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I have an idea for a short story; the premise is an innkeeper is tired of heroes tramping through his part of the countryside on their way to yet another world shattering showdown with yet another magic-wielding villain. The line between good and bad is besides the point; when the cost of saving the world is to scorch half of it, it seems that the tension isn’t between the good and bad, but between those who have powers and those who have not. My story would simply be a monologue, with the old man just tired of cleaning up the common room and making sure his daughter does not catch the wandering eyes of the heroes. I guess it could also be summed up as Occupy Middle Earth.

The well of this idea comes from how I see sorcerors and wizards. I think they have an element of the technological Singularity, despite authors treating power magicians as like us, but with more power. Alien, in the fantasy world, tends to look like Sauron – they are recognizably ambitious, power hungry, and selfish. I haven’t really seen magic approached in the same way as hard Artificial Intelligence, in an analogous way to Charles Stross’s Eschaton series (Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise) or Accelerando. I haven’t seen enough written about magicians as being so different that they might as well be from other worlds; instead, we get absent minded old men whose heads are on “serious matters”.

And while we are on the subject, I find it unrealistic (ha!) in fantasy stories that, even if we accept the premise of these authors (and of course I am not disputing that part of suspension of disbelief), it seems strange that, by accident, those who tamper with such powers haven’t rent the world asunder. I am not quite complaining about the contrived plot devices, where the Evil Magician requires some long lost trinket to seize ultimate power. But confrontation happens to scale linearly, not exponentially, despite there being no real reason against it. For example, we wouldn’t expect a firefight in a Tom Clancy novel to escalate from knives to guns to rockets and then nukes. The problem is that generally, there is no such inherent, infrastructure based constraint on magic use. Each magician has the potential to be a nuke.

The solution is a trope. The magician hero is usually a neophyte. The exploration of the mechanics of magic is part and parcel of the fun in a fantasy novel, but I haven’t seen a compelling reason for why the magic the hero uses at the final showdown could not have been used sooner. Aside from the contrivance of the magician having to learn that particular skill or spell.  I think another reason is literary: the audience can relate to the neophyte, since the fantasy novel is an escapist-empowerment fantasy. We want to have the option of imagining that we can get that power. And so we don’t really get novels from the point of view of Gandalf. We follow the Hobbit, in this case a literal small person.

This is interesting, because the experienced wizard is generally relegated to a teacher and mentor role. The fact that authors generally choose someone less powerful or less experienced suggests that they do see a disconnect between the audience and if the story was explicitly about someone much more powerful. Why not carry this through and treat the all powerful magicians as something with motivations that we can’t comprehend? Instead, we generally get a dotty, absent-minded old man.

The other approach is to make the magic more mundane and familial, as in Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. At heart, this novel plays out like a family drama, albeit with a bit more of smoke and mirrors. The story starts with Nora, (yet another) dissatisfied graduate student working on her dissertation, whose life seems to be at a low. Her adviser is no help, and her ex had unceremoniously “traded up” and is now engaged to Nora’s replacement. She decides to lose herself in the festivities of a friend’s wedding in the Hamptons. Nora passes through a crack in our world and finds herself in Ors.

What I liked about this book is that it is so intimate. Our first introduction to Ors is through the group of beings known as the Faitoren (as we find out later.) They are beautiful, glamorous, sexy, and carefree. Just the type to seduce Nora to a life of dissipation. However, it isn’t long before the veneer cracks, and we find the group exposed for what they are. Naturally, Nora is rescued by a wizard – Arundiel.

What follows next is positively domestic. The setting here is medieval, with the attendant relegation of women into subservient roles. Nora is a stranger in a strange land; to fit in, she begins serving as a help to Arundiel’s houseservant. We learn about the world in, I think, a realistic pace. I think one could argue it is slow, I enjoyed learning about Ors by seeing how Nora interacts with the world. We see Arundiel perform sorcery, but for a long time, Nora remains skeptical about the things she sees. For almost half the book, Nora has no powers. We actually see her cleaning the kitchen, learning to read, and trying to stay out of trouble.

No such portal fantasy could be complete without a ball. Arundiel, who holds land but is naturally has higher stature due to his power and experience, must attend court and wished to take Nora with him, if only to marry her off and have Nora out of his life. Once the costume party is past, the novel begins in earnest. It seems that Nora, in her time with the Faitoren, actually was married to one of them. Nora was to be a broodmare, and frankly, it is positively quaint how even the monsters did not want a child out of wedlock.

In the second half of the novel, we begin to see the martial nature of Ors: the Faitoren have power, but the humans and Faitoren have a treaty, enforced by the magic of Arundiel. The Faitoren generally accomplish their feats through magic enhanced beguilement; they want to leave their enclosed space and rule the world. With this promise of an eventual showdown, Nora begins to learn magic. We begin to explore the limits of magic and also find out why Arundiel and Ilissa, leader of the Faitoren, bears such ill will towards each other. (Hint: the reason would fit right into a soap opera.)

As I had said at the beginning, we generally find a linear progression in the types of magic being used. The neophyte eventually taps into great power. We seem to avoid that here. One thing Ms. Barker does well in her novel is to keep the scale small. For example, a large battle is comprised of a few hundred combatants. In this context, Arundiel is powerful, but not ludicrously so. In general, the magic Arundiel used at the end was similar in scale and magnitude as what he showed in the beginning. In this sense, I think Ms. Barker avoided that common pitfall of simply cranking up the stakes at each and every confrontation between Ilissa and Arundiel.

The book is set up for sequels, and it is a slight problem because it’s so obvious. Or, alternatively, one can look at it as a set of dropped plot threads at the end. But there are so many nice touches: how Nora’s frustrated ambition and struggles translated into a medieval setting, how she applied small bits of magic to earn money, and how she gave voice to basic ideas about how language can easily be used as a tool to weaken social standing of outcast groups.

I really enjoyed this novel, as it provided some balance to the more conventional, and muscular, points of view that I’ve seen in the fantasy genre. I came across an essay at the New York Times by Ms. Barker that shows how differently she thinks about magic as used in fiction. While the novel might not break free from normal dramatic tropes (Nora loves to compare Arundiel and Ors society to Pride and Prejudice), it does offer a different take in the fantasy genre as well as being a fun read.

Some time back, Jodi Picoult and Jonathan Franzen were focal points for pundits and self-proclaimed gate-keepers in arguing whether popular literature can ever be Literature. Naturally, one might expect popular authors* who lack critical praise or who write genre novels to take exception.

Rudy Rucker, a scientist and well-known fiction author, has recently called attention to this matter. He is generally classified as a science fiction writer. In a recent stint as a guest blogger on Charlie Stross’s blog, Rucker expresses dissatisfaction at being pidgeonholed in such a way, labeling it a “category mistake”. His point is somewhat reminiscent of Picoult’s: categories do narrow perception**. By placing writers into “literature” and “popular/genre” bins, such distinctions frame discussion around whether the work has value, rather than examining the ideas, themes, motifs, plots, and characters in a novel.

 

Rucker himself cites Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Lethem as examples of high-brow literary authors who managed to transcend their genre labels. Most recently, I finished Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which has a fantasy setting. As far as I understand it, Murakami is also considered a high-lit author. In 1Q84, he uses some standard fantasy/sci-fi tropes, such as multiple worlds/parallel universes and teleportation. However, most of the novel is spent in the heads of the two main characters. There is a lot of rumination in the novel, ranging from why an author writes, to ethics, and to fate and sacrifice. These are among the standard thematic elements for any literary author.

This seems to be the main discrimination point between high-lit and everything else: literary authors focus on the so-called human condition. If an exciting story falls out from it, than one gets this feeling that it would be a happy accident. Generally, the gripe against non-literary works is that the opposite is true: the characters are secondary to other story elements. While this distinction is fair, I disagree, as strongly as does Rucker and other authors, that writing a novel about the human condition puts it on the only track to beatification.

Despite the subjectivity inherent in engaging with art, I find it ironic that literary critics and editors act as if the line between high- and low-brow is so distinct. I can appreciate the fact that anyone involved in art (by which I mean all such endeavors: music, movies, paintings, sculptures, books, etc.) will have an immense amount of experience due to their continual exposure to it. They can be quite informed with how a given work can be placed into the context of an epoch, and they are certainly in a position to recognize its uniqueness. But this must be tempered with an understanding that, in this milieu of constant exposure, what piques their interest and what they regard as a distinguishing feature may not be the same as how the public perceives the work.

Even if I don’t read as much as I do, I would still have opinions about what passes for schlock. But I happen to think that judgment is not as interesting as discussing the bits of a novel or story that are interesting. The simplest analogy I can make is that, in the realm of science articles, one rarely comes across terrible papers without any intellectual value. Sure, some papers over reach, and others lack proper controls. The sense here is that the paper could be good, if the researchers had only done a little more work. So the reader is left with feeling ambivalent. But because science is like a tapestry, the reader will probably stitch this imperfect work into his understand and outlook. This is what I mean when I say that it is rare to find some bit of science that cannot be integrated in this way. Instead of a smoking gun, a “bad” paper may only provide circumstantial and suggestive data.

I suppose I take this approach in my reading of literature. That is, I would rather focus on the parts of the novel that left a great impression on me, for whatever reason. Once, I read a profile  of Bob Rines in The New Yorker, by Larissa MacFarquhar, about his search for the Loch Ness monster. To be frank, I was infuriated by the presentation of Rines and his search, in that it did not focus on the fact that none of Rines’s tools had ever recorded evidence of the monster. Instead, the article was immensely sympathetic to Rines while dismissive of the skeptics who opposed him, portraying them as a bunch of killjoys.

However, the other thing that I remember is that the piece was so well-written, that I had thought it was clear what MacFarquhar had to say, leading to my becoming so exercised. It was as if she had perverted her talent to peddle ignorance. Yet, if I had to choose a model to emulate and to learn from, this essay would rank among the top of the form that I had encountered.

This is simply an example of the ambivalent feelings one can get on reading, and is quite peripheral to any so-called  objective quality one can supposedly perceive. My bias is that I find these thoughts more interesting than a simple yay/nay verdict.

In much the same way, I do not find it constructive to sort books into high-lit or genre. I find it destructive to promote that there is such a difference. With that said, there are books that lend themselves to having more depth and rewarding deep readings. Like the Murakami novel 1Q84. I feel that the novel, being about the deeds, thoughts, and growth of Aomame and Tengo, do not need the fantastical elements to work. And yet I found the fantastic and mundane integrate so nicely, that I am fully engaged in thinking about why he used that particular device (i.e. the “Little People”.) The inverse can be found in a novel like Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. He uses character archetypes so he can ruminate on the nature of knowledge, thinking, and time. I feel deeply that both novels are extremely fun to read and think about, for entirely different reasons. And yet the most important thing is that these two authors have made a connection with me; does it matter whether a novel probes the deepest recesses of human emotion or tries to show how humans understand?

*Yet another occupier of the literary ghetto is the popular author, consistently atop best sellers list. Again, I find the ivory tower distinction that there is somehow a separation of motives, between those who pursue the highest form of literature and those who wish to make money, a red herring. John Logan, a playwright and screenwriter, said this best:

[he] turned to the list of actors in Shakespeare’s troupe. ‘I also love this, because it shows that Shakespeare was not writing for the ivory tower,’ he said. ‘He was writing to put asses on seats, the same way I am.’

He was followed (paid subscription required) by Tad Friend, of The New Yorker. Logan was in a rare books shop in NYC, deciding on pieces to add to his Shakespeare library. He was looking through a folio when he said that.

I am intensely aware that a profit motive tends to drive art to a wasteland (see: summer block buster movies, TV sitcoms, Britney Spears, and crank-them-out authors.) But it seems strange to say that art can be divorced from commerce. Artists need to subsist; their labor happens to be more ephemeral, and their paymasters more fickle, than for an office worker. If one already agrees that an author should be entitled to recompense, and he or she already is contracted by a publishing firm, then what does it matter that an author strikes it rich or not?

Yes, I suppose one might say then the next work might become corrupted, angled to sell more copies. I find it hard to see how one might separate the commercial aspects of book or art production, to that of seeking an audience. Money is simply a proxy for eye-balls and attention. How else might one see if their works are actually engaging readers, rather than serving as doorstops or as a coffee table adornment? 

**In much the same way my recent post on violin quality and preference suggests, simply identifying a violin as a Stradivari or setting a high price on a wine creates expectations. Because we are told something has a higher sale price or a lower “worth” (or higher rarity, or is in demand), we are likely to take on those  impression. That is why blind wine tastings (and similar “tests”) are a better way to let us gauge our preference.

Of course, there is also a related issue of palate, and whether all tasters will judge based on a similar set of criteria. That is a separate matter entirely. What I am proposing here isn’t a scientific tool,  but simply an informal and easy way to remove expectations and bias for entertainment purposes. This ought to allow tasters to make a decision based on their own ideas, skills, talents, etc, rather than simply agreeing with some existing opinion. This by no means guarantee independent assessments. Humans have a tendency to herd and become more likely to select the more popular verdicts, as they are made known what their peers think. Saving the revelation until the end might help here.

There might be something to this: one such blind-test was performed for literature by The Sunday Times of London. Opening chapters from two Booker Prize winners (Stanley Middleton and V.S. Naipaul, the latter having received the Nobel Prize in literature) were sent to 20 publishers and agents, with names and titles masked so that their provenance couldn’t be known. These “new” submissions were rejected by all but one of the recipients. Regardless of whether this “test” was done in earnest or as a joke, the result is telling. 

Both Naipaul and Middleton took a dim view of the result; they had toiled to produce the works, and they consider both books to be superb. After all, they were awarded the Booker Prize for those works. They conclude that the publishers and agents no longer understand what makes a good novel or literature. That’s one view and they are entitled to it. However, one might draw other conclusions,  that there is no objective marker for what passes for literary quality. Or that tastes and the appeal of styles may have simply shifted. This latter point is slightly different from simply a lack of objectivity. It may be that for a given generation, with a shared education and cultural background, they may in fact have come to a consensus. However, this group opinion would shift, when compared to other cohorts, as they have different points of references and intellectual development.

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