Friday, July 2, 2010

On Ephemerality

I was pondering on the ephemeral nature of human endeavor the other day—yes, I really do spend my time that way, whenever I’m not surfing the web for free porn or spray-painting DI wuz hea on freeway overpasses—and it occurred to me that I’m laboring in the most ephemeral of all the genres. Thrillers—and other sorts of crime novels to various extents—have the advantage of being able to address issues of the moment. The reverse side of that coin, though, is that thrillers probably have the shortest shelf life of any sort of novel—with the possible exception of science fiction that predicts the near future.

(Oddly enough, the trick to writing near-term predictive science fiction that survives seems to be naming the book after the year it is supposed to take place: 1984 and 2001 still stand up quite well despite the fact that those years have come and gone. Oh, sure, you can argue it’s because they are outstanding novels, and I wouldn’t disagree. But it’s also curious that they are both named for years now past.)

Now, this set me to thinking about which genre has the longest shelf-life. And it seems to me that it ought to be historical fiction, which doesn’t risk being overtaken by events or fashion. But historical fiction risks assault from those within its own ranks (our Faye Booth is a case in point) who want to give conventional views of the past a good shake, and say, no, it wasn’t like that, it was like this.

It occurred to me that in principle fantasy novels ought to do best, since they don’t risk being overtaken by any aspect of reality whatsoever. (Though even then I suppose they have to worry about revisionist works like Wicked reconstituting the Oz novels.)

But in a post a while back, Tim Stretton pointed out that influence in literature, and especially in genre works, has a bi-directional time flow. Before you think I’m referring to some sort of quantum effect, let me hasten to explain: Tim was simply saying, rather more eloquently than this, that while it is obvious that books affect other books that come after them, it is equally true that how books are seen is greatly affected by later books. This is true for each reader—which is why Tim cautions that re-reading favorites is a risky business—but also true for the story-consuming public as a whole.

Tim mentions the case of Tolkein, who offers a fine example. Now, I think Tolkein’s achievement was staggering—a fusing of ancient threads and themes with certain examples of striking originality. He also stands as a monument to monomaniacal devotion, and, quite possibly, to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. To a great extent, he created the modern fantasy novel.

Tim’s point is that when Tolkein is re-read, he is re-read in the context of what has happened since, both in the wider context (writers rebelling against the Tolkein template), and in our personal experience (including everything we have read since, be it fantasy or lit-fic or noir).

I happen to know a lot of writers younger than me, and a fair proportion of the really young ones are fantasy writers. And I’ve known some of these fantasy mavens when, after growing up on fantasy novels and movies and comics, finally read LOTR for the first time. In general, they weren’t impressed. Why? Mostly because of context. These people had been reading stories with elves and dwarves—whose modern personae were largely codified by Tolkein—and orcs and wraiths and hobbits (who were all invented by Tolkein), for the whole of their reading lives. They also took for granted the inclusion of tons of maps, and appendices, and invented languages, and elaborate mythologies. I mean, that’s what fantasy writers do, isn’t it?

Well, not until Tolkein, they didn’t. And even today, I find it hard to point to anyone who did it at his level of detail (probably because he cared more about the history and linguistics of his invented world than he did about any given story placed in it).

In effect, what my young friends were saying is similar to the old joke: I can’t stand Shakespeare; the guy uses too many clichés.

There is a danger in casting too broad and long a shadow: those who grow up in your shadow may take it as the normal level of illumination. And in a way, I guess this shows you just can’t win. Write something ephemeral, and you disappear; but, write something iconic enough to influence all that follows after, and you may find yourself blending into the furniture.

Well, I need to go upstairs now, and work on my ephemera.


Tim Stretton said...

Lord of the Rings is a particularly good example, because the legions of imitators have copied the furniture---orcs, elves, dark lords etc---without understanding the architecture of the house.

I have more sympathy with writers like China Mieville who have just honestly loathed Tolkien's worldview and reacted against it than I have with half-witted imitators. (Says the person who has half-wittedly imitated Jack Vance...)

Frances Garrood said...

I'm going off at a tangent here, but the world seems to be divided into those who love Tolkien, and those who loathe him. A Marmite* thing. I love Marmite, but find Tokien deeply boring. Oh dear. Even though I know I'm not alone, it's a bit like admitting I microwave live kittens.

* David - just in case Marmite hasn't crossed the pond, it's something you spread on bread/toast etc, not a writer.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

There are people who dislike Tolkein for his worldview in a political sense, and those who simply think that his work permanently mucked up fantasy fiction. I can see both points of view and have no problem with them. But the people who love the whole 'orcs and elves' world but don't think Tolkein did it very well are a puzzle to me.

I know you admire Vance, and I'm sure he can't help but have been an influence, but do you in fact think that your work imitates him?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

I'm guessing, however, that you're not a fan of Tolkein-derivative fantasy, either, though. Those folks are the ones who baffle me.

As to Marmite--no, I don't think we have it. Is it anything like the Australian concoction Vegemite--a dark, yeasty thing that is spread on toast, but had best be spread rather thin? Pamela's a big Vegemite fan. I think it's so-so.

Tim Stretton said...

"Imitation" may be overstating it, but there would be those who felt the influence was not entirely positive.

There are many good things in Vance's fiction which have not become part of the SFF mainstream. It would be nice to think I'd tried to reintroduce some of those.

Vegemite is a Marmite clone. Yummy!

Frances Garrood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Well, Vance was so protean that it's hard for me to imagine anyone following Vance in all particulars. But it seems to me that there are two relatively strong and frequent (though not invariable) Vancean characteristics in his fantasy that you don't seem to follow:

1) Overripe prose. Deliciously overripe in many case, and I quite enjoy it. But I've never seen you spread it on with a trowel, which he occasionally delighted in doing.

2) Magic, usually with varying lengths of tongue thrust into cheek. Your world tends to be fantasy in the genre sense, but less in the sense of 'contrary to our own reality.'

I'd be interested in hearing how you'd trace his influence in your own work. I'd guess that it's probably more subtle on the page than in your consciousness--which seems all to the good.

I think I've been strongly influenced by all manner of writers who don't show up on the page, though, so I guess this isn't surprising.

Tim Stretton said...

David, that's an ineresting enough question that it probably warrants its own blog post--if I can drag myself away from twatting about biscuits...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yes, it seems like it might have a long and interesting answer!