A number of friend and blog-related influences married with a certain malaise I’ve been feeling lately about contemporary fiction have effected in me a Great Awakening of sorts, albeit one involving far less Protestantism than the other Great Awakening usually referred to.
It’s difficult to put my finger on it. I’m a big Harry Potter fan, which brings me to occasional blows with Kaiju (my attempts at proselytization have thus far been evenly matched against his trollish disdain for the Boy Who Lived and associated IPs). That’s still contemporary, right? Maybe it’s all the hype surrounding Name of the Wind? Don’t get me wrong – I hold no animus toward Patrick Rothfuss and indeed found him largely more palatable in Acquisitions Incorporated than Will Wheaton. But some time ago I attempted to read his book and just…couldn’t get into it. I had high hopes, but the first few chapters weren’t enough to draw me in or invest me in the story. Maybe I’ll try again sometime.
That hasn’t been a problem for me with the likes of Conan. In nearly every Conan story I’ve read, Robert Howard’s writing style has sucked me in from almost the get-go. The pacing has been excellent, and despite being a rogue of sorts, Conan is a likable character. Women want him and men want to be him.
Like so many others of my age (I imagine), I haven’t spent much time on the SFF classics. Thankfully I’ve familiarized myself with many of the big names – love Asimov, and Herbert’s Dune is one of my favorite books. Heinlein, Dick, Clarke, Bradbury, Tolkien and Lewis – without having delved too deeply into their full bodies of works, I’ve at least gotten a taste of their distinctive flavors.
But there are other names. Names like Howard, Burroughs, and Vance were until recently just that – names I’d heard. The authors of books I’d seen and passed over. Pulp SFF? Wasn’t that just the nomenclature for mass-produced, low quality fiction with poor cover art?
I was never so foolish or arrogant as to voice these misconceptions, but I hope my elders and peers will forgive me nonetheless. It’s become clear to me lately that “pulp” is not a bad word, and the lines between pulp fiction and classic fiction are not always clear or distinct.
Over the past few months I’ve been slowly reading my way through the Conan stories. “Slowly” because there are so many things competing for my time and also because I’m in no great rush to be out of Conan stories to read. I’ve now become acquainted with Vance and will without a doubt explore his universe further. Currently, then, the other. Yes, I’ve begun reading Burroughs, who apparently wrote more than Tarzan. Kaiju gifted me a collection of the first five Barsoom novels for my birthday earlier this year, and the time has come.
I’m not very far in yet, but I do have a couple of thoughts. First, there is worth to be found in reading texts from older times, even if just a few generations removed. In this particular case I am referring to use of the English language. Expressions and slang go in and out of style and popular use. So do certain words and phrases. It takes a touch of effort to adjust to reading an older application of your native tongue, but this discomfort is a good thing. I’ve noticed it with Burroughs, though it’s not nearly so extreme as when reading someone like Stoker.
Second, good stories make you feel something. In Conan stories, it’s often the same excitement one feels when watching a movie hero thrash a villain or get the girl. Sometimes it’s a sense of shared anger at some wrong committed. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling possessed a knack for crafting interesting, often sympathetic characters. When you kill off your cast, it should hurt or at least shock, and in those books more often than not it did. I suppose I’ve become less patient with entertainment over as I grow older and lose more of my lifeforce; if your story doesn’t make me care, doesn’t make me feel something within the first few chapters, I’m gone. Sorry Name of the Wind!
Only about 20 or 30 pages in, and a Princess of Mars is on track so far. Our hero John Carter has been assigned some Martian monstrosity as a guard (at one point he compares it to a dog but says it is too ugly to so name it). He decides to test the beast’s role to determine whether it’s playing prison guard or bodyguard. Unfortunately, while experimenting with the boundaries of his freedom, he is pulled into a melee against two ape men. The Martian dog-beast-thing rushes in to help him and takes a severe beating as a result. Carter is about to flee, but decides that he cannot leave his new friend to die. See, this is good writing. Burroughs’ description of the beast carries and invokes feeling. Look how pitiful it is! How can our hero abandon it to its fate after it did its best to save him?
I really felt for the beastie-thing. And so I will keep reading.