Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A remembrance

Here are remarks on Robert Jordan by World Fantasy Award winner and top fantasy fiction writer Guy Gavriel Kay as the MC of the World Fantasy Award ceremonies this year:

. . . two months ago James Rigney Jr, better known as Robert Jordan, died well before his time. It seems apt that this gathering of writers and editors and readers devoted to fantasy, and celebrating it, pause briefly, to acknowledge that.

John Clute, no lesser figure, said of Jordan's magnum opus, "when complete, the sequence will almost certainly constitute one of the major epic narratives of modern fantasy". It was never complete. He died at 58.

There has always been a tension between writers who aspire to high art, enduring work, and those who pursue popular success, defining themselves as entertainers. The literati disdain the commercial while envying their bank accounts, and the bestsellers often regard the artistic as elitist and unreadable and the twain don't do a lot of beer-drinking together.

A few years ago Stephen King - an award nominee this afternoon - spoke at the National Book Awards where he was being acknowledged for his life's work, and he lambasted a glittering crowd for not adequately honoring popular fiction. He said, "I have no patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they've never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark�"

That same day, Shirley Hazzard, who had just won the National Book Award, disagreed, saying she had too little time left to live and read, that she would focus on Shakespeare and Conrad. She said, "I want to say in response to Stephen King, I don't think giving us a reading list of those who are most read at this moment is much of a satisfaction."

Both writers are people I respect and I will cravenly say here that I think both are right. Because, and this is the point, these are decisions that we all make for ourselves. We all assess what we value, how we want to spend our leisure time, or even if we want to call reading 'leisure time' - as opposed to necessary oxygen - and there is no formula, no rule.

This brings me back to Jim Rigney, Robert Jordan. On the Locus website I noted, in preparing these remarks, that he was never in his life nominated for a World Fantasy Award, for a Nebula, for a Hugo. Those encompass judge awards, peer awards and fan balloting.

I will not stand here and argue - nor am I in a position to assess - whether this is appropriate or not. What I can say, what I'd like you to consider, is that a mature, increasingly important genre has a need - a defining need - for literary work and for the entertaining bestsellers.

And - further - that the popular successes are central to any genre's emergence at the centre of a culture. From 1990 forward, Robert Jordan produced bestsellers. Jokes were made about forests destroyed for the print runs. He brought innumerable readers to fantasy; for better or worse he consolidated the template of the multi-multi-volume series. He became the New York Times bestseller list face of fantasy. Whatever one thinks of that, every person in this room can rattle off, as easily as I can, the writers who followed and even those who preceded Jordan, who gained a significant boost from the success of his work - and from his personal generosity in offering support to their books. George Martin has said as much in print. I can affirm that response myself: his generosity as a reader towards work very different from his own. And is there anyone here who'd want to deny that J.K. Rowling built upon his entrenching of the ongoing saga in shaping - and selling - her own?

We need to be large enough as a genre to acknowledge this without condescension. To note that editors and writers and publishers in this field flourish today because of Jordan's impact, that readers of fantasy find their favored genre centered in the culture now, and that the very recent, untimely passing of a profoundly important figure is worth remembering at the outset of a celebration.

At Jewish weddings a glass is always shattered to affirm that one remembers loss amid joy. Whether you raise a glass in your mind's eye, or break one in remembrance, I invite you to take a moment to remember Robert Jordan.

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