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gabe
Posted on Tuesday, July 12, 2005 - 06:30 pm:   

Hey folks.

Over at Relocated Fictions, I've been doing some wrangling with the fantasy genre. In particular, I'm trying to formulate a worthwhile way to determine the quality of a particular work, and to define the inner workings of the genre.

Here is my latest post on the subject, cut-n-pasted from the blog:

*******************************************

I continue to diligently wrestle with one of the foundation stones of my critical views of fantastic fiction today, and rather than continue blindly groping about in my own tortured psyche, I thought I'd open it up to your tortured psyches for a while.

Keep in mind that I'm feeling my way here, so any slapdash rambling is the product of my blogger version of thinking out loud.

I've been reading a lot of older fantasy and science fiction this year. Call it misplaced nostalgia, or what-have-you; either way, I've spent more time on pre-1980's era fiction than today's. But it is just this juxtaposition that has been gnawing at my thoughts like a lit-geek's version of a Sarah Michelle Gellar fixation.

And it has much to do with defining the inherent qualities of speculative fiction, and whether what is being published today is actually as good (or better) as past genre work, and perhaps defining a way to work up a worthwhile map for critical application within genre fiction... because, let's face it: criticism in speculative fiction leaves quite a bit to be desired, barring a few worthy practitioners (myself delightfully excluded from that cadre of worthwhile critics. Why are you here again?).

One of the lynchpins of this internal debate lies in tone and intention, I think, and one of the questions that I've asked myself again and again seems to rest at the core of this. I ask myself:

<blockquote>Why can I go back and read, again and again, the works of past fantasists and still achieve the sense of wonder and excitment that compels me to read speculative fiction in the first place, while modern fantasy seems devoid of the same qualities?</blockquote>

A case in point.

Not so long ago, I re-read ER Eddison's baroque, convoluted, marvelously weird novel The Worm Ouroboros<img>. It is a difficult, meandering novel that nonetheless utilizes the fantasy genre to create a spectacular, singular vision. Eddison's novel is a polar opposite to Tolkien's, and yet it shares the same strength as Tolkien, presenting a Romantic tale of an utterly fantastical world.

Eddison and Tolkien are different, yet undeniably alike.

Call me crazy, but this seems to me a perfect example of the inherent draw of fantasy. Eddison and Tolkien share the same intention, yet by difference in tone achieve two staggeringly idiosyncratic, complex and magical 'realities'.

Meanwhile, can anyone describe to me the difference between George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time? Though there are surface differences, the intention of the two series is the same - long, convoluted tales of pseudo-Medieval epic fantasy.

Reading much pre-Eighties speculative fiction, I am struck by the sheer diversity of material that is available. Try this, some time. Go into a Borders or a B&N and browse through the shelves. Study what you see. Then go into a used book store, preferably one that specializes in old paperbacks. Study what you find that was published pre-1980.

See what I mean?

What I find intriguing is that it seems to have nothing to do with technical writing ability.

Sentence by sentence, I would say that GRR Martin surpasses, for instance, any writing by Robert E. Howard. The most pedestrian writing by Gene Wolfe easily out-styles anything that William Hope Hodgson has ever written. Steven Erikson out world-builds all but the most dedicated of past practitioners, with more versimilitude and immediacy than all but the best past writers.

So what is it? What is so compelling about past fantastic fiction that does not drive modern fantasy? Why, when given the choice, would I rather pick up Fritz Leiber over any current writer?

I'm certain that it has to do with individual vision.

Past speculative fiction exudes an enthusiastic vibrancy that is all-but-eradicated in modern genre fiction, and this is troublesome to me. "Enthusiastic vibrancy" is not a quality that can be neatly defined, nor quantified. How do I explain this? Why should I experience that elusive sense of wonder while reading Leigh Brackett, but not Sara Douglass? Why is Ernest Bramah's The Wallet of Kai Lung<img> still fascinating, while Michelle West's Sun Sword Trilogy rings hollow and unimportant?

**************************************

Your thoughts, comments, opinions and other forms of musing are not only welcome, but strongly solicited.

Thanks!
--gabe chouinard
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JV
Posted on Tuesday, July 12, 2005 - 07:44 pm:   

I'm not sure of your definitions here. Are you talking only about epic fantasy? Swords and sorcery? It seems as if you are. If so, it would just be because the modern stuff is generally an echo of an echo of an echo, and somewhat played out (although exceptions no doubt abound.)

If you're talking about just fantastical literature in general, I don't agree.

JeffV
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gabe
Posted on Tuesday, July 12, 2005 - 07:52 pm:   

Hi Jeff.

Interesting that you bring up the 'categories' of fantasy, because that is certainly part of the argument (if it can be considered an argument). How much does the categorization of fantastic literature rob it of its intent? How much has such categorization watered down the core of fantasy literature?

Personally, my definition of 'fantasy' is quite broad... and I love it all. However, what most people think of as 'fantasy' comes from what they see on the shelves, which is primarily straight category fantasy. Does this reliance on epic fantasy or urban fantasy or romantic fantasy (especially within so-called Big Publishing) help to diminish the field?

As I say, I'm thinking aloud... which is exactly why I'm digging around for dialogue.

Here's another piece of the mosaic: Descent of Wonder

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JV
Posted on Wednesday, July 13, 2005 - 06:31 am:   

Gabe:

Right. I only bring up categories because almost everything you mention happens to fall loosely into the heroic fantasy/epic fantasy subgenre. And that's just a tiny subset of what's out there. It doesn't touch on the undefinable stuff.

Jeff
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GabrielM
Posted on Wednesday, July 13, 2005 - 09:45 am:   

Seems like a bit of a "straw man" argument to set up Bramah against Michelle West or Brackett or Leiber against Sara Douglass, no?

One thing that's worth remembering is that Sturgeon's Law was as true in the early days as it is now. I know you read Howard, Ashton Smith, Eddison, etc., but what about Nictzin Dyalhis or GG Pendarves or David Keller or Ray Cummings? These were folks who appeared in Weird Tales regularly, far more than Lovecraft or Howard. Their stuff is forgotten today and rightfully so -- it was garbage. (Or most of it was; Keller at least had a couple of decent stories.) Same thing from before the pulp era, most popular fiction -- "penny dreadfuls", Victorian gothics --is unreadable stuff. My point is that when you're looking at old fantastic today obviously what you're going to be reading is going to be good because that's what stands the test of time, what gets anthologized, reprinted, etc. Frankly I'd be surprised if anyone's going to be reading Michelle West or Sara Douglass or whatever the commercial genre fantasist du jour is 50 years from now. They'll have their own generic fantasy to read then just like they'll have their own crappy paperback bestseller list.

So it's not really a fair fight -- it's as if I take each of the great boxing champions from the last fifty years and pit them against some random professional boxers from today. On the other hand, if you want to argue is that the great fantasy writers from the past you find more appealing than the great fantasy writers from the present (Wolfe, Crowley, Shepard, etc) well, that would certainly be an interesting argument but I don't know if it's the one you're making.
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gabe
Posted on Wednesday, July 13, 2005 - 09:57 am:   

I'm not taking the piss with modern fantasy, really. I love a huge swath of what is being written today, and yes, I admit that the majority of what I like falls into that category of 'indefinable' stuff Jeff mentions. Nor do I want this to turn into a "Oh, all the new stuff sux, old stuff rox!" debate.

But category fantasy undeniably dominates the shelves, so it's the 800lb. gorilla that can't be dismissed. I don't think it's possible to talk about 'fantasy' without noticing the hulking behemoths... which in the case of fantasy really ARE hulking behemoths.

But part of what I'm driving at is, how did we end up with a preponderance of Gabriel's aptly-put "generic fantasy"?

How does one un-marginalize the fantasy that stays closest to the point of the fantastic? Does it mean taking apart the categories and embracing an umbrella approach to the fantasy genre? Is that even possible to do?

Not that any of this has an answer. But that doesn't mean I'm not wrestling with it.

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gabe
Posted on Wednesday, July 13, 2005 - 10:13 am:   

I wonder, how much of the swing in fantasy has come from the authors that have influenced the various crops of writers since the pulps? Certainly the writers that were influenced by other-than-Tolkien are producing the most interesting fantasy, like China and Steph Swainston and KJ Bishop. Does it rather become a question of popular aethetics?

But how does one determine "good" fantasy from "not good" fantasy?

Part of this has to do with reviewing, for me. I'm having a hard time justifying to myself why I think, say, IRON COUNCIL is a better book than, say, Goodkind's CHAINFIRE?

OK, that's an extreme example. China is a much better writer in all ways, I know. But does that automatically make IRON COUNCIL better fantasy? Especially if what is perceived as fantasy by the vast majority is Goodkind's novel? If Goodkind is writing for the core fantasy reader, and succeeds at creating something that those readers want to read, writes a successful fantasy, does that make it better fantasy in the eyes of the audience?

I feel like I'm going around a question here...
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NDCBJAC
Posted on Wednesday, July 13, 2005 - 06:35 pm:   

I really think Swainston is a diamond in the rough. Sorry, but I think she's not even close to China or Bishop yet. Although you wouldn't know it from her interviews.

Not Dark Cabal But Just as Craven
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Scott Lynch
Posted on Thursday, July 14, 2005 - 12:54 am:   

Gabe, out of curiosity, have you actually read all three of Martin's *Song of Ice and Fire* books that have come out so far?

Cheers,

SL
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Gary Wassner
Posted on Friday, July 15, 2005 - 10:25 am:   

How do you distinguish good literature in general from not so good literature? Why should fantasy be subject to any different standards? What makes D H Lawrence a better read than Jacqueline Suzanne? The prose, the imagery, the story, the level of insight? Some people seem to be so focused upon the tropes these days, as if anything else is so new and novel anyway. But great literature was never dependent upon tropes to begin with.

We have just become so jaded these days by the advent of such high levels of visual stimulation. Nothing is unimaginable any longer. We don't need books to lead us to the images. In fantasy, readers expect the authors now to give them something new to look at with their minds' eyes because everything we have already seen, the worlds that our imaginations wallowed in, has been plastered all over the movie and video screens. The visual representations have stolen these worlds from our imaginations. So it's got to be new for it to be stimulating and absent of pre-judgment and pre-conception.

We can't ask contemporary novelists to rewrite their worlds, only the stories that take place within them. We ask for novel approaches to things, better prose, deeper insights. But we fantasy authors are almost required now to shock the reader with the worlds we invent if we want to be noticed. Beautiful, eloquent prose, ideas that stimulate and generate thought and interest, compelling plot lines aren't enough?

I am not at all saying that everyone should forsake their efforts at creating original, fascinating worlds. All I am saying is that it shouldn't be a requirement. The focus should be on what makes literature great, not necessarily what makes it new. I am not sure that 'new' has any inherent qualitites that on their own would distinguish anything.
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James M. Pfundstein
Posted on Monday, July 18, 2005 - 01:05 pm:   

GabrielM wrote: "Seems like a bit of a 'straw man' argument to set up Bramah against Michelle West or Brackett or Leiber against Sara Douglass, no?"
_____

Bramah is the odd man out, here, but the rest of these guys seem to be working similar genre turfs, at different times. So I don't think the comparison's wholly unfair.

I read a lot of fantasy, old and new, and there are two things I often find lacking in the newer stuff. (I recognize the transtemporal force of Sturgeon's Law and I waive the question of whether, in the aggregate, Now is better or worse than Then. But we can't do anything about Then.)

One problem is style. I'm not necessarily making a plea for "beautiful, eloquent prose" (in Gary Wassner's terms) because good prose, prose that makes an impact, is sometimes odd and ugly. But it seems to me that there's a blandness and a sameness to a lot of the writing I'm reading. Whereas a story by Vance or Zelazny or Brackett puts the bite on you right away. (Vance, of course, is still with us, but it's been awhile since he published a fantasy.)

Another is plot. I'm not just talking about plot-holes or other slip-ups, but types of plot. Lots of fantasy novels seem to focus on political interaction in their invented milieux. Speaking as a political junkie, I would say this is a mistake. Politics is local; the issues matter to you because they matter to _you_. The political in-fighting of an imaginary world is likely to have a pretty low interest level for anyone apart from its creator. We don't care who's stuffing the ballot-box in Elfland.

JMP

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Lisa Goldstein
Posted on Monday, July 18, 2005 - 06:27 pm:   

Geez, I'm glad someone else is thinking about this. I've been reading a lot of fantasy lately -- the kind I would call epic and others might call generic -- and I discovered that great deal of it is just awful, worse than anything that can be covered by Sturgeon's word "crap." The proportion of bad to good seems to be greater than 90/10, too -- my estimate is somewhere around 95/5. So much of it consists of wish fulfillment, lazy writing, anachronistic writing (I just read one where a character produces a "production chart"), cardboard settings, questionable character motives ...

But some of it is just terrific, the stuff that gives you a feeling of being in some other, magical realm, that gives a sense of the numinous. Which I guess is why I read so much of it -- the positive reinforcement, when it comes, is pretty damn terrific.

I've noticed that a lot of people, unfortunately, tend to lump all of it together with the endless Goodkind and Jordon series (I like Martin's, for the record), and refuse to read any of it. I understand that -- there's so little good stuff that what there is is hard to find. But I still wish that people would keep an open mind , and not turn their nose up at something because it's -- yuck -- the first of a trilogy. Eddison's books were a series, and so were Mervyn Peake's.
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Minz
Posted on Tuesday, July 19, 2005 - 06:45 am:   

Hey Lisa, check out Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. I think it ranks right alongside George's Song of Ice and Fire. Tor's pubbing it, so maybe you could his someone up for a copy of book one, GARDENS OF THE MOON. :-)
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Gary Wassner
Posted on Tuesday, July 19, 2005 - 11:59 am:   

An open mind is all we can ask for, right? I write Epic fantasy, but it is not formulaic and it is thoughtful. I hope Gabe can attest to that. I care about writing. I love words and language. I love imagery and a high emotional level when I write and when I read, and I have an academic background in philosophy, so that infects all that I write as well. But when I am reading, I like to be provoked. I have to be able to think and contemplate, and wonder and be awed by the vision. A book cannot be merely black or white, either purely entertaining without provocation or sacrifical of storyline altogether for the sake of philosophical ponderings. In the first case, I would rather see the movie and in the second, I would rather read the source philosophical text.

I just finished Gardens of the Moon and it was enjoyable. It is well written, complex, never slow or dull, and inventive. But so are many books. Scott Bakker's books, on the other hand, combine both aspects of great literature, IMHO. The writing is wonderful, the story is unique and compelling and the level of thought is incredibly high. Try The Darkness That Comes Before if you want a truly fabulous read.
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Lisa Goldstein
Posted on Tuesday, July 19, 2005 - 07:22 pm:   

Thanks, Minz! Actually I did read Gardens of the Moon, and I liked it better than most of the stuff I read. But please keep recommendations coming! I'm always looking for good fantasy to read, and I'm not really as cranky as I sounded up there.
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MarcL
Posted on Wednesday, July 20, 2005 - 10:36 am:   

Hi, Lisa!

I think the current situation just gives writers like you a leg up. You can emblazon your next book with a little emblem that says FANTASY, YES--BUT WAY BETTER THAN 98% OF THAT OTHER CRAP!
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Lisa Goldstein
Posted on Wednesday, July 20, 2005 - 05:55 pm:   

Excellent idea, Marc -- let me just ask my editor. But back to the original question -- why is most fantasy these days so awful? Is it because it sells so well that publishers will take nearly anything? Or because the nature of the form lends itself to wish fulfillment? I just had a discussion today with someone who claimed that fantasy readers are dumber than sf readers -- with sf you have to be able to pick up on cues in the text as to the type of society you're in, what the science can do, but in the bug-crusher type fantasies every damn thing is spelled out -- which, of course, is one of the reasons they're so long. (Needless to say, I don't like to think this view is right.)
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al duncan
Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2005 - 05:53 am:   

why is most fantasy these days so awful? Is it because it sells so well that publishers will take nearly anything? Or because the nature of the form lends itself to wish fulfillment?

Seems to me that with both SF and Fantasy there's a market for "Something Different" and there's a market for "More Of The Same".

Catering to the former in SF or Fantasy basically requires and results in fabulation, since the qualitative difference sought by the reader lies in the use of "high-concept" extended metaphor, fantastic conceit(s) on which the entire novel or story hinges; that type of SF or Fantasy is all about a killer idea, an original twist -- every novel or story created from that approach is striving to have its own USP.

Catering to the latter, however, requires and results in formulation, since the qualitative similarities sought by the reader can be defined quite rigorously in terms of plot, character, background, key scenes, and so on; that type of SF or Fantasy is assembled from pre-existing components and the interchangeability of individual products is, in itself, the key selling point of this type of fiction.

The latter is where, I think, phrases like "awful", "wish fulfillment", "nearly anything" and "sells so well" are most apt. Where fabulation has abstraction underlying the fantasy for the reader to engage with intellectually, formulation is designed so the reader can disengage their brain and immerse totally in the fiction, enter a state of uncritical rapture. Banal prose, stereotyped characters and predictable plots are actually strengths in formula product, because complex style, ambiguous motivations and unexpected actions "get in the way" of that intellectual dissolution.

Both SF and Fantasy cater to both markets in a sort of "deal with the devil", as I see it. Both fabulation and formulation, in SF and Fantasy, feed off each other and even masquerade as each other, formulation continually deriving its click-fit tropes from the fantastic conceits of fabulation, fabulation continually generating new fantastic conceits by ripping these tropes apart and putting them together in new ways. Hell, I think there's a lot of SF and Fantasy readers who want both -- sometimes they'll want just one, other times they'll want just the other, but often what they're looking for is a sort of compromise between these two -- something different but not too different, more of the same but not exactly the same.

I think it's entirely possible that, over the years, the mass market for formulation has basically supported and sustained the much smaller market for fabulation through the salad days in which contemporary realism reigned supreme; now that the backlash against modernism has died down, though, and it's OK to write weird shit again, fabulation may well be moving out of the genre ghetto, leaving the fields of SF and Fantasy to the formulaters. Hence more shite.

On the other hand I think it's entirely possible that formulation has basically infested and over-run the much more dynamic market for fabulation, appropriating the sub-cultural network of readers, writers, editors, etc., and exploiting it to its own ends; perhaps the blurring of boundaries between adult fiction and juvenile fiction is what's at play here, with the commercial benefits of targeting both juvenile and adult readers redefining the genre into more and more puerile formulations. Hence more shite.

It may even be a combination of these two.

IMHO.
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Alistair Rennie
Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2005 - 07:48 am:   

It's worth considering whether what you're saying, Lisa, also applies to other genres, which it undoubtedly does.

I'm tempted to refer you to an old debate between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson about Realism and Romance, where James (in the essay "The Art of Fiction") says something along the lines of --

There are no good or bad types of fiction, but only good or bad books.

Basically what he was saying is that Romance (which includes sci-fi and fantasy) is no less valid a medium of fiction than Realism, which is generally regarded as somehow superior. Stevenson picked him up on an important technicality (see his rejoinder "A Humble Remonstrance"), but they generally agreed and very quickly became good friends, which is nice.

But, anyway, it's not that sc-fi and fantasy are particularly guilty of producing bad books more than any other genre. I expect you'd find the same was true wherever you decided to turn your attentions.

And I'm not sure what you've been reading, Lisa. After recently returning to reading fantasy after many years away from it, I was pretty bowled over by the quality of a lot of what I was reading.

And I think Al is spot on above. I would stress only that it is misleading to attach negative value-judgements on something just because it's formulaic (and a positive value on something because it's fabulation). The formulaic in stories can often be the most appealing aspect of them, as Al implies.

Who would argue with the quality of the most formulaic and formal work of fiction in the whole of the western canon -- Dante's "The Divine Comedy"? Which is probably the best example, too, of Al's point about the combination of Fabulation and Formula in any one work.



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Gary Wassner
Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2005 - 09:07 am:   

To a certain extent, formulas define genre fiction to begin with. What would a mystery be without a problem to solve? What would a romance novel be without a relationship of some kind? Let's not be puerile. To decry the formula completely would remove the work from the genre.
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al duncan
Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2005 - 12:30 pm:   

That's maybe not what I mean by "formula", Gary. With a formula, you just select the right ingredients put them in in the right order, carrying out steps X, Y and Z and, hey presto, it's a novel. Painting by numbers with a little optionality. But suppose you rip out the formulaic plot from an SF/F novel and, using the same stock characters and setting, come up with an entirely original plot. You still have an SF/F novel. Same with formulaic character and formulaic setting. There's plenty of SF/F novels out there that are not simply put together from off-the-shelf components. Pick any New Wave writer at random as an example. So I don't think those ingredients are really definitive features. I'd say it's the presence of fabulation, either as plausible scientific speculation or concretised metaphors or as both (and it could be in the form of technological/magical artefact, technological/magical setting -- any number of ways) which really allows us to describe a work as SF/F. The real defining feature of an SF/F novel seems to me to be that "killer idea".

Similarly, yes, a novel is described as a mystery novel because of the construction-and-resolution of a problem; but again, I'd say that might done by formulation or it might be done from scratch. Just because mysteries can be constructed from stock components doesn't mean they have to be. So an "I've gathered you all here in the parlour tonight..." scene is not the defining feature of a mystery, nor the presence of characters and plots copied from Christie or Hitchcock.

But mystery and romance are not as good comparisons to SF/F as, say, Crime. While mystery and romance are quite strictly delimited by assumptions of plot structure -- i.e. if the problem is not solved at the end, if the relationship is not consummated, then the reader will feel cheated -- which means you could see them as at least requiring the writer to use a pre-defined framework, if not a formula, SF/F or Crime, generally don't make those assumptions. So you write a story set on an alien planet; doesn't mean it has to be an Adventure. So you write a story about a bunch of thieves; doesn't mean it has to be a rehash of The Italian Job. I read a great wee Crime book once -- damned if I remember the name -- where a car salesman rips off his boss in order to finance the movie he's always wanted to make. Great book. Not even remotely formulaic but it focuses on a criminal act and extrapolates the intricate ramifications of it, so it's Crime. There's no cops. No detective after the main character. No Mafia hitmen. But it's still Crime.
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MarcL
Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2005 - 12:56 pm:   

Al, I'm pretty sure you're thinking of Charles Willeford's inexplicably named, THE WOMAN CHASER. Creatively frustrated used car salesman starts financing his own movie project; refuses to compromise his artistic vision; insanity ensues.

I just watched the movie version recently, Patrick Warburton as the lead; it was a bit uneven, but very faithful to the book and worth watching if you can find it.
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al duncan
Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2005 - 05:01 pm:   

Marc... I don't recognise the name, but then I have a shite memory, and that sounds pretty close. The way I remember he makes the movie but it turns out at a length too short for a cinema release. He can't pad it out, because that would ruin it. So he manages to get a deal for TV, but they demand he cut it down to accommodate ad-breaks, which would utterly bastardise it. He knows it's exactly right at the length it is. Which is where the insanity ensues.

Is that the one? Cause if it is, yer a goddamn star. I've been trying to remember what the fuck that book was for about five years.
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Gary Wassner
Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2005 - 06:32 pm:   

So if we define a mystery as an event or situation that appears to overwhelm our understanding, and we attempt to write a mystery, I agree that the only restrictions we really have, in order to remain true to the genre and in fact write a mystery, are minimal. But no matter how creative you might be, if you don't fabulize within the confines of that basic formula, you won't end up with a mystery. I assumed that formula was referring to the ontological structure of fantasy and fabulation to the specific execution within that ontology.
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GabrielM
Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2005 - 09:35 pm:   

As A Willeford nut myself, I can confirm that's THE WOMAN CHASER. Although I think the same guy who ask him to pad it ("THE MAN") is the one who makes him the TV offer.
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al duncan
Posted on Sunday, July 24, 2005 - 07:09 am:   

Cheers! Can go and get meself a copy of it now.
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Lisa Goldstein
Posted on Sunday, July 24, 2005 - 11:52 am:   

I should probably clarify here -- my comments on "crap," etc., applied to what Gabe called "tales of magical realities" and "a Romantic tale of an utterly fantastical world" -- using the examples of Eddison, Tolkien, Martin, and Jordan. I called it epic fantasy. (I like "magical realities" better, but no one would know what the hell I was talking about if I said that with no context.) I agree with Alistair that a lot of non-epic fantasy is terrific, especially recently. I'm just wondering why I can't get what I'm looking for in epic fantasy. It could be partly because so much of it is copies of copies of far better writing. (I blame Terry Brooks, myself. Before him everyone was too much in awe of Tolkien's achievement to even think about copying it.)
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Lisa Goldstein
Posted on Sunday, July 24, 2005 - 11:54 am:   

P.S. I finally had time enough to look for the original essay on Relocated Fictions but the link didn't work for me.
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James M. Pfundstein
Posted on Sunday, July 24, 2005 - 03:09 pm:   

Terry Brooks certainly bears some of the blame-- I'll never forget the sinking feeling I had when I first flipped through _Sword of Shannara_. But that animatronic imitation of Tolkien was probably just an indicator of market-forces that were already at work. I seem to remember Lin Carter writing somewhere, about his legendary line of fantasy classics in paperback for Ballantine, that stuff sold to the extent that it was like Tolkien or Conan. To the extent it wasn't, it didn't. (Maybe I'm misremembering what he said, though.)

Part of the current problem has to do with markets, too-- entry-level markets. With the explosion of small presses, there are probably more magazines around than there were in the 60s/70s and before... but their maximum word limit tends to be pretty low-- forget anything approaching novellette length, much less novellas. But these are the ideal lengths for imaginary world fantasies, where a certain amount of words have to be deployed to introduce an invented world, solid characters, and a developed plot. At shorter lengths, corners have to be cut: the indigenous warrior with an Oedipus complex becomes a brooding barbarian; the Velmetic dream-transfer station becomes an inn; the dying dream-thaumaturge with an Electra complex becomes a jolly barmaid. And the story gets rejected with the cry of "I can hear the dice rolling!" (I'm not recounting one of my own sorrows, here-- just synthesizing an oft-heard complaint.)

The reason this matters is that it's in experimenting with shorter lengths that a writer often gets the narrative ability to tackle a novel or even a novel-series. The tendency to jump into multi-volume narrative is usually inexperience, as I see it. I'm not trying to put the knife into Steve Erikson here, whose _Malazan Book of the Dead_ I haven't read (and probably won't until he completes it). But I've often browsed a book rack crowded with fat volumes about the Ultimate Battle Between Good and Evil and the Endless Quest for the Fahrvergnugenstein and come away with the thought, "These guys are all writing trilogies about the end of the world, but they couldn't write a short story about walking around the block."

Eh. Looks like it's time for my medication...

JM("Master of the Fahrvergnugensteinian Arts")P


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Vera Nazarian
Posted on Sunday, July 24, 2005 - 10:17 pm:   

Lisa Goldstein said:

I should probably clarify here -- my comments on "crap," etc., applied to what Gabe called "tales of magical realities" and "a Romantic tale of an utterly fantastical world" -- using the examples of Eddison, Tolkien, Martin, and Jordan. I called it epic fantasy. (I like "magical realities" better, but no one would know what the hell I was talking about if I said that with no context.) I agree with Alistair that a lot of non-epic fantasy is terrific, especially recently. I'm just wondering why I can't get what I'm looking for in epic fantasy. It could be partly because so much of it is copies of copies of far better writing. (I blame Terry Brooks, myself. Before him everyone was too much in awe of Tolkien's achievement to even think about copying it.)

I am sorry to be so shameless and to harp on about my own stuff, but it just makes me crazy not to say... why don't you -- and anyone else who wants *good* epic fantasy that is *different* -- try my novel Lords of Rainbow, an epic fantasy about a world without color, completely original, and better yet, in a single volume?

Imagine that, an epic story that begins and ends in one book!

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Tim Pratt
Posted on Monday, July 25, 2005 - 11:30 am:   

A little tangential to the main thrust of this discussion, but I wanted to say to James:

Aw, you can get that sense of the epic and vast in a short story. You have to do a lot of exposition-around-the-edges and exposition-by-implication, but it's certainly doable. Look at Sheckley's "Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerly Dead."

I have high hopes for the upcoming Twenty Epics anthology from Wheatland Press (due sometime in 2006 I think), which is all about mini-epics (the longest one is 10,000 words I think). My own contribution to that anthology clocks in at under 5,000 words. I'm not gonna say it's a great story -- that's certainly not for me to determine, and authors are usually terrible judges of the quality of their own work anyway -- but it's certainly a *big* story about big earth-shaking world-changing events.
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Gary Wassner
Posted on Monday, July 25, 2005 - 11:40 am:   

Vera, your book looks fascinating. And, it's a pleasure to see a cover that you must have had a hand in creating. It's very tasteful. Small presses have it head over heels in that department. Speaking of crap, look at how some of the major imprints in our genre represent their authors. I would hope no one judges the books by the covers.

And I don't think fantasy is awful at all today. In fact, I think there is a tremendous number of intelligent books and intelligent authors being published by a wider variety of presses than in a long time. And there is a very active online community anxious to discuss them 24/7.

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James M. Pfundstein
Posted on Monday, July 25, 2005 - 12:43 pm:   

Tm Pratt wrote (in part):

"Aw, you can get that sense of the epic and vast in a short story. You have to do a lot of exposition-around-the-edges and exposition-by-implication, but it's certainly doable. Look at Sheckley's 'Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerly Dead.'"
_____

Oh, I'm not against concision. (And I'm particularly not against Sheckley, may he live forever.) But conducting a 3,000 word narrative is categorically different from conducting a 100,000 word narrative. You don't train for a marathon the way you train for a sprint. (So I've been told. I go along with Rumpole on this one: "Exercise is simply an invitation to death.")

But I do think that exposition by implication (etc.) will mostly work if the background to be exposed is already mostly in the reader's head. If the writer wants to do something genuinely new, he (or she) is going to have to deploy some words. Sometimes less is more. But sometimes only more is more.

JM("Moreathon")P
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Tim Pratt
Posted on Monday, July 25, 2005 - 04:33 pm:   

Well, sure. And sometimes you just want to disappear into a fictional world and spend a long time there, and a novel (or series of novels) is still the best way to do that.
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Laird
Posted on Monday, July 25, 2005 - 06:12 pm:   

"...deploy some words."

I like that, James. Now I'm off to deploy some more words. ;)

Laird
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Lisa Goldstein
Posted on Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - 06:40 pm:   

Vera -- Okay, okay, I'll look for it. I know how you feel, though -- there are so many books out there that trying to get people interested in your own work is sometimes like shouting into a gale force wind.
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Vera Nazarian
Posted on Tuesday, July 26, 2005 - 07:07 pm:   

Gary,

Thanks, glad you find the cover appealing -- it is definitely on the subtle side, and the Pre-Raphaelite selection seems to me to carry across the spirit of the book better than some commissioned piece might.

Lisa,

If you look for it you will probably not find it, but if you click on the Amazon link, there yah go. :-)

In any case, the reason I went all Hard Sell Nutso on you is because this book is completely obscure and had even less exposure than most other small press offerings. And for that reason I sorta kinda hafta make the extra noisy effort, especially when it really could be the kind of thing you mentioned you're looking for. *grin*

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