Dear Michael Blowhard,

by John Holbo on December 10, 2004

This post is pure response to a long critical comment by Michael Blowhard to my liberal groupthink post. I’ve clipped his comment, cut it up, responded point by point. There are many good comments to my post, which I will not respond to just right now, but Michael’s seemed to merit complete coverage. Still, this post will only be interesting to the truly excessively interested.

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Beyond good and evil

by Henry Farrell on December 10, 2004

Jennifer Howard of the Washington Post has a longish article-cum-book-review in the most recent “Boston Review”: on “the uses of fantasy,” where she gets it very badly wrong, but in an interesting way. She takes a critical hatchet to Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”: (which “I”: and others on “this”: “blog”: “and”: “elsewhere”: liked quite a lot) and to modern fantasy in general, but rather than attacking it for being too ridden with the cliches of genre, she attacks it because it isn’t genre enough. For Howard,

bq. When the news strays so far from the familiar moral contours of the struggle between Good and Evil, it’s tempting to lose ourselves in stories in which this battle is fought in clear terms and on an epic scale.

bq. Good over here, Evil over there—call it the Lord of the Rings model, in which heroes may be flawed but are always recognizably heroes, and their enemies want nothing less than to stamp out (as one of the good guys puts it in Peter Jackson’s recent film adaptation) “all that’s green and good in this world.” Many other fantasy classics work this territory, too; think of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, with its underpinning of Christian allegory.

Thus, Howard finds that JSAMN is a failure; it’s “a possibly fatal degree of academic remove away from epic sweep and the big moral questions.” More precisely:

bq. aren’t the showier sorts of magic—magic that battles for the soul of the world—exactly what we need, now more than ever? … Clarke’s novel doesn’t parody the genre; it displays in a lifeless cabinet of wonders all its elements—every element, that is, but the epic sense of Good and Evil, of things larger than ourselves, that makes the best fantasy so powerful and so necessary.

I’m not disputing that escapist fantasy can’t be good stuff (when it’s well written, it’s wonderful), but I do think it’s rather unfair to pillory Clarke for not writing the kind of book that she clearly didn’t want to write in the first place. Clarke isn’t especially interested, as far as I can make out, in epic battles between good and evil; instead, she’s rather more concerned with the tensions between the magical and the mundane. She’s not copying Tolkien; if anything, she’s riffing on a very different tradition of fantasy that goes back to Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist. For which purpose, the incongruence between the world of Faerie and the social niceties of Regency England works extremely well – it not only provides Clarke with the makings of good comedy, but allows her to get at the fundamental _thinness_ of the British social order. The key moments in the book are those where you realize that Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norrell’s dispute is at most a sort of shadow play, a prelude to something much stranger and wilder. From Clarke’s novel:

bq. He had meant to say that if what he had seen was true, then everything that Strange and Norrell had ever done was child’s-play and magic was a much stranger and more terrifying thing than any of them had thought of. Strange and Norrell had been merely throwing paper darts about a parlour, while real magic soared and swooped and twisted on great wings in a limitless sky far, far above them.

Magic, in Susanna Clarke’s novel, is profoundly unsettling, in a way that it isn’t in Howard’s preferred forms of fantasy; it threatens to disrupt the social order. There’s a sort of dynamic tension between it and reality, rather than a simple escape from our complex world. If the usages of Regency England are so fragile, so vulnerable to disruption from without, then what of our own settled ways of doing things? Howard clearly doesn’t like this mode of writing, which is her right, but it seems to me at the least peculiar that she should prosecute the book for not being what it doesn’t want to be in the first place, and then convict it on all counts. There’s more than one mode of fantasy out there, and if JSAMN doesn’t conform to her preferred type, then that’s really not Clarke’s fault, nor does it reflect on the book itself so much as on the lack of sympathy between the book and a particular kind of reader.