Thursday, May 9, 2013

Living In The Real World

Some of the strangest criticisms I receive comes from those who feel that I don't respect the "great fantasy novelists" ... the names of which range widely, of course, since most can't agree, but which I would assume includes Tolkein, Leiber, Moorcock, Lovecraft, Anthony, Howard, Burroughs, Bradley, Zelazny,  Lewis, Baum and Carroll.  Frankly, I am driven to belly laugh when I hear others thrown in there, like Rowling, Eddings, Brooks, Asprin, Vance or Prachett.  Nice little fantasy churners, but "great" writers?


Hey, I've had a long and serious experience with writing all my life, and with people who actually can write ... particularly people who have been considered great writers for a century or two.  Rowling famous in two centuries?  Yeah, that's going to happen.  I don't know any serious reader anywhere who thinks Tolkein is a good writer; Burroughs, Howard and Leiber are fun, but we're not talking literature here.  The best writer in the above group, in my opinion, is undoubtedly Lewis Carroll, followed by Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis and Michael Moorcock.  I mean, right down to the nap as it were - the thing that makes or breaks a book for me.

I'm a writer.  I'm unquestionably as good as a lot of these guys (but I write non-fantasy, so I'm not going to get praised in those parts) ... and the way I can tell that is that I find myself needing to edit their sentence structure.  I mean, seriously.  It sounds, most of the time, hackneyed and clumsy.  Burroughs is ungodly purple, Leiber writes like a painter whitewashing a house (all at once and without emotion) and Lovecraft suffers from the same adverbitis I fight like hell to destroy in my own writing when I'm editing (remember, I generally don't edit my blog posts, so many adverbs creep in here).  Not to mention he shares Burrough's ridiculous where it comes to the vocabulary.  I mean, look at this paragraph from Lovecraft.

"in the third round the fight grew really rough; several ears and other appurtenances being wholly or partially detached from the frontier battler by the Shokan Shocker.  Somewhat irritated, Two-Gun countered with some exceptionally sharp blows; severing many fragments from his aggressor, who continued to fight with his remaining members.  (At this stage the audience gave signs of much nervous excitement - instances of trampling and goring being frequent.  The more enthusiastic members were placed in the custody of Mr. Harry Brobst of the Butler Hospital for Mental Diseases."

Oh, I know ... [he said, his face sardonic and disgusted] ... this is just 'brilliant!'  What a writer this is!  Wow!  It's like you're there.

I'm sorry ... ears and "appurtenances" having been removed, Two-Gun is "somewhat irritated"?  This is the way you write when you want your audience to laugh.  And I love the journalistic note about Mr. Harry Brobst ... is this a story or a newspaper article?

Now, I know the fan boys out there are getting worked up now ... but I'm sorry to tell you guys, this stuff - as literature - is just shit.  It's read by boys in grade school because in grade school you haven't read enough to know this is shit.  Sure, Lovecraft is creative, he's got some interesting turns in his material and I used to really like him ... when I was in grade school.  But you grow up, eh?  You read better stuff.  You get a sense of what can be done with language and buddy, it's better than this.

Of course, many a gentle reader will disagree.  I'm sorry.  Life is really rough that way.  Not everyone can bow to the gods you bow to.

Now, I will say a few words about those writers who ARE better - Lewis Carroll, Moorcock and Frank Baum and so on.  Here, its true, I can't complain about the writing style.  The writing style is marvelous.  But ... I just don't care about the content.  I mean, I've read those books; Narnia was all right, the Wizard of Oz and the other three Baum wrote about Oz were better when I was a kid; I never liked Elric of Melnibone but Jerry Cornelius was interesting from a post-70's perspective.  They don't speak to me now, however.  They simply don't.  My mind is in a different place, it finds different things important, and those perspectives don't apply to those priorities.  Such is the way with human beings.  Fantasy just doesn't interest me any more.

Oh, I incorporate fantasy into my D&D campaigns ... but I see that as a game feature, not as something that makes my skin vibrate.  That's the facts of it.  It's sort of like how some people think that seeing a dismembered leg is unbelievably horrible - and then you meet someone who works in a surgery and sees that sort of thing every day.  Meh, no big deal.

And I suppose I must say a word about Tolkein.  Once again, an altar I just can't worship at.  Sorry.  Nice and creative, but overall just second-rate writing.  He holds it together for passages like explaining the Hobbits and what Hobbits do, and then just freaking loses it where it comes to long, meandering preposition-enriched passages where we're walking ... and we're walking ... and we're walking.

I simply don't see how my playing D&D has anything to do with either reading fantasy or kowtowing to it.  My imagination is as rich and varied as any of these people, no matter what I write like - and frankly, whatever they had to say to me, they said it to me thirty years ago.  I've had time to grow and expand and read other books ... books about family, tragedy, bloody-mindedness and ignorance; books about war and devastation, sacrifice, loyalty, brutality and indifference.  Books that cover a lot more ground than bravery and wonder.  I mean, bravery and wonder are interesting themes, but they're not every theme that's ever been advanced.  May I also add, I'm not terribly interested in the sorts of themes that are expressly popular today in fantasy, which can only be described as emo and angst.  Angst is naturally very popular among young, dissatisfied, largely unambitious people who feel the world is not awarding them their due ... but overall, it's a crapfest if you're actually in charge of your life, and you don't personally feel shortchanged.  When you feel as I do, that you're getting exactly your due, then angst is, well, either laughable or thoroughly repulsive.  It does not offer a good weekend with a book.

I'm not going to pitch those books I think everyone should read.  Those books are obvious to anyone and everyone.  They are the same books that people who are aware of the length and breadth of literature have tried to levy on the gentle reader, and which many gentle readers will have ignored.  It's very interesting that those people who scream and stamp for fantasy to have the respect it's due (sounds very much like the angst perspective) so very rarely read the books which have that respect already.

It's not enough to read just one or two of those books.  It's not enough to read ten of them.  It takes years of constant growth to comprehend, fully, what's in those books, and that can't be done with dabbling.  If you have read some of those books - and didn't get what all the fuss was about - then you didn't read enough of those books.

Fantasy is juvenile fiction.  Read by juveniles.  Who defend it, expectantly, with the pouting squalling of children.  It's limited thematically to juvenile themes because it is about things that are not real.  At best, it can reflect things that are real ... which is yet one step removed from writing about real things.  That is why the literates don't respect it.  It's escapist, which makes it fun and that has its own satisfaction ... but it isn't relevant to that thing which literature does best of all the arts.

Literature tells us how to live here, in the real world.  In the now.  Without all the decoration, and without all the frivolity.  It's the dismembered limb in your hand, not the dismembered limb in the horror novel.

It takes a long time for some people to learn that.  Some people will never learn.


YagamiFire said...

It is unusual because I read garbage, for the most part.

That is to say, I read (mostly) things that are meant to speak almost entirely to the kid in me. All things considered, I am remarkably poorly read IMHO.

I cabinets and boxes full of comic books. Some 7000 or so. Give or take. I have read them all. Most I have read multiple times. Some I have read MANY times. Similarly, I have shelves of trade paperbacks collecting comics. Those too I have read thoroughly.

Intellectually, I tend to pursue very dry things that would most likely bore people to tears. Books on game theory, articles on the competitive mind-set, scientific papers about the end of the universe...that sort of stuff.

And, of course, I can't disagree with any of your sentiments. Easily consumable crap sells. And when something becomes even slightly popular, people will fool themselves into not only praising it but into believing that they themselves are "in" to whatever category the popular item fits. We've all heard it...

"Oh I love fantasy. I've read Harry Potter AND the Hobbit" Wow..really? Astounding...

"Oh I love comics. I've seen all the Iron Man movies!" Yeah those are the same thing..good for you...

Most people simply want to like popular things while simultaneously believing they have refined tastes. They want to believe that what they like is quite good because they are awesome so they must like awesome stuff.


I read comics, not because they speak to my sophisticated adult but because they DON'T. Though even in that particular medium every now and then something comes out that is indeed very good...things by your Moore's and by your Morrisons and by your Simonsons. Things that force me to look at my imagination in new ways...and those are, of course, the best. Not just for their content...but for their impact.

Really I wish people would be more honest with themselves about what they read or enjoy so that they could realize WHY they enjoy something rather than simply stating that "it's good", especially when, objectively, it really isn't that good at all. That, however, requires people to get far more introspective than almost anyone likes to requires them to examine themselves and what they do. And most people hate that...

Oh well...when I want to be a kid, I'll continue reading my comics...and when I want to think I'll read my dry, boring stuff (that I find so very interesting!)...y'know, like some of the world creation posts on here! And, since Alexis knows me quite well, I'm sure he knows that is entirely a compliment.

PS: On an unrelated note, I did just finish a book that I found to be rather good both objectively and subjectively. It was written by a little known but not-too-bad-at-all writer. Don't remember his name off the top of my head...but the book was quite enjoyable and I highly recommend it. You might like it! Title was Pete's Garage. Good read!

Arduin said...

Yeah, Yagami hits it for me as well.

I actually quite like Pratchett. No lie. I know the writing is simplistic at best, but I genuinely enjoy it, even with the predictable format. Goddamn Vimes. He might be a ridiculous pastiche of cliches, but I still thought Night Watch was awesome.

I read Anna Karenina earlier last year, on a whim. Once. Never will again. I can see why it's great literature, and for that exact reason I'll never touch it again. I never imagined I'd read a book where I loathed absolutely every character, every circumstance, and every decision everyone made. It was, as they say, too real.

I can't say there's real merit to choosing to read comparative crap, it's just what I'm going to do. Tackle the big stuff a piece at a time, absorb it as it is meant to be absorbed, and mow through the rest on autopilot.

One revelatory experience at a time, still trying to detox from firelight shapes.

Montagne Quentin said...


Would you care to expand on what you consider as fantaasy ? And on how it is juvenile fiction ?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I have already identified fantasy by virtue of the authors who produce it.

I have already explained how it is juvenile fiction.

Montagne Quentin said...

Do you mean in your post ? Or somewhere else on your blog ? Because if it's the former, I see agree that relying on severed limbs makes a work of fiction juvenile, but I don't see what it has to do with fantasy (with many works of fantasy, yes, but not with the "genre" itself.)

Alexis Smolensk said...


Perhaps you should read another blog.

Montagne Quentin said...

I like reading your blog. If you don't like my contributing, such as it is, I will of course cease to do it.

Anonymous said...

All novels are fantasy. All fiction is speculative. Your beef is just with bad writing, I think.

Obviously many of the mentioned writers get the attention because of the DMG's appendix N and its lasting effect on a certain sort of person from a certain generation. I've read half that shit and I'll admit to still mostly enjoying it, but yes... Leo Tolstoy it ain't.

But setting aside Gygax's list of pet authoers fantasy literature isn't quite the ghetto you makeit out to be, is it? What about Alan Moore, Stephen Millhauser, Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman? What about Philip Roth's The Plot Against America or probably several other works one could reasonably classify as fantasy but that clearly have artistic intent if not merit or purpose beyond just escapism.

Would you agree that its not that fantasy can't be literature, it's just that most writing isn't literature and one could therefore pick on any genre and any era?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Don't misunderstand me. I haven't anything against Philip Roth or Alan Moore ... but there's a reason they're not taught in serious coursework. I grant that in many cases, the worshipped writers I mentioned in the post come short because of their quality, but the final point I made was that the failing is thematic.

You, no doubt, are well aware that the press and literary community gushed over The Plot Against America upon its release. The Times called it "a genuinely American story." I haven't read it.

Apart from the fact that it didn't happen, and that many of the events in the novel didn't occur, however, how is this 'fantasy'? I mean, in a way that Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, The Moonstone or, say, the events of either Shakespeare's Julius Caesar or Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra didn't happen (certainly we have no evidence for many of the scenes of either play). IF we're going to weaken the reach and limits of "fantasy" to stuff that didn't happen, that are conceived of wholly in the author's imagination, then I rescind all my comments and every opinion on this post. IF that's the definition you care to render.

"Fantasy"- which I can look up on-line (whereas apparently Quentin cannot, and needs me to look it up for him, which he clearly doesn't understand is my trouble with his queries), dwells in the 'fantastical' ... that is, in terms of "magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme or setting." (Wikipedia) I don't see any magical or supernatural elements in the plot synopsis of Philip Roth's book. Nor am I aware of Roth ever using such elements. Perhaps I am missing something?

Alexis Smolensk said...

To answer your other question, James,

Where the novel IS fantasy as defined by Wikipedia, then no, I haven't seen a meaningful theme in anything written recently. Generally, neither has anyone else. The fantasy course that was taught in my university was very taken up with things like Frankenstein, Dracula, Lady of the Lake and a variety of other 19th century literists like Poe and Wells. Narnia was discussed, but the prof I remember did not think much of it, since the heavy-handed religiousity of the book annoyed him. That's an opinion, of course ... but I've never found much in Narnia to excite me either, whereas the aforementioned Anna Karenina struck me as, well, "real."

I'm not convinced I'm going to learn a lot more about myself from further reading of the nominal gods of fantasy writing, whereas I do believe I'm better aware of how to handle my player's sentiments by reading someone who ISN'T fantastical ... Roth, for example, as you suggest.

Alan Moore? No, probably not.

Anonymous said...

I guess one could call Roth's book speculative fiction or alternate history, then, but these are publishing terms for people concerned with publishing things and I admittedly pay them little mind.

As a reader, though, what appealed to me about it are the same things I like in good fantasy. For one, a deeply considered world that never was constructed to say something about the world that is.

The others I mentioned I think are fantasy writers by stricter definitions. I can't really speak about what constitutes serious course work as I have never undertaken it as it pertains to literature. But you tell me, what do the writers I mentioned not offer that more serious writers do? Am I lacking in sensitivity and/ or education or merely preconception when I call them artists?

Anonymous said...

To your last point above, yes. The real jist here is that a deeper game of D&D can be informed beyond appendix N. I was only standing up to the notion of the "fantasy literary ghetto".

Anonymous said...

How about The Once and Future King? That's gotta make the cut for both fantasy and literature, right?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I certainly never said they weren't artists. And my book Pete's Garage certainly isn't anything except a fantasy book, mostly escapist, with a few slightly examined deeper themes. There's absolutely nothing wrong with reading or writing fantasy, or being identified as an artist for doing so. I certainly can't duplicate the sort of work R.E. Howard did.

I resist the idea, however, that they are AMAZING gods of literature, whom everyone ought to read - which is bunk - or that in some way they're anything except artists providing escape for the reader. I also resist any sentiment that if you're going to play D&D, you must read and learn from these writers. That is such bullshit ... but it is the bullshit with which I started this post. There are a lot of non-fantasy authors who will give you the exact same thing as the fantastical writers with regards to the game - just as you argue that Roth is giving you.

I think what the more serious authors offer is what Arduin touched on - characters you don't like. Characters who have motivations you wouldn't normally understand, or want to understand, because they are so hateful. To use the example from film, to make it more accessible, Darth Vader is a real clown of a villain compared to someone like Mrs. Robinson.

The White Witch has none of the nuanced brutality of Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises. Characters like the Wicked Witch of the West, Saruman or Voldemort are convenient paper cut-outs, at best, without blood or anything remotely like the understandable cruelty of Rochester, who keeps his mad wife hidden in the attic because he knows not what else to do with her. Nor do the heroes of fantasy comprehend the happiness that Sidney Carton obtains, nor the helpless failure of Wang Lung.

Nuance. Life is in the nuance.

Montagne Quentin said...

I believe that you are missing your own point, actually, since in your post "Definitions" you yourself endeavoured to enunciate a definition of your own. Since I was interested in what you meant by fantasy, and not in what is generally meant by fantasy, I asked the question.

As for fantasy being juvenile, I disagree. Arguing whether magic, or magick lies within the realm of what is real is probably vain as one can only rely upon empirical evidences to decide it. Arguing whether magick lies within the realm of what is true however, breeds questions of phenomenology and ontology, questions that I tend to consider serious. I would also point out that most works of fantasy feature magic, without necessarily being about it. Which is why I disagree with you that fantasy fails in its thematics.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Lin Carter certainly loved it: "...the single finest fantasy novel written in our time, or for that matter, ever written, is, and must be, by any conceivable standard, T.H. White's The Once and Future King..."

I guess. The fact that White was a terrific wordsmith is hardly in question; but I've already mentioned that several of the others are really, really good writers.

Frankly, it waffled for me and I found myself putting it down. It also seemed to start a craze of King Arthur rewrites that still go on, and on, and on. It certainly wouldn't hurt someone to read it, or that set of books by Mary Stewart that started with the Crystal Cave.

I really don't think it's going to open anyone's eyes up to the way humanity treats humanity.

But hey, this is just me. The point I wanted to make was the one you've agreed with, James - that there's more to D&D than the Gygax approved list.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Perhaps someday you will come to understand that phenomenology and ontology, in the larger scheme of things, are not really that important. Perhaps you'll one day realize the irrelavancies in distinguishing the difference between 'magic' and 'magick.'

In the meantime, I simply don't see where your opinion matters any more than my opinion, nor in how your having one makes mine false. Of course this is my opinion. And of course you have one of your own. Stating it, I'm afraid, really isn't very important to me.

See ... I'm not reading your blog. I'm writing mine. You've come here seeking my opinion. I haven't gone seeking yours. So when you bring your opinion to the party, to change my mind (which seems to be your intent), then its a good idea to offer more than just the opposite of what I've said.

I apologize. I'm bitter of late. Seems there's a proliferation of fucktards on the blog comment boards of late, who have nothing good to say about me but wouldn't even know I exist except they all used to read me daily. So just now, I'm somewhat sour on people thinking this blog is a personal platform for their views. It isn't. I believe in free speech, but I also believe that if you're here to read me, then you're prepared to have enough of an open mind to think, first and foremost, "Hey, I wonder what he's onto, and why he thinks that way," rather than, "Fuck is he wrong, I think I'll write and say so."

Been a lot of the latter of late. And just now you look like one of that ilk. So if you just can't wait to tell me how wrong I am about this - without quoting a single demonstrable fact in your comment - then just go read another blog where the owner isn't a self-righteous, mean-spirited, miserable misanthropic prick.

All in all, you'd be happier.

JDJarvis said...

Every entertaining tale_spinner is not by virtue a great or even good writer, some folks have touble dealing with that.

Esa Karjalainen said...

I am old enough by now that I feel free to be childish. Admittedly, I can get through mediocre writing for a good story, so easily that I have some trouble recognizing good writing these days.

For an example, I highly enjoy Jim Butcher's books, despite them not being high literature, so to say.

I cannot agree with categorizing fantasy fiction as juvenile, though - even if it may just be a disagreement on the meaning of terms. I cannot parse 'juvenile' in non-insulting manner, for an example.

But, definitely, you don't need fantasy background for DnD - in fact, it's better if you get your ideas elsewhere - movies and video games, for an example - movies for plots and games for encounters and scenarios.

I don't find genre-boxing to be very productive in general, but if I must, I see fantasy as a subgenre of escapist fiction, and space opera as a subgenre of fantasy, for an example. Trappings of fantasy, such as wizards and dragons and whatnot, do not as such, make a fantasy story.

F. Douglas Wall said...

I was surprised that you made the mistake of leaving off L. Frank Baum's initial. It's a rather common mistake. As is putting the initial in the middle of his name and writing it Frank L. Baum.

Also, L. Frank Baum wrote more than 4 books about Oz. He actually wrote 14 novels in the Oz series. And that's not counting his shorter Oz works, his non-Oz writing, and the Oz books written at the behest of his publisher after his death.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Actually, F. Douglas Wall, I meant the OTHER Frank Baum, from Montana, who wrote the OTHER Wizard of Oz and four books total.

I'm surprised you hadn't realized that.

Still, you seemed to leap to an immediate assumption about whom you thought I meant, so I guess I wasn't as obscure as I was trying to be.

F. Douglas Wall said...

Thanks for pulling my leg, Alexis. I was starting to get a cramp.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Yeah, well you had me. The set my parents owned had four books, which are the ones I read. I had forgotten there were others.

Anonymous said...

Your exemplar prize fight correspondence comes from Howard, not from Lovecraft. And as its title ("The Battle that Ended the Century") might indicate, the piece was written - for a junior college lit mag - as deliberate parody of crap reportage.

Usually (even today) admire your thoughts and writing, but in this case, you singled out a strawman dressed in a clown suit and mocked the farmer's fashion sense.

Anonymous said...

Turning to your actual point, it seems you are promoting "good" literature as that which is tragic in essence. The sort where the reader can grasp the motivations, can understand the decisions, can understand the consequences ... but really wants to look away because the character-driven plot is grindingly predictable and dismaying. These are the sorts of work that are not mere escape, but can drive some introspection in the reader.

For fine contemporary examples of this in the "fantasy" genre, I would nod to serialized TV such as Once Upon a Time, Being Human, or Sons of Anarchy. In recent books I can't think of much, except perhaps Lev Grossman's "The Magicians" (his sequel, The Magician King, falls short).

Alexis Smolensk said...

My apologies. I found it on the web labeled under Lovecraft. I did not single it out, as I took from the first thing I found.

Which doesn't change the fact that there are many of the above canon that I cannot read for reasons I've named. Not as "straw men" but simply unbearable.

Kirk Nachman said...

Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Golden Ass, The Satyricon: Fanastic literature. Maybe Baum is great, I really don't know.
Vance's Anome trilogy substantively destroys the entire Moorecock corpus. -Ha hahh!

The Recursion King said...

"Which doesn't change the fact that there are many of the above canon that I cannot read for reasons I've named"

Which doesn't change the fact that there are many of the above canon that I cannot read THEM for THE reasons WHICH I've ALREADY named.

Your writing is actually pretty poor as well. You see, it's easy to be a critic. It's the easiest thing in the world.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yeah, I hated that sentence as soon as I put it down. If I were editing this as a book, I'd have rewritten that thing.

May I point out, your highness; this above is a first draft, spun out without much effort at pretty close to 50 words a minute.

One would hope that the writers of the canon above had written several drafts, as I have, and that they've had editors - which incidentally, for my book Pete's Garage, I did not.

Yet people still seem to think it was really well written.

It may be easy to be a critic in the sense that you describe ... but that's not actually relevant here.