Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About What Sells

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Sometimes you can have all the talent in the world and not enough people will notice. Take the much-beloved writer John M. Ford, who published a bewildering array of fantasy and science fiction that earned him plaudits from a devoted core of fans but little popular success. From Isaac Butler in Slate, about one of Ford’s unsung classics:

The Dragon Waiting is an unfolding cabinet of wonders. Over a decade before George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, Ford created an alternate-history retelling of the Wars of the Roses, filled with palace intrigue, dark magic, and more Shakespeare references than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Dragon Waiting provokes that rare thrill that one gets from the work of Gene Wolfe, or John Crowley, or Ursula Le Guin. A dazzling intellect ensorcells the reader, entertaining with one hand, opening new doors with another…

But Ford never stuck long enough with one genre or style to make a great success of it. He jumped around, played games (literally, he had a strong side career in role-play gaming), and was not interested in making things easy for his fans.

“He could have had a more successful career,” Patrick Nielsen Hayden [husband of Ford’s editor] and Tor’s editor in chief, said, “if he had been more disciplined about his writing” and stuck to one genre, or written a series. “But Mike wanted to write what he wanted to write.”

The argument could be made that writers like Ford (whose work, by the way, is finally being re-released in 2020) do themselves a disservice by not finding a lane and sticking to it.

But if you know what you enjoy writing, have fun writing it, can find at least a few people who enjoy it, and one person who will pay you a few bucks to write it, do that. If writing is not fun, it becomes a job.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’

The latest novel from Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings), is the start of a planned fantasy trilogy set in a world of African-inspired mythology.

My review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is at PopMatters:

Unless they’re killing or trying to avoid being killed, nobody in the otherworldly Africa of Black Leopard, Red Wolf knows how to stop talking. Part of this is because this fantasy is being told to us by a garrulous wordsmith, a trickster and fixer known as Tracker. He’s spinning a tale, certainly tall but shot through with memory pangs and bone ache, to an unspecified “inquisitor” and seems to have plenty of time on his hands…

Screening Room: ‘Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin’

My review of the new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin was published at PopMatters:

Hard times are coming,” author Ursula K. Le Guin said in her fiery 2014 speech accepting the National Book Foundation award. Her tone was somehow somber, yet also chipper, as though she had already acknowledged the worst and now was girding for battle. She was fixing her bayonet in bright spirits and about to go over the top…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’

Eddie Redmayne in ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ (Warner Bros.)

The second entry in J.K. Rowling’s post-Harry Potter Wizarding World movies, the Newt Scamander series, is opening everywhere tomorrow.

My review is at Slant Magazine:

The fun but more predictable Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald moves the new series forward, but only incrementally—all the better to maximize the potential for six or seven more sequels to be strung out for Thanksgivings to come…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Shape of Water’

A nearly sure-fire debt for some awards in both acting and design categories is Guillermo del Toro’s ravishing fairy-tale romance The Shape of Water, which is playing in theaters now.

My review is at PopMatters:

The Shape of Water is ostensibly a love story between a solitary woman and a merman. But the true object of the movie’s affection is its star character, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), and rightly so. Elisa is just about the fiercest woman on screen right now; a less complicated but no less determined heroine than Frances McDormand’s blowtorch vigilante Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A mute cleaning woman who lives above a grand old movie palace, she has a closely-followed a litany of daily habits that are treated more like chiming celebrations than rote compulsiveness…

Screening Room: ‘The Dark Tower’

A mash-up of elements from the novels in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower fantasy series, the movie of the same name is hitting screens tomorrow after a long and convoluted production history. Theoretically, it’s the kickoff for a TV series to follow next year.

My review is at Film Journal International:

According to what little mythology the script provides, the title’s looming structure isn’t just a tower, it’s a linchpin holding the entire fabric of reality together. If anything happens to the Tower, then the hosts of ravening Lovecraftian beasties lurking beyond the Tower-guarded boundaries of the universe will destroy everything. At least, that’s how Roland the Gunslinger (Idris Elba), a stoic warrior tasked with protecting the Tower, explains it to Jake (Tom Taylor), a New York kid whose parents thought he was insane because of all his visions he was having of Roland, the Tower and a frightening Man in Black…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Last Days of New Paris’

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In the latest novel from China Miéville, the year is 1950 and World War II is still dragging on. Paris is in Stalingrad-like ruins from years of battle. Oh, and a crack in the fabric of reality has resulted in major works of Surrealist art coming to life and joining in the fight themselves.

My review of The Last Days of New Paris is at PopMatters:

Time is a slippery thing in China Miéville’s writing. Reality, too. Whether he’s cracking open the concept of language (Embassytown) or layering dimensions and urban histories on top of and through each other like so many strands of literary string theory (The City & The City), Miéville plays with the nature of consciousness in a way that few other writers of the fantastic manage these days…

Reader’s Corner: Tolkien on the Battlefield

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In 1916, a 24-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien went off to fight for his country. He arrived in France just as the Battle of the Somme was about to erupt. At the end of the first day of fighting, almost 20,000 British soldiers were dead. The butchery went on for months. It would be a transformative experience for the young scholar.

lordoftherings1Joseph Loconte writes in the Times that Tolkien actually started writing The Lord of the Rings by candlelight at the front. It’s not hard to see the inspiration of the Somme’s blasted landscape, reek of poison gas, and corpses, in his descriptions of the Siege of Gondor and particularly Mordor.

Of course, the battles of Tolkien’s trilogy were quite different from what he saw at the Somme. His alliance of hobbits, elves, dwarves, and men were combating a complete and all-encompassing evil that threatened the entire world. The German soldiers being faced by all those young men in the muddy trenches cut through the devastated French countryside were closer to mirror images than existential threat.

Loconte concludes:

Tolkien used the language of myth not to escape the world, but to reveal a mythic and heroic quality in the world as we find it. Perhaps this was the greatest tribute he could pay to the fallen of the Somme.

Writer’s Desk: Stop Waiting

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We have all books we love that could have been just a little bit better. Plenty of time and energy has been wasted on arguing over how to improve an existing work of art. Marlon James, the Macalester College professor and Man Booker-winning author of A History of Seven Killings, has been there. He told a magazine that:

I realized how sick and tired I was of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings.

historyofsevenkillings1So what is James going to do about it? He’s writing his own multi-part fantasy series set in Africa. He calls it “an African Game of Thrones“:

African folklore is just as rich, and just as perverse as that shit. We have witches, we have demons, we have goblins, and mad kings. We have stories of royal succession that would put Wolf Hall to shame. We beat the Tudors two times over…

The first book will be called Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Watch for it.

And in the meantime, take James’s advice: If you see something that needs to be written, why not write it?

In Books: Ursula K. Le Guin is Right About ‘The Buried Giant’

buriedgiant-coverIn Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant, the author of Remains of the Day takes on a different kind of period setting: A fantastical yesteryear in which ogres roam the land, King Arthur is only recently departed, and a great dragon threatens the land.

It’s not the easiest fit for Ishiguro, who never quite seems comfortable in his own setting. He continually holds the reader’s hand, taking them aside for background notes on what they are witnessing instead of just letting the story flow. The flatness of his language, which was more appropriate to the subject of a novel like Never Let Me Go and its story of stunted humanity, here keeps the reader from ever engaging with his deeper, fascinating-in-theory themes of memory and selective amnesia.

When Ishiguro was interviewed about working in a different metier than he was used to, he seemed uneasy that readers might think of the novel as being fantasy. Which, of course, it was. You wouldn’t think that authors would still hold such prejudices against genre, given how porous the borders between literary fiction and fantasy and science fiction have become. Just see the reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road a few years back. Now everybody can play.

Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) took exception with Ishiguro’s defensiveness, as well as his seeming nervousness, “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

Le Guin is right in her judgment. Ishiguro’s inability to commit to the wild strangeness of his story kills any joy or mystery the reader might have found in it. Perhaps the natural chilliness of Ishiguro’s prose makes it a better fit for certain other types of genre writing (again, like he was able to deliver much more powerfully in the mournful science fiction of Never Let Me Go).

The Buried Giant is fantasy. It’s just not very good fantasy.

There’s an excerpt from the novel here. You can also see Ishiguro reading from it here.

Terry Pratchett Walks with Death

Fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels were by definition fans of one of his greatest characters: Death. A calm, steady, and fairly graceful presence, Death could be counted on for some wry observations, delivered in ALL CAPS. 

So it was appropriate that when Pratchett died yesterday of dementia at the age of 66, it was announced on his Twitter account in the voice of Death himself:

AT LAST SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.

New in Theaters: ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’

Martin Freeman as Bilbo in 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' (Warner Bros.)
Martin Freeman as Bilbo in ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ (Warner Bros.)

hobbit-posterSix films and who knows how many gajillion dollars of revenue later, Peter Jackson’s monumental, exhausting adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring novels comes to an end with the third film in the second Hobbit cycle. Love it or loathe it, this is the end—and it’s going out with a bang.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens in all known territories next Wednesday. My review is at Film Journal International:

Amidst all the clashing armies, fell spirits, and talk of destinies and dynasties that fill J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological adventure novels, the author’s eye never drifts far from the plucky little hero who finds unknown strengths in terrifying times. Peter Jackson dutifully sounded the same tune in his films of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But where Tolkien was a humanist, Jackson is a strategist, ever marshaling his forces for grander victories. There’s no denying the films’ quality as battle-ready spectacle of the first order. But the final installment, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, is just about all Jackson and precious little Tolkien. In other words, if you like orc-killin’, and lots of it, this is your film…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Ice-T Goes Fantasy

After having gone from being the rare gangsta rapper who had actually lived the life instead of just rapping about it to loud monotone fixture on Law & Order: SVU and too many horrendous movies to count, Ice-T has a new gig: Recording audiobooks. It makes sense, given his clear, bottom-heavy voice. But according to Paste, he talked on a recent podcast about running into some trouble recording an unnamed Dungeons & Dragons novel. Just realizing the depths of nerd-dom that he’d gotten into (“They were talking about ‘pegasuses’ and ‘pegasi.’ That’s horses with wings”) was an education in itself:

It took Ice three-and-a-half hours to record 25 pages of the book, whose title he does not reveal. But, he added, he will slay the fantasy-lingo dragon and let fans know when the audiobook goes on sale.

“It’ll be a treat to watch me, with my South Central-educated ass, trying to read some Dungeons & Dragons shit,” he promises.

The O.G. further notes that “Considering the way music is right now, you’re better off listening to a book … Honestly, it’s more entertaining.”

Reader’s Corner: Tolkien Family Correspondence

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In late 1944, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son Christopher–who would later prove so industrious in the keeping-up of his father’s legacy—was away from home, serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa. J. R. R. had published The Hobbit seven years earlier, and was still in the process of writing his Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring wouldn’t appear in print until 1954). J. R. R. would post draft pages to Christopher as he wrote.

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In this letter sent three days after Christmas, J. R. R. talks about his new chapters:

I am glad the third lot of Ring arrived to date, and that you like it—although it seems to have added to yr. homesickness. It just shows the difference between life and literature: for anyone who found himself actually on the stairs of Kirith Ungol would wish to exchange it for almost any other place in the world, save Mordor itself. But if lit. teaches us anything at all, it is this: that we have in us an eternal element, free from care and fear, which can survey the things that in ‘life’ we call evil with serenity (that is not without appreciating their quality, but without any disturbance of our spiritual equilibrium)… I am afraid the next two chapters won’t come for some time (about middle of Jan) which is a pity, as not only are they (I think) v. moving and exciting, but Sam has some interesting comments on the rel. of stories and actual ‘adventures’. But I count it a triumph that these two chapters, which I did not think as good as the rest of Book IV, could distract you from the noise of the Air Crew Room!….

More of the letter can be found at the American Reader‘s “This Day in Letters” feature.

Trailer Park: ‘Oz: the Great and Powerful’

Strangely, given both the rather towering presence that the film The Wizard of Oz holds in world cultural consciousness and the current mania for sequels and films based on proven properties, it’s been decades since anybody has tried to make another film based on the L. Frank Baum series. There’s over a dozen books there, filled with strange worlds and CGI-worthy beasties to turn into multiplex 3D and IMAX gold. The sour memory of Walter Murch’s then-failed but now 1985 cult classic Return to Oz  holds a powerful sway over studio heads, it seems.

But next spring, Disney (which holds film rights to the entire series) is getting back into the Oz business. Sam Raimi is at the helm of Oz: the Great and Powerful, with James Franco (who he directed in the Spider-man series) starring as the young Wizard, who gets swept away to Oz in a balloon years before young Dorothy is even born. There is some great potential here for a sweeping new kind of fantasy filmmaking, but also for an imagination-starved Tim Burton-esque detour into design and animation for its own sake.

Either way, the trailer is up now and shows that at least Raimi is borrowing the trick of using color stock for Oz and black-and-white for Kansas: