Wednesday, April 27, 2022

On suspect art, sword-and-sorcery, and good storytelling

Confession: I really like the old forms of S&S. I love my old purple-edged Lancers, and Heavy Metal (the movie, and bands like Manowar). I enjoy titillation and violence, with a cold beer for company. I like muscular dudes and attractive lasses in my artwork (not exclusively, but I do love the style championed by Frank Frazetta). I even love old S&S movies for their awfulness, in a mocking MST3K way. I enjoyed Deathstalker 2. 

I was born in 1973 which means my childhood and teenage years were spent in the 70s and 80s. I readily admit that I wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to art and pop detritus of that era. In general I try to focus on being positive and grateful for this life and everything in it, even suspect art. I like loud, and dumb things. Good things too, including Art (with a capital A), Shakespeare and Milton and Ernest Hemingway. But, I also like 80s hair metal, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entire film oeuvre up to about The Last Action Hero, and of course sword-and-sorcery. Make of this what you will. 

Moreover I am, for better and arguably for worse, pretty forgiving of old fiction for its warts. I cannot fault REH for his occasional bigotry and racism, given the age and place in which he grew up. Expecting an author to transcend their place and time is not realistic. Wagging your finger at people from a long ago past who were suffused in different belief systems and social norms often comes across as sanctimonious. We all have skeletons (I know I do). And, I happen to think the positive contributions Howard made far outweighs the negative. Very few authors of fantasy can match his natural storytelling instincts, pace, poetic flourishes, and wild romance. I can count them on one hand, minus a couple fingers.

So, I will not reject Howard, or Leiber, or old S&S. As in, ever. I won’t rug-sweep S&S’ faults and will gladly talk about them. I love the academic work on these issues being done by the likes of Bobby Derie. These issues should be spoken about at conferences, written about, and generally acknowledged. But, I think these authors should still be read, and celebrated, and championed, at the end of the day. They have endured for a reason.

Social issues are important for most, and critical, maybe everything, for some. I respect that. There is a place for these battles to be fought. But when these are fought on every front, including sword-and-sorcery, I find it tiresome. Your mileage may vary.

I’m a fatigued Facebook ex-pat who turns to this type of fiction, and other pursuits (music, exercise, my kids’ sporting events) to get away from the constant, non-stop fighting, the civil war, that is social media.  

Whether or not you can truly put politics aside and write apolitical fiction is another debate for another day, but I do think it can be de-emphasized, and the focus placed where it should be—on story.

When it comes to sword-and-sorcery, good storytelling is really all that matters at the end of the day. Not a precisely worded definition of S&S, or following established rules of the game. Good stories will prevail over marketing. Unimaginative, derivative, or bland, safe writing will doom the genre, just as it did with S&S in the 70s and 80s. You need to have an edge on S&S, lest it become milquetoast and fail to scratch the heroic itch, and urge, in us.

In summary.

Write good stories. 

Take your influences, and create something new. Write for you. As an individual.

Make it impossible for readers not to be moved by your stories, and to talk about them.

Write good stories. The rest will take care of itself.


Matthew said...

I don't think all fiction is political, but politics can be read into all fiction by certain individuals. They are obsessed with politics. Typically, these people are on the far left, but some do exist on the right.

Escapism, even in the lowest sense, may be undervalued in our society, frankly. It is a good way to take your mind off what is bothering you and maybe help you process it.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Matthew. It just seems amped up to a wildly ubiquitous and utterly unhealthy degree these days. It is largely what drove me off Facebook, and it seems to seep into every corner of culture no matter how far-flung. I was raised on the old saying, no religion or politics, talk about anything else you like. Unfortunately that has gone by the wayside.

Matthew said...

I was raised on the old saying, no religion or politics, talk about anything else you like. Unfortunately that has gone by the wayside.---

That might be why everything is so polarized because you can't bond with people of different beliefs if all you talk about is how you disagree.

Jason Ray Carney said...

Yeah. The power of fantasy literature, as opposed to realism, is its capacity to liberate itself from the real. The unreal is what fantasy like sword and sorcery is all about. If you're interested in social commentary and politics, fantasy seems like an oblique way of approaching these topics. I'm not saying there cannot or should not be social commentary in fantasy fiction, and I agree it's important. I just find it curious to insist that the genre does work it seems intentionally ill-suited for, i.e. engaging the real. It's like using a screwdriver handle (e.g. sword and sorcery fiction) to nail a nail when a perfectly good hammer (e.g. realism / activist novels / memoir / confessional poetry) is at hand.

Peter Collinson said...

"Write good stories."
A lot of us are trying very hard. There's this enduring disagreement about what exactly constitutes a 'good story' though.

"Take your influences and create something new. Write for you. As an individual."
On one hand, sounds great. On the other, this is generally a pretty good prescription for a story that remains unpublished.

"Make it impossible for readers not to be moved by your stories, and to talk about them."
LOL. We'll get right on that. Perhaps you could provide a few guidelines as to how this might be readily accomplished.

"Write good stories. The rest will take care of itself."
The grim fact, evidenced all around you, is that an author can write good, even superb, stories and be unknown, uncelebrated, scorned and forgotten. For most of us trying, we can't even be sure we've hit the mark by actually writing a good story, much less that what we've written do anything but be forgotten on our hard drives.

I love your optimism, but it pushes into Pollyanna territory.

Steve Dilks said...

Well said!

Brian Murphy said...

Peter: I sympathize. The intent of my post was not to imply writers like you aren't trying, or aren't putting out good stories. The reality is that most writers, and creatives in general cannot sell enough to make a full-time living doing what they love. There's too much product, and it's kind of a winner-take-all marketplace. So we have a Brandon Sanderson who ended a kickstarter with $41.7M, versus a sword-and-sorcery author like Schuyler Hernstrom, who raised $6,600.

What do you think the answer is? I can't think of one. You just have to keep putting out great stories and build your fanbase.

one of us! said...

Hear, hear.