association-list

June 28, 2011

Guilt, shame, and fluffy fantasy.

tags: — evan @ 10:45 pm

I think that I’ve read Adam Roberts’ review of The Name of the Wind maybe 6 times now, so if you haven’t read that, this isn’t going to make any sense. It may not make any sense anyway, since it’s still a bit hazy, but I wanted to get it out there to work through it.

Some­thing about it has always struck me as off, but I haven’t been able to artic­u­late it up to now. For the most part, he’s cor­rect about the novel and its fail­ings. In no way is it high art, and the sooner Roth­fuss fin­ishes this white whale of a series and moves on to some­thing more mature the better for him, and for all of us. But Roberts goes in on Roth­fuss’ fail­ure to truly inhabit the medieval mind­set he posits is required for this sort of novel:

This could be three pals from any novel set in the 20th or 21st cen­tu­ryl [sic]; and hun­dreds and hun­dreds of sim­i­lar pas­sages serve only to show the author has not entered into the pre-​​industrial medieval mind­set that his medieval pre-​​industrial world requires — to, for exam­ple, under­stand the cru­cial point that not guilt (“I looked as guilty as I felt”) but shame was the key moral dynamic for the period. But to under­stand that would involve shift­ing about the psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trai­ture of the entire project; it would have meant writ­ing char­ac­ters less like, and there­fore less appeal­ing to, a 21st-​​century read­er­ship dis­in­clined to make the effort to encounter the prop­erly strange or unusual.

This speaks to a broader state of affairs in which style — the lan­guage and form of the novel — is seen as an unim­por­tant adjunct to the “story.” It is not. A bour­geois dis­cur­sive style con­structs a bour­geois world. If it is used to describe a medieval world it nec­es­sar­ily mis­matches what it describes, cre­at­ing a milieu that is only an anachro­nism, a theme park, or a WoW gaming envi­ron­ment rather than an actual place. This degrades the abil­ity of the book prop­erly to evoke its fic­tional set­ting, and there­fore denies the book the higher heroic pos­si­bil­i­ties of its imag­i­na­tive premise.

I think that this is subtly wrong. Firstly, it is mis­taken in assum­ing that a par­tic­u­lar kind of moral tech­nol­ogy (for lack of a better word), such as guilt-​​driven nor­ma­tive self-​​coercion, nec­es­sar­ily accom­pa­nies par­tic­u­lar social struc­tures and phys­i­cal tech­nol­ogy levels. But more to the point, it’s mis­taken to assume that the sup­posed mis­match of form and tone has some­thing to do with acces­si­bil­ity. Although writ­ing char­ac­ters more like his audi­ence surely makes it easier for that audi­ence to relate to them, I think that the fun­da­men­tal issue is that for books like tNoW, where surely a weighty Moral Lesson is in the offing, is that ante-​​Guilt char­ac­ters have noth­ing, morally, to teach those of us in the post-​​Guilt world. Men and women in the AG inhabit an dif­fer­ent moral uni­verse. Moral lessons taught to and through them are untrans­lat­able, unteach­able to us, unless we’re shame-​​driven atavisms.

So it makes no sense for Roth­fuss to do that work, unless, like Tolkien, he’s a big fan of the period and its work. The telling sen­tence is this one:

But to under­stand that would involve shift­ing about the psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trai­ture of the entire project; it would have meant writ­ing char­ac­ters less like, and there­fore less appeal­ing to, a 21st-​​century read­er­ship dis­in­clined to make the effort to encounter the prop­erly strange or unusual.

I would argue here that the aim of Roth­fuss’ project here is not actu­ally to expose his read­ers to the strange or the unusual, and that it’s a mis­take to assume that it is (Roberts’ easy ‘kids these days’ con­de­scen­sion wins him no points, either). Roth­fuss’ narrow aims are as yet unclear, as there are any number of ways the third novel could resolve all of the issues that have been set up in the first two books, but his broader aims are clear; Kvothe is going to relate to us some impor­tant bit of moral knowl­edge about being an Excep­tional Out­sider. Hope­fully it’ll be more pro­found than “Get over your first, unre­quited love as quickly as pos­si­ble”, which pre­sum­ably would have, if learned early enough, pre­vented most of the series from happening.

State­ments of Bias*:

  • Adam Roberts: I enjoy his reviews, gen­er­ally (espe­cially the lighter, quicker ones at his blog). I typ­i­cally don’t care for his fic­tion for rea­sons too involved to get into in a brief state­ment such as this.
  • The Name of the Wind/​Patrick Roth­fuss: I thought it was enter­tain­ing enough, but had to reread it in order to read its follow-​​up, which isn’t really a good sign. I don’t think that any of its char­ac­ters are the least bit psy­cho­log­i­cally real­is­tic, but the manner of the telling makes it a quick and enjoy­able read. I know more or less zip about its author.

* I am think­ing of making bias state­ments part of the struc­ture of the blog. I am not sure how useful that would be, but I feel that making bias clear might matter here more than usual.