September 12, 2005

The Sound of Half a Hand Wanking

It's so inevitable that it should probably be a Law of Fandom, and Murphy knows, maybe it is: At least once in every calendar year, any sufficiently large group of fen will find a reason to have a discussion in which Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant gets a thorough kicking.

(Equally inevitable is the mention of this essay as some kind of supporting documentation - as excruciatingly nasty a piece of snobbery as you're likely to encounter in genre crit.)

I know I should just look away when this happens, but all that vitriol and eye-rolling is like a three-car pileup: you swear you'll avert your eyes, and then you can't help needing to see just how horrible it all is.

Okay, so, it's like this. I kinda get what the criticism is all about. I can see the things that might make Lord Foul's Bane and it sequels not to everyone's taste: the wordy, dense, occasionally tortured prose; the morbidity; the infuriating, completely unsympathetic non-hero. I don't know for sure that these count as "flaws," but I can certainly understand why they might be off-putting.

Nonetheless, my reaction to the gleeful pile-on that inevitably happens is: Oh, for fuck's sake. No matter how articulate you are about it, after a very short while it boils down to a lot of Comic Book Guys sitting around going "Worst trilogy ever."

Michael Suileabhain-Wilson identifies, with terrifying accuracy, the Five Geek Social Fallacies; to which list I've long thought should be added the primary geek psychological fallacy, which is "My tastes, especially my dislikes, are personal virtues." Hell, I've been prone to this one too - I think most of us are to one degree or other. It's especially hard to be at all on the fringes of society and not at least partially define yourself by what you don't like (or read, watch, listen to, play, fuck, eat), and it's easy to imagine that this elevates you somehow above the benighted masses who don't have your refined tastes.

But you know what? A bunch of people who seem to have nothing better to talk about than how much they hate something is just... unpleasant. There are a few cases where I'd agree that excessive vitriol can be appropriate: actual hate literature, say, or artless Premillenial Dispensationalist godporn (same thing). I'm unconvinced that the Covenant books fall into such a category.

Am I being oversensitive? Of course I am. I freely admit that I have an excessive desire to see everyone playing nice, and that I think it's a shame (and, y'know, unbecoming) when people indulge in sneering rather than choosing to shrug and say "de gustibus." And I do take it a little personally, though I know I shouldn't, that this kind of conversation sends me a clear signal that there are things I can't admit to and still be in the club with the Cool Kids. (Why I'm not used to that by now I don't know.)

Mostly, though, it's just this: eleven years ago, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever blew me away. I'm not an undiscerning reader, and I wasn't then either. Donaldson made me root for a protagonist I couldn't admire; he made me fall in love with the Land, with all its richness and strangeness and shadowed, fragile hope; and he changed the way I thought about fantasy and what it was capable of and how it could do it. I don't really believe all that was merely a lack of taste, intelligence or maturity on my part.

It's probably too much to ask that niceness be restored to the discourse of fandom. I'm sure it's silly and naive of me to wish for it. But I'm tired enough of half-apologizing for things that I like, that I don't actually think call for an apology or embarassment on my part, that I'm tempted to design a new t-shirt, suitable for congoing: If you can't think of anything nice to say, go on and fuck yourself.

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