“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. Don’t forget to check out at Daisy Slots the latest casino games inspired by fictional characters from said Novel.

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?”


Continued at Addendum



“Are they going to say this is fantasy?” — 80 Comments

  1. Thank you, Ursula, for once more illuminating the value of imaginative storytelling! Why do some so-called “serious” readers and authors need to devalue what they don’t understand?

  2. Ms. LeGuin: With great respect, I think you miss the point here. Ishiguro is not afraid that he has written fantasy; he is afraid of the response of readers who think that Peter Jackson’s wretched LOTR movies are the epitome of the genre. He thinks they will go, “Ewww! Dragons and Hobbits!” when they have no understanding of dragons or hobbits. I believe that Ishiguro would defend fantasy rather than claim that he hadn’t written it. In short, you and he would be in agreement.

    • I think Les does have a point. I have a colleague – a historical fiction writer – who associates science fiction with “laser guns and swordfights”, despite my best efforts to prove otherwise. Despite the popularity of works like “Game of Thrones”, some people still associate fantasy with exclusively elves and magic rings.

      I have to agree with Ms. LeGuin after reading the rest of the article. “Cloud Atlas” writer David Mitchell praises the book for using fantasy tropes to explore questions about love and mortality. The problem is, many fantasy writers have been doing this already, with or without the so-called “tropes”.

      It reminds me when Ang Lee was making “The Hulk” and said he didn’t know how to make a superhero movie, but he did know how to make a Greek Tragedy. My thought as I read that interview was, “What makes you think those two things are mutually exclusive?”

      • I think my reaction to the Ang Lee remark would be – “What makes you think those two things are in any way different?”

        Elves, rings, hobbits, dragons: take these out of context and you have cheapened them instantly to the point that they may as well be Tokens of Nerdville which is how many people such as your historian friend like to see them. It’s like saying Othello is just some black dude or that Hamlet is a mad bloke with father issues. It reduces and belittles highly complex, nuanced and powerful psychological dynamics to inanity. All the meaning is drained out until the shell remains, then you mistake that empty shell for the thing itself.

        Since Ishiguro does not say in so many words what he was attempting one can only guess. Perhaps he was using the tokens of fantasy as people do use them in their weakened, forgotten states – the shells of stories where the meaning is already diluted to the point of homeopathy. They stand in as vague gestures to once mighty castles of great emotional profundity because that’s all that remains for these people. I do hope so because I can stand that reading of the book.

    • Having read Never Let Me Go, I suspect Ms. LeGuin has found that The Buried Giant has picked up the trappings of fantasy and loosely thrown them over an allegory about aging or memory or something without considering what those trappings mean to people who actually read the genre and how to use them well. Instead, writing primarily for a literary fiction (i.e. fantasy-genre-naive) audience, he’s deploying them because they do some distancing work, whether or not the tropes are well-suited to the task. It’s like blocking a door with a chair because the chair is right next to the door, instead of using a door lock.

    • Les, with all due respect, Le Guin seems to be quite aware of what Ishiguro is afraid of. Hence this: “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.” [emph added]

      In other words, you can’t simultaneously respect and despise your tools and expect to produce your best work.

    • This is silly. You’re pushing back against Ursula LeGuin’s chastisement of genre snobbery, and getting into some pretty unpleasant intra-genre snobbery of your own.

      • Holy crap, being critical of something, like a sensible human being, is not automatically “snobbery”.

  3. This sounds oddly similar to Margaret Atwood’s previously hot denials that she wrote science fiction. It’s not impossible that, by trying to deny fantasy, Ishiguro might raise eyebrows among the literati while at the same time alienating the more broadly read science fiction and fantasy community. It seems more likely, to extend Ursula LeGuin’s excellent point about reviewers, that the critics will applaud his “bravery” and post-modern audacity in taking the tropes of fantasy and turning it into “art” (my quotation marks).

  4. I really shouldn’t be commenting on a book I haven’t read, but the talk of forgetfulness, ‘Beatrice’, ‘generic … landscape’, ‘vague, elusive perceptions’ and ‘the flat, dull quality of the dialogue’ – all sounds rather Infernoish to me. Al Dante. Which I’d happily excuse/excise from the Fantasy section of the library on account of being Allegory and boring.

  5. A toneless, inexact language is incapable of creating landscape, meaningful relationship, or credible event. –This is so true, and a great line–second only to your concluding line, which made me smile.

  6. I read plenty of SF and a bit of fantasy and I’ve always considered Ishiguro a fantasy author. I doubt he has any prejudice against fantasy. His previous novel is near-future SF about clones and the two novels before that were certainly fantasy à la Kafka. His first novel had a surreal element to it and the narrator in his second novel has such a warped interpretation of his past that if it had been revealed the narrator was from a slightly different alternate dimension, I would not have been shocked. His only novel that adheres to a strict realism is The Remains of the Day.

    My guess is that he may be worried about the marketing. Anyone who buys it thinking it will be like Game of Thrones will be disappointed and upset and I’m sure plenty of TLS readers who loved The Remains of the Day will refrain from buying a book they’ve read has a dragon in it and has the word giant in the title.

    Ms. Le Guin says she found reading the book “painful.” I’ve read each of his novels (except the new one) at least twice and find them beautiful in every way, but I can easily see how not everyone would agree with me. If you don’t enjoy befuddled, delusional narrators with memory issues, Ishiguro is probably not for you.

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  9. “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?’”

    Well…not anymore.

  10. Pingback: Ursula K. Le Guin on the use of the “surface elements” of fantasy | this cage is worms

  11. I believe it was Mrs. Le Guin who taught me–possibly in Language of the Night, or Dancing on the Edge of the World–that fantasy is a tool used to tell a particular type of story, that at times the story wanting to be told demands its use and will accept nothing else. It appears that’s what happened to Mr. Ishiguro, and I won’t comment on his success in doing so or whether Mrs. Le Guin is mistaken in her understanding of what the author meant when he appeared to shun the label of fantasy. I will say that I have over the years come to judge most fantasy by the standard of whether or not the author was using the form as a tool, as a means to accomplish an end. I have to say, by that standard, most of what I read today called fantasy doesn’t meet that criteria. Some of it is still enjoyable, but it lacks real depth, it lacks subtext, it lacks what I’ve learned to expect in the works of Mrs. Le Guin herself. I’m nearly to the point of saying if a work doesn’t fit that bill, then it’s not a true fantasy. That it’s not enough to simply have elves and dwarves, or as is popular these days, to have a unique system of magic.

    I may be reading too much into this short article of Le Guin’s, but it appears she offers up a different definition of fantasy than what I’ve come to hold as true, and I’d like very much to hear her thoughts on the subject (not that I’m holding my breath for a response, just hopeful, is all). In the article here she says, “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.” That’s somewhat–or quite a bit–simpler than the definition I’ve come to operate under. Have my standards been too high? Or am I mistaken to ascribe a single sentence written as part of an essay on a separate subject to the definition of what makes up a work of fantasy? Or both? 😉

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  18. Profound and insightful commentary. The affront of Ishiguro’s comments on “fantasy” really seems very pointed to me, not to mention foolish and poorly thought out.

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  20. I haven’t much to add other than my gratitude for your having written this Ms. Le Guin. Thank you, thank you, many times thank you, for expressing clearly and forcefully what so many of us are feeling in the backdraft of Mr. Ishiguro’s unthoughtful remarks and those of many of his reviewers.

  21. I have noticed over the years that Ms Le Guin, a writer I used to greatly admire, has begun to act as if sci-fi and fantasy are her own personal fiefdom. It is as if she is a child playing in a little tree house, a very beautiful little tree house, in a wonderful, gnarly venerable tree, in which many children have played, but, Ms Le Guin doesn’t want them there. It is her tree house! Any new children, ahem, authors, who try to clamber up to this little tree house receive a torrent of abuse, phrased differently each time, but essentially replicating the same essential sentiment, ‘Mine! Mine! Mine!’

    Ms Le Guin has had an amazing career. She has had a glorious and sustained play in the tree house. I hardly think she should care, so terribly, if others want to play there for a while. Such eager, breathless eviscerations of the writing of others should be far, far beneath her.

    I wish her well in ascending to a higher plane of being – or, a higher branch of the tree!!

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  32. “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…”

    I really don’t agree with this. I have not picked up The Buried Giant yet, but I’ve always found that it is Ishiguro’s characteristic ‘toneless’ style and vagueness which allows him to capture emotion, thought and experience powerfully and evocatively. He is a very exact, subtle and daring stylist. Suggesting that fantasy only has room for stylists who rely on ‘specific description’ (a valid but narrow literary school) seems as much as an insult to fantasy as Ishiguro’s comments (which anyway seemed to me to do nothing more than acknowledge snobbery about a genre which he himself is embracing).

    • The vagueness of setting is not the only flaw she points out – she also refers to the flatness and dullness of the characters’ words and the aimlessness of their behavior, which impinges on their liveliness as characters. I agree that Ishiguro does use vagueness and tonelessness in his style, but IMO in his best work the setting eventually comes clearly to life (the English manor in The Remains of the Day, the dystopia of Never Let Me Go), as well as the characters. In his worse work, the vagueness takes over and never allows anything to come clearly to life (as in When We Were Orphans, which in my view was too dull even to hate, just feel annoyed at). If her description is accurate, this sounds like one of his less successful efforts.

      • Ah well I really liked When we were orphans (and The Unconsoled, which is quite similar). I understand why some don’t like it- but I definitely feel that there confusion and rambling are used deliberately to portray a world that seems nightmarish through bad mental health. Ishiguro is not afraid to use his reader’s boredom as a tool! And the dialogue is really flat in Never Let Me Go – which I also found effective for reasons I can’t put my finger on. Perhaps he has got carried away in this book (the reviews are pretty bad!) but I still think that at the very least the aimlessness of the plot is likely to be a deliberate choice – from what I’ve read it’s about collective memory loss and the back and forth of wanting and not wanting to confront atrocities. My point was simply that Leguin seems to be suggesting that Ishiguro is not a fantasy writer at all or is doing fantasy wrong – which is different from suggesting that he’s a bad fantasy writer (which would hardly make him unusual). That just seems so narrow.

        In any case, even if they disagree Leguin and Ishiguro remain two of my favourite writers.

  33. Ursula, I think the dimension you are missing out on is class. Fantasy, scifi, thrillers, romance, etc. are considered to be ‘lowbrow’ genres in England and are therefore despised by the elite.

    I think a lot of English writers don’t realise that “English literary fiction” is just as much of a genre as crime or fantasy or romance or sea stories. English literary fiction is largely the story of upper middle class people, usually living in leafy North London. You rarely hear working class voices in this genre, especially the voices of working class women. I’ve done a little statistical analysis of the Booker Prize judging panels and they are dominated by very posh people. The prizes almost always go to posh privileged English people writing about posh privileged English people. If you’re interested I’ve written about it here:


    Among this class of people “genre” fiction is despised for class reasons, because its appreciated by people not of their ilk. Ordinary people read fantasy and sci-fi and romance and thrillers and it, therefore, can’t be any good.

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