Tuesday, August 03, 2004

This first sentence is meaningless and absurd!

In the complex, erudite, often ouroborean critical "understructure" that pulses and mills and pronounces behind the vast engine of mainstream book reviews and media sound bites, Stephen King has been rendered nearly everything, from hack horror writer to important populist synthesizer to Dickensian literary artist.

Complex: Consisting of or comprehending various parts united or connected together; formed by combination of different elements; composite, compound. Said of things, ideas, etc. (Opposed to simple, both here and in sense 2.)

Erudite:Learned, scholarly

Ouroborean (not in OED, but ouroboros i.e. uroboros is): The symbol, usu. in the form of a circle, of a snake (or dragon) eating its tail.

Okay...So let me get this straight. "The vast engine of mainstream book reviews" are complex, scholarly, and circular and has described Stephen King in many ways? Hmm...

By the way The Worm Ouroboros
is one of the classics of fantasy. Along with The King of Elfland's Daughter it is probably one of my favorite tales ever. That title makes sense "The dragon eating its tail in a circular manner" or "The Dragon Ring."

Now that I have said that...other than this author's needless exploration of vocabulary, this appears to be a (to borrow a phrase) erudite and well articulated defense of a popular author against the ravages of an overly judgemental literati. But why did he have to write in Critical Studies (Post-modern) Speak. He also quotes one of my favorite SF authors, Michael Moorcock, in his piece, but he attributes sentiments which I do not believe Moorcock has to Moorcocks arguments. Moorcock is more referring to the progeny of Tolkien than Tolkien himself. Notice the careful use of the words "fairy stories" referring directly to an essay Tolkien himself wrote in defense of the genre. Beside which, Moorcock is most famous for his "Eternal Champion" series, which like Tolkien draws on European/Celtic mythology for its inspiration. Though Moorcock does delve into the depths of the human soul, and its flaws vis-a-vis anti-heroes, in a different way than Tolkien.

To take an aside for a moment, the Peake mentioned in the piece (Mervyn Peake), is famous for his Gormenghastnovels. Something many of you may know, but which should have been shared by the author in the piece. A) because not everyone would know, and b) because you should read them. As to his originality though, he is very reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith's Averoigne and the works of Arthur Machen.

Now back to the topic. As I was trying to point out, I think that Moorcock really is criticizing the writers who follow Tolkien. Why? Because of the music reference. When Tolkien wrote his tale not many versions of the Niebelungenlied had been written in popular form, and certainly none which focused on tertiary characters. Aragorn is the Siegfried of the Saga, so why focus on Hobbits? Because it is interesting to see a story from the everyman, rather than the epic hero's perspective. The fact is though, you can go into any fantasy section and find hundreds of Tolkien clones and only a smattering of Machen, Moorcock, Lovecraft, and Peake clones.

Even when you deal with Robert E. Howard clones, which are in abundance, they miss the darkness and eloquence of the original language. This isn't the case with Tolkien. His writing was dry and historical in appearance. Minus the poems there is very little lyrical quality to his writing (to be fair there are plethora poems in his work and they are good), so a clone need only clone the tropes and not the tone. With Moorcock and the others mentioned you have to clone the tone as well or it doesn't work. This is why the Conan pastisches always fail to capture the savagery of the original, a complex savagery. Case in point, Robert Jordan started his career with Conan pastiches and achieved no fame, but his Tolkien/Herbert (Frank Herbert of Dune) clone series "The Wheel of Time" has done very well. People like their music and Tolkien is a style of music that has a narrative form they value, not a poetic form, but a narrative one. So the writer need not be as skilled a writer as Tolkien to achieve a similar effect. Machen, and writers like him, the tone and style are more important than the narrative and that is more difficult to skillfully copy. It also makes them less pursued by mass audiences. How many Harry Potter clones are there? Many. But she is obviously inspired by Roald Dahl in her use of language and language games. Most people just want the story though. That seems to be Moorcocks argument.

I refuse to accept that he means more than that. The author he uses (Mervyn Peake) while different than other modern fantasy authors, is a part of the tradition of fantastic writing. His influences may be Clark, Machen, and Poe, but he still draws from them. As Moorcock draws from Lovecraft, Machen, Howard, Dunsany, and Celtic myth. As David Gemmell (one of England's best selling fantasy authors) draws off Moorcock, but in narrative rather than stylistic manner (so even Moorcock has his imitators). So they are all a part of a tradition.

Let me try and use a comparison to get at what I am saying. Because, like Matt Peckham, I like Stephen King (who is in the Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury tradition) and find him to be a worthy writer though not as obscure as say Peake.

Alan Moore is the Mervyn Peake of comic books. He writes pieces that are often brilliant and are critically awarded (rightly so). But his sales are actually fairly low, though his influence is far reaching. Paul Levitz, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, Robert Kirkman, and Geoff Johns (to name a few) are the Steven King types. Very literate, very much the people who will drive the creators of the hobby in the future. Most of the other writers are writing clone stories and not exploring the medium. Or at least that is what should happen. In fact, I would posit that the oversaturation of good writers is hurting comics as a business (not as art). Let's look at the best selling current book (including trades and hardbacks), it's Ultimate Spiderman. Now it isn't the best selling book period, that goes to Superman currently (entirely because of the writing and art team), but when you add the other aspects of the market (trades and collected hardbacks) it leaps to the top. Why? Well, those movies don't hurt, but the writing is simpler and aimed at a younger audience. Is it dumbed down? No, it's a really good book. But it's really good in that, "hey it's Spider-Man and meets my Spider-Man needs" kind of way. It doesn't push the envelope. It is the Tolkien clone.

Look, books are a business. If something works, like Tolkien, editors will look for clones. If something has literary merit only recognized by a few, it will get published because there is still an audience (if the few is enough) but it will not have clones solicited. When we are lucky we get writers like King who balance the ability to write well with market success (though some literati will reject solely based on its success). Sometimes, a tragic sometimes, a great writer like Sean Stewart will write a Star Wars Novel.

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