R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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UPROOTED and the Generation Gap in Fantasy

So this week Naomi Novik's Uprooted won the Nebula Award, and as a result a lot of people are reading it. And the reactions, as they have been pretty much ever since the book came out, are... mixed.

On one hand you have readers (myself among them) who wouldn't go so far as to call the book perfect, but who really loved it and thought it worth recommending to other fantasy lovers. On the other hand, you have people who were so horrified by the book's seemingly dismissive attitude to sexual assault and the hero's lack of respect for the female MC that they either DNF'd the book a few chapters in, or they found the whole experience of reading it to be irrevocably tainted.

Some of those people who disliked (or even hated) Uprooted are my friends, and I am not here to tell them they're wrong to feel that way, or to try and argue them into liking it. But there's a strain in current fictional discourse that's been really bugging me over the past few months, and some of the critiques of Uprooted suffer from it -- the difference between "I didn't love X, and this is why," which is perfectly legitimate and fine (and can even lead to interesting discussions) and "I didn't love X because it's gross and problematic, and if you like X anyway, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU."

I don't mind hearing that not everybody likes the same things I like. I do very much mind being made to feel that I am a lesser person, indeed a morally inferior one in desperate need of enlightenment, for liking them.

I am not here to defend Novik's choice to have her heroine sexually threatened, because I don't think it was necessary to the plot nor do I think that it added anything to the story. I did notice it, it did bother me, and I would have enjoyed the book a great deal more without that aspect. Nevertheless, it wasn't the dealbreaker for me that it was for some of my friends, and I think I know why.

Because I'm over forty, and I grew up reading different fantasy novels than they did.

That may sound flippant, but it goes deeper than you might think. In fact, I feel fairly confident in suggesting that the majority of people who loved Uprooted despite its faults are 40+ and/or grew up reading "classic" fantasy novels almost exclusively, while the majority of those who disliked the book enough to DNF or strongly criticize it are 35 or younger, and in their childhood and teens had a much wider, modern pool of fantasy to choose from.

In other words, the twenty and thirtysomething readers didn't grow up having to swallow the occasional bitter pill of sexism or casual racism in order to read books in their genre. They could afford to be picky, and that's why they find it baffling and even upsetting that older fantasy readers don't seem to hold books like Uprooted to the same high standard.

But for me, the habit of overlooking story elements I don't care for in order to enjoy the ones that I do was drilled into me decades ago. When I was a teen reading fantasy novels -- or any kind of novels, for that matter -- it was practically a given that the heroine would be sexually menaced at some point. How else would the villain reveal the true depths of his depravity? What other fate, barring death, could be serious enough to make our hearts flutter anxiously on the heroine's behalf, and make our satisfaction all the greater when the villain was thwarted? And how realistic would it be, really, if the possibility of the heroine being raped was never even acknowledged? You might be able to get away with that in juvenile fantasy, but come on, we're grown-ups here...

I'm not saying this is how it should be or that it's the only way to write a good story, I'm simply stating a fact: this is how it was in 1970's and 80's fantasy (and historical, and crime, and a lot of other genres). You had to be prepared for that, or resign yourself to not reading any fiction at all.

So those of us who grew up reading fantasy learned to adjust our expectations. To see sexual threats or assault as a warning sign (because the way it was handled could often tell you whether the author was indulging a fetish, or merely bowing to what s/he thought were the rules) but not necessarily a dealbreaker. For me, a dealbreaker was having the hero commit rape (I'm looking at you, Lord Foul's Bane) or having the villain rape the heroine on-screen (hello, The Fionavar Tapestry*), whereas having the heroine merely threatened or finding a way to fend off the assault seemed like a positive triumph.

None of this explains, or excuses, why Novik bowed to this particular old-fashioned convention in a decade where sexual assault in fiction can no longer go unquestioned or be easily overlooked. But it does explain why those of us who loved Uprooted were able to do so. Because we weren't surprised to find such an element in a classic-style folklore-inspired fantasy. We could sigh or grimace or roll our eyes as necessary, and then move on.

Furthermore, because Uprooted is so very clearly a tribute to the great female fantasists of the 70's and 80's -- authors like
Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, and Ursula LeGuin, who made me think not only "I want to write these kinds of stories" the way Lewis and Tolkien and MacDonald had, but "I want to write like this" -- the overwhelming feeling that reading Uprooted produced in me was a deep nostalgic fondness, and a strong sense of faith in Novik's ability as a storyteller. Because if she'd read and loved the same books I loved as a teen, and her writing was giving me the same feeling as reading The Forgotten Beasts of Eld or Beauty or A Wizard of Earthsea, then I could trust her to tell the rest of her story in a way that would make up for the bits I didn't like so much.

And in the end, my belief was that she did.

So yes, my friends who didn't warm to the book immediately as I did, and felt that certain male characters' treatment of Agnieska was too offensive to ignore or forgive -- I understand, and I'm not trying to change your opinion. But I think it's important to understand how the generation gap between younger and older fantasy readers, and the books that most influenced us, play into this.

It's not that we don't see the flaws and the problematic elements, or that we don't care about them. It's that we can see virtues and delights in Novik's novel, many of them based on the older fantasies to which Uprooted is paying tribute, that make us love it anyway. Which is why Uprooted won the Nebula this year, because the people doing the voting are fondly remembering those older novels -- many of them also flawed, but nonetheless deeply resonant and influential -- as well.

* Oh hey, both those "classic" epic fantasies were written by men! What a surprise! No wonder nearly all my favorite 80's fantasy authors were women.
Tags: books, commentary, fantasy
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