“Mainstream” Arrogant Ignorance

In the “By the Books” column of The New York Times last Sunday, in response to the question “And how would you describe the kinds of books you steer clear of?” the apparently noted author Russell Banks replied: “Anything described by the author or publisher as fantasy, which to me says, “Don’t worry, Reader, Death will be absent here.” In his brief introduction to Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon says he takes serious writing to be that in which Death is present. I agree.”

Here we go again. Once more, an entire genre is being wrongly stereotyped by someone who has no idea of either its content or its variety. Death not present in fantasy? If George R.R. Martin read this, he should be laughing his head off. Not only is death present at every character’s elbow, but forget about virtue triumphing. At least so far, there doesn’t seem to be a character who’s survived that comes anywhere close to being even vaguely admirable. And Martin’s certainly not the only fantasy author in whose works death is a very close and brooding presence.

When Banks goes on to quote Thomas Pynchon, he’s clearly unaware that Amazon, literary critics, and some bookstores seem to think that Pynchon writes a form of fantasy, and there are over 3 million Google hits that link Pynchon and “fantasy.”

In one respect, I understand. Mainstream writers are just like everyone else. They’re absolutely secure in their delusions. We all have delusions, and we all have gaps in our background knowledge. But I have this old-fashioned idea that, especially if you’re a public figure of some type, you really should think about what you say. How in the hell can a man who thinks he’s never read a fantasy book, because he’s steered away from what he thinks is fantasy, possibly offer an accurate observation on an entire genre? Obviously, Russell Banks has no trouble in parading his ignorance, and the Times book section even highlighted and bolded the quote as the lead into the column.

I have great difficulty with that as well, because that emphasis on the quote either means someone at the Times is either as ignorant as Banks, or they’re taking a snide swipe at fantasy, or trying to provoke a controversy clearly using an ignorant, if talented, author as a foil. Banks deserves any potshots that come his way, including this blog, but the readers of F&SF – and the Times – deserve far better. In this case, the “Grey Lady” of journalism has behaved more like a street slut in outing an unwitting john.

15 thoughts on ““Mainstream” Arrogant Ignorance”

  1. John Prigent says:

    Bank obviously hasn’t read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Death is not only present in many of them, he’s a central character in several and the star of one (Reaper Man, to be precise). And if Discworld isn’t fantasy I’d like to know what is!

  2. JakeB says:

    I am not really a fan of Mr. Martin — the first book of GoT told me I would not want to read further in the series — but I did like his comment of a few years ago in which he observed (and since I quote second-hand from memory, I may be a bit off) that since “serious” literature was really only about miserable suburban lives anymore, it was really a kind of genre itself.

    Personally I like to apply the one-drop rule to fiction, so I can tell people that one of my favorite SF novels is Cold Comfort Farm.

  3. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

    “At least so far, there doesn’t seem to be a character who’s survived that comes anywhere close to being even vaguely admirable.”
    I detect that you really don’t like A Song of Ice and Fire, Mr Modesitt, because I really have to disagree with this. I don’t think GRRM necessarily creates characters who are admirable, but instead he creates human characters. Whereas you use your characters to explore morality, ethics and politics, Martin uses his to show hidden strengths, flaws, weaknesses, and even just emotions. His good characters do bad things, and his bad characters do evil things or good things with evil intention. That’s not to say you don’t have that either, but I think it’s more apparent in GRRM’s work because it’s so widespread. I mean I think Samwell Tarly is admirable in his dogged pursuit of knowledge from books (something I think you’d agree with), even if he is a coward. Ned Stark is admirable in his value of honour, even if that is his greatest weakness – he values honour too highly and is killed because he cannot let go. He would rather die than be dishonourable. Brienne is admirable because she doesn’t give in to her father’s wishes, and doesn’t let the bullying stop her being one of the most awesome warriors in the series.

    So I have to confess I think it’s a problem within genre, too. We’re not just dismissive of good works (sorry, Mr Modesitt, but I do feel you kind of dismiss GRRM’s series), but we ignore glaring and problematic flaws in the more popular works. I got shouted down in an online community because I was one of the few to call out an at-the-time very popular work out as being racist and sexist (or, should I say, had racist and sexist elements). Another at-the-time popular work was loved by many despite a group of people pointing out the problematic sexist elements within it, too.

    So yeah. I don’t think it’s just Mainstream vs Fantasy (funny how the biggest grossing films tend to be genre-based), I think we have an element of it within our own communities.

    1. I’ll admit I don’t care for the Fire and Ice series, but I have liked some of Martin’s other work, and I would never dismiss him or his work. He’s an excellent writer, as I’ve said before, and certainly a dominant figure. Unlike many, I don’t equate liking or disliking with excellence or the lack thereof.

      1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

        I see. Well, I sit corrected, at least to some degree. I just felt I had to raise a quibble with that specific point, because I think Martin creates human figures within a very dark and brutal world – one we in the West are generally somewhat exempt from except within the safety of a book’s cover, though in the very poorest districts and those dominated by gangs and drug lords I reckon it’s very much a reality, but with the swords replaced with guns and the lords being ‘johns’, barons and gang leaders. It’s not so much that Martin creates admirable characters, but gives his characters admirable traits – so you might love how Sam is intelligent and uses his love of books for good, but that’s compromised by his naivety and his cowardice (which isn’t as simple as that, too).

        It just seems an odd criticism, I suppose.

  4. Tim says:

    LEM: I agree with your last statement, and would also add ‘political correctness’ just after after ‘excellence’ in your last sentence.

    1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

      Political correctness doesn’t exist, though. It’s a construct used by those who don’t wish to challenge their own views or admit they’re wrong. I mean you could consider ‘affirmative action’ to be political correctness, as an example, but that trivialises the issue.

      1. The “problem” with the entire “political correctness” issue tends to be the extremists on both sides. Problems do exist with such matters as discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender or socio-economic status or ethnic background, but, at the same time, not all problems attributed to those issues are really based there. Those who raise the issues tend to sweep everything into the issue, and those who don’t like the issue raise the problems that really aren’t based on “discrimination” and claim that the entire issue is one of political correctness, and, as I see it, in the end everyone loses to the impulse to reduce everything to simplistic causation.

        1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

          Indeed. I’m actually put in mind of a comment I saw on a news site. The story was that a scene in a soap drama had been cut or altered because an actress in it (who is transgendered) felt a line directed at her (transgender) character was inappopriate and hurtful. The line was cut from the broadcast.

          More than one comment was along the lines of “this is political correctness” – um. No. The actress felt it was hateful and inappropriate, the production team agreed and cut it. It was that simple.

          I suppose the ‘real’ political correctness – though I’d hate to term it as such simply to disassociate it with the kneejerk bile spewed by those who seem to hate being challenged on any level, or who think free speech means freedom from consequence – is a different issue entirely, and I mean it’s created for a much different reason with a much different intent and purpose. Whether it works or not or is even ‘ethical’ is also different.

  5. Tim says:

    Political Correctness certainly does exist but though the term may not be used by those who wish to enforce their views of equality on others, it is a useful shorthand nonetheless.

    In the corporate world we attend many mandatory courses on diversity to raise awareness of differing perspectives and values some of which are now have legal support. This awareness and education is good.

    Where personal preference is not legally constrained, however, I find being challenged on my reading and my music too much of an intrusion. As stated in another post, the gender (or gender preference) of the authors is completely immaterial. It is the story which counts.

    1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

      In *theory* the gender (preference) of an author is immaterial, but there have been numerous attempts to look into it, and in practice it isn’t immaterial, at least from the point of view of the booksellers, head-hunters and even consumers.

      I also have to quibble with political correctness being described as “useful shorthand”. I certainly see your point, but I think the hijacking of the term as a sort-of kneejerk response has really changed its meaning, like Mr. Modesitt said about the word ‘discrimination’ (was it Archform: Beauty?). The way it’s generally used, to me, is generally in a hateful way by those who feel that their way is “right” even though it negatively impacts the lives of others.

  6. Tim says:

    @Kathryn: you raise a valid point in that if the books which are published are subject to prejudicial filtering based on gender, race etc then truly I am not seeing books presented on a level playing field. In my understanding, however, a separate channel will usually evolve – such as Motown did for music. From what you infer, this point has not yet been reached.

    I actually agree with you that behaviours drive a reactionary response. In my case, I have had very passionate advocates of equality insisting that I watch films, read books which really do not appeal and my saying so has led to some appalling and incorrect accusations. Unfortunately these people used the shorthand term you despise.

    1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

      I despise the term because of its more common usage, in the sense it’s used to just essentially hand-wave an issue. It shifts the responsibility of acceptance and, well, blame. So if someone says a show is being “politically correct”, they are blaming the show for being, say, “too accepting” rather than themselves for being ignorant and hateful. And whilst I think tokenism, etc. is something we need to address, labelling it as “political correctness” – to me – buries the issue under a loaded term.

  7. ryan says:

    as much as we like to believe that America is the land of opportunity etc., right now, we’re really closer to an economic feudalism. We’re at the point where the people with money have enough money to make the laws, and they dont shy away from doing so.

  8. ryan says:

    WHOOPS put that in the wrong place.

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