Friday, 7 May 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 8: The Path of Daggers (1998)

Back in the saddle. I was rather dreading this, actually ([voices off]: ‘Then why are you reading it at all, fool?’); but once I got going it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d anticipated. I suppose these things rarely are. After about p.250 it turned into quite a rapid, bump-less slide down a gentle slope to the conclusion. Not that it's page turning. It is a treading-water sort of book. It is treading out the vintage where the grapes of stultified stupefaction are stored.

So, Book 7 ended with Rand killing the ‘forsaken’ Sammael in characteristically understated fashion (‘Screaming, Rand swept the balefire down toward the square, the rubble collapsing on itself, swept down death out of time—and let saidin go before the bar of white touched the lake of Mashadar that now rolled across the square, billowing past the Waygate toward rivers of glowing fray that flowed out from another palace on the other side bang crash wow! kaboom crsssh-crassh haha!’). Book 8 takes up the story, but does so in a one-step-forward-one-step-back sort of way. Or to be more precise, in a no-steps-forward-no-steps-back manner. An army of Seanchan rampages through the world. Some of Rand’s own followers are plotting against him. Nynaeve and Elayne finally get hold of the bowl of the winds that they’ve spent, I suppose, two books looking for, and use it to heal the weather. Then there’s a lengthy, minutely shuffling build-up to another big climactic battle. At the end of Wotviii we don’t seem to be any further forward than we were at the end of Wotvii. Rand is still going bonkers, but very slowly. His mates are still moodling around, except for Mat, who wasn’t in this one at all. Unless he was, and I missed him.

Is the novel too padded? Well, there’s a great many characters’ points-of-view that need to be orchestrated, and a lot of …. Oh! Time for a tea-break!
Careful of the silver pitcher’s heat, Cadsuane poured a cup of tea, testing the thin green porcelain cup for warmth. As might have been expected in silver, the tea had cooled quickly. Channeling briefly, she heated it again. The dark tea tasted too much of mint; Cairhienin used mint entirely too freely in her opinion. She did not offer a cup to … [292]
Right. Always refreshing, a nice cup of tea. On we go. So, there’s evil plotting, and several battles, and an explosion in the—ah! Stop! Time for another tea-break!
Egwene went in to find everything in readiness. Selame was just setting a tea tray on the writing table … The tea tasted of mint. In this weather! Selame was a trial … [353]
The question is not ‘is it padded?’ The question is: ‘could it be more padded? When Jordan calls one chapter ‘The Extra Bit’ is he kidding? I thought I understood, broadly, the appeal of Epic Fantasy. Surely readers don’t go to Epic Fantasy for endless descriptions of clothing, furniture, fabrics, and characters constantly drinking cups of mint tea? Does Jordan think his readership are all senior citizens?

No, but, wait: I spoke too soon! Here’s some excitement! Adelas and Isman, two important Aes Sedai, have been assassinated! Stumbling across the dead bodies—Birgitte draws her belt knife—Nynaeve surveys the scene, and
Dipping her finger into the teapot, she touched it to the tip of her tongue, then spat vigorously and emptied the whole teapot into the table in a wash of tea and tea leaves.[594]
Assassinated by tea! Fitting, fitting. Not so much Epic Pooh as Epic Miss Marple.

***

Why am I persevering with this series? Commentators on previous posts have, courteously for the most part, suggested I should stop reading, since I’m not enjoying it . At the very least, they say, I should stop publishing posts that insult the work of a (as they note) much more successful author than I am myself. By insulting the Wheel of Time I insult them, those fans who love the wheel of time. And they have the kernel of an important point. At the very least, it would be worthwhile considering whether, since so many love it so, I am missing something important.

It’s a good question. What do fans see in it? What-what? What moves people who seem otherwise rational beings to insist that Robert Jordan is not only good, he’s far superior to Tolkien and Flaubert. Is that a piece of Dadaist derangement-of-the-sensibilities anti-criticism? Look at it again: 'Jordan is a better writer than Flaubert and a better subcreator than Tolkien'. Permit me to slip once again into George III idiom: what-what?

I don’t get it.

Why do I persevere? Because I said I would; and because I’ve been thinking about pulling together some critical writing on Fantasy as a mode, and to that end I’ve been noting the holes in my reading. I know Tolkien frighteningly well, and it used to be the case that I was pretty well-read in the post-Tolkien tradition: Lewis's Narnia; Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea; Stephen Donaldson’s The Land, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar, Gene Wolfe’s variously shaped suns, Alan Garner, Adams (Rich, not Doug), Peake, Lloyd Alexander, Silverberg's Majipoor, Zelazny, Louise Cooper, Ray Feist, Rob Holdstock, Jack Vance, the sublime Sheri Tepper. I read hundreds of Arthurian fantasies to write this, now long out-of-print critical study. The last big-book non-Arthurian Fantasy series I read entire was probably Tad Williams’ Memory Thorn and Sorrow, when it came out (which dates me), though I’ve read individual volumes of Robin Hobb, Steve Erikson, Steph Swainston, Miéville of course—and it goes without saying I’ve read Pratchett, Rowling and Pullman. And, to leapfrog to recent years, I’ve read books by, for example, James Barclay, Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan (but more because these gentlemen are friends of mine than for any yearning I had to immerse myself again in Epic Fantasy). In all these cases I very much enjoyed what I read; in some cases it moved me very much; and for some of these writers—Le Guin, say—I feel something approach writerly reverance. But I’m too ignorant of the 1990s and much of the noughties. That’s one reason why I decided to give Jordan a whirl.

I get that for many people the deal is escape. Leave your worries behind; you enter this better world. It’s a world in which you don’t work in the accounts department of a mid-size educational supplies firm; where, instead, you live in a palace and command servants and have magic powers and enjoy exciting sex with beautiful people and are able to vent your repressed aggression in fighty-fight. Jordan’s twist on this venerable textual strategy is, partly, giving his readers much more detail than his market rivals; and partly, more cannily, creating the illusion of psychological depth. Simple wish-fulfilment gets old too soon; so Jordan's Alexander-the-Great-alike is troubled by the fear he’s going mad. It’s not much, but it’s enough to separate him from the bulk of competitors. And otherwise, the wotworld is coloured and detailed like a Pre-Raphaelite painting, and to similar aesthetic effect—viz., the embourgeiosification and prettifying of a notional past:
Across the harbour the wind roared, tossing small ships and large, across the city itself, gleaming white beneath the unfettered sun, spires and walls and color-ringed domes, streets and canals bustling with storied southern industry. Around the shining domes and slender towers of the Tarasin Palace the wind swirled, carrying the tang of salt, lifting the flag of Altara, two golden leopards on a field of red and blue. [36]
But—I keep coming back to this. But—really, it screams from the books—but it is all terribly written. I don’t just mean the style, although the style is awful. I mean the whole kit-and-kaboodle: the overall structure, and the narrative, the pacing and focalisation, the characterisation, the dialogue, the tone. All of it. The writing is bad from the get-go. ‘She managed to be pretty if not beautiful despite a nose that was overbold at best’—at best? How would it have been if it had been the worst? ‘Gaunt cheeks and a narrow nose hid the ageless quality of the red sister’s features’: so ‘cheeks’ and ‘nose’ don’t count as features?
Her eyebrows climbed as she directed her gaze back to them, eyes black as her white-winged hair, a demanding stare of impatience so loud she night as well have shouted. [47]
Her eyes are black, they’re white, her eyebrows are escaping, her gaze is audible. This, this is terrible writing.

And this is the part I can’t seem to get my head around: the fans know that it’s terribly written. They know and they don’t care. Why don’t they care? I don’t know why they don’t care. After finishing Wotviii, and after writing most of this post, I googled for some reviews; and I found this sfsite piece by James Seidman:
In the book, Jordan succeeds in carrying forward his stunning world building in this detailed story of a struggle between good and evil … Yet, after reading A Path of Daggers, I found myself wishing that Jordan had succeeded in his original goal of completing the story in eight books, rather than the current estimate of twelve. While the novel certainly advances the plot of the series, it fails to really introduce many new themes to keep the story fresh…. I don't want to leave the impression that A Path of Daggers is a bad book or boring. It's a piece of excellent writing that is part of an excellent series. However, this particular piece of The Wheel of Time, taken by itself, seems to drag on. It seems like Jordan could have focused on progressing certain plot lines faster to give more of a sense of progress. Fortunately, several things happen at the very end of the book that suggest that the ninth book will again be refreshing and different. I would suggest that readers with enough patience wait for the ninth book to come out, then read it back-to-back with A Path of Daggers. This will probably hide any of the book's shortcomings and lead to a more pleasurable reading experience.
This is, I think, one of the most astonishing reviews I have ever read. Seidman describes the book as ‘stunning’ and uses the superlative ‘excellent’ twice despite conceding that the novel is stale, draggy and possessed of unpleasant shortcomings. He then suggests how a reader might get through the volume in such a way as to camouflage precisely those shortcomings. Assuming that ‘stunning’ is not being deployed in its abattoir bolt-gun sense, and putting aside the theory that ‘excellent’ is used sarcastically, this amounts to a reviewer saying ‘vol 8 is an excellent novel, although, obviously in a shit way, but maybe volume 9 won’t be so shit, and maybe, if you swallow them both together, that as yet unwritten book will be sweet enough to disguise the shitty taste of this one.’

What to say to such a review other than: don't! Please don't! The libraries of the world are crammed with beautiful, powerful, moving, mindblowing literature! Read some of that instead!

‘I don’t care!’ you cry. ‘I don’t want good writing! I just want to get away to Wotworld for a while!’

Well, hey. Sure. We’re all a bit ground-down by life, I know. We all want to get a little drunk, from time to time, so as to ameliorate the grind; to step through the portal to somewhere more appealing. But getting drunk doesn’t have to mean sitting on a park bench with a 2-litre plastic bottle of strong cider. It is possible to get something more refined from the experience. How can I communicate this fundamental truth about art to you? Is there any point in me telling you: ‘look, if you just try this Château Margaux 1787, you’ll get all the intoxication you want but also a really beautiful drinking experience …’? Because, here’s the thing; with alcohol, supermarket cider is cheaper than fine wines (that of course dictates why different people drink the one and the other). But with books the difference in quality is not reflected in the cover price! Maybe it should be. Maybe it ought to cost £1:99 to buy a Robert Jordan novel and £45.99 to buy a Vladimir Nabokov one. But it doesn’t! Amazingly, it doesn’t! There is nothing stopping you going for the higher quality experience! Honestly!

46 comments:

Matt said...

I suspect other part of the appeal is what you mentioned at the beginning of the review - even though the books are terrible, they're terrible in a way that requires no mental engagement whatsoever - maybe Robert Jordan's achievement is to write in such a gosh-darned pleasant way, structurally, that you don't really care all that much that it is, on a micro level, neither beautiful nor even really very, uh, -sensical, as it were.

Matt said...

Having said that, I got through about three-quarters of the first book out of a similar sense of requirement and despaired, pressed eject, etc. at the already sheer sense of interminability. So I'm not speaking from a fan perspective, though I am a fan of these posts.

Ian Sales said...

The books are the literary equivalent of Dallas and Dynasty. Complete tosh, and badly put-together, but so over-emotional it drags people in.

Larry said...

I think I can hazard a guess as to why the "true fans" don't care about the terrible quality of the writing: they are busy writing "theories" about what will happen next. All of those metaphorical Dreams, the slightly-more concrete Visions, and the confusing Foretellings sserve to provide grist to the speculative mills of the more obsessed fans. The beauty (or not) of the prose is not considered, nor do they care as much about the characters, as long as they get the chance to guess ahead of time what will transpire next and to see more of the setting. Didn't you coin the words "spoilbinding" and "worldbling" for this (although I think in settings like Jordan's, "world porn" is more appropriate, since it's as in-your-face, graphic, and long - and poorly-directed - as any XXX movie)?

David Moles said...

The fans aren't fans of the books, they're fans of the Platonic WoT that's revealed, dimly, through the books.

Larry said...

The WoT that can be expressed is not the true WoT?

David Moles said...

I wouldn't go that far, but I'm pretty sure it isn't being expressed.

David Moles said...

I'm also not sure the Margaux analogy holds up. It's not as though the pleasure provided by WoTworld is simple, or even that it's equally well-provided by a plethora of well-written books. You don't find that level of mechanical complexity very often outside of a role-playing supplement, and when you do it's likely (Donaldson, Feist) to be more or less equally badly written -- let's say, sufficiently badly written -- if not necessarily in the same way.

Adam Roberts said...

Hmm. I'm not sure that the books' currency is complexity, actually. There's a fetish for minutiae, true; but that's not the same thing.

I'd say the appeal is something simpler: not just that this is a wishfulfilment world that is more colourful than ours; it combines an idealised nostalgic past with all present-day bourgeois creature-comforts, parlayed through honest-to-goodness melodramatic emotional intensity. Not that there's any shortage of imaginary Westworldesque themeparks, but I daresay Jordan gains something from his Great Wall, visible-from-the-moon scale of his undertaking.

David Moles said...

I'm not denying that it provides those pleasures, but I think you can't dismiss the trainspotting, stamp-collecting aspect either -- the sheer plethora of implied, distinct collectable figurines and playsets, the number of possible "which would win in a fight, X or Y?" matchups. I'm not sure there's anything in print fiction to match it.

Larry said...

The more I read Adam's commentaries and the comments to them (as well as re-reading the damn series as well), the more I'm becoming convinced of the utter bourgeoisness of not just the narrative, but of its fans. If the focus isn't as much on the imaginative "whys" of the narrative but instead more on the material "whats," I dread to think what the ending might be.

Abalieno said...

So I can tell you why you SHOULD continue to write this: because there's nothing similar out there.

We got plenty of reviews of the Wheel of Time, but not a review like this, that can produce a novel discussion. So it's good you do it because no one else is doing it.

And I find this last piece you wrote extremely interesting because it doesn't stop with the funny mockery, but goes beyond trying to understand why the series is popular. Understanding things is the important part.

That said, you're a writer. It means you have a particular eye and attention for HOW things are written more than just WHAT is written. Most readers will glide on the lines you quote. Why? Because the meaning is evident. For every one of your quotes you can consider the writing extremely awkward and quirky. It is. But you have to admit that the message/meaning is always clear. You can understand Jordan's intended purpose, and then you can argue that it was done horribly, but it worked pragmatically.

Most readers don't have an analytical approach to a novel. They read trying to grasp a voice and then follow it. Jordan has a way to write that works and is not ambiguous. Bad writing you say, but it's still writing whose message is obvious even when filled with contradictions in the style. You focus on style whereas readers focus on meaning. No one stops at the end of a sentence to carefully weigh its quality. They move on.

You also have to consider "length" in the better alternatives you suggest. Why WoT works? Because you stay with the characters. Readers read this because they develop affection for characters and "care" about their story. The same as Lost fans developed affection for those characters. It's what motivates them to watch the TV every week, and what motivates them to follow a series like WoT.

Witnessing. The power of a good story. Being there, part of it. Feeling a sense of "richness" donated by an expansive setting and a secondary world so detailed that it reinforces the illusion of being real. It's a story that fills the holes people have in them. And do do this the story has to have a sense of familiarity, and then a sense of being extraordinary.

The fact is: I doubt that your suggestions satisfy the same needs.

abeyer42 said...

I doubt that any of the subsequent WoTmentaries will alter what's quite clear: AR isn't the sort of reader who, for purposes outside of scholarship, populate the WoTworld's fans/apologists. So who are these people? Some speculations:

1. The size of each volume, the sheer extent of the series (it takes up 3 shelves at the bookshop! Only Stephen King can do that!), the 360 degree art of the covers: quite enough to corral young (male) readers. RJ's continual goalpost pushing w/respect to the series length, along with the increased susceptibility of trilogy and tetradology readers to the literary equivalent of the bus-stop problem can explain the presence of both RJ recruits and long-suffering RJ stalwarts.

Also, for a genre like epic fantasy in which the suspense and excitement of the quest are supposed to be key, I think much of the appeal draws from their opposites: security and expectedness. RJ is the runaway champion of such qualities. Is there another author able (or willing)to deploy such monumental, sustained 'sameness'? It can't be correct to look at this as a weakness readers are willing to overcome. Perhaps it's precisely why they (err...we) keep him (even posthumously) on the bestseller lists.

As the series has expanded, it has become, even in the genre, a singular presence. There is simply nowhere else to go to witness such massive, nearly stellar, objects. Though all epic fantasy exists in a Tolkienian universe, most entries are able to influence one another on lines of readerly gravity--enjoyment of the Prydain Chronicles leads one to notice Le Guin's Earthsea stories. If a friend admits an earlier fondness for the Weis & Hickman Dragonlance tales, you tell them about George R.R. Martin's books. But RJ leads nowhere. There's abundant work of similar kind, but none of similar degree. There is only the next RJ book.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Most readers don't have an analytical approach to a novel. They read trying to grasp a voice and then follow it. Jordan has a way to write that works and is not ambiguous. Bad writing you say, but it's still writing whose message is obvious even when filled with contradictions in the style. You focus on style whereas readers focus on meaning. No one stops at the end of a sentence to carefully weigh its quality. They move on.

I find this to be kind of insulting to readers, actually. No, most people probably don't consciously analyze each sentence they read (though for some of the examples Adam's provided, it's hard to see how you'd be able to avoid it), but that doesn't mean that they're completely insensible to questions of style. A reasonably discerning reader will be able to discriminate between good and bad writing, even if she isn't necessarily able to immediately articulate WHY it's good or bad.

Adam Roberts said...

Abalieno: "Readers read [WoT] because they develop affection for characters and "care" about their story. The same as Lost fans developed affection for those characters. It's what motivates them to watch the TV every week, and what motivates them to follow a series like WoT."

I find the Lost comparison very interesting, actually; not least because I'm a committed fan of that particular TV show. And here's the thing: I can see the point of the comparison, although there are important architectonic differences between Lost and Wot, the most obvious being that Lost is an epistemological show; it's built around a secret that is (very) slowly being revealed. One reason fans keep watching is because we want to know what on earth is behind all the strange goings-on on the island. Wot isn't driven by narrative mystery in the same way (though I concede there's some of this with the various prophetic dreams and whatnot) because, basically, we know where this narrative is going. In the end Good will defeat Evil. The appeal of the series is not epistemological, but ontological -- the world Jordain built.

But here's the main thing: as far as my argument being discussed in this thread goes, Lost is very different to Wot. Very different in the sense of 'much better'. I understand what I'm being told, that people don't mind Jordan's middling-to-rubbish execution because they're so interested in the content. But Lost's production values are very high. It's beautifully shot; scenery, SFX, costumes, production all cinematic rather than televisual; the scripts (with one or two exceptions) professionally polished and effective, especially good on telling detail; the acting ... well, some of the acting is one-note (Sawyer, Jack, simpering 'is this T-shirt tight-enough?' Evangeline Lilly); but most of the actors here are really very good at their job: Michael Emerson's brilliant Ben, and -- in this last season especially -- Terry O'Quinn's superb turn as smoke-monster-Locke.

So, in short: those aspects of a televisual production we might think of as approximating to style, form, characterisation, dialogue, pacing and so on, are all very well done. Lost is a classy show, in that respect. Jordan ... not so much.

redrichie said...

Just as an aside, I've noticed a few folk commenting here getting a little shirty that Adam doesn't like Jordan's writing.

I find these reviews entertaining because they confirm my prejudices in an entertaining way. I read this blog because I like Adam's own fiction and trust his opinion of other people's.

However, it seems a bit of a massive logical leap to go from "Robert-Jordan-isn't-a-master-of-prose" to "you must be a simpleton because you like it."

To be scrupulously fair, not everyone that disagrees seems to take that tone, but it's a little...odd.

Gareth Rees said...

I think these discussions with Wheel of Time fans show that you need to sharpen up your criticism.

You’re a perceptive critic of language and style, but usually language and style are deployed in service of some other aesthetic end, not just pure pleasure in the language itself.

For example, the language in Aldiss’ Report on Probability A is incredibly dull, repetitive, and pedantic and the plot goes nowhere. But critics consider the novel to be one of the classics of the British New Wave in SF, because Aldiss employed the style deliberately to make a compelling portrait of “contemporary despair” (as Colin Greenland puts it). Had the novel been written in a lively, engaging, characterful style, how could the reader experience the ennui? (A perceptive Amazon reviewer gets it: “This is without a doubt the worst SF book I ever read ... It's a mind-numbingly tedious description of nothing happening. You keep thinking that the story will have a point but it never does. I felt so cheated at the end of the book that I literally threw it across the room in disgust.”)

Another example: your review of Greg Egan’s Incandescence, where you noted that the characterisation was weak and the prose style very “dry and unengaging”. But as I pointed out in my response, Egan has said clearly that he isn’t interested in writing novels of character. Of course, if you’re mainly interested in prose and character, then you’re not going to like Egan’s novels. But then your criticism seems rather weak, much as if a science fiction fan criticised Washington Square on the grounds that the subject matter and plot are very mundane. Certainly they are, but so what?

If your main tool of criticism is to investigate how the prose measures up to the standards of the literary novel of character, then what can you say about novels that don’t aspire to that condition, except to mock them for failing to be what they are not?

This is not to say that you shouldn’t mock the prose style of the Wheel of Time. I think your posts are funny and perceptive. Nor do I think that you are obliged to accept a complete aesthetic relativism, by which the fact that someone likes a book is unanswerable. But I do think that you might want to find more ways to explain how Wheel of Time fails on its own terms: figure out what the fans are trying to get out of it, and show how the book fails to deliver, and to explain how other works do so more effectively. (Your analysis of the James Seidman review shows one good line of approach.)

ninjaphilosopher said...

Adam, these reviews are excellent. They are funny, illuminating, and thought provoking. Please continue.

Also, the closest analogy I can come up with is comic books (of the Fantastic Four/JLA variety). Sometimes comic books are good; sometimes they're great, but mostly they're shit. Despite this, people continue to read them. Maybe this is because they get invested in the characters adventures, identify with their problems, or just want to pretend to have superheroes. I suspect something similar is going on with Jordan.

Matt said...

I wonder if WoT's closest comparison isn't shonen manga. There's certainly a kind of parallel: massively decompressed storytelling and endless, replicating plot arcs, ever-increasing proliferation of minimally-different of characters and 'abilities', relentless acquisition of plot coupons and 'ability objects', the weird balance of soap-opera draw and garish, homosocial violence.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I've been meaning to write about this on my blog, but I will likely never get around to it. So ...

I have very much enjoyed this series of reviews. I don't think that you quite get what people see in this type of book, though. To me, at any rate, it seems wholly not true that you could replace this kind of thing with a better-written epic fantasy of the same sort and still get what is wanted out of of it.

What might an adult want out of this kind of book? Relaxation, basically. A better-written version of the book would be challenging, in some sense. Better writing style almost has to involve more intellectual involvement of the reader, more of a pull into details of the text.

I've never read this series, but I've read e.g. David Eddings' Belgariad series. Mostly in the half hour or so before falling asleep, although sometimes when worn out from work. I couldn't face something written well at that kind of time: it would take too much energy.

What might an adolescent want? Well, in part, the same as above, in part the power-fantasies. But in part I think that poorly written books can be better suited to filling in the gaps yourself than some better ones. Nature abhors a vacuum: if the prose is garbled and monotonous, sense and detail have to emerge from your own mind.

ninjaphilosopher said...

1. It's certainly possible that WoT is more like Shonen, I have no idea. I was just trying to think of a similar reading experience in which, despite poor quality over vast stretches of material, lots of enthusiastic readers endure/enjoy.

2. I agree with Rich; showing people who LOVE Jordan something better (especially if they are adults) is probably a waste of time because that's not what they want. A teenager is probably another story. They may not know any better. I certainly didn't.

3. I disagree with Gareth Rees on two points: first, an immanent critique is not necessarily superior. Sometimes its better to demonstrate that certain premises are fundamentally wrong than it is to take them on. Second, I took one of Adam's points to be that he can enjoy epic fantasy, and that Jordan just does it very badly. Hence, Adam *is* performing an immanent critique.

Abalieno said...

I find the Lost comparison very interesting, actually; not least because I'm a committed fan of that particular TV show. And here's the thing: I can see the point of the comparison, although there are important architectonic differences between Lost and Wot.

I only picked Lost because it's what I'm seeing these days, not because it's a good comparison (but it fits rather well with Malazan, instead). The aspect I wanted to underline is the seriality. That's the important element.

You can't suggest better works similar to WoT if these works don't use seriality. The rules that make a good TV show are some of the rules that make WoT successful. Developing familiarity, some predictability, accessibility (even of prose). Lots of redundancy.

But in the end these "flaws" are also strong points because they ease the reader into the characters and the story. And when you are invested in both characters and story then you are going to come back for more, and this builds a pattern.

Gareth Rees said...

ninjaphilosopher: “an immanent critique is not necessarily superior”

I certainly agree with that. My point is that an internal critique is more likely to be persuasive to fans. It’s clear from the discussions so far that appeals to Adam’s superior aesthetic sensibilities have been far from persuasive.

Adam Roberts said...

Gareth: "It’s clear from the discussions so far that appeals to Adam’s superior aesthetic sensibilities have been far from persuasive."

Elegantly zinged. I concede the point.

I can think of no reason why WoT fans should pay me any mind, of course.

Adam Roberts said...

Rich: "Nature abhors a vacuum: if the prose is garbled and monotonous, sense and detail have to emerge from your own mind."

This intrigues me. Wouldn't it imply that internet spam is a better stimulus to the imagination than Shakespeare?

Adam Roberts said...

Ninja Philosopher: "the closest analogy I can come up with is comic books (of the Fantastic Four/JLA variety). Sometimes comic books are good; sometimes they're great, but mostly they're shit. Despite this, people continue to read them."

I see this, although comic books don't have the depth of range of popularity of Jordan's novels. (Or of films made out of comic books). Nobody gets rich writing comic books. My understanding is that, when he died, Jordan had accumulated an absolutely vast collection of tobacco pipes.

Are you really a ninja?

Adam Roberts said...

s.b "...depth or range of ..."

Rich Puchalsky said...

I was thinking of an introduction to a famous reprinted fantasy book I'd read. (Something by Dunsany? Intro by Neil Gaiman? I don't feel up to tracking it down at the moment.) At any rate, this introducer wrote something about the hazards of re-reading a book you liked as a child. And, he said, there is the danger that what you remember is a scene that has always stayed with you, where the main characters are running through the woods, stumbling, pushing aside wet branches, trying not to crunch twigs underfoot for fear of being heard ... and what you read is "and then they got away through the forest."

Well, the actual introducer wrote it better, them being a real writer and all. But Internet spam wouldn't do it. You need some kind of mythic frame to hang your own imaginings on -- in this case, two boys being pursued through dark woods by some kind of nightmarish entity. That's enough to put a reader into the frame of mind where they will fill in the details from their own nightmares. A better writer usually brings them more into the actual characteristics of the text, less into their own head.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Oh, and just to add flames to the fire: iI think it's also a core truth of SF/fantasy that any poorly written book that adolescent fans seemingly inexplicably like must have some kind of obvious fetishistic sex/violence fantasy element.

There's a few classic cases. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant? Masochism fantasy from start to finish. Ender's Game? Yes, kids, you can kick someone to death and that's necessary and OK, and committing genocide is a good excuse to be emo. Elric of Melnibone's throbbing black blade that kept piercing his friends almost doesn't count because Moorcock was self-admittedly doing it on purpose with a sort of paint-by-numbers Freudianism.

I haven't read this series. But, taking a guess, from these reviews and from the snippets of the books that adolescents quote in tags online and so on -- there seem to be a lot of scenes where adversaries passionately denounce each other while plunging various sharp objects into each other in one-on-one settings. Let's see, what can I find with fast Google?

"Taim appeared as close to a smile as Rand had ever seen him. "Kneel and swear to the Lord Dragon," he said softly, "or you will be knelt.""

"When he reached for saidin, the invisible barrier was still there, but it no longer seemed stone or brick. It gave as he pressed, bending under his pressure, bending, bending. Suddenly it tore apart before him like rotted cloth. The Power filled him, and as it did, he seized at those three soft points, crushing them ruthlessly in fists of Spirit."

"The Power filled him. Something leaped from his outstretched hands; he was not sure what it was. A bar of white light, solid as steel. Liquid fire."

Those are all quotes that someone apparently liked. So, I'd guess that this is basically about tension around adolescent sexuality, most specifically homosexuality. "Oh, Dark Lord, now you're going to feel my blade" kind of thing.

marco said...

I see this, although comic books don't have the depth of range of popularity of Jordan's novels. (Or of films made out of comic books).

Huh? The 100 more popular comics in America sell roughly from 100,000 to 20,000 copies every month (in the 80s-90s they easily reached five times these numbers).
Of course writers and artists don't get rich with comic books - they don't own the characters.


A better writer usually brings them more into the actual characteristics of the text, less into their own head.

I'd say the approach to description is almost the opposite of what you'd expect in "good" novels:
commonplace activities are minutely described in order to give grounding through familiarity, battles or physical descriptions are left purposely vague in order to let the reader fill in the gaps with his/her imagination.


Those are all quotes that someone apparently liked. So, I'd guess that this is basically about tension around adolescent sexuality, most specifically homosexuality. "Oh, Dark Lord, now you're going to feel my blade" kind of thing.

So the fact that I never felt the inclination to read fantasy doorstoppers during high school means I was a latent heterosexual? hmmm...



Adam, If you really wish to understand why the fans enjoy the series you could try to study their comments on Tor's WOT re-read threads:

http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=58172#re-read

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I was thinking of an introduction to a famous reprinted fantasy book I'd read. (Something by Dunsany? Intro by Neil Gaiman? I don't feel up to tracking it down at the moment.)

The first volume of White Wolf's reprint of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Why the hell do I know that?

Rich Puchalsky said...

Ah, thanks, Faster. I'll type it in, since you found it. (Actually I have it as the intro to vol 3). It is by Gaiman.

"And worse: as you grow up you carry with you, for example, the memory of our heroes' terrified flight through the forest that awful night, the way the wind whipped and howled through the oak trees, the way the rain soaked through their clothes; you remember the water dripping from their faces as they urged their poor exhausted horses on through the night, the twigs that slashed and cut their terrified faces, the steam that rose from the horses' flanks... And then you go back to the book, years later, and you discover that the whole sequence was a sentence along the lines of: 'It's jolly wet tonight,' and Bill to Bunty, as they urged their horses through the dark woods. 'I hope they don't catch us.' You did the rest of it yourself. Those are the ones to which you wish you never had gone back."

Takaloy said...

I respect your opinion and I find myself unable to discredit any of your comments on Robert Jordan's work.

I'm a huge fan of WOT.

I think basically it comes down to personal taste, time, culture and era.

I doubt many grannies out there that would appreciate the "rubbish" noise you call music these days, ... just a metaphor.

If you read it at the right place, right mindset, and the right era then the book would've been great.

I doubt I'd enjoy reading The Famous Five these days but they were rave back when I was a kid.

/end of crap.

abeyer42 said...

AR: I find the Lost comparison very interesting, actually; not least because I'm a committed fan of that particular TV show.

Committed enough to write a post or two about it? It must be somewhat more fruitful critical ground than WoT. Based on your small note of it here, it would be interesting to hear a more expanded perspective. If you're otherwise unoccupied, of course.

Wally said...

Committed enough [to Lost] to write a post or two about it? It must be somewhat more fruitful critical ground than WoT. Based on your small note of it here, it would be interesting to hear a more expanded perspective. If you're otherwise unoccupied, of course.

Please do this! I spend too little time each day slapping my forehead in disbelief and rage, and look forward to turning that part of my life around. :)

Adam Roberts said...

Abeyer, Wally: you ask so politely. I'll wait until this last series is over, though.

Bluejo said...

It seems to me that a better comparison might be "The Archers", or other popular soap operas of that ongoing nature. I can see how a soap opera in fantasyland could be appealing. There's the funny words and the magic and the fake-medieval, the banners blowing and the tea in a silver pot, there's the frame of the story of good vs evil, and in that frame there's the slow unwinding of personal relationships, people going mad, pulling their braids, wondering if other people really like them, and just enough plot to keep you focused.

I'm probably imagining this. I've only read the first book.

季洪雅 said...

一時的錯誤不算什麼,錯而不改才是一生中永遠且最大的錯誤...............................................................

Stacie said...

Evidently you have never heard of the False Dilemma logical fallacy.

One needn't read canonical literature instead of the WoT books. It is entirely possible to read both. I do, and I know others who do.

It is entirely possible that readers of the WoT series are not looking for something that a single novel like Lolita can provide. However beautiful that novel may be, it's not an epic and it's not high fantasy.

E.T. said...

On the other hand, compared to a number of other series out there, WOT is neither a particularly good epic, nor a particularly good high fantasy - literary speaking.

I get that people satisfy some other emotional/psychological cravings with these books, but Adam is, I think, talking from a literary point of view.

And I don't know about logical fallacies, but I do know something about irony, and that was quite obvious in the post's last paragraph...

Drew said...

I very much agree with Matt regarding the similarities between this series and shonen/shoujo manga. The writing is not that good, the plot is face lifted from other stories and the character interactions are comical. Once I stopped taking this series seriously, I had a lot more fun reading it. Unfortunately, I do think I've reached my limit with TGS. After years of reading, I don't think I want to be bothered with the next book. Oh well - on to bigger, better and more interesting things!

nix said...

Adam, you claim that "Her eyebrows climbed as she directed her gaze back to them, eyes black as her white-winged hair" is bad writing, and it plainly is; but it's comprehensible and parseable English, if clumsy.

Her eyes are not being described as white: her hair is being described as white-winged (a perfectly clear NP formed from the compound adjective 'white-winged' and the noun, er, 'hair').

Now the other line you quoted, that's dire writing. It's a classic garden-path sentence:

"Across the harbour the wind roared, tossing small ships and large, across the city itself, gleaming white beneath the unfettered sun, spires and walls and color-ringed domes, streets and canals bustling with storied southern industry."

So, the wind is tossing small ships and large across the city itself and making them gleam white? But then you hit 'spires' and it all falls apart: it must be talking about the wind. But then you hit the next comma and, wait, the wind is blowing across storied southern industry? No, he's jammed a comma-splice in there, after an already-unclear sentence using commas as boundaries of a subclause; the southern industry has nothing to do with the wind at all. By the time he got to the end of the sentence he'd forgotten all about its start.

I had to read that damn sentence four times before it came 'clear'. And believe me I do not want to read a whole book like that. I thought my sentences were overcomplex, but at least I don't perpetrate monstrosities like that.

Nathan said...

Re:Nix's last comment,

the whole book is not like that. Jordan writes the first paragraph of the first chapter of each book in a similar way. For example, the similar passage in book one:

"Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of he World. Down it flailed into the two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road. For all that spring should have come a good month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow."

Jordan adopts this particular style as a framing device for the beginnings of each book. Certainly, they tend towards the run-on-ish, but this particular style of description is isolated in the the first paragraph of each book. I leave the literary assessment of such a device to people who are more knowledgeable.

Randy Green said...

Wow, excellent explanations. Very well put!

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