At what point is being preachy okay?
I just finished The Last Light of the Sun. I managed to avoid anyone else’s opinions on it except for a brief glimpse, while adding it (on a whim; I’m hardly diligent about it) to Goodreads, of a review which bore, at its top, three stars. Only those I saw, but (as always happens if someone tells me what they thought of a book beforehand) I spent the remaining half of the book trying to figure out what that reviewer, and thus some percentage of those who’d read the book, took issue with.
True, Kay doles out more than his usual helping of fragmentary sentences. I recognized the moments he chose to use them, though, as attempts to push meaning rather than description: it’s just so. Much. More. Insistent when you chop it up. But I don’t condemn that sort of thing, and care little for the grammar nazis among us. I think what people stand to take issue with is less the fragments themselves but what he uses them to forklift over into nigh on every page: preachiness.
I don’t say that entirely without fondness. Quotes like this:
We like to believe we can know the moments we’ll remember of our own days and nights, but it isn’t really so. The future is an uncertain shape (in the dark) and men and women know that. What is less surely understood is that this is true of the past as well. What lingers, or comes back unsummoned, is not always what we would expect, or desire to keep with us.
It happens this way. Small things, accidents of timing and congruence: and then all that flows in our lives from such moments owes its unfolding course, for good or ill, to them. We walk (or stumble) along paths laid down by events of which we remain forever ignorant. The road someone else never took, or travelled too late, or too soon, means an encounter, a piece of information, a memorable night, or death, or life.
It is in the nature of things that when we judge actions to be memorably courageous, they are invariably those that have an impact that resonates: saving other lives at great risk, winning a battle, losing one’s life in a valiant attempt to do one or the other. A death of that sort can lead to songs and memories at least as much–sometimes more–than a triumph. We celebrate our losses, knowing how they are woven into the gift of our being here.
…And so a different truth about human courage was played out among those trees. A truth we resist for what it suggests about our lives. But sometimes the most gallant actions, those requiring a summoning of all of our will, access to bravery beyond easy understanding or description…have no consequence that matters. They leave no ripples upon the surface of succeeding events, cause nothing, achieve nothing. Are trivial, marginal. This can be hard to accept.
…sounds preachy, I know. Is preachy, really. And as someone with a great deal of contempt for organizations, religious and non-, telling me how to think, I know I should mind these passages. But I don’t. I appreciate them. I’ve said it before–moments where we are told how things are are my favorite parts of Guy Gavriel Kay’s fiction. So why does he get a pass? Why, when I simmer with fury over the pastor/preacher/minister at my grandmother’s funeral absconding with the memory he leeched out of me at a pre-funeral memory-leeching session to then use in his own damn sermon, as if he had been there which he most surely was not, is one Canadian writer I’ve never met allowed to tell me how life is, in no uncertain terms? Why don’t I gnash my teeth at his use of “we,” even?
I’m not some ninny of a fangirl who thinks she knows the guy, or has come to know him through his fiction, so that’s not it. Nor am I deluding myself into thinking this is a specific meaning I alone am taking from the words–read them, he’s bald in his assertions, no subtlety to them.Things happen and this is how we react to them. I can’t stand people assuming they know what I will do or say, and I don’t even mind him doing precisely that here with his use of “we.” But maybe that is part of it–the group he’s addressing, readers of historical fantasy, doesn’t tend to congregate or even to see each other much. We certainly don’t have lobbyists wheedling for our interests in a boardroom somewhere, nor do we have casually offensive billboards plastered all over the country’s highways. He means the “we” of humanity, but the only people who are going to see it is this relatively small group of self-selected nerds.
And sure, maybe that engenders an unhealthy sense of superiority. I don’t feel it, but then here I am spending the wee hours of the morning writing about this, so maybe it’s there and I’m too close to see it. But the fact is he’s not forcing anyone to swallow these things he’s claiming as truth. He’s not demanding people get together and talk about them, or donate to force the words down poor people’s throats in order to receive necessary food and water in a far-off place. He’s “just saying”–to use the passive-aggressive phrase I loathe so much. He’s entwining these statements about life in a thinly-veiled story about the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen, yes, but he never pretends it’s real.
Maybe I would mind if he took away the fantasy element and was writing about Finn Mac Cool or King Alfred (rumored to be the inspiration for the Arthur legends). Maybe if Steven R. Lawhead had written this way in Byzantium I’d have loathed it, instead of loving it as I did. (Lawhead, back of the book notwithstanding, writes nothing like Kay. Nothing grand or transcendent; just diligent in his descriptions of a world he clearly researched a great deal.) Maybe if by-the-book evangelism had fizzled and died 500 years ago, instead of taking root to thrive and fuck up the lives of countless people nowadays, I’d more open to philosophical discussions with Christians willing to treat the fables surrounding their treatises as fables instead of god’s own truth. Maybe I’m only going to listen to you tell me how it is if you tell me stories, or if I trust you.
Maybe I only trust people who tell me stories.
And maybe the people balking at The Last Light of the Sun will only take their statements about life attached to a false grounding in reality. “Don’t tell me this is how the world works if the world is fake.” As if things would ring any truer if Kay were talking about Vercingetorix, or the old woman next door. The idea that you know what it is to live their lives is as fantastical as Alun’s faerie forest. But maybe these naysayers haven’t come to that realization yet. Maybe they never will. Maybe they’d be happier hearing this stuff at vacation bible school.
Except, oh wait, they don’t tell you this at vacation bible school. I was kicked out for reading the first book in The Fionavar Tapestry instead of making popsicle-stick-and-glitter candle holders for some sort of Christian craft hour. Guess whose message stayed with me?