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.