They were right after all

The media is disappointed to discover Sarah Palin isn’t actually illiterate:

AOL Weird News brought samples to two writing analysts who independently evaluated 24,000 pages of the former governor’s emails. They came back in agreement that Palin composed her messages at an eighth-grade level, an excellent score for a chief executive, they said.

“I’m a centrist Democrat, and would have loved to support my hunch that Ms. Palin is illiterate,” said 2tor Chief Executive Officer John Katzman. “However, the emails say something else. Ms. Palin writes emails on her Blackberry at a grade level of 8.5.

“If she were a student and showing me her work, I’d say ‘It’s fine, clear writing,'” he said, admitting that emails he wrote scored lower than Palin’s on the widely used Flesch-Kincaid readability test…. [Editor’s Note: In the interest of fairness, the writer submitted his own work for scrutiny. His recent piece, on a New York man trying to row across the Atlantic Ocean is on the 8.8 grade level, Payack said.]

Out of curiosity, I popped my most recent column into the Readability Calculator: “Flesch Kincaid Grade level: 13.10”. And my recent email to KW came in at 14.74. How fortunate that so many more Americans are now attending college, otherwise I might fear for my mass appeal. Still, I am forced to conclude that the newspaper editors of America knew precisely what they were doing when they uniformly, (with the sole exception of the Dallas Morning News), turned down my column during my brief, but glorious career as the UPS-designated heir to WFB.

But there are less accessible writers out there. I was a little surprised that Joseph Schumpeter scored only 13.35, as I’d have assumed he was over 15 at a minimum.

Acceleration is not freefall

I tend to find it somewhat mystifying when an anklebiter yet again attempts to pronounce the irrelevance of Vox Popoli for the Nth time since the very first one did so sometime back in October 2003. I never thought to create a general interest blog, in fact, it took a six-month false start before I even managed to start doing daily posts. Now, posting here is just a part of my routine that requires about as much mental effort as going to the gym or making lunch, the difference being that I am considerably less likely to sprain something while posting here.

(Speaking of which, I was pleased that I was able to jack my dumbbell military press up to 5x30kg yesterday. I was rather less pleased to discover that my neck now objects to being turned to the right. Ah, the bittersweet joys of age.)

Anyhow, in response to one of the anklebiter’s claims that the blog was in decline, I mentioned that its readership, like that of WND’s, has continued to increase over time. But what surprised me when I went back to look at the actual numbers was that the rate of readership growth has also been increasing.

May 2008: 136,577 monthly visits
May 2009: 151,610 +11.0%
May 2010: 185,275 +22.2%
May 2011: 245,493 +32.5%

In fact, last month set new records for both visits and page views (365,271) despite the fact that there were no new books released, no incoming traffic from any of the big blogs, and nothing of exceptional interest happening around the world. At this rate, there will be 350k monthly readers by this time next year, which is about 320k more than I’d ever imagined there would be.

Anyhow, I appreciate the way so many of you take the time to stop by on a regular basis and see what’s going on, I’m glad you continue to find the posts here to be of interest, and I appreciate the way in which your questions and substantive criticism help to clarify my thinking.

Fantasy, Romance, and the Omega author

What is the essential difference between Fantasy and Romance? The lines appear to be increasingly blurred these days. While the RWA didn’t include the teen romance of the Twilight series on its list of bestselling romance novels, the current list includes books from the Ghostwalkers and Immortals After Dark series and one can hardly walk through a grocery store, let alone a bookstore, without encountering an interspecies love triangle between a woman, a vampire, and a werewolf. For some reason, it would appear that two vampires, or alternatively, two werewolves, seldom share common tastes in human women. So there is magic and the supernatural in Romance and there is no dearth of love and sex in Fantasy. So what is the difference?

Aside from the covers, arguably the most reliable method to distinguish between the two is this: In Romance, men typically pursue women. Sometimes they even ravish them. In Fantasy, on the other hand, men are almost invariably surprised by female interest in them.

Read the rest at the Black Gate.

The death of satire

The Dyke and the Dybbuk, by Ellen Galford. “A fun, feisty, feminist romp through Jewish folklore as an ancient spirit returns to haunt a modern-day London lesbian.”

The OC remarks: “And they wonder why straight men have lost almost all interest in buying and reading fiction…”

This makes me suspect that the gatekeepers are unintentionally strangling the genre by ignoring population demographics. Do the math. It is nearly impossible to get published in SF/F as a Christian evangelical or anti-feminist these days. It is, by comparison, relatively easy to get published as a lesbian, feminist, or Jewish writer, because the lesbian, feminist and Jewish editors, (or in some cases, all three in one), understandably tend to be interested in publishing books that reflect their interests and perspective. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Their job, their call.

But there is something mathematically wrong with it, since lesbians make up around one percent of the population and Jews are either 2.2 percent or 1.7 percent, depending upon which metric you use. So, by combining those two factors, as in the case of Ms Galford’s new “fun, feisty, feminist romp”, you have functionally decided to turn your back on at least 99.98 percent of your potential market. Of course, the transparent short-sightedness of this approach is unlikely to prevent the publishers from decrying their continually declining sales and blaming them on ebook piracy, video games, or that old standby, male readers being intimidated by strong, independent female characters.

I have to confess, though, that description kind of makes me want to read The Dyke and the Dibbuk. It appears to have the potential to be even hilariously awful than that were-seal book that presently serves as our standard for the literary depths of the SF/F genre.

Mailvox: Spelling it out slowly

James S doesn’t realize that it isn’t necessary to deal with the “meat of an argument” when the point that it is trying to defend is irrelevant. He wrote, and I quote in full:

“How can you possibly say this isn’t a moral argument? It feels like you are purposefully muddying the issue by making a distinction between ‘attributing’ the decline of genre to it’s amorality and the moral judgment that would be necessary to make the aforementioned attribution. This seems to be done to escape having to admit that the argument turns on morals (for it would then collapse) and turning it into one of literary aesthetics instead (which it is anything but as the crux of the argument rests on the ‘moral vacuity’ of the literature you claim is a symptom of a declining society). The distinctions are self-serving and at best contrived and artificial. This posting proves to me that you are indeed the moral coward Bakker claims you are.”

First, while Bakker is by all accounts an entertaining writer, in making the accusation of “moral cowardice” he has also shown himself to be an ignoramus who is attempting to spin words and concepts that he does not, by his own admission, understand. To claim that I am a moral coward because I am directly and openly calling out the genre’s authors on what I believe to be their literary failures without also calling them out on their supposed moral failures is simply nonsensical. It is obvious that James S, Bakker, and other putative Preachers of Death desperately want me to make a moral argument so they can preen in their juvenile transgressivism, attack the argument in relativistic terms, and thereby avoid dealing with the problematic matter of the material literary incompetence of modern fantasy. This is why people keep trying to insist that I am making an argument that I have repeatedly and correctly informed them I am not making.

If I was to make a moral argument for the decline of SF/F literature, I would first define the moral standard to which I was holding the literature accountable, then compile comparative lists of transgressions against that standard committed by two sets of fantasy authors, those writing from 1930 to 1960 and from 1980 to 2010. If significantly more transgressions were committed by the latter, my point would be supported. If not, my point would fail. While critics could certainly debate the question of whether the selected moral standard was relevant or not, no one, myself included, could dispute that the argument was an intrinsically moral one. Of course, I have done absolutely nothing of the sort for the obvious reason that I have not presented a moral argument… note that my critics can’t even tell what moral standard I am supposedly utilizing as the basis for this nonexistent moral argument.

James appears to suspect on some level that the case he presents here is an invalid one. Which is, in fact, the case. Note the weaselly approach as he attempts to derive a “proves” from a “seems” plus a “feels”. When I correctly dealt with the actual question posed – How can you say this isn’t a moral argument? Because it demonstrably is not. – he tried to claim that I was avoiding the core of his argument. But it is not necessary to address an argument that is based on nothing more than James’s feelings and perceptions.

Of course, since I, too, have my share of character flaws and take an amount of unseemly and sadistic pleasure in rubbing my intellectual supremacy in the face of those who are unwise enough to directly challenge me on it, I will first correct James’s argument by transforming it into one that is not dependent upon his feelings. Then I will show why his argument is incorrect, even when presented in a relevant form.

I paraphrase his argument thusly: How can you say the decline of the SF/F genre isn’t a moral argument? I believe you are purposefully muddying the issue by making a distinction between attributing the decline of genre to its amorality and the moral judgment that is required to make this attribution. You are making this distinction in order to escape having to admit that the argument turns on morals and turning it into one of literary aesthetics instead because you cannot successfully make the moral argument. The distinction between the attribution and the moral judgement are contrived, artificial, and self-serving and the fact that you are unwilling to make the moral argument directly proves you are a moral coward.

1. I can say the decline of the SF/F genre is not a moral argument because morality is only one of many possible metrics in which decline of the genre can be measured. Decline can be measured in book sales, in real dollar revenue corrected for inflation, in failure to abide by traditional moral standards, in historical accuracy, in logical consistency, in scope of ambition, or in literary quality, just to name a few possible metrics. My argument happens to be focused on what I perceive to be the decline in literary quality, although I am certain one could make a convincing argument with regards to the genre’s increasing failure to abide by conventional moral standards if one so chose. I may even do so one day, primarily for the purposes of demonstrating to the dim-witted or insufficiently imaginative that it can be done. But the fact that one can make the moral argument does not indicate that one must do so in the course of making any of the other arguments.

2. I did not invent the distinction between “‘attributing’ the decline of genre to it’s amorality” and “the moral judgment that is required to make this attribution”. It is, quite clearly, a distinction that is absolutely necessary in order to determine if the observation is correct or not based on the chosen metric. Being necessary, it is neither artificial nor contrived, and it is only self-serving for me in this case because my argument happens to be correct. Were my observations not correctly in line with the metric selected, it would not be self-serving. If I had attributed the decline of the genre to the lengths of the books published, would anyone be dumb enough to assert that this attribution was not distinct from the knowledge of book lengths required to make it?

To underline how absurd James’s attempted elimination of the distinction is, let us return to the technological example. As with the book lengths, there is an obvious distinction between “attributing the decline of genre to its technological incongruency” and “the technological judgment that is required to make this attribution”? There has to be a distinction, there always will be, because the former is an act and the latter is a capacity. While it is true that it is necessary to be sufficiently technologically (morally) aware to perceive a potential decline in literary quality due to technological incongruency (amorality), the ability to make an informed judgment cannot possibly be equated with the judgment itself. The distinction is both real and necessary.

3. James should note that it is not at all necessary to subscribe to a moral standard to a) have the capability to make a judgment concerning whether something abides by that moral standard or not and b) determine that something does or does not abide by that standard or not. I am not a Muslim, nor do I subscribe to Islamic moral standards, but I know enough about Islam to be able to determine if a book is respectful of Islamic morals or not. What this discussion has revealed quite clearly is that many fans of the genre lack both the moral knowledge and intellectual capacity to participate in a rational discussion of the subject. This is why their arguments in attempted defense of the state of the genre have been so uniformly irrelevant; lacking the ability to see color, they have nothing to offer in a discussion of whether the painter would have done better to consider using a different color palette.

4. The irrelevance of the moral argument obviously removes the foundation for the accusation of moral cowardice.

5. James wrote in a subsequent comment: “If my argument (and it is one out of many issues I have with this post) is so obviously wrong, then show me. A decline to do so reads as an inability to do so, however you dress it up as disinterest with my ability to comprehend your obvious superiority. Again, quote my argument and dismember it. If you can prove me wrong I think I could admit it, but all you have done is again and again in different ways call me names and assert your intellectual superiority. I would ask you to stop embarrassing yourself but you seem hellbent on proving yourself superior (in any way possible), and in doing so you have only proven your need to feel superior. Quote the argument!” Once more, it should be clear to all and sundry that I have no need to feel intellectually superior, since it happens to be an observable fact that I can demonstrate at will. The fact that I often don’t bother to address an invalid or irrelevant argument should never be confused with an inability to do so. I trust James will feel entirely satisfied that his argument has been quoted in full and dismembered, as per his request.

Let’s try this one more time

One of the things I always find amusing about a discussion on the Internet is the reaction of the more dim-witted fans of one or both of the interlocutors. For example, in his second response, RS Bakker twice admits that he doesn’t understand what I’ve written, but doesn’t let this prevent him from spiraling downward into tangents wherein he attempts to engage in some minor psychoanalysis, demonstrates that he has not, in fact, understood what I’ve written, and finally reaches the conclusion that my argument (and Grin’s) could serve as proof to many modern fantasists that they are doing something right. It was not surprising that this nimble performance elicited the following comment, presumably from a Bakker fan: “What a trouncing! Bakker, you’re quite skilled in argument!” Can you imagine how impressed that fan would have been if Bakker had actually managed to indicate that he understood anything relevant to the issue at hand?

Now, I have absolutely nothing personal against Bakker. I haven’t read his novels, (which are apparently pretty good), and I don’t take exception to his opinion regarding my perceived moral cowardice, sense of moral superiority, or superlative sophistry. (NB: I don’t have a sense of moral superiority, I have a sense of intellectual superiority. Important difference there.) Political columnists tend to be rather more familiar with criticism than the average published author since it tends to come with the territory. After 10 years of receiving email from angry readers performing detailed exegeses of every weekly column, I barely even consider it criticism anymore if the nominal critic doesn’t see fit to threaten a) physical attack, or b) to not have sex with me.

Now, I was initially at somewhat of a loss regarding how I could better explain what I considered to be a pretty uncomplicated analogy, but a snarky little comment from another reader at Bakker’s place provided useful inspiration. To wit: “Monochrome photography is photography where the image produced has a single hue, rather than recording the colours of the object that was photographed.” In other words, the other hues simply are not there. Now, by way of example, please tell me the color of the dilapidated house in this photo. Is it brown? Is it white? Is it that faded blue-grey that you often see in half-collapsed houses out in the country?

Not only is it impossible to say what color it is, but just making a reasonable guess requires the viewer to draw upon his own experiences which are external to the photograph if he is even to begin formulating an opinion. And it is not a value judgment, but a straightforward statement of fact, to observe that color information is missing from the image and therefore the ability of the viewer to formulate an opinion on the color of the object is severely handicapped.

So much for amorality. Now on to alternative moral standards. Consider this picture. Discerning art critics can certainly disagree on the aesthetic value of the image, but it would be very difficult to reasonably argue that it offers a more accurate or realistic picture of a historical automobile than a more conventional image that respects traditional color schemes.

It’s not difficult to demonstrate that Bakker has no idea what he’s talking about when he theorizes that I am committing a Consensus Fallacy in observing the literary decline of modern fantasy. The Romance Writers of America report that the SF/F genre sold $554 million last year, of which a significant proportion were Harry Potter and Twilight books. (Twilight books appear to be listed as Fantasy bestsellers, not Romance, based on a review of the RWA’s historical lists.) Religion/inspirational sold $770 million. Now, obviously not all books in the religious/inspirational category will reflect precisely the same moral standard, but it is sufficient evidence of a general belief in moral standards among the book-buying public to indicate that my case is not at all dependent upon the specific moral standards to which I happen to subscribe.

Furthermore, I didn’t say “that moral conflict requires “two immutable poles and two immutable poles only…”. Nor did I imply it or assume it; I used the phrase “at least two moral poles” because that is the minimum number required to generate moral conflict. Bakker is either being disingenuous or suffering from serious reading comprehension problems here to attempt summarizing the section on the requirements for moral conflict so inaccurately.

Finally, Bakker’s claim that he pressed my nose against the “imperative” of “art unconstrained by moral or religious prejudice” by emphasizing the way moral concerns marble my arguments against modern fantasy is downright laughable. This is little more than a predictable, outdated and juvenile justification for artistic coprophagy that underlines my points about the literary decline of the genre. This is the very transgressive mentality to which I referred in my original post. I certainly don’t deny that I am making a value judgment about modern fantasy, what Bakker simply can’t seem to grasp is that I am expressing a literary judgment and not a moral one. The fact that one of the causes of the genre’s literary decline can quite logically be attributed to observable moral color-blindness on the part of many modern fantasy authors does not make the observation a moral judgment, anymore than attributing the decline to historical ignorance would make it a historical judgment.

This isn’t double-talk or moral cowardice. I am about as genuinely disinterested as it is possible to be and still be cognizant of the matter. I have read everything from Nietzsche and Stalin to Keynes and Onfray without it ruffling my feathers so I’m not inclined to be perturbed by mere fictitious monsters. If I was concerned that Joe or anyone else was “leading innocent souls to potential damnation” through nihilistic genre literature, my track record of publishing highly controversial opinions strongly suggests that I would not hesitate to say so. The fact is that I simply don’t believe the writers of modern fantasy matter all that much, in part due to the literary decline of the genre. As I stated before, they are a symptom of the greater societal decline, they are not a cause.

Of course no one likes to hear that their work can be reasonably compared to colorblind children producing monochromatic fingerpaintings. Nor do they have to listen to such cricism. I, for one, won’t mind in the least if the likes of Messrs. Bakker and Abercrombie ignore my opinion and continue basking in the critical acclaim for their moral vacuity, historically incoherent settings, and cardboard characterizations. That is exactly what I expect them to do. I am not writing for their benefit, but for the benefit of the generation of upcoming authors who are capable of learning from the mistakes of those who have gone before and wish to avoid reproducing them.

If the modern fantasists genuinely believe that more blood and titties is literary progress, by all means, let them write more. Let a hundred nihilistic anti-heroes blossom into the murderous child rapists of their creators’ moralblind fantasies. Just don’t expect me, or the large number of intelligent readers capable of noticing what John O’Neill described as “lost magic”, to be favorably impressed with the result.

Despite my mild distaste for Ursula Le Guin’s work, I thought J.S. Bangs had an intelligent perspective on the matter in his amusingly titled post:

On the one hand: it’s possible that the “new gritty” is meant as a reaction against old narratives that have lost their power. But if that’s what those authors are trying to do, then I think they’re doing an awfully poor job of it, because—look, you can question conventional narratives or whatever without sliding into nihilism and madness. What you might do, instead, is offer an alternate model of heroism, an alternate view of goodness. If you do this well you can wind up with something that is compelling, inspiring, and life-changing in much the way that Tolkein and the classical heroic narratives are, but which compels people in a direction that you find more salutory. If you don’t think this can be done, I refer you to the entire oeurve of Ursula K. LeGuin, especially the Earthsea novels and her recent Annals of the Western Shore books. These books repudiate conventional heroic tropes in a variety of ways, but the result is not a demoralizing darkness, but the calm and confident demonstration that there is another way.

Of course, we can’t all be Ursula K. LeGuin. (Oh, but what if we could?) Still, if we grant that the foundations of reactionary fantasy are rotten (not something I agree with, but for the sake of argument), then a lot of the dark, gritty fantasy that I’ve sampled seems like it’s just kicking in the creaky old doors and drawing obscene graffiti in the entrance hall. If the literary building is decrepit, who cares? But this doesn’t impress me. Better you build something beautiful in the ruins.

Of course, they don’t because they won’t and they won’t because they know they can’t. If you can’t draw, you can still scribble. If you can’t create, you can still deconstruct. If you can’t build, you can still destroy. And if you can’t argue, at least you can still mock. None of this is new or even the least bit innovative. I happened to have finished a book last night which makes it clear that the core concept is a tediously old one, older than Tolkien or even Howard. The Preachers of Death call themselves creators, but they create only corpses. Fortunately, in this case, the corpses are only imaginary.

To allure many from the herd—for that purpose have I come. The people and the herd must be angry with me: a robber shall Zarathustra be called by the herdsmen.

Herdsmen, I say, but they call themselves the good and just. Herdsmen, I say, but they call themselves the believers in the orthodox belief.

Behold the good and just! Whom do they hate most? Him who breaketh up their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker:—he, however, is the creator.

Behold the believers of all beliefs! Whom do they hate most? Him who breaketh up their tables of values, the breaker, the law-breaker—he, however, is the creator.

Companions, the creator seeketh, not corpses—and not herds or believers either. Fellow-creators the creator seeketh—those who grave new values on new tables.

Companions, the creator seeketh, and fellow-reapers: for everything is ripe for the harvest with him. But he lacketh the hundred sickles: so he plucketh the ears of corn and is vexed.

Companions, the creator seeketh, and such as know how to whet their sickles. Destroyers, will they be called, and despisers of good and evil. But they are the reapers and rejoicers.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, IX

Jakob Schmidt had an interesting comment there which I also thought was worth addressing:

Now, Theo’s color metaphor seems to imply that he deems ethical relativism to be somehow “too difficult” a concept to master for most writers. In other words, if a fantasy author doesn’t write from the clear cut notion that, e.g., “honorable conduct” (red) is fundamentally good and that “betraying your king” (blue) is inherently bad, the result will most probably be a muddled and ugly grey mess. What he doesn’t seem to take into account is the idea that a writer could write about moral values that are problematic to us, to allow a reader to react to them in an ethical way.

No, I specifically allowed for that possibility, hence the analogy to the prospective ability of the master painter to paint without color and still achieve a superlative color effect. But Jakob is correct, as given the observable inability of modern fantasy authors to competently portray historical religions and philosophies with any degree of versimilitude, the ethical relativism he described is without even the smallest modicum of doubt far, far beyond the literary and intellectual abilities of the average modern fantasy author.

Postulating a literary triumph

RS Bakker, whose work was one of the examples of modern fantasy cited in the heroism/nihilism debate at Black Gate inspired by Leo Grin’s original essay, weighs in on the matter. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with Mr. Bakker’s novels, but I have heard some very good things about them, so it was more than a little interesting to read his perspective:

More often than not, the truth, whatever it is, likes to hide in the trashcan. So let me suggest, from the outset, that even though we may belong to the low paraliterati, we are actually engaging in an incredibly complex and timely debate, one which represents genuinely conflicting social interests, while the literati are simply disputing angels and pins amongst themselves.

Only in fantasy, folks. Which is why I have been self-consciously exploring these self-same issues throughout The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor. These are literally the problems that I used to structure the metaphysics of the World and the Outside. I can’t help but feel a little bit of that delicious I-told-you-so tingle…

The latest salvo in the dour side of the debate is “The Decline and Fall of the Fantasy Novel,” which appeared on Black Gate just this past Sunday. In this essay, Theo breaks Grin’s lament down into four categories, so rescuing the argument from all the hyperbole and self-congratulatory in-group asides that so marred the original.

I liked Bakker’s sober, straightforward take on the matter, which stands in marked contrast to the disjointed reactions of some of the more impassioned opinions expressed. With regards to the first category, 1) Heroic inspiration versus anti-heroic discouragement, Bakker wrote: “Why this [moral redemption or heroic overcoming of external threats] should be the cornerstone of the genre, or anything beyond a statement of personal taste, is quite beyond me.”

But in the very first issue of Black Gate, John O’Neill wrote: “Some people believe that the age of the magazines is over. That people don’t read short stories anymore, that no one is interested in fantasy not packaged as a trilogy. I don’t believe that. But at the same time, I will admit that modern magazines have lost some of the magic that characterized the first Golden Age. In particular, they’ve misplaced the sense of excitement, the focus on adventure, and the ability to reach across generations to readers of all ages. In Black Gate, we hope to recapture that spirit, to publish original epic fantasy in the classic mold – with strong characters, exotic settings, and page-turning action.”
– Black Gate, Spring 2001, pg. 4

My suggestion is that what John was referring to with regards to the lost magic can quite reasonably be identified as the moral redemption and heroic overcoming of external threats, which are important elements going into that which makes characters strong and fantasy epic. This doesn’t mean that this lost magic needs to be a cornerstone of the genre anymore than sex with murderous dead people does. But there is, nevertheless, a distinct and palpable sense of loss in the move from the one to the other. Now, Bakker is right, as it is a matter of personal taste regarding what one prefers to consume, but then, that is equally true of expressing a gastronomic preference between eating chocolate and eating shit. And with literature as with food, what one consumes will tend to have consequences over time.

On the second point concerning 2) Moral certainty versus relativistic confusion, I very much disagree that there is any straw man, let alone a Great Straw Man involved. Bakker writes: “The idea seems to be that ‘moral relativism’ has some kind of ‘moral dampening effect,’ which in turn forces the author to reach deeper to achieve moral effects. I’m not so sure this makes much sense.” But I don’t see how the dampening effect can be reasonably doubted. Let me put it in visual terms. If I am painting with primary colors, it is not difficult to achieve the effects of “red” and “blue”. I simply use red and blue paint. If, however, I have nothing but grey paint, it takes a tremendous amount of skill to achieve any distinction between a red effect and a blue effect. So most painters, not being sufficiently skilled, will be forced to utilize other means of getting the effect across to the viewer by appealing to the viewer’s strongest preconceptions about color, preconceptions which are entirely external to the work. (This is what I meant when I referred to an “artificial facsimile of a moral sensibility” which is located within the work itself.) The inclusion of a stop sign or a police uniform can serve as reference points for colors that aren’t actually there. While one might quite reasonably argue that it is simplistic to use traditional and commonly understood colors in order to achieve a specific color effect, I don’t see how one can rationally argue that not using color, or worse, using yellow for red and brown for blue, is a more effective or powerful means of communicating color. What might work out extraordinarily well in the sophisticated hands of a master painter is very likely to turn out as a gaudy and nonsensical disaster in less accomplished hands. And these sorts of morally incoherent disasters are precisely what I perceive in much modern fantasy today. To extend the analogy a bit further, the problem with the end result isn’t that the painting doesn’t have the exact amount of blue that I, (or anyone else), might believe it should have, the problem is that it is an ugly mess that lacks versimilitude and is incapable of stirring any feeling in the viewer but contempt and disgust.

Although he characterized it correctly, I don’t think Bakker quite understood the third point, 3) Organic consistency versus moral anachronism, in its entirety. I applaud his refusal to bow to the temporal moral anachronisms that litter modern fantasy like a virulent STD, and will happily assure him that I have never presumed “individuals in ancient contexts were not morally conflicted”. The simple fact that has apparently been missed here is that in order to be “morally conflicted”, there must be at least two moral poles between which that conflict can take place. It doesn’t matter what the moralities are, as one can create a credible moral conflict regardless of whether one believes that stoning homosexuals is a moral imperative or a totally immoral act. The point is that there must be a defined pole and an anti-pole or else there is no moral conflict; define those poles how you like, albeit with due respect for historical definitions if you have decided to make use of a recognizable historical setting. As for the connection between moral anachronisms in fiction and certain sensibilities, I would think it is rather obvious that it is almost always those writers who reject traditional moral standards – or alternatively, the very concept of universally applicable moral standards – who are so uncomfortable with them that they insist on introducing the moral equivalent of laser-sighted handguns into an era of swords and spears. This is just bad judgment leading to bad writing.

With regards to the fourth point, I am entirely open to the idea that the latest generation of modern fantasists are not at all responsible for the way they are regarded by their fans. But their predecessors in the SF/F genre, such as Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison, certainly revelled in their self-styled transgressivism and so-called “dangerous” visions. Still, I think it is abundantly clear that there is nothing bold or daring about upholding the moral perspective of what has now become the mainstream perspective in the publishing industry, if not necessarily among the readership. If Messrs. Joe, Steve, and George don’t consider themselves to be dangerous, transgressive writers in the Moorcockian mode, then obviously the charge of hypocrisy would not apply.

Finally, I have no choice but to conclude that Bakker has missed the primary thrust of my argument when he writes: “As I hope should be clear by this point, Theo’s four recapitulations of Grin’s points are really different spins of the same complaint: modern fantasy is a moral failure.”

But this is not what I am saying at all. I am observing – not complaining – that modern fantasy is a literary failure and that the literary decline of the genre over the last fifty years is one of the many symptoms of a greater societal decline. That this literary and societal decline has a moral component is readily apparent, but is beyond the scope of my argument, nor does that argument rely upon subscription to “a certain family of wish-fulfilment moralities”. In other words, there is no circle, which is why the potential difficulty of squaring it is irrelevant. I have no desire to tell anyone what they should or should not write, anymore than I wish to tell them what they should or should not eat. Write what thou wilt is the whole of the literary law. But if you happen to be wondering why so many people think your breath stinks, I’m certainly not going to hesitate to explain that you may want to reconsider your eating habits.

UPDATE – Mr. Bakker responds. But unfortunately, by his own admission, it would appear that most of it sailed right over his head. I’m not sure how I can make what is a fairly basic concept much more clear, but I will certainly attempt to do so tomorrow. In the meantime, I am much amused by his opinion that he has forced me “into an uncomfortable position”. I’m not uncomfortable at all, I’m just bemused. It increasingly feels like trying to explain to retarded children why their fingerpaintings suck and how they might like to try improving them by using more than one color… then having them respond “I like pink and you’re just AFRAID of it.” Throw in more blood and titties if you like, by all means. I certainly don’t care. And if that sums up the scope of your literary ambitions, well, so be it. I’m sure we’ll all look forward to seeing holographic movies based on your epic novels 50 years from now, or at least the bowdlerized versions approved by the Imam of Culture.

The collective Vanilla Ice

Some of the comments at the Black Gate on yesterday’s post regarding the decline and fall of the fantasy novel really have to be read to be believed. There has been a great deal of what appears to be willful obtuseness and a determined inability to understand standard definitions on display, but there’s not much that needs to be said against an argument that relies upon the idea that the basic concept of Western civilization has no intrinsic meaning… although it would certainly make for an amusingly meta defense of post-modernism in modern fantasy.

In any event, I replied thusly: Matt and [B], there appears to be little to discuss with either of you on the subject of Western civilization, still less its observable decline in demographic and other terms, as your knowledge of the concept clearly doesn’t even rise to the level of Wikipedia. Nor is this the proper venue to explain the principium contradictionis, so I suggest you read up on what the “Western world” and “the Occident” are and how they have been defined for decades, if not centuries. What you have presented, Matt, is not a rebuttal, but rather a collection of contorted wordplay and suppositions which attempts to avoid the manifestly obvious. Let me put it in terms you might be willing to acknowledge. Suppose you were to write a modern fantasy set in America circa 2010, but completely leaving out all science and technology. Don’t you think that would create a ludicrously false image of both the setting and the basic mindsets of the characters? Then suppose that people began claiming this omission of science and technology as well as scientific modes of thinking actually presented a more realistic understanding of the period than its inclusion. That would border on the insane, wouldn’t you agree?

Read the rest of my reply at the Black Gate. And if you feel moved to comment there, be considerate and polite. Playing hardball is completely fine here, but it is not the way things are done there.

Matt has also written what I consider to be a more relevant post on the moral aspect of the subject that you should find interesting.

Mailvox: no harm, no foul

The ElusiveWapiti is offended on the blog’s behalf:

Pharyngula makes the list of “Top 100 Blogs” but VP does not. Blasphemy, I’d say.

Actually, that was a pretty good list. I’m delighted to see Karl, Susan, Roissy, Athol, and Ferdinand all receiving well-deserved notice. Ritzholtz’s blog is a good choice too, although I would have liked to see Mish and Steve Keen in the Economics category. Scalzi’s blog used to be quite good when he had the time to post daily, and although I don’t read it now that it’s mostly authors writing about their own books, I can see where that would be appealing to many readers. The list is a bit dated and lefty, since as Instapundit noted, Wonkette is all but dead and Boing Boing is stultifyingly boring.

As for Pharyngula, it is the home of the moderately intelligent, college-educated, angry, and unpopular. Since there is no shortage of such creatures, I think it eminently merits its recognition as a top blog. I wouldn’t characterize it as “smart”, but then, I don’t have an IQ of 100 either. Of course the readers of this blog don’t find it to be intelligent since most of you are more intelligent than PZ, but from the average perspective, it is pretty smart. One can’t be an idiot to get things that completely wrong.

I would be very surprised if VP was ever named on such a list, since even after the publication of RGD you won’t find it on a list of top 100 Economics blogs. Nor do I mind that it isn’t. This blog is too esoteric for the mainstream and too iconoclastic for the moderately intelligent; I would tend to consider it a failure if it was not. What I said about women is also true of men. I don’t expect most people to agree with me because I don’t expect them to be able to understand me.

The problem is that when you make a habit of dealing in the realm of the unthinkable, few can fathom it. So, even when I’m correct about some previously outlandish possibility, I am unlikely to receive any credit for it because such things are considered to be, by definition, black swans. Since no one can possibly have imagined it, no one could have predicted it, therefore any claims to have done so are inherently false. This is but one of the many examples of modern/medieval logic that has, ironically enough, returned to supplant the empiricism that previously usurped its primacy.

The wisdom of Tucker Max

You wouldn’t imagine one could write that without irony, and yet there it is. I’ve always rather liked Tucker Max despite knowing that there is an element of, shall we say, inventive color to be found in all the satyrical shenanigans. As with Roissy, if you only pay attention to the sordid details of his controversial subject matter, you will completely miss the intelligent insights he has to offer:

Why do you think my writing is so popular? It’s honest. That’s what all the idiots who try to imitate me don’t get. It’s not about the drinking or the fucking or the crazy stories. It’s not even about the funny, as much as it’s about the honesty. No one is ever honest, but when you are, when you say the things everyone knows but won’t admit, it’s so shocking and amazing that the world can’t help but stop and look.

But here’s the thing about being honest: All the liars HATE you for it, and most of the people in the world are liars. They lie to their bosses, they lie to their families, they lie to themselves, they lie so much they don’t even know they’re lying anymore. If you have the courage to be honest–even a little bit–all those people will hate you, because your honesty reflects their lie back on them.

Oscar Wilde wasn’t kidding when he said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

I think the reason I like writers like Tucker, Roissy, and Jonah Goldberg, and why I tend to view them as something more or less akin to peers despite our varying levels of public visibility, is that we are all essentially doing the same thing in different areas. Of course, far fewer people are interested in economics and history than politics, much less sex and dating, but my approach to mainstream economics isn’t really all that different than Tucker’s approach to American sexual mores, Roissy’s approach to male mating rituals, or Goldberg’s approach to left-wing political ideology.