Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Philosophy of Language, by William P. Alston

I’ve always been the inquisitive sort. Probably more so than your average kid. I asked where babies come from at four. Never mind that I didn’t listen to the answer. I’m told that I stared at my mother’s mouth throughout the whole birds and bees speech and when asked if I had any questions, said, “Yes. How many teeth do you have?”

I once stumped a hippie couple with a question on metaphysics when, during Sunday school, they told us that God was all about love and that He expected us to love everybody.

I raised my hand. “Does that mean we should love the Devil too?”

Adults know everything when you’re eleven, but they’d hesitated, glancing at each other first as if seeking confirmation or preparing to take a vote. “Yes. I…guess we should.” I wasn’t convinced. 

This questioning has plagued me my whole life. Others call it doubt, cynicism, and annoying. I call it a healthy dose of curiosity. I suppose it’s a defense mechanism, though. I recognize how naïve I can be so I wear this You-Can’t-Fool-Me pin on my breast like a badge of defiance. This habit of wanting to peer behind the curtain is more reactionary than wise most likely, but I blame genetics or something other than myself since I can’t control it. Besides, it’s better than being gullible, misled, and ultimately duped. That still happens. I have yet to find an impenetrable defense against being wrong on occasion. So my brow remains creased and my eyes are forever narrowed. “Convince me” is my motto. Incidentally, it’s also my safe word.

Because this eagerness to understand things followed me into adulthood, it shouldn’t surprise that by the time I was eligible to vote, I’d taken an almost obsessive interest in philosophy. Before philosophy, things like critical thinking, the ability to reason, or how to open a pickle jar in under 20 minutes were unknown to me. Philosophy equipped me with what I like to refer to as the mental tools by which to determine truth. I like to refer to it that way because it makes me sound smart. In other words, prior to learning how to tie a knot, my views were a mess of unraveling ropes and frayed piles of twisted cords. Positions driven, inspired, and maintained by irrational feelings are ultimately laughable. The impassioned adherent is blind to his own foolishness. The Dalai Lama said that. Either him or the guy who does our yard. I often confuse the two. 

In the past, I’d only questioned things. I rarely found answers. But once I learned how to apply some of the things I’d learned from philosophy, once I’d sorted through the emotionally charged claims, salvaged the facts, and extrapolated from what we knew, I finally began to understand some things, such as why I’m such a geek and why hot chicks won’t date me.    

This inevitably led to debates with friends, some of whom found the exchanges lively and insightful. Others found it frustrating and quit inviting me to their parties. Oh, well. The misunderstood genius must press on. At least that’s what I tell myself. The meaning of life, religion, why actors keep getting asked about anything other than their work – all these things weigh on the mind.

Of course one of the most common problems with intellectual arguments that don’t involve throwing food is our habit of assuming we all define the terms we use in exactly the same way. As I’ve often said, no matter how hard I try to express myself the words interfere. Unless you’re a mime or can use telepathy, you know what I’m talking about. One of the problems with communication is that it relies heavily on words. A real obstacle, that. Facial expressions and drawing images on napkins will get you only so far. I should know. Took me forever to negotiate the cost of a beautiful, young Thai woman’s affections for a night. (Her mother who ran the brothel was a tough negotiator.)

Despite our best efforts, despite even the best education, words are often imprecise. Just ask any waiter when you bitch about your order being wrong. It’s best to define our terms before debating an important issue. Never mind what the unwashed masses say. The apathy or indifference of those I delicately and diplomatically refer to as idiots doesn't matter here. What matters is your ability to think for yourself. Notice I didn’t say feel for yourself. Anyone can do that. Thinking is a dying pastime, a lost skill, a forgotten marvel. It wreaks havoc with your texting and sexting and TV viewing. But that’s no excuse.  

If thinking hurts other peoples’ brains, the better for you. Besides, they’re probably doing it wrong. Philosophy is for all who care about being true to both themselves and their convictions. Anything short of that is just pretending or quoting from Jon Stewart. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. You owe it to yourself to think things through. Either that or just agree with everything I think. The world would be such a better place. Plus I’d probably have a better love life.

In Philosophy of Language by William P. Alston, the primary focus is semantics. The book deals with more than just the meaning of words, however. It covers a lot of ground, yet it’s surprisingly user friendly. One of the many interesting points Alston raises is that the more detailed or specific our claim, the less sure we can be about its accuracy. For example, while we might safely suppose that city life carries with it an added anxiety contrasted with country life, when we try to specify the size of such a city and/or the degree to which someone's anxiety manifests, we become less sure. Or consider the fact that pain relievers relieve pain. No one would argue with that. Yet the moment we specify which pain relievers do this and to what degree the pain is relieved, even when backed up with rigorous studies, we become less certain. His point being that claims, stated generally, are impervious to careful scrutiny by mere virtue of their ambiguity. Yet the more particular or specific those claims become, the less sure we can be about their alleged accuracy or truth.

That’s only one aspect to semantics and only a minor point in the book. So it’s not as if I’ve spoiled the experience for you if you decide to grab a copy. One of the reasons some readers avoid these types of books is because unlike with a paperback novel, you may often find yourself pausing, nodding, frowning, tapping your chin, and knotting your brows when thinking about the issues these sorts of books raise. Rolling a particularly tasty, mental morsel around in your mouth before swallowing it takes time. Some simply don’t have that kind of interest or patience or mental stamina.

Before you say critical thinking is for chumps, remember those friends of yours who disagree with you about those silly views you hold so dear. Don’t you want to prove them wrong? Philosophy is a great tool for breaking down confusing and controversial issues and at the very least making better sense of them. While philosophy isn’t for everyone, if you vote or find yourself posting memes on Facebook about the meaning of life or how the other political party is so full of it, you owe it to yourself and others to study some political or moral philosophy. Empower yourself with knowledge and the ability to reason, and quit going for the easy (and let’s face it, annoying) bumper sticker slogans, Thank you. The ability to not only think for yourself but articulate your own position is both a rare and precious skill few regard or appreciate anymore. You’ll certainly have the upper hand. Not that words will always win out. Sometimes you just gotta throw food.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Beware Blurbs Bearing Gifts

As anyone who follows my blog knows, I’m constantly on the lookout for good fantasy fiction. Unfortunately, the pickings are slim. I can count the good ones on my hands and my painted toenails. Wait. That was meant to be a secret. How do I delete? Never mind. Anyway, I’ll grant you that I’m hard to please, but when I fall in love, I fall hard. So it balances out.

Imagine my joy when, after sifting through the fantasy fiction aisles and reading a few pages from a couple dozen novels, I stumbled on one endorsed by Stephen R. Donaldson. Did you just gasp? I sure did. Donaldson is one of my favorite living authors. I’ve read over a dozen of his books, some of them more than once. Reading Donaldson made me want to be a writer over twenty years ago. So I really thought I’d stumbled on a rare find when I saw Donaldson’s blurb on the cover of Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson:  

“My advice to anyone who might listen to me: Treat yourself to Gardens of the Moon.”

Needless to say, I rushed home to begin what I expected would be an engrossing excursion into literary brilliance, or at least a good read. What a disappointment! This book is so awful that after only a hundred of the more than 650 pages, I vaguely remember closing the book, growling like a pit bull, my head mimicking a paint shaker, cussing, and crying a little. I shoved the book in my outgoing bag to be returned to the local used bookstore for credit on other, more worthy reads. Then I ate a half-gallon of vanilla bean ice cream with a ladle while watching clips from the game show Wipeout on

Life is short, and while I do occasionally read a bad book if only to remind myself what not to do, this book taught me valuable lessons within the first 50 pages.

One habit of the amateur is to accredit the speaker with any verb other than ‘said.’ This is fine on occasion, but when done repeatedly, the experienced reader is likely to email threats to the publisher. Or is that just me?  

“Bugger off!” Sam shouted.
“Dear me!” Ingrid intoned.
“I say,” Greg growled.
“Not on your life!” Matthew mumbled.

The reader shouldn’t have to wait on the verb at the end of each sentence to learn the mood of the speaker. Instead, the dialogue itself should convey the speaker’s tone or attitude. If it doesn’t, rewrite it. Also avoid writing dialogue that does nothing for the story.

“How’ve you been, Pauline?”
“Great, Betty. Thanks for asking.”
“Sure thing.”
“How about you?”
“Yes, you, you old goose.”
“Splendid, thanks.”

I’m exaggerating, of course. But you get the idea. If you’re not conveying information, character, or tension (ideally all three at the same time) then it’s excess. Get rid of it. Otherwise, you’re just inducing your reader to yawn and inviting him to skip.

Another annoying vice the newbie employs is to pretend the speaker doesn’t even realize he’s speaking.

          “The Coin,” she heard herself say, “spins on.”

If she wasn’t in a trance or suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, abstain.

Here’s an especially poor snippet:

The rider arrived. Seeing him up close, Paran took an involuntary step back. Half the man’s face had been burned away. A patch covered the right eye and the man held his head at an odd angle. The man flashed a ghastly grin, then dismounted.

What a mess. A good writer knows better than to reveal a character’s reaction to what the reader has yet to see or experience. At the start of the paragraph, we’re already being told that Paran is seeing the rider ‘up close’ and is creeped out long before the rider even dismounts. Also notice ‘the man’ is mentioned three times within the space of just 30 words. I revised it.

The rider approached and tugged on the reins. The right side of his face had been burned away. An eye patch covered the ruined socket. He hung his head, as if his disfigurement had robbed him of his spirit. When he dismounted and grinned, Paran involuntarily took a step back.

As far as Donaldson’s endorsement goes, my only conclusion is that Erikson has blackmailed Donaldson, or perhaps has kidnapped one of Donaldson’s relatives. This is a sad day for discriminating fantasy fiction fans.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Summer Novels

I wasted my childhood like your average kid. I collected cicada shells from tree bark, belched enough soda to fuel a hot air balloon, sang into a hair brush in front of the bathroom mirror while wearing nothing but my dad’s aftershave. I was as full of promise as a new-born litter of kittens. Neither a prodigy nor a golden child, I was Mowgli without the Jungle or the Book.

Although our family owned books, our parents didn’t read to us. Nor were we encouraged to read. I grew up believing books functioned as merely shelf décor and, being a poor reader, often confused time spent with them as a form of punishment. So TV and movies were my only viable sources to story telling.

This impression wasn’t dispelled once we left the house to visit our grandmother. On weekends, she’d drop my brother and me off at the movie theatre and we’d spend all morning and afternoon watching matinees back to back, sometimes the same film. This was back when it was safe to leave children alone at a movie theatre.

As I got older I discovered the miracle of reading and found it generally to be a superior form of entertainment to film, as well as potentially a more enriching experience. I continued to frequent the theatre, but over time I learned that lasting joy can’t be gained from a careless knee to the back. The incessant whisperings of impatient patrons or their obnoxious cell phone jingles during a film will only make you wish you’d brought mace. Besides, chancing 10 bucks in the hopes of scoring that one summer sleeper amid a score of silver screen flops ain’t worth it. Thankfully, you and I, dear reader, have options. 

Whether you favor action-packed, high-octane thrillers or classic page turning epics, summer books offer far more dynamite for your dollar than the noisy theater with the screaming baby whose sitter cancelled at the last hour. Plus, your shoes won’t stick to the floor, usually.

Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne, is a well written classic adventure story and a perfect summer read. You’ve got your intrepid scientist, Professor Von Hardwigg, Hell bent on proving that a long, lost code has finally been cracked, revealing a secret entrance into the center of the planet, and who hopes to follow this route and achieve scientific renown for himself. Then you have his nephew, our protagonist, Harry, the narrator and reluctant adventurer inveigled into accompanying his uncle on what he considers an absurd and potentially suicidal mission. Harry’s sole ambition is to survive so he might return and marry his love, Gretchen. (Ignore the yuck factor that the object of his affections is his cousin. Those French freaks!) Last is their Icelandic guide, Hans Bjelke. He doesn’t speak the language of the uncle or his nephew. In fact he hardly speaks at all. He’s the consummate salt of the earth, though, whose sole concern throughout the whole ordeal is that he gets paid at the end of every week. This is a great literary device – serving to remind the reader of the lapsed time over the course of their journey.

Verne uses the known sciences of his day (circa 1870) to lend plausibility to an otherwise implausible tale. For example, Harry draws from scientific discoveries his contemporaries would be familiar with when describing what his party encounters along their trek. He also chronicles their daily travels with a reasonable amount of detail – dates, supplies, their diminishing rations, their instruments for gauging temperature and distance traveled as well as geological anomalies. Another clever gimmick he incorporates is to compare marvels along their fictional path to known phenomena and natural wonders in the real world, such as remarking on the Ear of Dionysius when describing the acoustics in a particularly deep underground labyrinth or the wonder of Fingal’s Cave when describing a fictitious composition of granite, etc. This bridges the gap between the familiar geological formations we recognize and the imagined curiosities Verne invents for his novel. The telling is so convincing it’s no wonder many readers of his day believed the story was true.

Without giving too much away, anything that could go wrong on their expedition does, and Verne exploits these obstacles fully, stretching out the suspense and revving up the drama while our three explorers journey deeper within the bowels of the earth. Worth your time. 

For those who like epic tales of antiquity, I highly recommend The Siege and Fall of Troy, by Robert Graves. This is two of Homer’s books in one: The Iliad and The Odyssey, both in prose form. Graves really knew his stuff (see his wikipedia page) and he breathes new life into these tales, resurrecting myth altogether. Graves was a prolific writer. His love of this material is evident in his rendition. If you like reading stories full of brave and harrowing deeds, sorrow, heroism, revenge, violence, all told simply and wonderfully, you’ll enjoy this. As a side note, I preferred Graves’ translation of Homer’s Odyssey to Robert Fitzgerald’s. Also Graves’ translation of The Iliad is better than W.H.D. Rouse’s, which, by the way, ended with Hector’s funeral. In other words, in Rouse’s translation, you miss out on the bit about the Trojan horse.   

The Martian Chronicles, 40th Anniversary Edition, by Ray Bradbury. Yes, Bradbury recently passed away, but that’s not why I include him here, though that wouldn’t be a bad reason. Instead, I’d like to think I’m just a fan of good writing. Bradbury was one of my favorite writers and this is a great summer book. If you haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper burns), you’re missing out. Some of his predictions in that book about technology, published in 1953, are prophetic. Some have already come true (parlor walls, interactive video games, books rendered as relevant as the harpsichord by the vast majority of the populace). But never mind Fahrenheit. I want to recommend Martian Chronicles this time around.

In the Introduction, Bradbury points out that the chapters were initially short stories his editor pressed him to shape into a novel: “What about all those Martian stories you’ve published in the past four years? Isn’t there a common thread buried there? Couldn’t you sew them together?” This was obvious in the reading, but not jarring. In fact, this is the best sci-fi novel I’ve read since Stephen R. Donaldson’s sci-fi Gap series (which, by the way, is another excellent summer recommendation). And yes, I write this having read both Asimov’s Foundation series and Herbert’s Dune. Bradbury’s way with words is fresh and engaging. His pacing is impeccable. (Incidentally, I recently learned that he never went to college.) This edition also included the heretofore omitted chapter, “The Fire Balloons”.

If you’re into short stories as opposed to all-out epics or full-fledged novels, treat yourself to Sinbad's Seven Voyages and other stories from the Arabian Nights, retold by Gladys Davidson. The four classic stories are: “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad,” “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and “Abou Hassan or the Caliph's Jest.” I wished I’d read these as a child instead of cooking ants with a magnifying glass or stomping on corn stalks in an effort to shape my own crop circles. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Peculiar Prose and Plots of Anne Rice

To date, I’ve read only five Anne Rice novels, so if any of her loyal fans want to school me about what a moron I am, come right in and leave a comment. But please wipe your feet first. I just vacuumed. However, fans of her SMBD stuff are not welcome, regardless whether you’re willing to leave your cuffs and ball gag at the door. In fact, get off my lawn right now.

I consider Anne Rice a good writer, a sensual writer. She has a tender way of shaping a scene, a character, a place, or a mood. Subtle eroticism permeates her work. She has her moments of originality and flair. But when it comes to revision, she’s one of the worst. Applying the scalpel for the benefit of the whole can mean the difference between a beautiful work and one sporting unsightly cysts. It’s also the difference between an amateur and a pro. In such cases Rice’s individuality is her greatest weakness. She falls in love with her own gilded prose and refuses to remove the dross. Hint: the perspective of a friend or two (or an editor for that matter) is an effective flux, ideally before submitting the work to a publisher.

I sympathize with Rice. I too fell in love with her brilliant style many years ago. It was only after reading a few of her books that I realized she lacked the ability to isolate the excess and end the love affair. I eventually recognized my infatuation for what it was and broke it off.

My brother once told me he doesn’t like a lot of description. “I just wanna know what time it is; I don’t wanna know how a clock works.” I can respect that. But if the writer offers a turn of phrase or two, the dizzying effects can cause me to swoon. In fact I love writers who delve into the minutia. My favorite dead author, Vladimir Nabokov, in his novel Transparent Things, devotes at least 1500 words to the composition of a pencil – its feel against the fingertips, its weight, the shadow it casts when held, the deep lines the lead makes on paper. Nabokov is a genius with words.

The problem is Rice doesn’t delve into the minutia of a pencil. She stops the story to tell you everything John is wearing as he races down the boulevard – the color of his hair, the way it jostles against his neck and shoulders, the bounce of the curls, the tone of his skin, the girth of his thighs, the hue of his pupils, the cut of his clothes, the material, feel, size, look – until you, the reader, are left with nothing to imagine for yourself.

Rice resisted the editor’s red pen from the beginning, and after her success with her third novel, she had acquired enough clout to refuse it outright. In fact, on her web site, Rice says she stopped accepting comments from her editor altogether. She regards this approach as “pure.” Her editor reluctantly consented, forfeiting any influence over the finished product. Consequently, Rice’s novels have been bulging drafts ever since, obese things in need of liposuction.

Her plots are a different matter. Her debut novel, considered by many critics her best work, Interview with the Vampire did what no other vampire story had done – traced the life (or death) of a vampire with a conscience. It’s a fantastic story. Published in 1976, it’s told by way of an interview with a reporter, someone referred to only as ‘the boy.’ Here, Louis, the protagonist, recounts how, nearly 200 years prior, circa 1790, he’s attacked by a vampire called Lestat and is set on the path to immortal damnation. Louis grows to not only regret this transformation but to loathe Lestat for being the conduit. To retain the last vestige of his humanity, Louis refuses to kill people to survive, opting to feed off the blood of animals instead. Lestat mocks Louis for having a conscience until finally, after constant harassment, Louis capitulates, submitting to a career of murder.

Meanwhile, Louis is disturbed by how Lestat, cold, calculating, and dispassionate, makes a sport of killing. Sensing the gulf between them, Lestat decides to make amends. He ventures out one night along the streets of a much younger New Orleans plagued by disease and finds an orphan girl of five weeping next to the corpse of her mother. As a gesture of goodwill or reconciliation Lestat presents the girl to Louis as a meal to feed on. Of course Louis is horrified and shortly thereafter decides to leave Lestat. Lestat, sensing this, turns the girl into a vampire and tells Louis that she, now named Claudia, can be their adopted daughter. This has the intended effect as Louis dotes on the child, treating her as his own, and remains with Lestat, the three forming a deadly trio on the unsuspecting populace. As horror fans know, children in scary stories are particularly unsettling. The boy in Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery or the twins in the hallway of The Shining, anyone? “Come and play with us, Danny. Forever and ever…and ever.”

This child’s thirst for blood is insatiable. She seems as free of the concerns of guilt and regret as Lestat. But after many years of indiscriminate killing, she learns that her child body is permanent, that she'll never grow, flower, or mature. She conspires with Louis to kill Lestat, a taboo among vampires we’re told, and difficult, since only a beheading will do. And that’s only about midway through the novel.

Note: The movie version sucks. The film itself mocks Louis’ inner struggle, hence eliminating the one thing that makes this particular vampire story unique and thereby reducing it to just another forgettable blood-sucking tale. Plus, the five year old Claudia character in the book is played by Kirsten Dunst when 11. Not as creepy.

The Vampire Lestat is a sequel to Interview. Though not as solid a story, it’s still a pretty good read, written in first person by the vampire who made Louis a cursed immortal. Unfortunately, Lestat's attempts for sympathy aren’t the least bit as poignant as Louis' appeals for redemption or illumination back in Interview. While this might’ve been Rice's intent, to show Lestat with crocodile tears on his cheeks, feigning sincerity, I doubt it. Still, that would’ve been clever. Interview stands alone by virtue of its implication: Louis gains immortality only to be driven to the brink of madness by the cost of that immortality – feasting on human blood. He’s the consummate reluctant beast who wallows in despair because of his hideous appetite; whereas Lestat learns to revel in his plight with only the occasional pricking of the conscience. 

The Queen of the Damned. Book three of the Vampire Chronicles is decent, but in no way comparable to her first. This is where the superfluous prose really shows. Rice’s husband, Stan Rice, was a poet, not a good one I might add, and Anne inserts one of his poems at the beginning of every chapter of this book. They’re irrelevant to the book and each alludes to nothing in the chapter it precedes. Again, after reading Interview, I went on a hunt for the entire series, thinking I’d found a modern novelist superior to the mainstream. However, I finally decided that both she and I merely got lucky. 

The Tale of the Body Thief is an utter waste of time. Frankly, I simply can’t sympathize with a monster that either refuses to address the implication of its crimes or fails to persuade our hearts in its favor. In John Gardner’s novel Grendel, the story, as in these vampire chronicles, is told from the villain’s perspective. But Grendel is rendered in such a compelling way that you pity the monster and learn to see things from its viewpoint, an accomplishment only a master of the written word can achieve. Same thing with Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert Humbert (even this protagonist’s name has obscene overtones) uses beguiling seduction in an effort to win over the reader’s sympathy. At the very least the reader is forced to withhold judgment for the sake of the story as the protagonist’s reprehensible abuse of a child of twelve culminates into the monster’s arrest and imprisonment. Body Thief fails to establish this necessary sympathy.   

Servant of the Bones. Though meant to be a serious novel, I literally laughed out loud when I suspect the author wasn’t joking. We follow the life (or death, I guess) of Azriel, a spirit more fascinated with fashion and social graces than with thoughtful problem solving. As a result, his efforts to right wrongs are always one step behind the events, even when he is a witness to events leading to the wrongs themselves. Would I be pretentious to say he was more concerned with eminence than with what was imminent? Probably.

The lead villain, Gregory Belkin, gives a spiel to Azriel near the climax of the tale that, I assume, is meant to help the reader understand the pretzel logic Belkin subscribes to. But Belkin’s delusions are absolutely comical. The suspension of disbelief one must maintain with a novel of this caliber is a given, but Rice makes the mistake of trying to do two incongruous things at once – provide the rationale of a madman in a plausible vein and overcome melodrama despite the grandiose. Plus, Rice’s effort to portray Azriel as an intelligent ghost or spirit or angel or demon or whatever the hell he is lacks credibility in lieu of his preoccupations. He’s vain, easily distracted, lacks self-awareness, and is wholly mesmerized by materialism. This last weakness is particularly odd considering he’s anything but physical throughout at least half of the novel. One would expect a bit of insight into the afterlife or ruminations about immortality instead.

With the exception of Bones, which was a mistake, my only real gripe with Rice is her inability to recognize that when it comes to descriptive narrative, less is more. This is a significant obstacle to overcome as a reader, especially when I can’t help but spot the flab. I blame the books I’ve read about editing, the advice that’s been drilled into my psyche about the value of being brief and, if possible, insightful, and the mantra that “a little goes a long way.” I know die-hard fans will object, but I think Rice could be one of our better writers if she just knew how to be an editor and approached her work with a more objective eye. This could be a writer’s greatest weakness regarding their work – spotting the excess and learning to let go.

Friday, June 1, 2012

What Fantasy Fiction Means to Me

I’ve enjoyed the swords and sorcery genre since my first exposure to The Hobbit over a quarter of a century ago. The legends of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, world mythologies and folk lore in general, even the Egyptian pyramids, the mysteries of the Aztecs, Stonehenge, the Easter Island monoliths, or the noble and often brutal ancient histories of long forgotten cultures of antiquity, their relics, talismans, artifacts, and the stories that those items themselves have since inspired – all these things have teased me with wonder and excitement throughout my reading career. And the fiction that to some degree parallels this source material has for a long time held a special place in my heart.

I was finishing up my reading of yet another fantasy fiction flop (The Sword by Deborah Chester, book one of a trilogy), when I decided to offer what I consider the secret recipe for creating enduring fantasy fiction (ff). Consider this an open letter of sorts to prospective ff writers and audiences of both adult and young adult fare. But let’s first clarify by way of contrast what I mean by fantasy fiction (ff) before we move on to what constitutes the good stuff.

Stories like Peter Pan and Harry Pothead, while considered fantasy or fairy tales by some, are actually examples of escapist fiction – worlds where there’s no price for power and little if any consequence for bad choices. These are stories about kids who can fly with or without brooms and wield wands hurly-burly. They’re best equated with, say, Santa Claus. The impossible is taken for granted. Questioning the origins, physics, or source of such powers isn’t important to the story. This doesn’t mean escapism has no merit. But it’s not fantasy fiction.    

Fairy tales, at least the more modern ones geared toward children, generally open with Once Upon a Time and end with They Lived Happily Ever After. Barring those familiar phrases, they can be spotted most readily by their absence of emotion. Prince Cliché traveled to Scary Place, vanquished Meanie-Monster, rescued damsel Booty Call from the clutches of Naughty-Man, and so on. Such stories don’t concern themselves with character motivations so much as with offering a bit of chaste romance or a moral, and, ultimately, what happened is more important than who it happened to.

Whereas stories of enchanted lands that mirror our own, narratives that explore a hero’s faults and fears, distinguish the petty from the profound, confront the human condition, stir our conscience, enliven our spirit and, yes, even inform our faith, are more accurately considered fantasy fiction, or high fantasy even, depending on the themes. Life’s challenges are brought into better focus when we’re allowed to confront truth in ways that don’t offend our sensibilities. Enlightenment is achieved, or at least more likely, when the protagonist experiences challenges similar to our own, ideally in a more dramatic or spectacular setting.  

Whether a writer fails to incorporate these things could be a matter of interpretation. What I find vain and petty the writer might consider profound. It's also conceivable that many writers simply don’t know how to represent these themes effectively or that their efforts simply fall flat. A writer’s intent can be quite different from the finished product. But that’s what friends and family and feedback are for, and should be consulted before submitting that manuscript to a potential publisher.

In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein argues for the value of character development by pointing out when a writer kills off four strangers in a car accident, the reader’s response is “Who cares?” Strangers don’t emotionally impact the reader. But if the writer first establishes who those people are in the car and then allows the car to crash, we’re more likely to be emotionally affected and concerned.

That truth can be extended to genres. Most ff doesn’t attempt to explain the source of magic in their world. It's treated as just an alternate tool – what guns are for cops and robbers, what problem solving is for detective stories, what hyper drive is for sci-fi. Yet when those novels offer an explanation about those methods or that supernatural power, the story is enriched. Credibility is strengthened, especially when the structure of that world hinges on those marvels.

Another theme often lacking in ff, despite being best suited for the genre, is sacrifice. By sacrifice I don’t necessarily mean one dying to save another, though that event can be evocative if handled right. I mean the oft ignored importance of cost: the price for power. This exchange lends depth to a story’s context, and it defines the nature of high fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Rings Trilogy or Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles are prime examples. What was not in the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring when the company was being pursued by orcs and racing to the bridge of Khazad Dum in the mines of Moria is a great demonstration of the exertion of power and its cost on the wielder.

Suddenly at the top of the stair there was a stab of white light…. Gandalf came flying down the steps and fell to the ground in the midst of the company…. “I have done all that I could. But I have met my match, and have nearly been destroyed…. You will have to do without light for a while …”

Gandalf later explains what happened off stage:

“I could think of nothing to do but to put a shutting-spell on the door. I know many; but to do things of that kind rightly requires time, and even then the door can be broken by strength.…”

Keep in mind Gandalf in the books is immortal, one of the Maia, a spirit essentially, sent to Middle-Earth and assuming flesh and blood via the body of an old man, a Christ-like figure actually. Yet even then Gandalf, as seen in the above example, expends power at a cost, drains his physical strength, at least temporarily. 

If you saw the first act in the movie version of Stephen King’s novel Firestarter, you may recall the scene where the father and his daughter, who’ve escaped from a secret government experiment, are trying to hail a cab. The father has only a one dollar bill, but he knows the fare will be much more. He gives an address, hands the cabbie the dollar and makes this terrifically painful expression on his face while pressing his fingers to his temple. The cabbie miraculously sees a twenty dollar bill, not a one, and agrees to drive them. The father sits back in his seat and his nose begins to bleed. Again, this classic ‘price for power’ exchange lends a sense of realism to the context. After all, Superman had his Kryptonite. Achilles had his heel. Samson had his hair. This is the classic trade off, and it takes many forms. But to reject any of its iterations outright is to cripple one’s ff story-telling efforts.

Unfortunately, with today’s ff market, finding works by writers who understand the importance of the ‘price for power’ theme is like finding drivers who still use their turn signals. Like the power of myth, the lessons or techniques are either forgotten or dismissed. Instead, the genre is saturated with dreary stories of buxom beauties, mundane motivations, and ultimately shallow characters. Without the techniques listed above, the vast majority tends to be frivolous and forgettable.

Tales that allude to something beyond the tale itself by way of parallel, analogy, allegory, and metaphor are separate issues altogether, but they, too, tend to not only leave a lasting impression, but qualify for a much more enduring work than the transient trash that describes most ff, where the good guy (or gal) usually wins only because of things like superior brawn or wit.

Despite the other-worldliness of Middle-Earth or C.S Lewis’ Narnia or Donaldson’s Land, the stories – regardless of the strange peoples and alternate time – are rooted in basic truths, namely that our choices matter, that what we do has consequence. Often drawn from folk lore and religious teaching, the themes of sacrifice and suffering exemplified in these stories enhance the gravity of their outcomes. Essentially, for writers like Tolkien, Lewis, and Donaldson, fantasy fiction was anything but escapism.

Why We’re Catholic, Our Reasons for Faith, Hope, and Love, by Trent Horn (2017)

Trent Horn regularly appears as a guest on Catholic Answers , a radio program I frequently enjoy, fielding questions from callers and ...