Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 2

Every month or so, Jill Elaine Hughes, Joe Bonadonna, and I get together, out here in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, as writers around the kitchen table to talk shop. Jill’s star is definitely rising; she’s an accomplished and very well-regarded playwright and a novelist. She writes romance novels and erotica and is doing really well in that regard. The Jill Elaine Hughes website is still under construction, but check out the two now online that appear under her pen names—or noms de plume, or noms erotique, perhaps—Jamaica Layne and Jay Hughes: http://www.jamaicalayne.com and http://www.jayhughesbooks.com.)

Jill’s agent in Manhattan is energetic and very proactive, and she knows her business. Talking with Jill this past Sunday, then, gave me a good perspective about where genre fiction is these days. And pretty much it’s in the situation I surmised in my previous blog.

Eight-five percent of fiction readers in this country are now women, says Jill’s agent. Eighty-five percent. Women agents, women editors, women writers, women readers . . . chicks rule. It is pretty much completely upside-down, I suppose, from the situation—I don’t know, 50 years ago? 60?—when publishing in all of its aspects was run by men. Women weren’t entirely excluded—dames and other just-one-of-the-boys sassy types were more than welcome—but sexist it definitely was.

In terms of social progress, then, times are better now. In terms of lowered levels of literacy, however, things are not better. And publishing’s following the zero-sum mentality that has long been a hallmark of the music industry and Hollywood, the all-or-nothing mentality, is definitely not good, in my estimation. But whether good or not, it was inevitable that publishing would move in this direction. Whatever else American-style late capitalism is, it’s a juggernaut; it is a large mouth, an appetite that constantly wants to be fed; and the larger the chunks of food you can give it, the better the juggernaut likes it. Rock-star authors, huge opening weekends for movies, break-out tweener singers and performers—the devouring gullet adores them, loves ’em, swallows them whole, and in return, coughs up gold.

That all-or-nothing attitude, though, is the problem when it comes to what coyly used to be regarded as the midlist. Got a book that 50,000 readers might like? Well, too bad. We’re not interested because it’s not a big enough chunk of food for the juggernaut. So what do we do with the bite-sized morsels that appeal to the tastes of everyone other than those of the juggernaut?

It appears, to no one’s surprise, that the new Yellow Brick Road is e-publishing. Jill confirmed this as she and Joe and I sat around her kitchen table last Sunday. My daughter, Lily, and Jill’s son, Elliott, played in the other room, chasing each other around in circles, and we three adults drank root beer and ate carrot sticks, and it was made clear, as Jill’s canny agent told her, that within five years, publishing will mean electronic publishing. Paper won’t go away; books of cardboard and paper won’t even become antiques or nostalgia because, as implements or tools, they are pret’ near perfect in their design, in filling the need that they serve.

But America is all about technologic advances, and the arts in America proceed according to the latest technology. (God help us, this means that a tidal wave of contrived 3D movies is now heading toward us, without doubt mostly overgrown-adolescent fare spawned by the likes of James Cameron, just as, a decade or more ago, it seemed as though George Lucas and his remarkably awful, post-adolescent sense of storytelling and character development stole our sensibilities with his ghastly Star Wars prequels. We should all start planning right now to get in line for the 3D reissues of the Harry Potter pictures, let alone the 3D re-release of The Lord of the Rings. I am fairly certain, though, that no one, absolutely no one, will go back and try to reformat 7 Men from Now in Cameronian 3D, or The 300 Spartans, or Maniac Cop III, or any of the other peculiar cinematic fossils so dear to my heart. So my Saturday afternoons on the couch are safe from James Cameron.)

Jill’s agent also pointed out something else that is very interesting: that even the final two fiction genres pretty much dominated by men—horror and science fiction, the last holdouts, as it were—are now becoming secured by women writers. We are living through the greatest commercial expression of weirdness and horror in popular storytelling since the early 1930s, and this time, it’s “just us girls.” In one sense, I don’t mind: everyone should have her or his chance to get into print. In a second sense, I even like it, because I am really looking forward to introducing my three-and-half-year-old daughter to the delights of reading such girl-centric fiction when she gets to be older. (It’s hard to believe right now that anything will displace Pablo and Uniqua of The Backyardigans in her interest, but one of these days, surely, it will be resourceful young women who ride dragons or learn to become sorceresses or something or other.)

What has happened, simply, is this: that as technology and expression and the arts and business have become postmodern, genres and even methods of storytelling that were merely modern have been left behind or been allowed to manage the situation as best they can. I wrote sword-and-sorcery fiction; there is no home for that sort of fiction now in the commercial publishing business; so that fiction and its writers are now marginalized in the way that, say, gay and lesbian writers were in the 1940s, or that science fiction writers were in the 1950s. Right now, the modern type of sword-and-sorcery mentality that was more or less prevalent in the genre in the 1960s and 1970s has not had to move forward or develop very much; it has found a home in video games and in a resurgence of theatrical movies that—no surprise—take advantage of improved technology. So now we have the grunts of 300 and a remake of The Clash of the Titans, for example. We will probably see one or two of these sorts of movies every year from now on, at least for a while. If it can be done, it will be done, and technology makes these efforts acceptable, even enjoyable, compared with the lumpenprole embarrassments made in the 1980s, the awful beefcake-fests with Southern California bodybuilders pretending to be generic “barbarians” on a quest.

I still think that sword-and-sorcery is best on the page. Even though these stories are basically Westerns, they require a greater suspension of disbelief on the screen than Westerns do. Sword-and-sorcery stories are radio shows, or campfire stories, or yarns on the printed page: they work best when you fill in some of the story yourself, in your own imagination. Show it and you kill it. How many effing dragons have we seen flying around by now since the 1980s? Are any of them as good as the ones you imagine? They’re like the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies, so technically perfect that you don’t have to do any work at all to appreciate them or meet them half way. They might as well be cocker spaniels. And they’re about as scary as cocker spaniels, too. We’re on to their tricks.

Joe and I have been talking lately about just what sword-and-sorcery stories are. He is about done reworking his Dorgo the Dowser stories from the 1970s. In a broad sense, they’re like film noir in a fantasy setting but featuring a character who is partly tough, partly good-hearted and honest. Dorgo is a strong character around whom good stories can be fashioned. Myself, I have been reworking my fantasy short stories from the 1970s and am almost half way through the lot of them. There are 18 in all; they’ll form a collection called Tales of Attluma or something similar. Tales of Attluma is how Morgan Holmes has referred to them, and that was the title under which the late, deeply lamented Steve Tompkins was reading them in preparation for writing his introduction. I deeply regret that the collection will not have an introduction by Steve; that’s how selfish I am. I was looking forward to his wit and insight and erudition. But the collection will still come out in one form or another. And, of course, I continue to poke along on Sometime Lofty Towers.

The point raised by Joe, and it is a point well made, is that the fantasy fiction that has been published since the commercial demise of sword-and-sorcery in the 1980s is all about world-building. And sword-and-sorcery isn’t about world building. Sword-and-sorcery is intimate. Go back to the very beginning, to Howard’s Conan stories, and you have intimate stories: one guy in a heap of trouble, either getting into it or trying to get out of it. The stories are not about some long-term fascination with exotic cultures and building fake worlds to impress middle-class suburban kids: they’re about dire peril and staying alive. The scale is intimate; life screws you; fight back. Even when the backdrop is something epic, the scale is still intimate and about characters, not about spelling out the minutiae of some Never-Never Land.

In a word: these old sword-and-sorcery stories, up through the 1980s, are modern. That’s what I wrote, and what Joe wrote, and what Robert E. Howard wrote, and what the rest of us wrote through the eighties. Not Tolkeinesque world-building and not dragon-riding and not empires. We wrote Old Testament stuff, Homeric stuff, The Song of Roland, and Njal’s Saga. Westerns. War stories. Intriguing, small-scale mysteries or thrillers. But with the added dimension or depth that sword-and-sorcery brings to its readers of what I always come back to calling the abyss, the breath of the eternal darkness, the silence from which we come and the silence to which we go, the existential frisson of meaninglessness and nothingness, that none of this matters although I am alive and, being alive, I will do everything I can to stay alive, despite the meaninglessness.

Howard’s fiction is Darwinian; I’m going to write a blog about that fact pretty soon. Basically his stuff is about the organism fighting to stay alive, hell or high water. That’s what sword-and-sorcery is about. That’s why this other stuff, going on and on with its world-building and BBC-style characters, is not sword-and-sorcery. I’ve written world-building, epic fantasy with BBC-style characters: The Fall of the First World. Sometimes I want to read about these characters who use their brains and their abilities to try to exist rationally in an irrational world. That’s most fiction. But sometimes we want to be reminded that, essentially, before all of that or underneath all of that, we exist on an animal level. We don’t have to like it; we may prefer to deny it; we may be disingenuous about it. But when a terrorist sets off a bomb in a subway, or some lowlife kills a child in gang warfare on the south side of Chicago, or a soldier has to go door to door to secure a neighborhood in Iraq or Afghanistan, we are standing side by side with the elemental thrill and awareness that is related to sword-and-sorcery fiction. There are monsters; they make no sense; life is a wound that throbs and is alive; we are the wound, and we will do whatever we can to stay alive for one more moment, and then one more, and then one more . . . or we will kill, kill it, lash out and fight back before life finally takes us.

That’s the intimacy of modern old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery. So what shall we do about it, those of us who write and want to read this sort of fiction? A couple of things, I’m convinced.

First, write sword-and-sorcery, not an imitation thereof. Don’t wimp out and do juvenile or domesticated writing. Go for the heart; go for the throat; write with blood. Push it to the limit. Scare yourself by how deeply you go.

Second, write as well as you can. The commercially available models of what is now acceptable or passable prose are not good enough. Go back and read writers from fifty years ago. Read for style, for grammar, for character development, for story. They were better at it than writers are now. And don’t create a commercial product; write a damned yarn. Agents tell you to write what you love and what you like to read, not what you think the market wants. Correct.

Third, let’s develop the genre. Joe wonders whether his Dorgo stories are sword-and-sorcery. They are, but they’re sword-and-sorcery-plus, in the sense that women detective stories are hard-boiled-plus. Those stories broke new ground and were initially a hard sell to agents and publishers. Now they’re mainstream.

Fourth, we need a venue, and e-publishing seems to be it. What the pulps were in the 1930s and the fanzines were in the 1970s, e-publishing is to the 2010s, the technology by which plebe fiction can be experimented with and made available. Let’s face it: do you really think that Tor, a big, mainstream commercial house, is going to want to publish Tales of Attluma? What’s in it for them?

I promise to do my part. I will finish revising those old fantasy stories so that anyone who wants to read them will have them available. There are at least six or seven of you. And I will finish Sometime Lofty Towers. Let’s see where those projects take me. Let me see if I can put my money where my mouth is, or be as good as my word. We already have four of the five Imaro novels available again from Charles Saunders via print-on-demand. So this little knot of us who began writing this material 40 years ago or more is still at it. I am thinking that e-publishing is how I should approach this. Let me know your thoughts.

And at some point, what was modern and new and then was forgotten or set aside will come back around full circle, and the best of it—the Imaro stories, maybe some of my short stories and possibly Sometime Lofty Towers, likely the Dorgo stories, any of the superb Kane stories of Karl Edward Wagner—will surprise readers with what was in there all along, good writing, strong characters, and a level of quality that makes it worth keeping them around and that makes them worthwhile to use as models for new writers to adapt.

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2 Responses to Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 2

  1. Ted says:

    That’s a damned fine elegy for the beloved banner of existentialism—which you quite correctly identify as the core of classic s&s fiction. Joe nailed the spike, as well, in his lament over the fascination with world-building fantasy: Tolkien was the gold-standard; not other need apply. In fact, since we admit to a gold-standard, don’t even bother schmoozing us with your specious baser metals. I’m tired of coffee-table picture books posing as tales of exotic adventure. We write emotionally interactive pop-up books for a readership that’s been conditioned to go gag-ga over someone’s travelogue snapshots.

    I identify a real problem for you, though, Dave—this business of hashing over primal, thundering fantasy fiction over…root beer and carrot sticks?? I’m eviscerated for you. I can’t have these kind of sessions without Rhine wine or beer and pizza, or some other carpe diem, shame-on-you barbarian snacks. By Crom and Gonji’s katana!

  2. zornhau says:

    I’ve been reading Harold Lamb – historical adventure writer who influenced REH – and your piece here suggests to me the possibility of emulating what he did: using gritty action to illuminate complex worlds and thus squarign the circle. Some more thought required.

    Meanwhile, I suppose you know that Pyr are (/were recently) open to un-agented submissions of S&S.

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