This isn’t really about China Mieville vs. Tolkien at all, but about me vs. the chap Mr. Noisms over at Monsters and Manuals, who has put up a post attacking Mieville’s view of Tolkien and fantasy. This gives me a chance to indulge in a pastime I really enjoy – faux literary criticism – and since I made the mistake of sleeping for an hour at 8pm, and I’m drinking some kind of plum tea with gold flakes in it, I might as well take the time to have a go at Mr. Noisms.
The basis of Mr. Noisms critique of Mieville is his opinions as expressed in this interview, written fully 9 years ago after Mieville had written only 2 novels (King Rat and Perdido Street Station, both of which are very good and very escapist). Mieville has some strong views on Tolkien and he clearly believes that writing is a political project, whether explicitly or implicitly.
Mr. Noisms doesn’t like this idea, I think, and also doesn’t like marxism, and I think this has led to a certain overreaction to Mieville’s opinions. Here are my reactions to the three main criticisms Mr. Noisms levels:
1. Falling for non-fantasy readers’ definitions of fantasy:
In the interview, Mieville is asked why fantasy appears conservative and he answers with the reasons he thinks. He also gives an extra paragraph (which Mr. Noisms didn’t quote!) where he defends fantasy as not conservative. Mr. Noisms argues, however, that
almost no mainstream high-fantasy is like this. Even ‘high fantasy’ writers who I consider to be utterly dire, like David Eddings, Trudi Canavan, Robert Jordan and Weis & Hickman, write novels where female characters are just as strong as men, where peasants are often main characters, where threats are as much from within as from without, and where the idea of kingship itself is challenged.
I don’t know quite where Mr. Noisms gets this from. In David Eddings’s most famous work, the main character is a king hidden away as a peasant, and the threat came from an evil overlord from another land. Likewise Canavan, whose lead character may be a girl but she has the inherited “wealth” of magic – and the threat comes from a nasty country over the hills, which seemed suspiciously Muslim to me. Weis & Hickman’s dark enemy comes from Hell. That’s a pathological external threat, in my book. Kingship is never challenged in any of these books, as witnessed by, for example, the fact that the lead character becomes a King. Even when peasants rise up the ranks it is almost universally due to their inheriting magical powers – usually from someone special – and in the context of fantasy stories magic is pretty clearly a kind of inherited wealth, marking one out as special as much as nobility does in the real world. It’s almost an allegory of the same.
Plus of course a whole bunch of authors – Robert Jordan, that hideous kid who wrote Eragon, and that nasty Goodkind chap, for example – are literally conservative, and if you can’t see that from their works you are reading a very blinkered version of them (a claim Noisms makes of Mieville’s reading of Tolkien). Not to mention that some of them openly state their allegiances. (Orson Scott Card springs to mind, but I suppose he’s sci fi…)
2. A whole load of misconceptions about Tolkien.
This is the bit where Mr. Noisms claims Mieville hasn’t read Tolkien, even though in this section of the interview Mieville quotes Tolkien’s essay on writing fantasy. I don’t think this is a good debating tactic, Mr. Noisms, but I’ll let it slide. How magnanimous of me! But I think it’s a bit mean to say this:
Young fantasy writers often like to talk down Tolkien – they think it makes them look cool and rebellious.
because Mieville was asked to give his opinion in an interview at a Marxist conference, and he gave it. It is actually possible that he genuinely didn’t like Tolkien – many people don’t. I didn’t, and I’m not even half as clever as Mr. Mieville or Mr. Noisms.
In this part of his post, Mr. Noisms says a lot of antagonistic things that I think are misinterpretation of Mieville’s opinions. For example, he says
nor did he write that “the function of fantasy was ‘consolation'” as if it was an “article of policy” for fantasy writers – he only ever wrote about himself and his own point of view, and made no sweeping statements about what the fantasy ‘genre’ (there wasn’t such a thing back then) should be.
but Mieville never made the claim that Tolkien wrote about what the fantasy genre should be. He simply states what Tolkien thinks a fantasy writer should do. The broader claim Mr. Noisms accuses Mieville of making would require Mieville to have presented evidence that Tolkien tried to influence other writers’ underlying philosophy. Given Tolkien’s massive influence, it’s reasonable to claim that his opinions on fantasy writing were adopted by others – but Mieville doesn’t make this claim in the interview. He simply cites Tolkien’s opinion about writing, and criticises it. If Tolkien’s writing about writing is above criticism, then we really are in a dire situation!
Mr. Noisms also takes issue with this:
This arrogant assumption that everybody else, if they are rational adults, must surely be a Revolutionary Socialist and against Tolkien too, frankly pisses me off.
but there’s no evidence anywhere in the interview that Mieville believes this, nor does Mr. Noisms cite any. Mieville criticises Tolkien’s work as “literary comfort food” but he doesn’t criticise Tolkien’s readers. He nowhere argues that people should or shouldn’t want to read this stuff. A common complaint of person A who doesn’t like person B’s politics is that person B wants person A to think like person B because person B gave an opinion. But what is the alternative – that Mieville should shut up and not give interviews?
In essence, Mieville makes it clear he thinks Tolkien has a theory of fantasy stories, and he goes on to criticise this theory, and Mr. Noisms can’t find a strong argument against Mieville’s criticism, because the evidence is there, written by Tolkien. So instead Mr. Noisms gets huffy with Mieville for having an opinion.
3.Thinking that escapism is a bad thing
I think that Mr. Noisms gets a bit disingenuous here. Mieville is asked if he thinks fantasy is escapist (the precise question is pretty unambiguous: “Is fantasy escapist?”). Mieville thinks that a) fantasy is not escapist b) escapism is impossible in literature c) to the extent that any text is “escapist”, non-genre texts can be just as bad and d) under a particular definition of “escapism”, the post-Tolkien trilogy style of fantasy is escapist and many critics of the genre focus on that style when they criticise the whole genre.
Mr. Noisms takes this to mean that Mieville thinks a) all books should be political and b) if they’re political, they’re better and c) if you don’t like that you’re a bad person. I think this is bordering on disingenuous. It’s clear that Mieville is engaging in a particular form of literary criticism (all texts contain political influences from the time of their writing) which is not just marxist to defend fantasy. Specifically, he states that
Take a book like Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle. It’s set in a fantasy world, and it involves discussions of racism, industrial conflict, sexual passion and so on. Does it really make any sense to say that the book is inherently, because of its genre form more escapist than what Iain Banks calls ‘Hampstead novels’, about the internal bickerings of middle class families who seem hermetically sealed off from wider social conflicts? Just because those books pretend to be about ‘the real world’ doesn’t mean they reverberate in it with more integrity.
He is clearly here arguing that non-fantasy novels are just as “escapist” or more so than fantasy novels, and that it is the content of a novel – not its genre – which determines its vulnerability to this claim. He doesn’t argue that Rats and Gargoyles is good because it’s political and, frankly, I don’t know how Mr. Noisms could argue that he was. He uses this example to argue against the common criticism of fantasy levelled against it by “genre snobs” and “leftists”. He finishes by claiming that fantasy is not escapist. He is defending the genre against what he believes is an unfair criticism. I don’t see how this can justify Mr. Noisms in his final angry denunciation, viz:
Thirdly, escapism is a worthwhile thing in itself, and not something to be sniffed at. As somebody who isn’t a card-carrying member of the Pretentious Socialist Worker Party Elite, I like to sometimes jack my brain out of the Capitalist hellhole in which I find myself and in which my “every human impulse is repressed” and just, you know, think about something mindblowing and weird and get away from the world. Am I supposed to feel bad about that because China Mieville thinks I should constantly be engaging with “the real world” and if not I’m being “mollycoddled” and “comforted”? Fuck that.
Also, the claim that fiction should “always, always be about the story and that’s all that a fiction writer should care about when he’s writing” is, frankly, silly. It also falls into exactly the trap which Mieville discusses in his criticism of Hampstead novels. If you write a story, you are inserting character, plot and, usually, conflict. You have to make choices about these things. These choices are driven by something, and to pretend that that something can just spring pure and independent of the cultural and political milieu of the writer is hopelessly naive. To suggest as well that one must be compromising the story by inserting political or cultural aims is to make a claim which I would like to humbly suggest that George Orwell, Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, Ursula le Guin, Shakespeare, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, RM Meluch, Earnest Hemingway and Ben Johnson all disagree with. For example.
In summary: Mieville has some serious criticisms of Tolkien and Tolkien’s overarching impact on fantasy writing; he criticises Tolkien’s stated opinions of what a fantasy novel should do, on the grounds that they are limiting and naive; he defends the fantasy genre strongly against the criticism (made by leftists and genre snobs) that it is escapist; he derides the idea that any novel in any genre can escape from reality; he explains why he thinks that fantasy writing can appear conservative but defends the genre against this claim; and nowhere does he claim that a novel is good because of its politics. This seems like a pretty healthy interpretation of the fantasy genre to me, and a robust defense of the genre against both elitist literary critics and those who think that the genre is shallow because it is politically conservative. I would have thought Mr. Noisms would approve!