Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

About those literary labels …

Bottom line: They’re all useful. And like anything useful, they can be misused.

Over at Thoughts on Fantasy, Nicola Alter argues for the necessity of literary labels:

As a reader, I love genre. I love that there are labels in the different parts of the book store, or labels on Goodreads, that help me find the kind of story I’m looking for.

As a writer, I love genre, because it allows me to convey the kind of story I am writing with a few simple words. I love to think about stories I could write that use elements of different genres, or that subvert or fulfill genre expectations in interesting ways.

Alter also weighs in on the debate she calls “The Myth of Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction.” It’s true they are distinct categories, but they are not castes. One is not superior to the other. There are good and bad examples of each. Plot and characterization are vital in both.

I can relate. I’ll get an occasional raised eyebrow for considering both Hemingway and Howard as mentors. But I learned a great deal from reading Hemingway and Howard. Both authors crafted great stories that still crackle with energy.

That said, another label that generates more heat than light among readers and writers involves region. Dannye Romine Powell dismisses regional labels as restrictive, even dismissive. But I tend to side with Hailey Foglio on this:

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the identity of writers and how we define ourselves. Writers label themselves based on location, genre, themes, etc. Personally, I refer to myself as a Young Adult writer because that’s what I love and that’s what I do. A couple weeks ago, we had a wonderful writer visit us at WVU named George Singleton. George is from South Carolina, and during his visit, George told us that he had been invited to an Appalachian writing conference. But he distinctly argued, “I don’t consider myself an Appalachian writer; I’m a Southern writer.”

I consider myself a Southern writer primarily writing fantasy fiction, and I see nothing incongruous in adapting the wild and fantastic to traditional themes. The best apologist for this approach was Flannery O’Connor, who famously said, “You have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Works for me.

Better than you remembered

“In truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done. That is beacause there is a mystery in all great writing and that mystery does not dissect out. It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Fred on the Head has posed an interesting question: Do you re-read?

To this I can only plead: Guilty.

There are about a dozen works I find myself returning to, and for exactly the reason Hemingway cites above. In fact, three of Hemingway’s works are on my list: The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Killers, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. For me, they never lose their power to amaze and teach. Even when my intention is to analyze, I end up getting lured in once again by the robust narrative.

Mishima’s Patriotism leaves me reeling each time I experience it. What a show: breathtaking eroticism and rapturous prose made all the more vivid and potent by the blunt reality of sepukku. Whoa.

Among the classics, I keep returning to A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Beowulf more than any of the others. And I’m in the process of travelling to Mordor once again with the Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve almost finished The Two Towers, and am just as carried away by Tolkien’s imaginative world-building as the first time I experienced him.

All good friends I could never get tired of.

The Battle of Highbrow vs. Lowbrow

Creation

Over at Electric Lit, Amber Sparks argues that while writers usually claim one of the highbrow greats as their stylistic model, they often fail to give proper due to the lowbrow authors who inspired them to become writers. She cites authors willing to admit to the influence of pulp writers in their early careers:

“Romance novels, horror novels, thrillers. Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, everything V.C. Andrews wrote, Danielle Steel: I devoured it all,” says Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth. “Those ‘trashy’ books taught me how to write story, character, and created my lifelong need for drama, conflict, and my belief that every story, no matter what genre or style, needs to make the reader feel as if a lot is ‘at stake.’” And Peter Tieryas, author of Bald New World, says, “I devour and gorge on lowbrow entertainment, from the maligned Waterworld and the original Dawn of the Dead, to comics like Legends of the Dark Knight and X-Force, to K-pop and Tupac, and of course video games. They play with the tropes, or establish all new ones, and being unhinged from traditional restrictions, push the medium, teaching me that I can do the same.”

After all, says Sparks, “we’re all of us storytellers, trying to retell that first and perfect tale that started it all.”

I couldn’t agree more. In grade school, my vocabulary was three grades ahead of my classmates thanks to Marvel Comics. (Don’t ask about my math skills!) And as an English major, I continued to enjoy Robert E. Howard, H.R. Wakefield, and Robert Heinlein as much as Hemingway and Shakespeare.

As Sparks says, they’re all storytellers. And that’s what I want to be.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Vision of Just War

Gandalf

Writing in the latest Imaginative Conservative,   and  offer a useful summary of Tolkien’s themes in Lord of the Rings. They point out that Tolkien’s epic is a war tale that was not intended to be an allegory, but still applicable to the issues of the time in which it was written. I’d add that Tolkien’s insights are applicable to many current issues  as well.

In response to the early criticism that the methods of Sauron’s forces and those of the Fellowship are “indistinguishable” since each side kills the other, Richards and Witt note that the Fellowship observes Just War theory: They fight aggression, they fight honorably, and, as far as circumstances allow, they are charitable to those they defeat in battle. But such acts rise from a fundamentally different worldview from their enemies:

There is also the stark difference between what Brian Rosebury calls “the diversity of good and the sameness of evil.”Among the free peoples of Middle-Earth there is widespread and mostly tolerated diversity, which extends to what does not happen. For instance, King Théoden and later Aragorn might have tried to insist that a primitive and ancient people known as the Woses join their military alliance. Instead Théoden takes the gracious help they offer, and both he and Aragorn honor the Woses’ desire to otherwise stay out of the war.

Compare this to the homogenizing slavery and oppression of those who bow the knee to Mordor. The contrast is stark enough that only a reader blinded by a philosophy of war devoid of even the crudest nuance could miss it.

I think that’s the key to understanding the differences between Sauron and the Fellowship, as well as the difference between totalitarians and small “r” republicans. The desire to flatten reality and make all the same drives all totalitarians, whether Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. One of Russell Kirk’s principles of conservatism tell us, “They [conservatives] feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”

The notion that one possesses an absolute and universal truth is too often used to justify the initiation of violence to enforce that truth. As Tolkien counseled, men are not wise enough to choose for all. Now that lesson is certainly applicable today.

Mens sana in corpore sano

The central theme in my writing is the struggle to live an authentically human life in a world that is globalized, homogenized, and ground down to airy abstractions. There is no doubt in my mind that the proliferation of modern afflictions, from depression to diabetes, is the result of an artificial lifestyle that disdains the physical and idolizes the abstract.

We are told to dedicate our lives to economic success and despise non-material fulfillment. Homo economicus wanders the earth in a body that is little more than the minds’s chassis.

So I was pleased to see this recent article in the Johns Hopkins Newsletter discussing the expanding chasm between human needs and the ill-fitting lifestyle we have allowed to overwhelm and warp our lives:

Almost all aspects of our modern lives that wouldn’t be included under the “Paleolithic” lifestyle are inherently bad for us. Studies have shown that even artificial lights interfere with melatonin production and alter our circadian rhythms. Our sedentary lifestyles present some grave health complications for bodies sculpted by millions of years of evolution to be able to handle insane amounts of physical exertion. For most of human history, sitting in a chair for nine hours a day and surviving would have been mutually exclusive concepts. We just haven’t been built to do it. We are completely out of our element in this world of sensory excess. And it’s not looking like we’ll ever adapt to it while modern medicine and societal norms effectively prevent the barbaric natural selection process from occuring. So because we will not adapt to these new conditions, the only thing we can do is adapt our individual lifestyles.

How can we salvage our humanity in such a world? The author suggests what I believe is a pretty good start:

I suggest that we should all let out our inner Homo erectus as much as possible. In an ideal world this means coming downstairs and spending time talking with your housemates or roommates instead of watching Netflix in your room. This means eating more nutrient-rich food that hasn’t been designed in a lab. This means cutting Internet porn out of your life. This means reading more books in print. This means taking on that huge project. This means getting sweaty on a regular basis. This means living life in the manner that millions of years of natural selection designed you to. You just might find that if you’re cognizant of the needs and health of your inner paleolithic cave-dwelling hominid, he or she will fight tooth and nail to get you ahead in life.

Yes. Not a bad start.

Jonathan Barrett, the protagonist of my novella Aztec Midnight, is passionate about many things, including his wife, Aztec history, the memory of his father, and the lore of ancient weapons he learned from Robert Horse, the elderly Mescalero Apache who befriended the young Barrett in his native Texas. Barrett is what the ancient Romans venerated, a man who has achieved mens sana in corpore sano — a sound mind in a healthy body.

Yukio Mishima relates his journey toward achieving that ideal in his highly readable Sun and Steel, which you can read at Google docs.

And for a glimpse of what could happen if society staggers too far down the road of a globalized, abstracted world, you can read my flash fiction piece Snake Heart.

In Defense of Fantasy

Mystical

Here’s Lev Grossman writing in Time Magazine on the new popularity of fantasy fiction:

It’s interesting to compare the present moment to another one when fantasy was a big deal: the 1950’s, the decade when The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were published, two of the founding classics of modern fantasy. By that time in their lives, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had lived through some massive social and technological transformations. They had witnessed the birth of mechanized warfare – they were both survivors of World War I. They had seen the rise of psychoanalysis and mass media. They watched as horses were replaced by cars and gaslight by electric light. They were born under Queen Victoria, but the world they lived in as adults looked nothing like the one they’d grown up in. They were mourners of a lost world, alienated and disconnected from the present, and to express that mourning they created fantasy worlds, beautiful and green and magical and distant.

God knows, characters in fantasy worlds aren’t always happy: if anything the ambient levels of misery in Westeros are probably significantly higher than those in the real world. But they’re not distracted. They’re not disconnected. The world they live in isn’t alien to them, it’s a reflection of the worlds inside them, and they feel like an intimate part of it.

Modern man inhabits a world that is increasingly alien to him. There is no sense of place, of history, of community. The nobility and purpose of the Fellowship of the Ring, and the family and community spirit that inspire Katniss in The Hunger Games awaken us to the possibility of a life enriched by interconnection and mutual concern. And then there’s that sense of wonder we can recall from childhood, and can feel again in imagined worlds.