Sowell on editors

If there is any rhyme or reason to the way editing varies from one editor to another, it seems to be this: The less the editor has written under his own name, the more he wants to write under someone else’s name.

—Thomas Sowell, ‘Some Thoughts about Writing’

Thomas Sowell on writing methods

My own writing practices are the direct opposite of that followed by these prolific and renowned writers. I write only when I have something to say.

—Thomas Sowell, ‘Some Thoughts about Writing’

Work has resumed!

I recovered from most of the concussion symptoms a few days ago, but all the bed rest required aggravated my spinal injury and gave me neck spasms. Now I am on a witch’s brew of Robaxacet and assorted pain medications, which are allowing me to function well enough to write a little, but not well enough to sleep all the way through the night. Last night I got up about midnight and wrote a chapter for the second episode of Where Angels Die. I post it here, as it might amuse some of my 3.6 Loyal Readers.


Sergeant Gurin Newfort was the most senior man in the garrison of Angel Keep, not excepting the two captains. He was a short square man with square shoulders, a square face, and a nearly square nose that had been pushed off-kilter in battle some time or other. He had grizzled temples, bushy eyebrows, and a gravelly voice. He had been serving in the Army of the Commonwealth (Ambarand Regiment) before most of the men at Angel Keep were born. Sergeant Newfort brooked no nonsense, took no chances, and knew every word of the Prince’s Regulations forwards and backwards. It was this accomplishment that made him essential to Revel’s scheme, for he also knew every loophole, and how to use it to maximum effect. He was unnaturally lucky at dice, though he had never been caught cheating; some of the men speculated that the dice liked him, because squares stuck together. Nobody knew what he did with his winnings, but he was chronically short of money. It was rumoured that he had found a legal way to ship Angel Keep home to Ambarand stone by stone, as soon as he put by enough cash to pay the freight. The particular stones that enclosed Newfort’s quarters were old and grey, scarred and pitted by aeons of weather. They hardly looked as if they would survive a sea voyage. His seniority got him two rooms in the gatehouse, on the second story of the garrison quarters. From the larger of these, he could look down squarely through a wide square window and scowl at the troops performing their duties in the Yellow Court. The Yellow Court was not square at all; some of the men believed that he disapproved of this, but nobody had ever dared to ask him. When Greyhand and the paladins found Newfort, he was not scowling at anything, and the window was shuttered tightly against the cold. He was sitting quite placidly at a table in his quarters, cleaning his saddle with neat’s-foot oil. From somewhere in his clothing, Revel produced a blue handkerchief tied up into a bag, which jingled brightly when he handled it. ‘Newfort, old boy! I want a word with you.’ The sergeant glanced up at the three standing in his doorway. ‘Well?’ ‘Wait for us,’ Revel told the Badger, who smiled and cleared off. ‘Mind if we sit, Sergeant?’ ‘Please yourselves,’ said Newfort, and went on with his cleaning; but he had one eye on the blue bag. Revel and Greyhand picked up a pair of small, leather-seated stools and set them at the table opposite the sergeant. ‘That was a lucky run you had the other night, even for you,’ said Revel when he was comfortably seated. ‘I was a little put out at the time, but I want to make amends. I came to congratulate you – and see about paying up.’ Up went Newfort’s eyebrows, and down went his chamois. ‘Seventy-five jei?’ ‘Right here.’ Revel jingled the bag. ‘I called in some favours. Speaking of which—’ ‘I don’t do favours.’ ‘I want to do you a favour. Believe me, you’ll thank me for letting you in.’ ‘Letting me into what?’ ‘I need eight of your troopers for a patrol. There’s Taken in Limsun, you know.’ ‘Easy as pease. Baron orders captain, captain orders troops. What do you want me for?’ ‘We haven’t exactly got orders,’ Revel admitted. ‘I don’t sneeze without orders. You’re asking me to send out eight men without leave.’ ‘I am,’ said Revel, with a smile that made him look slightly insane. ‘To Limsun, where they might get killed or Taken themselves.’ ‘Why not? I’m going.’ ‘This is a joke,’ said Newfort, as if he had heard of such a thing but never actually experienced one. ‘He’s joking me, isn’t he, Greyhand?’ The steward shook his head solemnly. ‘Then he’s out of his mind. His carthorse has slipped its harness, hasn’t it?’ Another shake. ‘All right, what’s the game?’ ‘The overland road from here to Prince Jasru’s winter camp,’ Revel explained, ‘happens to pass through Limsun. The Badger and I are going to do a little demon-hunting, and then for a change of pace, we’re going to see His Highness and get his seal on a piece of paper.’ ‘With eight of my men in your charge?’ ‘Of course not. You’ll be coming with us.’ The sergeant’s square face was not well constructed to show blank astonishment, but somehow he managed it. ‘I will? Kid, I’ve been under the colours for twenty-seven years and five wars, and I’m still in one piece. You know why? Because I don’t break regulations, I don’t stick my neck out, and I don’t volunteer for anything.’ ‘You should try it someday,’ said Revel. ‘Today would be good.’ Newfort threw up his hands in exasperation. ‘Why am I listening to this when I could be shovelling out latrines? Let me get this straight. You want me to take eight of my men and ride out in the teeth of the demons’ winter.’ ‘I do.’ ‘Without orders.’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘And then pay a visit to Prince Jasru, who can make me a prisoner, a private, or a pincushion, whichever he feels like.’ ‘Certainly.’ ‘Assuming we don’t get killed in battle, or Taken, or freeze to death first.’ ‘Yes.’ Revel was beaming like an unhinged saint. Annoyance and perplexity contended on Newfort’s face. The sheer lunacy of Revel’s proposition was drawing him in, leaving sense, good judgement, and the Prince’s Regulations far behind. Having heard this much, he could not send the paladin away without satisfying his curiosity. Greyhand was consumed with admiration for Revel’s technique; he made a mental note to use it on the Baron sometime. ‘All right, I’ll nibble. What’s in it for me?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘You certainly know how to persuade a fellow,’ said Newfort drily. ‘This is quite a favour you’re doing me.’ ‘Let me clarify,’ said Revel. ‘There is nothing in it for you directly, but a great deal for our friend here.’ ‘Oh?’ Newfort gave Greyhand a sidelong glance. ‘Hmm, well. He’s a good kid. What does he get?’ ‘An official title, for one thing.’ ‘Good for him. And so?’ ‘Along with the title, he’ll get certain – opportunities.’ ‘Bribes, you mean.’ Revel gave an apologetic little shrug. ‘If you like. At any rate, he’ll put his hands on certain funds that he does not have in his keeping at present. And it would be only natural if some of those funds went from his hands to those of his friends.’ Newfort looked very stiff and formal, and even squarer than usual. ‘You are aware, sir, that I am not allowed to accept any gifts, gratuities, or emoluments outside of my pay.’ ‘Of course not!’ Revel managed to look shocked at the idea. ‘That would be most improper.’ ‘It certainly would.’ The sergeant picked up his chamois and turned his attention back to his saddle. ‘Ah, well. Sorry to trouble you.’ ‘Not at all.’ Revel got up to leave, then stopped as if he had just thought of something. ‘Oh, by the way, Newfort, I should probably give you my regrets.’ The chamois stopped in mid-rub. ‘Regrets? What for?’ ‘Well, I’m not familiar with the country north of here. If I ride out by myself, I’ll probably get lost and have to miss our next game. A pity, really. I was expecting to have some extra money – gift from a friend.’ Down went the chamois again. Newfort’s brow furrowed, his eyes narrowed. His thoughts were falling into line like tumblers in a lock. Greyhand could almost hear them clicking in his head. ‘Well, now,’ said Sergeant Newfort very slowly. ‘We can’t have our exorcists riding abroad without a suitably armed escort. Regulations, you know. So when are we going?’ ‘Greyhand?’ prompted Revel. ‘Eh? The sooner the better, I suppose. First light tomorrow?’ ‘Done,’ said Newfort. ‘Revel, you can leave that money on the table by the door. I do admire an officer who pays his debts.’

The exotic and the familiar (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3. Before we examine the merits that made our three breakthrough fantasies break through, I hope you will permit me a Historical Digression: As luck or providence would have it, the other night I saw, for the first time, Tim Burton’s magnificently lurid production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That tale has been around, in various forms, for nearly two hundred years; it is one of the hardy perennials of horror fiction – far older than Dracula, almost as old as Frankenstein, almost exactly contemporary with the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Mr. Todd first appeared in 1846, in a story called The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Priest – who, for that achievement alone, deserve to be ranked in the first class of Victorian novelists, but never are. For, alas, The String of Pearls was a penny dreadful. That is a term, or insult, that may need a bit of explanation for the benefit of the modern reader. Every so often, the business of literature is turned topsy-turvy by some new technological development, and the previously unchallenged assumptions of the Grand Old Men of the business are blown to atoms and scattered widely over the waste regions of the cosmos. At present, the electronic book, and the ingenious online retailing machine perfected by Mr. Bezos, are blowing up the assumption that books are physical objects and (as such) governed by the particular economic laws that obtain in conditions of limited supply. Electronic books are not in limited supply; electrons are far more abundant than readers, and even electronic computers are cheap and plentiful enough to stay ahead of any conceivable demand for books. The wise old publishers who built their business on controlling and restricting the limited supply of paper books, and the limited shelf space in the bookshops, are falling now like new hay before the scythe. Their whole training and temperament, which made them such able buccaneers under the old system, completely unfits them to survive in the new. They still have not seen what hit them; they are only just beginning to realize that they have been hit. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, while printing was relatively cheap, paper was an expensive commodity. It was made mostly from waste linen, and consequently, the quantity of paper manufactured could never exceed the quantity of linen that was thrown away. (You could make paper directly from flax fibres; but it was much cheaper to let the linen industry use the flax first, and buy up the worn-out linen afterwards.) Men and women made a decent, if undignified, living as rag-pickers – the recyclers of their time. Ragpickers scavenged all kinds of useful stuff from the rubbish-heaps of the world, but their chief stock in trade was linen rags for the paper trade: hence the name of their profession. So long as the supply of paper was limited in this way, books remained a luxury; literacy for the masses, a pipe-dream. In the 1840s, separately but almost simultaneously, two men invented machines for turning wood into a fibrous pulp. One was a German, F. G. Keller; the other a Canadian, Charles Fenerty. This wood pulp, it turned out, could be used to make paper almost as good as linen-rag paper, and much cheaper. For a few years before this, a few small firms in London had been turning out cheap pamphlets containing lurid adventure stories for a mostly working-class audience. The new pulp paper allowed the pamphlets to be printed by the millions, and ‘pulp fiction’ was born. When The String of Pearls appeared, the usual thing was to release a novel in weekly instalments, and charge (in England) a penny for each issue. The stories were not chosen for highfalutin literary quality; they were written to please a large and not very sophisticated audience. The English upper classes ignored the new medium. The middle classes, who feared anything that might diminish their advantages over the working class, hated it and sneered at it, dismissing all stories so told as ‘dreadful’. This was a calumny. As Theodore Sturgeon would certainly have said, nine-tenths of the penny serials were crap; but then, nine-tenths of the expensive books favoured by the middle classes were crap. The real sin of the penny dreadfuls was not that they were bad stories, but that they brought printed books within the reach of the Lower Orders. Half a century later, a great moral crusade swept Britain like a new broom. The crusaders were filled with a high and holy desire to cleanse the culture of the (alleged) low morals and (admitted) sensationalism of the penny dreadfuls. The dreadfuls were blamed for every social evil from beer-drinking to Jack the Ripper. In much the same way, in the following century, heavy metal lyrics were blamed for juvenile delinquency and teen suicide. If this high and holy desire was mixed up with an even stronger desire to make a quick buck – well, that was a point that the crusaders liked people to overlook. In the 1890s, Alfred Harmsworth led the crusade to victory. He began by putting out clean, moral, sermonizing stories for a halfpenny; and when the public ignored these, he put out lurid and sensational stories for the same halfpenny, and made a fortune. As A. A. Milne put it, ‘Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.’ One of G. K. Chesterton’s early essays was ‘A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls’, in which he declared firmly: ‘Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.’ He went on to say, with a scorn worthy of Jonathan Swift:
But instead of basing all discussion of the problem upon the common-sense recognition of this fact – that the youth of the lower orders always has had and always must have formless and endless romantic reading of some kind, and then going on to make provision for its wholesomeness – we begin, generally speaking, by fantastic abuse of this reading as a whole and indignant surprise that the errand-boys under discussion do not read The Egoist and The Master Builder.
What working-class readers, especially young boys, wanted was vicarious adventure. They liked a good ripping yarn well told; but if they had to choose between a ripping yarn badly told and a dull, insipid story well told, they would take the ripping yarn every time. Young girls were more likely to go in for vicarious love-affairs. In Victorian times, both kinds of cheap fiction, the adventure stories and the love stories, were called ‘Romantic’; but by an accident of linguistic drift, the label of ‘romance’ is now applied to the second kind only. The penny dreadfuls were replaced as the dominant form of working-class fiction by the ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’. It was Harmsworth’s company, the Amalgamated Press, that published The Gem and The Magnet, in which most of Charles Hamilton’s school stories appeared. The paper shortage of the Second World War killed those papers, along with most of the dime pulp magazines that were their American counterparts. They in turn were replaced partly by paperback books, and partly by television; and the mass-market paperback, these last few years, has been largely replaced by electronic books. Each of these forms, in turn, has been subjected to the same withering scorn, accompanied by the same hysterical predictions of the Downfall of Western Civilization. The ‘cultured’ middle classes, it would appear, want a monopoly of culture; the thought that the poor might have a culture, and that it might be a different culture from that of the bourgeoisie, fills them with horror and alarm. At any rate, it produces horror and alarm among the media moguls and bohemian artists who mass-produce the stuff that is sold as bourgeois culture. The actual bourgeoisie, from what I know of them, do not much care, and take their fun wherever they please. They do not take very much of their fun by reading the stuff that the moguls and bohemians call ‘literary’. Literary Fiction is not literature; it is a publishing category, less profitable than most, but marketed with greater cynicism. The average publisher’s attitude towards Westerns or space operas or ‘nursy novels’ is roughly, ‘It’s trash, but it sells, and who am I to question that?’ But the same publisher’s attitude towards Literary Fiction is an interesting combination of fetish-worship and humbug. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century (it is hard to imagine it now) it was impossible to get a degree in English from any university in an English-speaking country. The proper job of a university was to teach the old-fashioned liberal arts, solidly rooted in the Classics – in Greek and Latin literature. The general opinion among academics was that the English language and English literature were not difficult enough to be taught at the university level. To give a degree in English to a native English-speaker was a foolish notion; you did not get a B.A. for learning things you were supposed to know already. Linguistics and philology, on the other hand, were considered highly suitable subjects for university study. Both those fields were fresh and fascinating then. It was only in 1786 that the philologist William Jones founded Indo-European linguistics with this shrewd observation:
The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.
If it was proper to study Latin and Greek at university, why, it must also be proper to study Sanskrit, Gothic, and other ancient languages – Old and Middle English among them. There was a surge of interest in the history of languages; in how one language changed by degrees into another, or gave birth to many daughter languages, as Latin gave birth to the Romance tongues. And what better way to study those ancient languages than to read and interpret their literature, if any survived? So the degree program in English language was born. At Oxford, the most prestigious English-language university, that meant studying English and its literature up to the time of Chaucer – roughly the tail end of Middle English. But it was clear that the language and literature of later times were still of scholarly interest, and difficult enough (though this point was long disputed) to justify the award of an Oxford B.A. So the degree in English literature came into being: a sort of poor cousin at first, quickly growing into a bumptious nouveau riche. For the ‘English Lit’ curriculum proved hugely popular among students – partly because it was interesting to them, and partly, alas, because it was easier than fussing about with dusty old books like Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The professors of the Classics department (and ‘English Lang’ as well) shook their old grey heads in disapproval; but the thing had been done and they could not well go back. But the professors of the new discipline keenly felt their lack of scholarly stature. If you could study Shakespeare at Oxford, why, you might study any kind of low trash – even penny dreadfuls! The new professors urgently needed some material to give their field cachet – to make it look as difficult, and therefore as important, as Latin, Greek, or Anglo-Saxon. This brings us down to about 1900: a time when the arts generally were in wild ferment. Painters were taking up Impressionism and Cubism; composers were flirting with atonality; the recent toy of photography, and the brand-new toy of the cinema, were claiming places as arts in their own right. Literature was no exception. East of the Atlantic, Henrik Ibsen broke with centuries of tradition by writing plays in prose, in at least an approximation of everyday language. To the west, William Dean Howells was spending fantastic sums of money to publish and promote stories about everyday life, from which every trace of wonder and adventure had carefully been expunged. These new literary movements ran together and acquired the name of Modernism. And Modernism, it turned out, was exactly what the English Lit professors wanted. The central message of Modernist fiction is that life is empty and the best thing a man can do is go and hang himself. This is an exaggeration, of course; but it fairly describes some of the most praised Modernist stories, and it exactly explains why most of the reading public found such literature revolting and rebelled against it. This, too, was to the professors’ liking. Modernism evidently was an acquired taste, shared only by the intellectual élite; and who better to help people acquire that taste than an English Lit professor? So with almost unseemly haste, the likes of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf were recruited into the curriculum. Before this change, ‘Literature’ (with a capital L) meant the Great Books out of the past, the books that had endured and helped to form the permanent bedrock of Western culture. But James, Wharton, and Woolf had not endured yet; they had not been subjected to the test of time. So the professors had to change the meaning of the word. This they did by a subterfuge. Most ordinary people had neither the time nor the inclination to read the Classics. Most ordinary people positively loathed the ‘highbrow’ Modernist fiction. To include them both, the professors (and their untenured allies, the literary critics) redefined ‘Literature’ to mean ‘books that uneducated people don’t like’. Greek tragedy was an acquired taste, because it was difficult to learn Greek. Chaucer was an acquired taste, because it was difficult to understand Chaucer’s English. Woolf was an acquired taste, because – well, never mind why. Most people found her work pretentious, ponderous, and dull. The English Lit students found her delightful; or rather, they found it delightful that they could gain entree to the intellectual élite merely by skimming her books and dropping her name at the right sort of parties. A few years later, James Joyce wrote a book tailor-made for this new audience. Ulysses was deliberately written in an English as difficult as anything in Chaucer. The events of the story were deliberately made as dull and trivial as anything in Woolf. The classical allusions were as recondite as any Professor of Classics could wish for; and this, too, was deliberate. Moreover, the book was obscene in a rather joyless way, like Rabelais on downers; so it had to be published in France at first, and one had to have money and connections to get a copy into England or the U.S.A. To name-drop Ulysses (but not necessarily to have read it) became the infallible touchstone of membership in the cognoscenti. This set a pattern for the century-long swindle of Literary Fiction. If you write about dull characters doing dull things in dull ways, if you labour over your language until every sentence glitters like pyrite and pinchbeck, why, your work is not rubbish; it is merely too good for the plebeians who don’t understand it. If, in addition, you go to the Right Schools, know the Right Sort of People, and have (this is very important) the Right Opinions about politics and art, then you may be anointed as a Great Author; your publishers will brag about your greatness, and about their own astounding acumen in ‘discovering’ you, even before your first book is published. Your book will be labelled a ‘prestige book’, which means that your publisher has no intention of making a profit from it; it is an elaborate public relations exercise designed to give that money-grubbing worthy a shining reputation as a Patron of the Arts and a Bastion of Literary Culture. And the people who care about these things will always think about them with the Capital Letters in the Right Places. Modernism, meanwhile, went in another direction, not of the professors’ choosing. The next generation of Modernists, led by the gigantic figure of Hemingway, got out of the drawing-rooms and into the streets and the suburbs, cornfields and battlefields, boxing matches and bullfights: that is, they got as close to adventure as they could without breaking the rules of Modernism by actually making things up. They tossed aside the obscurely pretty language and worked in an elaborate pastiche of everyday speech. For a time, they achieved enormous commercial success; their tricks and techniques are still used in films and television and ‘mainstream’ fiction. Raymond Chandler became famous by writing detective stories that sounded like Hemingway instead of Agatha Christie. Robert A. Heinlein became famous by writing science fiction that sounded like Hemingway instead of H. G. Wells. Modernism conquered so completely that it ceased to be exclusive – and the professors moved on to other fashions. Chandler and Heinlein had to be sneered at: they were popular. You could not prove your intellectual superiority by teaching people to acquire tastes that they had already acquired for themselves. In time, the professors moved in on popular culture as they had moved in on popular literature, and largely in the same way. The avant-garde cinema of Bergman and Antonioni rejected story in favour of cinematography, bored the general public to tears, and so became the fashionable acquired taste of the 1960s, as Joyce had been in the 1920s. The ‘New Hollywood’ was in part an unsuccessful attempt to impose avant-garde tastes on the public. The ‘Death by Newbery’ school tried to do the same with children’s books. In each case, they merely succeeded in driving away a large part of their audience, which stayed away until a Lucas or a Rowling brought them home by giving them what they had actually wanted all along. By the 1980s, it was becoming extremely difficult to pretend that Literary Fiction and its cousin Art Film had any technical superiority over their hated commercial counterparts. In both fields, first-rate talent followed the money. The professors could rail against this and call it the prostitution of Art; but they could not stop it from happening. The shibboleths were beginning to break down; the humbug was wearing thin. There remained one avenue of escape. If you could not prove your superiority over the despised masses by a morbid obsession with technique, you could still prove it by a morbid obsession with morbidity itself. So Bret Easton Ellis, one of the anointed darlings of the ‘Literary’ crowd, wrote a critically acclaimed (and popularly ignored) novel about an ‘American Psycho’ who liked to do things like cut off women’s breasts and eat them. So Thomas Harris wrote about Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant and cultured intellectual who made gourmet meals out of human flesh. The chase had come full circle: the self-styled literati had retreated into the ground of the old penny dreadfuls, which their own ancestors had killed stone dead a hundred years before. Only this time the monsters themselves were the heroes. The great sin was not to kill people and eat them, but to judge those enlightened and liberated souls who had outgrown the primitive tribal taboos against murder and cannibalism. This movement, too, was quickly carried into the mainstream of the entertainment business by enthusiastic proselytizers. Some of them, I am afraid, genuinely believed that a man like Lecter was superior to a person with a functioning conscience or at least a sense of disgust. Most of them saw one more opportunity to make easy money off the old game (grown so much more difficult now) of shocking the old ladies in Brighton so that their grandchildren would spend money to see what the fuss was about. They had made it their life’s work to explore the cesspool, and now they were determined to drag popular culture into the muck with them. The moralizing crusaders of the Harmsworth type were gone – their place taken by a generation of immoralizing crusaders, just as convinced of their own utter rightness. Critics of this ghoulish persuasion were pleased to see Tim Burton make a big-budget film of Sweeney Todd. But in fact Mr. Todd and his partner in crime, though they commit the same sins as Hannibal Lecter, are not at all like him. For they are not portrayed as heroes, or even as misunderstood. For The String of Pearls, like the bulk of the penny dreadfuls, for all its ostentatious gore, was at bottom a moral tale; even a moralizing one. You can write moralizing stories in three different ways. There is the road of melodrama, in which the Hero triumphs over the Villain. There is the road of comedy, in which the Hero achieves a happy ending by his own good qualities, though there may be no Villain at all. And there is the road of tragedy, in which the Villain is punished for his sins – though he may appear, at first, to be a heroic figure, and it is generally better art if he does. Sweeney Todd is a tragic protagonist, like Oedipus or Macbeth; his story tells how he was tempted, fell into evil, and finally got what he deserved. This is true in the original, and in all the important adaptations of the story. It remains true in the Stephen Sondheim musical which Tim Burton used as the basis for his film. Burton’s Sweeney Todd is more elaborate than The String of Pearls, and as I believe, the added elements make it a more satisfying story. Todd is a barber who was sentenced to transportation for a crime he did not commit, because the magistrate, Judge Turpin, lusted after Todd’s wife Lucy. We see him returning to England under his assumed name, bitter at the world and hungry for revenge; with him is a young sailor, Anthony, neither bitter nor vengeful, but moved to pity by the story of Todd’s betrayal. The villains will follow one path, and the innocent people (not heroes as such) will follow another, so that the deeds of the latter form a counterpoint to the crimes of the former, and a moral commentary which stands at the heart of the tale. The villains: Todd returns to his old shop in London, upstairs from the shop where Mrs. Lovett sells ‘the worst pies in London’. Mrs. Lovett informs him that his beloved Lucy is dead by suicide, having been raped by Judge Turpin, and his daughter has been brought up as Turpin’s ward. Todd plots his revenge: he will go back into business, establish a reputation as the best barber in London, win Turpin as a customer – and cut his throat. The scheme miscarries; Turpin escapes. It is at this point that Todd becomes a definite villain. He decides to take his vengeance on the whole human race, slitting the throat of every man that he can lure into his barber’s chair. Downstairs, Mrs. Lovett will dispose of the bodies by making them into meat pies; and so they will make their fortune. In the climax, Todd murders Turpin, but finds out that Lucy survived – that she is the beggar woman whom he has just killed to protect his secrets. Mrs. Lovett was lying to him and using him all along. He flings Mrs. Lovett into the bakehouse furnace and kneels to cradle his dead wife in his arms. The innocents: Anthony sees Todd’s daughter, Johanna, looking out of her window at Turpin’s house and pining for freedom. He falls in love with her, but Turpin forbids him to see her. Anthony takes Todd into his confidence, and after various stratagems and schemes, he sets Johanna free. In the end, they both pass through the horrors of Todd and Turpin’s feud without becoming involved in either man’s crimes. We are left to assume that they marry and live happily ever after; but this is not actually shown. There is a third strain, of sins atoned and wickedness redeemed. Young Toby Ragg is a juvenile delinquent straight out of Oliver Twist, the shill for a mountebank who calls himself Adolfo Pirelli and sells a miracle hair tonic. Pirelli is actually Todd’s old apprentice, who knows too much about his past and tries to blackmail him – only to become fresh meat for Mrs. Lovett’s pies. Toby goes to work at the pie shop, never suspecting what horrors are going on in the bakehouse. When he does find out, Mrs. Lovett tries to kill him; he escapes by hiding in the sewers. At the end, it is Toby who plays the role of Nemesis, slitting Todd’s throat with his own razor as Todd holds dead Lucy in his arms; and we come out feeling that this killing, at least, is both just and merciful. At no time are we meant to approve of Todd’s vengefulness, though we never feel as if Turpin’s death would be any loss. When Todd begins to kill strangers, we see at once that he has crossed what is sometimes called the moral event horizon: he is now a villain pure and simple. The battle lines are drawn, and the rest of the story merely brings that battle to its necessary conclusion. Virtue is not exactly rewarded, but Anthony and Johanna at least escape; vice is amply punished. The only people who don’t get exactly what they deserve are the customers at Todd’s barbershop and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop; and it is precisely for their crimes against them that Todd and Lovett must die.   While Sweeney Todd is a moral story, it is far from being a great story; perhaps not even a very good one. It relies too heavily on cheap sensationalism and obvious gross-outs. The evil is too theatrical to ring true. One would imagine that a barbershop where scores of customers walk in, and nobody ever comes out again, would draw unfavourable attention to itself even in Fleet Street. And a woman who makes ‘the worst pies in London’ out of ordinary butcher’s meat is not, I should think, the best candidate to make a profitable gourmet dish out of human flesh. In Sondheim’s musical and Burton’s film, these faults are cheerfully handwaved away; we come along for the grisly ride, as with any good B-grade horror movie, and leave our brains at the door (where they will doubtless be served up to the audience at the next show). It is a celebration of the mere dreadfulness of the penny dreadful. Still, Rymer and Priest’s tale survived and was retold for over a century before Sondheim wrote his musical; and that alone confers a distinction upon it that thousands of serious and skilful novels missed. Before I launched upon this digression, I asked what elements made the three breakthrough fantasies so much more popular, so much better attuned to the tastes and needs of the big public, than any of their rivals. I believe that the enduring success of Sweeney Todd, in spite of its obvious flaws, can give us the key to that riddle. Let us now see if the key fits; let us try and open the lock. Concluded in Part 5, which appears in Superversive: Recovering the Tao of Fantasy. Oh, the humanity!

The exotic and the familiar (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2. In the first half of the twentieth century, the ‘school story’ was one of the most popular genres of British pulp fiction. The giant of the field was Charles Hamilton, better known as ‘Frank Richards’ and ‘Martin Clifford’. Under these two names, he was the lead writer for The Gem and The Magnet, the two leading boys’ weekly magazines in Britain between the World Wars. (He also wrote for other markets under other names, including his own.) For more than thirty years, Hamilton published a 20,000-word story in each magazine every week without fail – more than two million words of fiction per year – until they were killed by the paper shortage of the Second World War. After the war he continued to write, with paperback books taking the place of the vanished pulps. By the time he died in 1961, he had written and published about 100 million words. Many other writers had a go at school stories. Thomas Hughes founded the genre with Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857, and attracted scores of imitators. Kipling was one of the first; P. G. Wodehouse made a name for himself in the genre before switching to light comedy; and there were, of course, many lesser lights. But the genre died with Hamilton, as it seemed, beyond resurrection. For these were always stories about English public schools: that is, fictional versions of Eton, Harrow, or Winchester, where the sons of the aristocracy were educated, and the sons of the mere plutocracy were sent to learn aristocratic manners. The stories were mostly read by middle- and even working-class boys, who went to state schools or relatively cheap private schools – boys for whom a public school was a fantasy of wealth and status and unlimited poshness. George Orwell lambasted the stories, calling them, among other things, ‘a perfectly deliberate incitement to wealth-fantasy’. In the atmosphere of postwar Britain, wealth-fantasy was out of style; poshness consisted largely in pretending not to be posh. The younger generation of the ruling class tended to be good Labourites and work themselves into paroxysms of sympathy for the ‘proles’. It was obvious to everyone that the public schools were an anomaly and an anachronism, destined to be swept away by the twin tides of Reform and Progress. Those tides have since ebbed, and the public schools still remain; but that is a story for another time. When Rowling cast back to the school stories of Hamilton and Wodehouse, or for that matter, Kipling’s Stalky & Co., she was reopening a mine that still contained vast riches; that had only been closed because those riches were temporarily out of fashion. For her British audience, the school story (however much neglected in recent years) was a familiar thing, and life in a boarding school was a familiar part of reality. Add the exotic element – this is a boarding school for wizards – and you have a recipe for a billion-dollar explosion. In America, things were different. Americans have never believed in the virtues of sending one’s young away for months at a time to get their education. The very term public school, in their dialect, means a state school; but in the heyday of the state schools, people from every walk of life and nearly every stratum of society sent their children there. To this day, when Americans tell stories about life at school, they most often write about that uniquely American institution, the Big Suburban High School. The closest U.S. equivalent to the ‘Frank Richards’ stories was found (and still is) in the pages of the Archie Comics. For the American audience, it was the boarding school that was exotic. The training of wizards, by the mid-1990s, was a perfectly familiar idea in the popular culture. It reached perhaps its fullest expression in the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane. The first book in that series, So You Want to Be a Wizard, came out in 1983: that is, only a few years after the boom of 1977 established fantasy as a profitable commercial category. It would not be quite right to say that Duane had many imitators, for the idea goes back at least to The Sword in the Stone. It is true that young Wart is not taught to become a wizard himself – he is being prepared to become Arthur Pendragon, High King of Britain – but he is trained by a wizard, using thoroughly wizardly techniques, so the flavour of the story is much the same. Those who wrote ‘young wizard’ stories did not copy Duane’s work so much as they drew upon the same sources she did. On both sides of the Atlantic, then, the same two elements made the story work, though the ‘familiar’ and the ‘exotic’ switched places en route. But there was, as I believe, a third element that helped to clear the space in which Harry Potter would have his explosive career.
The dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down.

— Gordon Korman, No More Dead Dogs

Two prestigious medals are given annually for the best children’s literature: the Newbery in the U.S.A., the Carnegie in the U.K. If you ask ‘Best according to whom?’, with the sinking suspicion that the word children will not appear anywhere in the answer, your suspicions are correct. It is not children who choose the award-winners, but librarians; and librarians, as a tribe, are not interested in entertaining children so much as Raising Their Consciousness and Forming Young Minds. Newbery and Carnegie winners tend on the whole to be dreary, mundane, and tediously ‘realistic’. TV Tropes discusses the matter with its characteristic snark:
There is a Slice of Life story about childhood and coming of age. The main character has a best friend (an animal, another child, or a family member) who is a source of joy, wisdom, and understanding in their life. This friend is often frailer, more unworldly, or otherwise more ‘special’ than The Protagonist. Bonus points if the character is cute or adorable. At the end of the story, this very special best friend is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus ex Machina. A favorite trick is to have the death happen entirely off-screen. The more horribly poignant, the better. All this is generally accompanied by lots of ‘end of the innocence’ angsting from the main character, along the lines of ‘That was the day my childhood ended…’ Really, it's just the author's way of having a child suddenly make the jump to adulthood via a single defining tragedy. The Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given to American novels written for children. To win one, it helps a lot to use a story like this. The British equivalent is the Carnegie Medal, which has a similar reputation.

—TV Tropes, ‘Death by Newbery Medal’

Occasionally, in the past, an interesting and exciting book would win the Newbery, but not because it was interesting or exciting. One such winner was The High King, the last book in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. The Prydain books are a wonder and a delight, full of excitement and action, wisdom and folly, and a moral compass that acknowledges the mixture of good and evil in the human heart without ever confusing the one with the other. The first four books did not win the Newbery. The fifth did, I suspect, chiefly because of its excessively bitter ending. Evil is defeated in the end, but at a hideous price: about half the characters die, and most of the others depart from the world of mortals as all magic comes to an end for ever. This is the kind of stuff the Newbery jury likes, if it must have fantasy at all. Librarians carry great clout in the publishing of children’s books; for it is difficult to make a children’s (or ‘young adult’) book break even without substantial library sales. Some authors write depressing children’s books because they themselves are genuinely depressed, which is understandable. Some write them because the paying customers want them, whether actual children have any use for them or not: this is at least pardonable. Some write them because they are fools, and want the prestige of the award itself: this is a cardinal sin against storytelling (and children), for the real audience is entirely divorced from the ostensible audience. The ostensible audience, for the most part, turn up their noses at such stuff, go off to watch television or play video games, and grow up to be non-readers. Harry Potter rescued a generation of children from hating books; but it was almost denied the chance. All the major publishers rejected the first Potter book; it was bought by Bloomsbury, a comparatively small concern. Legend has it that the acquiring editor there had no idea what to make of the book, and broke all kinds of protocol by giving it to an actual child to read. In Canada, it was passed over by every major house, and brought out by a small distribution firm called Raincoast Books. In the U.S., all the ‘Big Six’ publishers and their various imprints ignored the book, and it was released by Scholastic. These smaller publishers grew fabulously rich on Harry Potter; and with their customary business acumen, the big publishers chased the train and got on board as soon as the journey was over. For twenty years now, they have been searching assiduously for ‘the next Harry Potter’, and always missing the mark. The trouble is that the particular combination of ideas that made Harry so interesting is no longer new; and imitation Rowling wears much less well than imitation Tolkien or even imitation Star Wars. And the audience is no longer under-served; Rowling herself saturated it, and an explosion of Potter fan fiction has kept the most obsessive readers well fed. But more to the point, perhaps, the publishers never escaped their ‘Death by Newbery’ obsessions; they could not bring themselves to buy happy books. The dose they prefer is the Y.A. dystopia, sometimes dressed up as science fiction, sometimes as fantasy. Instead of the magical mini-world of Hogwarts, they have gone in for dumbed-down versions of 1984. So they bought The Hunger Games, which is a well-crafted and emotionally sound story with a thoroughly foolish premise; and The Maze Runner, which is emotionally sound but not well-crafted, and forgets its premise entirely between the first and second books; and many another Kiddie Crapsack World, quickly reaching the point of saturation, and just as quickly descending into mind-numbing bathos as the dystopias (to preserve their emotional impact) become ever more ‘dys’. This seems to be an occupational hazard for jaded semi-literary people who live in Manhattan. New York City, as seen from the outside, is a bit of a dystopia itself; and those who live there seem utterly indifferent to the good things in life as it is lived west of the Hudson River.
Saul Steinberg’s ‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’.

‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’, by Saul Steinberg.

In the Y.A. dystopias, there is a strong tendency to divide the world into The Big City and The Wasteland Outside; and sometimes the City is Wasteland itself. The world-building in these books looks as if it had been done by somebody who took Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker joke absolutely seriously. In The Hunger Games, there is only ‘The Capitol’ and ‘The Districts’ that make up the tyrannical state of Panem; no mention of anything beyond its borders. This attitude is inherited from earlier Manhattan-centric science fiction. It takes a particularly virulent form in The Syndic, by Cyril M. Kornbluth. That book pictures a future America ruled by organized crime syndicates, taking the paradoxical (and highly implausible) view that the Mob would do a far better job of running society than the present system of government. Canada has been simply absorbed by the gangsters, and is no longer distinct from the U.S. – a common enough trope in American SF. Europe is a decadent and exhausted shell, scarcely mentioned; and the rest of the world, when mentioned, is entirely unimportant – merely a place where faceless brown subhumans with neither culture nor technology wring a bare subsistence out of the rice paddies. This device allows the writer to narrow his scope, and pretend that his dystopia is the only place in the world – to exclude the possibility of external influence by mere fiat. But it is a stupid device, and the best dystopian writers don’t use it. The world of 1984 is ghastly and not entirely convincing, but at any rate it is the whole world; and though the story is set in Oceania, we are made to understand that life is no different in Eurasia or Eastasia. Likewise, Heinlein’s Friday gives us a whirlwind tour of some fairly representative countries outside the U.S., and shows that they are all falling at various rates into the same pit of decadence. Harry Potter, which of course is not dystopian at all, at least acknowledges the existence of the ‘Muggle’ world outside Hogwarts, and has a plausible reason for ignoring it most of the time. The stories are simply not about Muggles. ‘But it’s for children,’ say the defenders of the dystopias: as if children were too stupid to understand the concept of other countries, or as if it were good for them to be indoctrinated in an ideology that includes the tenet, ‘Only America is real.’ It is an excuse for lazy writing – an excuse for short-changing children and robbing them of better stories. This raises an important question. When we talk about ‘better stories’, what kind of stories do we mean? What elements do our three breakthrough fantasies have in common? If we can find those, it seems like a safe bet to look for them if we want to find a fourth. (Continued in Part 4….)

The exotic and the familiar (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1. Throughout the 1970s, the ‘New Hollywood’ had been establishing itself. Heroes and villains, Westerns and war movies, were out of fashion. The critics’ new darlings were men like Coppola and De Palma, who pointed their cameras at the mundane and the sordid. The good characters in the new films were ineffectual; the effectual characters, as a general thing, were unselfconsciously evil. This refusal to engage ethical reality was called ‘moral ambiguity’, and praised; the tight focus on a narrow and unrepresentative segment of modern city life was called ‘realism’, and praised more strongly still. So far as the film business was concerned, fantasy, like animation, was banished to the realm of children’s movies. Such things were considered beneath a grown-up audience, and Hollywood as a whole was trying to be very grown-up indeed. One or two cracked auteurs tried to make animated fantasies for adults, and succeeded in making cult films for stoners and adolescents. The leading director in this strange movement was Ralph Bakshi, a graduate of Terrytoons, the knacker’s yard of animation studios. Bakshi made his name with an adaptation of Fritz the Cat, which had all the ‘moral ambiguity’ and ‘realism’ of any good 1970s film, except that the characters (all properly cool and urban) were depicted as talking animals. In the spring of 1977, Bakshi released his own magnum opus: a strange little movie, part drug trip, part twee morality tale, about the resurgence of Evil Technology in a post-apocalyptic fairyland. The protagonist was a hairball in a pointy hat who smoked cigars with his toes; the love interest was a bimbo fairy with porn-star curves and protruding nipples. Several scenes are delivered in the form of chalk drawings with voiceover by a dreary hippie-chick narrator: Bakshi had not enough money to finish the animation. The second half of the movie is filled with nightmare images made by rotoscoping black shadows over old war movies and Nazi propaganda reels – another money-saving device. The film was called Wizards. It was hailed by the critics as an animated cartoon for grown-ups, and promptly bombed. Within a fortnight of its release, hundreds of cinemas were yanking it off their screens and searching desperately for a replacement that would fill their empty seats. Unlike fantasy, science fiction was considered hip and intellectual enough to fall within the purview of the New Hollywood – as long as it confined itself to dreary post-apocalyptic morality plays that required little in the way of special effects. The age of Harryhausen was over; monster movies had been banished to the Late Late Show. In the New Hollywood, science fiction meant Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, Zardoz and Rollerball. These movies tended to follow a reliable formula. Humanity, being evil and stupid, destroyed itself and ruined the earth; the few survivors lived in dreary dystopias full of unnecessary suffering, with enough joyless sex and mindless violence to hold the attention of a marginally profitable audience. Science fiction critics (this was the heyday of the ‘New Wave’) praised these films to the skies, as mainstream critics praised The Godfather or Midnight Cowboy. The movie-going public remained serenely indifferent. One of the dystopian films was THX-1138, by a very green young director named George Lucas. It was regarded as an interesting failure; Lucas himself, as a less talented version of his friend Coppola. He abandoned SF to make a nostalgic film about the car-mad California of his teenaged years: American Graffiti. It was not cool or trendy, ‘realistic’ or ‘ambiguous’ or even urban; therefore it was a massive hit. Lucas found himself with the money and clout to make anything he wanted; and what he really wanted was to make a film that combined nostalgia with science fiction. He wanted to remake Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon as a big-budget ‘A’ film with modern effects and modern production values; but he could not get the rights to those properties. So he did the next best thing: he plagiarized them, and borrowed a plot from Japan, and made an SF film that evoked the adventure serials of the thirties and forties. It was a remake of an original that never existed: a movie that created nostalgia for itself. That movie was Star Wars. It was the sleeper hit of 1977: the cuckoo egg laid in the nest so carefully prepared for Bakshi’s abortive triumph. In the movie business, it changed everything. That summer, those hundreds of cinemas that had given up on Wizards were showing Star Wars instead, and making more money than they had ever dreamed possible. You could say that the nostalgic appeal of Star Wars represents ‘the familiar’ in Aldiss’s formula, and the science-fiction elements ‘the exotic’. But you would need to define your terms carefully, because the elements of the story are not divisible in quite the way you would expect. We can begin with the Leitmotiv of the movie, the unforgettable line that begins the opening crawl – the line that announces, with perfect confidence, where this story is going to take us:
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….
This is a perfect opening line: balanced, poetic, paradoxical. It recreates the form of ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, and does it in a way that adroitly advertises the subject-matter of the story. A long time ago: a classic fairy-tale opening, just sufficiently removed from ‘Once upon a time’ to seem fresh and exciting. In a galaxy far, far away: an opening from the pulp era of science fiction, from the gigantesque imagination of E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith or Edmond ‘World Wrecker’ Hamilton. Nostalgia for the myths of the past; nostalgia for a future that never was. Lucas himself has said that Star Wars is not science fiction at all, but ‘techno-fantasy’; and this is clearly announced in the very first frame of the film. Here again we have the strange reversal of ‘the familiar’ and ‘the exotic’. To a young viewer in 1977 (myself, for instance), it was science fiction that was the familiar element. We were brought up on Star Trek and 2001 and Planet of the Apes; we had seen the Apollo landings on TV, had played the first commercial video games, and some of us were beginning to play with the first home computers. Life was science fiction, and the future, far more than the present, seemed like our native country. The mainstream culture, for the time being, still belonged to jocks and businessmen; but we already knew that the geek would inherit the earth. For us, ‘the exotic’ was precisely the intrusion of fantasy into this technological wonderworld, naked and unabashed. Like us, the denizens of Star Wars lived in a world of (often frightening) technical marvels, but the permanent and transcendent things were once more intruding into their lives. The military men of the Empire were delighted with their new toy, the Death Star; but Darth Vader was not impressed. ‘Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed,’ he told them. ‘The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.’ The Force was exotic; the Force was otherworldly – was alien even to the creatures that inhabited this superficially alien world. We loved the Millennium Falcon at first sight, as we loved the souped-up deuce coupe in American Graffiti, and for the same reasons. It represented the familiarity of technology; the tameness of machines grown old. But the Force did not grow tame. If a man could use the Force for his purposes, so could the Force use the man; could turn him to light, like Obi-wan Kenobi, or darkness, like Darth Vader. And as Luke Skywalker proved in the climax, it could even offset the world-wrecking power of the Death Star. At bottom, I suppose, ‘the Force’ is a manifestation of the old adolescent wish for infinite power, in a democratized form. It seems odd to talk about infinite power as a democratic thing; but it is true to the emotional experience. A child wants to be the centre of the universe. An adolescent knows, or is beginning to know, that he is not that special; that the universe was not built around him. In the older style of fairy tales, it is the One True King who can remove the sword from the stone; the One True Prince who can break the enchantment and wake the princess with a kiss. The Force gives us a free ride to destiny. So far as we knew at the time, Luke was not anybody in particular; there was no hint that the Jedi were a super-powered hereditary élite. Luke was an Everyman, a Jack the Giant-Killer, and we could imagine the Force doing as much for us as it did for him. At the same time, in our fantasies, the Force did that only for us – certainly not for the dull grown-ups and mundanes around us. Han Solo was a dashing rogue and a wizard at keeping old spaceships in repair, but he would never learn to use the Force. That was reserved to the special ones – that is, to all the millions of us in the audience. But we never stopped to think what it would be like if every kid in the cinema had the powers of a Jedi Knight. We were never meant to. Since the day that Star Wars was released, dull-minded critics have complained about the badness of the science, the impossibility of the technology. All such complaints miss the mark. They would matter in science fiction; but Star Wars is not science fiction. It is fantasy that happens to include spaceships and robots. Because science fiction was a recognized category in the film business and fantasy was not, it was sold as science fiction; and it helped science fiction and fantasy become inextricably muddled in the collective mind of Hollywood. All this, of course, leaked back into the world of literature; or flooded in. Del Rey Books published Alan Dean Foster’s ghostwritten novelization of Star Wars, and his non-canonical sequel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (since consigned to the memory hole). They already held the rights to The Lord of the Rings, and published the Thomas Covenant books. They had, through no merit of their own, cornered the market on three big combinations of ‘the familiar’ and ‘the exotic’: the story about the good magic of nature and the evil magic of the super-weapon; the one about a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away; the one about the unbeliever and the leper. The third of these, so expressed, seems rather small and unsatisfactory alongside the other two; and it is true that Covenant has remained a specialized taste, not very accessible to the bulk of fantasy fans, not much imitated by other writers. But it showed that the formula could be commercially successful even without the shock-appeal of novelty. Big Fantasy did not have to be sui generis; it could be replicated. And it was replicated, to the point of ennui and beyond. All through the next decade and change, SF publishers cranked out trilogies and tetralogies and as-many-as-we-can-sell-ogies, all cashing in on the form, if not the formula, of The Lord of the Rings, and selling largely to the market that had devoured Star Wars. The process culminated in the early nineties, when Tor Books, with cynicism and malice aforethought, commissioned Robert Jordan to write a mash-up of all the ologies, a shameless recycling of Tolkien and Frank Herbert and whatever else he could lay hands upon – The Wheel of Time. That gigantic series sucked the oxygen out of the room, and there was less space for Big Fantasies thereafter; until the literary version of the ‘New Hollywood’ people retooled and began cranking out ‘gritty’ and ‘grimdark’ and nihilistic anti-fantasies. That fashion is with us still, but there are beginning to be signs that it has reached its sell-by date. By the middle of the 1990s, the fantasy field, thanks largely to the tunnel vision of publishers, was in a state of apparently hopeless stagnation. Then came a Scottish welfare mother, with a series of children’s books that stubbornly refused to confine themselves to an audience of children. (Continued in Part 3….)

The exotic and the familiar (Part 1)

I’ve heard Brian Aldiss talk about the same phenomenon. For him, a novel often requires two ideas. He describes them as a combination of ‘the familar’ and ‘the exotic’. He begins with ‘the familiar’ – usually something germane to his personal life, either thematically or experientially – but he can’t write about it until ‘the familiar’ is impacted by ‘the exotic’. In his case, ‘the exotic’ is usually a science fictional setting in which ‘the familiar’ can play itself out: ‘the exotic’ provides him with a stage on which he can dramatize ‘the familiar’. Rather like a binary poison – or a magic potion – two inert elements combine to produce something of frightening potency. The same dynamic works in reverse for me. I start with ‘the exotic’… but that idea declines to turn into a story until it is catalysed by ‘the familiar’. For example: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is squarely – and solely – founded on two ideas: unbelief and leprosy. The notion of writing a fantasy about an ‘unbeliever’, a man who rejects the whole concept of fantasy, first came to me near the end of 1969. But the germ was dormant: no matter how I laboured over it, I couldn’t make it grow. Until I realized, in May of 1972, that my ‘unbeliever’ should be a leper. As soon as those two ideas came together, my brain took fire.

—Stephen R. Donaldson, The Real Story

Three times in the last sixty-odd years, a work of fantasy has come along that redrew the whole map of the field; that banished the limits of the publishable, as then understood, as suddenly and thoroughly as Columbus banished the ‘ne plus ultra’ from the Pillars of Hercules. Lately I have been thinking hard about these works, seeing what they had in common with one another, and what set them apart from the other fantasies of their times, to see whether I could account for the magnitude of their success. All three of these breakthrough fantasies can be described in terms of Aldiss’s ‘exotic’ and ‘familiar’. Each, considered thematically, is a collision between two great, or at any rate large, ideas. And when I began to look at them in this light, I found a curious thing: which idea was ‘the exotic’ and which was ‘the familiar’ was not as obvious as it seemed. Indeed, the works themselves tended to familiarize the exotic and exoticize the familiar, so that those whose habits of mind were formed afterwards would never quite see the ideas as their first audiences saw them. Let me see if I can explain what I mean. First, in 1954–55, came The Lord of the Rings. At the heart of Tolkien’s magnum opus is a collision between two ideas as starkly opposed as life and death. Life, in this case, is the life of Middle-earth: a life deeply rooted in tradition and legend, close to the soil, based upon a deep and vivid understanding of nature in all its modes and moods. Death is the One Ring – the super-weapon with the power to destroy everything. To all the generations of man before the Industrial Revolution, Middle-earth would have been a familiar setting. The peculiar peoples, their customs and languages, would have seemed strange, but no stranger than the common run of travellers’ tales; and nothing like so strange as a world in which custom and tradition were openly sneered at, and millions of people hared off every day in the frantic pursuit of this year’s fashion and this year’s technology. A single weapon that could blast the whole world to ruin was something out of myth – religious eschatology or morbid fantasy. But in the aftermath of the two World Wars, the landscape of our own world was strangely reversed. People in the 1950s lived in grim daily knowledge of the super-weapon; and many of them lived in hive cities, far larger than anything known before the twentieth century, in which woods and open fields were exceptional sights, and the stars were largely banished from the night sky. And they had been carefully taught – propagandized is not too strong a term – that the ways of the past were dead and worthless, as irrelevant as last year’s motorcars or last year’s hemlines – that tradition was a dirty word. To such people, it was Middle-earth that was ‘the exotic’, the Ring of Power ‘the familiar’. The Lord of the Rings, which treated tree and leaf, seas and mountains, as normal, and the Ring as a deadly exception, was a specific remedy for the characteristic malaise of those times. Much has been said about the way Tolkien’s work inspired the New Left (with whom he had so little else in common) – the pacifist and environmentalist movements of the sixties. But the counterculture was merely the foam on the shores; the real sea-change occurred in the deep waters of Western society. Quite ordinary and conservative people began to think that mere technical progress was not automatically good. And while people of both sense and sensitivity had always known that nature was worth having, many of them awoke for the first time to the notion that nature needed saving: that the human race had conjured up forces capable of destroying vast and priceless things. Today, we have come some distance towards correcting the topsy-turvy world-view of 1954. More people than ever live in big cities, but most of them have at least an ignorant and sentimental regard for ‘the environment’. Wars have not ceased, but all nations, and most of the freelance extra-national combatants, have got it through their heads that some ways of fighting are simply out of bounds. The Ring and the H-bomb are once more becoming ‘exotic’, and the natural world ‘familiar’. Only a small part of this change, of course, was brought about by The Lord of the Rings, or by literature generally. But the change is real, and because of it, we can no longer quite appreciate how startling Frodo’s story was when it appeared, or why it seized so many hearts and minds with the force of revelation. Twenty-odd years passed: years in which modern and Modernist people assimilated the themes of Tolkien’s work without being contaminated by the work itself. The prophets of the new counter-industrialism – Rachel Carson, Bertrand Russell, Ralph Nader, among many others – were real; one could engage their ideas without risking anything as dangerous as imagination. One could accept nature and reject the H-bomb in a perfectly mundane way. Many people thought the Tolkien ‘fad’ had passed, that fantasy would once more be relegated to the ghetto of children’s literature, or (better yet) abolished altogether. A few quixotic publishers kept trying to make a buck out of the genre; they dimly supposed that there must be more than one way to make money out of this fantasy thing, whatever it was. In 1977, Lester del Rey published a group of highly successful books that proved it was so. Those books included The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, referred to above; but the second breakthrough fantasy came from a wholly unexpected source. (Continued in Part 2.…)  

‘Simplicity or style’

Over at The Passive Voice, Passive Guy has reposted a precious little peacock strut by a minor critic, entitled, ‘Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?’ The author offers one sentence each from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, 1984, Neuromancer, and other works – as if it were the presence of that single sentence in each novel that assured its place in the literary canon. I found myself strongly moved to reply:
Ah, the Sentence Cult rears its ugly head. A novel is not made of sentences; it is made of scenes and récit, characters and plot elements – building blocks on the narrative level. The individual sentences are always replaceable – else it would be impossible to translate a novel into another language, or make it into a movie. Too often, the writer’s ‘masterpiece’ sentence marks a place where he ought to have followed the advice, ‘Murder your darlings.’ I can think of one notable exception. That is where the great sentence has special meaning and force inside the story. Perhaps it serves as a Leitmotiv; perhaps it is a bit of dialogue that the characters will recall later, and understand more of its import in light of later events. In any case, it must be possible for the reader to take it in stride. If you have to drop out of the story to pause and admire, the writer has manufactured an opportunity to lose you. All this, of course, is lost on the pinchbeck critic raised on ‘close reading’, which requires one not to experience the interior drama of the story, but instead to remain carefully on the surface. Such a reader is like the nearsighted tourist who spends his whole day looking at pebbles on the beach, and never even notices the ocean.

An experiment in speed writing

Came back Friday night from a short holiday in British Columbia, where lakes were swum in, and hot springs soaked in, and beaches lain upon, and peaches picked and gourmandized. The Beloved Other and I were both much refreshed upon our return. Today, I began a brief experiment in writing at top speed, to see if I can break myself of some of the perfectionist habits that have so impeded my productivity. I am reminding myself (truthfully, I hope) that there are those who enjoy my writing just as it is; I do not have to make it utterly bulletproof so that a Traditional Publisher will find no excuse to reject it, as I was once warned that I had to do. (Traditional Publishers were quite willing to reject my work without an excuse, because they saw no benefit in admitting me to the Cool Kids’ Club; but that is a rant for another time.) So, having all but finished the opening episode of Where Angels Die, I am trying to write a rough draft of the second episode in three days. This episode is called ‘The Little Charter’, and it is designed to stand somewhat independently as a story, whilst fitting into the overall arc of the serial: the technique of episodic television. I expect it to weigh in at about 12,000 words when finished. Four thousand words a day is a biggish output for me, but I often write essais of that length or more in a single sitting. The idea here is to keep myself from niggling unnecessarily, and teach myself to write fiction with roughly the same facility. If I can do that, I may yet manage to pay my bills at this dodge. Fiction is where the money is, but hitherto I have been too slow and sporadic to build an audience with it. Today I did a chapter-level outline, and wrote about 2,600 words of draft copy. I will have to improve on that pace to meet my goal, but it should be feasible now that the prior planning is quite finished. Time is not on my side in this venture. Wish me luck!

The equitable division of shirking labour

Last night, I did nothing. That is, I got no work done on Where Angels Die, which it had been my firm intention to do when I applied the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Instead, I sifted through the archives to choose the right essais for the Superversive collection, and whittled my list down to ten. (But ten of my longer pieces; the book will be slightly longer than Writing Down the Dragon, which will make it my largest collection yet.) Then I imported them into Word, made some necessary edits (mostly to eliminate repetitive bits), and formatted them for submission to Amazon’s Magic Ebook Gonkulator. 'But you did nothing!' cried Truman the Boneless Beast. I have introduced you to Truman before, I think. He is a fat little sluglike creature, boneless and quite possibly brainless, who inhabits the subbasement of my mind. His function, such as it is, is to criticize everything I do, and everything I omit to do, and make it out that I am a complete and miserable failure as a human being. I call him Truman because it helps me to imagine him talking in the voice of Truman Capote, who had a voice that nobody could possibly take seriously. (He sounded very much like Droopy, the sad little dog from the Tex Avery cartoons.) Of course, Truman meant that I wrote no original copy – ignoring the fact that I did several hours of solid work, editing and formatting and so forth, amounting to about half the labour of putting out a new book. (The other half: I shall have to write a new essai especially for the collection, my standard nefarious plot to make my 3.6 Loyal Readers buy it instead of just reading it all here for free.) So Truman and I have struck a deal; or rather, I have made Truman an offer that he can’t refuse. Every night, when I go to work, I shall do nothing on one particular project; and Truman can castigate me as much as he likes for that. And I shall sneak away and play hooky, and spend my time working on something else, so that I can feel a sense of virtuous accomplishment about the ‘nothing’ that I did. I regard this as a very fair way to divide up the shirking of labour. If any of you are afflicted with minor chores or big jobs that you don’t much want to do, and your own inner screamer (miscalled your conscience) is riding you illogically whether you do them or not, I can only humbly suggest that you give this method a try. It seems to be working for me, so far. And now I hope you will excuse me. The hour draws nigh, and I have my lack of work cut out for me.