Panel Notes: We Are The Knights Who Say F***!

[Yes, I’ve finally got around to writing up some of my notes from Anticipation. This is the panel from which I have the most complete, and most interesting, set of notes – it was one of the best panels I attended. But of course bear in mind that the notes below are still very partial – links between different comments are not always recorded – and you should assume that everything here is a paraphrase. Corrections or additions are, of course, welcomed.]

When: Sat 12:30
Location: P-518A
Session ID: 627

Participants: David Anthony Durham, Guy Gavriel Kay (moderator), Marc Gascoigne, Pat Rothfuss [Ellen Kushner was added at the start of the panel]
Description: Diction in fantasy used to be pretty formal, and, indeed, this can be a problem for the contemporary reader in getting on with The Lord of the Rings. But more recent epic fantasies have had their characters speaking more demotic language (and with a fair bit of Anglo-Saxon thrown in). What are the costs of doing this? Does it really make things easier for readers?
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes

[Guy Gavriel Kay opened with the canonical “change four words” passage from “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”, and asked the panellists for their responses.]

EK: The ways in which we use language in fantasy have changed since Le Guin wrote that essay. I’m in sympathy with what she says, but I’m not sure how it relates to the modern genre.

DAD: You couldn’t change four words in my book and make it a contemporary novel, but you might be able to change four words and make it into a historical novel. I’m not sure what I think of that yet. And I’m not sure how non-fantastic fantasy fits in.

MG: The assumption of Angry Robot is that the audience for our books will have grown up with computer game fantasy. For them the idea that fantasy should transport is crucial. But it can have the same plot as, say, a crime novel.

PR: It’s a stage magician trick on Le Guin’s part. The payoff of wonder and delight that she speaks of is a certain kind of fantasy, but it’s not all fantasy.

GGK: Are perceptions of travel different today? Is there more of a desire to explore the remote but remain anchored in the familiar? Do we have a generation of readers who have grown up with that as their default and who cannot read in the way Le Guin wants?

PR: It’s always been an issue. Fairy stories – include urban fantasy in this – are about the interaction of the real with fantasy.

EK: This links to diction. The words that you use and how they are ordered are part of the world you are creating.

GGK: Cites a discussion on a librarian’s email list about a loss of sensitivity to language among readers, a desire for a mirror of the familiar.

DAD: I’m reluctant to use historical patterns of diction to mark a fantasy world.

PR: I remember reading A Clockwork Orange and thinking: what you’ve done here is impressive, but I don’t want to fight this hard.

GGK: Do we need to differentiate between challenges of language and challenges of theme or content?

EK: A joy of urban fantasy is the intersection of different dictions. Two guys walk into a bar, and you can tell who the elf is by how they talk.

GGK: The TV series Merlin, the film A Knight’s Tale – these have an obviously deliberate mix-up of the historical or mythic with modern dialogue. Is hearing King Arthur say “screw you!” a payoff or a betrayal for readers?

MG: Shakespeare was writing in his time’s contemporary English.

EK: But their language was glorious! Much more metaphorically rich than ours is.

MG: Ben Johnson was the venal gutter writer. The Joe Abercrombie of his age.

GGK: It was a glorious language, but it’s true that he made no attempt to evoke historical settings. Caesar’s dialogue should all be in Latin, not just Et tu, Brute?

MG: You need the ability to move between the two modes we’re discussing.

GGK: It’s true to say it’s all in the execution, but there are situations where we can say it’s a good thing to make the reader work, to make them comprehend the alien.

PR: I pay attention to idiomatic speech. “Pulling my leg” has no place in a secondary world, it must have its own idioms. That’s what got me about Abercrombie’s books (which I like) – he has references to Shakespeare in his titles, epigraphs from our world. Is that a cheat?

EK: Fantasy is in the end made up. I’m a fantasist second and a contemporary novelist first. I’m not going to be able to create from whole cloth, I make something new out of parts.

GGK: So you’re playing? I’m with you on that.

EK: If the reader never questions it you’re doing your job.

DAD: Pat’s idioms struck me as vibrant but not foreign.

PR: There’s more foreign-ness in the second book.

EK: Another way of thinking about it: I’m writing for you in translation.

GGK: Going back to some of what Pat said, is it always a good thing to have an immediate approachable “hook”? To what extent is that an assumption in contemporary fantasy?

PR: It has to be legitimate, not a trick. It took me a long time to work out how to start The Name of the Wind.

MG: We’re not used to lengthy prologues, as readers. What we expect as a good story – we as mass culture – has changed.

DAD: I’m aware of having to promise that what comes later will be action-y and exciting. I don’t necessarily have that immediate hook, but I feel that need.

EK: I think language may vary, mileage may vary, for different readers at different times. I couldn’t read Austen until I was in my 20s. You can learn. I suspect that contemporary genre fantasy can be a gateway to older works and different ways of using language.

9 thoughts on “Panel Notes: We Are The Knights Who Say F***!

  1. Me, I don’t have a problem with ‘modern’ diction in fantasy per se, for broadly the same reasons that you cite: secondary worlds are by definition autonomous, and not beholden to Earthly historicity, however much they borrow.

    What matters is internal consistency, and for me that includes matching language to intended effect; so, for example, Tolkien used the formal diction he did because it was appropriate for his concerns. But it can also work well the other way: take, for example, a writer like K.J. Parker, who uses contemporary diction as part of a deliberate strategy to bring a military-focused fantasy world closer, and imagine how life there might really operate.

    The problems arise, I think, when writers don’t think their worlds (and words) through, and end up with a mish-mash of styles that doesn’t work.

  2. I do believe it is time to leave “the strict or formal diction” how a fantasy book should be written. It actually can be a bit annoying and without any purpose to use such as demotic language ( blÆÆdy h”ll I had no idea what demotic means, thank god for wiki, but I am going to use the term as often as possible. At dinner, work and talking to my mother in-law which btw will hear demonic and toss me out the house… )
    So I do believe that Martin, Abercrombie, Erikson is doing the right thing..

  3. I have some photos of the panel with comments here:

    But overall, other than the Terminator panel, this was the best at Anticipation. Kay was a magician – best moderator in the universe :) I disagreed with almost everything said but most of the panelists were engaging and constructive.

    I FIRMLY believe in Le Guin’s comments that linguistically the discourse narrative in the fantasy genre can NOT sound like a mystery novel or even a history; not by changing four words. For the reader to be in “fantasy-land”, as I liked to say when I was a kid, the author has to carry them there. This is done with words. It does not mean there can not be a vernacular language – it just has to have a sense of Other. An example is the stark difference between Richard and Door in Neverwhere. They both speak English but its not the same “kind”. The reader is able to sense the physical gap between the characters’ worlds through dialogue.

    I am frustrated with half-ass attempts that are becoming more and more common as production demands increase. Again, a tip of my hat to Kay who usually takes the time to make a book that sounds in ones mind like a song or poem.

    I will consult my notes and see if I can add anything to the script above. Thanks Niall!

  4. Hi! Terribly chuffed you still remember the Terminator panel fondly. And thanks for the link to your photos.

    (On the matter at hand, I agree with you that laziness can be a problem; but I also think there’s something in the deliberate dissonance strategy, the mixing-up of modernity and archaicisms. For some writers, anyway.)

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