Postmodern Blasphemies against Myth

Only posting a link!

Here is an essay on the genre of high fantasy and swords and sorcery which I hope will be studied seriously, both now in and in years to come, by all who read, write, and review in the genre.

The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists by Leo Grin. Read it here:

I don’t particularly care for fantasy per se. What I actually cherish is something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old.This realization eliminates, at a stroke, virtually everything written under the banner of fantasy today.

The mere trappings of the genre do nothing for me when wedded to the now-ubiquitous interminable soap-opera plots (a conservative friend of mine once accurately derided “fat fantasy” cycles such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time as “Lord of the Rings 90210”). Nor do they impress me in the least when placed into the hands of writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.

My comment: The examples mentioned (by Joe Abercrombie, Matthew Woodring Stover, Steven Erikson) I have not had the pleasure (or otherwise) of reading, and can make no comment whether the essayist is being fair or unfair in his assessment. However, I did wade through the unsanitary sewage of Mr. Michael Swanwick’s IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER for about half the book, before realizing than Mr. Swanwick was having a joke at my expense, and at the expense of all his readers, and a rather dark and bitter joke at that.

Stated as a ratio, IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER is to honest fairy stories with real magic to them as the movie version of STARSHIP TROOPERS is to that novel of the same name: an elaborate and obsessive long-drawn-out paean of hatred and contempt of a cramped and unlit soul crouched in a fen or cave against the sunny upland glades of some larger and more glorious thing he can neither understand nor adore: a harpy excreting the excess of diseased bowels on festal delicacies her digestion cannot accept, and elfin wines her tongue not savor.

I have met both Mr. Swanwick at science fiction cons and speaking engagements, and worked with Mr. Stover on a non-fiction book to which I was very pleased to be asked to contribute. They seem like fine fellows both of them: I wish them no ill will, but I abhor cynical nihilism and the effect cynical nihilism has on the taste of the readership to whom I hope to sell my work. As a Christian, I am allowed to love the writer and hate the writing.

Mr. Leo Grin in his essay makes clear that he upholds the right of those who adore such degraded things to write and read their chosen poison. He is more generous than I. It is my judgment, shared of many ancients, that there are certain proper emotional reactions and relatins one ought to have, and improper ones one ought not. A child raised to curse and despise his parents, trample the crucifix, burn the flag, abhor kittens and Christmas scenes and motherhood but adore torture porn and satanism and deformity, that child’s tastes are objectively perverse and false-to-facts. He has been trained to spew his mother’s milk and drink venom. Fair to him is foul, and foul is fair. In the same way that to say A is not-A is an offense against logic, to hate the lovely and love the hateful is an offense against aesthetics, a disconnection from reality.

Tolkein’s work was such an unparalleled success, in my opinion, precisely because of the cynical nihilism so popular in Europe between the wars and in America after: in the Twentieth Century all trace of the fantasitic and supernal had been successfully erased from literature. In rebellion, the yonger generation of lovable yet stinking hippies  joined hands with their grandfather’s world of Roman Catholic old-school conservatism, the conservatism of that type that seeks conservation: because both rejected the fundamental falsehood and ugliness of a world both godless, drained of magic, paved, and industrialized. It was an odd and original alliance, as odd an original as Tolkien’s work itself

Now that the supernal has made a come-back, and captured again the popular imagination, the literati (or, to be precise, anti-literati) make inroads into the realm of elfland itself, to erect the smog and graffito of their beloved Mordor.

I propose such poets serve not muses but sirens — whom, so myth feigns, not only lured sailors to destruction, but also one had been angelic beings that challenged the muses to a contest of song, which, losing, they had been plucked of their wings by the muses and flung into the sea.

Such are the souls of those who hate the muses and seek to use the gift of song to ruin song, or who think it wise or daring to efface and degrade the dreams of men into darkness.

Mr. Abercrombie at his own blog takes exception to Mr. Grin’s rhetoric, as is only fair, but for some reason pauses to call me insane (apparently for claiming that there are proper as opposed to improper emotional responses to reality that are not matters of taste).

He pauses to jest that he and Swanwick and Stover are in a vast conspiracy against Western Civilization. Perfectly funny joke, and no less misleading than my own heated rhetoric: But I want the record to reflect that I was not talking about his work, and I had not read it, and do not take Mr. Grin’s assessment of it at face value, and I said so.

I also would like the record to reflect that I said Stover and Swanwick are perfectly nice fellows when I met them (unlike some Harlans I could name). I should have emphasized that while I was put off by IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER, which I assume is the reaction the author sought of me and mine, STATIONS OF THE TIDE is not just good, but great SF, and worth more the one read.

To defend myself against the charge of insanity, allow me to post my latest passport photo. I think this will show, as you look into my calm, thoughtful, nay, soulful eyes, that I am in complete possession of my five senses, or six if we count ESP.

John C. Wright, Perfectly Sane SFF Author


  1. Comment by bibliophile112:

    Am I correct in saying you do not see this condition in The Wheel of Time?
    I don’t.

    Am I also correct in saying (based on an old review of yours, I’ve never read it) you see this in Peake’s Gormenghast series?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      You are correct. Wheel of Time is not cynical or nihilistic, but rather as charming and fresh as a Dungeon and Dragons game, and about as original.

      You are also correct that I see Gormenghast as the monument of cynicism and nihilism, almost admirable in its perfect grotesquerie.

      There are two camps emplaced within the fantasy shelves of the bookstore, and they are armed camps: one the one side is Tolkien and his imitators, and on the other, banners streaming against it, are Peake and his admirers.

      It is to the shame of the Tolkien camp that the imitators are quite imitative, and show very little of the sharp spark of originality that defined the genre, the Tolkienesque wedding or welding of the high matter of the sagas and medieval romances to the quotidian details and character development of a modern realistic novel; but meanwhile the admirers of Peake admire but do not imitate.

      Michael Moorcock writes nothing about huge and empty mansions freighted with hoary and meaningless ritual, but he captures the same mood using entirely original inventions; There are no thinly disguised and cardboard versions of Steerpike or Dr. Prunesquallor, for example, in IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER nor PERDIDO STREET STATION: but the mood and theme are the same as Peake.

      • Comment by bibliophile112:

        I would actually disagree with you about the orginiality of the Wheel of Time series. Yes the paceing is horrible at times, but the world building is excellant, and done by someone with a decent grasp of period warfare.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Disagree as you will, but I did not say Mr. Jordan lacked skill at world building or a grasp of period warfare. I said he was unoriginal. Rand al-Thor, farmboy, is Frodo; Baalzemong (or whatever the name) is Sauron; and so on. It was as formulaic as a Doc Savage novel.

          • Comment by KokoroGnosis:

            You’re forgetting Bene Gesserit… Er, Aes Sedai. And the Fremen… I mean, Aiel.

            • Comment by bibliophile112:

              Apart from vague simularities, you really can’t compare the Wheel of Time and Dune.

              • Comment by KokoroGnosis:

                Apart from the prophesied messianic figure (Which is not a Dune hallmark at all, but a common spec-fic trope, true.) rebelling against the authority of a thoroughly entrenched-in-society female-only group of witches, who uses (what is tantamount to) religion to bring a band of desert-dwelling kickass warrior under his control?

                I’ve not read WoT in many a year so my memory is fuzzy, and to be clear, I loved the first four books or so, but when I read Dune for the first time, halfway through I went, “These are Aes Sedai! And Aiel!”

                I’m also not saying he stole things part and parcel. Or even that writers don’t steal things from each other all the time. But it’s a little more than vague similarities.

  2. Comment by Mary:

    One suspects that this trend may explain a few things about the rise in YA fiction.

    • Comment by bibliophile112:

      I’m not sure I understand, doesn’t YA define the target audience, not the theme or subject?

      • Comment by Mary:

        Theoretical target audience, not actual audience.

      • Comment by lotdw:

        How the argument usually goes is: YA fiction is one of the few repositories of hope. See, it’s considered immature to believe that heroes will win, or even that there are heroes at all. So only fiction for the immature – like Harry Potter or JRR Tolkien* – can have hopeful or heroic ideals.

        Reality is obviously much more complicated than the above, but on the basic level I think the argument’s sound.

        * who isn’t really for children, but it’s when most people first read him.

  3. Comment by DGDDavidson:

    In a previous thread, you’d made the quite accurate observation that most explicitly Christian sf tends to suck. If I may continue my tirade from there: One of the great shames of the present Christian sf crowd is the opinion held by many of them that fantasy is supposed to imitate Tolkien and do nothing but. I have on my shelf A Landscape with Dragons by Michael O’Brien, Catholic author, who attempts to give Christian evaluations of fantasy literature, commending books insofar as they imitate Tolkien and condemning them insofar as they deviate. We’re going to be short on good Christian fantasy writers until Christian fantasy writers learn that slavish imitation is not always a good thing.

  4. Comment by bruce99999999:

    >most explicitly Christian fiction tends to suck.

    I refute it thus: ‘The Game of Fox and Lion’, by Robert Chase. Also the two sequels, which are if anything smarter and better written. The good guys are Christians, and do good things because the Bible tells them so.

    As against that, Left Behind doesn’t just tend.

    CS Lewis remarked on the difficulty of describing a character morally superior to the author. He was talking about Milton’s trouble with Adam and Eve, but it goes beyond that. Phaeton is primarily and consistently motivated by stuff almost no human being now on Earth is motivated by, because he’s very well brought up and we aren’t.

  5. Comment by ladyhobbit:

    Michael O’Brien is a good novelist but a poor critic. He seems to think that a motif or symbol must always and everywhere mean exactly the same thing.

    • Comment by DGDDavidson:

      Yeah, I should have specified that my reference to O’Brien was only in regard to what he tells other authors to do, not what he does himself. Actually, I’ve never had the heart to read his fiction (alas), having previously read his criticism, but I always hear he’s good, and I believe it, realizing that good authors and good critics are not often the same people.

      But his Christianized Jungian archetype thingie is total weirdness, and his more recent essays have gone off the deep end, so now he is claiming he can sense demons hovering around him as he reads Harry Potter, and he claims to have evidence that Stephenie Meyer received communications from the devil. Admittedly, none of that makes me eager to pick up his novels.

      Plus, he writes Christian apocalyptic fiction, which makes me say, “Meh.”

  6. Ping from Bankrupt Nihilism | Joe Abercrombie:

    […] Incidentally, Adam Whitehead gives his own take on some of the issues here, and SF writer John C. Wright seizes the overwrought football of Leo’s argument and runs it into the end-zone of insanity o…: […]

  7. Comment by Nate Winchester:

    I think there’s some room for hope – depending on whether you think Harry Potter belongs with this tradition or is an affront to it. (I vote for the former.)

    And as I told a community of writers (and lovers of reading), if I ever write anything that cynically nihilistic (other than as a parody), I hope you (John, other posters here), will join them in stoning me.

    I mean, it’s one thing to complain about some of the classic fantasies where the endings were predictable (a testament to Tolkien, I actually wasn’t sure how it would end – keeping myself in the dark toward spoilers) in a victory for everyone and everything. But I don’t see how the cynical nihilism (CN) rebellion is better. Seems they’ve only changed one predictable ending (all is well) for another predictable ending (rocks fall, everyone dies). I’ve heard the comic, “the walking dead” praised several times for points where it proved that “anyone can die” (a frequent praise I’ve heard of what I suspect would be these CN books). But is there any sign as to whether anyone can live? Take away hope in these works, what reason is there to keep reading?

  8. Comment by Mary:

    On the update: note his calm admission that he can’t imagine what he’s destroying.

  9. Comment by Stephen J.:

    The thing to remember about cynics, and writers of cynical fiction, is that they are all (or at least I have never met/read any who weren’t) writing out of the same emotional wellspring: The pain of disappointment and betrayal experienced when their ideals, or some representative of their ideals, let them down or hurt them.

    Suffering, they therefore believe, has to be revealed not as the inevitable price of accomplishing something good and noble (for nobody who reads Tolkien or his better disciples can claim there is no suffering in that tradition), but as an arbitrary thing inflicted by humans for no reason that can ever justify it, or a senseless brute random fact that has nothing to do with good or evil; and anyone who claims differently has to be assumed to have a self-serving reason for it.

    Their entire corpus is thus an attempt (not always conscious) to save others from the pain of disappointed hope by teaching them not to hope; to spare others from putting themselves through suffering for some “cause” or “principle” by driving home how totally pointless all suffering is, how those causes and principles are more likely to be in truth some other group’s self-serving agenda, and how there is in fact no guarantee of achieving anything worthwhile through it; and to minimize the risk of being hurt by others by demonstrating how most others cannot be trusted, not if real sacrifice is on the line.

    Essentially, they are trying to keep themselves and others from being nauseated by milk gone sour (as it sometimes does) by developing a, as it were, pre-emptive taste for the sour; their tragedy is that they forget that this entails losing their ability to appreciate fresh milk.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Do not be offended if I offer a word of caution.

      As someone whose motives were guessed by readers and critics based on my writings, and who laughed with jovial laughter at the expense of the guessworkers, I urge you not to rely too heavily on guesswork — you do not actually know how much of the author is in the author’s work.

      He might have decided to write something cynical and nihilistic, not be cause he himself is one, but because he thought it served his Muse better, or his sale figures, or that was the way the logic of the story itself spun itself out, or on a wager with himself, or cynicism is his unaffected view of the world, and he thought he could shock and awe his readers while giving them good value in return for their hard-earned reading dollar.

      • Comment by Stephen J.:

        Caution noted, and acknowledged for validity; no offense taken.

        I nonetheless have to admit that I’m skeptical the reasons you propose, though all valid possibilities in themselves for any one given work, would be enough to drive (in Abercrombie’s case) a full trilogy and two additional stand-alone novels, all of which are thoroughly in the GrimDarkBloody / HumansAreBastards mode, if his personal perspectives and beliefs didn’t already incline him that way.

        One such story, or intermittent stories, I’d be willing to put down to experiment, or publisher directive, or craftsman’s fidelity to an emerging narrative. Three stories over five sizeable novels, all in a row? That’s a lot of time and effort, both mental and emotional, to invest in something that supposedly goes hard against one’s personal grain. When the song remains the same for that long, you have to start thinking the singer must really be into it.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Let me clarify a point: I think a reasonable reader can tell an author’s world view or his “take” on things after reading a few of his books. But I do not think anyone, not even Sigmund Freud, can detect the psychological of hidden causes behind why an author has that take or that world view.

          Authors are writing fiction for the sake of entertainment, and it reflects their view of the world, but it also reflects their taste in drama, which may or may not be the same thing. Like I said, when people tried to psychoanalyze me with no evidence in their hands except my writing, they not only got it wrong, that got it howlingly, absurdly, over-the-top wrong.

          In this example, have we have any independent evidence that Mr. Abercromie writes “dark” because of disappointment in shattered ideals as opposed to, for example, that is the kind of book he read as a kid and he happens to like it? Or that he thinks this is a bracing and refreshing realism in contrast to idealism he finds saccharine?

          • Comment by Mary:

            On the third hand, reading Rhetoric of Fiction brings out that many authors have written things that would, on the face of things, imply views that are reflected nowhere else in their lives.

            In A Rhetoric of Irony, Booth notes in a footnote that Saul Bellow once told him it was unsurprising that implied authors are better people than actual flesh-and-blood authors, what with all that careful revision.

  10. Comment by Stephen J.:

    There is, of course, another path to the CN perspective which I didn’t mention: Jadedness.

    Rather than trying to deconstruct high heroism out of outraged betrayal at its failure or inadequacy, you can glut yourself on it to the point where it no longer provides the thrill or wonder it once did, and so you start “spicing it up” with “touches of reality”. But each jolt of spiciness deadens the taste buds further, and so you look for blacker, bleaker, more shocking and outrageous elements to add, until finally — like the Observers’ chili-pepper sandwiches in FRINGE — you wind up creating something repulsively inedible to anyone less jaded, because it’s the only way you can still taste anything at all.

    Humanity devoid of nobility and heroism is as unconvincing as humanity devoid of evil or vice, and a world where only the latter makes a real difference in events is equally unrealistic.

  11. Comment by Bill Tingley:

    Seeing that postmodernism is modernism turned upon itself, I suppose it isn’t surprising how the modern’s rationalistic dismissal of myth has devolved into the postmodern’s contemptuous abuse of it.

    Perhaps oddly, for awhile now, I have thought the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance contains a theme against this folly. The Tom Donophon character, played John Wayne, violently but justly pacifies a frontier town so civilized society can take root there. But as moderns, the townspeople cannot make a myth of Donophon, a pre-modern man, to account for their well-being a generation later. The history of the town must be rational and progressive. So the credit for bringing law and order to the town goes to Rance Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, who, now a U.S. senator, is the exemplar of the town’s progressiveness.

    Even though it would be anachronistic to say that the movie’s theme also takes a jab at postmodernism, you can see that it does anticipate it. This is because to stop Donophon from becoming history, then legend, and finally myth, the townspeople had to engage their own mythmaking of Stoddard. But what they did, like the postmoderns do, is abuse myth by making it with falsehoods.

  12. Comment by Stephen J.:

    “In this example, have we have any independent evidence that Mr. Abercrombie writes “dark” because of disappointment in shattered ideals as opposed to, for example, that is the kind of book he read as a kid and he happens to like it? Or that he thinks this is a bracing and refreshing realism in contrast to idealism he finds saccharine?”

    To be honest, my first reaction to those hypotheses is to think that if someone finds idealism saccharine enough to think such misanthropy is ‘bracing and refreshing realism’, or likes that kind of misanthropy enough to want to take it up in his own art, then his ideals were *already* shattered, or simply never formed in the first place. But that does not constitute independent evidence, so your point remains valid.

    Nonetheless, while worldview and taste in drama are not always the same thing, they *do* tend to hew closely together rather than diverge radically, in my observation, and frequently enough so to make inferring from one to the other fairly reasonable. As Damon Runyon noted, “The race is not always to the swift, nor victory to the strong — but that’s the way you bet.”

    I don’t think it requires psychoanalysis to conclude that someone who *never* writes *any* portrayal of people other than bleak and cynical ones is likely to have a bleak and cynical opinion of people, and to think they probably have what they think of as good reasons for that opinion.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      We do not disagree on any of these points. Yes, you are most likely right: yes, you can tell what a guy likes to eat by what he puts in the stew he cooks for you. Guys who write really negative and cynical books are most likely to be disappointed empty-headed utopians trying to put on a childish ‘tough-guy’ act because MOST people who are negative and cynical are disappointed empty-headed utopians trying to put on a childish ‘tough-guy’ act. You and I are on the same page.

      Like I said, I am painfully aware, because it happened to me, that there is an extra layer of sleight-of-hand that stands between a fiction writer, and his world view, and his psychology.

      Someone writing a non-fiction essay, you can make fairly secure guesses about his point of view, because he is trying to tell you his point of view. Someone writing a non-fiction essay disguised as a work of fiction (STARSHIP TROOPERS, ATLAS SHRUGGED, AMBER SPYGLASS, SLAVE GIRL OF GOR) again, you can be pretty sure that whatever the anointed hero-lecturer is lecturing is the author’s own opinion.

      But when it is fiction, there is the additional distorting layer that he is writing what he thinks if dramatic, not necessarily what he thinks.

      And if he is like me, he may be copying something some smarter writer made up.

      • Comment by Stephen J.:

        You are right also, and I apologize for any frustration occasioned by appearing not to grasp your point.

        I must admit that I have not been wholly honest in explaining my own motivations; a large part of why I want to think the worst (in that patronizing forgive-him-he-can’t-help-it way) of Mr. Abercrombie, and writers in his vein like Richard Morgan or China Mieville, is because I’m not yet thick-skinned enough not to take slights against Tolkien’s themes personally. To see someone invert, tear apart and ridicule themes and imagery I revere is very painful to me, and very angering.

        Since hurt feelings thus drive a lot of my own output, I am irrationally quick to attribute the same motives to others, which is an unfair method of judgement even if it happens from time to time to be correct.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Your feelings are like my own. I regard the onslaught of the Mervyn Peakes of this world as a blasphemy, if we may use that word for offenses against works of art rather than against words of God.

          But I also think of those poor authors as victims. I am an unapologetic supernaturalist, as are all Christians who pay attention, and I think the world is inhabited by unseen spirits, at least a third of which are malign, and who surpass mankind both in intelligence, power and dignity. These fallen influence the destinies and thoughts of the sons of Adam for the worse.

          Some archangel of Hell has inflicted a dark muse on writers who turn their talents toward the draining away of hope, laughter, and sunlight from the lives of men. Think of what they might have produced!

      • Comment by SFAN:

        “But when it is fiction, there is the additional distorting layer that he is writing what he thinks if dramatic, not necessarily what he thinks.
        And if he is like me, he may be copying something some smarter writer made up.”

        I just wanted to mention that if I asked about christian socialism a while back was mainly because one of my dream projects -an adaptation/sequel- involves that, and I was trying to make it work.
        ( It’s also relativistic (space-opera), so that would be two of three… ;) )

      • Comment by SFAN:

        “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot.'” Larry Niven

        • Comment by Stephen J.:

          And there is a technical, literary term for those writers who artificially skew their stories towards validating only one particular mode of character perspective, dishonestly portraying or auctorially punishing any characters who affect/embody other perspectives. That term is “bad”.

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  14. Comment by SFAN:
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