Showing posts with label Fandom. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fandom. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Perils of Public Statements and Why Natasha Pulley is the Bravest SF/F Fan I've Ever Read

The Guardian is one of the few newspapers that truly takes Science Fiction and Fantasy literature seriously on a regular basis. They frequently have reviews of new releases, cover the latest kerfuffle in fandom, and run a number of opinion columns discussing the genres. As a fan, it's nice to find a place in the mainstream media where I can see one of my obsessions treated without a hint of irony.

This isn't to say that The Guardian doesn't wander into Clickbaitlandia from time to time. I took one of their regular writers, Damien Walter, to task for asking if we were "in a post-Sci Fi era." Damien was kind enough to take my discussion seriously, which made for one of my own personal blogging highlights. One does not often imagine that people who have deadlines to meet, and who are halfway across the globe, have time to respond to one's little island of ideas.

About a week or so ago, Damien wrote a piece lamenting the tyranny of mega-novel series in epic fantasy fiction. As a fan of the Fantasy genre, who is tired of being expected to read 10,000 pages over the span of 20 years in order to get a complete tale told within an author's mythopoeic construction, I was glad to see someone I respect shared my views. I miss the compact and deep shorter novels of days past. Long gone are the days of Elric of Melnibone, we now live in the era of The Wheel of Time. I think that today's readers are poorer for that experience, but there are those who disagree with Damien's view. Among them is an aspiring author named Natasha Pulley.

Natasha Pulley argues in her own piece at The Guardian that, "High fantasy...hinges on world-building. When there really is a whole world to build, and not just a historical period or a particular country, world-building does not take a few paragraphs in a short story; it takes chapters. Add to that the anvil on which creative writing schools hammer their students now, show don't tell, and these details take even longer to convey." Her argument is that the modern genre of Epic Fantasy requires the massive amounts of elaboration that so many modern Fantasy novels indulge in as a condition of additig literary value and verisimilitude. In Pulley's analysis, many of the best Fantasy stories are very simple tales at there core and it is the addition of world-building and subtle portrayals of character interaction that make these stories truly worthwhile.

There is more to her argument, to be sure and you should read her piece in its entirety, but it is one that I could not disagree with more. I think that the kind of "subtlety" of interpersonal interactions that makes up much of the verbiage of many a modern tale are flaws in writing and not virtues.

Before I elaborate on my reasons, I want to take a moment to repeat something I wrote in the headline of this post. Natasha Pulley may be the bravest SF/F fan I've ever read. I write this because she has written column that takes up a somewhat controversial opinion during a time when fandom won't hesitate to demonstrate to you exactly how wrong you are, and often not in the nicest of terms. The reason I am writing this post is less because I disagree with Pulley and think she is in need of "correction," rather it's because of the ire she raised among my Facebook friends. I have an odd collection of "friends" on Facebook who run the gamut from "not at all interested in SF/F" to editors in the field, and many of them were outraged by Pulley's piece. One of the nicer critiques was that it seemed that The Guardian had recently become a cesspool of nothing but click bait articles.

I, myself, even tweeted out a brief "you clearly haven't read x..." tweet in response to Pulley's article. I wasn't insulting in tone or language, but I think I was a bit dismissive. Pulley's response was perfect, "I'll add that to my reading list." Not only is she brave, but she clearly cast a Stoneskin spell upon herself after writing the piece. The rage on my feed, and Pulley's own polite response to my snark, are why I'm writing this post.

I'll begin my critique of Pulley's piece by using a trick she uses in her own article. In order to demonstrate how simple, almost simplistic, Epic Fantasy tales can be, she reduces a couple to their barest skeleton. Her choices are Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. I'll go a step more modern, into a series that is "windier" (pun totally intended) than Rowling at her most "we are camping for 300 pages," and pick Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind.

Name of the Wind  : Homeless youth goes to college and acquires student loan debt.

Spoiler alert. That's pretty much all that happens in that book and it takes a long time to get there. Readers are led through sidebar after sidebar of other short stories along the way, but that's the crux of the book. Oh...and it's very enjoyable because it's well written. A part of how well it is written is in the little short stories that take place throughout the book. In fact, the sidebars contain far more world-building than the wordy narrative. Some of the best world-building in Rothfuss' book are the product of "off-hand" comments made by characters in the book. By off-hand, I mean off-hand to the characters, they are very intentional by the author.

This brings me to my main point. While Pulley is correct in stating that the on page development of deep friendships or interactions between characters can be page consuming, she is wrong about world-building. The problem, and blessing, of modern Fantasy is that it gives us entire conversations. This makes for very believable characters, but neither moves the story along nor gives the reader a sense of the world.

The best world-building is seen in shorter fiction, not in longer. It is, as Pulley rightfully acknowledges, extremely difficult to write short fiction let alone short Fantasy fiction. That's one of the reasons, much to Susan Palwick's disappointment I imagine, that I have not published any fiction to date. It's hard to be creative. But as difficult as short fiction is to write, it is where the best writing occurs.

Robert E Howard's first Conan tale, which I examined at this blog some time ago, is rich with world-building. Sometimes Howard achieves world-building through heuristic shortcuts where certain nations are "inspired" by our own history. He's not alone in this though as Robert Jordan borrowed from Dune, King Arthur, Tolkien, and a host of other sources for his Wheel of Time series. One would imagine that with all of the world-building shortcuts Jordan used, he wouldn't need so many books to tell his tale.

Fritz Lieber's classic tales of Nehwon are all short fiction, usually novellas, that give a strong sense of place in a very small number of words.

Michael Moorcock's Elric Saga is brilliant for its world-building and yet the world gets no "bigger" the more books you read. The world is real from moment one, even if you don't get the heuristic shortcuts Moorcock is using.

Garth Nix's tales of Hereward and Mr. Fitz take place in a fully imagined environment and never have they wandered into even the novel in length.

H.P. Lovecraft build complex mythologies within the short form.

C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith is one of the most realized characters in all of fiction, and his tales are a collection of shorter stories.

Barsoom is fully realized in "Under the Moons of Mars." Yes, that's a novel, but it isn't a massive mega-novel series. Even as a series, the full of Barsoom lore pales before a single volume of Rothfuss in mass.

Averoigne is as real a place as any other, but Clark Ashton Smith did not need 12 volumes to immerse us there.

The depth of a setting can be shared with arcane and subtle references that inspire the imagination. One need not have a fully articulated mythology akin to the Silmarillion fully referenced within a tale to give that tale depth. I'm not saying that having a fully written Silmarillion isn't helpful to an author who wants to be able to share subtle references with readers, it probably is. Instead, I'm saying that all readers need are subtle references to fill in the blanks. Gary Gygax's Appendix N is filled with tales of wonder far shorter, and more inspirational, than much of what is published today.

Leave gaps for the readers to fill. Let our imaginations live in the spaces between.

It is a tragedy that Fantasy has wandered too often away from praise of shorter fiction, short stories, novels, and novellas. They are still printed, but they lack the commercial success of their mega-tyrants. Given how much easier it is to translate a shorter tale to other media, other fandoms are ill-served by this tyranny.

I've shared only a few of my favorite shorter tales of Fantasy. What are some of yours?

Thursday, April 03, 2014

THE EYE OF ARGON - or - When A Community Mocks Its Own

I've long been a fan of science fiction and fantasy, and I've long been a person who is pretentiously opposed to pretense. In a way, I'm like an angry Polyanna who aggressively argues against those who mock the "juvenile" or "popular" things in SF/F. I love "skiffy" and have experienced no greater sense of wonder than reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' writings of John Carter. That's right. I believe that ERB's tales of Barsoom are as imaginative - nay more so - than Iain Bank's Culture novels, and I love those too. I'm the fan who loves both the Dragonlance stories and Malazan Book of the Fallen. I love the genre at its most literary, at its most imaginative, and when it falls into the "written by an overenthusiastic fan" territory.

I'm so positive in my passion about genre fiction and geek culture that I wrote an approving review of I, FRANKENSTEIN and have been reminded by my editor at Topless Robot that I need to bare the fangs every now and then because I am usually so enthusiastic.

While it's not for my upcoming Topless Robot article, I did find something that really aggravates me. It's how cruel SFF professionals and fandom can be. There are plenty of examples I could pull out of a hat, often dealing with the treatment of female fans as being "fake geek girls." As the father of twin girls who love Pirates, Pokemon, Paladins, and Princesses, I find that whole "controversy" infuriating. That's why I'm not going to write about that topic. It would be very difficult for me to avoid expletives on what has been consistently a G-rated or PG-rated blog.

Instead, I want to focus on how professionals and fandom have treated on particular enthusiast of Sword and Sorcery fiction, Jim Theis the author of THE EYE OF ARGON.

I've been doing nightly out loud readings of THE EYE OF ARGON. I do one chapter, or half chapter as the book has half-chapters as well, per night. I thought it would be fun to do. I heard that the SF/F community had regular readings of this poorly written work of fiction that were the book equivalent of MST3K...and it had been mentioned by the MST3K I thought it would be fun to do my own midnight readings with my wife.

My takeaway from the experience is that the SF/F community are cruel, judgmental, and full of themselves. I also came to believe that I was part of the problem. By participating in my own personal midnight reading, I was being an SF/F bully.

My sister, Krista aka  Luna McDunerson, bought me a the Wildside Press version of the book, which has a long introduction by Lee Weinstein that discusses the search and discovery of the real Jim Theis. It mentions an interview on a local (Los Angeles) radio show/podcast called Hour 25 where Jim supposedly stated, "that he was hurt that his story was being mocked and said he would never write anything again."

I'll be honest with you. I fluctuate in what to think. Either the whole thing is a hoax, or SF/F authors and fandom are cruel. Scratch that. Even if the whole thing is an elaborate hoax with false scholarship creating a plausible back story of a 16 year old writing the story for OSFAN, SF/F authors and fandom are still cruel. It doesn't matter whether Jim Theis is a real person or a fictional person, what matters is that the community has spent over 30 years mocking him. I became one of those people and it makes me feel terrible. The anger I feel toward myself more than outweighs the joy from any of the small chuckles I experienced during my reading of the work.

The thing is, I think that Jim Theis was a real person and that he did write THE EYE OF ARGON. While the Eaton Collection doesn't have a copy of OSFAN 10, the issue that is said to contain the original story, they do have issue 11 thanks to a generous donation by former UCLA librarian Bruce Pelz. According to the Weinstein essay in the Wildside edition, Theis remained an active fan of SF/F for most of his life. Can you imagine what it would be like to attend conventions where there was a midnight event dedicated to mocking you? It would be one thing if Theis embraced that mockery and made it his own, finding some way to leverage it into a positive thing, but that Hour 25 interview seems to imply the opposite. The mockery killed Theis' desire to become a writer. That's right, the SF/F community's mockery shattered a fan's aspirations. To me, that is the biggest crime that any professional or fan can do. No matter how "bad" a writer is at writing, they are never wrong to aspire to become a published author.

Yes THE EYE OF ARGON is poorly written, but not much more so than Lin Carter's THONGOR stories. Unlike Theis, Carter doesn't have the excuse that he was 16 when he wrote the THONGOR tales. Unlike Carter, Theis wasn't a brilliant editor. If an editor as brilliant as Carter was can write drivel and still be a vital contributor to the field as a whole, who is to say Theis may not have evolved into something more? I can tell you from experience that there are some sentences in ARGON that hint at some talent, if only Theis could set aside his Thesaurus for a moment.

When my wife was in film school, one of her classmates stated that she wanted "to be one of those writers who writes terrible movies" and wanted to know how to do that because it seemed like an easy way to make money. It was a statement filled with pretense and disdain that also lacked an understanding of why and how things are created. I don't think anyone writes with the intention of creating something terrible - baring those things that are done as parody. Instead, most writers are attempting to entertain others and to share their own personal feelings and joys. Jim Theis, like Lin Carter, clearly enjoyed his Robert E. Howard stories. Heck, he might even have enjoyed Carter's THONGOR stories. It seems that a 16 year old Thies wanted to share his love of those tales with others by creating his own version. What was his reward for exposing himself thus?

He was publicly ridiculed for over 30 years.

For a community to spend 30+ years making a game that amounts to nothing more than "Taking turns mocking one's own" is something for which I have nothing but I have disdain. I'm not saying to end the readings of THE EYE OF ARGON. There is humor to be found in the mixed metaphors and odd misuses of words that Theis clearly didn't understand. But there is also an enthusiasm to the writing, a sincerity, that should be acknowledged. Readings of THE EYE OF ARGON can be humorous and educational experiences, but they should exclude mockery for mockery's sake. Acknowledge the enthusiasm of the author. Point out how his errors are the errors that many new authors make. And remember that the writing in THE EYE OF ARGON is so "bad" that many of the early myths of its origin required that it be written by someone of respected talent.