Features of fantasy that (in my opinion) need to die horribly: Part II
Last month I started a rant about aspects of the modern fantasy genre that irritate me in my capacity as reader. Specifically aspects that, in marked contrast to Infamously Generic Fantasy Tropes(TM), really are going strong, and aren’t showing any signs of disappearing any time soon. Medieval European Fantasy, for example, remains the default flavour unless you are dealing with urban fantasy or vampires. Today? It’s a rant about the rise of “Adult” Themes(TM).
2. “Adult” Themes
Put those pitchforks down. I’m not about to go into a massive moralistic spiel about how evil modern fantasy is corrupting our children, and that everyone ought to go back to only reading good wholesome fare like C.S. Lewis. Rather, this is a complaint about what people consider “adult” within the genre – which is why I’ve been using the inverted commas, since I personally don’t consider it particularly adult at all.
For a couple of decades now, the genre has been beefing up its swearing content (I’m struggling to remember a fantasy book featuring copious usages of fuck before A Song of Ice and Fire appeared on the scene). Alongside that has come an increase in sexual content, both consensual and non-consensual, and in-your-face violence. Some of these changes have been undeniably positive – the genre has become a more diverse place than it once was – but I honestly think you lose points if you include a gay character only to promptly have him arse-raped. In any case, the problem isn’t the grimdark trend per se, but rather that too many people out there think a fantasy book containing high levels of sex, gore, and swearing is more mature than one without.
My position? There’s nothing inherently mature or adult about sex, gore, and swearing in books. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them either – everything depends on context and execution – but reading about such things where the author is simply trying to be edgy gets tiresome. It gets even worse if that sort of content becomes the major point of the exercise, as though simply chucking in wall-to-wall violence, rape, and fucks is sufficient to sustain a story by itself. Just as the post-1977 Tolkien imitations ended up becoming formulaic self-parodies, so it is with the school of thought that you can earn critical brownie points if your main character swears while he murders.
Where has this notion of adult themes come from? I’d suggest in part that it’s thumbing your nose at Tolkien, or more accurately, what they think Tolkien is. You know, the idea that the whole good/evil thing is so childish, and that Tolkien was a wimp who wouldn’t go near “realistic” things like sex and gore – never mind that The Lord of the Rings features catapulted heads and an on-screen suicide, or that The Silmarillion has both incest and mass character death. Tolkien (who you’ll remember was a veteran of the Battle of the Somme, and thus quite familiar with the more horrific things people do to each other) just didn’t do swearing either, so surely including fucks and cunts and what-not in your text must be an iconoclastic break with convention, right? Ditto with copious gore – Tolkien never killed off Frodo, and simply portrayed him as a shell-shocked veteran who could never enjoy life again. The wuss!
I’d also suggest that there’s a follow-the-leader element too, in this case with Martin readers. After Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, people were hunting around for something else fantastical, to the point where A Song of Ice and Fire became one of the landmarks in the genre. Unfortunately, rather than focussing on Martin’s strengths (e.g. characterisation), too many ended up lingering on the narrative wrapping paper – the swearing, and so forth, which was held up as “realistic”, as though that was inherently a good thing. In some cases, this evolved into a “my tastes are superior to yours” situation, whereby those who appreciated what they thought of as realistic fantasy (not that Martin is realistic in the true sense) looked down on their fellows as interested only in childish escapism. And from there it became a race to see who could out-do who in terms of out-squicking others. One wonders how much further the race has left to go.
Speaking of squick, a while ago I watched the 1970s film adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (you know, the one moved to fascist Italy, and so over the top that it was banned in many countries, including my one, until the twenty-first century). One of the points the film made? You’ve got a bunch of sick fascist fucks watching horrible tortures on people for their own sick entertainment. You know, just like the audience themselves. There’s a strong point about audience complicity here, and I think it’s relevant to the present discussion. Why do so many fantasy readers enjoy reading about this sort of thing? To demonstrate that they too are adults (C.S. Lewis had something to say about that)? Because it’s a way of fulfilling one’s darker needs in a socially harmless way (which might be a matter for psychologists)? Because they like seeing the characters go through hell and out the other side (a valid point, were it not for the fact that there are a host of other ways to torment your characters)? I don’t know. I really don’t.