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

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

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.

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doug

I have to agree with Leo for the most part.

C.S.E. Cooney

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.

peadarog

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.

C.S.E. Cooney

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.

TheMoose65

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

Soyka

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.

andy

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 🙂

James Enge

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.

darangrissom

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.

C - Foxessa

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.

TheMoose65

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.

Light in the Black

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.

TW

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

C.S.E. Cooney

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?

TW

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

Jackson Kuhl

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.

Soyka

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?

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

C - Foxessa

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.

kid_greg

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.

kid_greg

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

[…] 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 […]

Light in the Black

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).

C - Foxessa

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.

Light in the Black

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

kid_greg

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.

kid_greg

>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.

Matthew David Surridge

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.

kid_greg

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.

C - Foxessa

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.

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