Twee for Two

nihilistic_kid has a post on writing fantasy, distinguishing it from some thing(s) he calls “fantatwee.” By this he means “second order fantasy” or fantasy which derives from other people’s fantasies. He links to a story by Theodora Goss here, and people whose opinion I take seriously have spoken of Mamatas’ post and Goss’ story with respect.

I mean no disrespect to Goss, anyway, but the story didn’t have much impact for me. This suggests I’m not the ideal reader for Goss, Clarkesworld or Mamatas, which I had already discovered, but the experience did provoke some thoughts that may be worth setting down.

To my ear and eye, Goss’ story is full of borrowed experience and imagery. It reminded me of some other fiction which uses the political upheavals of Europe as a background and a metaphor (e.g. The Unbearable Lightness of Being or the prologue to The Name of the Rose) and also of the urban fantasies of Italo Calvino (especially Invisible Cities; I’m pretty sure there’s a shout-out to Calvino in Goss’ text). None of this is necessarily a bad thing, but it does make the story feel more like the second-order work that Mamatas scorns. More problematic, but harder to express, is my reaction to the story’s style. It reads with what seems to me a somber singsong tone, affected and precious. This kept me apart from the story, muting and distorting its effect.

If twee is anything other than a term of mere abuse, it must refer to this very quality of preciousness and affectation which alienates the reader. So (for me, maybe for others) Goss’ story is as twee or twee-er than the stories Mamatas scorns–a different flavor, perhaps, a sort of sovietwee, but still twee.

Any story is a set of symbols which invites the reader’s emotional participation, and no set of symbols (and hence no story) will appeal to every reader. If the cry of “twee!” represents a reader’s rejection of a story’s invitation, the reader shares some of the responsibility for the tweeness–it’s an event, a reaction in the reader’s awareness, after all.

So I’m starting to think that terms like “second order fantasy” are (or can be) an evasion of the reader’s responsibility to make his or her case for or against a story. Every story contains elements that are first-order (“I saw this myself”) and second-order (“I read/heard about this somewhere”). A reader who honestly confronts the elements in a story he/she finds alienating may learn useful things about the story and him/her self. I’m not suggesting that every story, even every good story, is always worth this kind of effort. (“Had we world enough and time” etc.) But it may sometimes prove a useful exercise.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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18 Responses to Twee for Two

  1. filomancer says:

    Ok, I have a third-order reaction here (not having read the Mamatas or the Goss). Hello! Storytelling depends upon conventions.

    They’re like grammar in language. We can communicate with other speakers of our native language because we share conventions of phonology, morphology, syntax. Generally (though there are exceptions), we don’t consider the existence of grammatical conventions like person or case marking to be an obstacle to creating original and interesting speech. It’s because of grammar that we can express thoughts in verbal form, and understand others’ verbal expressions. The fact that some speakers are more interesting than others has little to do with the form of the first-person pronominal object.

    Of course, with storytelling as with dress, speech idioms, etc., etc., our culture(s) have several alternative sets of conventions. Inter alia, we indicate by our choice what social group we wish to express allegiance to.

    • JE says:

      : “Storytelling depends upon conventions. … Of course, with storytelling as with dress, speech idioms, etc., etc., our culture(s) have several alternative sets of conventions. Inter alia, we indicate by our choice what social group we wish to express allegiance to.”

      Right. Every use of language is a social event and storytelling is no exception. I’ll have to think some more about this.

  2. burger_eater says:

    I think you’re projecting your own meaning into ‘s definition of “fantatwee.”

    It’s supposed to be escapism without depth or meaning. “Opium without treatment.” It’s not about whether it has an homage in it, or if the imagery is unoriginal.

    Whether you care for the style of the story or not (and I did) you can’t say it is without darkness or that it ignores the problem at the center of the story.

    • JE says:

      It’s not impossible that I’m having trouble reading Mamatas fairly; he’s not exactly my favorite person (though I try not to let that influence me when I’m assessing an argument; there are days when I’m not my own favorite person). And there are parts of his argument I just didn’t engage with, because our points of view are so radically different. But he does, indeed, talk about this second order stuff (he says “second order escapism” not “second order fantasy” but it’s the same thing). And I do indeed see this second order stuff all through Goss’ story.

      “Whether you care for the style of the story or not (and I did) you can’t say it is without darkness or that it ignores the problem at the center of the story.”

      For me, it lacks genuineness. It doesn’t address anything I understand about sorrow and loss. If we’re sticking to medical analogies, I’d compare it neither to a palliative nor to a treatment but to a placebo. But this may just be the sound of me not getting it. (Or me expressing loyalty to another community, along the lines of ‘s observations. But I don’t think my reaction is just one of social identification, though that may well be part of it; everyone has individual as well as group identities. Also, I’m predisposed to be friendly to anyone who’s a Calvino fan.)

      • burger_eater says:

        (he says “second order escapism” not “second order fantasy” but it’s the same thing)

        I wonder why you say that, when you seem to be using “second order fantasy” to mean “full of borrowed experience and imagery” while he seems to be using “second order escapism” to mean using borrowed imagery to create a story without any thematic strenght, having only a palliative effect.

        It’s pretty clear that he’s not anti-escapist, only anti-escapist-and-nothing-more. That’s the thesis of that post you’ve linked to. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have a problem with borrowed imagery, considering that his first novel was a Kerouac/Cthulhu pastiche (which I loved, by the way.)

        And yeah, he can be caustic. But I read him because he’s a helluva writer and his ideas are always (or nearly always) expressed clearly and intelligently. I sometimes disagree, but I enjoy disagreeing with him, even if it’s just in my own noggin.

        • JE says:

          I wouldn’t say he’s anti-escapist–did not say so, in fact.

          Regarding the “second order” stuff: here’s part of his argument that I was responding to.

          : “The story isn’t renovated or explored or undermined. Instead, what enjoyment there is in the reading of it is the stuff of bedtime: ‘One upon a time…the end.’ ‘Read it again, mama!’ Nothing drives the story but the prior existence of the story; the new version’s theme is nothing more than ‘Hey, remember this old story that used to mean something? Well, it still used to.'”

          To be clear: he’s talking about retold fairy tales or similarly derivative imaginary-world fantasy and not applying the same principle to the Goss story; it’s me who’s applying it. If it cuts one way, it should cut the other to similar effect.

          Since we don’t have any specific counter-example at hand (by which I mean a fantasy story Mamatas considers fantatwee), his argument isn’t very well-supported. Possibly the editors who are publishing the stuff he doesn’t like at Fantasy think those stories do have sufficient thematic heft, or something just as good. In essence, Mamatas is pointing at a badly made straw man of his own construction and accusing it of being badly made. A always equals A, but it doesn’t usually mean much to point that out.

          I suspect the real issue is a set of emotional cues which Mamatas finds pleasing (the modernist stuff in Goss’ tale) vs. ones he finds displeasing (the pseudo-medieval decorations of a retold fairy tale, which can only acceptable if they’ve been postmodernized somehow).

          Whether that’s the case or not, Mamatas’ piece is pretty clear as a statement of editorial policy: what he likes and what he doesn’t like. As a discussion of fantasy fiction, it’s a mere one-sided rant and not an especially convincing one.

          • burger_eater says:

            … did not say so, in fact.

            I apologize for that. Of course you didn’t say it. I was typing that last comment in between phone calls at work, and I’m afraid my day job renders me stupid. That’s why I waited until lunch break to continue; I’m now fully rejuvanized by a PB&J and can resume my usual level of erratic irrationality.

            I can understand why Mamatas wouldn’t name any stories specifically. He’s saying he rejected them for Clarkesworld and later saw them published at Fantasy. I wouldn’t go around naming published stories that I’d previously rejected, either.

            And the part of the post that you quote leaves out important context, namely:

            Fantatwee leaves out the shell shock. In the fairy tale mode, the jagged edges of fairy tales are filed off, and replaced with a faux threat — Snow White with fangs, a few more mentions of blood, that sort of thing. But there’s no terror, no threat of the horrid arbitrariness that lies at the intersection of fairyland and early modernity.”

            That’s why I think it’s inaccurate to say: To be clear: he’s talking about retold fairy tales or similarly derivative imaginary-world fantasy and not applying the same principle to the Goss story… He’s not just talking about derivative stories. He’s talking about derivative stories of feel-good escapism.

            Personally, I don’t think that applies to the Goss story, and I would hope I’d feel that way even if I didn’t like it. In fact, the current issue of Clarkeworld includes a Dr. Moreau story from Jeffrey Ford. That’s pretty clearly derivative.

            Also, it’s not like he only wants modernist stuff. He’s published a story about a dragon by Elizabeth Bear (although the setting is not pseudo-medieval) and one with a pre-industrial setting by Cat Rambo.

            I think you’ve misinterpreted his post.

          • JE says:

            “I think you’ve misinterpreted his post.”

            Possibly, but I sort of feel like you and I are talking past each other. My suggestion that modernist (in the strict sense of mid-20th C. stuff) cues appeal to Mamatas may be wrong; it’s not undercut by evidence that other stuff appeals to him. People can like chocolate as well as strawberry while hating vanilla.

            And those rationales he assigns to the stories he doesn’t like are straw-man arguments. Had he named a title or two, then a substantive discussion might have been possible. As it is, he gets to run both sides of the conversation. I can’t take that seriously.

            [edited to add:]

            Sorry I didn’t acknowledge your very civil self-correction in the original version of this post. Maybe I should be thinking faster and posting slower.

          • burger_eater says:

            Sorry I didn’t acknowledge your very civil self-correction in the original version of this post.

            No worries. After I acknowledge an error, I immediately forget it so completely that it’s like it never happened. 🙂

  3. nathan_long says:

    Interesting.

    In general, I agree with what Mamatas is saying in his post about fantatwee. But I read a few paragraphs of the Goss story and have to agree with you that it is its own kind of twee.

    It is cozy twee versus pretentious twee.

    He says his idea of bad fantatwee is where the nerds in high-school are given a magic wand that allows them to touch boobs. Your idea of bad fantatwee seems to be where the nerds in high school are proved right that smoking French cigarettes and reading Sarte really did make them better than everybody else… and they get to touch boobs.

    I personally can’t stand cozy fantasy, or ‘talking cat’ fantasy, if you prefer. It’s all about comforting the reader, and there is no room for real drama or emotion when all the dragons have blunted claws. At the same time the sort of story that sets out to prove that the writer is infinitely more cool and well read and intellectual than most of his potential readers is just as annoying. It is the coziness of the elitist clique and the hipster snob, and there is often no room for plot or action when opaqueness is the objective.

    Maybe its best to shoot for the middle ground; fantasy – with any sort of trappings, even talking cats – that has the bite of true emotion and real danger, but doesn’t tip over into pretense and intellectual dick-measuring.

    • JE says:

      Everyone has their literary equivalent of comfort food, I guess, but I’m inclined to agree about cozy stuff: it really doesn’t do anything for me.

      One of my problems with Mamatas’ argument is that he’s talking about a straw man. He mentions that there are examples of fantatwee in Fantasy, but doesn’t name one. If he did so, people might start to shout, “Hey! Binky ‘Bosco’ Sorensen’s ‘Talking Catz of Elflynde’ is rich with thematic significance, you yutz!” Anyway, it would be easier to test the validity of his negative judgement.

      I suspect he and I are reading for different things. He writes, “A good story is one that is thematically interesting enough to be reread without being understood exactly the same way the second time.” But I think that a good story is one with impact. Impact has something to do with theme, like yeast does with (some) bread, but anyone who thinks there’s a one-to-one correspondence misunderstands something fundamental about literature (and the arts in general).

      • sboydtaylor says:

        Hmm. Here’s my definition:

        A *good* story has to have impact.
        A *clever* story should be thematically complex.
        A *great* story should be full of both clever and good.

        But this is off the cuff, and, as with all my opinions, I reserve the right to be completely wrong.

    • sboydtaylor says:

      “He says his idea of bad fantatwee is where the nerds in high-school are given a magic wand that allows them to touch boobs. Your idea of bad fantatwee seems to be where the nerds in high school are proved right that smoking French cigarettes and reading Sarte really did make them better than everybody else”

      Hmm. This is a brilliant description of two styles of writing, neither of which I like — when taken to extremes.

      But I have more varied tastes than the norm.

    • bg_editor says:

      Very nicely said.

  4. tchernabyelo says:

    Interesting.

    I have to agree with you, to some extent. the Goss story is utterly beautiful, but I found no edge or darkness or bite to it whatsoever, and parts of it read like a pastiche of Mitteleuropean fiction about the “class struggle” in terms that don’t resonate in any meaningful way for me (and yes, it’s a huge “Invisible Cities” hmoage, surely).

    I think I know what Mamatas is saying, though, and to some extent I agree with him. I see a fair of amount of fanatwee around the place, but one person’s fantatwee is another’s escapist vision of utter joy and beauty.

    It’s clear that, for Clarkesworld, Nick wants stories with teeth and darkness and bite. Sometimes they succeed (“The First Female President” was, I thought, magnificent, as was “The Beacon”, IIRC). More often they fail (I thought “Teeth” was tame, and a fairly amateurish set of Poe references that I could have written) – but Nick, as well as looking for works with bite and “literary sensibility”, is also after the stuff that some people will hate and some people will love, rather than stuff that many people will like.

    And yes, no story is “twee” by itself; it is only the reading of it that can elicit that reaction, and different people will haev different values of “twee”.

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