Robert Jordan, the Wheel of Time, and the world around him

The End of the Story” concerns Robert Jordan and his epically bad fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. I’ve mentioned The Wheel of Time as being an important influence, “mostly for the worst,” although it eventually offered me something to react against. Still, from the ages of 12 – 15 or so, The Wheel of Time captivated me. I’d like to say, “I have no idea why,” but I do have some ideas, none of them flattering, and none of which I’d like to list.

My 12- – 15-year-old self is hardly alone: Jordan “sold more than 40 million books in his lifetime.” Whatever their merits, the people who bought those books in such numbers must have found something useful in them. But to me, the meta-phenomenon is sometimes more interesting than the phenomenon itself: Robert Jordan (or J.K. Rowling) aren’t particularly good writers, and Jordan is outright bad. Yet their popularity must say something about our culture, as difficult as it might be to ascertain what that something is.

Zach Baron tries to answer that question in “The End of the Story,” which is fascinating for its exploration of Jordan’s life and work. I kept waiting for him to talk about the writing itself: the first half of “The End of the Story” is notable for how it doesn’t cite examples from the work. As B.R. Myers said about Jonathan Franzen:

No doubt the rave reviews for Freedom will evince the same reluctance to quote from the text that we saw [with The Corrections]. Reviewers gave that book maximum points for sweep and sprawl while subtracting none for its slovenly prose, the short-windedness of each of its thousand “themes,” and the failure of the main story line to generate any momentum.

I don’t know if Myers is right about Franzen—I tried to read The Corrections not long after it came out and gave up—but Myers’ point about the disconnect between writing about books and citing what’s actually in them is well-taken.

For Jordan, there’s a very good reason for not quoting him: his writing isn’t very good. Baron does get there, mostly in the context of Jordan’s retrograde view of sexuality:

Jordan possessed an understanding of women so bankrupt it would make a seventh-grade boy weep. It was admirable that he tried: Jordan’s heroes were as liable to be female as male—more so, even—and most of the societies he depicted were either matriarchal or, at worst, equal opportunity.

But Jordan’s women do a lot of “sniffing,” usually loudly. They cross their arms under their breasts. Men to them are “wool-headed lummoxes” or “wool-brained mules.” (A disproportionately high number of women in the Wheel of Time are also lesbians—make of that what you will.) Jordan was not above describing rivals for the same man as “two strange cats who had just discovered they were shut up in the same small room.” That is, when he wasn’t making Borscht Belt jokes about their bad cooking, or spending pages describing their dresses. (In this respect, Jordan put romance novels to shame: the Wheel of Time without a doubt holds the record for inexplicably extended rhapsodies over brocaded silk, embroidery, hemlines, and necklines.) Mostly, what Jordan’s women are is the same: some combination of cold, willful, quick to take offense, and—around the right man—weak in the knees.

And fake: completely, totally, fake. The greatest fantasy in The Wheel of Time isn’t about magic—it’s about how women behave (or don’t). One thing that’s so refreshing about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is that, unlike so much fantasy (Jordan, C.S. Lewis, and others) women are real, present, and not merely there to be props for men or otherwise manipulated. Rowling, whatever her weaknesses as a stylist, also does this well in Harry Potter, but that something resembling real female characters are sufficiently unusual to be notable is unfortunate.

This was a common enough and fair enough criticism that Jordan responded:

Jordan was never anything but unapologetic. “I’ve seen a lot of comment, apparently from men, that my female characters are unrealistic,” he once wrote. “That’s because women are, for the most part, consummate actresses who allow men to see exactly what they intend men to see. Get behind the veil sometimes, boys, and your hair will turn white.

The dupe here is not male critics of Jordan (like me, or, implicitly, Baron), but Jordan himself, who claims to pierce one “veil” but in doing so has created other, more pernicious ones, constructed from cardboard and perhaps more constricting than whatever one he previously imagined.

Then again, given his male characters’ silliness and hangups, maybe we shouldn’t say that Jordan has problems with female characters—he has problems with characters. It’s just that the ones about male characters aren’t as offensive because they don’t exist in a context of men being portrayed as helpless, stupid, or mostly asexual. Instead, they’re merely aesthetically offensive. Which is worse I leave as an exercise to the reader.

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