mines it for compelling and familiar character notes. There is no real question about the nature of parenthood, for instance -- unless you are counting the "treat the dragons with respect" thing that was numbly transparent from the first moment Temeraire was on stage.

LJ is for wimps and Russians!

LJ is for wimps and Russians!

It's not so much the nature

It's not so much the nature of parenthood, but the transformative power of parenthood, and the responsibilities it brings to a person. Look at the other dragon that is mistreated in the book. Laurence intervened as much as he could, but that dragon's captain neglected and abused the dragon and eventually felt threatened by Laurence because the little dragon liked Laurence more than his own captain.

She was holding up a sign showing how one should treat their children. She uses Laurence and Temeraire as her ideal models. Her entire thesis was to be an attentive parent that cares about the important aspects of your child's well-being (physically, mentally, and socially), but that you have to find a balance between too much and too little attention. She noted that the dragons had some time to go off and work things out amongst themselves. You can't be too over protective, as Laurence wants to do several times, and you can't be neglectful either. Both of which are patterns that from my position as a parent make up the massive bulk of parenting models - which is troubling.

She doesn't use a heavy hand in her parenting thesis, but it's definitely there. We could even talk about it from the non-dragon perspective and how Laurence interacts with his own family. He obviously had some bad patches with his father, and while his mother really cares about him, she is too frightened to stand up to her husband and straighten him out. Which, for those times, would have been almost unheard of if she had even wanted too what with the property laws and whatnot. And then she goes and turns it on it's head with the female dragon captain that Laurence takes up with and her almost free market approach to the raising of her daughter.

I'm going to be reading the second book soon, and we'll see what she does there, but I really enjoyed this book not just for the excellent dialogue, the adventure, and the realistic fantasy, but for her views on parenting.

P.S. Here's a question I have for you. In the Mars Series (Red, Green, Blue) by KSR did you think he really addressed sexuality and sexual orientation as a theme in his novels or was it more of a motif? It might be that our views on what is thematically important vs. motif is different vs. what the actual material presents.

P.P.S. Plus, you probably hold to some whacked out Literary Criticism theory that only crazy OC people believe in so we'll never agree.

/nuthin' but love

Btw, what are all the cool

Btw, what are all the cool kids doing if not LJ?

I wrote a very long piece

I wrote a very long piece about phatic communication, why you are wrong about what Martin is doing with the "clever back pets", but right about the end meaning of the work at the same time, and compared Pope, Martin, and Harold Bloom in a brilliant analysis.

Then your fucking blog ate it because I hadn't put in me email. Fuck you and fuck your blog.

Anyway, I'll just say this -- I thought the Martin books were pulp, but fun pulp for the first couple. I've tried three times to read the newest book (the fourth, right?) and I can't. I just can't. My attention for pulp can't last that long.

Brand, that last books sucks

Brand, that last books sucks cause he picked all the boring characters to write about... Except for Aria. If you get the gumption to rewrite that comment, I'm all eyes.

Josh, could you post and exhaustive list of fantasy/SciFi literature somewhere that is easily accessible to, well, me! You know, cause some of us ain't not as educated.

Thanks, alex

My only objection to your

My only objection to your post is that you include the word "fantasy" as if it made a difference whether the setting was fantastic or not. Literature is literature and pulp is pulp regardless of the setting. I'm glad to see that some of the ghettoization that kept fantastic fiction from being considered literary is now fading.

In response to Brand: Also

In response to Brand:

Also Martin is an asshat who introduces ten billion extra characters and tries to make you care for them in a shallow way so he can kill them off and pluck at your heart strings. He's a fucking douche and I hates him and his dirty hobbittess. I hates him forevers. =P

Carl, while you are right and

Carl, while you are right and Sturgeon's Law applies to all books, I do think the aren't-you-so-clever thing is more or less endemic to fantasy and science fiction. (Mysteries are a curious exception, in that their intent is for the reader to try and figure things out before they're explained.)

Brand, I'd love to hear why Martin isn't cynically manipulating his readers, if you have time to reconstruct the post. ;)

I'd like to toss Jonathan

I'd like to toss Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke into this discussion. It sounds very similar to His Majesty’s Dragon in that it's historical fiction + magic (the same war, even!) but in this telling magic is a lost art that is being uncovered by the titular characters. I'm going to classify it as "good pulp" at the very least, but I'm going to pull for it being "literature" because it delves into the ways that magic seems at first glance to solve a lot of problems and present an easy way out, but really turns out to be just another way to complicate matters. You spend the book questioning (with the major characters on opposite sides) what the limits are, where the lines should be drawn, while being pulled forward by a compelling plot about what limits have already been crossed, and what to do about it.

Dammit, now I'm wanting to

Dammit, now I'm wanting to read that tome of a novel again... =P

You should have just read it

You should have just read it the first time I told you that it was awesome. ;)

I actually thought about

I actually thought about comparing HMD to JS&MN. The only real difference between the two was the length, and while JS&MN could have been broken down into a trilogy of books, HMD was written as a series from the start.

I just finished reading the second book, btw, and it was excellent. The story is about Tremeraire and Laurence traveling to China at the bequest of the Chinese Emperor. It deals with the nature of slavery and how people are enslaved in different ways (physically, socially, mentally, etc.). She also works in how difficult it is for different cultures to interact successfully.

Novik's Empire of Ivory on

Novik's Empire of Ivory on the other hand is just the story of how the presence of dragons could change the face of sub-Saharan Africa in the early 19th century. Nothing important, not really.

The fact it introduces a future threat to European civilization when everybody's fixated on Bonaparte makes no never mind. :)

Two other authors deal with

Two other authors deal with other matters.

In Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy he explores the nature of hero, legend, prophecy, and what kind of prick a sociopathic immortal wizard can be. You get to see how the sausage got made, and it's not pretty.

Karen Miller's Godspeaker is another story. One about how a girl born of hate and poverty becomes the voice of her god, and her impact upon her world.

If you want pulpy writing with your high falutin' ideas, then Thomas Harlan's Oath of Empire is for you. Seventh century Western Roman prince versus the Prophet Mohammed in a re-telling (metaphysically speaking) of the origins of (SPOILER WARNING!) Sauron (Prince Maxian) and Gandalf (Mohammed)

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