Friday, February 26, 2016

Ursula K. Le Guin Took Umbrage over Kazuo Ishiguro's Fantasy Belittlement

I'm always late to the party, but this time the fault lies with Mike Chivers, for only the other day did he mention this year-old 'disagreeablement' over the fantasy genre . . . Anyway, about a year ago, on the Book View Café, Ursula K. Le Guin took umbrage at Kazuo Ishiguro's remark to interviewer Alexandra Alter (NYT, February 20, 2015) about his novel The Buried Giant:
Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?
Le Guin disliked what she took to be Ishiguro's denigration of the genre fantasy:
Well, yes, they probably will [say this is fantasy]. Why not? It appears that the author takes the word for an insult. To me that is so insulting, it reflects such thoughtless prejudice, that I had to write this piece in response. Fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality. ‘Surface elements,’ by which I take it he means ogres, dragons, Arthurian knights, mysterious boatmen, etc., which occur in certain works of great literary merit such as Beowulf, the Morte d'Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings, are also much imitated in contemporary commercial hackwork. Their presence or absence is not what constitutes a fantasy. Literary fantasy is the result of a vivid, powerful, coherent imagination drawing plausible impossibilities together into a vivid, powerful and coherent story, such as those mentioned, or The Odyssey, or Alice in Wonderland.
Le Guin is sensitive to this issue, for she has written masterly works within the fantasy genre, but she's overreacting, in my view, to what she thinks Ishiguro meant, namely, that to be identified as a fantasy writer is an insult. Let's keep in mind though, that Ishiguro did consciously write a fantasy novel, so he himself can't be prejudiced against the genre itself. I think he was instead concerned that some readers would dismiss the work 'just' a fantasy - and would consciously intend this description as an insult, as if fantasy were limited to the sort of "contemporary commercial hackwork" that merely imitates the genre.

On the issue of "surface elements," however, I agree with Le Guin's criticism of Ishiguro's view.

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At 10:28 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Just curious: how would you define the fantasy genre? I've seen it defined in contradistinction to science fiction. One explanation says, for example, that SF respects our universe's physical laws, and anything "magical" in an SF universe is actually a plausible extrapolation of those laws. This contrasts with fantasy, which explicitly does not follow all physical laws, relying instead on its own internally consistent set of rules to describe how magic (etc.) works.

Fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson, in the "gradual interview" section of his website, has spoken of the fantasy genre as having originated in ancient (religious) narratives. By his lights, something like Gilgamesh qualifies as proto-fantasy.

Your thoughts?

At 4:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think I would follow Le Guin, but I expect magic, and because I don't trust the universe, I expect evil - in short, a metaphysical struggle between good and evil.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

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Somebody with heft must have linked to my post. Would one of you visitors please give me the address where this link is posted? Thanks in advance!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

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Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:49 AM, Blogger Antony Trepniak said...

It is possible to sympathise with both sides here, but I wonder whether LeGuin is fully cognisant of the level of prejudice against genre fiction in polite British literary circles? The BBC's attitude towards it is so bad that 85 genre writers signed an open letter on the subject five years ago - and the Beeb's response was denial.

I remember an author participant on a Radio 4 book choice programme select a Ray Bradbury novel before hastily apologising "It's not really science fiction...".

More recently in The Guardian's comments section I have observed the phenomenon of George R. Martin fans protesting that Game of Thrones is not fantasy. Having never read the books nor watched the TV series I am at a considerable disadvantage here, but I get the impression that GoT is in the vein of E.R. Eddison's classic Zimianvian trilogy that was extensively marketed as fantasy in the wake of the Tolkien boom, without anyone complaining that they'd been short-changed.

I would have to dispute, btw, the notion that fantasy necessarily implies a clear division between good and evil. That may be a convention in Tolkienesque "high fantasy" but it is missing in other sub-genres such as "sword and sorcery": Robert E. Howard's Conan is a highly morally ambivalent character, based on the disreputable types that his creator encountered during the Texas oil boom.

At 7:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Robert E. Howard's Conan is a highly morally ambivalent character, based on the disreputable types that his creator encountered during the Texas oil boom."

So, it isn't really fantasy, thank God!

Just kidding. I didn't know much about the complex British literary scene's attitude toward fantasy. Perhaps those who look down on it should be reminded of the earlier, haughty attitude toward novels and novelists!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:17 AM, Blogger Bienvenido Bones said...

Well, that's according to Ursula K. Le Guin, but we should be able to reconsider the best of Kazuo Ishiguro, and think about this everyone has a variety of reasons. Maybe his personal views of the world of racism and a lot of hypocrisy the 666 Intellectual Inspired by John Milton the Paradise Lost!, but let us know what our individual discovery under the sun.

At 10:52 PM, Blogger Bienvenido Bones said...

Maybe you are right, but the fact, everything is vanities, whatever things are of serious concern, whatever things are righteous, chaste, lovable, well -spoken-of,virtuous, and whatever things are praiseworthy, but the things that we learned as well as accepted and heard and saw in connection with the songs from beyond skies and the universe. *Bones*


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