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When Liberals get close-minded

[Spoiler Alert: this post contains minor plot reveals for the Wheel of Time series.]

Via Brad DeLong (in a post well worth reading on its own terms), I was disturbed to read this post by Abigail Nussbaum.   The context are the Hugo award nominees for 2014.  This, however, is one of the meanest, most condescending things I’ve read online in a long time:

As for the Wheel of Time series making it onto the best novel ballot, I’d just like to say to anyone who voted for this: feel ashamed, because you don’t even have the excuse of being a reactionary troll to justify your bad taste.

Wow.  I’d be insulted even if I wasn’t one of those who should feel ashamed because I don’t even have the excuse of being a reactionary troll to justify my bad taste.  I liked the series and I’m not going to make any excuses for that.  I liked deLong’s reply:

Similarly for Wheel of Time: after the third book I looked forward and saw no narrative closure anywhere, only an uncountable number of pages on which pairs of breasts would fold their arms… 

Now I could see Abigail trying to convince those who nominated… the Wheel of Time that they should not have… But that is not what she is doing.

[Quoting Lois Bujold:]

It’s increasingly clear to me that the reader and viewer–the active reader or viewer–does a lot more than he or she is ever given credit for. They fill in the blanks. From hope and charity, they explain away plot-holes to their own satisfaction. They add background from the slimmest of clues. They work. 

I LIKE books that challenge my priors.   I LIKE stories that make me work.   A story which does all the work for me is useful only as a cure for sleeplessness and an artist who thinks that her interpretation of her work is the only valid interpretation is a really bad artist.   Filling in the blanks is what makes reading 500 pages or 15,000 pages worth doing.

The Wheel of Time is not the best written series.  Neither was Babylon 5 a well written show but I stand by it as one of the best TV sci-fi series ever.   Snappy dialogue and cleverly reveled plot are just not as important as writers seem to think they are.

So why do I like Wheel of Time?  I think there are two things I really enjoyed.

First, the series is absolutely littered classic fantasy novel tropes which are almost without fail subverted in some way.  For example, when the damsels are in distress (as they often are), they tend to save themselves… and get angry at the “hero” for trying and getting in the way.   The rogue of the series is constantly trying to get himself out of trouble, instead it’s the girls who are always getting themselves into trouble–mostly through pure over-confidence.  The story as a whole is a Manichean struggle to find… balance.   Not victory for the light, balance… at the end that’s an important plot point.   There are many, many more examples of this variety, but the point is that these are Easter Eggs for those familiar with the fantasy genre.   And you know what?   Finding the Easter Eggs is fun.

The second thing I liked about the series is the thematic elements.   The story doesn’t just take Feminism as a primary theme, Jordan tries to subvert Feminism too!   If you’re truly a devoted Feminist, I think you should really take a moment to consider what Jordan is actually saying.

Consider, for example,  the infamous (constant) arms-crosssing-over-breasts-scenes.   This is a serious thematic element of the series.  Seriously… read the books… if you read carefully and don’t rush to judgment (oooh, he mentioned her breasts!   objectification!   oh noes!) you might notice that the one’s crossing their arms are always powerful women and they are doing so to express displeasure with the men around them–who they almost without fail believe they outrank.  Get it?  His conception of Feminism is based on power relationships not on sexuality.  The juxtaposition of the two serves to underline the point.   This is a matriarchal society because the women have more power than the men.   Men become more powerful as the story continues…  the relationships more equal… but I suspect that’s the balance theme again.

I’m not a Feminist, but I think that’s a much better basis on which Feminists should base their thinking.   Power, not sexuality, is the problem.

If you’re not yet convinced, consider another example: the gender roles for the Aiel.  The Aiel, of course, practice polygamy.  The subversive thing, though, is that the polygamy as the Aiel practice it is presented as more… Feminist, for lack of a better word… than the monogamous marriage in the rest of the world.   How could that be?   Easy. the Aiel simply believe that the relationships between two women are more important than their relationship to their husband.   At this point I could add that in the Aiel society it’s women who own the property and dominate politics (since Wise Ones hand pick each clan leader).

I don’t know what Robert Jordan’s actual views are.   Nor do I really care.   His books challenged me and made me see things differently.    Shame on you, Abigail Nussbaum, for being too arrogant to appreciate that some readers find that more important than florid prose and perfectly crafted plots.

 

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