The latest hubbub in the nerdosphere is an absurdly stupid article from Leo Grin that basically says that fantasy was much better in the good-old days when JRR Tolkien and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) walked the Earth, and that since then fantasy has succumbed to liberal elite moral relativism to give us gritty, "nihilistic" fantasy writers like Joe Abercrombie, who naturally, by extension, represent the Decline of Western Civilization. Forget that Conan was an amoral figure who basically killed anyone who got in his way and took any woman he saw, and was in turn a send-up of what Howard saw as the namby-pamby chivalric knights that were popular in historical writings at the time. And forget that the morals in Tolkien's work have (pretty deliberately) the complexity of a fairy tale. But then that may be the point; the author wants to see beautiful, noble good up against ugly, traitorous evil and anything more subtle, more realistic than that is somehow the End of Civilization. In other words, he wants the kind of shoehorning of everything into a reductionist, black-and-white worldview typical of right-wing ideology in general.

It's important to remember that this sort of wistfulness about the imagined past and its simpler "morality" goes hand and hand with outdated and abhorrent cultural norms of class, race and gender. Howard's work is unrelentingly sexist in its portrayal of women and racist in its portrayal of minorities, and the peasant Hobbits in the end go back to their simple agrarian lifestyles while leaving the business of running the world to the aristocratic king-hero and his lily-white magical princess trophy wife. And both worlds have the troubling problem of all monsters being brown-skinned, with the race-anxiety that represents. (None of this analysis, I should point out, is anything new.)

The problem here is clearly highlighted when the author creates an example of what a modern author would do with The Lord of the Rings:

Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.

Frankly, I don't think I'm alone in thinking that I'd much rather read that series then what Tolkien actually wrote.

In the end, what this got me thinking about is how much more diverse the audience for SF and Fantasy is than the one for my old flame Literary Fiction. Granted that there's definitely people who "only read the classics" because post-modernism and everything after is decadent and wrong and bad for the children and so on, and there's certainly a reactionary element in Lit Fic composed mainly of older people who hate and fear technology and think everything was so much better back when they where growing up and they just don't understand them kids these days. There are people in Lit Fic who have stupid ideas about the world. But by and large the Lit Fic community is so entrenched in the university that you could never imagine one of them attacking "ivory tower liberals". Only people outside lit fic attack it as that— that is people like this particular strain of fantasy fan, or Glenn Beck's army of thriller readers who think The Overton Window is a work of merit.

In SF things are different; there are certainly the hardcore leftists like China Miéville and Iain M. Banks, but you're also more likely to get straight-up anarchists like Moorcock and there's these big strains of libertarianism and conservatism, as well as full-on religious fundamentalists like Orson Scott Card and Stephanie Meyer who would be very hard to picture in the Lit Fic milieu. Someone who wanted us to harken back to some simplistic black-and-white morality would be laughed out of the Lit Fic world— and deservedly so.

This has everything to do with SF's perception of being a "popular" art form, as opposed to Lit Fic as a "highbrow" one. And as much as I decry Lit Fic pretension as its own form of status and class anxiety, the converse is having to put up with the kind of anti-intellectual glorification of stupidity that passes for serious discourse among the Right.

And you're going to have to deal with this kind of thing if you want to talk about epic (or "heroic") fantasy, because many of the seminal works of that subgenre, from Tolkein and Howard to Lord Dunsany and CS Lewis, are all about wistful nostalgia for a simpler time that never was, with King Arthur in place of Eisenhower. Which is why the most interesting epic fantasies are the ones that in some way dismantle that nostalgia, morality and social norms and show them as bankrupt, as in the work of Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, M. John Harrison, Samuel Delaney and Gene Wolfe. It's also why Moorcock systematically dismantled The Lord of the Rings in his wonderful essay "Epic Pooh", or why China Miéville did likewise in his own essay "Tolkien - Middle Earth Meets Middle England".

There are always going to be those who see this project of dismantling and reimagining as a form of decadence and nihilism, because they refuse to believe in a world that is complex and messy and where things cannot be reduced to black-and-white. It's too bad, though, because, as Philip K. Dick once said, reality is that which when you cease believing in it, it does not cease to exist.