We Need To Talk About Dragons – John Mullan, George RR Martin, Game of Thrones and the triumph of fantasy fiction

It was something of a surprise to find John Mullan discussing fantasy fiction in the Guardian just a week ago. A surprise because, on past accounting, Mullan and genre fiction do not make good bedfellows. The nature of Mullan’s distaste for genre fiction is still not entirely clear to me, other than it is not literary fiction, his preferred kind of fiction. As I’ve noted elsewhere, one of the problems with this stance seems to be Mullan’s failure to recognise that literary fiction is itself a genre, with distinctive characteristics of its own, characteristics which Mullan himself has delineated in various articles.

So, what are we to make of George RR Martin, Game of Thrones and the triumph of fantasy fiction? My first response, when I read it, was that the article was poorly constructed and poorly referenced drivel. At the time someone suggested I was being a bit harsh on Mullan, as the article did seem to suggest that he had perhaps changed his mind about fantasy, and was attempting some sort of rapprochement with the genre. And perhaps I was being harsh: I decided to put the article aside for a few days and then look at it more analytically. In the meantime, two things happened: a lot of people noted that Mullan’s article had mentioned no women writers, to the point where the article briefly achieved a certain viral notoriety, and then the Hugo nominations were announced, after which all previous topics of discussion were lost forever. There is little I can usefully contribute to the Hugo discussions right now that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, but I can go back to Mullan’s article and give it the rigorous analysis I think it deserves.

Before all else, I should say that I’ve no problem with Mullan’s tastes in literature. Why should I? We all like different things, after all. My problem lies with his apparent desire to write articles about things for which he clearly has little if any sympathy, and about which he is obviously not that knowledgeable. This lack of knowledge has been noted before. In 2010, Niall Harrison reported on an encounter between Mullan and China Miéville at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, and commented then that:

it became awkwardly clear that while the discussion was going to be primarily about the absence of category sf from the Booker list, only one of the participants could and would talk fluently about fiction from all over the literary map. Mullan had almost no recent primary experience with category science fiction.

I’ve been using the word ‘genre’ here, but I’m now going to switch to using Niall’s term, ‘category’, because I think it will help make a little more sense of Mullan’s arguments as this discussion unfolds. So, to recap, while I think Mullan makes a distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction, he fails to recognise that ‘literary fiction’ is as much a category as ‘science fiction’ or, as we begin this analysis, ‘fantasy fiction. And in fact, possibly the first thing to note about Mullan’s article is that there is a rigidly enforced distinction between science fiction and fantasy, to the point where science fiction is not mentioned at all, although at least two, maybe more, of the authors mentioned in this article have as much right to be described as sf writers (or horror, for that matter). I grant you I have a very fluid approach to defining sf and fantasy, but equally, it’s clear that for Mullan the streams will never ever cross. Which again is not a crime in and of itself but I think it is generally revealing of his attitude in approaching this discussion.

Mullan begins with a question:

Has fantasy fiction, for decades a thriving literary genre, finally taken its place in the literary mainstream?

It’s a nice, friendly sort of question. Mullan represents fantasy as a thriving genre, a literary genre even, which definitely sounds like an improvement on his previous stance. He goes on to note that fantasy does not need ‘bien pensant “literary” admirers”, and comments too on how fantasy fandom is characterised by ‘companion volumes, analytical websites, conferences and online commentaries’. It is also a genre [category] that has ‘always generated critical expertise, and fantasy novelists have long been in a dialogue with their readers that other novelists must envy’. (In particular, Mullan notes Neil Gaiman’s 2.2 million followers on Twitter.)

This all seems unobjectionable, though by the end of the paragraph, I did find myself want to keep inserting ‘and sf’ into Mullan’s description, and it did strike me that this description of the activity surrounding fantasy fiction was very carefully couched in terms that would resonate with a more scholarly audience. Substitute ‘conventions and blogging’ and the tone shifts entirely.

However, Mullan goes on to say is this:

Fantasy’s devotees must feel rueful as the critics now rush to declare their addiction to HBO’s Game of Thrones […] or record their admiration of Terry Pratchett.

And then says:

The debt to fantasy fiction of The Buried Giant, the new novel by one of Britain’s leading literary novelists, Kazuo Ishiguro, must seem overdue vindication of the genre. [my emphasis]

Are we rueful about the critics rushing in? By which I guess Mullan means the critics from the mainstream press rather than the category press. I suspect many would see praise for Martin or Pratchett as vindication of their tastes rather than encroachment upon them, but perhaps it says something about Mullan’s perception of ‘fans’ of fantasy fiction. By the same token, why would ‘we’ regard Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant as a vindication of our tastes, particularly if, as Mullan is simultaneously proposing, we are so insular we are supposed to resent mainstream critics saying nice things about ‘our’ category. All this would suggest that Mullan has some sort of agenda in writing this article; in particular, he seems to be suggesting the existence of a cultural power struggle between fantasy fans and mainstream critics. This might have been true once, given that sf and fantasy fans have at times shown a tendency towards insularity, but I’d argue that these days fans, in as much as they give it any thought, welcome intelligent commentary wherever they find it. What intelligent commentary might look like is something that I shall be discussing during the course of this article.

However, I think the issue that lies at the heart of this article is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant which has drawn a good deal of mystified commentary since its publication, since it seems to use fantasy markers, such as ogres, elves and dragons, oh my. I intend to discuss The Buried Giant in more detail in a later post, and indeed in other venues, but for now, to get some slight perspective on this lack of comprehension, I will just point out that ogres, dragons and elves are similarly mentioned in Beowulf, a text that is explicitly referenced in The Buried Giant on more than one occasion, and for very good reason. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed critics growing apoplectic that the unknown composer of Beowulf was using such figures in their fiction, so quite why mainstream critics have been so exercised, I’m not clear. On the other hand, I have been embarrassed by the way that one or two of fantasy’s own have criticised Ishiguro for talking about his novel as fantasy, but again, that’s an issue I’ll return to in another post. For now, I’ll observe merely that I’ve read his novel, I’ve read fantasy novels too, and I do not find Ishiguro’s observations particularly controversial. Indeed, The Buried Giant is precisely the kind of fantastic writing I like best.

But Mullan hasn’t let up on that cultural struggle he seems to think he has uncovered. ‘Ishiguro has spoken in the past few weeks of how the barrier between this once disdained brand of fiction and “serious” novels is breaking down’. Which, looking at the interview Mullan links to, are two actual things he did not say. In that interview Ishiguro explains his own ground rules for writing The Buried Giant, and is very clear about how he is writing within the world view of the characters, a world view which admits ogres, elves, pixies and dragons. I refer you back to that well-known work of fantasy, Beowulf (I’m using the Seamus Heaney version as my translation source, and he definitely says ogres, elves and dragons ).

At this point we’re two paragraphs into Mullan’s article, and already we’ve moved from fantasy fiction being a thriving genre for years to one that was ‘once-disdained’. How long ago was it ‘once-disdained’? Mullan doesn’t say and I’m not even sure he really knows. However, this shift of emphasis is important as he has begun to discuss George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) sequence, at which point we learn that Martin has a ‘host of fans who resent the low status accorded to their favoured genre and some distinguished admirers who rather agree’. What low status is this, I wonder, and who is according it? Because a moment ago, the genre was thriving and the writers and readers were happy: what happened between the lines?

Whatever went terribly wrong between the full stop at the end of one sentence and the capital letter of the next, Mullan can help, by invoking the ‘accomplished literary novelist’, John Lanchester, who likes both ASOIAF and Game of Thrones, and wrote an article to that effect in the London Review of Books a while ago. It’s rather a good article, in fact – Lanchester is clearly familiar with both text and series and writes well about them. He is also clear that people who are snobbish about not reading the likes of GRRM are missing out, but his target is people on the literary side of the divide, and he is not at all patronising about people who read a lot of fantasy. This is also an article that seems to have been drawn on rather heavily as research for Mullan’s article. Obviously, legions of disgruntled GRRM fans will be relieved to know from Mullan that they now have the support of an ‘accomplished literary novelist’ alongside the support of those presumably less accomplished non-literary novelists who also like GRRM’s work.

At this point, Mullan refers to ASOIAF as a roman fleuve, leading me to suppose Lanchester had done so. He didn’t, as it turns out, but this is the first sign of something else that becomes apparent as this article continues: Mullan is, I think, trying to construct a critical vocabulary for talking about these fantasy novels he’s discussing. So, rather than simply talking about a series or sequence, Mullan turns to roman fleuve, which I am inclined to think he uses slightly wrongly. Mostly, though, he is using Lanchester’s words to comment on the ‘richly imagined world’ and the ‘prevailing “sense of unsafety and uncertainty” of that world’, presumably because no non-literary critic or novelist would ever have managed to describe it in such terms, or if they did, their judgement has now been validated by an ‘accomplished literary novelist’. For example, we are told of ASOIAF that any ‘connoisseur of narrative drive’ who ‘crosses that divide’ ( by which he means the unbridgeable crevasse that Lanchester refers to in his article, although I’m not at all sure Mullan and Lanchester actually are on the same side of that crevasse) will be amazed at the drive and inventiveness in Martin’s novels, because obviously neither sf nor fantasy as category fiction are ever all about the narrative drive.

By now, it seems clear to me that if Mullan is going to praise fantasy, and I still think he is trying to in some way, he is nonetheless going to praise it with faint praise indeed, and mostly in a very backhanded way. In fact, I eventually realised that what Mullan was attempting was first to construct a lineage for fantasy, but then to construct a kind of reading schedule in which one begins with fantasy-fantasy but gradually, as one becomes more enlightened, one moves away from that towards something more literary, like, oh, let’s say Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant which is of course a serious literary novel.

Tolkien, we are delighted to learn, ‘has not been entirely cold-shouldered by serious critics’. Honestly, if someone had given me this as an essay to mark I would have by now plastered it in red ink, saying ‘define your terms!!!’, the exclamation marks increasing with each use of an undefined term. Having said that, while I might agree to some extent that Lord of the Rings is probably more of a cultural artefact than it is a great book, what is a great book? LOTR is a much-loved book, it is a book that has moved so many people in various ways. It has many constructional flaws, undoubtedly; it could be argued that it is guilty of nostalgia, that it lacks female characters, and that the language is stilted. It could equally be praised for the breadth of the project, for the mesmerising beauty and horror of some of the sequences (the journey through the Dead Marshes does it for me every time). And it could be argued that both Tolkien and Ishiguro are in their various ways drawing on the same stuff of Britain to tell stories, albeit with very different results.

I’m fascinated by an anecdote that Mullan interpolates at this point, of the 14-year-old Mullan being taken to meet Tolkien at Merton College, Oxford, because he knew one of Tolkien’s grandsons at school, and having his ‘battered paperback copy of Lord of the Rings, much reread’ signed. Fascinated because, if the time line fits together the way I think it does, while this was going on, several miles across town a 14-year-old girl was almost certainly embarking on her umpteenth read of a similar paperback copy, unaware at that point who precisely Tolkien was, and that she had spent much of her childhood regularly passing his house. And thus, forty-two years later, Mullan and I finally reach this point.

As to why Mullan inserts that anecdote then, I assume it is to provide two things: first, an imprimatur for what he is saying, in that he met Tolkien, and secondly, that he is firmly establishing LOTR as a childish thing, which can and must be put away as one grows older. Not least because Mullan moves on to offer us ASOIAF as the real deal, because it is ‘emphatically fantasy for grown-ups’. It’s not just the sex and violence but the Machiavellian principles, apparently, but I daresay the sex and violence helps. (I should say here that, assuming he has actually read ASOIAF, Mullan may have the advantage of me here, as I have not; on the other hand, I have read the whole of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time sequence, may god forgive my desiccated soul, and I doubt he has, so maybe we are even.)

Apparently, ‘Compared to The Lord of the Rings, [ASOIAF] is morally complex and undecideable’, and obviously no other fantasy novel has ever been like that before or since. At least, none that Mullan has read. And here I refer you back to Niall Harrison’s observation at the beginning. Mullan is in effect constructing a reading chart based on what seem to be a few very popular writers, writers who have in terms of popularity actually pretty much transcended the category to which they’ve been assigned by Mullan, and yet it’s clear that he has very little idea of what is going on in modern fantasy writing.

You can see this in the pegs on which he hangs his discussion. There is a long disquisition on the use of maps in fantasy novels. While Mullan correctly notes that Tolkien almost certainly initiated this habit he seems unaware that in turn the inevitable presence of the map has itself become an object of mockery. But Mullan is instead fastening on the fact that children love to draw maps – you can probably see where this is going.

He notes, citing Lewis’s Narnia books, the fact that there is ‘invariably a route from our world into a magical one’ (though it would have helped, when talking about Lewis’s ‘first Narnia book’, to actually note the title, because technically, while The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is the first published, the wardrobe is also mentioned in The Magician’s Nephew, which is of course the first book, chronologically… but maybe that is too much information). While Mullan is correct in noting that Alan Garner’s Elidor requires the children to cross into another world, the whole point with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is that the magic comes to them, on Alderley Edge – there is no secondary world (and for some reason that is not clear, Mullan persists in referring to secondary worlds as alternate universes, which is not the same thing at all).

Which is interesting as Neil Gaiman is cited as the writer ‘of fantasy for adults’, whose stories ‘admit the deities and demons of different mythologies to this [world]’, again as if this has never happened before. Though I mostly treasure Mullan’s announcement that ‘Gaiman composes like the TS Eliot of horror-fantasy, patching together stories and personages from incongruous sources, amid a flurry of literary allusions, as if all pagan stories of the supernatural comprised a single compendium of our deepest fears. And perhaps Neil Gaiman does, but he is neither the first nor the last to do so; it’s more that he is cleverer at it than everyone else. But that’s actually irrelevant. More important is that comparison with TS Eliot. Because much as I like both Eliot’s writing and Gaiman’s writing, you know something? Eliot is no more Gaiman than Gaiman is Eliot. I call bullshit.

We’ll slide past the embarrassing encounter with the work of Terry Pratchett, and the bit where Mullan suggests that Pratchett stopped writing fantasy and started writing commentary on it instead through his satires, which are apparently not fantastic. ‘Many of Pratchett’s readers must also be readers of fantasy fiction, able to relish the irreverent parody as well as the real thing.’ Perhaps that would be because the irreverent parody as a version of the real thing is real thing itself. Possibly, just ever so possibly, fantasy readers read Pratchett, and Pratchett fans vice versa. They might also understand what’s happening because the tropes that Pratchett is dealing with have already long since infiltrated our culture. That would be, before ASOIAF arrived on the scene.

And finally, we return to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Buried Giant, confirming my suspicion that the dalliance with ASOIAF as the real fantasy deal is but a smokescreen for what is really on Mullan’s mind. Is The Buried Giant a fantasy? With Mullan’s guidance, we’ve been led from Middle-earth, all pastoral nostalgia (no, it wasn’t, really it wasn’t), to the gritty, sexually and militarily violent and incestuous reality of Westeros, and here we are, finally, in the rarefied surroundings of imaginary sixth-century England, in a work written by a literary novelist. We have undergone our quest and have won through, and got to the good stuff. Except, how is he going to justify that dragon: ‘Dragons are the grandest inhabitants of the genre’, which I think means Mullan is wondering how he deals with Querig.

How Mullan deals with Querig is by claiming that The Buried Giant is ‘no more echt fantasy than When We Were Orphans was a detective novel or Never Let Me Go a work of science fiction’ (a Clarke shortlisted non-work of sf, no less). Mullan, by past account, is quite keen on representing things that read like category fiction but that he likes as having transcended their category. So, like Wolf Hall and Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant has transcended the perceived limitations of category. ‘It declines to provide much of the superstructure that the genre addict would expect.’ What superstructure does Mullan mean, exactly? No map? No gritty military action and incest? He doesn’t say, but as Niall Harrison also noted, Mullan is a man who thinks very much in terms of category templates; I suspect that the need to construct a ‘three ages of fantasy’ for this article is in part born out of his not being able to find one easy template for fantasy (to go along with his past failure to find a single easy template for science fiction). That desire for a category template surfaces too in his endless reiteration of this notion that bookshops have special rooms for, variously, science fiction and fantasy. I assume he means the shelves that are marked ‘science fiction and fantasy’ as a marketing tool, for half the argument here is really about category in marketing rather than genre qua genre, because that’s actually an entirely different theoretical argument, as well he ought to know.

So, what are we to do about that dragon? She is ‘disappointingly undernourished and lethargic’ … thank god, she is not a proper dragon after all! Thus, Mullan can confidently state that Ishiguro ‘is using some of the conventions of fantasy fiction to produce a fable of violence – always at the heart of the genre [i.e. category] – and about the capacity of societies to forget the violence of their pasts. Fantasy has enabled him to do this obliquely, daring us to take seriously a kind of narrative that is often called childish’. Mostly, I would venture to suggest, by mainstream critics. Fable is the weasel word here, a way of saying fantasy without saying fantasy.

And then, suddenly, finally, for no reason I can see, we’re back to GRRM and the announcement that he ‘employs a shifting of viewpoints that some critics do not expect from the moral and narrative conventions of fantasy writing’. Because, again, no one ever did that, not even Tolkien – oh, wait.

It is easy, far too easy, to poke fun at Mullan’s article, because it is so woefully wrong-headed in its execution. He raises some interesting points along the way but rarely in such a way that they are actually germane to whatever he is discussing at any given point. The article is one long betrayal of his lack of familiarity with what is going on in modern fantasy writing or indeed his failure to understand the breadth of modern critical work on the fantastic. Even just reading Farah Mendlesohn’s The Rhetorics of Fantasy and Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland might have helped him to develop a more nuanced view of the critical side of things, and god knows there are enough histories of fantasy as a genre or category available to us all.

The big take-away for many people from the article was the fact of no women writers being mentioned, except Amanda Craig as critic, and Trudi Canavan as a quiz answer (which latter leads me to believe that was interpolated by someone else because if Mullan had got as far as reading Canavan at all, I would like to think he might have managed to mention her in the main text too). But, much as it pains me to say this, the failure to mention women writers is not the main issue, but symptomatic of a broader failure to understand fantasy as a category at all. Or, rather, Mullan’s use of fantasy is done so to co-opt some visible markers of the category in order to construct an argument as to why a book he wants to talk about isn’t fantasy, despite its own author being entirely comfortable with the fact of the book’s being a fantasy. He was never was interested in fantasy except insofar as he could relegate it to childhood.

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2 thoughts on “We Need To Talk About Dragons – John Mullan, George RR Martin, Game of Thrones and the triumph of fantasy fiction

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