Monday, January 12, 2015

Think Galactic: A Wizard of Earthsea (and some lengthy YA digressions)

Thursday was a truly delightful discussion of Ursula K. Le Guin's "A Wizard of Earthsea" (1968) with Think Galactic. While we spent a lot of time talking about things we were struck by--the language, the Taoist influences, the unusual handling of race but the shockingly (especially for Le Guin) patriarchal handling of gender--we also seemed to feel more comfortable than normal jotting sideways to talk about other works. "Earthsea" is a contemporary of so many other "early" fantasy works, it's had a clear influence on YA fantasy, and we also talked a bit about sources and pre-"Earthsea" fantasy.

*fair warning: I digress a bit on YA below. But only as inspired by our lovely discussion! I should also probably restate the general disclaimer on these posts:inspired by group discussions, and I try to bring in & attribute the group's & individual's thoughts and comments as much as I can without recording everything, but the write-ups are my own response and thoughts on the work. So, please, read any wrong/offensive/whacked-out statements as no one's but my own, and don't give me too much credit for any of the good bits: might be accidentally ripping off someone else at the table!*

So many editions! We had a pretty good spread, including a different artwork for the audio version that Elijah listened to. I don't look into cover art as much I would like to, but it's interesting how it affects not only initial perception and sales, but also, for me at least, how I kind of mentally file the book away. Possibly one of those issues with e-reader retention? Anyways I particularly like the Pauline Ellison cover; she did some other Le Guins as well (source).

Maps! Truly, they do not love you like we love you. John had the newest copy, the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with the big ol' hawk there, which has a newer and apparently Le Guin-approved map in the front. However, it looks like there's some discrepancy between the new maps and old--we discussed the possibility of different projections as the (excusable) cause, but then got into a debate about whether Earthsea exists on a globe, or is actually flat, which would render the projection excuse invalid.

Truly, you should be coming to these meetings.

Map authenticity aside, we were fairly unanimously horrified that the selfsame new edition completely omitted the useful chapter maps, which zoom in on relevant sections. Given that this novel is continual travel story, all island-based, the chapter maps actually help quite a bit in keeping things in mind.

We talked about race! While it doesn't intrude much into the story, it's kind of awesome to reflect on a fantasy book from 1968 that has brown/red/black protagonists; indeed the only white-skinned people in the book seem to be barbarians, at least stereotypically. It's kind of intriguing to look at that with some of the non-standard, non-Eurocentric fantasies of recent years in mind (Jemisin's "Killing Moon"or Bennett's "City of Stairs"), for instance.

We talked about sex! Well, gender--there's not a lot of sexy times going on in the islands, it would seem. The world of Earthsea, through the lens of this novel at least, is surprisingly patriarchal. There's exceedingly few women in the book at all, and female magic is strongly associated with evil and ignorance. If I remember correctly, later books in the Earthsea cycle address some of those issues, but it's not apparent here.

We had a lot of "G" versus "J" sound gaffes/jaffes, and in flicking through one of Le Guin's essays I found that "Ged" is indeed with a hard G: "It isn't pronounced Jed, by the way. That sounds like a mountain moonshiner to me." Thanks for the clarification...although as an Appalachian boy that stings a bit.

We talked a lot about what this influenced, what it reminded us of. There was a long list of related or resonating books, including Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Michael Moorcock, and earlier writers like Dunsany & Eddison. Some of those are new to me, and I'm hoping to track them down.

I had the strangest feeling of deja vu while playing Nintendo's 2003 "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker" (dir. Eiji Aonuma), and eventually realized it was because so much of it seems like Earthsea; funnily enough, Elijah said that Ged's battle with his shadow put him in mind with, of course, Dark Link.

Ah, the shadow. Le Guin more than any other modern writer helped me get Taoism, to whatever extent I do--particularly here in Earthsea,  and also with "The Lathe of Heaven" (whose hero/sage pulled me in so hard I read it in one sitting) and "The Left Hand of Darkness", both of which contain similar but differently-voiced Taoist and Jungian themes. At group we really praised the unusually well-done narrative of coming of age; the struggle is internal, violence isn't praised, we don't export our problems to other characters but know the real story is about Ged coming to grips with himself--great stuff. And it pulls very heavily on Taoist conceptions in a way that is both 1.) great and 2.) not terribly heavy-handed or preachy. The Master Summoner's little speech to Ged could be straight outta Lao-Tzu:
You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a real man's power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower, until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do. (70)
I love the language of this book. There's not even a particular passage I want to pull up; the entire story is told in this beautiful, timeless diction. Vocabulary and structure are not particularly difficult or archaic, but it is what someone called a "loping, rhythmic" tone, with some excellent use of occasional repetition, alliteration, and inversion. I'm going to open as randomly as I can here--okay, page 119 in my edition:
As he spoke he saw, as plainly as if his own words were the light that showed him, how indeed he had been drawn here, lured here, how they would use his fear to lead him on, and how they would, once they had him, have kept him.
Look at the simplicity, the smallness of the vocab there, and how what's essentially a run-on sentence becomes a chant, an bit of verse that unfolds even as his understanding unfolds. Many more, and probably better, examples I could pull out. The style of this is at a rare level.

We talked a little bit about Le Guin's relation to Tolkien, if any--there's certainly some similarity in style, and in mythic/fairy-tale sources of inspiration. John pointed out that one of the herbs in Ged's aunt's house is kingsfoil, known by the Numenoreans as athelas, and after some digging a plant I must conclude is indeed a fictional creation of Tolkien's. I did find a post suggesting that wintergreen, in shape, scent, and archaic name of "king's cure" might have been an inspiration, for Tolkien, but it does seem that Le Guin borrowed the word--obviously quite all right, even a nice bit of allusion, but odd to me since I'd thought from an essay she had about Tolkien that she hadn't read "The Lord of the Rings" prior to writing at least the first "Earthsea" book. Re-reading "Earthsea" this time around, I was also struck by the flying evil creatures Ged encounters at one point: "botched beasts, belonging to ages before bird or dragon or man, long since forgotten by daylight but recalled by the ancient, malign, unforgetful power of the Stone"(122). Along with their talons, stench, and sort of ungainly flight, this description seems to match that of the wingéd steeds of the Nazgûl:
It was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil. (140 in my ancient Ballantine copy of "The Return of the King"; Book V, Battle of the Pelennor Fields.)
And now apparently I need to work the phrase "the wingéd steeds of the Nazgûl" into every Think Galactic meeting.

We got into a fairly long discussion about style, love of language, and how that relates to the escapism/immersiveness of a work, particularly YA & fantasy. I have had a bee in my bonnet on this topic for some time--and there was a lot of "adults-reading-YA" snark and counter-snark going on this last year, which had it buzzing more than usual (on a related digression, I really enjoyed Jeet Heer's critique of A.O. Scott's essay "The Death of Adulthood", which was partially inspired by Ruth Graham's anti-YA article).

The YA debate is one that I'm really kind of fixated on, because I feel so strongly about both sides of the argument. On the Pro Adults-Reading-YA side: yes, clearly, read what you want! Reading is better than not reading, etc. Also, I have to defend against Anti arguments insofar as they are actually anti-SF/F, anti-"escapist" in intent; Le Guin herself addressed this general attitude in her 1974 essay "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?", which I highly encourage you to read. It's wonderful, and relevant to the YA debate, though also strangely dated now that science fiction, fantasy, and allied genres dominate mainstream media so much.

On the Anti-YA side though: I like well-written books. I'm going to go one stronger, and put it this way: I think repeated exposure to bad writing does damage to the reader, mitigated to some extent by a critical awareness of what's bad about it; but a steady diet of badly-written books can prevent that awareness from forming, and thus preclude the enjoyment of many far richer works.Though it's always contextual, I maintain that there is such a thing as "good" and "bad" writing. Style does not account for all of that; it was merely the biggest thing that Earthsea brought to mind.

There's no internal reason that YA needs to be badly written, and there's lots of good stuff. But! I am concerned that the "YA" title itself is a kind of smokescreen/false flag kinda deal: it uses hypothetically young readership as an excuse to churn out low-quality works, particularly troublesome given that publishers know that a large (possibly more than a majority) percentage of YA readership are not, well, YA. This leads to the situation where the virtues of YA are extolled despite the fact that it's "written for children", but criticisms are characterized as mean-spirited and inappropriate because, well, it's "written for children". It rather reminds me of Dennett/de Sousa's "tennis net" analogy in critiquing religion- if the same rules aren't in play for both sides, if one side wants the net down on their serves but up on the returns, the discussion won't go anywhere at all.

There's also the concern of whether badly-written books, as opposed to well-but-simply-written books, do get a young person reading, but don't actually lead them towards reading more broadly, more deeply, more challenging or fulfilling works. Tolkien actually brings this up in his 1939 essay "On Fairy Stories" (emphasis mine):
If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can. Then, as a branch of a genuine art, children may hope to get fairy-stories fit for them to read and yet within their measure; as they may hope to get suitable introductions to poetry, history, and the sciences. Though it may be better for them to read some things, especially fairy-stories, that are beyond their measure rather than short of it.Their books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should encourage it.
Very well, then. If adults are to read fairy-stories as a natural branch of literature—neither playing at being children, nor pretending to be choosing for children, nor being boys who would not grow up—what are the values and functions of this kind?
1939, folks.

I'm deeply convinced of the importance of good thinking and good writing; I believe that our artistic and intellectual "diets" matter immensely for our internal and worldly health. So that's why I think it's worth getting worked up about these things.

Those are my worries; at Think Galactic's Earthsea discussion these kinds of issues naturally enough led us around to Potter as representative of "successful but badly-written or at any rate emblematic of the New YA Publishing Zeitgeist".

I need to say clearly, as we frequently and guiltily interjected into our discussion: the majority of the folks at the table had both read and enjoyed the "Harry Potter" series. Not guilty because it's a guilty pleasure (though it is a bit), but because it's kind of hard to talk critically about Rowling without slamming her in places, and we wanted to stress that we none of us hate the books.

We groped for a way to talk about works that are light, trashy, guilty pleasures, without being insulting to them...I think "schlocky" was what we settled on. "Popcorny" is a word I like for them.

That said, especially with Le Guin for comparison, I at least can't help feeling that Rowling just doesn't care about writing well, which the Potter books unfailingly showcase. Nicholas Lezard has "come, with some regret, to this conclusion: their style is toxic"; after quoting seven identical examples of bad writing on a single page (the "Tom Swiftly" error of the Turkey City Lexicon), he opines that "if you have the patience to read it without noticing how plodding it is, then you are self-evidently someone on whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost."

No less a critic than Harold Bloom, pointing out that the first book at least is "not well written", overflowing with cliches, and essentially just tiring school themes (studying, intramural sports) dressed up in Tolkien, puts it quite plainly:
How to read "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"? Why, very quickly, to begin with, perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do...Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?
Again, I enjoyed Potter--but I can't help grimacing and nodding along with these criticisms. At Think Galactic we particularly noted that this first Earthsea novel contains the original Wizard's School, which Rowling looks to have just expanded on rather successfully. The topic came up in an interview with Le Guin:
Her credit to JK Rowling for giving the "whole fantasy field a boost" is tinged with regret. "I didn't feel she ripped me off, as some people did," she says quietly, "though she could have been more gracious about her predecessors. My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original. She has many virtues, but originality isn't one of them. That hurt."
Insult to injury, it's been reported that Le Guin was asked to "Potter-up" her recent fantasy books.

Okay, enough beating on Rowling. Let's get Grossman in here. I've said, and I am clearly outvoted on this, that his 2009 novel "The Magicians" is possibly the worst book I have ever. Read. I'm perversely glad I read it, for a number of reasons, one of which is that it calibrates my reviews much in the way that ice can be used to calibrate a thermometer: that is as low as some things will go. I'm not going to go into my criticisms of that work, except to say that it is all my complaints with Rowling ramped up a thousandfold--terribly written at any given unit of criticism (sentence, plot, setting, character, theme, etc.), horribly edited, ethically horrific, and breathtakingly, criminally unoriginal--all of which would be more bearable were it amateur fiction instead of the New York Times Best-selling shameless late-capitalist cash-grab it is.

*Whew*. Like I said, not going to go into my criticisms of that work. Instead, two things that Grossman (himself a critic and journalist as well as a novelist) have said that I think kind of shine a light on some aspects of the YA scene right now:

In a pro-YA piece by Kate Tuttle, Grossman is quoted as saying, in defense of adult YA readers, that "I think our generation [b.1969], aging though it is, still has a rebellious streak, and we’re getting a bit sick of all the hierarchies and power structures associated with Big Important Literature". One can understand where he's coming from...but I also don't think that readers generally, pleasure readers, are really being oppressed by some thuggish literati. He's setting up YA readers as quietly rebellious against traditional critical judgements--that is to say: anti-elitist. Which sounds good, egalitarian, but is also a way to say that they're opposed to the idea that there are some things that are better than some other things, and that it is good to prefer the former. Think about that for a second.

In a nice long examination of the reactions to Donna Tartt's 2013 novel "The Goldfinch", Evgenia Peretz interviewed Grossman and James Wood (among others) for their, respectively, positive and negative views of the book. One part in particular stood out for me (emphasis mine):
As for Francine Prose’s query “Doesn’t anyone care how a book is written anymore?”: Grossman admits that, with story now king for readers, the answer is no. Wood agrees that that’s the state of things, but finds it sad and preposterous. “This is something peculiar to fiction: imagine a literary world in which most people didn’t care how a poem was written!”
(By the way, it's definitely not something I straightforwardly or in all particulars agree with, but Prose's 1999 article "I Know Why The Caged Bird Cannot Read" is a passionate piece on some of the themes I'm concerned with here; Peretz summarizes it as arguing that "holding up weak books as examples of excellence promotes mediocrity and turns young readers off forever"; precisely my fear, although I think there's a related and in some ways more pernicious issue where strongly-promoted popcorny books change readers' tastes for the worse forever, or in a truly nightmarish scenario selectively turn off only those with the ability to discriminate.)

But back to Grossman, and I'll try to be sympathetic. It's not that he's necessarily championing the death of style, the ascendance of "story". But he is acknowledging it and, as far as I can see from the one novel I've read, embracing it. And story uber alles is not a good place to be! In discussing this ascendancy of one element, John brought up E.M. Forster's tapeworm analogy, which I just had to go and look up (it's from his 1927 "Aspects of the Novel"):
Yes—oh, dear, yes—the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different—melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form. For the more we look at the story (the story that is a story, mind), the more we disentangle it from the finer growths that it supports, the less shall we find to admire. It runs like a backbone—or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary... 
...Qua story, it can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next. These are the only two criticisms that can be made on the story that is a story. It is the lowest and simplest of literary organisms. Yet it is the highest factor common to all the very complicated organisms known as novels. When we isolate the story like this from the nobler aspects through which it moves, and hold it out on the forceps—wriggling and interminable, the naked worm of time—it presents an appearance that is both unlovely and dull.
(21-23 in an online pdf)
"Plot as king" connects a few different criticisms I have with bad YA (and bad fiction generally) into one convenient thought: I think it's the impact of visual storytelling on the written word. Don't read this as an anti-film or anti-television screed (although neither do I want to ignore the ways in which reading is better than watching), but they are different media, with different strengths and weaknesses. Despite the old saw that "a picture is worth a thousand words", novels are very information-dense compared to film, and we engage with them very differently. Writing as though one has learned story-telling from screens, and is writing primarily for screen-watchers, rather than readers/listeners, means that things have to be drastically dumbed-down. The sound of the language is forgotten; bad writing outside the dialogue is excused because you don't see it, or won't anyway once it's a film. When the dialogue itself is bad, well, that's excusable too, because blockbuster films and high-rated series frequently have dialogue that, if not bad, is at least simple and often cliched--partially just an effect of the medium and time-constraints, partially because you get bigger audiences by playing to lower common denominators.

Related: our apparently increasing, or anyways increasingly satisfied, desire for ever-larger immersive worlds to escape into. The great machine of consumer capitalism, long drowsing dragonlike on its bloodstained hoard , has increasingly woken up to this geekish-but-mainstream love (part of what makes Le Guin's "Why Are Americans Afraid" essay so dated is its pre-Star Wars-merchandising/tie-in explosion naivete). Novels that turn into films and television series, video games, comics crossovers, expanded universes. And bloated novels seem to be one result--if you can't summon a fully-fledged multi-media crossover universe, the thinking seems to be that you should have incredibly chunky books, minimally part of a trilogy, ideally part of a series. A number of agents & publisher's pages I looked up encouraged 10-30 THOUSAND more words for SF/F submissions, relative to other genre and mainstream novels.

Now, I firmly believe you can have novels that are incredibly long, and also great. But! The push for length as the new norm means there's less and less expectation of tight editing, and concise or just plain non-bloated works have an automatic strike against them. It subtly encourages the addition of more material, whether or not it makes the work better as a whole--like the "extended cut" of a film that is clearly inferior, as a film, to the released version. But they know they can sell it.

(The ever-excellent Charlie Stross has an oral history of the SF/F lengthening process, btw.)

Oh my, I've strayed far afield. "A Wizard of Earthsea" is truly great! I'm looking forward to reading more, hopefully awesome, YA this year--I still have a long list of good stuff from a friend who's an enthusiast, and there will probably be more at book discussions. Given this rant/research, particularly interested to read and discuss Alaya Dawn Johnson's "Summer Prince" with Think Galactic in a few months.

To finish with a Le Guin quote, from her outstanding 1973 essay "From Elfland To Poughkeepsie" (seriously, look it up, it's brilliant, and this could easily be Positron's new mission statement):
And lastly I believe that the reader has a responsibility; if he loves the stuff he reads, he has a duty toward it. That duty is to refuse to be fooled; to refuse to permit commercial exploitation of the holy ground of Myth; to reject shoddy work, and to save his praise for the real thing. Because when fantasy is the real thing, nothing, after all, is realer.
The next Think Galactic meeting will be Thursday, February 12th, 7:30pm at Myopic Books. We're discussing C.J. Cherryh's "Forty Thousand in Gehenna", which is kind of like bringing a date home for the holidays for me.

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