Philoctetes

I was going to comment on the Ryan Boudinot article but it’s already been fisked to death, I don’t think it bears more refuting. Besides, ever since the initial disappointment of learning that MFA doesn’t actually stand for “motherfucking art”, I’ve been severely disillusioned about higher education.

Unrelated to Boudinot or MFAs, though, I wanted to talk a bit about writing-as-therapy. Not in a classroom setting or in literary academia, but the way it works for the likes of me, for the pulp writers. In the altogether different literary universe—not actually a less pretentious one, since apparently there is equal and opposite snobbery in all directions—where I write short sff, follow Heinlein’s rules and all that, expectations adjusted downward to account for inflation since it’s not 1947 any more, and publish almost exclusively in sff magazines, I couldn’t write memoir even if I wanted to because nobody would buy it. But I’ve both consciously and unconsciously done a lot of writing-as-therapy in the last two years anyway. For example, there’s a pattern you can see in most of my early work, one that was not deliberately put there: “Pockets Full of Stones”, “The Jackal’s Wedding”, “The Calf”, “By Dawn’s Barbed Light” and “On Being Undone By A Light Breeze” are all—alongside whatever else they’re about—about losing parents or losing a sibling. Grief is pervasive; it can become a normalcy, a new default, so much so that you can sometimes write nothing but characters who are themselves grieving for a year and still not notice that it’s a pattern. I stopped after I noticed, of course.

There was another common aspect to a lot of those early stories, which was that the stories would end with the protagonists throwing themselves into the unknown—sometimes death, other times great uncertainty. They’re about stepping forward from grieving. This is true of almost all the stories above, and some others written around the same time (“Caul”, for instance). That part was a little more deliberate. I was practising, if you like, a particular emotional movement, the step from despair’s edge down, to find if nothing else exhilaration in falling. Trying to familiarize myself with the movement so that I could do it in real life. Eventually I stopped doing this one, too, at least quite so blatantly. It’s important to break your patterns when you can, before the wind changes and you get stuck that way.

So the pulp writer’s way is the exact opposite of the Boudinotian #SevenYearsInTheWoodshed. Not isolating yourself to hone your craft in the dark, but doing your practice in public with the “editor’s desk”—that mythical, liminal space—as proving ground and level boss. I only took writing seriously, meaning I started writing and sending work to be considered for publication, in mid-2012 after I understood two things. One was just that life is short, shorter even than you think. Two, that I was numb to, among a great many other things, the fear of failure or rejection. Why not, I thought, make use of this strange and bathetic gift? I started sending work out almost as soon as I finished writing it. I wrote what would be my first pro-sale story a couple of months after I started, after furiously iterating through dozens of scraps and half-assed shit that would never sell. A long time ago, before all this happened and when I was still just thinking-about-writing-someday, I’d thought maybe I should save my good ideas for later because I didn’t want to use them up too early and run out. That was foolish. The first lesson I taught myself when I started writing for real is to go all in, because you can always revisit ideas if you want; because there are always more ideas; because life is really fucking short, and shorter than you think.

(Which is the other thing I don’t understand about MFAs, perhaps because I never went to university and my view of how writing works is perhaps too personal. We all have to make use of whatever we’ve got in our lives, is what I’m saying. Surely it’s only more difficult to explore your unreal estate while under fire by the academy’s canons…? But I’m probably wrong about this. I’m told I am frequently cynical about higher education as a kind of pre-emptive defense for not having any of it. I am only the fox who thinks your grapes are sour. Your grapes are the worst. Nobody wants your grapes. Just, fuck your grapes, man.)

Now, a few years down the road when sometimes a rejection does finally, beautifully sting a little, you have no idea how much I treasure these little hurts. Even my imposter syndrome is still all just pins and needles from slowly returning bloodflow. Whether writing as therapy works or not, or whether it’s just a matter of finding something to occupy yourself while the long grey time passes, this at least is a praxis I understand. Writing through the shit has itself been my higher education. Learning to live with the unhealing wound is my motherfucking art. #micdrop, boom. Gonna have to actively remember to not end all future blogposts like this.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Outer Space” by Sam Kriss in The New Inquiry: “we will overthrow the fascist institution of the sun, finally achieving the dream of all great revolutionary movements in history.”

The Flaccid and the Fantastic

There’s a Clutean definition of “hard fantasy” in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy:

A useful term for stories where Magic is regarded as an almost scientific force of Nature, and subject to the same sorts of rules and principles. This was the type of fantasy championed by John W Campbell Jr in Unknown […]

That seems straightforward. Wikipedia has a compatible opinion, considering the Harold Shea stories (L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. I read and enjoyed these a long time ago in The Compleat Enchanter omnibus) to be the prototype of their “hard fantasy” canon: fantasy that treats magic as a predictable, rule-governed part of the natural order. Shea wins “The Roaring Trumpet” by observing, extrapolating and manipulating laws of magic—the law of contagion and the law of similarity, IIRC—if that sounds very 1940 to you, that’s because it was. The Harold Shea stories were published by Campbell in Unknown, so that’s also consistent with the previous definition.

For more recent examples of this form, the Wikipedia article also cites two of my favourite fantasy novels, both from the 90s: The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick and Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams (the Wikipedia page for the latter claims, forlornly, that it is “arcanepunk”, which naturally is a red link of death: a sign that it’s not so easy to coin a new genre. After all, if adding -punk to stuff was enough then @everypunk has already invented twenty-five thousand new subgenres. No, genre/canon formation is a more complicated business than that, but more on that another time.) Both books treat magic in a much more complex way that the Harold Shea stories (unsurprisingly, given the half-century gap between them); both posit magic as wild, numinous and in some configurations transcendental, but nevertheless both mostly present it as a learnable skill, so I suppose it still fits. But at this point one has to ask, what isn’t hard fantasy by this definition? The same argument would do for the Chrestomanci books by Dianna Wynne Jones, the wonderful Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and of course, Harry Potter—perhaps even more than the original, the fascinatingly nerdy Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fanfic by Elizier Yudkovsky, which is basically a hard(er) fantasy remake with smarter versions of the characters. Magic is now very frequently treated as a rule-based system in popular fantasy. It seems that fantasy’s hardness has become a kind of chronic priapism since the days of Harold Shea.

Meanwhile, Jane Lindskold argues for a more rigorous definition in an 2009 essay at Tor.com: that the fantasy should aim for better “realism” in the non-fantastical parts. So magically intelligent wolves are ok; magically intelligent wolves that nod and wag their tails are not ok, because those are not wolf behaviours; magically intelligent wolves standing on their hind legs wearing natty waistcoats and inviting you a tea party, presumably, would be extremely not ok. Marie Brennan talks about another version of hard fantasy in a 2008 essay, arguing that hard fantasy, by analogy with hard science fiction, is concerned with deep rigour in some aspect of worldbuilding, such that you might say that Tolkien wrote hard linguistic fantasy or GRRM wrote hard political fantasy, and also that such stories are (again like hard sf) significantly concerned with how and why those things work.

These are similar but not identical arguments. The Lindskoldian version has a purist neti-neti quality that I find appealing (despite being terribly disinclined to actually write that sort of thing myself. I like reading it done by others, though). The Brennanian version, on the other hand, freely admits that a given story might only be rigorous in some aspects and therefore leaves so much room open that I’m not sure whether it holds up as a workable genre definition, though it can be an accurate description of Brennan’s own Midnight Never Come, for instance, which is clearly hard Elizabethan-political fantasy in her own terms.

Arguments in favour of greater rigour and “realism” are, despite their own problems, a bit more useful than just requiring magic to have rules. Harry Potter has rules, for instance, but is manifestly lacking in internal consistency and rigour because much of it is fable-like and was obviously not intended to work under hard fantasy constraints in the first place (this is why I find the Methods of Rationality fanfic so fascinating; on the one hand, it’s “fixing” something that was never broken, but on the other hand the changes it makes are often very interesting). A genre definition should able to rule Harry Potter out of hard fantasy, on the grounds that if it can’t, it’s not doing anything.

Lois Tilton’s definition of “hard fantasy” does not meet that bar, since it implicitly counts Harry Potter as hard fantasy. Tilton only requires that hard fantasy not be “soft fantasy”: i.e., the fantastical element must be unambiguous and not visibly or potentially a metaphor. But Mordor is industrialization amd Aslan is Jesus and Cthulhu is probably black people or whatever? It’s not unusual for the ‘realism’ of fantastical elements to be ambiguous, is what I’m saying; ambiguity about whether something is ‘really’ happening or not is an old technique. All of Narnia is deniable because no time elapses in the wardrobe. All of the Land in Thomas Covenant is deniable, which was even an actual plot point as I recall, about Covenant not being sure if he’s hallucinating or not. In fact, if I remember right, the exact same ambiguity also applies to Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, which is by all accounts otherwise an exemplar of hard fantasy.

Or here’s a different angle: in a great many fantastic fictions (and, for that matter, in journalism) the reading differs greatly depending on whether you read the fantastical element of ‘race’ as a metaphor for morality (“this character is racially predisposed to be violent”) or for the narrator’s bigotry (“this character is perceived as monstrous because the protagonist is a gigantic racist”). Have we not just softened vast swathes of formerly-hard fantasy merely by adjusting our perceptions to recognize overlooked ambiguities? Is a critical reading the ultimate boner-killer?

I do think “hard fantasy” might be an interesting idea: it has a tradition and an argument, at least, not in the Tiltonian “that which is not soft” sense but the rigour-oriented arguments summarized earlier. One could hazard that it is a sort of cousin to grimdark, perhaps, and a more distant cousin of hard sf, all of which are preoccupied with penetrating the unreal with their erect realisms. One could also argue that there are much more interesting critical models just lying around for the taking if anybody wanted to up their game a bit. But whatever.

This is not a pile-on on Tilton, incidentally. I respect that the attempt to drink the entire firehose of sff short fiction every month (and worse, to find something to say about it all) is bound to give someone a very different perspective than either being able to take the time to really step back and theorize academically on a big scale (Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, for example, as above. I have got to actually read this at some point) or to pop in and just opine randomly, dilettante-style (which, er, is what I’m doing). I imagine that this different perspective is mostly one of exhaustion: what is sought is not so much a critically sound model that makes sense at a theoretical level, but a quick sorting algorithm to put stuff into different piles.

The problem, as I see it, is that the hard/soft dichotomy doesn’t work for this purpose either. They’re not balanced. Even if “hard fantasy” could theoretically be rehabilitated as per above, “soft fantasy” doesn’t seem to work at all. First because it’s impossible to pin down, as per above; second because it’s tied to a technique (hyperreal metaphors) rather than an ideological position (such as might fit into a manifesto, like mundane sf) or themes or content or style (like grimdark or cyberpunk or “hard fantasy” or “portal fantasy”), any of which might have made more sense. A scheme of categorization that files Harry Potter as “hard fantasy” and Thomas Covenant as “soft fantasy” is funny but not useful.

Some of the stories that Tilton would like to classify as “soft fantasy” might be just called magic realism, I suppose, not just for how fantastic elements are treated but for the aspect of social or political critique. But perhaps magic realism is not for white people (boom, hashtag) so this might be, as ppl say, “problematic”? How about “post-expressionistic fantasy” instead? It means the same thing and sounds posh—I’m going to start using that with a straight face from now on, btw—and I also feel like genre names really need to up their game. Fantasy is being shortchanged with these monosyllables: high, low, hard, soft, &c., which people can just navigate by connotation and rumour. Whereas with post-expressionistic fantasy, you’re at least forcing people to look it up, which should result in a better class of mockery if nothing else. Everybody wins.

Can’t believe I actually said all this with a minimum of dick jokes.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “When The Seltzer’s Like ‘Nah’ and You’re Like ‘Oh Please, Please Be Cold’ and the Seltzer’s Like ‘Nah’” by Rahawa Haile in Midnight Breakfast: “The thing about ugly is ugly’s okay so long as you’re tall. Men figured this out early and now they’re everywhere: tall, ugly men.”