Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tracking Down the History of Fiction

While what I'm going to talk about deals with my personal experience and genre fiction in particular, I think it easily applies to all types of fiction. When I got interested in fantasy, the first books I got were easily the mainstream titles (i.e. what's available at National Bookstore). And then later on, there was a slight shift. I not only got interested in titles other than mainstream fantasy, but I began to wonder at what's gone before (which is also why I wanted to track down the ever-elusive Lord of the Rings at the time--nearly every author I read cited Tolkien as inspiration). And isn't that the most natural thing, for us to be curious about the past? It could be a fiction reader looking back at the history of fiction, a philosopher looking back at the history of philosophy, a theologian looking back at the history of their religion. It even applies to my other hobbies, be it video games, RPGs, or anime/manga.

I thought tracking down the books that inspired most of today's modern fantasy novels would be the most difficult part. I mean for quite some time, Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books was out of print (it was reprinted thanks to him writing a new Thomas Covenant novel). Same goes for various other authors such as Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, L. Sprague de Camp, etc. Well the good news is that I finally found them (not all of them but a significant number of them). The bad news is that there's a good reason why they're relegated to the history of the fantasy genre and why few people write in their style these days.

Writing--and reading--evolves. One merely needs to look at Shakespeare as an example (I love Shakespeare by the way but that doesn't make up for the fact that reading Shakespeare isn't seamless). I haven't read Heart of Darkness but I heard Joseph Conrad has description problems when compared to today's modern authors. In children's literature, a more familiar comparison I have is C.S. Lewis. Chronicles of Narnia for example uses descriptions that aren't quite vivid descriptions (which was acceptable for his time) especially when compared to today's children's literature writers.

And that's why I have problems reading them. The past writers have strengths in writing that much is evident, but they're also writing with a different paradigm in mind that it can also be difficult for me--a modern reader--to overlook them. H.P. Lovecraft is a example I frequently tote around. His prose is great although it can get monotonous, especially when you're reading a compilation of his short stories. In small doses, Lovecraft would be fine but an entire book? His failings, which is not just limited to dialog, becomes glaring.

So I'm exploring all these novels yet each one has its own limitations. Robert E. Howard easily writes the real "action hero" but not much else. I'm just flat-out bored by L. Sprague de Camp (and no one writes that way anymore... well maybe except Gene Wolf). In the horror genre, I temporarily put down Bram Stoker.

Of course not all books fall under that category. There are similarly novels that are pretty much still viable. Roger Zelazny's Amber is easily one of my favorite books of all time for example. In the mystery genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is still as appealing as it was a century ago.

Don't mistake me. Even as I'm putting some great, classic-worthy authors down, I'm not downplaying their contribution to their respective fields. Without them, the novels we read today wouldn't be possible. But that doesn't change the fact that as a reader of this era, I have different expectations from the novels that I read. It's also interesting to see how writing has evolved over the years. I think that the writers of today are operating under a different paradigm and aesthetic as the writers that preceded them (as well as the writers that will succeed them).

Personally, I'm gladdened by this fact. That means that the books we read and will read have much more to go. For example, Jeff Vandermeer easily mixes fantasy and science-fiction, and the same can be said for China Mieville despite the fact that both authors have very, very different sensibilities. Chuck Palahniuk, a fiction writer, has been delving into various other genres such as horror, science-fiction, and fantasy. New categories and terms like speculative fiction and interstitial fiction have been popping up, and I think that's all part of the writing evolution.

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