Evil Monkey on Fantasy

I think I have a headache.

Evil Monkey:
Is it because I just hit you with a hammer?

Oddly, no.

Evil Monkey:
Is it because I smashed you in the side of the head with that beer bottle?

Only partially. And please stop that.

Evil Monkey:
You looked at me funny.

You look funny.

Evil Monkey:
So what’s hurtin’ you, litul guy?

I read this.

Evil Monkey:
I saw that. I didn’t pay it no mind. I was too busy building this brick wall in the basement that I’m gonna put you behind when you’re not looking.

It’s the triumph of the Potter–that thar reviewer’s approach. Fantasy isn’t Tolkien anymore. It’s YA set in the real world with some kinda magic or magic school element. Or urban fantasy. It’s time for me to go to the gray lands beyond the sea.

Evil Monkey:
Isn’t it, though? I think maybe I hit you too hard. You’re not making any sense.

Fantasy is YA. Magicians has adults in it, so it’s adult YA. Adult fiction is just YA that doesn’t know it yet. Fantasy is something you put aside when you stop being an adolescent.

Evil Monkey:
You really are delirious. You’re not making any sense.

Someday there’re just gonna be books out called Quest with Romance, Quest with Side of Fries, Quest with Portal to Real World, Magic School with Side of Sex, Magic School with Mystery Plot, Chosen One with or without sidekick.

Evil Monkey:
I’m gonna hit you again, Jeff, but just because I think you might reboot…

Uh! Stop it! That hurt!

Evil Monkey:
That’s the first thing you’ve said that’s made sense.

Fantasy is not literary or pulp. Fantasy is not entertainment or literature. Don’t cry for me, Argentina. Gawd, I’d like to read something serious right now. But no fantasy! Something seeeerrrious, my precious. Feesh. Feeesh.

Evil Monkey:
Look, you have to stop talking like this. They’re gonna take you to the funny farm, and it’s not really funny in there. And it’s only sometimes a farm. Usually it’s a dump.

Why bother? Honestly. Why bother taking any care? We could all make characters out of popsicle sticks, put wizard clothes on them, and call it a day. Who would notice? I’ll put on puppet shows instead—public service messages for kids in school, and gradually I’ll make them stranger and stranger until puppets are exploding and they fire me because live guinea pigs shouldn’t be part of punch and judy.

Evil Monkey:
Look, one idiot does not a conspiracy make. Who cares? Write what you want to write.

I think I don’t want to write fantasy any more. No, I’m going to move on to something more adult. ‘Cause most people aren’t even gonna see the serious in the novel—they’re just gonna see fantasy. And fantasy ain’t serious, so the novel ain’t serious. It’s about little people. Little people who live in holes in the ground. No more fantasy for me. Everybody lives above ground in well-lighted apartments.

Evil Monkey:
You’re writing fantasy right now, fool!

Oh crap, you’re right. Stop talking.

Evil Monkey:
No. Here’s the business end of a bottle.

Jeff (crying out):

Evil Monkey:
Just trying to impose some reality on you.

Stella! Steeeeeellllllaaaaaaaa!

Evil Monkey:
Okay, that’s it—lights out.

X – X ……………………..

24 comments on “Evil Monkey on Fantasy

  1. Seth Merlo says:

    Please, I beg you, don’t stop writing fantasy, Jeff! Think of the sanity of your many readers. If it wasn’t for City of Saints, The Year of Our War and Perdido Street Station, I’d have never moved beyond the Dragonlance section of my bookstore. Something I’m eternally grateful for.

    I was about to say that I was surprised this kind of attitude was still out there, but then I remembered all my creative writing units at uni. Usually I’m able to put such ridiculous articles aside and forget about them, but that was a truly naive piece of writing on Agger’s part.

  2. Jeff, I can’t help agree with both Agger and you. What Agger is criticising is the awful ‘me too’ dross that fantasy writers produce. But this stuff is the majority offering in all genres. ‘Serious’ books called ‘Adultery with a side of Nihilism.’ ‘Coming of age with Rape and Pederasty,’ and so on, already pack the shelves.

    It really doesn’t matter what the genre. There are good writers, intelligent, thoughtful, creative people, who break new ground, find new angles, and present deep insights. In each generation, few are chosen. The rest produce simpler, cruder work that follows where others have led.

    So maybe you could put off leaving for the grey lands for a while longer.

  3. I think the monkey is going after the wrong target. Then again, that’s the way with evil monkeys, isn’t it?

  4. Seth Merlo says:

    The problem with the article is that Aggers unequivocally states that fantasy can only be a juvenile form of literature, and any attempt to write something more ‘mature’ within the genre is inherently flawed because of this.

    I agree that Agger is criticising fantasy writing, but in that patronising, ‘you’ll grow out of it’ manner of one who reads real ‘L’iterature and considers all fantasy to be dross. There was nothing in that article – no different author or specific works cited – to suggest there’s some fantasy works Aggers likes or thinks rise above the rest of dross.

    What also irks me is the suggestion that simple writing about sleeping around and mentioning alcohol automatically makes a text more mature and adult. There’s a very real chance a text might be trying too hard to be edgy and mature and the author thinks shoehorning these ideas into the work is the way to achieve that.

  5. Mike "Ankorite" C. says:

    It’s all these people drinking from the brackish Main Stream. It’s not healthy. Need to go to those other streams that aren’t as polluted.

  6. Hellbound Heart says:

    ……that monkey’s putting bad thoughts in your head, jeff, please don’t stop doing what you do best which is creating transformative literature…….i know there’s a lot of utter crap out there in the book shops, but one has to weed through it to find the gems…..

    put evil monkey back in his cage where he belongs…..

    peace and love….

  7. jeff vandermeer says:

    I agree with all of these comments, actually…

  8. I think that the reviewer’s problem with fantasy may be the idea that ‘fantasy’ is ‘easy.’ You can make things up as you go along to suit the plot, and it doesn’t matter if it makes sense, because ‘anything’ can happen in fantasy. So, you see, it’s not nearly as difficult to write as true adult literature, which is regulated and restricted by the strict norms of reality.

    To a small degree, I see this point. Many Tolkein-esque books (Ed Greenwood, I’m thinking about) write plots as if the author is rolling the twelve-sided die to determine the plot flow. An eleven! I cast the spell of flame-retardant love fluff! Stuff like that.

    But his much larger point is quite bogus, and smug, and condescending. But fantasy has always had that stigma, which helps it maintain its true cool. This despite the heights of Susanna Clarke and Grossman, which are treated as one-offs, blips on the radar, unexplained phenomena best ignored. Mainstream acceptance is not always a good thing.

    And The Magicians is a superb entertainment.

  9. Drax says:

    Yeah… Articles like that can make one want to scream, be churlish to strangers and small children, and gratefully accept every bottle smashed against one’s head. But even this late in the game, I refuse to believe that a serious book by a serious writer will be judged solely by its wardrobe and aesthetic, the colors the writer chose. “It’s a ‘made-up’ realm with ‘made-up’ rules and names? Why, it most be FANTASY with singularly FANTASTIC concerns!” The quest, the magic ring, whatever. Yeah, it annoys me. But! Call me a moon-eyed dreamer: I still believe the work of the serious writer will be recognized for what it is, whether it takes place (examples chosen only for clarity and expediency) in Ambergris, or 351 West 52 St New York City Apt # D RIGHT NOW, dammit. One shouldn’t stop reaching for that good reader, the reader capable of discerning what the story is actually about.

  10. jeff vandermeer says:

    It’s important for readers of my blog to understand that neither Evil Monkey nor the Jeff construct are *personal* in these blog entries, and that neither persona is any more likely to state an opinion I actually agree with, or disagree with. The point is the discussion.

    My career continues to be defined by straddling groups and that includes groups that aren’t fond of fantasy generally because they think of that genre as what I would call “commercial fantasy” as opposed to “literary fantasy”. Those terms are gross perversions that don’t acknowledge the amazing cross-pollination between high and low art, between seemingly incompatible influences, but it’s one way to explain the irritation at everything being lumped in together. A dangerous way, but still…

    But, important point, I don’t see the paradigm as getting mainstream acceptance versus not getting mainstream acceptance–i’ve gotten enough college gigs for the upcoming tour because of mainstream faculty who like my work to know there’s nothing monolithic about the “mainstream”. No, what I want to concentrate on are individual, specific moments of stupidity. Heh.

  11. As I posted recently on Twitter: I like the literary in my genre and the genre in my literary. I like language and plot. Few writers can manage that. Joe Hill is a great example of near perfect balance.

    Everybody wants to write. Naturally, a lot of people look to the big success stories for inspiration. What they need to look to is their own experience and how the world affects them. It’s only by finding one’s own, true voice that anything magical or extraordinary happens. When a writer does something amazing, we create a new category for it. Then millions follow and try to recreate what has already been done.

    Be yourself. Write what your soul demands.

  12. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    SP–and as I’m trying to say, using “genre” and “literary” in that way is somewhat useless. It makes more sense to use “commercial” and “literary” if you have to use anything at all. Plot is not something that just happens in genre novels and “language” is not just something that happens in “mainstream literary” novels. So, to me, for you to say you like the literary in your genre and the genre in your literary is a nonsensical way of looking at it. It’s also a nonsensical way of looking at plot–what do you think a literary novel is, a shifting roiling soup of sentences in no particular order, with no causality or events taking place? That said, I understand what you’re driving at, but I respectfully find the method of expression to be part of the problem we’re experiencing right now in terms of coming to terms with this stuff.

    As for the other thing–yes, no shit. That’s what everyone should do. That this has to be restated over and over again boggles my mind. (This isn’t a criticism of your comment.)

  13. So, no novel about Slate book reviewers who fall through a magic portal and find themselves forcibly enrolled at the Frankwrithe & Lewden Reform School for Fungally Contaminated War Orphans, then?

  14. jeff vandermeer says:

    Oh man, SP, that wasn’t me. That was Evil Monkey. So sorry he went off on your ass. Must be low blood sugar. Thanks for your heartfelt comment.

    David–next novel actually is contemporary realism, so no. Best part is, I aint tellin’ no one what it’s about or what name I am writing it under, so…suuurrrppriiise. In a couple years you may be readin’ VanderMeer without realizing it.

  15. We seem to be saying the same thing in different ways.

    Whether you call it genre or commercial or popular, writing that tells a clearly defined story with an arc tends to appeal to more readers more often than work that demonstrates a love of language and a fascination with form. This isn’t just my argument. Right now several Scottish writers are tussling in print, over the issue of publishing companies and book reviewers favoring the popular (commercial, genre) to the detriment of experimental (literary) writing. This is the dichotomy as it is viewed and presented to all of us.

    My response is that great writing knocks our socks off in part because it doesn’t fit one of these made-up categories. The author fails to recognize these categories or legitimize them. He/she writes what she/he is compelled to write, without trying to be one thing or another.

    And yes, quite a lot of writers who aim for the literary end up with a shifting roiling soup of sentences. And quite a few writers who aim for genre end up with a cardboard cutout plot with lifeless characters and cliches.

    You seem to think I am trying to re-legitimize or endorse the dichotomy, when I am not. I’m saying it is detrimental to our creativity to keep thinking this way.

  16. And I hear your frustration. It is so wonderful to write, and to explore, and to break new ground and just–GO. Then you start sending the work into the world, and find yourself explaining what should not have to be explained by an author. Critics are supposed to recognize what is new, and make new ways to describe it, not beat it with a stick for not being this, or not being that.

  17. jeff vandermeer says:

    ya–thanks for the clarification. makes sense to me.

    I don’t really get frustrated-i just see fantasy as this great delivery system for some fairly complex stuff and

    I don’t think i’ve encountered those mainstream lit books you’re talking about. most mainstream lit i’ve real has complex plots. but the design of those plots don’t resemble the kinds of plots you often find in what’s marketed as fantasy. I think “genre” readers need to acknowledge sometimes that they’re so used to one kind of thing that they simply cannot recognize a different approach to plot–just as a mainstream reader may have difficulty getting into an sf novel because they lack the contextual “universal backstory” sf readers develop when they read it as kids up through adulthood.

  18. Larry says:

    *makes mental note to look for ‘debut novel’ by ‘Stephan Mayar’ in a couple of years*

    Or is it a different pseudonym from that?

  19. f. says:

    i think there’s a difference between thinking of fantasy as crap that accidentaly reaches the heights of true literature and fantasy as a form of literature that, sadly, misses its path a lot of the time. i rather go with the latter.
    besides, i can’t understand why losing the ability to suspend your disbelief is seen as something mature, something you can even think as considered morally better.

  20. Fantasy is just a label. All books in one sense are fantasy. Whether one wants to rove around wearing a shirt that says “I heart fantasy” is another matter. But I think it should be left up to the industiral book chains to slot the stuff where they want and let writers simply write what interests or inspires them, or what they need to write in order to put rice on the table.

  21. I can relate to some of what you’re saying, in my own way. I get so tired of some of the dog-chasing-its-own-tail aspect of fantasy and SF fandom/readerdom/critic-dom that sometimes I think about unplugging my internet connection, burning my ARCs and maybe just learning to do something useful, like carpentry.

  22. John Langan says:

    Reading the review, it was hard not to be reminded of Edmund Wilson’s dismissal of Tolkien, which read in part, “One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child. It is essentially a children’s book – a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand, since, instead of directing it at the « juvenile » market, the author has indulged himself in developing the fantasy for its own sake.” This is not to suggest that Grossman is or isn’t writing for kids (I haven’t read the book or, to be honest, even enough about it to say), only that the association of the fantastic and the juvenile is nothing new.

  23. teaver says:

    I find labelling useful in my kitchen. On my bookshelf – not so much. A good story is a good story, it’s genre won’t cause heartburn. Once there was a Brit who wrote something about smelling flowers and naming them – I’m sure you remember – I think that would sum up nicely how labeling works in literature.

    And yes, I know it just needs to sell. But who would listen to publishers anyway…?

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