Thursday, August 23, 2012

Author Intent versus Fan Desires

Or why fans hate Steven Erikson’s inconsistencies and Erikson doesn’t care
This is a rant that has been building in me for years now. And it is a rant that I think many readers of this blog will disagree with, perhaps quite vehemently, as I unapologetically scream that fantasy fans are way too often rigid, short-sighted idiots who willingly choose to ignore the point of the books they read.
Throughout the Malazan series there are inconsistencies, particularly in regards to the timeline. Characters appear who are much older than they should be, timings within the books don’t line up, characters will think of events that haven’t happened yet, etc. Whether such things began as intentional or not, they have persisted, and many of the Malazan fans have gritted their teeth, pulled their hair out and screamed aloud of the problems of these issues. Some have even stopped reading Erikson altogether due to these inconsistencies (and Erikson’s reactions to them). Along with these inconsistencies comes further complaint about a lot the more philosophical aspects of Erikson’s writing. Especially, the long, rambling and sometimes evangelical way they can be presented in.  
Erikson is often asked about these and his response has remained consistent, though the tone and personal wear of his response has varied. He is not bothered by them, and in some cases things were deliberately chosen in spite of the inconstancies with the story that has come before. There are good reasons for why he’s not bothered, though many fans choose to ignore them do their own perspectives. First, Erikson is an archeologist and therefore a student of history, long history. He knows that facts are in the eye of the beholder, perspective rules and that no history, however complete, is perfectly consistent. Nor is the world he creates.
Furthermore, Erikson is not after a consistent world creation or perfectly derived lists of characters and events. He is all about exploration of the human condition, as well as exploitation and exposition of the fantasy genre. He is intentionally subversive in his writing and often flat-out derisive. He will spit in the face of the reader to make his point, and that is often his point. And the reader’s journey is more complete for it.
But this is lost. His continued answers in interviews are lost. Eventually, he began inserting meta commentary of this in his writing (see my reviews of Toll the Hounds and Crack’d Pot Trail).  He seems haunted by the issue, though unmoved in his position. And he continues in Forge of Darkness (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), even doubling down. Below are a series of quotes – one from an interview and the others from the book.  
“Histories hide behind other histories, and this Kharkanas trilogy is a layer pulled back, but even there it’s not structured as ‘this is precisely what happened back then.’ Rather, it is a tale deliberately reshaped by the narrator, for motives entirely his own. This detail allowed me to stay fresh in creating the tale, without being too tightly bound to any kind of objective reality.”
Let me ask you this, then. Does one find memory in invention? Or will you find invention in memory? Which bows in servitude before the other? Will the measure of greatness be weighted solely in the details? Perhaps so, if the details make up the full weft of the world, if themes are nothing more than the composite of lists perfectly ordered and unerringly rendered; and if I should kneel before invention, as if it were made perfect.
Do I look like a man who would kneel?
Is my laughter cynical? Derisive? Do I sigh and remind myself yet again that truths are like seeds hidden in the ground, and should you tend them who may say what wild life will spring into view?
Should you err, the list-makers will eat you alive.
“I am satisfied to think of writing as a desire worth having, whereas its practical exercise is a turgid ordeal I leave to lesser folk, since I have better things to do with the sentient fragments of my brain.”
“Thus the argument of a thousand useless geniuses, each one quick to venture an opinion, particularly a negative one, since by their own negativity they can justify doing nothing but complain.”
 Varandas and Haut, p. 496-497
As a reader, do the quotes above enrage you or make you laugh? I think it’s a critical question for those who read Erikson’s writing. Erikson writes with a purpose, a purpose often in contrast to reader’s expectations. He’s unapologetic about his purpose. Readers react, some leave, yet many still read. Many will call me an apologist (or worst) in my siding with Erikson on this. Because the inconsistencies don’t matter. They aren’t the point. Look deeper. Read deeper. Forget the lists. Look for the point of it all.
And if you find it, let me know. Because I’ll freely admit that I’m still looking – I’ve found much, but the joy is that there is always more to find. And that is the point.
And now that it’s time to wind down my rant as become a bit milder it’s time to quote Erikson yet again from an essay recently posted at
To be honest, a part of me wants to reach through the inter-ether, close hands on neck, and shout TRUST ME!
And while that may seem a bit conciliatory, he can’t help but follow up with
While another part of me, railing even louder in my mind, wants to add a brain-rattling shake and say IT’S NOT AS IMPORTANT AS YOU THINK!
But, read the essay, it’s not as bad as it seems with those out-of-context quotes.


James said...

Great rant. I have always loved this about Erikson. All these continuity issues that people are coming up with? I never noticed any of them. Then again, I am not the sort of person who sits down and plots out a timeline. I care about the story, not the technical details.

Grack21 said...

I love you.

Neth said...

@grack21 - I was expecting some sort of reaction...though that wasn't it ;)

@James agreed.

Brad Murgen said...

A couple of years ago I quit on Malazan during book 4 for a variety of reasons. I'm attempting to re-read the series again in full now with a different perspective. I don't care much for lists or timelines either, and usually don't notice inconsistencies in massive works like this. But you bring up an interesting point, and one I didn't really think of... however, when an author deliberately chooses to do this, i.e. introduce inconsistencies and disregard events in previous works, they have to be careful. Prefacing material with "written by the perspective of a historian, so it could be wrong, who knows" seems somewhat lazy to me and an excuse to change something or get out of proper planning. I would prefer to see how people misinterpret and misrepresent events over time without contradiction, rather than just have the author write questionable accounts (of an already fake history) from various points of view. Do that too much and it starts to become a mess, even to someone who doesn't do lists or timelines. We'll see if my perspective changes when I finish the series.

Neth said...


Frankly, I find the inconsistencies in Erikson's work to be negligable, and they are so bad that I really notice them when reading. As for the deliberate nature of some them, they come in the later parts of the series and I think very few people ever notice them prior to reading about them on the internet.

As for the bit about lazy claim for point of view perspective and narrative voice, I frankly disagree. Especially with Erikson's writing. I would actually turn it around and say that when a reader makes the lazy claim they are looking strait into a mirror and not reading into the words nearly as much as they should. I think that's what really bothers Erikson the most - he puts so much into the words and their thematic power, and so many readers simply dismiss them without thought.

Joshua Lowe said...

I had a very similar rant to this a while back, but on a much broader scale. Check it out:

Adam Whitehead said...

Part of the problem is Erikson's own inconsistency: his current stance of 'it doesn't matter' only really began with TOLL THE HOUNDS, and prior to that he actually seemed to avoid problems and work to fix them.

For example, the first example of such an issue was the abandoned ship in the Nascent (which several characters venture into at different periods, in DEADHOUSE GATES, HOUSE OF CHAINS and MIDNIGHT TIDES). The timeline didn't really work, but Erikson not only acknowledged this but turned it into a virtue, using it as an example of how weird time works in Warrens. He also later thanked Esslemont (in THE BONEHUNTERS) for double-checking the timeline and making sure everything worked properly.

However, TTH broke the timeline altogether. Harllo, a key protagonist, is a six-year-old child. He is also the son of a character in MEMORIES OF ICE, who was pregnant with him in that book. So TOLL THE HOUNDS takes place six years after MEMORIES OF ICE, despite the fact that in every single other storyline, it blatantly doesn't (the Bridgeburners have been in possession of the temple/bar for a few months at the most). When people say they didn't notice that, I'm quite surprised, as it's an extremely blatant retcon and immediately obvious.

Every other inconsistentcy in the series has some kind of explanation possible or is too minor to be of value (Karsa's wildly fluctuating age, for example, is something that does not interest me at all as it's a minor background detail), but this error stood out due to it being pointless. Harllo could have been anyone else's child, or maybe an adopted child or something. It did feel like Erikson deliberately went for some point there, but never really made it clear.

It's also notable that Esslemont (in ORB SCEPTRE THRONE) deliberately addressed this issue, confirming that TTH took place a few months after MoI and ignoring the Harllo situation altogether. So clearly he felt the situation significant enough to warrant some (minor) attention.

The main problem is that if you are deliberately saying that your invented world has no consistentcy to it and anything can happen at any time with no regard for prior continuity, than you are also saying that your world is ephemeral and has no substance to it. And at that point your audience may very well start asking, "Well, why should I care?"

Adam Whitehead said...

Another point that occurs is that MALAZAN is a vastly complex puzzle which Erikson invites the reader to engage with. In that context, the reader can expect 'all the pieces to matter' (to paraphrase THE WIRE) and when inconsistencies appear, they furiously try to explain them as clearly they would not have happened without the author's intent.

So when the author instead turns round and says, "No, it was just a mistake and you're sad nerds for even trying to explain it away," the reader is also justified in feeling confused (because I thought we were supposed to be paying attention to everything, as the author asked us to) and then annoyed at the author's own inconsistent behaviour.

Maria said...

Inconsistencies bother me. So I tend not to read authors who do it often. Point or not.

Neth said...


On this we simply disagree. Each of those instances you mention simply don't matter in my opinion. They really have no bearing on the overall message of that Erikson is trying to get across and they really have no real relevance to the over-arching plot.

NIMatt said...

The majourity of the timeline issues, imo, don't matter.
The man was churning out a doorstopper a year on time and completed a vast epic series in ten years.
Point me to one other author that has done that, and maybe Ill be bothered that Harllo was six.

Benjamin said...

NIMatt, there are authors who put out several books a year while it took Tolkien the better part of 15 years to write The Lord of the Rings. Comparing the amount of time for one body of work with another is frankly ridiculous.

Ken, you certainly raise some valid points. I can point to several instances in my own reading history where I complained about something in one work while not caring about the exact same thing in another. To be honest, the little inconsistencies, as others have pointed out, are really irrelevant, though for different reasons.

The bigger issue as I see it is as Adam sorted of implied already (forgive me, Adam, if I misread you) and that is the relationship between Erikson and the reader. When an author often alternates between defending and explaining himself, and then claiming not to care or that it does not matter, then to me it seems there is a deeper issue of miscommunication. Perhaps Erikson does have deeper messages and themes he is exploring, but when readers plow through thousands of pages and miss them entirely, something is obviously being missed.

We can argue until the end of time about whose fault this is. Perhaps Erikson's critics are partially to blame and that we have failed him as readers. But an author/reader relationship goes both ways and perhaps Erikson has also failed us as a writer.

But then again, this is all a matter of perspective isn't it?

Kev said...

It is really all a matter of perspective isn't it Benjamin.

I for one don't think Erikson has ever failed me as an author. I read his work firstly because I consider him to be one of the finest story-tellers i've ever come across (no i'm not a list-maker - and thank holy fuck for that) and more importantly because I love the way he writes and the emotions he can pull from me. In that sense I feel I do get the message/s he wants to get across to his writers in hs works.

I also appreciate the vast scale of his work on the Malazan series and to this date I don't think any other Authors work comes close to it in terms of epicness and the sheer scale of what he created. To this end I forgive any and all time-line issues - simply because as he himself say's. IT'S NOT THAT IMPORTANT for me anyway.

Great piece Neth - you've gained a new reader!!!

Adam Whitehead said...

The problem is essentially that Erikson is way too concerned with his place in genre history and his wider fame and has moved to a position where he is blaming the audience for 'not getting it', rather than analysing his own faults in not getting his messages (which, to be frank, are not particularly revelatory in the first place) across more successfully.

The Author is Dead, and when the author has to spend inordinate amounts of time railing on blogs and in interviews about what he was trying to achieve in his work, than his work is a failure, even if a noble and glorious one (as MALAZAN certainly is). That is fine. When the author starts treating his audience with actual disdain, as Erikson is in severe danger of doing whenever he does these 'cute' put-downs (and no-one has made more of a fuss about these timeline issues than Erikson himself), than he is going down the path of Terry Goodkind. And that is something that I would hate to see happen to an author who once engineered a very fine put-down of Goodkind (Tehol's 'evil' chickens in REAPER'S GALE).

Neth said...

I was happy to see this little note appear on Facebook:

Steve Lundin: I should probably clarify my statement that 'it's not that important' refers not to 'it doesn't matter to me' but that most concerns regarding continuity in the new trilogy actually have solutions that will make sense. But anyway, Ken, thanks for the article!

For those that don't know - Steve Lundin is Erikson (he writes most fiction under a pen name.

Anonymous said...

I so do not care about an author's purpose - that is I don't feel being owed anything other than being entertained with quality writing. But I think Erikson writes a bit uncontrollably and he can't hold himself back (or his mouthpieces) from immediately voicing any opinion that comes into his mind with utmost conviction. In a way that helps to keep his style energetic, but he's a bit of a blabbermouth, and that makes it feel occasionally like reading the Steven Erikson newsletters rather than an epic fantasy series. Or maybe it just seems this way in the context of such "controversy".

@ Werthead
I don't think Steven Erikson is down any path.

Anonymous said...

Besides, inner consistency and alterations between two works are simply different arguments.

Annabel said...

I think MBotF is much more prone to criticism for inconsistancies because it is such a complex and difficult series. There is so much left unexplained throughout the series and so much that is revealed slowly in tidbits, that many readers are actively engaged in trying to "figure it out" throughout their read (with "it" being anything from warrens, how plots inter-connect, religion, Ascendancy, Holds, history and more).

There is never any explicit mention in MT that it is taking place long before GotM, it is left to the reader to figure it out (though like most things, if you miss something major it will be explained/re-capped later, just in case).

I can understand the frustration of readers who are heavily engaged in wanting to "figure things out" running into an obvious inconsistancy that conflicts with everything they've "figured out" so far. And considering that there are a lot of intentional breakages of the system that has been established so far (such as the introduction of Holds in MT after you thought you'd figured out all the Warrens), readers will end up trusting that the author is going somewhere with it, only to later see that trying to incorporate the inconsistancy into their mental scope of the series was a pointless exercise. Unfortunately, there is no way for the first-time reader to know whether a mistake/inconsistancy by the author is precisely that, or whether they should believe it fully like everything else in the narrative.

So people get frustrated by that, and naturally they want to ask the author about it, especially back when all the novels weren't written/released, yet. Compounding the frustration of inconsistancies, then, is that Erikson is not very good at answering questions about them.

Around the time of the release of HoC and MT, people were confused about the timings and inter-connectedness of events on the Silanda, so they asked SE about it. There's actually no problem with the sequence of events on the Silanda at all, it is quite logical and sequential as long as you realize the first book of HoC is before DG, but SE doesn't recall his own works well enough to know that. So, SE seems to have taken the readers' word that it made no sense and waved it away as that time flows differently in the warrens. There was absolutely no reason for this, as we'd never had another instance (up to that point - RotCG wasn't out yet) of time needing to flow differently in a warren, so by saying this SE threw a big, unnecessary wrench into everyone's understanding. And because he said that, even though it was unnecessary and probably just said to wave away a non-existant timeline issue, people still zealously hold to that concept and still believe the Silanda events make no sense (see Adam's first reponse above!).

Basically, what I'm saying, is that SE doesn't know the fine details of his own work well enough to satisfy curious readers, and so his answers are always even more confusing or "It doesn't matter, the themes are more important." and that is what makes the inconsistancies so frustrating.

It's not a matter of readers paying only attention to either the plot or the themes, it's a matter of readers feeling that BOTH are important.

Unknown said...

Neth, great post. I couldn't agree with you more, fully acknowledging my agreement is partly due to me never really being a 'details' person in most aspects of my life!

I can also see the frustrations of others. The one that really jumps to mind is Abalieno (Looping World) on the Malazan re-read. He also had huge issues with these inconsistencies. Nevertheless, he is still quite an unabashed fanboy of Erikson's :)

For me, the greatest thing about Erikson's work is that it has changed my perception of so many things in life. And it has made me cry while reading it. Even Bakker and Rothfuss with their considerable skill have not managed that, much less the much ballyhoed author of the "long but never ending series that is now on HBO".

In such things, I believe, the details hardly matter.


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