The chief business of an essayist — I speak here of the kind of essayist that I occasionally manage to be, and that better men than I are sometimes reduced to when not at their best — is to tilt at windmills. The second greatest delight such an essayist can know is to tilt at a windmill, in the full knowledge and expectation that it is really a windmill, and that he shall end by making a quixotic fool of himself, and discover in the heat of combat that it is only a giant after all. [Read more…]
#10 in a series, following ‘A song of gore and slaughter’. An earlier version appeared on LiveJournal in June, 2006.
By its nature, fantasy is supposed to be the literature of the unbridled imagination; all too often, the imagination is not only bridled, but blinkered and hobbled and confined to its stall in the barn. It is fairly usual for critics to call this process ‘commercialization’; which is very odd, because the most commercially successful fantasies of all time have not been tamed or broken in this way. Rather, the breaking of fantasy is a consequence of its commercialization. Winged Pegasus will bear you with joy to the remotest reaches of Elfland, but he does not always come when you whistle for him. Poor old Dobbin, bridled, blinkered, hobbled, stabled, and without so much as a wish for wings of his own, can only take you for a weary plod round the paddock, but he is always at home and always pathetically grateful to be taken out for a ride. Pegasus is a rare beast, born of inspiration; Dobbins can be mass-produced.
Publishers will gladly commercialize a Tolkien, a Howard, or a Rowling if they can get one; if not, they will settle for anything that looks like fantasy, that exploits some of the same tropes and offers to scratch the same itch. The shop must remain open for business, come what may; and if the shelves are stocked with shoddy goods, that is better than no goods at all. [Read more…]
The fourth essai in a series, following ‘Tyrion 13:4’. The original appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.
As I said earlier, the choice of an appropriate prose style for a fantasy tale is a decision fraught with peril. We are tempted to choose a style that will convey the proper sense of wonder and adventure, and the air of old times and alien cultures; or would, if we only had the skill to pull it off. If we lack that skill, our stories will sound rather like an untrained singer trying to do the lead in Rigoletto — ambitious, but inept. And this will get us laughed at.
It is safe to say that none of us enjoy being laughed at. So for perhaps forty years past, there has been a reaction in the opposite direction; and I am afraid that is an even worse error. The sensible reaction would be to learn how to produce the effects that we wanted; the real reaction, for far too many writers, has been simply to give up trying and settle for a bland quotidian style. Their stories are inept without being ambitious. And this is worse, for unless they are very lucky, it gets them ignored and forgotten. They may truly be hearing the horns of Elfland in their heads; but they cannot play that music. What they do play is a tuneless mishmash compounded of slovenly description, spin-doctoring, and rhetorical fog. [Read more…]
This essai follows ‘Quakers in Spain’, and like it, is a revised and expanded version of a piece I wrote and put up on LiveJournal in May, 2006.
If prose style in fantasy is fraught with peril, naming is a plain old-fashioned minefield. Fantasy writers have a tendency to throw together names from any and all sources that strike their fancy, without thinking how such disparate words came to be in the same language together, or even in the same world. Writers who are very good at other aspects of their craft can still inexplicably fall down in this one area. I am sorry to make a bad example of my friend Jonathan Moeller, but when I first began to read his Demonsouled series, and the first two characters I met were called Mazael and Gerald, I was thrown out of the story long enough to cry aloud to the unheeding night: ‘Mazael is good; Mazael is right and proper. There ought to be a fantasy hero named Mazael, and now, thank God, there is one. But why on earth is he hanging out with someone whose name is a foreign monstrosity like Gerald?’ In Le Guin’s terms, Mazael is from Elfland and Gerald is from Poughkeepsie, and there needs to be some explanation of how they ever came to meet.
There are two bad ways of coming up with fantasy names; or rather, of the many bad ways that one could devise, two are much more popular than the rest. [Read more…]
I wrote part of this essai in response to an Internet meme, ‘Ten things I hate in a book’, which I got from Glenda Larke by way of Sherwood Smith and others. It first appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006. I have had requests for this material since; but the first few parts of the series are, in my maturer judgement, sadly inadequate, for I only gradually relaxed and began to speak my mind at full length as I went on. Here it is, updated, extended, and (I hope) brought into better harmony with the whole.
Prose style is an endless source trouble for writers in the imaginative genres, and fantasy above all. There is always the temptation to write in an entirely modern, journalistic style. Such a style is like an Interstate highway in America: smooth, fast, easy to travel, with no dangerous or distracting bumps. The drawback is that you can drive from coast to coast without ever really seeing anything but the road itself. Such styles and such roads are good for getting to your destination in a hurry. But experienced tourists, and experienced readers, find it more fun to take the scenic route.
If you are a writer of some ambition, then, you will try to build a scenic route with your prose. [Read more…]
Review: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
J. R. R. Tolkien perfectly summed up the critical reaction to his fiction in a clerihew:
The Lord of the Rings
is one of those things:
if you like you do:
if you don’t, then you boo!
You could say the same for the most ambitious of his early imitators, Stephen R. Donaldson, and his first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Readers and critics are just as divided in their opinions of this trilogy as of Tolkien’s masterwork, though the division is on wholly different lines. Tolkien is dismissed out of hand by critics who sneer at fantasy in general, loathed by the Moorcock-Miéville school of fantasy nihilists, and of course praised to the skies by a third group. The dispute about Donaldson cuts right across these divisions, and is unusually acrimonious even by the standards of the genre ghetto. By a curious kind of foresight, one of Donaldson’s own verses aptly describes the critical reaction to his work:
And he who wields white wild magic gold is a paradox—
for he is everything and nothing,
hero and fool,
and with the one word of truth or treachery,
he will save or damn the Earth
because he is mad and sane,
cold and passionate,
lost and found.
It is, I think, worth taking a moment to examine the battle lines, for that may tell us something about the fantasy field itself as well as Donaldson’s place in it. [Read more…]