Postmodernism in Fantasy: A Correction

Jeff VanderMeer • September 14th, 2010 @ 8:55 am • Culture

Brandon Sanderson, god love ‘im, does a somewhat crappy job of defining postmodernism here. For one thing, “postmodernism” isn’t some monolithic thing, so to describe it as he does, even within the more limited context of fantasy, is misleading. For another, some subjects do require a more complex treatment, so when you simplify them down, as Sanderson admits he is, you actually wind up losing the ability to convey any real information in what you are saying. What Sanderson says in his blog entry is largely meaningless.

For an intro to postmodernism and some of its techniques, you could do worse than the wiki entry on the subject.

I also am having a hard time defining Sanderson’s work, in any of his books, as postmodern. His essential wordview is not postmodern, to my mind. This isn’t a slam on Sanderson’s fiction, just an observation that his blog post is less than useful, and in some ways misleading. This happens. It’s not a crime.

But it would also be a shame if certain elements of the post, and responses to it, lend more credence to a faux populist idea that postmodernism is elitist and somehow wrong or always experimental.

The other idea about postmodernism is that it’s always about breaking a fourth wall, or always about inserting the author into the text–this is, in fact, simply one approach, metafiction, which isn’t even the most prevalent of the possible techniques.

In actual fact, many postmodern techniques are very playful and and can be used to great and entertaining effect.

Perhaps the most important point in all of this (and this now has nothing to do with anything Sanderson said in his post) is that writers don’t choose the way they view the world–that’s inherent in their psyche. When you view the world a certain way, you may gravitate toward certain approaches and techniques–with digressions because no one is all one thing–but it’s not a cynical matter of deciding to be experimental or deciding to be postmodern rather than a modernist, for example.

(Not related, but auto-posting today: my Way of Kings photo-shoot.)

89 Responses to “Postmodernism in Fantasy: A Correction”

  1. Paul Jessup says:

    Man, I’ve been meaning to write a post just like this, ever since I saw that essay. My first thought was a quote from Princess Bride- “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

    In other words- my thoughts exactly.

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I think part of the problem is that although he’s supposedly talking about postmodernism and fantasy, much of his post is given up to a Jewel video and passing mention of movies. I understand he’s trying to give easily contextualized examples but those are different media and the effects are different, for one thing.

  3. Adam Roberts says:

    I take a Jamesonian view on postmodernism: it’s not a tool bag of ‘styles’ or ‘techniques’, and it’s certainly not just a polysllabic way of saying ‘self-aware’. It’s the cultural logic of late capitalism. I don’t see the shiny surface glitter, the waning of the affect, the collision of high- and low- modes, the crisis of historicity or the thorough-going blank-eyed pastiche in what Sanderson does at all. His style of Fantasy is a symptom of a rear-guard action against the forces of late capitalism. Personally, I would love to see a High Fantasy novel written by Dennis Cooper or Denise Levertov; but I’m in the minority with that, I’d guess.

  4. Adam Roberts says:

    Also: ‘deconstructionism’ … that’s just annoying.

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Adam–Thanks for that. I’m not sure I can imagine what a high fantasy novel by Levertov would look like, but I’m game!

    I think came to the edge (or dove over the edge) in describing it above in terms of a tool bag of techniques, for purposes of making the argument that it’s more complex than described in Sanderson’s post, before coming back to general agreement with what you’re saying in my last paragraph. Does raise the fair point: irony and black humor aren’t just used in postmodern fiction, obviously, but what *technique* can only be used in a postmodern way? Brain’s too fragmented to answer my own question or to refute its underpinnings.

    JeffV

  6. Larry says:

    Adam, Jeff,

    Sounds like some (but not all) of what you’re talking about could be more narrowly described as poststructuralism, especially in regards to ordering of the narrative. I suspect that’s what Sanderson was trying to work his way around to, but never coming close to getting there. What I find interesting is the notion that Power might be distributed differently in certain narratives that run counter to certain genre conventions and that the exploration of such redistributions is of central importance. Then again, I had to read too much Foucault 14 years ago, so take that with multiple grains of salt.

  7. Michael Fontana says:

    It felt as though Brandon was trying to accomplish too much in too little space. While it might have been illuminating for those new to the subject, the essay ultimately felt like a Wal-mart approach.

    Between his tour, writing responsibilities, and general life duties, one has to appreciate his ability to contribute to a discussion, though the content itself might not have been much of an offering.

  8. E. M. Edwards says:

    An interesting point.

    I’ve been thinking about a related comment by the very nice Brandon Sanderson today. The discussion spilled over (or even begun) on Twitter this morning. For me, it was the somewhat long quote below, from Sanderson’s recent interview on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist:

    “Something that I pondered and wrote about a lot–just to myself–is that MISTBORN was postmodern fantasy. If you look at the trilogy, in each of those books I intentionally took one aspect of the hero’s journey and played with it, turned it on its head, and tried very hard to look at it postmodernly, in which I as a writer was aware of the tropes of the genre while writing and expected readers to be aware of them, to be able to grasp the full fun of what I was doing. And that worried me–that was fun with MISTBORN, but I didn’t want to become known as the postmodern fantasy guy, because inherently you have to rely on the genre conventions in order to tell your story–even if you’re not exploiting them in the same way, you’re still exploiting them.

    For that reason, I didn’t want to write THE WAY OF KINGS as a postmodern fantasy. Or in other words, I didn’t want to change it into one.”

    Brandon Sanderson interview

    I found this statement when I read it this morning, perplexing. I’m not convinced that simple awareness of tropes or a willingness to play with them equates a postmodernist novel. Perhaps Sanderson did accomplish this, and I’ll admit that postmodernism is a difficult subject to pin down – even among its most celebrated practitioners.

    It might be the simplistic tone of the claim that I’m reacting to, and I do understand that an interview is a limited space in which to express complex ideas. Authors can also be easily misinterpreted in the format, as Mr. Vandermeer should know.

    I thought it might be a case of me being prickly over a rather passing comment, but this essay by Sanderson makes me even more uncertain that he and I understand postmodern literature in the same light.

    However, I’m still not convinced, mostly because Sanderson posits that The Way of Kings is definitely not postmodernist. Yet, what I’ve seen of The Way of Kings, I don’t quite see that it isn’t a book which is fundamentally different than his Mistborn series, not, in the sense of one being a work of postmodern fantasy, and the other simply, well fantasy.

    Eric

  9. John Sundman says:

    Thanks for this.

  10. Nick Mamatas says:

    I also found his best definition of deconstuctionism to be totally flawed, but as the comments section was already full of Story Nazis ready to sniff out any invariance from the norm as a Red homosexualist plot, I didn’t bother.

    For the perplexed: deconstruction isn’t primarily something when does when one generates some bundle of signifiers (and certainly not by accident in order to eat one’s cake and have it too), it’s a method of reading.

  11. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Right–I don’t believe that simply setting out to subvert tropes is actually postmodernism. And I agree Brandon Sanderson is a nice guy. I have also just spent a morning doing a photo shoot for his book for Amazon. jv

  12. Paul Smith says:

    I will now ruin this erudite discussion by suggesting it was a strip shoot.

  13. neth says:

    Thanks for this post – I’m also one of those people who was really perplexed by Sanderson calling himself a PM fantasy author. Subverting a trope or two does not equal PM.

    I wanted to call him on it as well, though I won’t pretend to have the pedigree to do so.

  14. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Nick–yes, thanks for that.

  15. Nathan Crowder says:

    Thanks for your analysis on this subject.

    It brings to mind many of the problems I had in English classes in high school. I was writing fiction and poetry for my own enjoyment and kept hearing all about classification and deconstruction from my teachers. The fact that they kept pointing out things like “postmodern symbolism” and similar heavy analysis in things I simply read made me think that somehow I was approaching writing incorrectly. Did the great authors they make us read intend for these many layers of context? Or was it all a happy accident that English teachers could point to decades later, confident that it was intentional.

    Try as I might, approaching it from that clinical angle always got in the way of me just writing what I wanted to write.

    Once I was able to ignore labels and categories, writing was just writing. I told the stories I wanted to tell in they way I felt best suited to those individual stories. Maybe the lessons became ingrained to a degree that I don’t even think about any more. But for the most part, I tend to hold that applying literary theory is something you do after the work is written, if at all. Approaching it any other way feels forced.

  16. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Nathan–yeah, that’s very true. I mean, I think on a high-level a novelist tends to maybe say, generally, “okay, one aspect of this book may be refuting this idea/trope/whatever” and keep that in the back of their mind while writing organically, but more than that for many writers would be too artificial an approach. But everyone’s different.

    The thing that always perplexes me is people thinking my novel Shriek is metafiction. It’s not. It’s two found documents with scribbles on the longer one. It also perplexes me when someone thinks King Squid from City of Saints was a punishment I deliberately am trying to inflict on them. LOL.

  17. Paul Jessup says:

    Re- deconstuctionism-

    I’d like to sick the Deconstuctionist English prof from Letham’s As She Crawled Across the table on Sanderson. That would be awesome. I’d post it on YouTube for larfs.

  18. John Coulthart says:

    I must have missed all those years when fantasy went through a whole Modernist period.

  19. Tony A says:

    I think if we can call Sanderson’s essay “an intensely shitty job” than its fair to characterize this as a frighteningly pretentious overreaction. The point of the essay is fairly clearly not to label his own fantasy as “postmodern” within the definition of the mid-20th century literary movement, but rather to draw an (admittedly oversimplified) analogy between how postmodern writers were influenced/responding to Joyce/Eliot/Woolf/etc. in the same way today’s fantasy writers respond to Tolkien and the first-wave of Tolkien-influenced genre writers. That he misuses a few terms from lit crit 101, well OK, appropriate slap on the wrist and all but who cares? If you can look past that he actually has a fairly interesting point to make about intertextuality within the genre, and it’s a pretty thoughtful one coming from a guy who, for better or worse, might be one of the dominant authors of that genre over the next decade or two.

    I thought Neth’s comment interesting: not because i care if Way of Kings or Mistborn are PM or not (they very clearly aren’t), but rather if we think Sanderson (or Abercrombie, or Rothfuss, or Erikson) are doing something more than “subverting a trope or two.” That seemed to be the point of Sanderson’s essay: that modern fantasy has already twist and bent its genre crutches as far as they’ll go, and that fantasy today (his or any other) has to stand on its own two legs.

    Whether his really does is another question…

    And it IS really beautiful art :)

  20. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Tony: I disagree about the usefulness of Sanderson’s post, but have downgraded to “somewhat crappy” above. There’s absolutely nothing pretentious in my post, though. And I think the caring part comes from wanting things properly defined and not wanting in five years to hear about how, I dunno, Eddings was the one of the first postmodern fantasy writers.

    Cheers,

    JeffV

  21. Larry says:

    If an author can’t “vert” a trope, then I really don’t want to see a “subverting” of that. Sometimes, some authors write all characters as if they were bad actors from CGI/explosions movies recast into faux-medieval settings. That isn’t postmodern or subverting tropes. It’s just numbing, boring crap after a while.

  22. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    True that.

    I’d also add that this isn’t a thread for blasting Sanderson (or me for that matter–I’ll create a separate post for that if the demand becomes too great to ignore…)–it’s a post and thread for correction as needed and further discussion.

  23. Larry says:

    I guess I should note that I’m not criticizing Sanderson in my comment above, but rather those fans who think that because certain authors use motifs and language appropriated from the blow-em-up cinemas that it means those authors are doing anything substantially meaningful or important. But it’d be interesting to see if a separate post on author/fan claims about certain writing trends (and how some of us dislike those claims) would generate interesting discussion.

  24. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    No, i didn’t think you were. I was making a general comment.

  25. Larry says:

    I know you wouldn’t think that, but I was just stating it for others, generally speaking. I think I was, anyway. All I know is I’m tempted to re-read Foucault now. Damn everyone for tempting me! :(

  26. Tony A says:

    Jeff: The point i was trying to make is that I agree with your (and the comment board’s i) definition of PM lit, and certainly disagree with Sanderson’s definition, but that this aspect of his post (title aside) wasn’t really his main point. You’re not wrong to correct him ill usage, but i think you are wrong to reduce his essay to that one correction. Agree to disagree I guess… :)

    Brandon’s main point (as I saw it) in calling his first fantasy series “postmodern” (wrong as he was to so use that term) was that in recognizing it as a subversion of a basic genre trope, you still have to be familiar with that trope. Tongue in cheek analogies to Jewel aside, there’s a limit to how innovative you can if you’re always reacting to the same norms (see: Joe Abercrombie. Whose books are entertaining as hell regardless). In the narrow sense that Sanderson’s writing shares an intertextual relationship with the authors of his genre who came before him (in particular Tolkien, but also Eddings/Brooks/etc.), there is a postmodern comparison in that his writing reflects a certain hyperawareness of those writers (and you have to be familiar with those writers to appreciate it).

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the usefulness of Sanderson’s essay is in discussing whether he’s accomplished what he says he’s trying to do: move beyond the cycle of reaction/counterreaction to the uberdominant tropes of the genre and truly create fantasy that’s innovative and different. Not in discussing whether Brandon Sanderson ranks with Borges, Heller, Vonnegut etc.

    But maybe a conversation for a different thread :)

  27. Kevin says:

    What is a workable definition of postmodernism we can use in our everyday lives, so that when we see it, we can say, that right there, there’s postmodernism?

  28. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Tony: I see your point, but I’m not totally convinced.

  29. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    kevin: If you see William Burroughs’ ghost walking down your street and he’s watching a Jewel video on his ghost-iPOD…that’s…well, I was going to say that’s postmodernism, but I think actually that’s just frightening. jv

  30. Paul Jessup says:

    Kevin-
    This. This is Post Modern.

  31. Dallas Taylor says:

    While I haven’t read any of Sanderson’s work (aside from the blog post that set this discussion off), as someone who spent the entirety of his collegiate years engaging with the postmodernist project, I have to agree with Jeff’s basic assessment of Sanderson’s characterization of it: it is, at very least, not particularly helpful.

    First, to describe, as Sanderson does (and Jeff points out), postmodernism in any sort of monolithic terms misses one of the essential underpinnings of its very nature (nebulous though that may seem), which is that postmodernism is, and I’m paraphrasing Lyotard, a reaction against and subversion of the power dynamics inherent in the meta-narratives of Western thought and literature, most particularly the authority of the narrative voice. It is the replacement of the authorial megaphone with a conversation, or an argument, in which the certainty of the third person omniscient is undermined and subsumed by a cacophony of first persons, each with their limited view of the world and their assumptions, motivations, and goals coloring not only their actions but the very ways in which they are able to perceive the world they share and argue over.

    The problematizing of the authority of the narrative voice, which amounts to the replacement of Truth with multiple truths which compete and cooperate, opens up a space which can be either an arena or a playground. While the classic Western meta-narrative is essentially the result of the winner in the arena saying his opponents never existed (or mattered), postmodernism thinks that the playground is much more interesting, much as playing is more interesting than fighting. When Sanderson says that it is postmodern simply to recognize a trope and subvert it, he’s only reacting to the received traditions he’s inherited, and, by stopping short at flipping them on their heads, he’s reacting in an essentially violent manner, which isn’t really that interesting from a postmodern perspective, especially if he’s undermining received tradition simply for the sake of doing so.

    To my mind, what makes a work of art in whatever medium postmodern (and I would also say that the designation is more a critic’s post-facto judgement than something the artist ought consciously try and achieve) is when it does subvert the traditions and tropes of its particular history, but does so in the service of the organicism of the work. Delleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizomatic nature of the work of art comes in handy here, I think. The rhizome grows according to the rules of its nature (the received tropes and traditions), but does so organically, in response to all the particularities of its particular time and place, and what makes the process organic is that it seeks only its own life, its own existence, and it grows in whatever dimensions and directions the particularities of its time and place allow in seeking that life and existence.

    That said, I think fantasy is a pretty hard tradition to go postmodern with, though it has been done successfully. I say this because I believe that the turn to fantasy in comparatively recent history has a lot to do with a reaction against the fundamentally postmodern nature of our current day and age. I think people turn to fantasy largely for the same thing they generally turn to fiction for, which is that the world they live in doesn’t make enough sense and they’d like to spend some time in a world where things do make sense and there’s that certain inevitability to things that can be very reassuring on an existential level.

    I think there are some very successful fantasies that are essentially postmodern. Jeff’s Ambergris cycle, for one. China Mieville’s New Crobuzon books. I would even say (and this is probably the least obvious of my examples) that George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire qualifies, in that it subverts the traditional expectation of good guys vs. bad guys and instead weaves a huge tapestry of limited, self-interested parties each seeking their own goals (even as larger movements play out around them), and in that there is magic, but it is woven so subtly into the fabric of the tapestry that it seems no more prevalent than the weather. But mostly I think Ice and Fire is postmodern because it is and means only itself, while remaining conscious of its roots in the received traditions and tropes of genre fantasy. I think it also illustrates a point that Sanderson made that is absolutely spot-on, in that it “breaks your expectations while fulfilling them in ways you didn’t know you wanted. You have to replace what they thought they wanted with something so much more awesome that they are surprised and thrilled at the same time.” Which I think most all of us can agree that George did pretty freakin’ well.

    All that said, I still personally conceive postmodernism as a reader’s game. Writers and artists ought simply to worry about manifesting their own personal vision with as much fidelity as possible. Trying to be postmodern in your art is like trying to be political in your art: it almost never works, and it usually undermine’s your project’s artisitic integrity, since now you’re trying to do something besides make art.

    But that could just be me.

  32. Peter Ahlstrom says:

    I know next to nothing about postmodern literature, but looking at the Wikipedia article linked above I’m not sure what Brandon says doesn’t apply. It looks to me like Brandon is saying postmodernism can be boiled down to two things:
    1. Awareness of convention
    2. Reaction against convention

    The examples given of what you here qualify as postmodern literature ALL (to me) seem to do those things, though they do it to a much more extreme and holistic degree than anything Brandon has written.

    But maybe you recognize that’s what Brandon is saying, and believe his boiling-down is too basic to leave the term with any meaning useful enough to accurately convey what’s behind postmodernism.

  33. Matthew Dyer says:

    If one were to replace “postmodernism” with “modernism” in Sanderson’s description of his own work, I think it’d be a lot closer to the mark. The recognition of and play with form that Sanderson describes is a hallmark of modernism. Modernism and postmodernism have always bizarrely existed side by side, but teh argument Sanderson makes for his work seems to belong to the modernist side of the coin, IMO.

    I also despise his use of the term “deconstructionism.” There’s no such thing; deconstruction isn’t an “ism,” it’s an active reading process (as Nick Mamatas points out above).

    Another example of modernist fantasy that jumps to mind if Jacqueline Carey’s retelling of Lord of the Rings from the perspective of Sauron, Banewreaker/Godslayer. The inversion of perspective does add a touch of relativism, but that isn’t enough to make it postmodern. If you want an example of a postmodern fantasy novel, I’d immediately point to works like Hal Duncan’s Vellum/Ink.

  34. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I think it is boiled down too much, in part, and wrong in part, and I also think it’s more useful to work from the wiki entry because Sanderson seems in certain places to bring a value judgment to the term because his latest work by his own estimation is not postmodern. My gut, which can be wrong, is also reacting pretty violently against the idea of Sanderson being a postmodern author, in any of his works. Again, that’s not a dig. I read and admire all kinds of fiction. jv

  35. Adam Roberts says:

    Sanderson says he plays with the conventions of his chosen mode. Good for him. It might be hoped all writers do that.

    Here’s why I say that Postmodernism, though, is not a bunch of styles, voices, tropes and tricks to be rummaged in by the adventurous writer.

    Jameson’s 1984 essay ‘Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ (later expanded into a fat, rather diffuse book of the same title) is often misunderstood. People go to it, understandably perhaps, expecting Jameson’s analysis or breakdown of late-capitalism’s cultural logic. That’s not the way his title means. Jameson starts with Mandel’s argument that the capitalism that Marx writes about has changed, partly in response to the global challenge of Marxism, and that now we’re living under what might be called ‘Late Capitalism’. Then Jameson asks: ‘what is the logic of this Late Capitalism?’ and he answers: ‘it is a cultural logic’ (by contrast with the logic of 19th-century capitalism, which was economic and industrial). The readings FJ then undertakes, of books, songs, architecture, films and the like, seek to demonstrate that these are symptoms of that cultural logic of modern life. The features he identifies are not aesthetic choices plucked from their air by authors, so much as articulations of a new alienation from history, of a pervasive ironisation, affectual waning and pastiche-ification (not FJ’s coinage, that, though I rather like it) of the Now. To read Ashbery, or listen to Nirvana’s Nevermind, or walk through the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, is to experience the dislocations and blankness and giddy ironic jouissance of modern life. To read Sanderson’s novels is … not to do that.

    Sanderson is writing in a genre that is popular precisely because it turns tail-about and runs fast from the implications of living in the horrid modern world. Even in its most modishly violent contemporary iterations, Fantasy is nostalgic, or, if you prefer, faux-nostalgic. Which is fair enough; and plenty of people like escapism. But it says nothing about the structure of life under global capitalism. Or to be precise: it says one small thing about the structure of that life (that lots of people want to pursue imaginative escape from it) that doesn’t need ten thousand-page novels to articulate it.

  36. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Adam: Thanks for that. One question–isn’t it a generalization to say that “fantasy is nostalgic, or, if you prefer, faux-nostalgic”? Do you mean simply a certain type of fantasy? jv

  37. Adam Roberts says:

    Heroic Fantasy, of the Tolkien-Jordan-Sanderson flavour, but also of the George R R Martin flavour.

  38. Matthew Dyer says:

    “But it says nothing about the structure of life under global capitalism.”

    I’d disagree here. I think a postmodern reading of Sanderson’s work (not implying that they are postmodern in some intrinsic way, only that this particular reading is) speaks volumes about life under global capitalism. My oft-daydreamed-of PhD in English Literature (or perhaps more accurately, popular culture) is to examine the creation of alternate and secondary world fantasy and what fictitious metaphysics says about our own lives under global capitalism. The

  39. Matthew Dyer says:

    –damn misclicks, continued from above–

    …intense emphasis on an individuals ability to change reality is an artifact of the myth of the importance of the individual and individual action in late capitalist culture.

    Examining that faux-nostalgia is an important project, IMO.

  40. Adam Roberts says:

    Mmm, Matthew, yes: except that in these stories it’s never a myth, it’s always something heroically actualised, one way or another. But I see what you’re saying.

  41. Matthew Dyer says:

    Exactly; I’m suggesting that the heroic actualization of a myth from our own culture is an artifact life in late capitalist culture.

    In a similar way, I think the emphasis on “magical systems” so prevalent in heroic fantasy is related to the continuation of the Enlightenment project of rationalizing the world’s mysteries. We need new oncologies to box up and label now that we’ve done all the easy work of particle physics. :)

  42. Dallas Taylor says:

    I tend to agree with Matthew, in that what modern high fantasy tropes say about life in the cultural logic of late capitalism is interesting and does indeed offer a certain amount of insight into that cultural logic. But I also think that in addition to the nostalgia (or faux-nostalgia) for a world in which the reader knows who the good guys and the bad guys are, there is also something in the popularity of fantasy that is distinctly contemporary.

    I’ll try and sum it up briefly if I can.

    One of the larger movements of recent centuries has to do with the disaggregation and decentralization of power, both in the sense of breaking traditional aristocratic political systems and in the sense of an increase in its overall availability thanks to the evolution of technology. What this has done is given rise to an unconscious myth of individual empowerment that almost completely outstrips the actuality of individual empoowerment, even in the most wealthy and free societies.

    The result, psychologically, is a disconnect between the effect we believe we should be able to have on the world, and the effect we actually can have on the world. And one of the reasons I think fantasy is so popular and compelling for so many readers is that it allows us to identify with the mythic hero, who is usually not only fated or destined for greatness (as many of us believe we are, thanks to the cultural logic of late capitalism), but who is also able actualize that greatness and change the reality in which they exist.

    In short, I guess I think that fantasy inherently tends toward the reactionary, but that it can certainly be read from a postmodern perspective, and probably also written from that perspective, as well, though again, it’s difficult to do that consciously and not damage the work’s integrity.

  43. Dallas Taylor says:

    @ Matthew: I assume you mean ‘ontologies,’ and not ‘oncologies.’ Though I suppose there’s some interesting ground to cover there as well.

  44. Brandon Sanderson says:

    All,

    To be honest, I cheated. I realize that to a people steeped in literary theory, a lot of what I was saying was a gross simplification. (I believe I noted something like that in the essay.) I probably should have just used “self-aware” instead, but it didn’t seem to play into the joke of the essay. (In which I’m thinking too hard about what nearly ruined the novel–and that thing in turn was me thinking too hard about the novel.)

    I wrote this as a response to the many people asking me what the twist on the fantasy genre would be in The Way of Kings. It was going to be a series of essays on my website on the writing of the book. This is the only one I finished. I was going to post it on my site when it was suggested that I ask if it would work for Whatever.

    This, of course, opens it to a different kind of scrutiny. I have no problem with that, but it was not intended to hold up to a serious look by literary theorists. It was meant as an essay to explain some of my thought process for those curious, and deliberately uses popular, simplified definitions of theories.

    Though, to pick a point, I’m not sure how I could have done anything other than a “crappy” job of defining postmodernism in an essay that wasn’t trying to define it, and only had room for a line or two explanation. :) Self-awareness is indeed one major form of postmodernism, and while not probably the most important, it IS the most well-known and often-recognized form of the theory where the lay person is concerened. The slant of this piece is “view into the author’s mind” for non writers. Not “a serious scholar of literary theory (which I am not) talks about the fantasy genre.”

    Comments were very interesting, though. Thanks for the thoughts. Sorry for being so flippant with some of the definitions in the essay.

    P.s. forgive typos. Done on my phone.

  45. Matthew Dyer says:

    Yes, that would be a typo. Spellcheck, why can’t you understand what I meant to say and warn me when I’m being stupid?

  46. Brandon Sanderson says:

    Oh, and a quick response to Jeff.

    You are right, there is no way I’m a postmodern author. However, there will be some postmodern themes in some of my work, just like there will be any anyone of my era who went through the literary training I did. The thing that stands out about Mistborn is that it, more than anything I’ve written, is a reaction to what has come before. Not postmodern in the “reaction agagainst the specific modern literary movement.” Postmoden, in places, because it is a reaction to, and even commentary on, the pervasive themes in my genre at the time I was working on it. I realize some may not like this expanding, more pop-culture meaning of the word, and it is a little imprecise. But it is there, and is useful as a tool for discussion. Perhaps we need a way to distinguish between the two…

    Brandon (who is typing with thumbs on a phone, so please forgive terrible typos.)

  47. Nick Mamatas says:

    I would hope that the subversion of a trope would mean a bit more than, “ha ha, the Dark Lords weren’t vanquished at the end!” A lot of the people who claim to be doing something different when it comes to fantasy depend on an overly strict Platonic ideal of what fantasy is—they then alter it ever so slightly and then declare the Revolution a smash.

    I think there’s a large excluded middle between (post)modern subversion of some set of trops and slavish adherence to the same.

  48. Laurel says:

    I like “wordview”. Great new word for an author’s outlook.

  49. jeff vandermeer says:

    Brandon: Thanks for the really thoughtful replies. No worries re thumbs. I am out hiking and evading a ridiculous number of child(?!) joggers out here while typing intp phone, so….

    It’s true I might have a heightened sensitivity to short-handing the term in part because terms get hijacked so easily these days. Regardless, the thread’s actually taught me some things.

    If we divorce uniquely postmodern technique from postmodernism–which Adam would say is not okay or meaningless–then I definitely see your point. I gotta stop or these joggers are going to mow me down.

    Nick has a very good point, I think. jv

  50. Paul Smith says:

    “Local author trampled to death by joggers”.

    To what extent does a trope have to be subverted to merit this sort of thing? Would we say Moorcock succeeded in it when writing Elric? (although I think if Mike were here now, he would not want to be labelled postmodern considering his feeling about labels). I’m not sure I’m convinced this sort of thing makes something postmodern myself.

  51. Chris, Elfland's 2nd Cousin says:

    Adam,

    Jameson’s definition of post-modernism naturally builds on Mandel’s, but bear in mind two vital facts: Mandel was a revolutionary Marxist theorist, and an economist first and foremost. Those two facts color his view – and Jameson’s definition – of postmodernism.

    That definition is fine, and has its place. But it has always seemed to me that post-modernism contains multitudes: not every piece of post-modern literature explicitly (or even implicitly) comments on capitalism or capitalist culture. While there are fantasies that do (China Mieville comes to mind), much is written accepting a certain worldview as a given. While the “fuzzy” definition of post-modernism has always made me skeptical as to its value as a critical tool, I definitely think that we have to look beyond the capitalist / Marxist / Hegelian outlook.

    It seems that fantasy – and much of contemporary fantasy – has become quite discursive in nature. The last forty years have seen that discourse accelerate. If we look at aesthetic values and literary structure, high fantasy is a straight-line descendant of Tolkien’s pastoral fantasy. Some authors (Jordan, Martin, etc.) respond by crafting more politically complex worlds, with more moral complexity.

    Then you’ve got “gritty” fantasists (Cook, Erickson) who meld the “real-world politics” of the 2nd-generation high fantasy authors, with the realism / grit that the 1970′s and early ’90′s brought to literature in general. Then you’ve got “New Weird” fantasists (Mieville, etc.) who craft a completely different aesthetic and structural approach. This type of definitional onanism can go on ad nauseum.

    Are any of these “postmodern” ? By Jameson’s view, I would say that very few of them are. Precious few deal with the disconnect of “Late Capitalism” (although some, like Mieville’s work, do) and most don’t bother to wrestle with elements of our modern capitalist culture. However, I would argue that very many contemporary works of fantasy (regardless of sub-genre) *are* “postmodern” in that they explicitly call into doubt the concept of objective truth or objective morality regardless of their aesthetic choices or narrative mode.

    In that sense, they are a classic post-modern critique of the “modern” high fantasy (Tolkien, Lewis)’s black-and-white middle-class morality, even if they are not self-referential, and if they do not critique late capitalist culture.

    Chris

  52. Dallas Taylor says:

    Brandon-

    Don’t feel too bad. Postmodernism by its very nature resists definition, at least in any authoritative sense. It’s kind of like porn that way: you may not be able to say what it is, but you know it when you see it.

  53. Chris, Elfland's 2nd Cousin says:

    Paul,

    You raise an awesome point about Moorcock’s relationship to post-modernism. Have you ever read his Wizardry and Wild Romance? If not, I’d strongly suggest you find a copy: in it, he expounds at length on his perception of the weaknesses of the Tolkienesque classic pastoral fantasy. A quick peak in the index finds no listing of any explicit mentions of post-modernism, but however one labels it, I’d say his criticism is fundamentally “post-modern” in theme.

    While he does not rely on his own books as examples, it’s reasonable to say (and I recall that he does) that his “negative views” of the Tolkien/Lewis pastoral fantasy heavily influenced his own work on Elric and his other fantasy characters. So whether we call it “post-modern” or not, Elric was definitely a discursive response to Tolkien. And the sensibilities / aesthetics of the Eternal Champion are much more in-line with post-modern values than with the pastoral values of high fantasy that came before.

    Chris

  54. Postmodernism in fantasy: huh? : As the Moon Climbs says:

    [...] as Jeff VanderMeer points out, postmodernism is not reducible to some cosmic scales with convention on one side and originality [...]

  55. J M McDermott says:

    I wonder if the post-post modern will revolve around boiled-down, over-simplified understandings of post-modernism.

    Perhaps what will come next will still be called post-modern, but it will involve a massive re-appropriation of it in some horrible and uninformed way. Like how certain corporations attach their fangs into memes and ideas and completely miss the point of the original.

  56. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    JM–yeah, true.

    Brandon–back home now. I think you spent a good long time using the Jewel video to explain, and perhaps that would’ve been better suited to more about your views on postmodernism. I dunno. I’m not the only one, though, who was confused by the essay. At the very least, the discussion here provides a nice add-on to it.

    Thinking on it further, I just don’t think reacting against the past is enough to make something postmodern. One example: just for the sake of argument so we don’t get off-track, let’s assume there was something called New Weird, or at least something called Old Dirty Bastard Mieville. It is reacting against generic fantasy to some extent, but NW deliberately defines itself as not postmodern. (Although by some definitions above, it would be.) Even if it did, it wouldn’t be because it’s reacting against something. I’d call that simple Renovation.

    But at this point I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore. Time for a bagel.

  57. gav (nextread.co.uk) says:

    This all feels very intangible if I’m honest. I was never one for English Lit as the benefit to the reading experience always felt limited when the book was chopped up and analysed. If we did have more PM fantasy – heroic I assume – how would that alter the end reader experience?

    Am genuinely curious.

  58. Nick Mamatas says:

    Gav:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=K99TtPfpgVYC&printsec=frontcover&dq=don+quixote+acker&hl=en&ei=w_CPTO7pO46-sAOuw-2xDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

  59. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Nick: Heh.

  60. Chris, Elfland's 2nd Cousin says:

    Gav: I think Nick’s link points to one example of how it would change the reader experience. I like to hope that it wouldn’t ALL be like that. I’ve never liked post-modern as a category (the definition is too fuzzy), and I somehow doubt that more PM heroic fantasy would be any different from other innovative fantasy (that’s kind of in a round-about way what I was trying to say earlier).

    What’s the functional difference between a post-modern book and a book that innovates relative to those that came before? I’m not sure that there IS a functional difference, (snarky comment: apart from what Kirkus or the NY Times say about it).

  61. Drax says:

    Thanks for this. Excellent thread.

  62. jeff ford says:

    Sanderson’s novel might be good. I’ll check it out next time I’m in the bookstore. This essay doesn’t do it any favors, though. Forget the post-modernist hoo-ha. Who gives a shit? The problem is he just makes it all sound so pedestrian. It does appear to be making a bunch of dough. In that respect, more power to him.

  63. Christian says:

    I’ve always liked Brian McHale’s book Postmodernist Fiction for its accessibility. The nutshell premise is that postmodern techniques foreground ontology (questions like What world is this? What reality is this?) whereas modernist techniques foreground epistemological questions (How do I know? What is knowing?). He says that the detective story, with its epistemological questions, is the root of the modern novel, while science fiction (and I think he mentions fantasy too, but mostly science fiction), with its ontological questions, is the root genre of postmodernism. But he maintains sci-fi and pomo developed entirely separately (I think this is the weakest part of his argument, considering Borges love for H.G. Wells and many other examples). However, the best thing about the McHale book is that, even if you don’t buy the ontological/epistemological explanation, he offers a killer list of postmodern techniques that he describes in detail: Forking path stories, Chinese box worlds, Zones, Erasure, Infinite Loops. I’m much more a fiction writer than scholar, so I found the book useful as a compendium of neat-o techniques alone. The best thing: who ever knew that Kevin McHale of the Celtics had a scholar of postmodernist fiction for a brother?

    I vaguely remember liking Lance Olsen’s book Postmodern Fantasy too. Although in these sorts of books fantasy is usually some version of Todorov’s definition of fantastic, as a literary mode that hesitates between the uncanny (explainable) and the marvelous (actually supernatural)–James’s Turn of the Screw is the usual example of that sort of fantastic. The idea of hesitating or flickering (between genres, for example) seems to come up a lot in the definitions of pomo fantasy that I’ve come across.

    But my favorite definition of postmodernism is that it was a series of arguments in the 80′s about how to define postmodernism.

    For better or worse, I always tend to boil the whole argument down to the question: what is the relationship of fiction/literature to reality? Can fiction actually represent reality and the real (and here you’d have something like realism) or does fiction always end up creating its own, separate textual world no matter what? I don’t think pomo fiction provides any answers so much as it fools around with these questions about the differences/similarities between textual worlds and reality (if there is one).

    More than anything, I tend to go: “Forking path stories taste good. Chinese-Box worlds taste good.” But don’t take my word for it.

  64. Hal Duncan says:

    My tuppence ha’penny?

    Postmodernism: The grand narrative that the modern era of grand narratives has passed, (said grand narratives being constructed in the interplay of Romanticism and Rationalism.) Personally, as an existentialist/nihilist modernist cum altermodern pataphysician, I think this is… bad faith. An expedient pretence that by constructing works as purely autotelic artifices, maintaining that ironic distance, one can counteract the totalising drift of modern(ist) art. I don’t buy that.

  65. Post Modernism and Fantasy « Paul Jessup says:

    [...] original post that started it all, even though it was wrong wrong wrongity wrong. Here’s the first correction. Here’s the second. And here’s an awesome essay discussing all the stuff and [...]

  66. Mike Alexander says:

    Like Christian, I find Brian McHale’s description the most useful – postmodernism was a shift from the epistemological concerns of modernism (problems of knowledge) to a new concern with ontology. So much of postmodernist fiction concerns itself with how perceived realities are generated and maintained, how powerful individuals and institutions contrive to create false, mediated simulations of reality. From this angle, the quintessentially postmodern SF writer was surely Philip K Dick. And one can easily see how metafiction plugs into this project, since metafiction by definition challenges the authority of the narrative as a ‘transparently truthful’ medium.

    Postmodernist fiction is all about exposing the problematic nature of the relationship between a text, the fictional world (or worlds) it generates, and the real world it supposedly illuminates in some way. Modernism works on the assumption that through systematic enquiry one can get closer to the truth about the real world; postmodernism is skeptical that there even is a single, knowable truth.

    I would say that Brandon Sanderson’s essay is more about consciously playing with genre conventions, which can approach a sort of postmodernism but only when taken to extremes – the kind of parodic narratives that Robert McKee calls ‘anti-plot’, his prime example being Monty Python’s “Holy Grail”. When taken to such extremes, though, these ‘anti-stories’ surely cannot rely on traditional models of ‘satisfying endings’ (which seems to have been an anxiety of Mr Sanderson’s), and must offer alternative compensations to the reader or viewer.

  67. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    All I know is that I’ve found this entire thread fascinating and very useful.

  68. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    There’s also now this post on Apex which I find extremely interesting and useful, even as I think the guy totally misquoted me: http://www.apexbookcompany.com/2010/09/the-impossible-constellation-reflected-in-the-never-same-river-pondering-postmodernism-in-fantastika/

  69. What do you think a Post Modern Fantasy would look like? « Paul Jessup says:

    [...] 15, 2010 by pauljessup Leave a Comment After reading this and this (as well as all the comments), I’m struck by the idea of what a Post Modern Fantasy [...]

  70. James says:

    Really great discussion. Where else can you get Adam Roberts, Nick Mamatas, Jeff VanderMeer, Hal Duncan, Jeff Ford, and all these other interesting people in the same room? For free, no less.

    I love Brian McHale’s books–never thought I’d run across a mention of them here, which I guess is testament to my lack of imagination, more than anything.

    Is he really Kevin McHale’s brother?

  71. Matt Denault says:

    Trying to ask a larger question by way of Sanderson…

    Without making a value judgement, speaking just in terms of the sequence of development of literary theories, I’m not sure Sanderson is even a modernist, much less a postmodernist. If we set aside the secondary world setting of his adult novels, they don’t seem to me to display any of the anxiety over linear character narrative as a tool for encapsulating the world that I understand to be at the root of the modernists. His books are extremely logical constructions in which important events are always foreshadowed, magic is always rigidly systematized, and favorable resolution is achieved when characters discover the true nature of things: I’ve seen his novels described as the uncovering of the natural workings of imagined worlds.

    And so I wonder, now more abstractly, at the divide between realism and modernism. Can a story be called “realist” if it takes place in a secondary world, yet otherwise accepts the tenets of literary realism–that the world does work according to rules, and does have a true story, that can be captured by traditional narrative tools and modes–and indeed might be said to emphasize some of these tenets in its suggestion that even alternate, imagined worlds would operate this way? Or does the use of a secondary world suggest a break from the “real” world that realism can’t or won’t countenance? And if the latter, where does this sort of heroic secondary world fantasy fit into the realism -> modernism -> postmodernism spectrum–or is it somehow separate?

  72. jeff vandermeer says:

    Good question, Mark. Just because I’m curious–would Finch be considered modernist? It is meant to reflect the real world and rules of the real world, if with some differences.

    I’ve thought a little more about postmodern technique and most all of it is technique that’s been around well before postmodernism, just been repurposed, no? My own work gets tagged as postmodern a lot, and I think that may indeed be a lazy interpretation of postmodernism, too.

  73. Dallas Taylor says:

    I think your work is pretty postmodern, Jeff. At least the Ambergris cycle. At very least it can be read that way, not only by way of McHale’s distinction between epistemology and ontology (though both are threads running through the whole series), but also by way of its intertextuality, its competing authorial voices out of which only an approximation of the ‘truth’ can be gleaned. At least until Finch, which feels like a return from the wilderness of postmodernism to the solid ground of modernism.

    So far as technique goes, you are right that all of the techniques currently labeled ‘postmodern’ have been around for ages (it can credibly be said that the first postmodern novel was Sterne’s Tristram Shandy).

    Like I said earlier, postmodernism is mostly a reader’s and a critic’s game (I like the notion of postmodernism as a series of arguments in the 80s about what postmodernism was), a way to aggressively read into a text whatever it is that you’d like to find there (think of it as the academic version of spin doctoring), a confusion of imposing and discovering. So far as the writer is concerned, postmodern techniques are simply that, techniques, which may or may not serve the work as the author conceives it and should be deployed or ignored accordingly.

    As for Matt’s question as to whether fantasy, or any story set in a secondary world, can be profitably labeled ‘realist,’ I’d say the short answer is yes. But then, I look at realism as an aesthetic more than a school of thought or insistence on literal verisimilitude, as a hard-headed insistence that a world make sense and that the story includes the gritty details of life and living in it. Think of it as one end of a spectrum whose other end is something like ‘mythological’ in which, say, nobody ever eats or goes to the bathroom or earns a living.

  74. Matt Denault says:

    Yeah, the toolbox of literary postmodernism is largely the older toolbox of literary modernism (which was largely pulled together from various older literary toolboxes), deployed for very different purposes–ironically in self-creation rather than earnestly in description.

    John Coulthart said way upthread “I must have missed all those years when fantasy went through a whole Modernist period,” and in fact I think it may be doing that now. It probably got started with the New Wave, but now with writers and editors and readers who grew up with those books and the zeitgeist around them, we have popular, lauded works like several of Jeff’s novels–yes, like Finch–and Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and McDermott’s Last Dragon, and Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, and perhaps George RR Martin’s series…these all and many more strike me as being modernist fantasy (again as I understand the term, corrections welcome).

    Dallas, yes, I realized after posting that the other movement we’d need to talk about with writers like Sanderson is romance (not the Harlequin kind, but the older form). Sanderson seems to me to be writing romantic narratives via a realist vocabulary, if that makes any sense.

  75. Mike Alexander says:

    Some interesting questions coming up here. I think “realism” is a problematic term, because no literature is truly realistic (if it were, it would be irredeemably dull). Perhaps it’s more useful to talk about whether the narrative is supposed to be “reliable” – in other words, whether we can read it as a transparently truthful account of events in the fictional world. Postmodernist fiction often features multiple narratives that conflict or undermine each other in some way (Nabokov was a master of this), or sometimes a single narrative that makes outrageously implausible claims, so that you can’t take them literally (eg some of Donald Barthelme short stories). By contrast, a traditional fantasy novel expects the reader to unquestioningly believe every word the narrator says – there is no narrative irony.

    Furthermore, the traditional “alternative universe” of a fantasy novel is expected to have consistent laws of behaviour, whilst obviously differing from the behaviour of our own universe. This is not always the case with postmodernist fiction (and particularly magical realism), which may feature contradictions or inconsistencies in the behaviour of the fictional universe, without ultimate explanation. McHale calls this “worlds in collision” – where a world with a different logic apparently intrudes into another.

  76. Jay Daze says:

    Look out Brandon you spooked a herd of literary theorists! AAAHHHHGGGHHH Stampede!!!

    But seriously, thanks Brandon, Jeff and all the other mind expanding posters.

    Brandon said he felt he was being postmodern when he was responding to past writers…

    “”The thing that stands out about Mistborn is that it, more than anything I’ve written, is a reaction to what has come before. Not postmodern in the “reaction agagainst the specific modern literary movement.” Postmoden, in places, because it is a reaction to, and even commentary on, the pervasive themes in my genre at the time I was working on it.” (typos included)

    I immediately jumped up and down and shouted with prideful glee… but to get to the point. What Brandon labels as postmodern is just being a good writer. ALL writers, now and BACK INTO THE MISTS OF TIME read what came before them, and the thoughtful ones (like Brandon and Jeff) build on what came before. Sometimes they twist the tropes slightly, sometimes they head off in another direction entirely, but they are using something that came before as their starting point. That’s not post-modern that’s writer 101.

    But enough quibbling, I need to go back to reading both Brandon and Jeff…

  77. Jay Daze says:

    Oh, and ummm….

    For great practical advice on actually writing fiction you should check out Brandon and company’s WRITING EXCUSES podcast. I’ve found it tremendously helpful and now feel like a punk-ass kid for trying to school him in the post above.

  78. James says:

    “I’ve thought a little more about postmodern technique and most all of it is technique that’s been around well before postmodernism, just been repurposed, no?”

    So true. Much of this goes back as far as Tristram Shandy, as mentioned above, but much goes back even further. Everyone on the thread should check out Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History for more on that. It’s a marvelous book, scholarly and entertaining, that I think deserves attention from the fantasy and SF community rather than just from literary grad-student types.

  79. jeff vandermeer says:

    Yeah, it’s a great book. My “no?” was largely rhetorical. But I do realize I get called postmodern so much I often forget these techniques are all old. I also think that in fantasy the techniques we’ve been talking about often reinforce the reality of the fantasy setting–at least inhabitin them it feels this way, and that’s part of the purpose you draw out in revision. Conflicting unreliable accounts of a fantasy city perhaps lend it more verisimilitude than a straightforward approach. Even inserting the writer into the text may, ultimately, reinforce the real within the confines of the fiction. That, to me, feels like a slightly different end result than in much non-fantasy (non-secondary word fantasy?).

  80. D. says:

    LOL. The best thing about this thread is what a delightful trip back to 1989 it was. While I too thought Sanderson was playing with community college quality definitions of the old keywords, his piece was clearly intelligible. His notion of what deconstruction entails pointed succinctly and specifically to undoing a text’s substrate oppositions (speech vs. writing, ergon vs. parergon, etc.) by showing that the suppressed term is the more foundational–a reductionist view to be sure, but a plausible one. His notion of modernism highlighted the struggle to always be new–to always bring a revolution with you or else not show up at all, as in Pound’s formula–which was indeed a key although certainly not exhaustive point about it. And his notion of postmodernism emphasized just playing around joyfully with old empty tropes, which was never a philosophical meaning for the term, but it’s spot on for architecture, where the term actually took root first and best. Most of the people sniffing at his piece either don’t have broad historical understandings of how these terms were used back when they were current or else they’re just not willing to cut a guy a break for having just done a master’s and never gone very deep into it. I think it would have been wiser of Sanderson to stick to his actual points rather than use labels he didn’t know a whole lot about, but you know, whatever.

  81. Matthew Surridge says:

    This is a great thread.

    For what they’re worth, when I was an undergrad I was given a useful set of quick n’dirty definitions that really stuck with me. Basically, ‘traditional’ literature is the mainly-linear narrative form that lasted up until the advent of modernism; ‘modernism’ was a movement based on using new formal techniques and structures to represent consciousness and perceptions of the world in a new way, usually based around a fractured or questioned self (Joyce, Eliot); ‘false post-modernism’, seeming value judgement aside, was the extension of the modernist approach to question reality, and the existence of any objectivity, in a way even modernists wouldn’t (Nabokov, Pynchon); ‘true post-modernism’ accepts that the modernist revolution was A Thing That Happened, a historical literary movement like any other, and is interested in revisiting ‘traditional’ forms in a more knowing way, which usually involves accepting the multiplicity of perspectives that modernism implies (Peter Ackroyd, A.S. Byatt).

    There is much to quibble with there, but I’ve found it has the virtue of being useful — the categories are baggy, and many things can fit two or three different places, but that may be inevitable when using inherently broad terms. Anyway, I think there’s some relevance here; it seems to me that Finch fits quite comfortably as true post-modernism — it uses the form of the detective novel, but by setting it in a fictional world, and implying the existence of worlds and realities beyond that, implies a more complex or multifarious view of reality than in traditional writing.

    I think Brandon Sanderson’s writing (well, I’ve only read Elantris, but assuming that’s representative) is best described as “traditional fantasy”. I mean, he’s using traditional narrative techniques, and then also writing within a well-established fantasy tradition. Personally, I don’t think “realism” is a useful term here. It seems to me that realism is a specific kind of mimetic fiction, with a focus on middle- and lower-class life. Lawrence of Arabia, although based on history, to me isn’t “realist” the way that Brief Encounter is. (Basically, I agree with Matt Denault about Sanderson writing “romantic narratives via a realist vocabulary”.)

    Dallas Taylor: When you say “The rhizome [or postmodern literature] grows according to the rules of its nature (the received tropes and traditions), but does so organically, in response to all the particularities of its particular time and place, and what makes the process organic is that it seeks only its own life, its own existence, and it grows in whatever dimensions and directions the particularities of its time and place allow in seeking that life and existence” how far away are you from Coleridge’s “organic form”?

    Another question for you: when you say “I believe that the turn to fantasy in comparatively recent history has a lot to do with a reaction against the fundamentally postmodern nature of our current day and age”, are you talking from the perspective a mass readership, or of writers in general?

    Adam Roberts: Why do you like Jameson’s definition of postmodernism? That is, what is it about the definition seems useful?

    You write: “Even in its most modishly violent contemporary iterations, Fantasy is nostalgic, or, if you prefer, faux-nostalgic. Which is fair enough; and plenty of people like escapism. But it says nothing about the structure of life under global capitalism. Or to be precise: it says one small thing about the structure of that life (that lots of people want to pursue imaginative escape from it) that doesn’t need ten thousand-page novels to articulate it.”

    I disagree with much of this, in many different ways. To start with, I don’t think that ‘nostalgia’ and ‘escapist’ are synonyms (mind you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a satisfactory definition of ‘escapism’). But I think I’d more strongly disagree with the idea that “fantasy is nostalgic,” even granted your clarification to “heroic fantasy”. While I disagree in part because I think there are heroic fantasies that aren’t nostalgic — Glen Cook’s Black Company series is nostalgic? — I’d also disagree because I reject the notion that an examination of past eras or past ways of life is necessarily based in nostalgia (is all historical fiction nostalgic?), and then also disagree with the notion that nostalgia itself has nothing to say about contemporary life.

    For example, you mention Tolkien as an example of “nostalgic” heroic fiction. Which is probably accurate, if something of an understatement, and you could call his work “escapist” for certain values of “escapism”. But I think the nostalgia was deliberate; I think he was, implicitly and deliberately, critiquing the society around him — thus commenting on life under global capitalism, if only to say that it wasn’t satisfactory and that the way things used to be done had several good points. (One may disagree with this, but it’s certainly saying something.)

    But more broadly: it seems to me that whether a work “says nothing about the structure of life under global capitalism” has nothing to do with whether it’s based in nostalgia, or, for that matter, whether it can be considered “escapist”. Surely there are other themes for literature to explore?

  82. The Artolater » Friday Links says:

    [...] Brandon Sanderson, who is awesome, writes about postmodernism in fantasy. Jeff VanderMeer disagrees a bit, but it’s a really interesting [...]

  83. Dallas Taylor says:

    Matthew, thanks for hopping in. You’ve got some interesting insights and questions.

    The answer to your first question to me, about how far away my description of postmodern literature through Delleuze and Guattari’s metaphor of the rhizome is from Coleridge’s notion of the organic in arts and letters (which, as I gather, was a reaction against his contemporaries’ preference for a more mechanical explanation), I’d say not very, with a great big helping of caveat cogitor, since my understanding of Coleridge’s position is based on roughly twenty minutes of internet research. Still, there are some pretty solid resonances between the two.

    In answer to your second question, about the turn to fantasy in our all-too-postmodern world, I’m talking more about mass readership (and, to be honest, individual reader psychology on a statistically significant scale) than about writers. The main point I wish to make is that the relative simplicity and moral clarity of traditional fantasy, at least as manifested in post-Tolkien Western Literature, is inherently appealing to contemporary readers, because things are simple and clear, and also because the dramatis personae exhibit a personal empowerment vis a vis the world they move in that recent cultural shifts have led many people to believe they might also enjoy in their day-to-day lives, but which they do not.

    Also, as to your notions of ‘nostalgia’ as relates to fantasy, I think you have some good points, but what I believe folks were generally trying to get at is not so much a nostalgia for the actual past, which bubble any perusal of the historical record will generally pop rather quickly and definitively, but the sort of faux-nostalgia for simpler times and moral clarity that runs through nearly every generation’s historical experience. That’s what I took away, anyway.

    Also, your quick ‘n dirty definitions are much appreciated. Myself, I mostly see ‘postmodernism’ as a largely meaningless catch-all phrase for those works that have internalized the lessons and techniques of modernism, but that have yet to quite cohere into whatever comes after. Also as a way for literature professors to have something to write and argue about.

  84. Co tam w fantastyce słychać? (13 IX – 19 IX 2010) | Zaginiona Biblioteka says:

    [...] SF oraz dwa teksty o postmodernizmie w fantasy. Pierwszy wyszedł spod klawiatury Sandersona, drugi VanderMeera. Zwrócił bym także waszą uwagę na tekst o militarnym SF autorstwa Andrew Liptaka [...]

  85. The Half-Made Links (2) « Torque Control says:

    [...] The SFRA Review have been posting a series of their 101 articles from SFRA Review, including so far Scholarly Research and Writing 101, Science Studies 101, Fan Studies 101, Comic Studies 101, and, for anyone who thought Brandon Sanderson knew what he was talking about, Postmodernism 101. (On that last, see also.) [...]

  86. black ops watch says:

    It is always awesome to share with you each resourceful recommendations along with the rest about your usage.Which is predominant way for the people to figure out about we ought to also sorts of quick equip the application. To some charity than actually provides each crucial events osteoporosis to be told about this. This can be a great electricity of the everyday people to choose the greater categories of those reports over the standards of using this task.

  87. Post-Tolkien Fantasy « The Undiscovered Author says:

    [...] essay called “Postmodernism in Fantasy” (and got a lot of attention in the blogosphere grumbling that he’d misused the term “postmodernism”), he was essentially making this point.  Perhaps what Brandon was really talking about [...]

  88. Dog Fencing says:

    Wonderful website you have here but I was curious
    if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same
    topics talked about in this article? I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get comments from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Many thanks!

  89. World Wide Wednesday: Retirement and Post Modernism | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews says:

    […] Sanderson wrote an essay on post modernism in fantasy, which was promptly shot down by Jeff VanderMeer. Speaking of Mr Sanderson, he and Brent Weeks are sharing the load over at Babel […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>