Friday, 29 May 2009

No Revolutionary Socialism, please. I'm an Escapist.

An old interview with China Mieville gets a mention in Brian Murphy's latest Cimmerian entry. Ah, China Mieville. Was there ever a more frustrating fantasy writer? A man with oodles of talent but only a hit-and-miss ability to craft a story, plagued with political idiocies which prevent him from achieving true greatness. He reminds me a little of David Ginola; a technical wizard who allowed a carefully cultivated maverick persona and an inability to deliver in the big games to prevent himself becoming an all-time great.

Mieville's whole authorial world-view has a number of problems, which you can spot in this interview:

1. Falling for non-fantasy-readers' definitions of fantasy.
If you look at stereotypical 'epic' or 'high' fantasy, you're talking about a genre set in magical worlds with some pretty vile ideas. They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there's a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it's because he's a bad king, as opposed to a king. If the peasants are visible, they're likely to be good simple folk rather than downtrodden wretches (except if it's a bad kingdom...). Strong men protect curvaceous women. Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within. Morality is absolute, with characters--and often whole races--lining up to fall into pigeonholes with 'good' and 'evil' written on them.
This sounds more like a description of a typical D&D campaign, or a literary snob's idea of what fantasy is like, that what the genre actually is. In fact, almost no mainstream high-fantasy is like this. Even 'high fantasy' writers who I consider to be utterly dire, like David Eddings, Trudi Canavan, Robert Jordan and Weis & Hickman, write novels where female characters are just as strong as men, where peasants are often main characters, where threats are as much from within as from without, and where the idea of kingship itself is challenged. I'll grant him that morality is not generally subtly dealt with in most high fantasy, but all that does is make this paragraph a kind of proof by verbosity - a huge scattershot of cliches levelled at trad fantasy, hoping one of them will hit.

2. A whole load of misconceptions about Tolkien.
Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious - you can't ignore it, so don't even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there's a lot to dislike - his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien's cliches - elves 'n' dwarfs 'n' magic rings - have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was 'consolation', thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.
Young fantasy writers often like to talk down Tolkien - they think it makes them look cool and rebellious. Even Michael Moorcock fell into the trap of thinking that muckslinging at Tolkien somehow made his own work look better. Mieville has stuck at it longer than most. But he's profoundly wrongheaded. First, the obvious point is that he clearly hasn't read Tolkien, or at least hasn't without his Revolutionary Socialist hat on. Tolkien didn't glorify in war, and it should be obvious to anybody who's read any of his work. The opposite is true. And nor did he write that "the function of fantasy was 'consolation'" as if it was an "article of policy" for fantasy writers - he only ever wrote about himself and his own point of view, and made no sweeping statements about what the fantasy 'genre' (there wasn't such a thing back then) should be.

Secondly and more annoyingly, Mieville takes the position that all political idealogues do - namely that all rightminded people must surely agree with his position wholeheartedly and can't possibly think that anything the target believed might be worthwhile. This arrogant assumption that everybody else, if they are rational adults, must surely be a Revolutionary Socialist and against Tolkien too, frankly pisses me off. I'm not a Revolutionary Socialist. I think those people lost their argument, oh, around 100 years ago. And I do happen to believe in absolute morality. I don't happen to see anything wrong with 'consolation' sometimes; I don't think that 'comforting' fiction is a bad thing in and of itself. And I am a rational adult. Mieville has to explain why people like me are wrong, not behave as if any fule know it to be the case.

3. Thinking that escapism is a bad thing.
The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can't escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren't about the real world they therefore 'escape' is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That's why some fantasies (like Swift's Gulliver's Travels) are so directly allegorical--but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can't help but reverberate around the reader's awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.

Take a book like Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle. It's set in a fantasy world, and it involves discussions of racism, industrial conflict, sexual passion and so on. Does it really make any sense to say that the book is inherently, because of its genre form more escapist than what Iain Banks calls 'Hampstead novels', about the internal bickerings of middle class families who seem hermetically sealed off from wider social conflicts? Just because those books pretend to be about 'the real world' doesn't mean they reverberate in it with more integrity.

Precisely because you read and write books with society in your head, the 'escape' that Tolkien and others aspire to is doomed to fail. In fact, it's precisely those kind of escapist books that take the real world for granted which are most shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of that world.
First off, the idea of Mieville calling anybody else's work "shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of [the real] world" is like Jabba the Hutt calling me a big fat slug that eats frogs and likes looking at women in gold bikinis. I can't think of a single other writer who better fits that description. (Being shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of the real world, I mean. Not the Jabba the Hutt thing.)

Second off, in my experience, books that try to discuss things like racism, industrial conflict and sexual passion in explicit terms (well, maybe not the sexual passion part) generally tend to be, as novels, shit. Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles is no exception - it's probably the most boring thing I've read (well, attempted to read) in the past decade. The moment a writer starts trying to "reverberate in [the real world] with more integrity", rather than, you know, trying to write a good story, you know he's lost it. He might as well give up on the thing as a novel right there and then. Fiction should always, always be about story and that's all that a fiction writer should care about when he's writing.

Thirdly, escapism is a worthwhile thing in itself, and not something to be sniffed at. As somebody who isn't a card-carrying member of the Pretentious Socialist Worker Party Elite, I like to sometimes jack my brain out of the Capitalist hellhole in which I find myself and in which my "every human impulse is repressed" and just, you know, think about something mindblowing and weird and get away from the world. Am I supposed to feel bad about that because China Mieville thinks I should constantly be engaging with "the real world" and if not I'm being "mollycoddled" and "comforted"? Fuck that.

91 comments:

  1. I disagree with a lot of what you say, but I don't feel like arguing with you about it. Mostly because I disagree with Mieville about as much as I do with you.

    Also possibly because I'm alone at the bottom of a pit and you're the GM.

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  2. Wise move. There's a Greater Daemon's set of fangs with your name on it.

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  3. As my resolve to never read a bloody thing that fool plonk Mieville writes just firms itself up more ...

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  4. I'm with you on this noisms. Mieville really has personal issues with Tolkien that he likes to parade as objective truth.

    It really is laughably ironic that Mieville castigates Tolkien for being purely 'escapist' with no ties to reality and in the same breath he rips into him for perpetuating the monarchical/fascist/wrongheaded/whatever paradigms of his patriarchal worldview. Huh?

    And yeah, it's pretty obvious that Mieville has either never read Tolkien, or has an inability to objectively parse the work of someone whose philosophy he disagrees with. Tolkien certainly doesn't glorify war (though many of his imitators do), there is much more moral nuance in his works than white hats vs. black hats (esp. if you bother looking at his wider opus and see the stories of the First Age wherein the 'good guys' like Turin, Feanor, or even the Eldar in general are much more complicated than "elves good, orcs bad").

    Basically I think Mieville is really mad that the elephant in the room of Fantasy fiction is Tolkien and that means he has to deal with him, even though he personally hates everything he thinks Tolkien stands for. Mieville also knows that he will never be as popular or long-lasting as Tolkien and that must really stick in his craw. So how best to handle the situation? Heck, why not fire off some pithy barbs at good ol' J.R.R. and blame him for all that is wrong in our poor little genre (a genre which Tolkien had no desire to create, though the way his detractors talk you'd think he had some kind of master plan to single-handedly create the genre of fantasy fiction and ensure the perpetuation of his horribly wrongheaded ideals on a weak and unsuspecting world)...oh and make sure to plaster him with labels like "racist" and "fascist" and make sweeping statements about his work that implies that any disagreement is the opinion of zombi-fied fools or wrong-thinking readers that obviously adhere to the same evil philosophies themselves.

    Yeah...thanks China.

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  5. @Taichara: Mieville's a great worldbuilder ("The Scar" is wall-to-wall lootable) unfortunately crippled by his political hobbyhorses (*tsk tsk* This seems a particularly virulent strain of reheated Marxism). Read his Bas-Lag books for just the stories and the spectacle, and he's worth the time.

    As for his putting the boot into J.R.R.T:
    "2/10 Mieville. Re-read the Silmarillion until understanding dawns."

    wv: reriquit - even the wv is erudite today...

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  6. Ok, all these comments have moved me to defend the poor bastard.

    Neither is my favorite author by a long shot but China Mieville is, in my opinion, about exactly as good as Tolkien. For vastly different reasons.

    China's a man who's got opinions, many of which are inflammatory. So was JRR. So was every writer that was any good that we know anything about.

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  7. While I don't agree with Zak that Mieville is as good as Tolkien, I have enjoyed his books. As I said in the post, the man has a heck of a lot of talent, and the sheer brilliance of the ideas is often worth the price of admission. I just think he needs to concentrate on character development and story more than on trying to reflect real world politics. (Iron Council was a good book almost scuppered by trying to create some weird allegory of the Paris Commune, for example.)

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  8. Also, talking crap about other authors always annoys me. People should just let their own writing stand as it is.

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  9. @Chris:

    True enough, but I don't know if I'd be able to put up with the preaching long enough to borrow any ideas.


    @Zak S:

    I'm not defending Tolkien (being, at best, neutral on the subject); I just think Mieville is a prat.

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  10. noisms: So if you become an author you lose the right to have opinions about other author's work? Pshh.

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  11. Great post. I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't care for Mieville.

    I mean, I really have nothing against a work that challenges my worldview and has a sociopolitical agenda. If it's well-done, I have something to think about, even if I disagree with the author's point. Someone like Samuel Delany, who presents issues of power, gender, sexual politics, etc. in all their glorious complexity (his Neveryon cycle is my favorite fantasy work, is fantastically written and structured, and has very explicit discussions of social issues).

    Mieville, by contrast, seems like an undergrad who has just been exposed to Marxism. I don't find the necessary complexity in his work that would make it much more than a caricature or simple-minded screed, no matter how vividly it is presented.

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  12. Not what I said. Opinions are fine. But talking crap about fellow artists isn't big, hard or clever - it just makes you look like a complete arse.

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  13. That last comment of mine was in reference to Anonymous, by the way.

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  14. @ Anonymous

    No, you don't lose the right to critique, but there is a point, like Frank Zappa learned at his shows in the late 70's, that you need to eventually "shut up and play yer guitar". Spend that literary energy writing a better novel of your own rather than sitting around bitching about someone else's work.

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  15. I never took to Mieville. His characters are too modern hipster, [metal in my nose gives me character], and with his alienating remarks he must be looking for a readership other than the traditional fantasy one.

    I wasn't aware of the extent of his self-inflicted brainwashing so thanks for that.

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  17. Mieville's point about fantasy not being escapist appears to simply be arguing for the idea that a writer is always enmeshed in his or her own society, which inevitably and inextricably influences what is written.

    Thus, a reader will always be exposed to the social, political, ideological ideas of the writer, whether the writer intended it or not. And this reader will always read what is written using his or her own social, political, and ideological understanding.

    Thus, readers who want to escape reality will always be confronted with it even in storyworlds ...if they but look. You can want to escape all you'd like, but that doesn't mean it ever really happens.

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  18. As I was reading this, I was thinking of the reactions it would draw from the readership on Mike Moorcock's site, given that a lot of the vocal there seem to like Mieville, let alone your statement regarding Mike's condemnation of JRRT.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Mieville fan (nor much a fan of Mike's writing, truth be told -- love the man and his mind/heart, but not so much the writing), haven't read a drop of his ink, but this post reminded me a lot of the bullshit Old School ripples of last weekend. While I agree with a lot of what has been said, I think it is interesting that you, noism, don't appear to be a writer and yet you are tilting at a published and purchased author although you make a similar invective against Mieville.

    Likewise, your preference for a particular branch of fiction writing is, as I am certain you would agree, simply your own preference.

    Just as there is no great need to parse what OD&Dish games are 'worth' and how one determines that worth, these sort of arguments don't seem to be much-'more than a feeling'.

    > gets back to work writing her RPG <

    Peace,

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  19. Vincent: Well put.

    The_Myth: Elsewhere in the interview he seems to be denigrating escapism as a goal in itself, because it's comforting, mollycoddling, etc.

    Timeshadows: Two points: Firstly, I'm not a writer and don't make a claim to be, so I don't have an agenda when it comes to critiquing the work of writers. The same can't be said for Mieville - his attacks on Tolkien seem to be all about agenda. That's a crucial distinction.

    Secondly, I'm not really even critiquing Mieville's fiction (on balance, I like it); I'm critiquing his views about literature and politics. Again, a different thing.

    Regarding the whole OD&D comparison... well, if Mieville was happy to let preferences be preferences that would be fine with me. He isn't happy to do that though - he seems to take every opportunity given to him to tell the world what fantasy literature should be about, and if any fantasy book doesn't meet that definition it's worthless and wrong - which is largely what irks me about him.

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  20. Kent: Yeah, I've noticed that his books have graduated from the fantasy ghetto to the "contemporary literature" shelves in a lot of bookshops, which indicates that the literary establishment has given him a gate pass in return for slagging off awful Tolkien.

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  21. My experience with Mieville is limited, but (as the age-old colloquialism goes) blimey if he's not a pretentious, whining fool.

    Bloody hipster.

    And this coming from someone who (over the course of her teenage years) came to a vague semi-socialist ideology, so it's not necessarily a disagreement of politics (though I don't think any sort of active revolution would be necessary if the right leaders could be put in more organically)

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  22. I agree. Mieville has joined Richard Morgan as authors on my shit-list. It seems to be a rite of passage for young, emerging fantasy authors to take whacks at Tolkien. Which is fine, except that Mieville and Morgan have mis-read him terribly. "Boys-own-adventure glorifying in war?" Where did Mieville get this from? Surely not from the same author who gave us The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin (which contain bloody ruin and defeat for the "good guys," and broken survivors and grieving wives and children)? Not the same author whose primary work, The Lord of the Rings, teaches us that we're all on the road to the long defeat, and that war's reach is terribly long and pernicious (see "The Scouring of the Shire")?

    It must suck to see all of the world through the clouded, distorted lenses of a failed political philosophy.

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  23. I just wanted to pop in and say I got linked to this post via a Twitter comment and found it very interesting reading. (No in-depth commentary here, I'm not even awake. :P)

    ~Merc

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  24. Man, I cannot fucking believe I am defending an author I only like a third of the time, but jesus christ people:

    (noisms, I'm not talking to you, here)

    No matter what the characters or text of Tolkien stories SAY, the fact is that the actual book in front of you--especially if you're reading Return of the King--is a book which lingers for a very very long time on scenes where people hit each other.

    Whether this is "glorying in war" isn't the point, the point is that even if Jane Austen doesn't like "pride" or "prejudice" the fact is that her books are fascinated with both things. Many of Tolkien's books are fascinated with war. This is undeniable. How do we know? Because he spends many pages writing about it.

    Whether or not this is a good bad or neutral thing is another thing altogether, but to ignore this is silly.

    Further, to blame every thing you don't like about Mieville on his politics makes no sense.

    Also, to heap bile on an artist and call him names for voicing an opinion about another dead artist whose reputation is entirely secure is to fail to realize a basic fact about the business of art:

    Living artists have to fight--often in public--for the right to have their art seen in a meaningful light. Dead, famous, much-beloved artists don't. Tolkien talked smack about books he didn;t like, and he used a lot of his "energy" talking in public about what he thought was right an dwhat he thought was wrong in literature. This is often, unfortunately, necessary. Art's a business.

    Dislike Mieville for what he writes if you want. Call him a bad writer. Argue with his politics if you want to really get philosophically into it. But do NOT give the man static for stating his opinions about art in public--that is as much a part of an artist's job and livelihood as driving is a part of the pizza boy's.

    It is, to Tolkien's credit, impossible to discuss the craft of fantasy writing in any depth without mentioning Tolkien. Avoiding the subject would be avoiding talking about fantasy writing at all.

    Combining Mieville's method of self-promotion, way of writing, and political viewpoint into one big target and then taking aim st it and calling him names is intellectually dishonest.

    If you want to argue with the man, do it the way Noisms did--pull the thing apart into its parts, and give an honest account of what you do or don;t like about the parts

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  25. I think you've really misread his opinions and motivations in this interview, Mr. Noism. For starters, he isn't brandishing his opinion of Tolkien around so he can get out of the fantasy ghetto - he was asked a question in an interview and answered it. He also has clearly read Tolkien, and read Tolkien's opinions of fantasy writing. About your particular complaints:

    1. Falling for non-fantasy readers' definitions of fantasy:
    In the interview, he is asked why fantasy appears conservative and he answers with the reasons he thinks. He also gives an extra paragraph (which you didn't quote!) where he defends fantasy as not conservative.

    2. A whole load of misconceptions about TolkienYour claims about what Tolkien believed about fantasy writing are being put in direct opposition to Mieville's quoting of Tolkien. I haven't read this essay of Tolkien's, but Mieville makes it clear he thinks Tolkien has a theory of fantasy stories, and it's not enough to say "no he didn't" when Mieville is quoting the author's own work on the subject.

    3.Thinking that escapism is a bad thingMieville starts this part of the interview by saying that this is the common criticism of fantasy levelled against it by "genre snobs" and "leftists". He finishes by claiming that fantasy is not escapist. He is defending the genre against what he believes is an unfair criticism. He cites the comparison of Gentle vs. "Hampstead Novels" as an example of how every form of novel can be escapist, not as a suggestion that good novels must necessarily rise above this. In the middle he spares a spray for the idea that escapism is possible at all, hardly a novel theory or one that we can blame Mieville for.

    I think you've misunderstood Mieville, and I'm inclined to have a further go at you about it on my own blog. Do you mind if I do?

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  26. The impression I've always got from Mieville's discussions of Tolkien is that he read LotR when he was eleven, read a whole bunch of trashy sub-Tolkien knock-offs, rightly decided that the latter were shite, but then somehow got confused and projected the weaknesses of the pastiches onto the original. Sort of how the original Halloween is derided because of how the slasher genre it spawned turned out.

    Anyway, I reckon if Mieville read the bloody things again, he might find that he's got a whole lot wrong.

    Still, he is a great world-builder, but I suspect a lot of that is a holdover from his gaming days. I wonder if he really put away roleplaying because it was juvenile, or if all of his games turned into neo-Marxist lectures and everyone dropped out?

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  27. Why do people assume that if you read Tolkien you'll automatically love and him and never want to criticize him?

    This isn't true of ANY AUTHOR EVER. Read some Amazon.com reviews if you don't believe me.

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  28. Man, I'm starting to wish I hadn't opened this can of worms. This comment might not be so coherent because I've drunk 5 or 6 gin & tonics tonight.

    Zak: I basically agree, although I'll quibble with you a little - Tolkien did dwell on war a lot in LOTR, but he absolutely didn't glorify it. I never got that sense reading it, and from what I know of Tolkien's WWI experience, he found the very idea of glorifying war highly distasteful. There's a difference between being fascinated with something and glorifying it, and I think Mieville is flat wrong and possibly disingenuous in conflating the two. Otherwise, your comment is well put.

    faustusnotes: I think you're misreading my misreading, if you'll forgive me.

    1. The sentence in bold is poorly worded, but I think it's clear from what I wrote in explanation that I think Mieville's description of cliched high fantasy is wrong. Cliched high fantasy has a shitload of things wrong with it, but most of the things that Mieville cites haven't applied for decades if they ever did. If you're going to lambast high fantasy at least lambast it for its actual flaws, not percieved ones.

    2. Tolkien really wasn't setting out a policy or manifesto for fantasy authors. He just wasn't. I don't have the essay in question to hand to quote it, but I've read both it and most of what else Tolkien had to say about his own writings, and can tell you that Mieville's portrayal of a man trying to found a genre with policy statements is just dead wrong. The genre itself didn't even exist when Tolkien wrote that essay - it's about "fairy stories", for goodness sake.

    The weird thing is, much of what Tolkien has to say in defence of fairy stories is echoed by Mieville when he talks about conceptualising the impossible. That's one of the cornerstones of Tolkien's entire argument. The others are escapism and, yes, consolation, but he only ever says that fairy stories can be consolatory and that there is value in that - not that it's what the fantasy genre should be about.

    3. I think it's fairly clear that Mieville thinks escapism is a bad thing in that he feels the need to "defend" fantasy from the escapist charge. You don't defend something from something else unless you think it's a bad thing.

    By all means, write a blog entry about it, though.

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  29. Zak S: It is usually admirable to defend someone from being universally derided but you might have gone off half-cocked in this case and perhaps did not read the interview. There I think you will see that he is seduced by a comrade into a sequence of giddy comments about fantasy all rendered irrelevant as they are informed by that intellectual sliver, Socialism.

    faustusnotes: To be fair you should include a link to the interview as a challenge to your eloquence.

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  30. @ Zak S.
    In the end, though, the business of art is about the work itself. All the manifestos or opinions in the world about what other people do, be they famous dead people or whatever, is secondary to what happens when you put your brush to the canvas (or finger to the typewriter, or pick to guitar, or whatever.) I've never read a lick of Tolkein's literary criticism, although I'm sure it was copious. (Dude was a humanities professor, I have little doubt he wrote long and loquacious about any number of authors and their works.) It's his fiction I read and enjoyed and remembered. The meta text is immaterial.

    If an artist has to talk people into respecting their art, especially by pointing out how it's better than other people's stuff, maybe they need to work on their own art a little more.

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  31. Hi Mr. Noisms, good work downing a couple of gins, I'm drinking plum tea with gold leaf in, so I may be a little mad.

    I like this can of worms, it's fun. I have posted a blog post about it on my own seedy corner of the internet, I hope I've been polite so please don't take offense. In that blog post I somewhere deal with your claim 1, that high fantasy is not conservative. I think you're wrong and give concrete examples there. For example, Weiss and Hickman's bad guy comes straight from Hell, which is generally a pathological external enemy by most definitions.

    Regarding your other two points:

    2. Nowhere does Mieville claim Tolkien is setting out a policy manifesto for other authors. He is criticising Tolkien's view of his own writing. I think it's reasonable to claim Tolkien's views influenced others, but Mieville doesn't make that claim. He criticises Tolkien's opinions about writing as they pertain to Tolkien's own writing. I think that's reasonable.

    3. I don't know familiar you are with revolutionary marxism/socialism/whateverism, but this part of the far left looks pretty askance on any form of escapism. As a marxist, Mieville no doubt constantly gets criticised for writing "frivolous" books, and not devoting his energies to non-escapist things like communist party tracts. He rightly believes in the radical potential of fantasy but most of his "comrades" don't believe it has any. So at a marxist conference he was giving an interview defending his chosen genre from a common criticism his comrades make. I don't think you should claim that he necessarily thinks escapism is bad in this context. His novels are clearly very escapist (particularly the Scar, which seems pretty politically innocuous).

    I would guess a lot of Mieville's comrades would have thought Perdido Street Station was fundamentally a betrayal of marxist principles, for focussing on the human elements of life in the industrial world, for privileging the viewpoint of people that marxists would consider socially degenerate, and for writing a fundamentally atomistic description of some individuals' conflict against an external enemy. So he's got a lot of defending to do!

    [Also for those of you calling Mieville a stupid hipster - that is no doubt also a criticism levelled against him by Marxists, who are generally a bunch of cardigan wearing old fogies]

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  32. I wonder how it is that several of us who read your post are equally confused about more or less the same points, while another bunch of readers aren't confused by those same points.

    Not making any point with that, just noting the oddity of it.

    Please be kind to your internal organs, noisms. :)

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  33. Big Fella:

    "If an artist has to talk people into respecting their art, especially by pointing out how it's better than other people's stuff, maybe they need to work on their own art a little more."

    I'm not saying what an artist says should matter to the individual intelligent reader's judgement of whether they're making good or bad art.

    What I'm saying is that, in every era of literature and art history, new art must--unfortunately--almost ALWAYS be defended articulately by somebody in order to be commercially accepted enough for the artists who make that new and different art to be able to afford to keep making it and not get a day job.

    (this isn't true with music or movies, but it sure is with books and pictures)

    The cream of the crop does NOT automatically rise to the commercial top. Especially if it breaks with tradition.

    To say YOU AS A READER want to ignore criticism and focus on the art is cool and fine and admirable, to say that THE ARTIST can afford to--as a professional trying to make enough money to keep doing what they do and nothing else--is naive.

    Re: anybody snarking on socialism.

    It is a valid point to say that Mieville's socialism is unartfully integrated into his books or makes them predictable. It is a cheap snipe to write how he or his books or his opinions are bad simply because he's a socialist. That's dipping your toe into an ocean of philosophical argument and then running off and cyberhiding.

    Salvador Dali was pro-fascist, it doesn't render everything he ever said or did irrelevant.

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  34. @Zak S
    You seem to be conflating the artist and the critic.

    It's not the artist's job to proclaim their own superiority, it's their job to create, and let the viewer, and the critics, decide whether the work is superior or not.

    Your point about the professional artist not ignoring criticism kind of turns what I'm trying to say inside out. This isn't about the artist's relationship with their audience or critics, it's about an artist appointing *themself* a critic to aggrandize their own art (Or to advance their political agenda, which is kind of grating, to me personally.) by declaring the art of others inferior.

    Again, I reiterate, if you want to prove your superiority as an artist, create superior pieces, don't badmouth the other guy. In my opinion it betrays a lack of class. (Which I guess is the whole point of hardcore Marxism. I dunno.)

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  35. Big fella:

    In the fine arts, that puts you at the mercy of the critics, who only become powerful and important if they supported the LAST regime.

    No. Good artists are smart and often articulate and, in general, know a lot more about art than critics. If you leave the judgment of art to critics alone you get academic bullshit.

    Tolkien and his contemporaries supported each other. Moorcock and his contemporaries supported each other. William Gibson and his contemporaries supported each other. Critics are, to this very day, playing catch-up to these writers.

    As for the public:
    Well, if the public gets a say, then you have to concede Mieville is doing just fine.

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  36. All the questions of quality aside, Mieville, along with noted writers Ru Emerson and Jean Rabe, is one of the only fantasy writers whose book I never finished before throwing it across the room in disgust. I absolutely despise "authors" who use their fantasy fiction as a thinly veiled polemic advocating their own discredited philosophy (which is why I've stayed so very far away from L. Ron Hubbard's garbage)

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  37. Question for y'all:

    Does the fact that every republic from Romans times until over a thousand years later failed mean that democracy was a "discredited" philosophy?

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  38. @ Zak S.
    Authors supporting one another, or critics supporting a new movement in the fine arts, or the public supporting an artist with commercial success, have nothing whatsoever to do with the my personal disapproval of Mieville's attacks on Tolkien or fantasy literature in general.

    You seem to want to bring up positive examples of the artist/audience(or critic) feedback loop to justify Mieville's negative criticisms. I think a lot of folks are receptive to "This guy is doing something new and you should check it out." but take exception to "That guy's work is stupid and you're stupid if you like it." Which seems to be the thrust of the interview, at least by my reading.

    I just believe that someone trying to elevate themselves by publicly tearing others down is the mark of a punk ass, and people are well within their rights to call them on their punk assedness.

    If an artist is doing the most they can with their skill and talent, why the hell even bring the other guy up?

    Hell, even from a stone cold commercialist perspective, you don't give air time to the competition. You want the audience thinking about *your* work, not theirs.

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  39. Big Fella:

    Like I, and other people here, have already said:

    1-He was responding to questions from an interviewer.

    2-It is impossible to talk in any depth about fantasy literature without bringing up the influence of Tolkien.

    Also: IT WORKED. He got everybody talking about China Mieville. We're doin' it now.

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  40. He got everybody talking about China Mieville. We're doin' it now.Indeed.

    On the political point... I really don't want to get into an argument about democracy versus revolutionary socialism. To sum up my own political philosophy - I think ALL political ideologies are wrong, and the more strident their proponents are the more wrong they become. The world is far too complex for a set of theorists to explain, and the arrogance of theorists to try to do so is absolutely shameful. I think revolutionary socialists/marxists/anarchists are worse than people who support democracy in this respect (because they tend to be more strident and sure of themselves and therefore more susceptible to arrogance) but it's only a matter of degree.

    For what it's worth, if somebody was informing their fiction with any ideology in an obvious way it would be a turn off for me. Doesn't matter what the ideology is. Mieville's most successful and most enjoyable to read book in my opinion was The Scar, precisely because it managed to keep a lid on the ideology.

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  41. "To sum up my own political philosophy - I think ALL political ideologies are wrong, and the more strident their proponents are the more wrong they become. The world is far too complex for a set of theorists to explain, and the arrogance of theorists to try to do so is absolutely shameful"

    On this, I have to agree. I realise you're not into Doctor Who, but it is the best example I can give: the classic series used to have characters debate philosophical/political matters, discuss options, sometimes make bad decisions, and sometimes get it wrong; in the new series, at the slightest whiff of an 'issue', the Doctor jumps up and yells "I'm right and we're doing this my way!"

    Or, to put it another way, about the only political view I espouse is that Daylight Saving Time is wrong and must be gotten rid of - and I am still celebrating the defeat of the fourth referendum down here by the greatest margin so far ;)

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  42. Badmike, did you also throw LoTR away? It is a thinly veiled polemic. Have you successfully read Terry Goodkind or Orson Scott Card?

    The idea that "thinly veiled polemic" ruins a book is really strange. Everything John Steinbeck wrote is a thinly veiled polemic, as are large chunks of Shakespeare and Johnson. Lewis Carroll and CS Lewis also spring to mind. Orwell, maybe?

    Part of Mieville's comments in that interview concern the silliness of pretending you can write or read a book independent of your own or the author's political views, and that even the supposedly "apolitical" is often actually very political. This isn't a surprise, a novelty, a radical idea espoused only by Mieville, or even rocket science. It's a pretty basic aspect of literary criticism. If you don't like that sort of thing, cool, but you can't pretend Mieville is special for his "polemic" - or that your criticisms of his work represent anything except a personal objection to his particular polemic, in which case you're making the same mistake you accuse him of.

    Mr. Noisms, on the other hand, seems to think Mieville's problem is that the polemic is often ham-fisted. I dispute this claim (in general) but it's at least a valid complaint. And I do agree that the Scar is the most politically neutral.

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  43. BigFella, I think it's really unreasonable to expect writers who think about their craft to not also have discussion or debate about the different schools of thought within it. Tolkien got to have opinions on what he thought writing is about, why can't Mieville?

    And in this case, he is defending the fantasy genre against claims it is just conservative escapism. You may dispute his opinion that this is partly Tolkien's fault, but do you really think he should keep his defense of the genre to himself? Perhaps you haven't noticed that a lot of "real" literary critics think that fantasy is a waste of time ... if the writers within the genre can't have an opinion about the worth of the genre they are writing in, who can?

    Also, if you think Mieville said "this guy is stupid and you're stupid for reading it" I think you're seriously misreading the interview.

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  44. Zak S.: Noisms has anticipated me and said what I would have but in a sensible level-headed way. Leaving aside Mieville's novels and focusing on his interview he comes across as a pub bore, someone who thinks the crutch he uses to understand how the world works can aid him in every conversation.

    He says he wants to change the world, "That's why I'm a novelist and an active revolutionary socialist." This is burst-out-laughing daft.

    The sympathetic harmony of opinion that arises from the little compromises we make in polite conversation becomes apostasy in the mind of an ideologue.

    faustusnotes: Shakespeare is famously inscrutable. He represented all his characters so fairly that his religious and political sensibilities and even his own personality remain hidden. You might want to be more careful with your list.

    Essays offer the best means to tackle politics not stories.

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  45. No matter what the characters or text of Tolkien stories SAY, the fact is that the actual book in front of you--especially if you're reading Return of the King--is a book which lingers for a very very long time on scenes where people hit each other.

    Whether this is "glorying in war" isn't the point, the point is that even if Jane Austen doesn't like "pride" or "prejudice" the fact is that her books are fascinated with both things. Many of Tolkien's books are fascinated with war. This is undeniable. How do we know? Because he spends many pages writing about it.

    Whether or not this is a good bad or neutral thing is another thing altogether, but to ignore this is silly.
    Sorry Zak, I think you're off base here, and possibly conflating the films with Tolkien's books.

    I'm not going to grab my books and perform an actual page count of battle scenes in LOTR, but I would guarantee the number is far fewer when compared to other fantasy of simliar length. In fact, Tolkien is roundly criticized by his detractors--not Mieville, but others turned off by his pacing and writing style--for being too dry and boring. For including too much description of Middle Earth's landscape and hobbit-lore and not enough battle and blood. For example, Chapter 6 of Return of the King "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields," is all of 11 pages, which includes a long sequence of grief (Theoden carried from the field with Merry weeping at his side). Look at how Tolkien handled Boromir's death in The Two Towers--it's all off-scene, and pieced together after Aragorn finds him pierced through with arrows. At which point, we get more grief, not "boys playing at war," as Mieville so grossly misstates. Peter Jackson (whose films I mostly liked, I must admit) handled this scene very differently.

    Tolkien wrote about war, very true. He fought in a war and was a civilian living through a second in which his son was a soldier. He didn't dwell on the gory details (honestly, pick up George R.R. Martin or Bernard Cornwell or Robert E. Howard or Steven Pressfield if you want to see long, lingering descriptions of warfare. I like these authors, by the way). Rather, Tolkien spent considerable time dealing about the cost of war and its effects on the individual. Look at Frodo after returning to the Shire; he's become a pacifist, and every death of hobbit and man--even Saruman--is a tragedy in his eyes, which see the clearest.

    If you read enough Tolkien, you'll realize his true joy was not in blood and thunder, but in the quiet moments. Charles Williams, one of the Inklings who listening to Tolkien read LOTR as he wrote each chapter, said of the book, "The great thing is that its centre is not in strife and war and heroism (though they are understood and depicted) but in freedom, peace, ordinary life and good liking."

    Mieville might be a bright individual and a published author, but his opinions regarding Tolkien are incorrect, IMO.

    To be fair, and as noted, the interview is old and my guess is he read Tolkien once, didn't like what he saw, and put him down.

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  46. @faustusnotes

    Disagreement is not censorship. Mieville can say whatever he likes about anything he wants, regardless of what some gamer on the internept says about him.

    I am also within my rights to consider him wrong and question the reasons for his pretensions. If thinking and saying someone was wrong could somehow silence them, we'd all have to learn sign language at some point.

    My whole point continues to be that you do yourself more credit by excelling at your own craft rather than badmouthing somebody else's.

    And I don't think Mieville's statements in the interview are his craft. They are peripheral to his work. That's my whole point, and I believe the point of others in this discussion as well, although I can't speak for anyone but myself.

    Quit bellyaching about somebody else and draw/write/dance/play. If you need to hack at a scapegoat or straw man to justify what you're doing, be it in an interview or in essays or whispered in the ear of your Che Guevara doll, you ain't doing right by the art. Once you go that route, you turn it into an antagonism between you and whoever you're targeting.

    Art is creation and communication, not conflict.

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  47. Hey BigFella, I said nothing about censorship.

    The situation you propose is strange though, for two reasons:

    1) Tolkien is allowed to publish a work describing how he thinks fantasy writing should be done, but Mieville devalues his own work by criticising this;

    2) literary critics can belittle the fantasy genre as shallow, escapist and conservative, but Mieville devalues his work if he responds to these critics with a defensive appraisal of the value of fantasy.

    I don't think 1) is logically consistent, though it is consistent with a bias towards Tolkien as representative of a "canon" of fantasy literature that is above criticism. This particular form of conservatism has been well done away with in mainstream literature and I would hope we wouldn't be starting it in our little pokey genre.

    As for 2), this is self-defeating. That Mieville interview is a rare and strongly worded defense of the fantasy genre against attack from political activists and from literary critics. Unless you think that these peoples' opinions have no relevance (a nice idea in theory, but rather wrong in practice) then you (and I think Mr. Noisms too) should be applauding Mieville for his argument. Instead you are suggesting it lowers the worth of his actual art.

    But I have to wonder, who is better placed to ponder publicly the shortcomings and strongpoints of a genre of literature than one of its modern proponents? You? Me? A literary critic? The Revolutionary Marxists? Mieville fends off the criticisms of the latter 2 groups very nicely in his interview. We should be thanking him!

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  48. In reference to 1, Tolkien did not write about fantasy because there was no fantasy to write about. he wrote about the cultural origins of folktales and their typical structures. Very different.

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  49. Big Fella:
    "you do yourself more credit by excelling at your own craft rather than badmouthing somebody else's."

    You act like it's a trade-off. It's not an either-or. Most great artists can do both at once, plus eat meals, sleep 4-8 hours a day and dress themselves.

    And AGAIN:

    "Art is creation and communication, not conflict."

    Mayyyyybe, but the BUSINESS of art requires conflict.

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  50. Kent:

    See, what you just wrote makes a lot more sense then "Ha ha, he's a socialist, fuck him".

    It still doesn't mean the actual individual opinions expressed in his "pub bore" conversation aren't valid.

    Brian Murphy:

    Tolkien spends WAY more time talking about warriors, weapons, armor, shields, blood and war than, say, PG Wodehouse or Dorothy Parker.

    Yes, Tolkien's work has less violence than later fantasy authors, but, as a genre, fantasy tends to have a lot of fighting in it compared to mainstream fiction--we all like it that way and make up games based on that. War is interesting.

    Tolkien wrote adventure stories--this is not in the least bit debatable. His prose was interested in the possibility of violent conflict--this is not debatable either. Characters--the balrog, the riders, sauron--are introduced whose interest is largely in how menacing their capacity for physical violence is.

    His entire Middle-Arth was shadowed with war (like our own) and his trilogy ends when a war ends.

    Did Tolkien like war--no. Did he enjoty writing abotu war and warriors and the effects of war? Absolutely.

    Do books have to do that? No. Books can be about ten million other things and can feature way fewer swords and shields.

    Also, accusing someone of basing their opinions on the movie not the book is just a cheap ad hominem.

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  51. @ faustusnotes

    When I use the term censorship, what I mean is actual, corporal power to affect what a writer writes, which I, as just another helping of text on the internob, decidedly lack.

    Mayhap I wax overly pedantic, but when you use phrases like "Tolkien is *allowed*" to say this or "Mieville is *expected*" that, there's an implication that I somehow consider my opinions as rule of law, which they ain't. Y'ain't gonna get me to think the guy's any less of a piker by rhetorically undermining authority I just don't have.

    As for 1 and 2.

    1: You misunderstand. Mieville can pick at Tolkien 'til the cow's come home for all I care. It doesn't de-value his work. I just don't think it adds value to the work either. You don't make yourself look better tearing somebody else down.

    2: Throwing a dead guy under the bus to prove your bona fides to the press and your ideological bunkmates works as a defense of the genre, I guess. You'll pardon me if I don't think it's very classy. There are plenty of positive ways to promote your field. In my opinion, doing the best work you can is one of the better ways of doing so. Choosing somebody to discredit, justified or not, isn't, as far as I'm concerned. Which leads me to.

    @Zak S.
    Yes, a great artist can do many things, like ride a bike, or fashion hats out of office supplies, or mail dead raccoons to random names in the phone book. Do I respect them more as artists for doing these things, no. (Especially the raccoon thing. Damn you Willem de Kooning!) A great artist can talk smack about other artists all they want. It's just in my opinion the talking of smack takes you a bit out of "great" and more into the realm of "doth protest too much" or "wannabe".

    "Mayyyyybe, but the BUSINESS of art requires conflict."

    Just like the BUSINESS of figure skating requires you to take a lead pipe to other skater's knees before the semifinals.

    You keep talking about the business as if that's justification for rippin' on folks. I've looked at your portfolio. It's really beautiful stuff. (I've been following "On the Road of Knives" for a while. Awesome stuff.)

    Have you ever sold a single piece by explaining to the buyer how much of a hack some other artist is? Maybe it's different in the gallery scene, most of my experience has been in the commercial end of the pool. It's usually my portfolio that gets me work.

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  52. Big Fella:

    In the fine arts, critical opinion essentially tells people how much you're worth. Smart artists who are trying to do something different often, unfortunately, have to try to influence critical opinion.

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  53. @ Zak S.

    So how well you do it speaks less to the critics than how well you sell it? Bummer.

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  54. Big Fella:

    Such is cultural production under current socieconomic conditions.
    Tolkien was never able to convince critics he was a "real" writer during his lifetime, and everyone who writes in the genre lives with the repercussions of that fact to this day.

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  55. faustusnotes: Regarding point 1, it's not that Tolkien is "allowed" to talk about fantasy and others aren't. I find Mieville's opinions on fantasy (in other interviews) to be very interesting, if I don't agree, and I'm happy for him to say them if he wants.

    But there's a difference between talking about fantasy and talking down other writers. It's about having a bit of respect for other professionals (other human beings, really) and having a bit of class. Comments like the "wen on the arse" one betray a real lack of those two things.

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  56. "Won't somebody please think of the < strike >children< /strike > proletarians?"CM is a master worldbuilder. I plan on reading every Bas-Lag novel that comes down the pipe. But his constant political preachiness, his hobbophobic JRRT-bashing, and his nonstop biting-of-the-hand-that-feeds has pretty much guaranteed that I'll never bother with reading another Mieville interview.

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  57. Hi Zak, I apologize about the movies vs. books comment--I have seen a few arguments perpetrated on the Web where one side's argument regarding Tolkien was based on the films. I do think that the battles of the movies (which I thought were all in all, pretty nifty) have misled people into thinking that Tolkien's books are full of carnage. Rather, they are pretty tame in that regard.

    I will note that the cheapest ad hominem in this thread is Mieville's. Anyone who calls Tolkien a "wen on the arse of fantasy literature" is, in point of fact, an asshole.

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  58. Brian Murphy:

    Yeah, maybe, but TOLKIEN IS FAMOUS AND DEAD AND HIS REPUTATION IS SECURE. Mieville is an artist alive now and--especially at the time of the interview--still trying to establish a reputation for himself.

    He gets a little more leeway for that, I think.

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  59. Mr. Noisms, I think you're straying from your original message here. I don't think it's reasonable to criticise Mieville for engaging in literary criticism - he is a writer after all, and he was asked for his opinion about a conservative writer at a radical conference. What did you expect?

    I would go further, though, and say it is the responsibility of writers to say when they think that a particular book or section of a canon has had a corroding or retarding influence on a genre.

    BigFella, I think part of the process of reviewing and revising any canon (which includes fantasy) includes, as you put it, "throwing a dead guy under a bus". If you want to kick Tolkien out of the canon (which I don't think Mieville does, btw), you have to do a bit of kicking, no? And if you want to revise his position in the canon, or how he is viewed, then you need to do a bit of kicking too. And, frankly, Tolkien is way overrated, both in terms of his writing and his politics (which were often odious, and when they weren't were just rewarmed romanticism). His influence on the genre is way too strong. Part of the reason sci-fi has attracted the really bright thinkers - people like le Guin, Gibson, Banks, Mcleod, etc. - over fantasy is undoubtedly the enormously restricted nature of the fantasy alternatives.

    The people who ultimately are most responsible for modifying any canon are the writers who base their work on it. Look at what Mieville had to say about Peake in that interview and you can see that he wants to see the canon widened, and the relative importance of its membership changed. This is literary criticism, and it can't be done without invoking a certain amount of, well, criticism. If you think that article is harsh, you should try sitting through a first year uni course on post-colonial literature. It makes Mieville look like a real gentleman.

    Mr. Noisms gets this I think, in general, which is why he attacked the content of Mieville's reasons for calling Tolkien a wen, rather than the act itself. Better to debate that than whether you think Mieville is making an arse of himself by engaging in one of his fundamental responsibilities as a writer. Otherwise we would still be expected to treat all those dead Regency writers as more than toilet paper, and ignore all the high quality literature coming from the rest of the world. This is why we have literary criticism, and it applies just as much to modern fantasy as it does to the classics.

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  60. Also I would like to add...

    If people in this thread can say Mieville is a "crashing pub bore", responsible for "thinly veiled polemic" (which The Scar and Perdido Street Station clearly aren't), an "asshole",and a "fool plonk" who is "parading" his "personal issues" with Tolkien (wtf?) as "objective truth" then I hardly think he should consider himself responsible for maintaining a higher level of critical content.

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  61. faustusnotes: I don't think you're getting what I'm saying - perhaps I'm not communicating it well enough. Literary criticism is one thing. But saying another writer is "the wen on the arse" of the genre is not literary criticism. It is acting like a dickhead for effect.

    I'm also a bit surprised that you think writers bear some sort of responsibility for the health of the genre, but you apparently don't think that writers acting like dickheads bears any relation to that.

    As for Tolkien being overrated... well, it's all a matter of taste. I think if anything he's underrated, and it's almost become recieved wisdom among both literary snobs and critical fantasy readers that he wasn't very good. In my opinion, he was very good - one of the best, actually.

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  62. @ faustusnotes
    To be perfectly frankenstien, I don't really attach much importance to any kind of canon.

    Don't get me wrong. I understand the economic forces at play, only so much shelf space in the Barnes N' Noble and all that, and the book buyers rely on the critics to figure out what'll sell. Such is the way...

    I think the disconnect here is I'm approaching this primarily as a reader. My bookshelf, while crowded, has room for anybody who speaks to me. I personally don't see the need to "kick" anybody out of the canon. I still maintain that you earn your place on the aforementioned metaphorical bus by the quality of YOUR work.

    To me, the literary criticism world (or art criticism, or movie criticism, or macrame criticism, or whatever) is kind of a sideshow. To elevate it to such importance is like saying the post game commentary is more important than getting the ball between the goalposts.

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  63. Mr. Noisms, I hardly think you can be surprised at Mieville's style of criticism, or even that it's that unusual in the world of literature. In any case, he wasn't behaving like a dickhead - he gave a cogent analysis of conservatism and "escapism" in fantasy. You were previously focussing on the content of that attack, which is good, let's not get distracted by the single ill-mannered phrase in the whole piece. What about the bit where he says world-building of the sort Tolkien did is admirable and creative - why not focus on that?

    BigFella, for someone who cares not a whit about the canon you have spent a lot of time defending this author's membership, his status relative to Mieville and his invulnerability to criticism. Perhaps you care more than you say? As for whether what is on your bookshelf is in the canon - irrelevant. We all accept Shakespeare is in the canon of classical lit, but most of us haven't read him and don't have him on our bookshelves.

    The canon is not about sales. It's about the quality of a genre, what is considered exemplary work, and what other writers model their work and their ideas on. This is why writers debate its membership so vociferously, and why you do too.

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  64. He didn't give a cogent analysis of conservatism and escapism in fantasy - he took the position that conservatism and escapism are a priori bad things and then tried to show that good fantasy has no truck with them. To my mind that isn't a cogent analysis.

    I'm not surprised by Mieville's comments, just disappointed. I am a little surprised that you don't seem to think that Mieville's phrasing is pretty dickheadish.

    And not to put words in BigFella's mouth, but I don't believe he's singling out Tolkien for special protection. He's making the broader point that when artists slag off other artists it doesn't make their own work any better, and probably makes them personally look a lot worse.

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  65. Of course he took the position that conservatism is a priori bad! He's a revolutionary marxist. But what he said about high fantasy's conservatism is or isn't a fact. He also didn't say fantasy "has no truck with them". He said fantasy is a diverse enough genre to allow for more than that, the implication being that marxists and literary critics shouldn't stop reading or writing fantasy just because some of it is conservative. This may seem obvious to you and me and Mieville, but to a lot of people out there the fantasy genre is empty of content or meaning. It deserves to be defended against this claim, and Tolkien's partial responsibility for this should be discussed.

    And yes, artists slag off other artists all the time. It's called art criticism. It's part of the process of developing art. It's not possible to have an art world free of that. And calling someone a "wen" may be language you disagree with, but it doesn't change the fundamental message, which is what you (were) focussing on.

    I've put a post on my blog about what makes High Fantasy conservative. Without using the word wen. I hope you can find the time to toddle over and disagree with me there...

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  66. @ faustusnotes
    Noisms gets what I'm saying. (And I don't mind you putting words in my mouth. Lord knows there's more than enough there already, a few more can't hurt.)

    I have never once said that Tolkien is invulnerable to criticism, at most I've said that I don't put much stock in Mieville's criticism of Tolkien, which is a far cry from declaring Tolkien universally immune. Again, you seem to want to prop me up as some kind of pretender to authority, when I am just a reader and enjoyer of fantasy fiction.

    Which is what it comes down to. Intellectually I understand the point of a canon, but I still maintain it's a sideshow. Apparently canon is very important to you, because you want to frame my opinions in terms of canon whether I mean to or not. I'm generally coming from my position as a reader and enjoyer of the genre, not as any kind of critic. (Although frankly, in the end a critic is nothing but a reader with a pulpit.)

    I kind of get the impression that you think being in canon is what makes a book great vs. being great being what gets a book into canon. (I realize this is an provocative statement and I apologize if I am distorting your meaning.)

    Which comes back to my main point. You wanna get into canon, whatever that means to you, write better books. If it's so important that everybody agrees that your work is the best, the shortest way to that goal is to DO GOOD WORK. Trying to talk (or even worse, sneer) people out of appreciating the work of others is a mug's game, and does not make you look very good.

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  67. THIS:

    (noisms)
    "when artists slag off other artists it doesn't make their own work any better, and probably makes them personally look a lot worse."

    makes sense,

    THIS:

    (Big Fella)
    "You wanna get into canon, whatever that means to you, write better books. "

    Is just wishful thinking and is staggeringly naive.

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  68. @Zak. Are you really sure about this?

    "THIS:

    (Big Fella)
    'You wanna get into canon, whatever that means to you, write better books.'

    Is just wishful thinking and is staggeringly naive."

    Aren't you kind of ignoring the current 800 lb. gorilla?

    As horrible as it may be to contemplate, J. K. Rowling, I'd wager, is closer to being canon in thirty years than CM. Who did she knock off to earn her popularity? I haven't found any victims, in an admittedly cursory search, of Rowling's tongue or pen.

    For that matter, who did Tolkien knock off? I recall that in his private letters he had some rather harsh words for E. R. Eddison, but a private letter hardly equates to a magazine interview for the purposes of canon assassination.

    I'm not in the market. Maybe if I was what you're saying would seem beyond dispute. But from outside the market, the naive seem to be carrying the day handily.

    I am, of course, open to correction regarding this if JRRT or JRK are on record taking swings in magazines at, say, Dunsany or Merritt, or Pullman or Eddings, for example, respectively.

    Best,

    Robert

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  69. anonymous/Robert:

    I am only arguing with the following idea:

    "if you write good books, you'll be appreciated"

    In order to disprove what I say, you will have to prove that every single writer that was good eventually was appreciated in his/her lifetime.

    Unless you're going to tell me Herman Melville wasn't a good writer, you will have to concede that I am right and you are wrong.

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  70. I think the idea that Mieville is criticising Tolkien in order to get his own work respected more is silly, mean-spirited and wrong. Mieville is criticising Tolkien because a) writers criticse other writers and b) young men criticise everyone they disagree with. It's neither unusual nor evil. But to suggest he somehow thinks this will earn him kudos as a writer is really unreasonable. Particularly since (and I don't know how many times I have to repeat this) he was answering questions in an interview.

    lots of people here are dissing Mieville but no-one is suggesting they have ulterior motives. No-one is claiming, for example, that Noisms is dissing Mieville to up his blog stats. Why say it about Mieville? Because he's got a political opinion? Why not just criticise him for that? Or why not just make the good faith assumption that he is criticising Tolkien because he doesn't like Tolkien and, being in a position to be noticed for something, he wants his opinions to be known?

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  71. @ Zak

    Melville may not be the best choice for your example. "Typee" (1846) made him famous overnight and was a bestseller in London, though his popularity later declined.

    But I take your point, as far as putting a crust in the author's mouth goes. I don't agree when it comes to entering the canon, though that may be by-the-by if you're not eating.

    You said you were arguing against the idea that, "if you write good books, you'll be appreciated." And that to prove that I would have to prove that every good author is appreciated in his lifetime.

    I don't completely agree that that's the premise being advanced. My argument, and BigFella's if I understand him correctly, is that your entry into canon depends on your work and not what you say about other authors.

    I understand your position to be that in order to enter canon, or perhaps simply to make a living, an author has to act to change the terms of the debate not only by publishing, but by actively attacking other authors who make up the old guard.

    I guess I would say that I believe you are arguing that, "any new author who does not attack other authors cannot succeed." I don't believe that to be the case, given the examples.

    Best,

    Robert

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  72. robert/anonymous:

    Ah, but then
    "Moby Dick" (the "great american novel") pauperized Herman Melville and he died unknown.

    I would say this:

    "in order to enter canon, or perhaps simply to make a living, an author has to SOMETIMES act to change the terms of the debate not only by publishing, but by actively DISCUSSING HIS CRAFT IN PUBLIC."

    Here are some questions for you and Big Fella:

    1-When asked a question in an interview, China Mieville should answer:
    A-How he honestly feels or
    B-Dishonestly
    ?

    2-When asked for an interview, China M. should:
    A-Agree or
    B-Refuse because there could be no possible utility in someone in the art/entertainment business answering questions?

    3-When discussing fantasy literature, it is:

    A-possible or
    b-impossible

    to honestly and thoroughly discuss the subject without bringing up the influence of Tolkien?

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  73. @Zak

    "I would say this:

    'in order to enter canon, or perhaps simply to make a living, an author has to SOMETIMES act to change the terms of the debate not only by publishing, but by actively DISCUSSING HIS CRAFT IN PUBLIC.'"

    Ah, but haven't you stolen a bit of a march here? I think the problem I, and perhaps some others, are having is that we don't assent to the idea that attacking other authors equals discussing one's craft in public. YMMV.

    The unfortunate "wen on the arse" comment, for example, that has been a bit of a focal point of the discussion, seems to come from a kind of ranting blog post of CM's in the interviews section of the panmacmillan website, with no posted question that might elucidate what brought forth that particular gem.

    http://www.panmacmillan.com/
    interviews/displayPage.asp?
    PageID=3395

    Forgive my weak link-fu. In comparison, the ISJ interview is a model of decorum. There, of course, CM is specifically asked to address JRRT, and does so with a touch of asperity ("mollycoddles" shows up) but without any of the "wen," "boil," "boys-own-adventure glorying in war," "small-minded and reactionary," etc., nonsense that has set off the commenters if you look back through the thread.

    So I think I can answer your questions A, A, and B, and use CM himself as an example of how to do it without being a complete ass.

    It's interesting that the ISJ interview from 2000 is more temperate in tone and the panmacmillan blogpost/interview from 2003 is more incendiary. This is after the publication of "The Scar" in 2002.

    Best,

    Robert

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  74. anonymous/robert

    I got no problem with people arguing about China's temperament or etiquette in answering questions. I don't care that much either way.

    I DO have a problem with how, while doing that, people on this page keep tossing around a bunch of half-informed or half-articulated ideas about art.

    You wanna say:

    "China Mieville was unnecessarily harsh to JRR Tolkien and this perhaps shows poor judgment."

    Ok, fine.

    You wanna say (as many people on this page have, in effect, said)that:

    -CM had no business even answering the question put to him,

    or

    -CM has no business disliking Tolkien,

    or

    -nothing CM says can be seen in any relevant light since he's a socialist,

    or

    -the quality of his fiction is somehow related to his level of rudeness,

    or

    -CM's rudeness to Tolkien means we are all free to make up retarded hypothesis about CM's biography based on no evidence at all,

    then you are talking nonsense and I gotta argue with you.

    The man was rude to a dead guy, but it has fuck-all to do with whether he's any good at what he does and y'all don't seem to be able to admit it and drop it because the guy he was rude to is very near and dear to the kind of people who post on blogs about dungeons and dragons.

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  75. Not to mention that Mieville could be criticising the canon in order to advance a programme which would, in his opinion, advance the entire art of fantasy writing, by reducing the importance of some writers in the canon and increasing the importance of others.

    In that interview, for example, he notes that Peake's underratedness[1] is sad, and I agree with him - the business of fantasy would be done better if authors like Peake and le Guin were elevated a little, and authors like Tolkien were reduced in significance. I don't think it's catastrophic to say this, and as a disagreement over the direction of a genre - regardless of how you phrase it - pretty relevant.

    ---
    fn1: that's a word, folks, honestly

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  76. Hey Noisms, just thought I'd let you know that I've written another post on Tolkien's racial theories, conservatism, etc. It has references! And quotes! come on over and have a look if you're still interested in the topic...

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  77. Phew just saw this post and all the comments...

    Before I go to my quick responses this thread really made me think of a couple of posts from Stuff Geeks Love: the ones on Hatred and Libertarianism in particular.

    Really, noisms if you want to wear a t-shirt saying that you love Tolkein and will blow a rasberry anytime someone, preferably from the left, criticizes him then [sigh] fine...

    What Zak S and faustusnotes said. Word! Faustus I'm about to check out your site. I'll add it to my favourites for further reading.

    Kelvingreen, I agree with you but I wouldn't stoop to making snarky asides about his RPG games about which neither of us know zip.

    Kent, use google.com

    noisms, your disdain for politics reflects poorly on you. Don't be intimidated by the concepts or the heat of the arguments (there will be many;). The end result will be that you will find your understanding of your world much deeper and meaningful than saying "oh it's all too complicated for us dumb humans" because it's not. We may never know everything about quantum physics or never get it 100% right but because certain brave intelligent humans have tried we now know a lot more than we did 200 years ago.

    Whether you like it or not politics is a constant feature of human social interaction and not just blog comments threads : ) IMNSHO it's therefore best to approach the subject in an informed and articulate manner.

    Robo, wise man!

    I loved Tolkein when I was twelve. I tried reading him again when I was 19 but decided never to do so again because in the intervening years I learnt that a good artist makes his or her audience feel a certain way and a bad artist tells the audience to feel something. In the case of Tolkein I got sick of being told Sam sighed in wonder for the umpteenth time when I could feel none.

    I've only read Perdido Street Station and wasn't too impressed. It showed promise but it was just an OK first novel. I'm keen to read his new one which has been getting rave reviews from people I generally trust.

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  78. Chris T.: You misunderstand. I don't have a disdain for politics - in fact I'm supportive of it. What I have is a disdain for ideology. Ideology is a crutch for people who lack the balls to accept that they don't know everything and never can; the idea that history and the future can be explained by a coherent narrative is a comfort for some people. Common sense and open-mindedness is much more challenging, but the only approach that works.

    I'm hardly intimidated by "the concepts or heat of the arguments" - I find both the heat and the concepts mostly laughable. The vulgar Marxism which Mieville espouses particularly so; all of Marxism's predictions about human nature, about society, and about the sweep of history have turned out to be spectacularly and catastrophically wrong. The fact that people still set store in it is a sad testament to the truism that some people will believe anything if it helps them feel as if everything somehow cosmically "makes sense". And they have the sheer gall to call religion the opiate of the masses!

    Your remarks on Tolkien are totally subjective; it's fair enough if you feel that way when reading LOTR - I don't happen to. Note that my quarrel is not with the position that Tolkien isn't a good writer, it's with defamatory misreadings and disrespectful comments on the part of somebody who should know better.

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  79. the idea that history and the future can be explained by a coherent narrative is a comfort for some people.
    .
    So you don't have such a theory of your own? And it is not ideological? I don't think what you've said really answers my point.

    Do you have a theory of how the universe works? Are you a creationist? Or don't you believe in scientific "ideologies"

    I'm not saying Tolkein is racist but rather, let us say "class-ist".

    Sam is supposedly some kind of a hero in the book but the was he's been portrayed as servile and loyal to his betters, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the their magical world which they all just happen to take in their stride... Get me a bucket.

    It seems to me that those who have criticized JRRT are happy to read fantasy that is "conservative" and enjoy it, understand it and critique it.

    To love someone is to know someone.

    Whereas his defenders in the RPG-community, if this thread and others like it are anything to go by, are rather quick to denounce, at length, the thought criminals who dare question his Greatness.

    Oh and some may even think Capitalism sucks, the unbelievers! Cast them out!!

    :-/

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  80. So you don't have such a theory of your own?

    Precisely. I don't believe in theory in the ideological sense. Theories lead to predictions, and predictions are extremely dangerous (except in the very narrow, empirically-based sense). I'd point you in the direction of Nassim Taleb's two books, The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, because he articulates this very well.

    Scientific "theory" is something else entirely, because it serves no ideology - it is based on empirical knowledge. You might call empiricism itself an ideology, as some people do, but that's a particularly sophistric brand of semantics I'm not really interested in.

    Sam is supposedly some kind of a hero in the book but the was he's been portrayed as servile and loyal to his betters, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the their magical world which they all just happen to take in their stride... Get me a bucket.

    You could equally argue that Sam, as the person who ensures the success of the mission and is eventually recognised as the hero, completely subverts his class role. I wouldn't necessarily make that argument, because on the whole I agree with your assessment (and I think Tolkien himself eventually came to realise this, calling Frodo boring and insisting Sam is the real "main character").

    ...the thought criminals who dare question his Greatness.

    Oh and some may even think Capitalism sucks, the unbelievers! Cast them out!!


    This isn't a Marxist/Capitalist thing on my part, it's a more general distaste for people who think literature should explicitly support either of those ideologies, or indeed any other. For what it's worth I think Marxism and Capitalism both suck, although on the whole Marxism probably sucks more, going by its track record.

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  81. noisms, these people never ever shut up. Second-raters in university are fed jargon, they don't learn to think for themselves, they don't learn from experience and they don't listen.

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  82. noisms, yeah fair enough re Sam - he still irks me nonetheless. I'd rather a Conan if I'm going to have a working class hero (assuming Conan represents any class at all). And I don't even want to begin thinking about REH's personal political persuasions...

    I don't really want to argue about the empirical basis of Marxism (most working class people find it self-evident)> it's an argument for another day another web-site. I'm sure you all know how to google : )

    Kent, do you know who I am or what I've studied? Thank you for proving one of my points with your passive aggressive snarky ad hominem.

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  83. Man, this conversation is all over, as far as actual constructive conversation on the China Mieville v. Tolkien thing are concerned.

    If y'all wanna trade half-arguments about political ideas (right, left, center, or agnostic) that smart people have been honestly disagreeing about for a hundred and fifty years, maybe start a new thread somewhere else?

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  84. I think it's already petered out, Zak. I win the thread!!!!!!1

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  85. i couldn't really resist an urge to post here since your necromantic end-of-the-year ritual has dragged this topic out but china is totally off on all premises (just like moorcock) because he is desperately holding onto very vulgar early Marxism theory of literature. like poet marina tsvetaeva once wrote: in this most christian of all worlds all poets are jews. if i can paraphrase this i would remark that all artists, wither they know it or not, are 'leftists' as long as they are fanning flames of human spirit. in tolkien you can certainly find more william morris and great claim to universalism of whole generations of british catholic authors while mieville (whom i like) is rife with deridian po-mo ambiguities and similar, imho, conservative trends. so basically toliken is more 'left' then china. pun intended.

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  86. Anonymous: An interesting thing about ideologues who are championed by the Left is that their beliefs are often arch-conservative. Many of the French deconstructionists seem to have been Nazi sympathisers and/or Vichyite French tories during the War, for instance.

    It's also notable that there is a strong trend towards conservatism in most vulgar Marxism. Labour unions are all about protectionism, which is highly economically conservative.

    The fact that most people on the Left aren't really leftists while most people on the Right aren't really rightists is something I want to write a book about one day.

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  87. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luQhAc6RNqI

    :)

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  88. Came to this via Grognardia comments.

    Just to say: Communists hate traditionalists. Orcs hate Elves. C'est la vie.

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