Sunday, October 12, 2008

Accessability, Fantasy, and Harry Potter

It's been another busy Sunday, and I haven't had time to type a new post -- though I do have five books I've finished and need to review, including Brust's Jhegaala and Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. But, instead, I'll reach into the cupboard for this...

Somehow, rec.arts.sf.written fell into a discussion of whether fantasy is accessible to new readers a few months back, as part of a general frenzy about Stephenie Meyer (which of course led back to J.K. Rowling). I tried to be the voice of clear, pure reason, as always, and I'll let you decide if I succeeded

First, I dove in to say everyone else was wrong:
What on earth is "real" fantasy fiction, and how does it differ from "fake" fantasy fiction?

And there's a whole lot of very strong-selling fantasy books over here in the genre, both of the secondary-world-epic and of the vampire-shagging varieties, which a very large number of people seem to find easy to understand.

Harry Potter is no more accessible than Anita Blake or Rand al'Thor.

Then a Peter Knutsen declared that one must use a fantasy genre reading protocol to read genre fantasy, which launched me into a fit of sarcasm:

Achtung! Fantasy novel approaching, Fritz! Break out the Fantasy Novel Reading Protocol!

As others have said, here you're just asserting things that no one else agrees with.

Admittedly, there are strategies that can be useful in reading various genre SF and Fantasy works, but that's not what you're saying.

(The way one reads a secondary-world fantasy, most urban fantasy, alternate history, and most future-set SF is not all that different from the way one reads a mystery novel -- keep a close eye out for telling details, and try to figure out what those details imply.)

He also doubted my (above) declaration of accessibility, so I broke out the heavy guns:

Why yes. I have an accessibility meter right here. Let me start it up.

{high-pitched hum}

Harry Potter comes in at 18 -- the first book; the later ones vary.

Anita Blake is a 17.

I misspoke slightly; Rand is actually a 22.

Dhalgren is a 56, Ulysses a 73, and Finnegans Wake a near-perfect
97. Go Dog Go, on the other hand, is a 1.

Then Mr. Knutsen declared that the Harry Potter books use what he called "hobbits" -- unlike such books as Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea. I confessed befuddlement:

I may regret asking this, but...

What creatures or persons in Harry Potter and the {Foo} Stone are at all like hobbits?

Hobbits are short people, very fond of food and the sedentary life, who live in a idealized pastoral version of England and are themselves something of an idealized version of the British people. They are cut off from the wider, more dangerous world, and like it that way.

I can't think of any group in the Rowling book that are at all like hobbits.

Responding, Knutsen flatly said that Harry is a hobbit and Ged is not:

Is this another one of the things that only makes sense in your own head?

Harry Potter is a white suburban kid in the modern world who is also simultaneously The Lost Heir, neither of which is very hobbity. He also yearns for adventure, which is very unhobbity.

Ged is a black kid from the sticks who knows he's destined for Bigger Things -- much like Mr. Potter. actually.

Knutsen also denied my above description of hobbits:

If you're going to make up your own definitions of words, there's no point trying to communicate with you. And I think you'll find that the general referent for "hobbit" is the short fellows from the novel of the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Then he asked me to compare Philosopher's Stone with Wizard of Earthsea:

OK. I'm comparing them right now. HPatPS is a bit longer, but AWoE is written more elegantly. They both scare the cat about equally when flung in that direction. So what?

Robert Collins tried to butt in, so I was snotty to him, too:

Are you disagreeing with me, with Peter, or with both of us?

(This is Usenet, so I'm expecting the last.)

"Hobbit," as Peter was using it, could actually be a useful critical term -- if it weren't confusing and he hadn't neglected to explain until afterward what he meant.

But a short, snappy word for "useful idiot to whom the plot/setting is explained" would be nice. (Gardner Dozois, talking about utopias, called something similar "taking the tour of the steam-grommet factory.")

Knutsen explained that a hobbit, obviously, has to be someone to whom the setting is explained, or else hobbits would run rampant over all literature, and we wouldn't want that, for reasons he found too obvious to state or even imply. I tried to make nice:

Well, you did coin the term "hobbit," so I suppose you can define it as idiosyncratically as you want. But the distinction you're trying to make is so fine that high-powered instruments are unable to detect it.

Useful idiots to whom things are explained at great length are very common in fiction, as several people have pointed out to you. That mechanism is very old, and has been used in all genres through history, so finding something unique in its usage in SF requires some serious critical contortions.

You're making the plot/setting distinction because it fits your theory about genre-specific protocols, but I don't see that the "You're probably wondering why I've called you all together" speech is different in kind from the "you see, elves are different from Englishmen" speech.

Both kinds of speech involve one character acting as a stand-in for the reader while another character is a stand-in for the author, while useful information is shoveled as quickly as possible. And I don't see why the reader stand-in is a "hobbit" only in stories in which the infodumps are setting-related.

And that's where I gave up arguing with him.


Unknown said...

I can't believe you even dignified that discussion with comments.

Wow. Some people really have too much time on their hands.

Bruce said...

Oh, for Heaven's sake, a character to whom things are explained isn't a "hobbit".

It's a "Bob".

As in "As you know, Bob..."

That Bob.

tool said...

You are not the first nor yet the thousandth person to give up arguing with Knutsen.

Anonymous said...

It's the old "I don't like this but it's insanely popular as well as acclaimed by many people, so there must be a simplistic reason readers reacted so, because we all know that most readers are morons" argument. And in this case, they borrowed from SF -- the argument that too much SF is too geeky and tech-filled so that the average person can't get into it. (As opposed to those who say that SF is over-run by non-sciency space operas.) So now, they're saying that fantasy is too geeky and world-building oriented for the average person to get into it? Oh, please.

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