Wednesday, 16 February 2011

"Bankrupt Nihilism's" running riot

Thunder in the black skies beating down the rain,
Thunder in the black cliffs, looming o'er the main,
Thunder on the black sea and thunder in my brain...
- "Red Thunder," Robert E. Howard

Crom, I have a thrice-murrained headache, my nose is a veritable Pheidippes, and perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, but Leo's "Bankrupt Nihilism" post is all over the internet.  While there are plenty who agree with Leo's point, there are a lot of people with a dissenting opinion.  That's fine, of course, but a couple of them seem to disagree based on a misinterpretation of Leo's post.



Take this post from Magemanda.  Here, she and other commentators seem to be of the opinion that Leo is decrying all modern fantasy as being "bankrupt nihilism," and thus offer their examples of female authors who do not conform to this archetype - alleging that Leo was purposefully leaving them out, so he could further his "all modern fantasy is bankrupt nihilism" position.  All well and good... except nowhere in Leo's article did I get the impression that he was making such a sweeping generalization.  All he was talking about was the trend for bankrupt nihilism, that the likes of Erikson, Abercrombie, Martin and Morgan are becoming popular, not that all fantasy was bankrupt nihilism, no exceptions.  Thus I agree with both Leo and Magemanda, despite Magemanda thinking she's disagreeing with Leo.

Joe Abercrombie, one of the authors Leo decries, has written a response.  As with Magemanda, Abercrombie seems to completely miss the point - that Leo wants all fantasy to be mere derivatives of Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien, which is as patently absurd as it is obfuscating.  What Leo wants is for fantasy to have the sort of mythic undercurrent and multi-layered philosophical resonance both authors excel at to permeate fantasy, not that we should have legions of Hyborian and Middle-earth clones cluttering up the literary landscape.  He just wants fantasy to be about more than just soap opera or historiography.  And, of course, the fact that Joe thinks Leo's idea of LotR ending with Hobbits succumbing to cancer, Aragorn the puppet, and maniacal Gandalf sounds "kind of interesting" says it all, for me.

Also, I note that Abercrombie disagrees with Leo "lumping Tolkien and Howard together," as if he's saying they're one and the same.  Again, Leo was saying both Tolkien and Howard were equally influential and important to the fantasy genre, not that they were the same kinds of writers.  Ferchrissakes!  So Abercrombie sets out to show how Howard and Tolkien are different, in that Howard wrote in the short-form, Tolkien long (fair enough), that Howard was about character and Tolkien about the world (arguable, but fair enough).  But riddle me this: where in Leo's article does it even imply otherwise?  In fact, I'd say the fact that Howard and Tolkien are so different in stylistic approach strengthens his argument.

James VanderMeer also comments, and actually claims that Howard is the originator of "the very gritty fantasy Grin hates." Yes, except no, considering Leo explains exactly why Howard isn't the originator of this sort of thing, really.  He also notes the lack of mention of female fantasists - perhaps because said female fantasists aren't writing the sort of stuff Leo's criticizing, or if they are, they're either not particularly offensive examples, or just not very good.

In all the posts, are also a couple of comments from people who come to the mystifying conclusion that Leo hasn't read any Robert E. Howard.  All I can conclude from such a state of affairs is that these people either misread Leo's argument, or have misread Howard himself.  Some would say "just because Leo's a Howard scholar doesn't mean he hasn't misread Howard" is true.  However, the fact that Leo is a widely regarded and highly considered Howard scholar indicates that if he's misreading Howard, then there are a hell of a lot of other Howard scholars misreading him too.  Occam's razor, then, suggests that rather than people who have studied Howard all their lives and written award-winning journals on the author being somehow mistaken, it is the critics who are.  But hey, that's just my take on it.

Still, some people get it.  John C. Wright, whom I've previously criticized over his (since recanted) views on Howard, seems to have a grasp of what Leo's talking about.  Regular Lost Soul Lagomorph Rex notes the political factor making things even more difficult, as well as the usual "REH the sexist/racist/taxidermist" nonsense rearing its ugly head.  The fact that Leo's argument involves a lot of right-wing tangents certainly might make things difficult for left-wing readers.  Still, even those with such leanings should be able to look beyond the politics to the relevant argument within (like Lagomorph and Kike have).  I've come across some articles on Howard that have politics and ethics I disagree with, even some I find reprehensible, but it would be churlish and disingenuous for me to reject their arguments based on personal politics. My disagreement, if any, arise purely based on my interpretation of the material itself, not because the writer is an atheist/theist/right-wing/left-wing/man/woman/whatever.

But that's politics for you, and exactly why I rarely talk about them on the blog or elsewhere: two often it descends into yawping monkeys flinging unspeakable missiles in each other's general direction, which is where intelligent debate dies.  No doubt Leo's revelling in the controversy, because it's doing exactly what I believe he wants: stirring up debate, reconsideration of literature, and confronting criticism.  Better than resting on your laurels, I guess.

20 comments:

  1. What ya gonna do...when Leo Grin and the Bankrupt Nihilism run wild on YOU?!

    "No doubt Leo's revelling in the controversy, because it's doing exactly what I believe he wants: stirring up debate, reconsideration of literature, and confronting criticism. Better than resting on your laurels, I guess."

    I think this is the smartest observation made among all the controversy.

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  2. Well, despite his bewailing of fantasy writer's whose sole aim is to shock and horrify rather then edify, Leo seems to have done his level best to do the same. The article is a virtual cat amongst the pigeons, particularly when he characterizes modern fantasy writers as kids farting and giggling in class.

    While I cannot say that I disagree with Leo's points (in fact I have to agree with most of his article) he has made his point in a deliberately insulting manner, which makes him just as guilty as the fantasy authors he decries of choosing the visceral reaction over the considered literary discussion.

    Mind you, that's life in the blogosphere. You want hits on your site? Be outrageous and insulting. Go for the knee-jerk reaction (which is likely responsible for the misinterpretation. When you hit someone's "hot button" all sorts of crazy stuff tends to spew out).

    Mission accomplished, Leo.

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  3. I'm pretty sure Leo can made the same point without including some nasty political issues.

    As I said: the problem here is disrespect to the "legendary" creation. This is something I feel since a couple of years. And something that, unfortunately, EVERYONE is forgetting in this debate.

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  4. What ya gonna do...when Leo Grin and the Bankrupt Nihilism run wild on YOU?!

    Well, ya know something Mean Gene, "God created the Heavens, he created the Earth! He created all the little Hulkamaniacs! Then, he created a set of 24-inch pythons, brother!

    Well, despite his bewailing of fantasy writer's whose sole aim is to shock and horrify rather then edify, Leo seems to have done his level best to do the same. The article is a virtual cat amongst the pigeons, particularly when he characterizes modern fantasy writers as kids farting and giggling in class.

    While I cannot say that I disagree with Leo's points (in fact I have to agree with most of his article) he has made his point in a deliberately insulting manner, which makes him just as guilty as the fantasy authors he decries of choosing the visceral reaction over the considered literary discussion.

    Mind you, that's life in the blogosphere. You want hits on your site? Be outrageous and insulting. Go for the knee-jerk reaction (which is likely responsible for the misinterpretation. When you hit someone's "hot button" all sorts of crazy stuff tends to spew out).

    Mission accomplished, Leo.


    I definitely think that was Leo's intention, to be confrontational and provocative. I don't agree with it, but that's Leo's style. I'd like to think that any time I'm belligerent, it's because it's in response to something deserving of such disdain. I may dislike Martin's work - at least the little I've read outside Fevre Dream - but I don't hate it. I reserve hate for things which are not only not to my personal taste, but actively poisonous and offensive to me. Perhaps that's how Leo truly feels about this sort of fantasy.

    I'm pretty sure Leo can made the same point without including some nasty political issues.

    Since Leo's a staunch conservative, and this was posted on a staunch conservative website, I doubt it would. Leo was great at leaving the politics out of The Cimmerian precisely because of this, but I think the nature of Big Hollywood means that discussion of political issues are either required, or simply inevitable. A shame, because not only has it coloured the essay for those not sharing Leo's beliefs, but it's added undeserved fuel to the anti-Howard/Tolkien fire.

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  5. "Well, ya know something Mean Gene, "God created the Heavens, he created the Earth! He created all the little Hulkamaniacs! Then, he created a set of 24-inch pythons, brother!"

    You want to be the man, you gotta Beat the man! Wooooooooooo!

    Sorry. Couldn't resist.

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  6. Some interesting points- although you've been given some easy targets. Why on earth do some people have to turn every disagreement into a "gender issue", for example?

    Abercrombie's response however I thought was great - extremely well written and pitched just right. I found myself experiencing his bemusement. Much as I share Leo's dislike of lengthy novels, I shall be seeking Abercrombie's work out on the strength of his showing in this little fracas that has been foist upon him. It has done him no harm at all - quite the opposite.

    I have a problem with your fine summation of Leo's argument in that the phrase "spiritual resonance" has next to no meaning for me. This more or less sums up my difficulties with what he is saying. He wants his favoured type of fiction to be treated with a kind of Quranic reverence, and sees Abercrombie and Co as Rushdieite infidels besmirching the holy texts.

    At one point Leo even pauses in his tirade to admit begrudging that "people have every right to publish such books". Why should that even be in question? He enjoys the benefits of living in a democracy that people have shed their lifeblood for. Perhaps I'm over-sensitive, but I find comments like that have disturbing overtones.

    I'm afraid I can't see the points Leo is trying to score against those dastardly "Liberals" as unfortunate "tangents" to his central argument. I think they are in themselves the very thrust and purpose of the piece. Leo's ideas about the importance and vulnerability of myth and spirituality are quite plainly inseparable from his political beliefs.

    Your depiction of the simian depths to which political discussions on the web generally descend is spot-on. This is the main reason why I don't want to see two of my favourite writers harnessed to anyone's sectarian hobby horse. You are certainly justified in fearing it will fuel the fire of the "antis".

    Leo's article is pretty much in accord with Michael Moorcock's notorious "Epic Pooh" in seeking to associate Tolkien with right-wing religious small-mindedness. How many of us have had to spend time in discussions debunking that particular myth? We all know that Tolkien is deeper and more nuanced than his critics would like to admit.

    As I pointed out on conan.com, considering REH's views on "Barbarism vs. Civilisation" and the tragic event of his death, it goes beyond irony to see him lined up as a bulwark against the "decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing". I mean really, you'd need a sick sense of humour to make this stuff up.

    I agree that Leo has in the past made an outstanding contribution to Howard studies. In this instance, however, I just don't get it. And, to be honest with you, I don't even want to.

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  7. You want to be the man, you gotta Beat the man! Wooooooooooo!

    Sorry. Couldn't resist.


    Oh, you!

    Some interesting points- although you've been given some easy targets. Why on earth do some people have to turn every disagreement into a "gender issue", for example?

    True enough.

    Abercrombie's response however I thought was great - extremely well written and pitched just right. I found myself experiencing his bemusement. Much as I share Leo's dislike of lengthy novels, I shall be seeking Abercrombie's work out on the strength of his showing in this little fracas that has been foist upon him. It has done him no harm at all - quite the opposite.

    Oh, I don't disagree on that score, no: I just disagree with some of his criticisms. Joe comes across as a distinctly likeable and easygoing chap. I'd already wanted to seek out his work following Steve Tompkins' commendations.

    I have a problem with your fine summation of Leo's argument in that the phrase "spiritual resonance" has next to no meaning for me. This more or less sums up my difficulties with what he is saying. He wants his favoured type of fiction to be treated with a kind of Quranic reverence, and sees Abercrombie and Co as Rushdieite infidels besmirching the holy texts.

    Chalk that up to a poor choice of words: by "spiritual resonance" I mean "in the spirit of," not in the case of spirituality. Given the vigorously agnostic world of Howard's work, "spiritual resonance" in the second sense might not exactly work. In fact, since I often criticize the very idea of "in the spirit of" being a nebulous and worthless rejoinder, I should probably redact it entirely, in favour of another analogy.

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  8. I'm afraid I can't see the points Leo is trying to score against those dastardly "Liberals" as unfortunate "tangents" to his central argument. I think they are in themselves the very thrust and purpose of the piece. Leo's ideas about the importance and vulnerability of myth and spirituality are quite plainly inseparable from his political beliefs.

    Perhaps it's because you yourself are quite politically active and sensitive to such comments/tactics that you can perceive these things better than myself. I viewed them as tangents, you as the main point, with the fantasy discussion secondary. You may well be right. I don't know. (Now you see why I stay out of politics.)

    Your depiction of the simian depths to which political discussions on the web generally descend is spot-on. This is the main reason why I don't want to see two of my favourite writers harnessed to anyone's sectarian hobby horse.

    It's a bit heartbreaking, really. There are plenty of ways to agree or disagree on Howard without bringing politics into it.

    I agree that Leo has in the past made an outstanding contribution to Howard studies. In this instance, however, I just don't get it. And, to be honest with you, I don't even want to.

    I'd like to think my lack of political sensibility means I can somehow perceive some point invisible to the more politically minded, or whether I'm reading into things.

    What I got from the article was criticism of the grim-n-gritty nihilistic as being no more realistic than the twee, genteel fantasy lands of fat fantasy, and that in the best fantasy works, there is room for both black-and-white, and shades of grey. Howard and Tolkien had great heroes and villains without moral absolutism, and he had shades of grey without moral relativism. Both depicted war as terrible, bloody and violent, but both also showed that even in the most tragic and unholy of circumstances, there is room for heroism and hope. Both know that people can be uncommonly good and unspeakably evil, and equally, both know that people can be neither, both, or somewhere in between. This is what distinguishes them from "fat fantasy" and "bankrupt nihilism": not that they're black/white or shades-of-grey, but that they're both.

    That's what I got from Leo's article, and I think it's worth getting: if there's more, it's lost on me, and if it's what you say, that's probably for the better.

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  9. I think the one thing, the most glaring omision that Grin made.. was he forgot to Mention KJ Parker.. who's main characters easily make even the most jaded and cynical of Abercrombies out to be kitten fondling christmas ornament setters..

    for christs sake she has a character butcher his brothers child and turn him into a bow and then present it as a gift to the dead kids father! Or engineer a massive war of genocidal proportions in order to get back at your cheating wife.. her characters have no scope at all of what is a reasonable response to not getting their own way..

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  10. kitten fondling christmas ornament setters..

    Normally I have an extremely high tolerance for cute imagery, but this has penetrated even my cuddle-filters. Awwwwww.

    I haven't had the pleasure of reading Parker's work, but that sounds pretty hyperbolic, and certainly puts my "maybe he doesn't mention girls because they don't write that" argument out the window!

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  12. When I see someone as knowledgeable as Leo on the Texan using Robert E. Howard as a symbol of defense against “decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing,” when he perfectly knows that REH had dim views of civilization, then I understand why some people who don't know his credentials like us are saying that he doesn't get REH. Because that sentence was just preposterous.

    To suggest that the new 'scatologic' trend in Anglophone S&S was created by bad people with the intention of attacking all good values...what was Leo thinking? "Us vs Them"? Leo’s political agenda must have obfuscated his mind.

    When he is pretending that modern fantasy authors are bad (ie: leftist and godless) people whose intent is to subdue Western civilization, it becomes absurd, and his whole piece is discredited for the 'casual' reader (his readership at that website is probably expecting such kind of rants). Painting REH as a defender of 'conservative' values? Two-Gun-Bob was a man who supported Roosevelt and the New Deal.

    My opinion is quite simple: bringing up politics into fandom or literary criticism is wrong, for many reasons. It can only lead to needless fights, and it might be very counterproductive. That's precisely why I don't want to share my political or religious beliefs in any text, blog or forum related to REH.

    Thus said, I agree with the gist of Leo's piece: iconoclasm's for iconoclasm sake is facile and idiotic. A shame that the end of his piece degenerated into politics and heavy moralizing.

    Fortunately, TC's archives are still online. Leo has written several great pieces on Howard which are still accessible. Deuce wrote "people should be judged by their best works" on the forum: I agree. This one should better be forgotten.

    Miguel

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  13. It's fine to write stories that take a dim view of civilization, but in the end there would be no written word, and therefore no writers/readers without civilization.

    REH had to have known this.

    If Conan's adventures all took place in the wilds, would they have been as interesting? I don't think so. There is usually at least some backdrop of civilization, decayed or not. Mythology is indicative of some form of civilization. So is the presence of weaponry beyond stone tools. Someone is making complex materials, someone is acquiring them.

    A world void of civilization is the ultimate hard-core fantasy, and far less appealing to readers. You've basically got cave men/women vs. other tribes, or vs. animals and elements, at that point.

    For a civilization to function, there have to some morals, or in the end you go the way of the Romans.

    Leo Grin, it seems to me, is making the point that those writers who loathe their own civilization's morals produce books that reflect that way of thinking.

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  14. John, a civilization without any morals is doomed. That's stating the obvious.

    But it seems to me that you have to embrace all of Leo's political ideology to dare to suggest that these authors are devoid of morals. Because if you didn't share all of Leo's beliefs, I don't think that you would solemnly affirm that those writers "loathe their civilization's morals." What a judgment! It's your point ouf view.
    Depending of their morals/religion/political beliefs, other might say that if art in Western civilizations (and democraties) couldn't be "provocative," it wouldn't be art.

    When the great historical fiction novel "Salammb├┤" was published, it was dismissed and derided by some "moralists." Too much gore, blood, massacres, victims thrown alive in braziers... Damn, a lot of critics were moralists who sounded like Leo.
    Today, anyone able to read French knows that Flaubert is one of the greatest writers and poets ever.

    On the other hand, I'm not suggesting that silly posing necessarily means art. I'm not familiar with all of the writers mentioned by Leo. I've read one book by Abercrombie, which had been recommended by Tompkins on The Cimmerian, and I thought that it was good -not comparable to the best of REH's or KEW's yarns, but well-crafted. I don't know yet if there's a great creator among those new fantasy authors. I might have to read Stover (or more Abercrombie) to see by myself if the books are as bad as what Leo thinks.

    Please keep in mind that I share a lot of Leo's artistic tastes. Hey, we're among the few purists who think that despite all of its faults toward REH, CtB is still a great cinema movie. I don't even think that it's worth the effort to read Stover, when I still have other good stuff on my 'to-read' list.
    I was among those who sneered when Koons was allowed to expose his creations in Versailles. A French University professor said then that since our American friends were contributing to the palace"s restoration, we could let them show their "trash" there (for French readers, he used the word "saloperies"). I agreed, but tastes differ. And the fact that I dislike his work doesn't mean that I would arrogantly assert that Koons is "devoid of morals." It would be very presomptuous.

    Aesthetic taste=morality? Anyone with half a brain should realize that it's nonsensical.

    I profoundly disliked to see Leo mingling his politics with literary criticism. He mostly avoided such pitfall on The Cimmerian blog.
    I remember only ONE overtly political post on TC, and it was a well-deserved answer to a liberal rant about "Palin and the death of intelligence" by Tompkins.
    John, I was very proud (and I'm still grateful) to have been allowed to blog on Leo's site. I would be glad if he kept his political rants seperate from his REH-related output.

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  15. Mon Dieu, Miguel, I know there's a stereotype regarding that the French are massively sophisticated and erudite in the arts, but you aren't proving that stereotype unfounded!

    I think you've formulated the best rejoinder to Leo's piece out there, not least that you disagree with certain aspects of Leo's argument, but know him well enough to remember that he's no neophyte in the realm of fantasy criticism.

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  16. Miguel,

    Like you, I haven't read a lot of the fantasy authors Leo Grin mentions, but it is true a reader can often -- not always -- glean insights into an author's political / cultural leanings by the works s/he produces.

    You mention Karl Edward Wagner, whose works I greatly admire. I like a good beer but by the accounts I've read, KEW was a heavy-hitter of the booze and drugs. As you know, his most famous character, Kane, is immortal (except by violence) and distinctly immoral. Kill a few virgins to save his girlfriend; kill anybody for that matter to stave off boredom.

    KEW was no killer. I doubt he was immoral. I never read anything declaring his political views per se, though one of his friends relayed that he was fairly Left-leaning in his views.
    From Kane, I've casually deduced that on an individual scale he probably viewed society with a certain amount of apathy. By all accounts, KEW was extremely intelligent and likely had many a battle with boredom; hence a propensity toward the booze and chemicals. My bumbling point is something you doubtless are aware of ... that characters can be -- not always -- extensions of the writer who creates them.

    To leap into the general fiction world, or classic, I enjoy the works of John Steinbeck a great deal. His socialist leanings come through in Grapes of Wrath, and you almost can't blame him during The Depression, but it's there, particularly with the ultra-symbolic ending.

    REH is a little more difficult for me. I'm not an REH scholar, just an admirer. I prefer the Conan stories. At times I detect a racial element but for the most part am not distracted by any political views.

    REH can be discussed on Left or Right leaning blogs, I don't care. I like that he's being discussed, as long as they don't slander. I don't limit someone's right to free speech just because I don't agree with their views.

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  17. I battle with boredom all the time.. but I don't attempt to fend it off with illicit substances.. the very act of acquiring, I would say, is immoral. Even beyond the fact that it is illegal.. who knows what sort of thugs you're funding by purchasing those substances?

    I've no use at all for his Kane character though, every bit as bad as any of the horrors that KJ Parker cooked up to populate her world. I can't argue that he was a good writer.. he just didn't write anything I'd recommend to anyone for them to actually read..

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  18. I thought that R. Scott Bakker posted the most accurate rebuttal, which is that the Grin piece is a descriptive essay wrapped up in normative language.

    Grin doesn't actually argue for or against the value mythic fantasy relative to grittier work, nor make a normative case with respect to flowery versus simple language. He simply states his preference for one, bemoans the presence of the other, and ascribes motivations and backgrounds to the other "side".

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  19. "This realization eliminates, at a stroke, virtually everything written under the banner of fantasy today."

    You say that nowhere in the article do you see a sweeping generalisation, which you use as an argument to say that people are 'missing the point'.

    Well it's right there. 'virtually everything' is very certainly a sweeping generaliation. And yes while that allows for exceptions, it allows for much less than have been pointed out in various blogs and forums.

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  20. (A year late, but that's what blogs are fore)

    I think it's a matter of degree: do the exceptions of modern fantasy eschewing the "bankrupt nihilism" outweigh the exceptions enough for it to be consider? To me, there's a tremendous difference between "virtually all" and "all," and you could argue the particulars.

    Nonetheless, you have a point - however, I don't feel it particularly affects my argument that people are missing the point in regards to what they perceive Leo's praise of LotR/Conan over bankrupt nihilism to be, which is very different from what I think.

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