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Friday, December 20, 2002


_____ is this year's hot new trend. Your assignment is to write 1000 words on _____'s effect on society. Be sure to include:

_____'s appeal to the unwashed masses.
_____ as a result (or cause---your choice, but bonus points for managing both) of intellectual and spiritual poverty.
The suspect origins and associations of _____, and its connoisseurs. Be sure to include evidence of racism, misogyny, pedophilia, and human sacrifice.
The government's complicity in the rise or flourishing of _____.
The irreparable damage to society that _____ has caused.
The greater authenticity of other societies which do not allow _____.

Note that you are not to fill in the _____. If you cannot critique a cultural trend without knowing what it is, your time in class has been wasted!

The inspiration for this assignment is this article from some chap I've never heard of (but Iain Murray has), who is supposedly a Fellow of Queen Mary, University of London. Queen Mary should be more careful about picking her fellows.

Fernandez-Armesto (our author-hero) only manages to touch on about half the above points, and not very convincingly at that. I'm afraid I'll have to give him a C for the class. His major mistake was in being intelligible. He did not refer enough to obscure myths and---much more importantly---scholars. When making an important intellectual statement for the newspapers, one must refer to people and ideas which are unknown to anyone not working in your field. This cannot be stressed enough! The more obscure and arcane they are, the better. This has a three-fold benefit:

1) Most people will quickly reach saturation, and turn to the TV listings.
2) Others will be impressed by the Big Words.
3) Even those who disagree with you will be left with the nagging feeling that if they knew what you were talking about, they might see your point

The number of people who will actually know what you're talking about will be vanishingly small. They can be discounted.

Summary: Fernandez-Armesto is troubled by the popularity of fantasy literature. Good, honest realism should be enough for us, but if it isn't, we should stick to the authentic myths of our ancestors. Reading fantasy drains your imagination, and makes you dissatisfied with your real life. Finally, people find fantasy more comfortable than history because the study of history only highlights the fact that humanity has "made no moral or intellectual progress for thousands of years and have grown most in our capacity to do ill."

I wrote a long, detailed critique of this article. But then I decided that you jaded, fantasy-bedazzled mindless sheep wouldn't read it, and what's more I would much rather abandon careful study and reasoned argument for a few cheap shots. It's not my fault; The Last Unicorn made me do it.

However, I'll touch on a few little things.

Fernandez-Armesto is bewildered by the appeal of fantasy:

Truth is supposed to be stranger, stronger than fiction, for ours is the strangest of all possible worlds: Middle Earth seems morally simple by comparison...

I hate to instruct a Fellow, especially one of Queen Mary's, but my humble suggestion would be that this is the frigging point. While fantasies can be complex, they are usually uncluttered by moral ambiguities and quotidian concerns. The notion of fighting Evil in the form of the Shadow in the East is much more satisfying than fighting Evil in the form of citizens who resist raising taxes to build a new sewer system for the north end of town. You may draw strength for the latter struggle from reading about the former; reading about the sewer struggle is unlikely to bring you anything but sleep.

Realism is unbeatably interesting: that is why social observation is the foundation of all the world's best books.

It has always been my experience that realism is unbeatably boring. I subscribe to the New York Times Book Review. I try to read every review, and if the books sound really appealing, I note them down for possible purchase. (Between being over seas and blogging, I'm way behind.) Very, very seldom does a work of mainstream fiction sound appealing. Nearly every book or story boils down to an examination of angst-ridden people agonizing over their squalid personal problems. Frankly, I have plenty of problems of my own. If I'm going to expend energy wallowing in angst, I'll expend it on my own problems. And mine aren't nearly as squalid (usually). There are, apparently, only a few basic plotlines in modern fiction:

Teen feels ignored/bored, acts out with substance abuse.
Young person on way up social/professional ladder sells soul, tries to fill void with substance abuse.
Middle-aged man very unhappy with lifetime accomplishments, tries to fill void with substance abuse.
Middle-aged woman very unhappy with men, tries to fill void with substance abuse.
Strange people in exotic lands do odd things for mysterious reasons. May or may not involve substance abuse.

I'd much rather read about a valiant lass slaying the dragon of Falnarch to gain the treasure of Midlothbitharth so that she can save her family's ancestral home of Bidnadjif'narrrr rather than read about Phyllis wondering whether she should stay with her overworked, remote husband rather than leave him for his boss (who will turn out not to want her). Bleah, just writing that makes me depressed.

Anyway, after singing the praises of realism for a while, Fernandez-Armesto suddenly switches to rhapsodizing about hand-crafted, home-grown myths:

But unreconstructed myths are usually better. They spring from collective effort, from folk memory and from a shared subconscious. Reading them gives you satisfactions no fantasy can supply...

I don't see how myths, chock-full of gods and monsters and miracles, fit in with "unbeatably interesting" realism, but that's probably why I'm not paid to write for the Times. I don't suppose it would do any good to point out that myths are no less "artificial" than LotR. Myths are the campfire tales early people told one another, which got gilded or stripped according to local taste, until someone managed to write them down, fixing them (more or less, and sometimes literally) in stone. Myth-making is not solely the domain of primitive man; we moderns can do it too.

The Icelandic Edda or the tales of the Sumerian gods could be dazzlingly cinematic and more exciting than any fantasy game. But the video-geeks, playing Harry Potter games, are too nerdy-eyed to notice.

It would be impossible to comment on this assertion, since it doesn't mean anything. I'll just point to the latter sentence as an example of something that sounds terrific when you have only the dimmest notion of what the hell you're talking about.

Skipping to the end:

Our fantasy fixation is worrying. Fantasy doesn't just feed on the imagination: it drains it. Virtuality erodes reality. Students who sweat over Elvish and Klingon will never dream in Chinese or Greek. Kids know more about the battles of Aragorn than of Alexander, the life of Harry Potter than the life of Harry VIII. Fantasy endangers history, some say: realism is on the way to extinction, shrinking from the syllabus, extruded from bookshops, de-accessioned from libraries.

Like the reference to nerdy-eyed video-geeks above, this is meaningless. It is patently untrue. Kids who are fascinated with Elvish sometimes grow up to be linguists. The excitement of fictional battles leads them to study real ones. Girls longing to explore the stars grow up to be astronomers.

But to hell with all of that. If there's anything that should have kept him from writing this silly article it's the fact that it's been done before. Jazz, automobiles, the jitterbug, rock n roll, science fiction, video games, the Internet---every five years or so there's some new trend that induces amnesia, blindness, and stupidity in the professorial class, and some of them are moved to write vapid pieces like this one. The End of Civilization is sighted, heads are shaken, panels are formed, continents erode away, and the world fails to end.

UPDATE: Andrea Harris also mentions this article, prompting a lively bunch of comments.