“Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

 Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood Kolisch“Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Kazuo Ishiguro talked to interviewer Alexandra Alter (NYT 20 Feb 15) about his forthcoming novel The Buried Giant, which takes place in a non-historic just-post-Arthurian England. Everybody there has lost most of their longterm memory, due to the influence of the breath of a dragon named Querig.

Ogres and other monsters roam the land, but Querig just sleeps and exhales forgetfulness, until a pair of elderly Britons with the singularly unBriton names of Beatrice and Axl arrive with the knight Gawain and a poisoned goat to watch a Saxon named Wistan kill Gawain and then slice the head off the sleeping dragon. Beatrice and Axl wander on in search of their son, who they now remember may be dead, until Beatrice falls asleep in the boat of a mysterious boatman who rows her off to a mysterious island while Axl wanders back inland.

A wild country inhabited by monsters, an old couple who must leave their home without knowing exactly why, a sense that important things have been, perhaps must be, forgotten… Such images and moods could well embody a story about the approach of old age to death, and indeed I think that is at least in part the subject of the book. But so generic a landscape and such vague, elusive perceptions must be brought to life by the language of the telling. The whole thing is made out of words, after all. The imaginary must be imagined, accurately and with scrupulous consistency. A fantastic setting requires vivid and specific description; while characters may lose touch with their reality, the storyteller can’t. A toneless, inexact language is incapable of creating landscape, meaningful relationship, or credible event. And the vitality of characters in a semi-historical, semi-fanciful setting depends on lively, plausible representation of what they do and how they speak. The impairment of the characters’ memory in this book may justify the aimlessness of their behavior and the flat, dull quality of the dialogue, but then how is it that Axl never, ever, not once, forgets to address his wife as “princess”? I came to wish very much that he would.

Mr Ishiguro said to the interviewer, “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

Well, yes, they probably will. Why not?

It appears that the author takes the word for an insult.

To me that is so insulting, it reflects such thoughtless prejudice, that I had to write this piece in response.

Fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality.

‘Surface elements,’ by which I take it he means ogres, dragons, Arthurian knights, mysterious boatmen, etc., which occur in certain works of great literary merit such as Beowulf, the Morte d’Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings, are also much imitated in contemporary commercial hackwork. Their presence or absence is not what constitutes a fantasy. Literary fantasy is the result of a vivid, powerful, coherent imagination drawing plausible impossibilities together into a vivid, powerful and coherent story, such as those mentioned, or The Odyssey, or Alice in Wonderland.

Familiar folktale and legendary ‘surface elements’ in Mr Ishiguro’s novel are too obvious to blink away, but since he is a very famous novelist, I am sure reviewers who share his prejudice will never suggest that he has polluted his authorial gravitas with the childish whims of fantasy.

Respect for his readers should assure him that, whatever the book is, they will honestly try to follow him and understand what he was trying to do.

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

–UKL

Continued at Addendum

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About Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. The Library of American publication, The Complete Orsinia, is now available from Powell's Books. Other recent books include The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories, Steering the Craft, Second Edition, and Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems: 1960-2010. King Dog: A Screenplay for the Mind's Eye, Music and Poetry of the Kesh, music by Todd Barton, words by Ursula K. Le Guin, an MP3 collection, and “The New Atlantis” are available in the Book View Cafe ebookstore.
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80 Responses to “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

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  14. mathias says:

    Nice, but it still doesn’t really address the issue whether it really reflects the purpose of his work. This is something that Ursula LeGuin has generally been missing out on in her defense of genre. And I don’t at all agree with such a simplistic, absolute stance that you can’t at least genuinely understand and adopt in reading the viewpoint and background of another writer and work, even while disagreeing with their particular attitude towards genre. I don’t think LeGuin has been able to do that here, at least not in a fully convincing fashion that doesn’t leave doubt, also from what others have said about potential merits of the work.
    Her one criticism about that I can see about the craft of the work aside from the treatment of genre is a “realistic” criticism, and therefore seems to be an injoke. However, I don’t see whether that would even be a just criticism of the writer’s style. It sounds too much like an absolute standard that almost seems to transcend pure literary discussion…

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  17. Jenifer Johnson says:

    Having just listened to Mr. Ishiguro on Wired’s A Geek’s Guide to The Galaxy, there can be no doubt that he is only on the side of the pixies when it sells books. Ms. Le Guin was dead on. In actuality, he’s dismissive of the fantasy genre and its fans: “aren’t they all young?”

    http://geeksguideshow.com/2015/04/06/ggg145-kazuo-ishiguro/

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