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.

[Read more…]

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. [Read more…]

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. [Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

‘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.

Quality vs quality (A teaser)

A new essai written especially for my new collection, Style is the Rocket.


In a certain town that you have never heard of, though you may have lived there all your life, two restaurants face each other across a busy street. Both pride themselves upon the quality of their cookery; but if you read the menus posted beside their respective doors, and the little blurb at the head of each, you may come away with the idea that they are not using the word quality in precisely the same way.

The restaurant on the north side of the street has a bare white exterior and a bare white signboard, very chic in a thoroughly minimalist way; and on the signboard you will find this notice:

HOUSE OF MINUS
A Quality Restaurant

Minus Sugar
Minus Fat
Minus Sodium
Minus Cholesterol
Minus Gluten
Minus MSG
Minus Additives
Minus Preservatives
Minus Pesticides
Minus Impurities of Any Kind

The same bare white aesthetic is continued inside, with bare white tables and hard white chairs; and it is rather emphasized by the fact that most of the tables are empty. There are a couple of health-food cranks in one corner, and a lonely old man with digestive trouble sits near the kitchen door. In the middle of the room, a party of avant-garde restaurant critics are talking loudly, praising the wonderful geometric arrangement of the food on their plates, but not actually eating any of it. They can perhaps be excused for this omission.

For in truth, the food at the House of Minus is rather unappealing. The only thing on the menu is a special kind of digestive biscuit, manufactured on the premises, and carefully designed to contain nothing that could injure anybody’s health or offend anybody’s palate. The recipe was dictated by the owner, a self-made man who piled up millions in another line of work, and has convinced himself that sickness and death would depart from the world if only everybody could be made to live on an exclusive diet of these biscuits. Needless to say, he himself never eats there.

On the south side of the street is a bizarre building, as rococo as a wedding-cake, painted in all the colours of a fluorescent nightmare. If you shade your eyes carefully, you will be able to read the sign:

POSITIVE DELIGHTS
A Quality Dining Experience

Fusion Cuisine From Anywhere and Everywhere!
Thrill Your Taste Buds!
Astonish Your Friends!
Every Meal an Original Creation!

This, at any rate, sounds more promising than the Spartan fare across the street; but something seems not quite right, though Positive Delights is considerably busier than the House of Minus. Some of the customers are university students, visiting the place on drunken dares; some are tourists, steered this way by leg-pulling locals. A lot of people eat here once; but the place gets hardly any repeat business, for the delights, sad to say, are booby-trapped.

The cooking is skilful enough, for those of adventurous tastes. The chef has a way of combining the most unlikely ingredients and somehow making it work: it is the only place in the town, or perhaps any other town, where you can get barbecued sardines with a side of chocolate-coated garlic. And there are no words sufficient to describe the ice cream vindaloo.

But there is some question about the ingredients that he uses. Customers have a disturbing tendency to develop food poisoning, or go into anaphylactic shock. The meat dishes are rather suspicious. Small domestic animals go missing in the neighbourhood, and several customers have found dog-licences or bits of collar cooked into their dinners. It is a red-letter day when someone gets a salad that hasn’t got insects in it. Nobody quite knows how the restaurant avoids the wrath of the local health inspector, but somehow it has stayed in business for several years.

Now, the really odd thing about these two establishments is that they actually exist. I have altered the truth in just one detail. The ‘House of Minus’ and ‘Positive Delights’ are not actually restaurants: they are writers.


Read the rest in Style is the Rocket. Now available!

When to cut a manuscript

Those who are regular followers of the doings of Arthur Dent may have received an impression of his character and habits which, while it includes the truth and, of course, nothing but the truth, falls somewhat short, in its composition, of the whole truth in all its glorious aspects.

And the reasons for this are obvious. Editing, selection, the need to balance that which is interesting with that which is relevant and cut out all the tedious happenstance.

Like this for instance. ‘Arthur Dent went to bed. He went up the stairs, all fifteen of them, opened the door, went into his room, took off his shoes and socks and then all the rest of his clothes one by one and left them in a neatly crumpled heap on the floor. He put on his pyjamas, the blue ones with the stripe. He washed his face and hands, cleaned his teeth, went to the lavatory, realized that he had once again got this all in the wrong order, had to wash his hands again and went to bed. He read for fifteen minutes, spending the first ten minutes of that trying to work out where in the book he had got to the previous night, then he turned out the light and within a minute or so more was asleep.

‘It was dark. He lay on his left side for a good hour.

‘After that he moved restlessly in his sleep for a moment and then turned over to sleep on his right side. Another hour after this his eyes flickered briefly and he slightly scratched his nose, though there was still a good twenty minutes to go before he turned back on to his left side. And so he whiled the night away, sleeping.

‘At four he got up and went to the lavatory again. He opened the door to the lavatory…’ and so on.

It’s guff. It doesn’t advance the action. It makes for nice fat books such as the American market thrives on, but it doesn’t actually get you anywhere. You don’t, in short, want to know.

—Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Message fiction, Victorian style

But the three hundred and sixty-five authors who try to write new fairy tales are very tiresome. They always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and apple blossoms: ‘Flowers and fruits, and other winged things.’ These fairies try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed.

― Andrew Lang

The apple-blossom fairies are mostly gone, thank God, but the same failing recurs in other guises. The same could be said of most of the critical darlings of any given moment, especially in our genre (which is insufferable when not humble): They try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed.

Hat tip to Mary Catelli.