Sunday, September 4, 2011

Life and Fate

One of the most forbidding of the big books lurking on my shelves -- I know that there will be a time and a place for it, but somehow I end up with Joe Abercrombie instead. I'm afraid that it can't really be as good as its fans say it is.

This might prove just the thing: An eight hour adaptation for Radio 4 starring Kenneth Branagh, David Tennant, and Greta Scacchi, to be available as a podcast, starting on the 18th.

If I can't read it, at least I can listen to it while I go to work.......


David Chute said...

Try thinking of it as a gigantic fantasy novel, only without dragons.

Tulkinghorn said...

Good idea.

The world building skills of a good historical novelist are a lot like those of a good SF writer.

David Chute said...

Seriously. I find myself wondering what GRR Martin gained by not just writing the War of the Roses straight. Cut down on his research time, certainly. I'm finding the experience surprisingly akin to reading A Suitable Boy -- thinking of it as a well-written complicated family saga, with the addition of beheadings, dragons, incest and a few other minor details. Genre distinctions truly are overrated.

Tulkinghorn said...

You're right, of course. Not often mentioned in connection with Martin is Dorothy Dunnett, who wrote two long series of enormous historical novels running roughly from the early capitalist days in the Netherlands through the Scottish Rebellion.

There are a couple of swashbuckling heroes, lots of bi- and tri- lingual wordplay and almost absurdly arch, witty, and ironic dialog. Dunnett is much more upscale than Martin and requires a lot more of the reader.

I have found the enterprise beyond me a couple of times, but Mrs. Tulk loved them and also loves Martin.

David Chute said...

Martin's is "impure" genre fiction, then, like most of our favorites. More akin to Leonard and Woodrell than to palette cleansers like Child or Stark -- high pulp. If that makes any sense at all.

David Chute said...

See also this Thomas MacDonald favorite:

Christian Lindke said...

Martin is absolutely pure genre fiction. The fact that he uses the War of the Roses, among other conflicts, as the basis for his fantasy doesn't make him any less "pure."

Try reading John M. Ford's "The Dragon in Waiting" for an interesting take on the War of the Roses and the Princes in the Tower. It's quite fun.

The true literature of the "genre" is largely overlooked by today's readers, who are more interested in being "hip" or "meeting expectations" than reading anything truly groundbreaking.

Moorcock's deconstruction of British imperialism in his Elric and Jerry Cornelius stories is not "pure" genre. Manly Wade Wellman's tales of John Thunstone and John the Balladeer transcend genre.

George R.R. Martin is a good genre writer -- his television work proves his work ethic for those who doubt it -- who isn't really breaking new ground. What has he added to fantasy as a genre that makes him anything other than "pure" genre?

He returned a sense of the tragic that was inherited from the Greeks and Norse Epics?

He decided that families could be protagonists?

None of this is new, or even outside of genre expectations.

That doesn't mean it isn't really good stuff. It is. It's pure and undiluted genre sure to get the deepest aficionado craving for more.

Reading Martin is exactly -- to me -- like reading a Michael Connolly novel. He hits all the right beats, but lacks any real insights into the human soul. He's like BSG that way.

Tulkinghorn said...

I think we can agree that it's genre fiction, but it actually has very few of the trappings of fantasy -- especially post-Tolkein fantasy -- so far (putting aside everything that happens north of the wall, of course, and the the dragons, who are babies in the parts of the book I've read).

That might be because supernatural power, as such, is something that he's uninterested in. Heroic fantasy with a huge emphasis on heroic and a slight whisper on fantasy.

Joe Abercrombie, who is definitely "School of Martin", has a good line in "The Heroes", which I liked a great deal, something to this effect:

Outsmarted ruler:

"Lies, war, torture, blackmail, intrigue... What kind of wizard are you?"

Debased Gandalf figure:

"The kind that gets obeyed."

Christian Lindke said...

Look...I get it. One of my favorite fantasy novels is essentially the story of an Innkeeper prattling on about his student loan debt and how he tried to start a rock group to keep up with payments.

I'm just saying that great writers are writing pure genre. As you rightly point out, pure genre doesn't mean massive displays of magical power.

Though it should honestly be noted that the old joke is that Gandalf is a 3rd level Wizard in D&D. What exactly does he do with all of his "awesome power?"

Tulkinghorn said...

You should send Patrick Rothfuss your summary. You could add "and then gets laid" and take care of the second volume as well.

Feeding into this discussion is the Booker Prize shortlist announced today. One of the six finalists is a Western. Looks like it might be 'revisionist', but it's a Western nevertheless...

David Chute said...

As GofTs continues I find myself reading faster, which I'm often inclined to see as a bad sign, an indication that the stuff isn't "sticky." As if the best books are the ones that make you want to slow down and savor.

Perhaps it's a sense that in order to choreograph the interactions of this many characters they almost have to be simplified or flattened. (Unless you're Tolstoy.) A sense that you can pick out who the most pivotal character are going to be by earmarking the various "outsiders." (Jon, Tyrion, Arya.)

But it's early innings yet.

Tulkinghorn said...

A rarely discussed topic: reading rhythm.

If I haven't gotten into a solid contented groove after about a third of the book, I'm likely to be distracted away. I always read the last fifth or so very quickly -- for crime novels out of impatience or boredom and for books I really love out of ecstasy.

Christian Lindke said...

John Crowley wrote that reading requires a certain love of boredom, and I think he's right to a certain degree.

Like Tulk though, if I am not immersed into the world of a book, I find that it wasn't worth my time. The more my experience of a book makes me forget about the world around me -- whether in its narrative, poetry, or philosophic arguments -- the better the book tends to have been.

It's like the "Eyes" theory of viewing films. The better the film is at creating a visceral experience, the better the film likely is. A work that allows you to slow down and see all of its flaws, is likely very flawed in its craftsmanship.