Postmodernism in Fantasy: An Essay by Brandon Sanderson
Today is my last day as site manager here at the Whatever. As I prepare to hand the blog back to John, I thought I’d give you a surprise for making me feel so welcome. At first, I was going to tape bacon to my kids, but I figured someone would call CPS on me. Instead I’m happy to present Brandon Sanderson as a last-minute guest blogger! He has written a terrific and engaging essay concerning postmodernism in fantasy. Which is super fantastic as I’m taking multiple literature courses this fall. Thanks, Mr. Sanderson!
Brandon Sanderson is the author of Elantris, the Mistborn trilogy, the Alcatraz series of novels and Warbreaker. He was personally chosen to complete the Wheel of Time series originally penned by Robert Jordan, with the latest installment due in November. If his packed panels and readings at Dragon*Con were any indication, he is an author well on his way to rock star status. If you haven’t jumped in and bought some of these books, you are truly missing out on wonderful reads. So without further ado, I’ll let him talk about his new novel, The Way of Kings.
POSTMODERNISM IN FANTASY
The Way of Kings is out. I’ve been thinking a lot about the novel, what it has meant to me over the years, and why I decided to write it as I did. I’ve had a lot of trouble deciding how to pitch this novel to people. It’s a trouble I’ve never had before. I’m going to explain why this one doesn’t work as easily. But I’m going to start with a story.
There’s a particular music video I saw quite often when working the graveyard shift at the local hotel. I worked that job primarily because it allowed me to write at work (I wrote some eight or so novels while sitting at that front desk, including both Elantris and the original draft of The Way of Kings). However, part of my job there was the do the night audit of the cash drawer and occupancy, that sort of thing. As I worked, VH1/MTV would often become my radio for an hour or so, playing on the little television hidden behind the front desk.
The video was by Jewel, and was for the song “Intuition.” We’ll pretend, for the sake of defending my masculinity, that I paid special attention for the literary nature of the video, and not because I have a fondness for Jewel’s music. And there was something very curious about this video. In it, Jewel transitions back and forth between washed-out “normal world” shots of her walking on a street or interacting with people, and color-saturated “music video”-style shots of her engaging in product promotion while wearing revealing clothing.
The tone of the video is a little heavy-handed in its message. Among other things, it is meant to parody rock star/music video culture. It shows Jewel in oversexualized situations, having sold herself out in an over-the-top way. It points a critical finger at sexual exploitation of the female form in advertising, and juxtaposes Jewel in a normal, everyday walk with a surreal, Hollywood version of herself promoting various products.
Now, what is absolutely fascinating to me about this video is how perfectly it launches into an discussion of the literary concept of deconstructionism. You see, Jewel is able to come off looking self-aware—even down-to-earth—in this video, because of the focus she puts on how ridiculous and silly modern advertising is. The entire video is a condemnation of selling out, and a condemnation of using sexual exploitation in advertising.
And yet, while making this condemnation, Jewel gets to reap the benefits of the very things she is denouncing. In the video, her “Hollywood self” wears a tight corset, gets soaked in water, and prances in a shimmering, low-cut gown while wind blows her hair in an alluring fashion. She points a critical finger at these things through hyperbole, and therefore gains the moral high ground—but the video depends on these very images to be successful. They’re going to draw every eye in the room, gaining her publicity in the same way the video implies is problematic.
Deconstructionism is a cornerstone of postmodern literary criticism. Now, as I’m always careful to note, I’m not an expert in these concepts. A great deal of what I present here is an oversimplification, both of Jewel’s video and of postmodernism itself. But for the purposes of this essay, we don’t have time for pages of literary theory. The title itself is already pretentious enough. So, I’ll present to you the best explanation of deconstructionism I was given when working on my master’s degree: “It’s when you point out that a story is relyin’ on the same thing it’s denyin’.”
That will work for now.
THIS APPLIES TO FANTASY
Before postmodern literature can start appearing in a genre (and therefore, before deconstructionists can start pointing out the irony inherent in that postmodern literature) you need to have a body of work with dominant themes and concepts. You need an audience familiar enough with those themes to recognize when they are being molded, changed, and built upon.
Fantasy (and the epic in particular) hit a postmodern stage with remarkable speed. Tolkien was so remarkably dominant, so genre-changing, that reactions to him began immediately. And, since so much of the audience was familiar with his tropes (to the point that they quickly became expected parts of the genre), it was easy to build upon his work and change it. You could also argue that the Campbellian monomyth (awareness of which was injected into the veins of pop culture by George Lucas) was so strong in sf/f that we were well prepared for our postmodern era to hit. Indeed, by the late ’70s, the first major postmodern Tolkienesque fantasy epic had already begun. (In the form of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.)
During my early years writing, I mixed a lot with other aspiring fantasy novelists. A great number of us had grown up reading the Tolkien- reaction books. Brooks, Eddings, Williams, Jordan. You might call us of the rising generation Tolkien’s grandchildren. (Some of you may have heard me call him, affectionately, “Grandpa Tolkien” when I talk about him, which is an affectation I think I got from a David Eddings interview I once read.) A lot of my generation of writers, then, were ready for the next stage of fantasy epics. The “new wave,” so to speak.
During those years, I read and heard a lot of talk about “taking the next step” in fantasy. Or, “making the genre our own.” It seems that everyone I talked to had their own spin on how they were going to revolutionize the genre with their brilliant twist on the fantasy epic. Unfortunately, a lot of us were a little unambitious in our twists. (“My elves are short, rather than tall!” or “I’m going to make orcs a noble warrior culture, not just a group of evil, thoughtless monsters!”) Our hearts were good; our methods were problematic. I remember growing dissatisfied with this (specifically with my own writing, which was going through some of the same not-so-original originality problems), though I couldn’t ever define quite why.
I think I have a better read on it now. It has to do with a particular explanation one writer gave when talking about his story. It went something like this: “Well, it starts out like every other ‘farmboy saves the world’ fantasy novel. You know, the plucky sidekick rogue, the gang of unlikely woodsmen who go on a quest to find the magic sword. But it’s not going to end like that. I’m going to twist it about, make it my own! At the three-quarter mark, the book becomes something else entirely, and I’ll play off all those expectations! The reader will realize it’s not just another Tolkienesque fantasy. It’s something new and original.”
There’s a problem in there. Can you spot it?
Here’s the way I see it. That book is going to disappoint almost everyone. The crowd who is searching for something more innovative will pick up the book, read the beginning, and grow bored because of how familiar the book seems. They’ll never get to the part where you’re new and original because of how strongly the book is relying upon the thing it is (supposedly) denying. And yet, the people who pick up your book and like it for its resonant, classical feel have a strong probability of growing upset with the novel when it breaks so solidly out of its mold at the end. In a way, that breaks the promise of the first three-quarters of the book.
In short, you’re either going to bore people with the bulk of the book or you’re going to make them hate your ending.
That’s a tough pill to swallow. I could be completely wrong about it; I frequently am. After all, I’ve often said that good writing defies expectations. (Or, more accurately, breaks your expectations while fulfilling them in ways you didn’t know you wanted. You have to replace what they thought they wanted with something so much more awesome that they are surprised and thrilled at the same time.) But I think that the above scenario exposes one of the big problems with postmodern literature. Just as Jewel’s music video is likely to turn off—because of the sexual imagery—people who might have agreed with its message, the above story seems likely to turn away the very people who would have appreciated it most.
MY OWN WRITING
I ran into this problem full-on when I first conceived the idea for Mistborn. For those who haven’t read the series, one of the main premises is this: A young man followed the hero’s cycle from a fantasy novel, but failed at the end. The thing that made me want to write it, originally, was the thought, “What if Rand lost the Last Battle? What if Frodo had failed to destroy the ring? What if the Dark Lord won?”
A very intriguing thought. And yet, I realized early on that if I wrote the book as I was planning, I would fail. That story undermines itself. Perhaps there is someone out there who can write it in a way that engages the reader without betraying them at the end, but that person was not me. By the point I started that book, I was in the camp of those who (despite having a great love for the fantasy epics of the past) wanted to explore where fantasy could go, not where it had already been. I wasn’t interested in writing a standard hero’s journey. Jordan had done that already, and had done it well.
And so, I set Mistborn a thousand years after the hero’s failure. I made my original concept into the backstory. People have asked (a surprisingly large number of them) when I’ll write the prequel story, the story of Rashek and Alendi. My answer is to smile, shake my head, and say, “I don’t think it’s likely.” To explain why would require a lecture divided into three lengthy parts, and you know how boring that kind of thing can be.
Now, some of you may be thinking the obvious thought: “But Brandon, Mistborn is a postmodern fantasy epic.”
Indeed it is. I was intrigued by the concept of writing a postmodern fantasy, and that’s what Mistborn is. In each book, I consciously took aspects of the fantasy epic and twisted them about. My story above wasn’t to discourage that type of writing; it was to explain one major way that it could go bad, if you’re not careful.
I tried to walk a line in Mistborn. Enough archetype that I could resonate with the themes from fantasy that I wanted to play with, but enough originality to keep the readers from expecting a standard ending. It’s the type of balance that I can never walk perfectly because there is just too much variety to be had in the world. Some people are going to read the books and feel betrayed because of the things I pull; others are going to find that they’re not original enough for their taste.
The success of the books was in hitting the right balance for the right people; those like myself who love the old epics, and like some resonance with them—but who also want something new in their storytelling. That careful blend of the familiar and the strange, mixed up and served to people who have tastes like my own. That’s basically one of the only measures we authors can use. (And note, I’m not the only one—by a long shot—doing postmodern fantasy. Look to Jacqueline Carey’s series The Sundering for another example of someone doing the right blend, I feel, in a postmodern fantasy epic.)
THE WAY OF KINGS
The Mistborn books were successful. Many readers liked the idea of a world where the Dark Lord won, where prophecy and the hero were not what we expected them to be.
Because of how well it worked, however, I fell into something of a trap. When it came time to rewrite The Way of Kings, I floundered. I knew the story I wanted to tell, but I felt I needed to insert a major twist on the fantasy genre, along the lines of what I’d done in Mistborn. What would be my twist? What would be the postmodern aspect of this book? It literally kept me up nights. (Not hard to do, since I’m an insomniac, but still.)
Over time, I wrestled with this because a larger piece of me resisted doing the postmodern thing in Mistborn again. That piece of me began to ask some difficult questions. Did I want to be known as “The guy who writes postmodern fantasies”? There would be worse monikers to have. However, one of the major purposes of deconstructionism, is to point out the problem with self-referential material. There was a gimmick to the Mistborn books. It was a very useful one, since it allowed me to pitch the book in one sentence. “The hero failed; this is a thousand years later.”
There are a lot of very good postmodern stories out there, and I love the Mistborn books. But my heart wasn’t in doing that again. In order to write Mistborn the way I did, I also had to rely on the archetypes. My characters, for example, were very archetypal: The street urchin. The clever rogue who robs to do good. The idealistic young nobleman who wants to change the world. My plots were very archetypal as well: a heist story for the first book, a siege narrative for the second. I believe that a good book can use archetypes in new ways without being clichéd. (The Name of the Wind is an excellent example.)
In fact, it’s probably impossible not to reflect archetypes in storytelling. I’m sure they’re there in The Way of Kings. But I found in working on it that I didn’t want to intentionally build a story where I relied upon reader expectations. Instead, I wanted to look for themes and character concepts that I haven’t approached before, and that I haven’t seen approached as often in the genre.
There’s a distinction to be found. It’s much like the difference in humor between parody and satire. (As I define them.) In the first, you are funny only if your audience understands what you are parodying. In the second, you are funny because you are innately funny. Early Pratchett is parody. Mid and late Pratchett is satire. (Not to mention brilliant.)
And this is why, in the end, I decided that I would not write The Way of Kings as a postmodern epic. (Not intentionally, at least.) Mistborn felt, in part, like a reflection. There were many original parts, but at its core it was a study of the genre, and—to succeed at its fullest—it needed an audience who understood the tropes I was twisting about. Instead of making its own lasting impression and improvement on the genre, it rested upon the work done by others.
In short, I feel that using that same process again would make it a crutch to me. There is nothing at all wrong with what Mistborn did. I’m very proud of it, and I think it took some important steps. But it’s not what I want to be known for, not solely. I don’t just want to reflect and study; I want to create. I want to write something that says, “Here is my addition, my tiny step forward, in the genre that I love.”
To couch it in the terms of the Jewel video that started the essay, instead of creating a piece of art that screams, “Hey, look at those other pieces of art and hear my take on them,” I wanted to create something that says, “Look at this piece of art. This is what I think art should be in this genre now.” Part of me thinks that a video that was beautiful for its own sake, that didn’t rely upon the follies of others, would do more toward undermining those follies than would a video that pointed them all out.
And so, I tossed aside my desire to confine The Way of Kings into a single, pithy sentence explaining the slant I was taking on the fantasy genre. I just wrote it as what it was.