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Are Joe Abercrombie’s Novels “Poison to Both the Reader’s Mind and Culture?”

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011 | Posted by John ONeill

Leo Grin

Leo Grin

So I’ve been enjoying the fascinating debate on modern epic fantasy between Leo Grin and author Joe Abercrombie. It opened with Leo’s absorbing essay on what he sees as the profound flaws in modern fantasy in general:

I used to think I was a fan of the genre known today as fantasy, and specifically the subgenres of High Fantasy and Sword-and-Sorcery… But it was only recently, after decades of ever-increasing reading disappointment, that I grudgingly began to admit the truth: 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.

And in writers like Joe Abercrombie in particular:

Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.

Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie

Joe has responded to this description with typical humor:

That sounds … kind of interesting to me, actually, but I dimly percieve that Leo doesn’t like it.  Your mileage may vary, of course.  But why all the fury, Leo?  Relax.  Pour yourself a drink.  Admire your unrivalled collection of Frank Frazetta prints for a while.  Wrestle the old blood pressure down.  When an old building is demolished to make way for a new, I can see the cause of upset… But books don’t work that way.  If I choose to write my own take on fantasy, what gets destroyed?

As he has done in the past, Leo lays the blame for many of the ills of the modern era on liberals.

In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field.

Whereas Joe argues it’s really about moving the genre forward:

To me, it’s not really about politics, and it’s got nothing to do with sides, just various writers coming at a genre with their own set of unique concerns, influences, interests….It’s so shrill.  So absurdly over-the-top and apocalyptic.  Surely the hallmark of western civilzation is variety, richness, experimentation.  If we all settled for repeating the same-old we’d still be stuck in the dark ages, no?  We’d certainly have no Tolkien and Howard, who were bold enough to try to do new things with established forms.

The title quote above is taken from Leo’s description of Joe’s The First Law trilogy in the comments section to his post:

That’s not realism, it’s nihilism, and it’s poison to both the reader’s mind and culture.

Leo ends his post with “To be continued…“, so I expect this debate to continue for a while.

Leo was the founder and editor of the Robert E. Howard literary journal The Cimmerian, and the designer of the current version of the Black Gate website. Joe is the author of The First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold.

56 Comments »

  1. I have to agree with Leo for the most part.

    Comment by doug - February 15, 2011 5:31 pm

  2. How interesting! I’m not sure if I’d like Joe’s books (never know ’til ya try), but I certainly like his philosophy. FORWARD MOMENTUM (as Miles Vorkosigan might say). Makes me want to read some Abercrombie.

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - February 15, 2011 5:36 pm

  3. I know this is probably racism on my part, but from this side of the Atlantic it looks like everything over there always has to be divided into Liberal and Conservative.

    I love all of the works mentioned above. But then again, my family have to tie me up at nights, so maybe my vote doesn’t count.

    Comment by peadarog - February 15, 2011 6:06 pm

  4. Hey Peadar,

    I know what you mean. As a Canadian, I find the constant name-calling between liberals and conservatives in America perplexing (and endlessly fascinating). Blaming those of a different social ideology for “the decades-long slide of Western civilization?” Man, that’s just lazy.

    I guess when it falls out of favor to hate on other races, and we run out of enemy superpowers to hate, we can hate on neighbors who don’t like the same books we do. That makes sense.

    On the bright side, China now has the world’s second largest economy and may soon overtake America, and pretty soon Americans will be united in hating them.

    It’ll be just like the golden age of the 50s again. And we know how great they were.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 15, 2011 6:14 pm

  5. I wonder what’s happening in Chinese fantasy right now. There must be so much stuff we never get to read even in translation.

    Besides, if China takes over, maybe the future will end up like FIREFLY, and we’ll all wear cool clothes and curse in Mandarin.

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - February 15, 2011 6:50 pm

  6. Hi C.S.E,

    At least we’ve got that to look forward to! :)

    I expect (and hope) that there will be a flowering of Chinese works in translation in the US, as interest in China grows over the next two decades. Along with that, with any luck, will come additional exposure to the best in Chinese fantasy.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 15, 2011 7:19 pm

  7. Wow. I actually started the First Law Trilogy 2 1/2 weeks ago (after reading The Fool Jobs in Swords & Dark Magic) and just last night finished The Heroes. With Joe’s work so fresh on my mind I have to comment on this.

    Abercrombie is great. GREAT. I found the character’s in the book and their motives VERY realistic. Maybe I just know a lot of scumbags…I don’t know.

    I’m a fan of fantasy of all kinds, and just because Joe is doing something different than the age old standard does NOT mean fantasy is in a decline. I would say quite the opposite. All different kinds of fantasy can be great, and when is doing something different in literature EVER a decline. Once I see a novel all written in txtspeak (u no wut I mean) then I will refuse to see a decline.

    -Justin

    Comment by TheMoose65 - February 15, 2011 7:33 pm

  8. Thanks, Justin. Well said (although you lost me in that final line). :)

    Comment by John ONeill - February 15, 2011 7:36 pm

  9. So a guy who kills himself because his mother goes into a coma who writes male wish fulfillment fantasy somehow becomes an upholder of the values of Western Civilization? An author whose literary contemporaries (you know, the white guys upholding the values of Western Civilization) looked down upon as writing racist escapist garbage that reflected the decline of Western Civilization, if they paid attention to it at all?

    Look, it’s fiction. It’s storytelling If you don’t like Abercrombie (or J.K. Rowling or fill in the blank), hey, don’t read it. Personally, I think guys who are exposing the emperor’s clothes are more clued in than the guys who like their swords exposed. But, that’s just me.

    Let’s not blow things out of proportion.

    Comment by Soyka - February 15, 2011 7:53 pm

  10. Man, I don’t know. I suspect a lot of folks are taking Leo’s piece a tad too seriously. Sometimes it’s just fun to go off and slag a bunch of books you don’t like :)

    Comment by andy - February 15, 2011 8:11 pm

  11. > So a guy who kills himself because his mother goes into a coma
    > who writes male wish fulfillment fantasy somehow becomes an upholder
    > of the values of Western Civilization?

    Hi David,

    I agree with the thrust of your argument – especially your second paragraph – but I have to take exception with the rather backhanded swipe at Robert E. Howard.

    Yes, Howard committed suicide at 30. Yes, he was very attached to his mother. But the reasons for his suicide are very complex, and we’ll probably never fully understand them.

    While I’m at it, I think Leo’s long-time defense of REH and his writing has real merit. No, I wouldn’t label Howard as “an upholder of the values of Western Civilization” (especially since much of his writing – and particularly his fantasy – often had a very dim view of the virtues of the civilized man to begin with).

    But I certainly see Leo’s point in regards to the “thematic richness” of Howard’s heroes. They exemplified the virtues of independence, tenacity and courage, and were (usually) free of cynicism. Flatly, they were better heroes, and represented a more optimistic view of mankind.

    Not so of the highly corruptible protagonists of Stover and Abercrombie (for example), which Leo labels as nihilistic. Here I agree with him.

    Where I disagree is with his claim that Howard and Tolkien’s heroes make for better literature. Frankly, I’m far more interested in the flawed protagonists of BEST SERVED COLD than, say, “Hour of the Dragon.” But I recognize that’s a personal preference, and Leo’s argument is compelling on some levels.

    But where I’m truly fascinated is Leo’s attempt to link the perceived modern preference for these heroes (and I think he’s wrong about that) with “the decades-long slide of Western civilization” (which I also don’t believe in).

    I’m looking forward to the next installment, that’s for sure.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 15, 2011 8:25 pm

  12. >I suspect a lot of folks are taking Leo’s piece a tad too seriously.
    > Sometimes it’s just fun to go off and slag a bunch of books you don’t like

    Andy,

    Ha! Well said. Perhaps you’re right.

    Just the same, I think Leo has touched on a lot of interesting topics in his essay, and I welcome the debate… however seriously Leo may have intended it.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 15, 2011 8:32 pm

  13. Hm. I don’t know, Andy: I disagree with almost everything Leo has to say in that piece, but I think he has the right to have it taken seriously.

    On the other hand, I have to admit that I did personally cause the decades-long slide of western civilization. I was kind of hoping people had forgotten about it, but I see my sins have found me out.

    Comment by James Enge - February 15, 2011 9:12 pm

  14. Neither argument stirs me particularly. I agree with about half of each essay, and disagree with the other halves. Somewhere in all this is one essay I really like, and one I really don’t. I have trouble lumping REH and Tolkien together, but I also agree that there’s a trend to “gritty” fantasy which is just needlessly grim and bloody. I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that there’s enough traditional High and Low fantasy out there that I don’t feel the need to read the grimmer stuff. So, I don’t feel the need to have an pinion on this. The debate is sure fun to watch though.

    Comment by darangrissom - February 15, 2011 9:17 pm

  15. Playa hatin’!

    You know I love The Lord of the Rings. The most fun I had reading fantasy last year was Best Served Cold.

    Love, C.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 15, 2011 9:40 pm

  16. James,

    You know, I long suspected it was you. But much of the evidence was ruined by evidence tampering.

    And you know Lindsay Lohan carries her share of the blame, too. May that help you sleep at night.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 15, 2011 10:32 pm

  17. > I have trouble lumping REH and Tolkien together, but I also agree that
    > there’s a trend to “gritty” fantasy which is just needlessly grim and bloody

    Understood, Daran.

    Do you feel the gritty fantasy is advertised well enough to avoid it? If you read it anyway and still dislike it, whose fault is it? Yours, or the author’s?

    Comment by John ONeill - February 15, 2011 10:34 pm

  18. > The most fun I had reading fantasy last year was Best Served Cold

    Thank you, Fox.

    Do you generally enjoy “gritty” fantasy?

    Comment by John ONeill - February 15, 2011 10:35 pm

  19. Yikes my internet was acting up and not posting so I copied and pasted then signed my name and I don’t know why it cut my last sentence off. I was saying something about not seeing a decline in literature until I see a fantasy written in textspeak. Working at a high school (which I do) I have seen some kids write things and spell things the abbreviated way they would in text messages. (you=u, no=know, etc.) I wouldn’t be surprised to have a book come along written like that, that’s what I was going at.

    Comment by TheMoose65 - February 15, 2011 10:40 pm

  20. I think that a lot of people who ‘read’ Tolkien miss one of the essential points of _Lord of the Rings_. (Something that has been echoed all across comment sections concerning this article.) At the end of LOTR all the magic and wonder in the world was vanishing. Sure, the good guys won but what was the cost?

    As for Abercrombie? Well I think that Logen, Glotka and Murcatto are some of the best fantasy characters in a long time.

    Comment by Light in the Black - February 15, 2011 10:52 pm

  21. Moose,

    Yeah, that makes sense. U no, I thk a story in iphone txt wood have 2 b shrt.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 16, 2011 12:15 am

  22. As someone who a lot of people in worldwideweblandia consider to be “right wing” I don’t agree that the trend to “gritty” (or nihilistic) fantasy is some political conspiracy. Of course I have rarely read much in the way of modern politics speaking into fantasy, SF is a different story …

    Granted I haven’t read Abercrombie’s stuff, but most fantasy tends monarchist,

    TW -militant Libertarian

    Comment by TW - February 16, 2011 12:28 am

  23. Light,

    > I think that a lot of people who ‘read’ Tolkien miss one of
    > the essential points of _Lord of the Rings_… At the end of LOTR all
    > the magic and wonder in the world was vanishing. Sure, the good guys
    > won but what was the cost?

    You’re right about the essential detail, but I’m not sure I follow your argument.

    Are you implying that LOTR is in some sense also nihilistic, as Leo accuses Joe of being? If so, I’m not sure I see the connection.

    Yes, there’s a powerful element of tragedy at the end of LOTR, with the closing of the Third Age and the fading of magic in the world. But I think that tragedy only magnifies the heroism of Frodo, Aragon and their friends… the sacrifices they’ve made were hardly in vain, but as monumental as they were, even they cannot reverse the weight of history that Tolkien laid out the Silmarillion. Indeed, the fact that they make them despite the inevitable loss of much that they hold dear makes them true heroes.

    I don’t want to speak for Leo, but I think this is different from the nihilism he finds in Stover, Swanwick, and Joe, where the very concept of ‘hero’ is sometimes laid bare and shown to be illusory.

    That’s my take on it, anyway.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 16, 2011 12:29 am

  24. John, this is a dang fun thread. I like when you stir the cauldron.

    I think it’s exciting to be in the midst of the Decline of Western Civilization. Artists are always at their best in declines. Wasn’t Lord of the Rings born of a World War?

    Now I feel I really SHOULD read Abercrombie. Oh, well. I have a heap of books, and Howard’s is on top. Would his book be considered “gritty fantasy”?

    Also, if we’re going to be declining anyway, do we get to have pie fights?

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - February 16, 2011 12:31 am

  25. > As someone who a lot of people in worldwideweblandia consider to be
    > “right wing” I don’t agree that the trend to “gritty” (or nihilistic)
    > fantasy is some political conspiracy.

    Thanks TW.

    Why do you think SF is a different story?

    Comment by John ONeill - February 16, 2011 12:31 am

  26. >John, this is a dang fun thread. I like when you stir the cauldron.

    Why thank, you C.S.E! It still disturbs me when the eyeballs float to the surface, like in BEASTMASTER.

    And I don’t think Howard (Andrew Jones)’s book would be considered “gritty fantasy.” His protagonists Dabir & Asim are flawed, but I think they fall clearly in the category of classical heroes like Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes. Howard believes in heroes, and that comes across on the page.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 16, 2011 12:40 am

  27. Blah, doing this from an iPod cut off a witty remark I had about fantasy tending to being “right wing” no matter what spin is put on it since it tends to be monarchist… :(

    I’ve always viewed SF as commentary on the “now”, and fantasy as (I don’t know) some nostalgia about the “never was”. Not that I don’t enjoy fantasy, I do.

    I have always seen SF to be more up front in politics than fantasy. Of course as a free market capitalist who is also technically a corporation I have gotten used to being the bad guy in huge swaths of SF in the last couple of decades… 😉

    TW

    Comment by TW - February 16, 2011 12:59 am

  28. Great answer. Thanks, TW.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 16, 2011 1:17 am

  29. There’s a scene somewhere in The Sandman comics where one of Gaiman’s immortals attends a present-day Ren Faire and complains to his companion how clean and sanitized it is. He knows because he lived through the actual Renaissance. “They should spray you with shit when you walk in!” he says.

    Like Grin I can’t stand to read much fantasy that wasn’t written decades ago (present company excepted), though my taste has less to do with politics and more because of a lack of imagination on the part of authors. I’ve often seen the line between science fiction and fantasy as defined as the difference between the improbable and the impossible; but I take the view that one depicts the impact of science and technology on people and the other describes the impact of religion and philosophy. Sometimes the border blurs. But my distaste of a lot of fantasy is because it badly needs creed (Knight’s essay, BTW, should be burned onto the frontal lobes of every fantasist). It’s a pantomime. If I want grit and realism, I can open a newspaper; if I want it with swords and feudalism, I’d rather read a history book. The joke is that many writers seem to lack the imagination to write interesting fantasy.

    I think Grin and countless others respond to Tolkien and Howard because they articulated certain philosophies that resonate still. What those philosophies are is endlessly debatable. I also think the faux realists and urban elves and vampirists are espousing a philosophy of their own, although it is one that is not to Grin’s or my own liking because it is shallow and easy. And that philosophy is simply: cynicism.

    Comment by Jackson Kuhl - February 16, 2011 10:30 am

  30. I agree that urban elves and vampirists can be shallow and easy (though sometimes fun), which is one reason why it is so popular. Indeed. excuse my elitism, but that’s what popular literature (culture) does, give people more of what they like. Harry Potter becomes a commercial success, let’s do more wizard school stuff. OK, you know the drill.

    But let’s consider the “spraying you with shit” genre, the fantasists who deal with the reality of the human condition. Flawed heroes, muddled motivations, political commentary, sexual deviations. Arguably, Tolkien has elements of those (except for the last) as does most myth (see the Greeks, in particular). While practitioners of the so-called New Weird practice shit in your face fantasy (are we naming a genre here?), they are hardly shallow or formulaic. Mielville, Gentle, Harrison, are these guys contributing to the end of Western Civilization, or reflecting/commenting on it? By the way, Shakespeare’s heroes weren’t always the most uplifting paragons of virtue, which is one reason why people still go to the plays, eh?

    Comment by Soyka - February 16, 2011 10:45 am

  31. […] discussion at Black Gate, at Ominvoracious, from author Scott Bakker (who I daresay might be down here in the bunker […]

    Pingback by Bankrupt Nihilism | Joe Abercrombie - February 16, 2011 12:37 pm

  32. John — I enjoy reading fantasies set in interesting locations with interesting characters who do interesting things.

    It’s also essential that the author knows how to write a sentence and organize a paragraph, and further, organize a structure so the narrative feels, at least, as if we’re moving along.

    It has a lot more to do with rhythm than with action. Abercrombie’s sense of rhythm, it seems to me, is getting better with his writing experience, which is what we all hope happens to us — we get better.

    A negative example of what I mean about action without rhythm or narrative function would be fantasy novels that move enormous waddages of people around for pages, as undifferentiated armies, lead and secondary characters, etc. through endless leagues of land and lands. Thump, thud, plod. No rhythm. Nothing happens.

    It’s like mistaking every scene that involves sex as needing to provoke an erotic response in the reader. Well, no. There can be lots of reasons for sex scenes and they are not all erotic and not intended to be. Intentional hot is for porn or romance (but if it is hot for the characters in Fantasy novels like these, you want to believe it too), or so it seems to me.

    I’m not sure what gritty is — I know what people mean by it in this Fantasy-related incarnation. This isn’t new and revolutionary. There has been a great deal of Fantasy along the line that doesn’t make things pretty. Those writers, at least if they were women, got clobbered by everyone, readers and reviewers and other writers.

    I’m thinking, for instance, of Janine Cross’s Venom novels. She got hit all over the place for having a young woman in a world that isn’t a nice place, and the sex scenes confused everyone because they weren’t intended to be, and were not ‘hot.’ They got labeled as ‘perverted.’ But these scenes were telling you something else about the levels of abasement that occur to people who are treated in the ways these women had been treated. Their lives were so harsh, so hunger-striken, so overworked that when there was anythign that might provide a surcese, any sense of warmth, they’d go for it, and even fight over it, if necessary. Nor was it smirking with a wink at s&m, or about how hopeless women are. It was just the opposite of it. But not pretty, not wish fullment for anyone, whatever sex or gender or numbers of partners we prefer.

    These books are a lot grittier than Abercrombie’s — though I haven’t read the new one. this year we’re away from home on a writing Fellowship (the project involves the history of U.S. slavery and the interstate, domestice slave trade, with a lot of emphasis on the Constitutions of both the U.S.A and the C.S.A.). But I am looking forward to reading Heroes and seeing where Abercrombie’s going with his writing at the moment.

    This is very long. I’m sorry! I’m just used to rolling when my fingers hit keyboard at this point.

    Love, c.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 16, 2011 3:34 pm

  33. Maybe Leo and Abercrombie have hit on this in their debate already, but it’s not just fantasy that has gone this way. Look at Westerns for example; I think it was John Ford who referred to the John Wayne vs. Clint Eastwood Era of Westerns as pre-Atom bomb and after Atom bomb. And that was in the late 60s. A perfect example would be the recently released new version of True Grit. I loved the original John Wayne True Grit, but for there is just no denying that Cohen Bros./Jeff Bridges interpretation is much better.
    It just seems more real and believable, and thus an easier to lose yourself in. You can relate to the characters before they are more like you or someone you know.
    And sure the endings are usually far from happily ever after in Abercrombie’s fantasy, but again its more believable. It doesn’t make the reader look at their own life and say “Man, my reality suxs in comparison”. Plus it’s a little more inspiring to see heroes who are flawed triumph despite their short-comings.
    Also to be honest; call me twisted but I do enjoy it a story where brutal vengeance is carried out when its due.

    Comment by kid_greg - February 16, 2011 3:46 pm

  34. WOW- I type-O’ed that one all to hell. Sorry but I think you get where I’m coming from. :)

    Comment by kid_greg - February 16, 2011 3:52 pm

  35. […] At Boskone This Weekend Epic Grit Gives Epic Character The epic fantasy realm of the blogosphere is lately agog over a screed from Leo Grin, a Robert E. Howard scholar and […]

    Pingback by the fiction of Scott H. Andrews » Blog Archive » Epic Grit Gives Epic Character - February 16, 2011 5:06 pm

  36. John,

    I didn’t mean to imply that LOTR was nihilistic in any way, and I agree with your take on Tolkien. The sacrifices of Frodo and company were not totally in vain. And the fact that they made them despite the events of the Silmarillion makes them resonate that much more. It speaks to the human spirit, that in the face of so much adversity people are still willing to stand against the darkness no matter what.

    I also don’t see nihilism in Abercrombie (or Erikson, for that matter), and I think that Mr. Grin is missing the mark when he accuses them of being nihilistic. Nihilism is the rejection of everything and the belief that life is meaningless. I don’t really see that. What I do see with regards to Tolkien and Abercrombie is, if you’ll forgive the comparison, the differences between _Excalibur_ and _Monty Python and the Holy Grail_. Both depict Arthurian Myth, albeit with differing degrees of reverence. The former displayed a Camelot resplendent with knights in shining armor and well-bred ladies in waiting, while the latter showed a knight with a chicken on his shield and peasants traipsing around in filth (all, of course, with a wink and a nudge).

    Comment by Light in the Black - February 16, 2011 6:25 pm

  37. It is probably of interst to notice that with this ‘new grittiness’ at least in terms of Westerns, it is deeply mannered and verbally stylized. We may hold Deadwood responsible for that — which is one of the reasons it annoyed me in the new True Grit. Though you could make an argument for the stylization of the so-called gritty violence with the Sergio Leone westerns and others of the era, and, particularly, all along in the mobster films. Pulp Fiction anyone?

    Love, C.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 16, 2011 7:21 pm

  38. John,

    Addendum to my earlier post. One of those things you think about while fixing supper.

    I don’t mean to say that Abercrombie is a ball of laughs all the time, but he does inject a fair amount of dark humor into the proceedings. He also comes at fantasy from a more historical perspective as far as the milieu is concerned. And that is what I was getting at when using _Excalibur_ and _Monty Python and the Holy Grail_ as my examples. They are two different ways of interpreting the same thing, just as Tolkien and Abercrombie have two different ways of interpreting fantasy. Neither is inherently better than the other because they are both very well done. It all comes down to what the reader takes away from it and I, for one, love both.

    Matt

    Comment by Light in the Black - February 16, 2011 8:11 pm

  39. I’m a huge Robert E. Howard fan myself and the more I think about it, Robert E. Howard’s awesome stories seem to me to be the seed and the fertile ground where these very stories that Mr. Grin is bashing took root.
    What about Bran Mak Morn? You don’t get much darker then the last pure-bred king of people that are sinking back into savagery. Bran Mak Morn knows he and his Picts are doomed, but he fights and kills anyway for the pure spite of it. The violent crucifixion of Mak Morn’s tribesman at the beginning of Worms of Earth and the nightmare that Bran Mak Morn let’s loose against the Romans, not to mention the sex Mak Morn has with the witch as the payment for the monstrosity, is pretty damn gritty. Especially when you consider Howard didn’t have access to the realistic movies and news reels that we have today.
    Yep, I think it’s rather presumptions for Mr. Grin to think Robert E. Howard wouldn’t embrace what Joe Abercrombie is doing. I kinda think Two-Gun Bob would love it.

    Another thought for what it’s worth; maybe Mr. Grin should go look at the Frazetta Conan paintings again. You don’t get grittier than Frazetta and his imagery is credited with one of the first big Howard resurgence, and I think Frazetta’s vision would be a perfect match for Abercrombie’s imagination.

    Comment by kid_greg - February 16, 2011 10:29 pm

  40. > But my distaste of a lot of fantasy is because it badly needs creed
    >(Knight’s essay, BTW, should be burned onto the frontal lobes of every fantasist).

    Jackson,

    Hear hear!! Is it time to re-reprint Eric’s essay at the top of the blog? I think it might be.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 16, 2011 11:54 pm

  41. > By the way, Shakespeare’s heroes weren’t always the most uplifting
    > paragons of virtue, which is one reason why people still go to the plays, eh?

    David,

    Excellent point. Excellent. I think Shakespeare’s protagonists (Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear) were usually deeply flawed – tragically flawed, even – and you don’t often see people blaming him for spreading liberalism. Just sayin’.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 16, 2011 11:57 pm

  42. >I’m thinking, for instance, of Janine Cross’s Venom novels. She got hit
    > all over the place for having a young woman in a world that isn’t a nice
    > place, and the sex scenes confused everyone because they weren’t intended to be, and were not ‘hot.’

    Fox,

    Indeed, I forgot about Cross. There was an unfortunate incident at the World Fantasy Convention in 2006, where folks were loudly reading a rather hilarious quote from her novel featuring a “venom cock.”

    The quotes were obviously taken out of context. Cheryl Morgan picked it up as a story for EMERALD CITY, and the book was quickly trashed by several critics (and defended by others). There’s a nice summary here:

    http://www.fantasybookspot.com/jaytomio/2005/12/01/end-of-the-year-noise/

    Comment by John ONeill - February 17, 2011 12:12 am

  43. > it’s not just fantasy that has gone this way. Look at Westerns for example; > I think it was John Ford who referred to the John Wayne vs. Clint Eastwood Era
    > of Westerns as pre-Atom bomb and after Atom bomb.

    Kid Greg,

    Nice observation. Are we just retreading an argument that was old 5 decades ago?

    If so, who won? :)

    Comment by John ONeill - February 17, 2011 12:14 am

  44. >Nice observation. Are we just retreading an argument that was old 5 decades ago?
    If so, who won?
    John,
    Watch the John Wayne True Grit and Jeff Bridges True Grit and you can tell me. :)
    And actually I do make a pretty good point if I do say so myself. If movie makers (and some Western writers, although many of those were already writing more realistic and darker westerns only to get their story watered down for the movies), we’d still be watching -or we wouldn’t- Westerns with Native Americans saying things like “Ugh- white man speak with forked tongue.”, good guys in white hats, bad guys in black ones, and, women characters like Kitty from Gunsmoke; dresses like a high dollar prostitute but never turning a trick.
    More power to anyone who wants their fantasy to be that way. I guess I can understand the draw if you want your escapism to be that extremely unreal.

    Me, I want characters I can relate to, and call me sick, but I do like to see the butt-holes get their @$$ beat, royally. I mean, I can’t bitch-slap any of the honor-less scum-sucking executives that run the huge corporations, that I’ve worked for but Login Ninefingers will stick a good foot of steel in fictional characters made of the same stuff.

    Comment by kid_greg - February 17, 2011 9:48 am

  45. I’m coming late to this, and haven’t read Abercrombie’s books, but a couple of points spring to mind:

    1) Like Peadar and John, as a Canadian I tend to be bemused by American culture-war politics. But it’s worth pointing out that Big Hollywood is actually a conservative site. In fact, Bill Willingham had almost exactly the same essay there a couple of years ago, except that he was complaining about the degradation of the noble ideals of superhero comics:

    http://bighollywood.breitbart.com/bwillingham/2009/01/09/superheroes-still-plenty-of-super-but-losing-some-of-the-hero/

    2) Grin’s essay seems to me badly argued on a number of levels.

    a)As a number of people have pointed out, Tolkien and Howard aren’t really similar writers, and his attempts to link them are unconvincing. When he responds to a criticism of Howard by quoting Tolkien, it seems incoherent, if not ducking the point. More definition of how he sees them as similar was badly needed.

    b) Up above, kid_greg up pointed out how dark Howard’s own writing got. One can go further. Because Grin doesn’t really define what differentiates Howard from the modern fantasists, you can only wonder where he draws the line. Fritz Leiber? Scott Lynch? Jack Vance? Michael Moorcock? Glen Cook? I have no idea.

    c) Related to the above: Grin seems to want to praise “legends and myths of old” — but such myths could often be bloody, cynical, and scatological, all characteristics for which he criticises Abercrombie. I literally find myself wondering if he’s ever read the Eddas.

    d) Similarly, Soyka and John pointed out that Shakespeare, probably the ultimate example of Western Civilisation, could be pretty bleak. They’re absolutely right. Grin complains about “cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism,” and all of those things are a part of what makes King Lear great. Actually, Grin’s description of Abercrombie’s First Law books — “Endless scenes of torture, treachery and bloodshed drenched in scatology and profanity concluded with a resolution worthy of M. Night Shyamalan at his worst, one that did its best to hurt, disappoint, and dishearten any lover of myths and their timeless truths” — sounds a lot like some of the seventeenth and eighteenth century reactions to Lear; they didn’t have the Shyamalan reference, of course, but they did try to change the ending to make it more palatable.

    Similarly: couldn’t most of Grin’s complaints about revisionist fantasy and bleakness also be applied to Don Quixote’s approach to revising chivalric romances?

    3) I think Grin’s trying to do two things at once in this essay, and perhaps as a result does neither well. He wants on the one hand to identify a certain characteristic of modern heroic fantasy which he dislikes; on the other he wants to say that the books which exhibit this characteristic are also badly-written. He doesn’t, to my mind, satisfactorily establish that the first thing causes the second thing, or indeed why it would — why the philosophical orientation he claims to spot means that the books which display it are therefore bad.

    Larry Clark and M. Knight Shyamalan are (based on the movies of theirs that I’ve seen) bad writers not because they’re bleak, depressing, or cynical, but because they’re bad craftsmen. When you read the essay looking for specific points where Grin says “this is bad because the writing fails here,” you don’t find many. What you do find is, essentially, “these things happen in the book and therefore it is bad” or “the book says this and therefore is bad.” I don’t think you can establish quality through that kind of response. You can establish that you personally don’t like something, and why, but not that the work itself is flawed.

    4) Grin says that he wants to read “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”, which is fair enough. He also says “virtually everything written under the banner of fantasy today” doesn’t fit the bill. And this I can’t agree with.

    I’ve written on this blog about current writers that I value and enjoy, like Jeff VanderMeer and Felix Gilman, and to me they fit the bill admirably; mythic, imaginative, stunningly well-written. What about someone like Neil Gaiman, who surely knows his way around a sentence? Or Susanna Clarke? Or Kage Baker? Or Guy Gavriel Kay? Or Gene Wolfe?

    How about someone like China Miéville? I don’t react as strongly to Miéville’s work as many, but it seems well-crafted to me, with strong prose, an innovative setting, and strong themes. What about Ursula Le Guin? Her novel Lavinia seems to me to be one of the strongest fantasies of the past few years. It certainly displays a knowledgeable and profound engagement with one of the cornerstones of Western civilisation.

    Grin seems to think that cynical fantasy’s sweeping everything else off the shelves. I don’t see it.

    5) I think, in the end, Abercrombie had it right in his response: “Surely the hallmark of western civilzation is variety, richness, experimentation.” That seems to me precisely so. Grin argues that modern fantasists are “[s]oiling the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths”, and that this produces invalid art. I don’t see that this necessarily follows.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 17, 2011 1:38 pm

  46. Excellent points Mr. Surridge.
    Like I’ve said I’m a huge Robert E. Howard fan, so I do say this with the upmost respect, but the man did commit suicide. That’s pretty hard-core nihilism or fatalist. Then again I had look up the word for clarification. And in Howard’s own words, Conan had great meloncholies. Yeah the more I think about it, the less since Grin makes and here I was respecting his knowledge on Howard.

    Comment by kid_greg - February 17, 2011 2:48 pm

  47. Matt,

    > I don’t mean to say that Abercrombie is a ball of laughs all the time, but he
    > does inject a fair amount of dark humor into the proceedings. He also comes at
    > fantasy from a more historical perspective as far as the milieu is concerned.

    Really? Pretty bold statement considering Tolkien’s grounding in Old English myth (particularly Beowulf, in which he was quite an expert).

    But I’m not nearly as familiar with Abercrombie. Can you clarify this for me? How does Abercrombie have “a more historical perspective” in your eyes? Do you mean his setting is not as mythic, more grounded in history, than Middle Earth? Or something else?

    Comment by John ONeill - February 17, 2011 3:23 pm

  48. > What about Bran Mak Morn? You don’t get much darker then the last pure-bred king of
    > people that are sinking back into savagery. Bran Mak Morn knows he and his
    > Picts are doomed, but he fights and kills anyway for the pure spite of it.

    Greg,

    Interesting point. A couple of comments.

    One, I don’t think Leo is arguing that REH didn’t have a wide range as an author, and wasn’t capable of creating a variety of heroes. Rather, I think he’s arguing that Howard was gifted in creating classic heroes, and that Abercrombie is incapable of it.

    Second, it’s pretty clear from the onset in the Bran Mak Morn stories that doom is inevitable, and that men of honor are left with little recourse. You understand pretty quickly what Bran Mak Morn is capable of, and what kind of guy he is. Brutal, yes, spiteful, perhaps. But you get what you sign up for.

    What Leo seems really bitter about in Abercrombie’s books is that ultimately you DON’T get what you expect from the hero. As he’s said elsewhere, Leo enjoyed the first few books in the FIRST LAW trilogy but felt betrayed by the ending. It was a violation of what he expected.

    Comment by John ONeill - February 17, 2011 3:49 pm

  49. Matthew,

    A fine, fine response. From now on, I’m just going to quote you. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - February 17, 2011 3:54 pm

  50. John — Hmmm. There are many words that could be used to describe Cross’s novels, but ‘turgid’ isn’t one them. Not, that is, if you, yannno, actually read them and understood what was driving the characters — which, further, as the prose isn’t turgid, isn’t that hard to do.

    Probably a whole lot of people did a pile on, without even reading the books first. It was this pile on that got me to pull the books out of the pile that the nice UPS and Fed Ex people are always bringing around from the publishers. I read the first one, and then immediately the others. I am not saying I liked these books. That’s not the point. I respected these books, which is the point, for their courage and daring. They are also just as well if not better written as about 90 percent of what gets published in genre, and that includes some of the people who piled on the firstest with the mostest. No one was going to forgive this woman for not doing the McCaffrery dragon bonding thing. If there be dragons and a protagonist, first law of fantasy fiction is they bond!

    This isn’t the first or last time I’ve seen this happen.

    Love, C.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 17, 2011 4:43 pm

  51. John,
    >I think he’s arguing that Howard was gifted in creating classic heroes, and that Abercrombie is incapable of it.
    If that’s the case and I think you’re right, then Grin is kinda wacky, ‘cause that’s like comparing apples to oranges. They are very different writers to start and you couldn’t really make a fair comparison anyway. Howard has been read and pondered upon for what, like 80 years? It hasn’t even been a decade since The Blade Itself was released.
    That’s like comparing Shakespare to Quentin Tarantino, maybe?
    >felt betrayed by the ending. It was a violation of what he expected.
    Grin better not watch No Country for Old Men. It would push him off over the edge. LOL

    Comment by kid_greg - February 17, 2011 7:29 pm

  52. I know it’s late, but I’d like to weigh in on some of the stuff I’m seeing here, especially in the comments.

    1. Allegations of text speak novels being the next thing to destroy us all.

    At the risk of sounding silly myself, I think this is a silly complaint! Textspeak invades every part of society. It is in television and online you can’t help expecting it. There are typos in the comments in this thread, which is what textspeak often originates from. It’s hardly damaging the ability of the people responding here to understand the meaning of those comments, though.

    Further, there IS a book that address this already. I consider it fantasy– perhaps some wouldn’t– and it’s called Riddley Walker. Russell Hoban counts, I guess, as a science fiction author, but this is a book about people who haven’t written in a long time starting to write again. It starts off clunky and as the narrator gets the hang of writing words down, things get added (like punctuation). It’s a fascinating story that I liked quite a lot- and will probably be rereading after all this exciting debate, though I must surely finish Fall of Hyperion, first!- and deals with exactly the kind of perversion of language and culture that is totally natural.

    Resisting the acknowledgement of modern technology and lifestyles heavily limits our ability to write modern fantasy. If you pride yourself on how un-internet-savvy you are, how can you accurately represent the awe and heartbreaking joy of seeing a real forest in a fantasy world for the first time? I say bring on the textspeak, because it will give us more reason to cherish the gorgeous prose. Pretending it doesn’t exist won’t make it go away, but sharing our sorrow over a lost cultural pinnacle– that might just convince some readers that they want to live their lives differently.

    2. Magic in Lord of the Rings.

    I REALLY want to agree with Light in the Black on this one. Not only is Lord of the Rings a story about the loss of something wonderful– an inexorable, unstoppable loss– it’s about how people who are not all that magical or special can still make it through the kinds of challenges left for them by the magical world.

    Basically, I’d say that wanting good fiction is enough of a goal in and of itself. Every genre has its gems and ghouls!

    Comment by Lydia Eickstaedt - February 18, 2011 4:20 pm

  53. John,

    Tolkien was, as you said, quite well versed in myth, particularly the Old English and Norse epics, and those myths and sagas informed his writing to a great degree.

    Abercrombie, on the other hand, feels more grounded in history because there is so much going on that loosely parallels history, especially the sacking of Constantinople and the encroachment of the Ottoman Turks into southeastern Europe.

    Matt

    Comment by Light in the Black - February 19, 2011 7:52 pm

  54. Matt,

    I think the key word in your previous comment is “feels”. The simple fact is that no fantasy set in a European medieval setting in which religion does not play any significant role in both events and the protagonist’s perspective can reasonably be considered “grounded in history”. There is no getting around that basic historical reality. The limits of the genre’s imagination are shown by the reluctance of fantasy authors to write outside the European setting if they are so determined to avoid dealing with historical Christianity since it is so easily done.

    Comment by Theo - February 20, 2011 9:32 am

  55. […] Phil Athans, and Paul Charles Smith, among others, also had comments. Around these parts, John O’Neill put up a post on the Black Gate blog which spawned an interesting discussion. Earlier today, another blogger […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Decline and Fall of Bankrupt Nihilism - February 20, 2011 11:47 pm

  56. […] Gate summarised the conversation for their readers. More interestingly, they featured a couple of essays taking […]

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