There was a bit of fuss caused last week by a nitwit post claiming that epic fantasy has degenerated since the days of Robert E Howard and Tolkien (I shall not dignify the post with a link to it). Nihilism and Decadence in populist escapist literature. Oh no! We must be in the End Times! I’ll not bother responding to the article – smarter folk than I have already done that. And done a much better job. But the subject has provoked an interesting line of thought…
There are those who say a writer’s only obligation is to be entertaining. Nothing else matters, providing the text entertains the reader. The aforementioned fantasy fuss would have you believe a writer is also obliged to be morally uplifting – or rather, to reinforce a narrowly-defined moral framework belonging to the writer of the post which started off the whole thing. Which is patently bollocks. In so many ways.
Writers do indeed have obligations above and beyond making their texts entertaining. They have an obligation to get it right.
Shoddy – or indeed a total lack of – research is inexcusable, and tantamount to artistic cowardice. This could mean, in science fiction, getting the science right, for example – something media sf is notoriously bad at doing. But it’s more a repudiation of the myth that you can “make it up as you go along”. Once, perhaps; once, when genre readers were unsophisticated. Not any more. And certainly not now that we have the Internet. Anything in a story that doesn’t seem quite right, you can look it up. You can do the research the writer should have done. And then you can decide not to read anything else written by that person ever again.
Fictionalising real-world examples is no defence. Want to make your fantasyland stand out? Why not look to the caliphates for inspiration? Yes, why not misrepresent and misinterpret someone else’s history and culture just to give your novel a little colour? Those people are unlikely to read your story, so why should you care if they get upset? And anyway, it’s all “made-up”… Except it’s not. Not if its inspiration is so obvious any reader can spot the parallels. In such cases, writers have an obligation to originality in their world-building. And a concomitant obligation to be accurate when the inspirations lie close to the surface.
There are those who claim it is immoral to use real people in fiction – public people, that is, dead or alive; not people the author actually might know. It is, they claim, an “invasion of privacy”. Except, public people rely on a public persona, it is their source of revenue, it is what they “do”. And as such it could be said it no longer belongs to them. If a writer were to use such a person in their text, then they are obliged to make their portrait, when necessary, as accurate as possible. The right places at the right time (providing the point of the story is exactly not that, of course).
Writers are certainly under no obligation to reinforce the prejudices of their readers. In fact, it is the reverse: they should challenge their readers’ prejudices. A good book should make you think about the world around you. It should not make you feel more comfortable with your attitudes; it does not exist to provide a helping hand carrying your personal baggage.
So, all that about a lack of conservatism in current epic fantasy, about these heirs to Tolkien who are spitting on JRR’s grave… It seems these degenerate, nihilistic writers are meeting their obligations: they’re challenging the worldview of the writer of the original post. He may not have responded intelligently, but that’s not their fault. Is it?