Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘KJ Parker’

Crushing Conservatism in Epic Fantasy?


So last week, Gollancz (an excellent British publisher of science fiction and fantasy) got some discussion going by tweeting a provocative question:

I missed the initial conversation on Twitter, but I have been following the fascinating responses from Liz Bourke at Tor.com, John H. Stevens at SFSignal, and Steven M. Long. So far, I’ve let Gollancz’s initial question, the essay responses, and the comments made on those responses all percolate in my brain. And out of that percolation, some thoughts come to mind:

Definitions Matter…to a Point

Much of the discussion has focused on defining terms. I suppose, considering the genre community’s love of semantics, that this shouldn’t be surprising. In this case, the discussion has centered almost exclusively on two key terms (“epic fantasy” and “conservative”) which are – admittedly – fuzzy, imprecise, and in may ways problematic. In order to contextualize my thoughts, I’m going to briefly wade into the semantic weeds and define how I will be using these terms, but that is incidental to my main focus. Much of the discussion has ignored the third – and most important – key term in Gollancz’s initial tweet: “crushingly.”

Definitions of “epic fantasy” and “conservative”, while important for the sake of precision, are terms we all routinely employ in some fashion. There is a working understanding of such terms that enables us to communicate. My personal definition of “epic fantasy” or my concept of “conservative” may not match yours perfectly, but there is enough overlap that we can in most cases make ourselves understood.

When it comes to “epic fantasy”, I like Alec Austin’s concept of a tag cloud of sub-genre characteristics, simply because it allows us to think of particular works as falling somewhere on a spectrum of “epic-ness”. Different works won’t all share the same characteristics, but such a model enables us to contextualize particular works somewhere along this conceptual spectrum – and thus to adopt a working understanding we can all agree on.

“Conservative” is a little more fraught, with cultural, political, emotional, and historical connotations that vary across individuals and geographies. “Politically conservative” in the UK differs significantly from “politically conservative” in the US, “morally conservative” varies across religious and secular belief and value systems, and all of these different meanings of “conservative” further fragment into different implied meanings for “culturally conservative”. Loathe as I am to get bogged down in semantics, I’m going to use “conservative” in the following sense (courtesy of Dictionary.com):

1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

I think the term “crushingly” is less well-understood, particularly in this critical context. What does it mean to be “crushingly” conservative (or “progressive”, or “epic”, or “green”, or any other adjective)? What is getting “crushed” in Gollancz’s question? Are we talking about limitations imposed on aesthetics at the moment of creation? The moment of editorial acquisition? The moment of consumer purchase? The moment of reader consumption? Do we mean that structural characteristics are imposed upon creative works wishing to operate within or comment upon a sub-genre’s conventions? Do we mean that the characteristics of a particular sub-genre preclude the exploration of certain themes?

The important part of Gollancz’s question has little to do with how we define either “epic fantasy” or “conservative”. Any attempt to answer hinges upon the meaning of “crushingly”, and the cultural significance of that answer is a direct consequence of the unstated object implicit in the original question.

What Gets Crushed?

What is implicitly being crushed in Gollancz’s question? Obviously at a certain level of abstraction they mean epic fantasy literature. But that is such a broad over-generalization that it offers us little insight. It is far more interesting to narrow our focus and examine which aspects of epic fantasy literature may be getting the squeeze.

Here are the aspects I’m curious about:

  • Aesthetics. Does our current conception of epic fantasy preclude certain imagery, metaphors, sentence construction, etc.?
  • Structure. How do trends in epic fantasy constrain the narrative structures viable within the sub-genre?
  • Themes. Are there thematic areas which epic fantasy cannot explore? Moral, ethical, political, sociological models it cannot dramatize?

By definition, working within a genre imposes certain constraints on a creative work. However broad a given genre may be (and speculative fiction is, on the whole, broader than most), it has conventions. In fact, some might argue that genres are defined by their conventions, which as Samuel Delany pointed out, shape the way readers consume and interpret the written work. These conventions impose constraints precisely along those three foundational lines: aesthetics, structure, and themes. That is an inescapable truth of genre, and represents a key conserving force.

But when does the conserving force of such conventions (i.e. the constraints of convention) grow so constricting as to be deemed “crushing?” And here it gets interesting.

Who Does the Crushing?

The creative process features many actors at many stages: There is the author, who conceives of a story and sits down to write it. There is an agent who chooses to represent the book based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is an editor/publisher who acquires the story based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is a designer and production editor who shape the physical characteristics of the book so as to maximize (they hope) its sales potential. There is a bookseller who orders copies of the book based on their expectations of its sales. There are consumers who buy a book based on their expectations of what they’ll find within its covers. There are consumers who enjoy a book based on what they find within its covers, and some of whom will then go and conceive of a new story influenced (at least to some extent) by everything they have read before.

Each actor and each stage feeds into and affects every other stage of this cycle. Who applies the constraints imposed by genre? We all do.

The author, whose conception of a story has been shaped by their life experiences and media/genre consumption, chooses to impose or subvert the conventions of a genre while writing it.

The agent and acquiring editor (and the marketing and sales departments) are more or less welcoming to different books depending on the degree and fashion in which they apply genre convention. For them, it is about striking a balance between challenging convention enough to be innovative and fresh, while working within convention enough to give the rest of the sales cycle confidence in the work. And perhaps most importantly, that balance can be tipped in either direction by the quality of the execution. As an editor friend once told me: “Nabokov can break every convention and get away with it. But you’re not Nabokov.”

The designers (and the marketing and sales departments, again) shape the packaging of the physical (or digital) product to communicate the book’s balance to the booksellers and readers. Consider the original US covers for Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Stylistically, they suggest that the books’ content will work solidly within the conventions of mid-list sword and sorcery…and thus fail to communicate anything about the novels’ tone, structural innovations, or subversion of epic fantasy conventions. It was, of course, a judgment call, yet one which I think the series’ original UK publishers did better with (and it is significant that subsequent US editions received new covers closer in aesthetics to their UK counterparts).

US Cover UK Cover

The bookseller learns about the book through the catalog copy, cover art, and perhaps even a conversation with the publisher’s reps. This material tells the bookseller about what kind of creative balance a given work strikes, which in turn helps them to determine how many copies to buy, and how to shelve those copies.

All of these decisions, coupled with reviews and third-party commentary about the book, shape the reader’s expectations and frame the reader’s approach to the book’s content. Ultimately, they determine if the reader will buy the book, and subsequently when coupled with the content itself, affect the reader’s enjoyment.

At each stage there is pressure applied to the balance in one or the other direction. Challenge the genre, but not enough to tank sales. Work within the genre, but not so slavishly as to be trite. Stand out, but not too tall. Unless the book’s quality is such that any putative and theoretical yearning for creative balance becomes meaningless. Every actor in this process “crushes” the creative work to one degree or another.

The Real Question

Given this framework, we can now turn to Gollancz’s question: Is epic fantasy crushingly conservative?

I don’t know.

No two people desire aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation to the same degree or in the same direction. It is such idiosyncrasy which makes us human, and which leads to differing opinions. This push for innovation – in any facet of a creative work, and executed in whatever fashion – is constantly in tension with the prevailing cultural norms within broader society, and within the conventions of a particular genre.

Looking at epic fantasy, I see laudable attempts to push the boundaries of the genre. I recommend the work of (among others) N.K. Jemisin, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, Steven Erikson, Kate Elliott, Robin Hobb, etc. I can point to authors and books that challenge, subvert, or extend the genre. I value such innovation very highly. Do I wish to see more such aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation? Hell yes.

But do I think the prevailing cultural winds prevent such innovation from seeing the light of day? Do I think that such innovations are “crushed” beneath the oppressive heels of prevailing commercial trends and artistic tastes? I do not. I think that any innovation within any genre needs to be balanced against the long-standing conventions of that genre, and that this balance can be swayed in either direction by the quality of that innovation’s execution.

I think quality and innovation can both rise to the top. Regardless how circuitous the route, I think good storytelling will eventually win out. It may mean writing and selling more commercially “conservative” books in the short term to establish a fan base (i.e. to assuage commercial concerns about an innovative book’s commercial viability). It may mean by-passing the traditional publishing model and self-publishing an innovative work yourself. But the world of genre literature has the mechanisms in place to bring ground-breaking work to the surface, and to further disseminate its influence throughout the culture and the field.

But your mileage may vary. I think that epic fantasy does have conservative tendencies, just as all genres do. With the shadow of Tolkien, and the weight of history, I think epic fantasy’s conservative tendencies are expressed in ways particular to the sub-genre. Other genres (YA, for example) express their own conservatism in very different ways. An exploration of the ways in which epic fantasy or other genres express their conservatism would be fascinating (and I might come back to it later), but it is not really germane to Gollancz’s original question. Conservatism is inherent within every genre. The real question is whether or not the field is crushed by it.

How to Stand Beneath the Heel

The important conclusion of all this, however, is that if we wish to challenge the conservatism of a genre (regardless of how it is expressed or defined), we need to do it on every front we can. The author sitting alone and writing a challenging book. The agent who believes in the book enough to pitch it. The editor who believes in it enough to acquire it. The designers and sales people and reviewers and booksellers and readers who are willing to give it a shot.

But this process always starts with the creative act: with that author, ensconced behind a desk and dreaming challenging dreams.

The Anatomy and Value of Fictional Violence


Two months ago, Sherwood Smith and Steve Gould both urged me to read Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, and I am quite glad that I took their advice. The Sharpe stories are historical fiction, set during the Napoleonic wars and featuring the adventures of a British Rifleman Richard Sharpe. I’m only about a quarter of the way through the series at this point, but the books have made me wonder about the uses and techniques of violence in fiction. And since the genre I write most in (fantasy and science fiction) often features some level of violence, the question is philosophically and practically pretty relevant to me.

The Purpose of Fictional Violence

Like everything else in fiction, violence is a tool through which we can manipulate the reader’s emotional, mental, and physiological state. Most stories will use it as an accelerant: throw in a fight scene to boost the reader’s heartbeat, menace the hero to ratchet up tension, describe a murder in detail to make the reader uncomfortable. There is a natural sympathetic response when we read violence: our neurons fire in the same sensory areas as the hero’s, our heart rate goes up, our muscles tense. This is natural, and is part of the process by which we draw the reader into the story.

But violence can serve as more than an accelerant. Depending on how violent action is portrayed, we can use it to slow the story’s pace. Cornwell shows us – in scene after scene – how the butchery of war becomes a hard, bitter slog. He takes multiple paragraphs to describe a movement that would take seconds in reality, stretching the reader’s perception of time. And then he does it again. And again. And again, desensitizing us to the horrors of war just as if we were there fighting it.

In many stories, violence is the knife-edge on which the stakes balance. Conflict, and the themes it explores, are crystallized through violent action. A battle makes the political or philosophical conflict concrete, personalizes it, reduces it to an accessible or understandable simulacrum. A fight brings the emotional consequences home to the reader by playing on their sensory perceptions. While not all stories need violence to do so, violent action does make the stakes real in a way that reasoned discourse cannot.

So how does the tool work?

The Components of Fictional Violence

Focus

I keep returning to the Scribblies’ dictum that POV fixes everything, and that’s for damn good reason. The most important component in fictional violence is point-of-view, and more specifically the focus which that POV imbues.

Effective violence relies on the intersection of the reader’s imagination with their sensory perception of the events portrayed in the story. The reader might never have been in battle, but their imagination can supply the smell of smoke, the sound of screams, and the coppery taste of blood. The choice of how to direct the reader’s attention, which details to supply them with, which senses to evoke is one that relies on POV and focus.

Consider a bare-knuckles boxing match told from three different perspectives: one is a technical blow-by-blow in a newspaper article, the other is a sports announcer sitting ringside, and the third is one of the fighters (forgive me for the crudity of these experiments – I just want to illustrate a point):

Newspaper Article
Mondelo countered Flannery’s jab with a hard right hook, and Flannery went down for the count.
Sportscaster
Like a cat, Flannery shoots a right jab. But Mondelo just takes it! Takes it on the cheek, and doesn’t even blink. Mondelo’s right hooks around, moving like a meat hammer. Spins the Irishman clean around. He’s stumbling. He’s stepping away. Mondelo’s not touching him – he ain’t moving. The crowd’s screaming, going wild for Mondelo to finish up. Flannery folds up. The ref goes down. Mondelo’s just standing there. And that’s the count! Flannery is out!
Boxer
Flannery moved so fast, Mondelo never even saw the jab. It was like he’d blinked, just the one surprised blink, and then the blood streamed down his cheek like a salty tear. But his fist was already moving, and from this distance there was no way even fast Flannery could recover. Mondelo’s right crashed into his jaw, and though he couldn’t hear the Mick’s teeth crunch above the crowd’s screams, he felt them crumble up his hand and through his wrist, past his elbow and all the way to where his own face throbbed. Flannery spun around, flecks of bone and blood staining the ref’s shirt. Mondelo didn’t move. Let him go down, he thought. Let him go down, I don’t have another one like that. He couldn’t loosen his fist, like all of his bloodied knuckles had been fused together. Please, God, let him go down. The ring shuddered as the Irishman hit the mat. Below the haze, Mondelo could see the ref counting. The crowd was screaming. And his fist still wouldn’t open.

Each of these – admittedly rough – passages describes the same violent events, but the sensory details provided in each vary tremendously. It is the POV that informs which sensory details receive the focus, and it is in turn the focus which affects the reader.

Cornwell’s Sharpe series is told from a nearly omniscient point-of-view, which gives him the ability to narrow and widen his focus throughout the unfolding action of a particular battle. At one point, he might be giving us the view from ten thousand feet, describing the movements of entire companies on the field of battle. And in the next paragraph, he may have zoomed in to show us the brutal disembowelment of a cavalry man on the line. Consider the following (from Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Rifles):

Those Riflemen began to fall. The centre of the square soon became a charnel house of wounded men, of blood, screams and hopeless prayer. The rain was stinging harder, wetting the rifle pans, but enough black powder fired to spit bullets at the enemy who, crouched in the grass, made small and elusive targets.

The two mounted squadrons had wheeled away to the west, and now reformed. They would charge along the line of the road, and the frozen steel of their heavy straight swords would burn like fire when it cut home. Except, so long as the Riflemen stayed together, and so long as their unbroken ranks bristled with the pale blades, the horsemen could not hurt them. But the enemy carbines were taking a fearful toll. And when enough Riflemen had fallen the cavalry charge would split the weakened square with the ease of a sword shattering a rotten apple.

Dunnett knew it, and he looked for salvation. He saw it in the low cloud which misted the hillside just two hundred yards to the north. If the greenjackets could climb into the obscuring shroud of those clouds, they would be safe. He hesitated over the decision. A Sergeant fell back into the square, killed clean by a ball through his brain. A Rifleman screamed as a bullet struck his lower belly. Another, shot in the foot, checked his sob of pain as he methodically loaded his weapon.

As the above passage shows, the omniscient POV gives Cornwell great descriptive flexibility, as it allows him to communicate information which his protagonist (Richard Sharpe) does not necessarily have. But while an omniscient POV maximizes our flexibility of focus, it carries with a trade-off in the other essential component of effective violence: the level of emotional engagement.

Emotional Context

Violence without emotional context is useless. By giving the reader an understanding of the character’s perception of the violence, and of the character’s investment in its outcome, we make it possible for the reader to have an emotional response. The emotional context for violence is an amalgamation of everything we have learned about the characters involved, and about our perceptions of those characters.

Obituaries – which as a matter of taste and human decency, rarely depict violence – are a great example of this principle at work. The purpose of an obituary is to communicate that a person has died. But that could be communicated in one sentence: “Person X died yesterday.” Or, if we wanted to provide more factual detail, we might say “Person X died in a car crash yesterday.” But that’s not how obits are structured. They give us the facts, but they also humanize the person involved. They imply an emotional context for the event, at the least by mentioning the survivors.

Emotional context works the same way in violence. Violence where the characters lack an emotional stake fails to move the reader. It makes the violence clinical, which at times might be the point (a lot of serial killer thrillers do this), where the absence of emotional context itself becomes its own equivalent.

However, there is a difference between painstakingly writing a scene of emotionless, clinical violence (as in Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter), and writing one where the emotional context is haphazard. This is one of the complaints I tend to have about some gritty fantasy, in particular some of Joe Abercombie’s or K.J. Parker’s work.

While technically their portrayals of violence are fine, that violence is frequently devoid of emotional investment. The point-of-view is close, developing an expectation that the focus and depiction of violence will be visceral to the characters involved. But when that portrayal lacks an emotional dimension: the characters are often shown to have emotions, but those emotions somehow vanish when the violence begins. When those perspective characters’ emotions are kept at arms’ length, the reader’s emotions are likewise held at bay, weakening the effect the violence can otherwise produce.

Language and Violence

The language which we use to portray violence also carries significant impact. Historical fiction, quasi-historical fantasy, contemporary fantasy, and science fiction all feature technologies with which most readers are not fluent. But the use of technical terminology, of the correct terms for particular objects or maneuvers, can help establish the world-building of the story (see my earlier discussion of how Ian Fleming and John le Carré use these science fictional techniques).

The sentence, paragraph, and chapter structures can similarly affect the pacing of the action, and likewise manipulate the reader’s focus. Staccato sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters accelerate the pace. When the emotional stakes are established, when the reader is invested, the accelerating pace increases the reader’s tension.

The words used to describe the violence, with their sound, their rhythm, and the emotions they evoke in the reader likewise affect the reader’s response. To describe a sword wound as “gaping” or “weeping” produces a different response in the reader, and this type of response can be played with to good effect.

In Cornwell, the descriptions of violence are visceral: when focused closely, Cornwell describes the wounds inflicted in graphic terms. But for his protagonist, battle is just another day at the office. Richard Sharpe remains emotionally invested in the violence, but there is a purposeful disconnect between his ruthlessness in battle and the graphic way in which Cornwell describes the horrors of war. Sharpe laments the ugliness of war, but he also revels in it. As he says time and time again, it is the only job he was ever good at.

On the Absence of Violence

But not all books – and certainly not all genre books – need violence to be successful. One of my favorites, John Crowley’s Little, Big is pretty much devoid of violence. Violence can by its very nature either by physical (as it tends to be in much fantasy), emotional (as it tends to be in much romance), or philosophical (as it often is in much 19th century literature). But as far as I can see, the tools by which those different kinds of violence are established, and the uses to which we put them, are consistent.

Whether the violence involves a broadsword, a ray gun, or cutting repartée, the tools for its depiction remain the same. And that’s because it is not violence that affects the reader, but rather the way in which that violence gets presented.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 139 other followers

%d bloggers like this: