Posts Tagged 'Genre fiction'

Epic fantasy a near epic surprise

I don’t often pick up epic fantasy doorstops like A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, which is the first novel in a projected seven-volume series called A Song of Fire and Ice. The cover art alone on these things usually looks hopelessly adolescent. And pages of maps and schematics of tangled family trees makes a vein in my neck start to throb.

But when you can get it on the Kindle for $3.90, it might be worth a surreptitious look. After all, the first four novels of A Song of Fire and Ice have been translated into 18 languages (thank you Wikipedia) and an HBO television series is currently in production.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Well, in a sentence, the fuss about skillful plotting, imaginative world-building and serviceable characterization anchored by prose that’s well above what you can sometimes find when you go slumming in the genres. (Hey! Who says it’s slumming!?) Here’s an evocative example, just one sentence, that deftly sketches a throwaway character: “This Mycah was the worst; a butcher’s boy, thirteen and wild, he slept in the meat wagon and smelled of the slaughtering block.”

Not bad. Who would expect such concision in a hulking book like this? Martin never comes close to reaching the poetic heights of Mervyn Peake in Gormenghast (who does?), but there were times I thought his ear for English was so finely tuned, and his flair for Age of Chivalry-type phrasings so apt, that he must certainly hail from the land of King Arthur himself.

His actual place of birth? New Jersey.

Oy. That A Song of Fire and Ice has been dubbed “the Sopranos in Middle Earth” is purely coincidental, I am sure.

A Game of Thrones is an engaging enough hero’s journey that will provide hours of enjoyment (think also, “Diana Gabaldon for guys”) but be warned: it is long. There are more characters in it than you can waggle a piece of Valerian steel at. And if you can’t stand the thought of all the trees being sacrificed to produce nearly cube-shaped paperbacks like these, you can always read it on the Kindle.

Or wait for the HBO series on TV.

Sticks and stones: name-calling in the name of art

Céline Dion is the Antichrist of the indie sensibility, an overemoting schmaltz-bot who has somehow managed to convert the ethos of Wal-Mart into sine waves and broadcast them, at kidney-rupturingly high volume, directly into our internal soulPods.

85184.jpgDon’t you just love a good rant? The above comes courtesy of Sam Anderson writing in the December 17 New York Magazine. His book review is headlined: “Taster’s Choice: Is disdain for Céline Dion innate or learned? And what’s wrong with liking her music anyway?” The book under consideration is by Carl Wilson, a writer/editor for The Globe & Mail, and called, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

I bring it up here because nothing grows quite so robustly in the garden of cultural criticism as debate about low and high, and what the significance is – for individuals and entire civilizations – when one group of people likes something that another group doesn’t.

Defenders of taste and decency will of course argue that a Giuseppe Verdi belongs in Milan’s La Scala, and a Céline Dion in, well, a Las Vegas hotel. The same sort of classifications come up in book discussions all the time. Stephen King is not a serious writer. John Irving is hopelessly middlebrow. Heaven forbid anyone should dip their toes into the cesspools of genre fiction.

In a piece that appears in The Times online, Brian Appleyard considers the stigmatizing effect of being branded a science fiction writer, while tenaciously defending the genre.

In the 1970s, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss were judging a contest for the best science-fiction novel of the year. They were going to give the prize to Grimus, Salman Rushdie’s first novel. At the last minute, however, the publishers withdrew the book from the award. They didn’t want Grimus on the SF shelves. “Had it won,” Aldiss, the wry, 82-year-old godfather of British SF, observes, “he would have been labelled a science-fiction writer, and nobody would have heard of him again.”

Undeterred, Aldiss has just published a new version of A Science Fiction Omnibus, a fat collection of classic stories. In the 1960s, the original was on everybody’s bookshelves, dog-eared and broken-backed. Aldiss says that was SF’s one golden age, when Oxford dons were happy to be seen indulging the genre. Now they wouldn’t be seen dead with a Philip K Dick, a James Blish or a Robert Sheckley. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, insists her books are not SF, but “speculative fiction” or “adventure romance”. “She’s quite right,” says Aldiss. “She had this idea that a certain amount of opprobrium always hovered around the title science fiction. You might call it double-dealing, but I can quite understand it.”

Labels stick; having one slink along in front of your name (science fiction writer Salman Rushdie) could carry surprising and unwanted meaning. “Literary fiction,” I suppose, is meant to signify something of weight that displays a certain technical and artistic mastery. Trouble is, as Appleyard points out, it often doesn’t. At the same time, writers of so-called genre fiction — like a Stephen King or a PD James — can demonstrate a high level of artistic assurance in handling the serious theme.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I wouldn’t know. I spend all my time reading Proust and Schopenhauer.

Yeah, right.

It’s a bit sad, really. Not quite, “My-Heart-Will-Go-On” sad, but sad nonetheless. Maybe what we really need is a little tolerance. I too “would rather be processed through the digestive tract of an anaconda” than listen to Céline, as one critic puts it in the Anderson piece, but the fact is millions of others would say she’s brought music into their lives.

Is that so bad?

Trying not to be savage about it

I think it was Richard Ford who once remarked that it’s a pretty difficult thing just to write an average novel, never mind a good one. That’s so true. We hold writers to higher standards. Actors, musicians and other artists can all turn in average performances and no one notices. But writers? We savage the average.

That’s why I’m always a bit torn when I come across something I dislike. At the very least I want to be able to say — “Yes, dear writer, I may not be the perfect reader for you and your story, but I’m sure plenty of others are. And regardless, I salute you for the effort and discipline and creativity it takes to get something like this to the page.”

secretatlas.jpgThat’s pretty much what I’m going ancientevenings.jpgto have to say about Michael Stackpole’s A Secret Atlas. I gave up after 70 pages, which is unusual for me. Once I start I generally slog forward, no matter how bitterly I resent it. Hell, I even finished Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer (may he R.I.P.) Now there’s a book for masochists.

According to his web site, “Michael A. Stackpole is a New York Times Best Selling author, an award-winning novelist, an award-winning editor, an award-winning game designer, an award-winning computer game designer, an award-winning comics writer, an award-winning podcaster, and an award-winning screenwriter.”

He’s prolific; and he’s won awards.

And clearly he has an audience for his brand of fantasy. It’s a genre I dip into now and then, although perhaps I’m a little fussy in my tastes. I think I came to Tolkien too late in life — he just doesn’t do it for me. But I can recall getting lost in the first Stephen Donaldson books and hey — Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake and The Once and Future King by T.H. White both shine through with brilliance.

But A Secret Atlas will stay a secret, I’m afraid. The causes of my discontent are various. During the first 70 pages no fewer than 25 different characters are introduced. 25! I had to start my own little genealogical atlas.

And the back story really does go on and on. Perhaps these are conventions that video game players intuitively grasp, but they’re lost on me.

While the writing is generally serviceable, it sometimes is not. “…you always depreciate your own skill…” (strictly speaking probably correct but ‘deprecate’ sounds more correct to my ear) and “[he] snapped a bow at…” which is puzzling, because it turns out this isn’t a perfunctory bow at all, but deep and long. And maybe this is splitting hairs, but if I ever meet the Queen, I will bow to her, or before her, but not at her.

But these details are of no concern to Stackpole fans. And clearly you can’t earn a following like his without tapping into something. Alas, t’isn’t for me, but perhaps ’tis for you?