Sunday 10 July 2011

The division between the literary story and the action one

I think I understand why Otto Penzler went with "The Devil in Iron" when composing The Big Book of Adventure Stories: because it's just that, an adventure story.  It doesn't have the special something which puts it among the ranks of Howard's greatest works, or even the greatest of Howard's fantasy, or even the greatest of Howard's Conans, or even the greatest of Howard's eastern Conan stories - but it is what is, in the ol' vernacular, a Ripping Yarn.

It's one of my favourites, and to say that it doesn't have the cosmic tragedy of "The Tower of the Elephant" or the dystopian degeneracy of "Red Nails" doesn't necessarily make it a bad story, just not an exceptional one. Howard wrote dozens of these sorts of tales that are great fun to read, but there isn't much else lurking beneath the surface - at least, nothing that we haven't seen better executed in previous Howard tales. With this in mind, Penzler's choice actually seems fairly good for the sort of book he was trying to compile - rough-and-tumble, boy's own adventure tales.

Unfortunately, such an approach can sometimes lead to reviews like this.

The day is long past when any but a handful of writers could make a living from short stories, but hundreds, even thousands, of hard-working and prolific authors used to do so. There is still a market for the literary short story, though that too is shrinking and usually pays poorly. But the mass-market magazines that published several stories an issue are almost all gone. They appealed to readers who now watch movies and television or play computer games full of simulated violence. Adventure stories were their day's version of the modern action movie—even if some were written with a literary flair not always recognized at the time.
The division between the literary story and the action one has long been with us. In 1882, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in "A Gossip on Romance" (dreadful title, splendid essay) that many "are apt, I know not why, to look somewhat down on incident, and reserve their admiration for the clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate." Literary stories offer great pleasures—the discriminating delineation of character, drama (what Stevenson called "the poetry of conduct"), the examination of moral questions, the evocation of mood. Such fine shades have no place in the "Big Book of Adventure Stories." Here we have only Romance, as Stevenson used the word: "the poetry of circumstance," stories in which incident is all, in which, to quote him one last time, "adventure, on the most naked terms, furnishes forth the entertainment."
All that matters is storytelling. Characters may be thin as paper, heroic stereotypes incapable of development—it is of no importance if the story moves as fast as a river in spate. Adventure stories take us back to our earliest youth, as a species and as individuals: Once upon a time a traveler rode over the crest of a hill and saw a valley lying below him.

There's that blasted insistence on some hazy, pointless, stupid division between "literary fiction" and "non-literary fiction." Stop it. Please. Be a sport and come up with some other term than "literary fiction." Actually, wait, don't, because it already exists: drama.  Historical fiction. Romance.

Let's look at those things which  Mr Massie considers the domain of this mysterious "literary fiction":

  • the discriminating delineation of character
  • drama (what Stevenson called "the poetry of conduct")
  • the examination of moral questions
  • the evocation of mood

Pray tell, Mr Massie: how on earth do these factors separate "literary fiction" from any other genre?  How can one empathise with a character if he/she is not discriminatingly delineated?  How can a story successfully convey action, adventure, blood-and-thunder without a deft handling of drama?  How can a tale of good and evil, loyalty and betrayal, and choices between what is right and what is easy be told without an examination of moral questions? Most profoundly at all, how on earth can one be even slightly interested in reading and finishing a story if it does not successfully evoke mood?

It is divided into 11 sections: Sword & Sorcery; Megalomania Rules; Man vs. Nature; Island Paradise; Sand and Sun; Something Feels Funny; Go West, Young Man; Future Shock; I Spy; Yellow Peril; In Darkest Africa. Much of it is, as Mr. Penzler happily warns readers, politically most incorrect. Almost all the authors are more than comfortable with the idea of Anglo-Saxon superiority, and lesser breeds are treated with disdain and contempt—even when there is reason to fear their vile schemes and vindictive nature. There is the rare exception, such as the Japanese master of ju-jitsu and other martial arts who finds himself in the French Foreign Legion in P.C. Wren's "A Gentleman of Color" (1929). But then the bullying lout whom he outwits and humiliates is a German, so that's all right.

I guess Mr Massie doesn't seem to realise, or indeed acknowledge, that this sort of "comfort with the idea of Anglo-Saxon superiority" wasn't just the hallmark of the non-literati, but the sort of people who wrote his precious "literary fiction" of the time period.  With that in mind, perhaps I should be thankful he doesn't share his thoughts on "The Devil in Iron."

This entire review reminds me of this astonishing statement in the New York Times' obituary for J.G. Ballard:

The prescience of Mr. Ballard’s work and its harsh conflation of the present and the future often resulted in comparisons to writers like Huxley and Orwell. “His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction,” said Robert Weil, Mr. Ballard’s American editor at Norton. “But that’s like calling ‘Brave New World’ science fiction, or ‘1984.’ ”

Because apparently dystopian fiction involving pleausible but currently unavailable technologies, new social orders, genetic engineering and other hallmarks of science fiction simply aren't enough to just call something science fiction.

It isn't all bad, though: Massie give Fritz Leiber props for his opening sentences of "The Seven Black Priests," and he speaks well of Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" (which is a good thing, since if he didn't, I'm afraid there may have been blood).  He seems to have really liked Harold Lamb's "The Mighty Manslayer."  Though infuriatingly condescending and patronizing, he does genuinely seem to enjoy reading most of the stories. It seems damned unfair of me to chide Massie so for what is, essentially, intended to be a favourable and cheerful review.

Still, he offers an interesting quotation that I almost wish he had taken more to heart:

Much that was published in the pulp magazines and in novels that appeared in cheap editions with lurid covers was the work of such hacks. Yet it is apparent from this collection that hacks, too, had literary antecedents, and one can hear echoes in their work of Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, of Dumas and Pierre Loti, of Conrad and even Tolstoy. Reading them, I recalled Somerset Maugham's wise observation: "The writer seldom does what he wants to; he does the best he can."
And Maugham, in "A Writer's Notebook" (1949), offered a spirited defense of the sort of stories that make up much of this book. "Their authors have little honor among men, and yet they are benefactors of their kind." You read them for enjoyment and relaxation. "The hours race by. You have defeated time," Maugham wrote. "And then you have the ingratitude to throw aside the book with a sneer and look down upon its author. It is graceless."

Perhaps I can offer a bastardization of Maugham's words: "The critic seldom perceives as insightfully as he wants to; he thinks he does the best he can."


  1. Well stated, sir! And I agree, disparaging remarks about Kipling would have been cause for bloodshed.

  2. Your unceasing assault on the fallacy of "literary fiction" is wonderful, and seems almost lonely. There are a few others on the front lines, too, but it seems such a small army.

    Anyway, always enjoyable! Keep it up!

  3. Cool insights.

    Maugham was wise indeed. "The writer seldom does what he wants to; he does the best he can."

    Try too hard and the work suffers from deliberate intent and disconnects the reader, instead of creating images that flow in the reader's mind.