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The Magicians (The Magicians, #1)
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The Magicians > The Magicians: anti-intellectualism

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P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments This is an outgrowth of some thoughts engendered by comments on other threads.

That The Magicians is a 'fantasy' novel which seems to really, really dislike fantasy novels and fantasy readers is not much of a revelation to anybody.

But the more I'm thinking about commentary on this forum, the more troubled I am that the book is not just anti-fantasy, but anti-intellectual. At the least, it presents the supposedly 'intellectual' characters as universally shallow, ineffective, aimless, self-indulgent, and ultimately contemptuous of anyone with an ounce of idealism or direction.

Quentin, described from the novel's opening as the smartest-of-the-smart, is deeply unhappy with the academic and professional possibilities open to him. At the first opportunity, he ditches his friends to pursue what seems like his Big Break at magic school...only to find that he despises the school's institutions as much as those back in the mundane world.

His jaded pursuit of empty pleasure and/or alcoholic oblivion seems weirdly at odds with what is supposedly a rigorous educational system. Are we supposed to believe that a sot who cares for nothing very much is the same guy willing to devote hour upon hour to finger exercises? Why would he? He doesn't really believe in anything, so what's his motivation? All of the segments detailing BrakeBills seemed like an outsider's caricatured imagining of what academia must be like for the hyper-intelligent. A little research would have demonstrated the opposite: academic success is universally the product of a belief that there's some *reason* to keep studying. That's inconsistent in every way with Quentin's character.

Once BrakeBills is dispensed with, though, it gets worse. It turns out that this institution of Higher LEarning exists for no particular purpose at all. The University is fine if you want to go out and save the world, but *equally* fine supporting you in luxury for eternity as you sit back and relax in your high-rise apartment, snorting cocaine off of expensive courtesans. It's all one to them. Again, this really seemed like the kind of bitter view of the disconnected Ivory Tower intellectual which haunts the nightmares of far-right politicians.

The novel's conclusion simply underscores this distorted pastiche of what the intellectual life is like. Characters who seem to actually give a darn about the world are dismissed as saps. Those who remain loftily above, you know, actual feelings are lauded as superior. Those with much experience in academics know the opposite is true: intellect, occasioning as it does the ability to see the long-term consequences of immediate circumstance, brings with it deep commitments, passionate causes, and idealism.

Troubled, I checked Grossman's bio and found that he was a one-time graduate student who eventually dropped out of his studies. I don't want to think that the anti-intellectualism of this novel is an artifact of some buried resentment or sour-grapes on his part. That seems a too-literal biographical reading. I'd prefer to be proven wrong about this book's perspective. But the more I read the annoyed responses of the S&L crowd, the more I sadly suspect my initial reading is correct.

Thoughts?


Julia | 177 comments P. Aaron wrote: "This is an outgrowth of some thoughts engendered by comments on other threads.

That The Magicians is a 'fantasy' novel which seems to really, really dislike fantasy novels and fantasy readers is..."


Good point I read this entire thing yesterday. I wasn't feeling good and I often read for long hours when I'm not feeling well and kept weighting for two things.

A) For the book to get better. There were so many plot threads simply dropped or potential not followed through and I kept expecting it to be picked up at a later date.

B) For the characters to do something novel like grow up. Not everyone who goes off to college is mature, the often despised Freshmen Dorms are despised for a very good reason. But somewhere in your stint of college, however long it takes given your major and life and class requirements you some growing up. Yet none of the characters in these books, in a very intense magical college managed to do that. If this book is anti-intellectual or at the very least anti-academia their inability to grow up makes a whole lot more sense. Not that I like it mind you.


Lepton | 176 comments I couldn't agree more with the charge of anti-intellectualism. I think it is particularly instructive that the most advanced and most dedicated magicians among Quentin's immediate cohorts, Penny and Alice, are respectively maimed and killed, while the drunken New York cavorters survive and lead Quentin back into Fillory.

It seems as if the novel is about bad or flawed people doing bad and irresponsible things. It's pretty tiresome.

P. Aaron, I applaud your analysis and your articulation of it.


Micah Bucy (eternalsword) | 10 comments This book was a lem for me for this very reason. I got sick and tired of waiting for any of the characters to learn from their mistakes or grow from their failures or to show an ounce of morals. I think the reason Q hates the world is because he can't recognize his flaws, refuses to accept that he has them, and has no one he respects to show him otherwise. Q reminds me a lot of Edmund before Edmund grew up. Problem is Q never grows up and there's no big brother Peter and most definitely no Aslan to show him right.


Esther (eshchory) | 144 comments P Aaron thanks for an excellent analysis. Seeing the book from this point of view does explain so many of the problems I have with it.
I also agree with Micah that Q frequently reminded me of Edmund except that Q never matured.


Jonathan | 11 comments While I can understand how you came to your conclusions, I don't agree with them. I'd like to address them one-by-one.

1) 'The Magicians' hates fantasy and fantasy readers
Grossman's diction tells a very different story. He spends a lot of time building lush - and even idyllic - environments for his characters to adventure in. Granting a few exceptions, even the harshest environments offer the characters moments of respite. Quentin is not punished for being a fantasy reader, except inasmuch as his exceptional knowledge allows him to move forward and have a fairly normal (by fantasy standards) adventuring experience. If anything, this book is as Sonnet 130 written to speculative fiction, and Grossman's love is unqualified by his acknowledgment of flaws.

2) It presents the supposedly 'intellectual' characters as universally shallow, ineffective, aimless, self-indulgent, and ultimately contemptuous of anyone with an ounce of idealism or direction.
The major characters in this book are all of those things at times. At others, they are uncommonly humane, successful, driven, self-sacrificing, and deeply loving of people with these positive qualities. Even if these events weren't empirically present in the book, the author sufficiently condemns the contemptuous lens through which Q sees the world to disqualify this argument prima facie. Moreover, there's nothing unusual about the behavior of Q's clique except for the grocery bill. Those scenes play out across all cultures, classes, and levels of education. There's no clear tie to intellectualism here.

3) Are we supposed to believe that a sot who cares for nothing very much is the same guy willing to devote hour upon hour to finger exercises? Why would he?
First, Q is not uncaring. Quite the opposite, in fact; he has a number of deep and unhealthy attachments. He is too attached to his expectations and affectations. His normal relationships are frequently overwhelmed and destabilized by emotion. Bitterness is a condition that is rooted in attachment to the past. In line with this, Grossman is explicit about Quentin's relationship with his studies. He is fueled by competition, his obsession with Plover, his true belief in magic, and his desire to escape his own rumination.

4) The University is fine if you want to go out and save the world, but *equally* fine supporting you in luxury for eternity as you sit back and relax in your high-rise apartment, snorting cocaine off of expensive courtesans.
This is a misreading of the facts. Brakebills provides funding for the first year after graduation and empty jobs in special cases where magical trauma leaves someone maladjusted. I assume (and I think fairly) that these arrangements exist to support the specialized sort of job hunting one would do as a magician and to help magic keep cover in the mundane world.

5) Those with much experience in academics know the opposite is true: intellect, occasioning as it does the ability to see the long-term consequences of immediate circumstance, brings with it deep commitments, passionate causes, and idealism.
This is a conflation of correlation and causality. While intellect can support wisdom, it does not necessarily grant it. Without compassion or hope, intellect shows the other side of its blade: disillusionment. Brilliant, educated people can be much worse than Quentin and his friends. And we've all seen plenty of uneducated (sometimes stupid) people with commitment, passion, and idealism. In any case, a certain quick niffin displays all of the qualities you align with intellectualism.

The bottom line is that Grossman is just writing about naive, immature people. It has nothing to do with whether or not they are intellectuals.


Napoez3 | 158 comments Jonathan wrote: "While I can understand how you came to your conclusions, I don't agree with them. I'd like to address them one-by-one.

1) 'The Magicians' hates fantasy and fantasy readers
Grossman's diction tells..."


Good Sir. You have nail'd it. I was trying to put that in words when I read this thread the first time.


P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments Jonathan wrote: "While I can understand how you came to your conclusions, I don't agree with them. I'd like to address them one-by-one..."

Thanks for your thoughtful response. It's a spirited defense, but it seems predicated a bit too much on wishful thinking, rather than textual evidence, and in the end, a misreading of my point.

You suggest on the one hand that Grossman must love fantasy because Quentin "is not punished for being a fantasy reader." On the contrary, that's his whole schtick. From the opening interior monologue, in which we discover Quentin's supposed obsession with Fillory, to the exclusion of forming real relationships, to the final denouement, in which his fantasy quest for the Questing Beast fails to deliver the goods, this is a novel predicated on the premise that the more a character dives into his fantastical navel, the more likely he is to (a) annoy and alienate everyone around him (b) ignore the actual demands and rewards of the real world. That's punishment, right there.

But that's a prequel, as it were, to my real concern in this thread, which is how badly Grossman portrays the supposed intellectual elite. You claim that this nasty bunch of sybarites are "humane, successful, driven, self-sacrificing, and deeply loving." I'd challenge you to find any textual evidence of that, with the sole exeption of Hermio-...pardon me, "Alice," these supposed paragons are sneering, morally vacant, unambitious, and venal. And as for Alice, they don't initially want to let her in to the school because they're afraid that, like her sibling, she might care too much. And, sure enough, it turns out they were right: like her sibling's case, Alice's fate proves out the diagesis of the novel: sincerely caring about others, to the point of self-sacrifice, leads to destruction. I know you'd like to redeem Grossman of such a grim paradigm, and so would I. It verges on sociopathy. But this book provides nonarratological evidence otherwise.

Finally, you're making a false equivocation between "idealism" and "wisdom" in your penultimate paragraph. I never claimed, and wouldn't, that idealism or intellect equate to making good decisions (if we can use that as a working definition for 'wisdom'). What I claimed was that intelligent people are those who, among other traits, possess the ability to understand that immediate circumstances have long-range consequences, and that this in turn leads to a high correlation between intellect and idealism, quite the opposite of Quentin's nihilistic worldview. Research in educational studies suggests this is not merely my experience, but statistically valid: academic achievers and those who test highly on traditional intelligence measures have a proportionally higher sense of social responsibility, and are more likely to make moral judgments with reference to determined 'ideals' rather than simple pragmatism.

Grossman's protagonists are not merely 'naive and immature.' They're also smart (so Grossman claims, though in a bad example of 'telling, not showing,' he seems unable to accurately demonstrate). Narratologically, their function demonstrates the 'perils' of that trait.


Matthew Heinlein (Mattsyco) | 9 comments I side a bit more with Jon. I believe that the reason that the Physical Kids as they called themselves degraded as much as they did, is partially because of the environments that had initially spurred their magical prowess. As Eliot said towards the beginning of the book, most of the people are able to do magic is because they are incredibly smart, while at the same time being miserable enough to want to change the world by any means necessary. That isn't to say that many of them don't turn that motivation towards good, but how many people have said "The world would be better if..." and have done nothing to follow through with that.

That is how I am personally seeing Quentin. He might have the power to change the world, but without the drive to go out and do so, he might as well be some Joe sitting at a bar nursing his scotch and waxing philosophically.

As far as there being a lack of character development, Quentin does experience a bit of it, but as is pointed out by others, the development isn't always an improvement. Quentin's need to express himself to Alice is one of the things that best point out this growth. He knows that he should be more mature. He and Alice both just can not get past the sense of betrayal that they feel towards another till it is too late.


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Seth Buchsbaum | 31 comments I also side a bit more with Jon, although I am generally an optimist when I read things.

To me, Q went from a situation in high school where his only way of measuring himself was through academic achievement, especially because of the people surrounding him (the dysfunctional James/Julia dynamic). When he got to Brakebills, he originally threw himself into his work, but then through a combination of traumatic experience (Antarctica)/reaching a sort of plateau in terms of knowledge/finding a group that has a different social dynamic and is at his intellectual level/getting a girlfriend, he becomes less driven to compete intellectually.

I also think he's not a consistent or reliable narrator in a lot of cases. Much more text is given to the drinking/hanging out, but I don't think the same ratio is accurate in terms of actual time spent or the true motivations for doing things. One example is when they start playing welters (which seems in the same category for magic as Quiz Bowl or Math Club...improve intellectual development while competing and having fun). Based on Quentin's narration, there is really no reason for them to keep playing. They all seem to hate it, they'd rather be drinking (and sometimes still do), etc. But they do play it and actually get quite good, despite repeated moaning and groaning. I think this is true on a larger level as well. It seems to me that Quentin doesn't always concentrate on telling us what matters most to him.


message 11: by P. Aaron (last edited Apr 23, 2012 07:31AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments I guess I'm simply not seeing any growth in the character that you are seeing. If he has gotten past his drive to compete academically, what has he replaced it with? Alcoholism?

I certainly agree we're dealing with an unreliable narrator, but since the novel is in third-person, that narrator isn't Quentin, it's Grossman. We are often "told" that these students are brilliant...but do they actually make any intelligent decisions? Do they act like the actual intelligent people in the world? I don't see that at all.

Diagetically, Grossman 'tells' us that *some* fraction of the (supposed) geniuses graduating with their thaumaturgical degrees go on to do wonderful, world-saving stuff. But he 'shows' us, didactically, that this is not actually the case. All we see is how awful and self-serving these so-called geniuses are.

EDIT: oh, and I'm absolutely an optimist - I can see the germs of some good ideas here and can visualize the much, much better book they could have turned in to. I think the pessimistic response to this novel would be the one giving it five stars, claiming this type of depressing nihilism is a "realistic" portrayal of the world, and as good as it gets.


message 12: by Seth (last edited Apr 23, 2012 07:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Seth Buchsbaum | 31 comments Well, we're only seeing a fraction of the student body, and (as is the case with all literature), Grossman is choosing to focus on the interesting, depressed, manic, and still brilliant fraction. A story about the good students who go on to do research/save children in Africa isn't as interesting a story as the depressed ones who almost destroy an alternate universe.

I'm not claiming to see overwhelmingly positive growth...in fact, I think in many ways Q is changing negatively. However, I don't think that means he has turned from honor student to bum on the street! Like many college students/recent grads, he goes through a stage where he isn't hugely motivated. I don't think this is anti-intellectual, I think it is an author concentrating on characters who are not well-adjusted because they are the interesting ones.

While it isn't first person, it is fully concentrated on Quentin and his internal dialogue, so I'd argue that he is the one actually doing the narrating.

As far as intellectual development and growth, I think a lot more maturation happens in the years after college than in college itself. Not sure if you've read the Magician King or are planning to, but I love what Grossman does with Quinton's character and the rest of the cast in it. They are a lot less annoying and certain motivations make more sense.


P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments You imagine that, outside the egoistic jerks we follow through the third-person limited narrative, there exists some unspoken fraction of the wizarding populace that actually give a darn about the world. I think your reading says some good things about your character, rather than Grossman's book.

Sadly the "depressed, manic, and still brilliant" faction Grossman presents is all we actually get, which is why I found that focus to be anti-intellectual. I've never been impressed with the 'brilliant sociopath' archetype epitomized by Hannibal Lecter. Such creatures, happily, do not actually exist in the real world. Evil is, essentially, stupid.

As it happens, I did follow up and read The Magician King, hoping that there was some redemption of the character in the second book. What I found was some gestures at actual character development which never quite jelled. And, choppy as The Magicians was, the structure of MK was also significantly worse. Book 3 maybe? I'd love to think this is all a precursor to some actual realization on Q's part that he's been a vapid twerp for years.


message 14: by Ryan (new)

Ryan | 6 comments I'm not sure I agree with a majority of that argument. For anyone who has been in 'gifted' classes or been in similar situation, they are, on average, much more depressed and self-defeating that your average middle/high school student. The fact that a majority of the 'physical' kids spend their time attempting to escape reality is not something new.

I would agree with Grossman on how the characters acted, and the situation they found themselves in post-graduation. To me I saw it as an experiment on how magicians would act in the real world (you see the same lifestyle in the children of royalty and billionaires). They don't have to work or do anything, and they turn toxic because of it.


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Sara (VivianStreet) | 34 comments Seth wrote: "While it isn't first person, it is fully concentrated on Quentin and his internal dialogue, so I'd argue that he is the one actually doing the narrating. "

Agreed. During the ritual where the headmaster gave the graduating students tattoos, he said that he thought it took a certain amount of discontent with the world in general for a student to become a magic user (I'm paraphrasing wildly here. I listened to the audiobook and I'm definitely not an auditory learner). To me, Grossman is arguing against that jaded worldview:

Q is never happy. In the beginning of the novel, he thinks the world would be so much better if magic were real. Then he finds out that magic is real. Is he happy? No. Now he thinks the world would be so much better if Filory were real. Then he finds out that Filory is real. Is he happy? No....

The only person stopping Q from enjoying his life is himself. Everything he screws up is due to his own childish, nihilistic stupidity, and that is what the book focuses on because that is what Q focuses on.

Yes, Q doesn't die like Alice does. But from where I'm standing, living as himself--with himself--is punishment enough.


Jonathan | 11 comments I'd be curious to see if any of you have a different impression after reading The Magician King. I know my experience is certainly colored by having read it, but when I wrote my response I was thinking of specific textual examples in the first.

I'm too new here to have a sense of how things like spoilers are handled, so I'll skip posting them for now. Sorry. I know it's unsatisfying.


Agatha (agathab) | 130 comments Jonathon wrote: "I'm too new here to have a sense of how things like spoilers are handled, so I'll skip posting them for now. Sorry. I know it's unsatisfying."

Most people haven't started on The Magician King. But if you still want to post, you can hide spoilers. When you click on the link above the comment box that say (some html is ok) it'll show you how. :)


Michael | 8 comments Jonathan wrote: "While I can understand how you came to your conclusions, I don't agree with them. I'd like to address them one-by-one.

1) 'The Magicians' hates fantasy and fantasy readers
Grossman's diction tells..."


Thanks for this. I was worrying I was alone in my assessments of the book.


message 19: by Tom, Supreme Laser (new) - added it

Tom Merritt (tommerritt) | 801 comments Mod
If this book is anti-intellectual then so was the first 30 years of my life. I went to College and when I came out I was not 'better'. I hadn't grown. I had changed but I had a long way to go before I matured. I was still having a hard time coming to grips with the *knowledge* that my actions had consequences and the *caring* that my actions had consequences. Post-College I spent a lot more time drinking with friends and hanging out and complaining about the world and how unfair it was. I spent a lot of time questioning whether morality actually meant something and generally acting quite a bit like the physical kids in The Magicians.

It took me some unpleasant stretches of bad luck, some pretty awful consequences of bad choices, and a good long hard and uncomfortable bout of honesty with myself before I got over it. And I was 29.

So I see Quentin Coldwater and I get it. I don't think it's anti-intellectual I think it's honest. I look at the story and I say, "Yes. That's how it would have been for me. I knew those people like Jane and Alice. I felt those reactions. But for the magic, I lived that life.

So I and others like me are fascinated and compelled byt his book. Those who weren't like Quentin or didn't have those experiences dismiss him and his friends as whiny and boring. And for them I don't suppose he is interesting. And that's fine.

And those who want an uplifiting story won't find it here. And that's OK. Not every story is to everyone's taste

But those here and in other threads questioning the reality or veracity fo the characters bother me. Only because I know these people are real. I know these attitudes are real. And you don't have to like or enjoy them, but don't denigrate my identification with them, because in a way it denigrates me.

Not everybody has advantages and luxuries. Not everyone starts life happy. Not everyone uses the advantages they have or get to their best. And not everyone shows constant growth as fast as we might like.

In other words not everyone is alike.

There's truth in this book. You may not like it. It may not entertain all. But it is truth nonetheless.


message 20: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne Schüßler (anneschuessler) | 642 comments Tom wrote: "If this book is anti-intellectual then so was the first 30 years of my life. I went to College and when I came out I was not 'better'. I hadn't grown. I had changed but I had a long way to go bef..."

Thank you, Tom, for this very personal comment on the question. I think it pretty much sums up why I felt somewhat disconnected from the book.

I'm a pretty positive person to a fault where I paint everything better in my head than it maybe is. My husband would say that while this is an endearing character trait, it can also be annoying as hell. The perfect example is that when I miss a train I say to myself "Oh cool, now I have some more time to browse the magazines."

I'm having a hard time relating to a character who is so negative, not because he is evil or stupid or anything, but simply because he doesn't know how to be happy. It seems like he is the opposite of me and it makes it hard for me to understand his motivations (or non-motivations).

Hearing from other people who can relate, partly because they've gone through a similar phase (so to speak) makes it at least easier for me to understand that Quentin is more than an author's tool to write the story he wants to, but rather a character that has its counterparts in reality.


message 21: by Tom, Supreme Laser (new) - added it

Tom Merritt (tommerritt) | 801 comments Mod
Thanks Anne. And I think that's the point. When we don't understand a character we tend to have a harder time liking it. Some characters that are positive and always see the bright side get slammed for being 'pollyanna' by the same kind of folks who like Quentin.

So how much is it the author's job to convince us to like the characters that aren't like us? How much is it our job as readers to have enough empathy to understand the characters who aren't like us? And how much is it nobody's job to do either, but just accept that not all stories will work for all people?


P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments Tom wrote: "If this book is anti-intellectual then so was the first 30 years of my life.... don't denigrate my identification with them, because in a way it denigrates me...."

Nobody is denigrating readers who identify to some degree with the characters. But if, as you suggest, it's not the author's job to make everyone like the characters, then it's partially on us as readers to separate the fictional circumstances of the book from our own lives.

Grossman isn't writing a nonfiction essay about real-world circumstances. Like any fictioneer, he's picking and choosing which made-up events he wants to throw into his story in order to create a message for his audience. In doing so, the associations he makes between how those people behave and what happens to them tells us the 'values' of that fictional world he's creating.

If I'm writing a story about farmers, suppose I write one about a community of farmers who don't water the plants, don't bother fertilizing, pour carbolic acid and chlorine into their fields, and still get a bumper crop and become rich. What message about how to be a good farmer, or the value of good farming, am I sending to readers? And I may be able to find a real world example or twelve of farmers who can get away with just such behavior...but it doesn't matter if I can or can't. I'm populating a fictional world here.

You say yourself that after college, you still had to experience that your actions had consequences. That's a natural part of growth and development. So what consequences does Quentin experience for his actions, his escapism, his failure to actually care about other human beings, and his failure to use his intellect for any purpose? He becomes a super-mage, gets paid a fortune by his alma mater to do nothing at all, and is invited back to become king of a magical fantasyland.

Ditto for Janet and Eliot.

On the other hand...

Alice, the brightest of the lot, one who actually does use her brain in her caring for other people, ends up rejected and eventually sacrificed.

Penny, the only true scholar amongst the kids, loses his hands, then dissappears.


What lesson does that suggest to readers about the value of intellectual endeavor? What's your fate, in this fictional universe, if you actually employ your brain for any purpose other than moping around and drinking yourself to death?


message 23: by Seth (new) - rated it 5 stars

Seth Buchsbaum | 31 comments I kind of thought Alice's demise/Penny's disappearance led to a realization by Quentin and thus by the reader that those were the two best people he knew. Isn't that exactly the opposite of what you are suggesting? The end of the book isn't a celebration of those people who are left alive, it's Quentin falling further into depression because he realizes that Alice was so much better than he was.

Grossman is setting us up to value the very characters that end up suffering the most. I would argue that in this example, he is showing us that the intellectual person is the best person, but that life doesn't always work out for those who deserve it the most.

I agree that other parts of the book may be more in line with your thesis, but this is definitely a piece that I think supports the opposite view.

Magician King spoiler below.

(view spoiler)

PS. Thanks for the character compliment!


message 24: by Andy (last edited Apr 24, 2012 07:55AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Andy (Andy_M) | 265 comments My thought here has most likely been said before so please feel free to ignore it if it has.

I think that Lev Grossman wrote a book through a particular character's eyes. Quentin is too smart for his own good and he thinks that magic makes things easy and that life will be perfect once he finds what he has been missing, and quentin spends a lot of time waiting for fulfillment to find him. This world view shapes the characters and interactions that we read as this is a flawed narrator and not a perfect view of the world that Lev created.

Quentin does learn a lesson at the end of the book, he learns about loss and that life is hard, even a life filled with magic. Quentin on page one cannot imagine a magical world filled with loss or pain, he can only imagine one where heroes succeed and evil is always vanquished without sacrifice. If you continue on with the Magician King, Quentin learns another lesson (view spoiler). Quentin spends a lot of the book messing up his life, I think we can all agree on that, so it makes sense that he does not get life's lesson without some genuine pain. Quentin keeps waiting for magic to make his life better and more fulfilled and it fails to do so. Quentin has lessons to learn and we are on the long ride where he eventually learns a little.

Patrick Rothfuss had a great quote about Kvothe, a character from his books. Kvothe hates poetry because he is a performer, he loves songs and thinks that poets are beneath him. Patrick often gets asked why he hates poetry, and he has said that he loves poetry; it is his character that hates it. Maybe Lev Grossman wrote a character and a world in the same vein.

Now I have been to grad school, I have been lost in my youth, and I have in the past waited for happiness to find me. Believe me, few people drink more and does stupider things then graduate students. Those are reasons I did not enjoy the book as much as I would have otherwise, I did not enjoy looking back at my darker days, so a part of me can identify with Quentin, I do not like identifying with him but I can do it.

Here ends my ramblings.


message 25: by Hugo (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hugo | 4 comments P. Aaron wrote: "So what consequences does Quentin experience for his actions, his escapism, his failure to actually care about other human beings, and his failure to use his intellect for any purpose? He becomes a super-mage, gets paid a fortune by his alma mater to do nothing at all, and is invited back to become king of a magical fantasyland."
Consequences:
(view spoiler)

If you think that success is measured by the job you have, then you may think that he's not punished, but if you think success is being happy, then I can't call his situation successful. He may have a good easy job, but he's miserable.

The only character with an anti-intellectual dialog in the book is Emily Greenstreet and Q rejects her train of tought. The problem is not magic / intelligence but people's action.


message 26: by P. Aaron (last edited Apr 24, 2012 09:40AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments I don't think one's material success necessarily equals happiness. I bring it up only to demonstrate the overall lack of consequences for quentin. If he is unhappy, it is no moreso than he was before.

Again, I see no realization on his part that he has been living his life wrong...if anything, his experiences confirm him in his bitterness.


message 27: by Tora (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tora | 69 comments P. Aaron wrote: Like any fictioneer, he's picking and choosing which made-up events he wants to throw into his story in order to create a message for his audience. In doing so, the associations he makes between how those people behave and what happens to them tells us the 'values' of that fictional world he's creating.

I wonder if Grossman was deliberately avoiding creating a moralistic fictional universe. Rather than working from the Western moralistic standard of good gets rewarded and bad gets punished, maybe he was going for something more like 1,001 Arabian Nights, where a character's fate was more based on chance than on good or bad qualities of that character.

Perhaps Quentin is meant to be more like Aladdin, who didn't receive the lamp because of any virtues he possessed (since he didn't seem to possess any), but by random luck of the draw. And it was only once he had everything he could ever wish for that he became a better person, and displayed virtues like charity, kindness, and filial devotion.

Granted, Quentin doesn't become a better person right after getting everything he ever wanted, but (view spoiler).


message 28: by Patrick (last edited Apr 30, 2012 01:54PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Patrick | 14 comments Dear P. Aaron,

I think your argument goes too far when it accuses Lev of a generalized anti-intellectualism. I think for a lot of readers, especially those readers who like Magicians (as I do) we see a very clear picture of a lot of our classmates from college. I certainly knew Elliotts and Janets, and as a kid who had never been especially popular in high school, I can remember the allure of kids with confidence and style. And I remember how long it took to see past that veneer. I think that reflection of truth has intrinsic value without any of the moral judgments you suggest Lev is making.

It’s funny, but the very criticisms you make about the book were what made it a revelation for me. I loved the chunk that followed the student’s graduation, when we learned just how ill-prepared all of our heroes were to set goals for themselves. This rang true for me as well – growing up, I knew I was going to go to college. At college, I knew I was going to graduate with a degree in something (for me, that was economics), but I never had a vision of what life was like after. After meeting everyone else’s expectations for years, each of the Lev’s characters is set adrift, and briefly tries to smother their – what? Desperation? Terror? Boredom? – with hedonism. And, surprise surprise, people get hurt. I remember that kind of thing, too.

I understand why some folks didn’t enjoy it, but I loved that fact that the characters in the Magicians kept making the same mistakes. I deeply admire Lev’s commitment to his characters’ flaws. People, even really smart people, often can’t see the part of themselves that holds them back. That is a tragedy, but it is real, and I applaud Lev’s unwillingness to shy away from tragedy.

None of this strikes me as particularly anti-intellectual, however. If anything, I found that Brakebills wasn’t intellectual enough. Brakebills was a trade school, which would provide students with power, but which explicitly forbade students from studying the meaning of that power. If one were to suggest that Lev was criticizing modern education’s failure to imbue knowledge with meaning, I think that would be an interesting point. I don’t think that that is the same as being anti-intellectual.

Regarding Quentin’s personal growth (or lack thereof): There’s no question that Lev wants to hammer the point that all the knowledge and power in the world can’t make you grow up if you don’t want to. Nevertheless, I think Quentin does grow in the Magicians, insofar as he learns to recognize the value of Alice’s virtues (courage, loyalty, patience, wisdom), even if he largely fails to make those virtues his own. I think in life most of us only learn the big lessons a piece at a time, and Quentin still has plenty more time to grow.

To me, it sounds as though you think an author, by the mere act of writing, imposes a moral judgment upon the actions and beliefs of his characters. Maybe that’s true, and maybe it’s not, but I think the judgment in the Magicians is much more complicated than you suggest. I believe Lev likes and cares for all of his characters, but he is exploring the difference between what young people think they want and what will ultimately make them happy. When you say you don’t see the consequences of poor choices for our heroes, I think the consequence is that none of them ever find fulfillment. Lev shows us over and over again – most obviously in the case of Alice’s parents – that power and comfort without purpose are a curse, both because they breed complacency and because they conceal one’s own desperation. That’s a strong message, but again, it isn’t anti-intellectual.


P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments Patrick wrote: "I think that reflection of truth has intrinsic value without any of the moral judgments you suggest Lev is making...."

I think that's similar to Tom's perspective, above. My problem is that, as a writer composing a fantasy universe, Grossman gives up the mimetic defense. Regardless of the statistical evidence I offered above which find no such correlation between depressive self-indulgence and intelligence, how can the author claim he's angling for "realism" in a book with tattooed demons and flying sheep? The most he can hope for is "consistency." That, I grant you, the text has; too much so for those of us who would have liked to see some (or any) character development.

"...I think Quentin does grow in the Magicians, insofar as he learns to recognize the value of Alice’s virtues..."

And I would love, still, to see any textual evidence of that. Where, in the text, does Quentin express any appreciation of Alice's character? He enjoys her company, certainly. He is sad she is dead. But does he express, anywhere, a conviction that her virtues were admirable, enough so that they should inspire in him or others some similar virtue? Because if he indicates they're just 'beyond him,' then he's not talking about virtues at all, which rely on the choices individuals make, but is instead treating altruism as some inborn trait, which he will never achieve, and therefore is entirely excused from even trying to achieve.

"...To me, it sounds as though you think an author, by the mere act of writing, imposes a moral judgment upon the actions and beliefs of his characters...."

Unless the author is dealing in strict nonfiction, yes, by definition this is so. And even in nonfiction, the choice of which people or events to emphasize implies a judgment call. That's what didacticism means.

If these characters are supposed to be the smartest of the smart, and they are, as you seem to agree, incapable, in Grossman's universe, of finding fulfillment, happiness, or even purpose, then that's the lesson Grossman's selling: smarts are useless. I'm not sure how one could call that anything but anti-intellectual.


message 30: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul (latepaul) | 144 comments I wrote a long reply in response to this thread, but it was too wordy. Instead I'll leave you with the Oscar Wilde quote I keep being reminded of:

"The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means."


message 31: by Patrick (last edited Apr 30, 2012 04:43PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Patrick | 14 comments Okay, P. Aaron – while your point-by-point rebuttal and your sudden switch to the vocab of literary criticism smack of trolling, I guess I’m still willing to throw down if that’s how you want to play it. Brace yourself for textual support.

My thesis is that Lev isn’t saying that smarts are pointless, he’s saying that smarts aren’t enough. They aren’t enough to make you good, and they aren’t enough to make you happy. And the proof of that lies in the distinction we see between Alice and everyone else. Of all the characters, Alice understands that that you have to care about something to invest your life with meaning. Alice also understands that a meaningless life, however comfortable, is a life of despair. The tragedy of Quentin is twofold: first, he deeply believes that something external can fulfill him and that he can find that thing if he wants it enough and works hard enough for it. Second, that he has smarts, talent, dedication, and capacity for self-delusion sufficient to endlessly confuse himself with petty successes and victories that ultimately leave him hollow.

So, while Quentin goes to Fillory in search of something to fill him, Alice follows him only to protect what she already has and values – her love of Quentin. And so, *spoiler alert from here on out*, when Alice dies, her death has meaning: Alice dies to protect her loved ones, and in the process she saves all of Fillory.

Her battle with Martin is the sternest rebuttal of your claim of anti-intellectualism that I can think of: In sharp contrast to the relative uselessness of Quentin & Co., Alice’s smarts and dedication, when combined with love and purpose, are able to go toe-to-toe with and ultimately defeat a demi-god, albeit at great personal cost. I think, for your claim of anti-intellectualism to stand, you must take the position that Alice’s death was meaningless. Are you willing to take that position?

In the reflective chapters after he death, Quentin probably would. She was the best of them, and Quentin feels deep rage at a universe that doesn’t play by the rules of a fantasy novel: The good aren’t always saved, and the evil aren’t always smitten. Sometimes the hero pays the price for people who don’t deserve it – for more on that, read the Magician King. But in those same chapters, Quentin does begin to grapple with the greater questions of what is the purpose of power, and what is the value of goodness. He is inspired to ask those questions by Alice’s death.

The end of the book, then, is a (admittedly rocky) personal growth montage: First, he seeks to extend his personal power and ability to control the world. He goes so far as to master life, death, and entropy, only to ultimately realize their meaninglessness. He searches the world for a quest – for a purpose – and doesn’t find it. But at least, when granted wishes by the unique beast, he spends one to ensure the safety and happiness of his crew. I think the old Quentin would have been so caught up in his triumph at shooting the beast that he wouldn’t have had a thought to spare for a handful nameless sailors.

So after obtaining as much power as he can, Quentin then goes home and tries to abandon it. Does he make a breakthrough? Not really – from the beginning of the book to the end, Quentin is still Quentin – but he’s trying. There’s grieving process here, both for Alice and for his dream of a perfect happiness in Fillory. But he’s working on it, and in the end, when Elliot, Janet, and Julia show up, he’s ready to try again.

This isn’t a story about redemption, because Quentin isn’t redeemed. It’s a story about the struggle of being young, smart, and weird. The fact that that struggle doesn’t go easy or turn out particularly well for Quentin & Co. does not lead to the conclusion that education or intelligence has no value. Alice proves it does – heck, in the middle of their battle she raps with Martin about his poor grasp of magical theory and shoddy spellcraft.

Similarly, the fact that Lev has supposed the existence of magic for his book does not suggest that his characters should any less real, more moral, or more self-aware than they should be in any other genre. Magic here is a backdrop for a study of the foolish of youth. It lets Lev pose the question: “Take the smartest kids in the world, and give them all the power in the world. What happens next?” What happens next is that they get drunk and make mistakes. You might not like his answer, but you can’t deny his honesty in giving it, and I think you’re wrong to conflate a critique of the young with a critique of the smart.


P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments Patrick wrote: "Okay, P. Aaron – while your point-by-point rebuttal and your sudden switch to the vocab of literary criticism smack of trolling, I guess I’m still willing to throw down..."

Sigh. And we were all getting along so well.

I think I've actually addressed your argument here in my opening post. In particular, I think the nature of Alice's death and Quentin's failure to learn from it support, rather than refute, my reading. Regardless, I don't think there's much to be gained by repeating or re-engaging at this point. Besides, Hyperion awaits.

I will say this, however:

If you will look back over this thread, you will see plenty of academic language, not surprisingly since I am by profession an academic. You will also note several point-by-point rebuttals, from several participants. This is not 'trolling.' Quite the opposite, it is a sign that people are trying to thoroughly understand some complex and interesting ideas. Happily, people have been doing so without too much acrimony. I don't think trotting out personal attacks at this point serves your argument very well.


Patrick | 14 comments That was a sneaky dodge, P. Aaron - but enough. You're right that Hyperion awaits. As far as I'm concerned, we are still and have always been getting along just fine. I'm looking forward to more of your readings.


message 34: by Micah (new) - rated it 1 star

Micah Bucy (eternalsword) | 10 comments I see Quentin's apathy and the fact that he keeps rising despite it just irksome. When I played video games in college instead of studying, there were consequences and I had to come to grips with that. I don't see negative consequence for lack of intellectual effort or positive outcomes for intellectual effort in this book, so that to me makes it anti-intellectual. There is no "You reap what you sow" to be found.


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