In my last post, I complained that V.M. Manfredi seemed to have trouble deciding if Spartan, A Novel was a fantasy story with a historic background or a historical fiction with fantasy characteristics. I stated that, in my opinion, the two genres do not mix well without careful forethought and that, considering how Manfredi handled the subject, the book would have been better as one or the other.
Considering my lack of credentials, this is a bold statement. It is not however uninformed. I would like to extrapolate on the reasoning behind my critique and on why I feel it is so important for writers and wannabe writers (like myself) of fantasy to consider Aesthetic-Distance and the Suspension of Disbelief, two concepts I learned long ago in a film analysis class and which are applicable to many an art form including that of writing.
From the onset however, I want to refer any reader who as a result of reading this entry feels duty-bound to defend their favorite author, genre or sub-genre to the “About” tab at the top of the page. I am not interested in trying to convince anyone of anything here. I am interested however, in exploring my own tastes and biases as I journey toward publication. Further, I realize that what follows here is paramount to declaring, “I think vanilla frosties dipped in chocolate are the best.” There is no surer way to inspire someone to riposte with, “…chocolate until I die!” or “twisties forever!” or even the odd “…strawberry, if you don’t mind!” than to say such. Please understand, I am not declaring what is best here so much as what I prefer. All flavors, well written, are good flavors.
I would also like to offer a Spoiler Alert as well. To make my point, I will be referring to critical events in Manfredi’s Spartan, A Novel, Martin’s The Game of Thrones and R. E. Howard’s Hour of the Dragon AKA Conan the Conqueror during the course of this essay. Those who have not read the above but plan to should proceed with caution.
To begin then.
I prefer fantasies best that have a certain ring of truth and realism to them, that sink their roots deep into the rich and firm soil of reality as apposed to those that freely embrace the more fantastical characteristics of the genre and are therefore more un-real. Though this sounds contradictory, I assure you that it is not. It is an extremely important distinction and I hope to eventually publish fantasy stories that bear its hallmark. This is why, I believe, Tolkien’s LotR has such appeal. The “Beowulfian depth” upon which it is built gives Tolkien’s work a ring of authenticity appreciated and admired by most readers. Magic, while it abounds, is nonetheless held in check and allowed to function as background rather than as essential.
That being said, any fantasy work founded on some sort of internal logic, that is in agreement with itself, is appealing to me. Regardless of its fantastical nature, as long as there is a consistency to which the author faithfully adheres, I will read and enjoy it.
This consistency is highly important to me because, as far as I am able, I want to create a faux-reality in which my readers can fully and comfortably immerse themselves. Like a good masseuse, I want to offer my clients an enjoyable experience without interruption, without pain, without jarringly cold hands. I want my readers to give themselves up to my ministrations and to suspend, for a time, any objections they may have, any doubts that the world I present them is not “real,” or that the story I weave for them is not sound, or that the characters therein are not convincing. To do this well, I must establish an Aesthetic-Distance between the reader and myself in which they feel comfortable enough to establish a Suspension-of-Disbelief.
Basically, “Aesthetic-Distance” is the concept that the reader or viewer is presented with material in such a way that a bridge is established between the reality of reading a book or sitting in a theatre and the un-reality occurring on the screen or page before them. The patron enters the theatre or opens the book knowing from the onset that what he or she is about to see and/or read is not real. They know for example that they are sitting in their living room or in a theatre, in their home town, in the 21st century, BUT for a time, they voluntarily agree to suspend their disbelief and accept what is happing on the screen or page as “real.” That there is indeed, “A galaxy far, far away.” In return for this suspension, the director or writer agrees to offer a presentation that is realistic to an agreed upon degree. The greater the degree of suspension required upon the part of the audience, the stronger the Aesthetic-Distance established by the director or writer must be.
Take for example, King Kong. Movie goers agreed to suspend their disbelief, firmly grounded in the reality that there are no 25’ tall gorillas (Jackson size—my preferred version). In return the director did his best to established an Aesthetic-Distance that treated the viewer to a believable 25’ tall gorilla and a story that did not threaten this agreement. If, however, should that distance erode at any time during the presentation of the story, the viewers’ Suspension-of-Disbelief collapses and the viewer is not longer in the jungles of Skull Island but in the reality of their theatre seat where Kong has become a mere special effect. While it is true that no director or writer can please all of the people all of the time, it should be their overriding concern to do so or at least labor to make such breakdowns of the Aesthetic-Distance as few as possible.
A chef is no less responsible when creating an excellent meal and must do all within their power to keep the patron engaged by serving the best dish possible. Based on the description in the menu, the chef and the patron enter into an agreement. The patron expects a certain dish and the chef creates said dish, albeit with individual style and flare yet still within certain parameters. No chef or writer would present their work as Penne al’Salmone or an action adventure and then serve tuna salad or offer a romantic comedy. That is obvious. What is not so obvious however, are the smaller interruptions and disruptions that though subtle nonetheless chip away at the Aesthetic-Distance and threaten the Suspension-of-Disbelief.
If during the course of the meal, I discover a fish bone in my Penne al’Salmone, I am a bit disappointed, but thankful I did not swallow the damn thing, and though I do not send the dish back, my enjoyment of the meal is interrupted. I will continue to eat and if I do not find another bone in my fish pasta, I will soon forget the disruptive moment as I immerse myself once again in dish’s savor.
If however, I find another bone, I will think seriously about ever ordering the dish again. I many not push my plate away,—I did pay for it after all—but my dining experience is now seriously challenged as I eye my food warily, picking at it with a fork, examining each bite alert for another bone. I am now almost completely removed from the experience the chef intended me to have with his meal.
Should I have the unhappy fortune to discover more bones as I gingerly chew in anticipation of such an advent, any pleasure I had in my eating experience prior is now irrevocably lost and I am most decidedly through with both the meal and the restaurant or, by extension…the movie…the book.
The fantasy writer has no less a responsibility to the reader as the chef does to the diner or the director to the movie viewer. Each of these professions has its own special dynamics that the others do not, but the common concern for patron enjoyment is arguably there regardless.
It is my belief that how seriously the writer wants the reader to consider their fantasy (or any other genre-plot, for that matter), depends on how sensitively the elements of fantasy, in particular the magical creatures, the magical artifacts, the magical situations and magic itself, are treated. How sensitively is measured by degrees of expectation on the readers part and this has much to do with the subgenre of fantasy being read. High fantasies rich in magic, Erickson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen series for example, may have less pressure placed upon them by the reader because they expect dragons to abound, fairies to appear, lightening to spark from a wizard’s finger tips and gods to walk the earth.
If in a lower fantasy novel, however, such as Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery tale, Hour of the Dragon AKA Conan the Conqueror high fantasy elements were suddenly to appear without rhyme or reason, say a fire-breathing flight-capable dragon aiding and abetting the Cimmerian’s bid to reclaim the Aquilonian throne and destroy the sorcerer Xaltotun, it would render the Aesthetic-Distance moot and my Suspension-of-Disbelief would collapse. I am not suggesting that a dragon is taboo so much as pointing out that Howard would have had to have been at great pains prior to make the dragon’s sudden appearance acceptable. Howard did in fact present large lizards his Cimmarian referred to as “…dragons…” in “Red Nails,” but he was quick to make it clear to the readership that in all likelihood the creatures were dinosaurs left over from some earlier age.
Even in such epic fantasy novels as the Lord of the Rings (which walks a fine line between high fantasy characteristics yet, save for certain features and artifacts, maintains a relatively low magic profile), Tolkien was very careful not to stray too far from the characteristics of epic wherein he cast his characters. Gandalf does not wield spells in a DnD-esque fashion, Smaug is depicted as both a rare one-off and as the penultimate cataclysmic danger a dragon should (IMHO) represent, magically sealed doors operate according to strict enchantment and the culturally supernatural and inherit abilities of the elves are limited by internal logic—even bloody Gil-galad fell to Sauron’s power. Tolkien worked hard to maintain the Aesthetic-Distance between his readership and his material and as a result, the Suspension-of-Disbelief on the part of his readers was rarely threatened. For me, Tolkien maintained tone throughout his work, sometimes less successfully than others—where in the hell did Tom Bombadil come from?! (call it a fish bone)—but satisfactorily overall. Too many fish bones however, too many challenges to the Aesthetic-Distance might have rendered my suspension of disbelief impossible and he might have lost me.
This was the argument I had with Manfredi’s Spartan, A Novel.
SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT
Manfredi used the fantasy/divine element of prophesy quite often in this novel and with, for the most part, good effect. It moved the main character Talos/Kleidemos from situation to situation even as he too, like the readers, struggled to discern between what was a message from the gods and what was a hoax. Were they truly divine in origin or simply a means by which the Athenian or Spartan governments justified and achieved political ends? As Talos struggles with this, he is made all the more sympathetic by Manfredi as he wonders why he has been handed this fate and rails against it aching to be reunited with his life-long love Antinea, who is pregnant, and raise their child together in peace. At the end of the novel, Talos, now the leader of the Helots, decides on a desperate foray against an all-encompassing enemy and though his people fight heroically and admirably, they are ultimately out-maneuvered and prepare to suffer the fatal consequences. At the last moment however, they are saved by a proclamation from the Delphinine Oracle that smacks of political intrigue on the part of the Athenians against the Spartans.
While a somewhat startling last-minute save, it is not unlooked for by the reader or too unexpected. Manfredi has been at exceptional pains to weave prophesy into his story and to instill the reader with a suspicion of such prophesies as well as, an expectation as to their advent. Indeed, he has foreshadowed just such an incident with other prophesies that occurred earlier in the story, and because of this, the Suspension-of-Disbelief on the part of the reader remains intact. Thus, the Aesthetic-Distance has not been violated was it would with the sudden and actual appearance of Zeus or a decisive and ridiculous victory on the part of essentially peasant militia over trained hoplite Spartiates. Indeed, such would have smacked of a deus ex machine…a major fish bone…leaving the reader with a “WTF?” too big to swallow. Unfortunately, on the heels of the saving prophesy, Manfredi does exactly that and serves up a Moby Dick sized fish bone.
After the prophesy is relayed to the Spartan king and the Spartan troops withdraw, Talos/Kleidemos cannot be found. Fearing him dead, a close companion searches the battle field in vain for the body of his comrade. Calling for his friend, he is unexpectedly met and purposefully led by a huge wolf to where he finds Talos/Kleidemos’s singular armor, epic weapons and shield laying at the foot of a tree. The wolf disappears as suddenly as it appeared. Talos is never seen again, but his companion weeps understanding that Talos was an avatar of the gods and proclaims that Talos the Wolf will come again as his people need him, ala King Arthur.
Blink–WTF?—hack, cough: tink! Huge fish bone. He was an avatar? He was a construct of the gods? Well, what the hell have I been worried about him all this time for? If he’s an avatar, he’s not even mortal! What the hell do I care whether or not he rises above his destiny and is rewarded with hearth and home? He was a shape shifter? Where did that come from? Suddenly the Aesthetic-Distance crumbles under the stress placed upon it by Manfredi and with it my Suspension-of-Disbelief. It was just too much for my intellect to reconcile: there was no warning, there was no foreshadowing. Sure there were wolves present throughout the story, sometimes they seemed to favor Talos/Kleidemos but not in any way to hint that he might be a shape shifter let alone a Christ-figure. As a result, Spartan, A Novel receives a three stars rather than five from me. At this point I am curious enough to try a second Manfredi novel, but frankly, I will be very skeptical as I read and at the first hint of a fishbone, I am putting it down.
SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT
This experience was repeated with Martin’s initial offering in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. He is so good at the historicity of his story; I ate up the Game of Thrones at a record pace. In keeping with that established flavor, the gods are kept at a distance, magic though burning in the background remains in the background, his characters are human, engaging and believable. The evil Beyond the Wall, like a simmering crock-pot of soup, is slowly and deliciously turning into what is sure be an epic meal. Armies are on the move, dealing with the needs of man-power, maneuverability and access. The characters wrestle with alliances, betrayal, self-realization and, in some cases, mortal defeat. This rocks! I thought and then suddenly: BAM! A main character finds herself not only immune to fire, but “mother” of three dragons who are suckling at her breasts (cue the loud record-scratching sound)—What was that?!
Yuck, cough, choke—WTF!? Where did that come from? I think I actually cried out, “Awww, c’mon!” And why the hell…? Cheap titillation at this late date? For cryin’ out loud, Martin, you’ve all ready sold me; I don’t need the cheap sex tricks! Where’s the foreshadowing on this one (thumbs rapidly through the pages)? Yes, yes I knew the eggs seemed warm when she touched them, etc., but there are some things I want to know before I swallow this sudden, unexpected and disturbingly boney slice of fish. For example, how can viable embryos survive, arcanely or otherwise, in a fossilized state for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years? How the hell do they even know how to nurse? Do any reptiles anywhere on the FRACKIN’ planet nurse? I mean, it is fantasy, but come on, there are certain biological realities to consider here! How is it that the character, who’s beloved just died and has just survived a conflagration, as well as a purge, is not practically incoherent or at least freaking out over three lizards competing over her tah-tahs?! The situation and resulting questions so jolted me from the storyline, so instantly and completely, that I found I had lost all interest in reading the next novel and even felt a bit betrayed. So much of the novel was so good, so carefully rendered, this…this just seemed so random and so cheaply sensational. I finished up the first book three years ago and have not gone back.
By no means am I suggesting that Martin did not have the right to tell his story the way he wanted to or that he should not have used the dragon element. No way. It’s a fantasy novel: his world, his rules. If he wants to do that, more power to him. The point is, to me, he failed in his responsibility to present his dragons in such a way that maintained the Aesthetic-Distance and allowed me to continue my Suspension-of-Belief there by enjoying his story. Martin had built an expectation that he would honor the well conceived milieu he had heretofore described. By presenting his dragons in such a surprising and fantastical way, he challenged my disbelief and the distance failed. I see no reason why he could not have done it a bit more carefully and logically—utilizing magic in all its indefinable and all-encompassing qualities—wherein it could have matched and even complimented his gritty realistic and painstakingly rendered fantasy. Even if I had been able to swallow the bone, he would a serious job ahead of him, in reconciling the two elements: realism and fantasy, especially when those dragons come of age, considering at 18” and barely infants, they are already able to torch a man to death and melt iron manacles with their breath.
And herein lies the rub: if he’s willing to present such challenges to my disbelief now, who knows what is in store? Am I willing to risk another $7.99, 800 pages and the time to read them to find out? Do I even want to? Not at this point, but my wife loves the HBO series and I love my wife. I refused to sit and watch the first season but have consented to watch the second with her only on condition that I can leave the room without derision if I feel things are even remotely approaching critical-fish bone status.
I am but one reader and in the end my opinion accounts for nothing save to myself—and by extension, I know what I like. He lost me: big deal, so what? A clash of aesthetics. Others are head over heels for him. Maybe my standards are too high; others are more flexible. An author cannot please everyone every time. I am sure his pocket book and ego can handle my checking out and this is not a critique of Game of Thrones.
I feel that the more believable an author wants their fantasy to be, the more care they need to take in presenting it. I believe the more fantastic in nature a fantasy is, the more responsibility to keep a tight rein on the fantastic elements an author has. Note I did not say eliminate them, but I think fantasy writers have a particular burden and must beware of magic getting away from them or it either becoming a crutch or a plague. Magic and fantastic elements allowed to run amuck without rhyme or reason can ruin a well thought-out and realistic story line. I have found, for myself that if the fantasy leans toward the realistic, those elements used sparingly AND LOGICALLY are like sweet savor leading to many an “Mmmmm, yummy” moment, but then again, I am a self-proclaimed lover of realistic-fantasy. Even if it is a magically rich environment however, wherein every character has access to magic in one form or another and the supernatural is common place, the author still has a responsibility, if not more so, to the Aesthetic-Distance between the material and the reader and the Suspension-of-Disbelief. It still must be well considered and presented with sensitivity and with an eye toward logic. If not, the author risks losing his or her reader the moment they pause and wonder, “Where the hell did that come from?” or “How does that bloody work?” or “Really? Really! Really.” Challenged enough times and the reader is lost. One fishbone in my “Penne al’salmone” filet is enough, two and it goes back to the kitchen. Three and I most likely will do my dining out elsewhere.