License to Slum, pt. 3

Sunday, 31 August 2008 — 11:41pm | Literature, Tie-ins and fanfic

This is the third part of “License to Slum: The Novel of the Movie of the Game”, a pentapartite polemic about media tie-in fiction in which I investigate whether my prejudice against them is just a prejudice. I recommend that you start at the beginning.

In this instalment, I evaluate tie-in fiction’s conundrum of creative diversity via the world’s most haughtily unqualified analysis of the Forgotten Realms novels.

9.

“As a consequence of its multitude of contributors, tie-in novels are increasingly diverse.”

Erik Scott de Bie:

There are, for instance, Realms writers who ascribe to the “rough-and-tumble he-man-like hero rescues the eye-candy/weepy girl and saves the day.” And that’s fine, if that’s what you want–that’s how Robert Howard wrote Conan, after all. Meanwhile, there are some Realms writers (like me) who eschew that classic fantasy sensibility and write fiction that at least attempts to deal directly with real-world gender issues in the Realms. There are Realms writers who love writing about quirky relationships and split-your-sides humor (Rosemary Jones), some who do high-octane action (Bob Salvatore), and some who write about the dilemma of the human soul (Paul Kemp).

I decided to conduct a bit of empirical investigation. What, you didn’t think I was going to hide behind my assertions forever, did you?

So here we have four Realms authors: Erik Scott de Bie, Rosemary Jones, R.A. Salvatore, and Paul S. Kemp. Let’s look at some samples.

Disclaimers:

  • I am not a tabletop player: I’m not fond of the supremacy of dice. All I know about Forgotten Realms is that it is a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting. I dabbled in Magic: the Gathering over decade ago—does that count?
  • So I go into this with no preconceptions of what the universe should be like, as I would with Star Wars—but at the cost of missing references to established locations, events, and characters. For all I know, it’s just another fantasy series with an existence of its own.
  • Although I maintain that I have no genre bias—I count, among my favourite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman, and Stanislaw Lem—I confess to being out of touch with open-ended fantasy series, tie-in or otherwise. If any criticisms I might level at Forgotten Realms apply to most contemporary fantasy, that’s an indictment of contemporary fantasy, not a pardon for Forgotten Realms.

Rules:

  • I am not here to trash authors who are making an honest living and doing what they love. (I save that for Dan Brown.) If I have an opponent, it is the institution of licensed fiction. There is a difference, and I am aware of it.
  • I am investigating solely for diversity. If I’ve picked a bad sample set, suggest another.
  • I am not expecting Cormac McCarthy. I don’t even expect the Spanish Inquisition. I don’t say this to treat the samples with premeditated condescension, as that would taint the experiment; I am just being mindful of the fact that books have target audiences.
  • I am also aware that it is grossly unfair to judge a novel based on an excerpt; even George R.R. Martin doesn’t hit his stride until his character arcs unfurl. But heck, agents and editors do it all the time. I exclusively select excerpts that the authors or their publisher have themselves chosen to use as an instrument of promotion.
  • Above all, I promise to be fair.

The samples (opening chapters all):

10.

Let’s look at the opening paragraphs. Yes, I read a lot more than the opening paragraphs, but let’s ignore that for a minute; as tempted as I am to do a dialogue analysis, I said I would be nice. Instead, I want to isolate a specific unit of analysis to make an equally specific point.

Ghostwalker:

30 Tarsakh, the Year of the Serpent (1359 DR)

He ran through the woods, jumping at every snapping twig, every moving shadow. The height of the moon told him it was midnight, but the youth cared little. His clothes had been torn to ribbons in his desperate flight, and his flesh had been scratched brutally by the shrubs, branches, and rocks.

Crypt of the Moaning Diamond:

Ivy punched the camel. It backed out of her tent and stood with its big, shaggy brown head still sticking through the opening. Its large half-closed eyes stared at her, and it opened its mouth and rolled its lips back over huge yellowed teeth. Ivy hit the creature again, square on the nose, and the camel sidestepped—wide-bottomed feet on skinny legs—onto the equally wide feet of its screaming owner.

The Orc King:

Drizzt Do’Urden crouched in a crevice between a pair of boulders on the side of a mountain, looking down at a curious gathering. A human, an elf, and a trio of dwarves—at least a trio—stood and sat around three flat-bedded wagons that were parked in a triangle around a small campfire. Sacks and kegs dotted the perimeter of the camp, along with a cluster of tents, reminding Drizzt that there was more to the company than the five in his view. He looked past the wagons to a small, grassy meadow, where several draft horses grazed. Just to the side of them, he saw again that which had brought him to the edge of the camp: a pair of stakes capped with the severed heads of orcs.

Twilight Falling:

The young Tymoran priest lay unconscious on his side, bound hand and foot with thick hemp rope. A purple bruise was already beginning to form around his left eye. Vraggen eyed him coldly.

On a technical level, these are competent paragraphs. There aren’t any head-scratching sensory incongruities or renowned curators staggering to and fro. I’m sure each of the authors put a fair amount of work into chiselling the right opening sentence. Each of them had to go through the process of being vetted by an editor with an interest in protecting the brand. If you sent any of these Page Ones to Flogging the Quill (a website that posts regular critiques of unpublished openings-in-progress, most of them fantasy, few of them memorable) they would probably get a pass.

Nevertheless, if I were to go on paragraphs alone, the only one that prepares me to expect anything out of the ordinary, anything at all, is the Rosemary Jones passage about Ivy and the camel. 25% isn’t bad—it beats the 10% projected by Sturgeon’s Law—and if you read on, you can see that Jones keeps it up:

The camel’s driver took a swipe at Ivy as she emerged from her tent, swinging his open palm to slap the impudent female abusing his camel. He shouted something that Ivy decided was uncivil even if she did not know the dialect. She sighed—a sound only slightly less annoyed than the camel’s snorts. After all, she had not hurt the idiot’s mount (and the man’s bruised toes were not her fault). Ivy lacked the time for a really good fight, a beat-his-head-into-the-dung brawl, especially after spending most of the morning clearing lost dromedaries and their droppings out of her crew’s tents.

Observe: “he shouted something” (in the limited third person, nobody picks up every detail—nor should the reader), “the idiot’s mount” (injecting some characterization with a pinch of free indirect discourse), “beat-his-head-into-the-dung brawl” (a comic flourish between alliterated beats)—that’s the sort of thing I want to see.

In the other passages, everyone is too busy running, escaping, writhing, identifying characters by race and class (“The young Tymoran priest”, “A human, an elf, and a trio of dwarves”), letting me know that I can look forward to just another violence or threat. The writing is not bad, just rote. De Bie even indulges in a bit of telling-not-showing (“the youth cared little”); I don’t object to that on principle, since “telling” can be unavoidable from time to time, but then I look at his second paragraph (one sentence: “The youth would do anything to avoid his pursuers”) and wonder why he bothered to leave it in.

I also detect a pattern of cinematic envy: the excerpts are all in third person, all strictly linear, and all predominantly visual (audiovisual at best). There is something desperate about their bids for action-action-action; they are all so, how shall I put it, so subject-verb-object. A genre convention? Perhaps, but don’t all do it at once. I was promised diversity, diversity!

Above all, none of them tell me that I am in for something fantastic. This is supposed to be fantasy, right?

11.

For a point of comparison, I’m going to pick some genre writing off my shelf at random.

What do I want from your opening paragraphs? Your opening chapters? Your novels?

I want to see them recognize that language isn’t just about funny names and apostrophes (God, not more apostrophes). Language should imply a whole code of behaviours and project the absent totality of a cultural memory. Robert Heinlein:

I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect—and tax—public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure. I see also is to be mass meeting tonight to organize “Sons of Revolution” talk-talk.

I want to see them present me with narrators, even third-person ones, with a rhetorical style that I am all too happy to put up with for several hundred pages—narrators who refuse to rest on the mechanical laurels of subject-verb-object, who show me they can paint in broader strokes than billiard-ball actions. J.R.R. Tolkien:

When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

(Look at that flourish, “eleventy-first”. Everyone remembers the “eleventy-first”.)

I want at least a hint of thematic statement, a hypothesis that will guide my navigation of the book’s symbolic field. Ursula K. LeGuin:

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.

You want to start with a fight? Let’s start with a fight. Michael Chabon:

For numberless years a myna had astounded travellers to the caravansary with its ability to spew indecencies in ten languages, and before the fight broke out everyone assumed the old blue-tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve.

Even writers who try their darnedest to be self-consciously straightforward or lowbrow (and reveal themselves as transparently good regardless) know that the written word has an infinite capacity for branches and what-ifs that push and pull in time. Ian Fleming:

The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.

He might have been drowned and fished out of the pool and laid out on the grass to dry while the police or the next-of-kin were summoned. Even the little pile of objects in the grass beside his head might have been his personal effects, meticulously assembled in full view so that no one should think that something had been stolen by his rescuers.

You might be tempted to argue that Forgotten Realms writers don’t have a responsibility to make their sentences sing. After all, we can tell by the willing limits on their syntax and vocabulary that they choose to write for twelve-year-olds, if we can all agree here that the Forgotten Realms demographic is an adolescent one by design. Certainly we shouldn’t expect children’s writers to invest in the mutual funds of metaphor when that’s not their scene, right?

I read a fair bit of literature for younger readers, and in my experience, the simplification of syntax and the constriction of vocabulary does not excuse the writer from pursuing his or her craft with an absolute commitment to finesse. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of children’s writing is how far its best practitioners can go on a tight linguistic budget. J.K. Rowling:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Yeah, but that’s Rowling, and she’s trying to be funny. High fantasy is serious! Yes, very serious.

Am I still being unfair? Well, lest you think I’m calling in the SS to shoot pigeons, let’s look at someone who is working squarely in the realm of post-D&D American high fantasy. George R.R. Martin:

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”

“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.

Actually, bad example. To be honest, if I made my purchasing decision vis-à-vis Martin based on the woefully generic Prologue to A Game of Thrones alone, I might have missed out on the entirety of A Song of Ice and Fire. The first paragraph after the prologue fares so much better:

The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

A subtly exposed hint of the Song cycle’s skewed rotation of seasons, and a little boy’s barely contained thrill at gallivanting off to his first execution? Not to mention the quiet seeding of elements that will later come full circle, if you know how the book ends… now that is the scent of adventure.

Not so in the Forgotten Realms, where subjects verb objects.

Roll the dice, and weep.

12.

Now, you might be asking yourself: how is anything I’ve said relevant to tie-in fiction? For all we know, 90% of non-tie-in fantasy is just as guilty of pedestrian prose, Sturgeon’s Law nyah nyah nyah. Besides, I didn’t read far enough to see the writers develop their identities, and if I kept reading, Paul Kemp would have taught me something about the dilemma of the human soul (my question: what is the dilemma of the human soul?), and Erik Scott de Bie would have surprised me with his take on real-world gender issues—which, come to think of it, have a great deal to do with subjects verbing objects.

True, all true. Yet, based on my admittedly inadequate survey, I do think tie-ins have a few afflictions that might just be pathological:

  • Since authors are no longer responsible for the heavy lifting of defining a world in trickles of exposition that don’t draw too much attention to themselves, it is incumbent on them to make their chosen “blank spot on the map” stand apart—but more often, what happens instead is an impatient dive for the main character’s conflict-in-the-moment without a proper “establishing shot” to set the context. Even historical novels take the time to build their particular perspective of the world that preexists the story.
  • The predefinition of a target market passively enforces a degree of sameness between writers. All published novelists have to put up with the fluctuation of market demands, but with original properties, they at least have the option of shopping their work around. A Forgotten Realms novel will only ever be published by Wizards of the Coast, which has already determined who the audience is going to be—which, in turn, determines what they’ll print.
  • Perhaps the originating franchise just isn’t that interesting to begin with—especially when it comes to games (be they tabletop, CCG, or electronic), where the main attraction is the nonlinear mechanics of interaction, not the flavour. This was apparent as soon as I heard Salvatore mention “A human, an elf, and a trio of dwarves”: it was clear that these were the elves and dwarves of post-Tolkien cliché and not their bretheren from the Brothers Grimm. Why? Because that’s what generic fantasylands are like these days. By the same token, I am not convinced that a Magic: the Gathering novel is fundamentally anything more than a very long chunk of flavour text.

As far as I can tell, tie-in writers see many of these supposed pitfalls as a welcome challenge. I admire that, but I’m not sure their publishers concur beyond the minimum of lip service that keeps their brand in demand. The interest of the property holder is to retain with an optimal balance of the familiar and the just barely novel enough. As for the writers, there can only be so much investiture in making something unique when the production schedule demands a throughput of several novels a year.

Where the dryness of the prose is concerned, this is what happens when a writer trusts the wisdom of workshops rather than an expansive experience as a reader. I am not knocking workshops here: I am just saying that the pattern of adherence to commonly disseminated mantras among beginning writers is itself a toxic source of genericity.

  • Show, don’t tell!
  • Tension on every page!
  • Pick a point of view and stick with it!
  • Put the murder on page one!
  • Make fantasy names even fantasy-er with the liberal sprinkling of gratuitous apostrophes! (If you’ve ever actually advised someone to do this, please come over so I can shoot you.)

Apart from the last item, the above can be pretty good advice when you consider some of the alternatives, but it reminds me of the absolute beginners’ advice to improvise over the blues scale if you’re playing over blues chords. Yes, you’ll sound like you can play the blues, but you’ll also sound like everybody else. It is no substitute for figuring out the deeper secrets that the masters don’t tell you right away. Storytelling is too amorphous to be reduced to show and tell.

Again, the problem is not specific to tie-ins, nor inherently endemic… or is it? Between you and me, I think Wizards of the Coast has a pretty limited idea of what literature can do:

The first, and most important piece of advice, is: “Show, don’t tell.” The best way to achieve this is to write cinematically. Your writing sample should play like a movie inside the reader’s head. In movies we can see what a character is thinking by what he or she does, and by how the character interacts with others.

I disapprove.

If there is a guiding rule to my sense of aesthetics as a reader, or as a patron of the arts in any format, it is an expectation that artists use the medium. If you work with words, figure out what you can do with words that you can’t do anywhere else. Don’t, and your oeuvre (tie-in or not) will only ever deserve the name spin-off.

The rest of the story

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