Thursday, December 18, 2014

Not Poughkeepsie, No; Nor Elfland Either

In 1973 Ursula Le Guin published an essay on the importance of writing style in fantasy. That piece was titled “From Elfland To Poughkeepsie” and it has been oft-quoted and remarked upon by those who care about such things. I, too, care about such things, though I did not realize I cared about them until I bought a paperback copy of “The Wind's Four Quarters” at the age of seventeen and read what she had to say in that essay.

It starts like this:

Elfland is what Lord Dunsany called the place. It is also called [...] by many other names.

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast and beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion. But what happens when it is considered merely as a place to “get away to”?

What happens, according to Le Guin, is what happens at all national parks. People drive in in their air-conditioned mobile homes, bringing all their real-world accoutrements with them, and never really experience the place for what it is.

At first it seems as if she's talking about readers of fantasy, but we soon come to understand that she's talking about modern day (yes, I still consider those writing in 1973 to be 'modern day') fantasy writers. She then goes on to humiliate author Katherine Kerr for writing a passage in one of her books that, by changing only four words, could have been taken from a modern political thriller.

Le Guin takes great pains to explain why this approach is very wrong:

Seen thus, as art, not spontaneous play, [fantasy's] affinity is not with daydream, but with dream. It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality.

No pressure there.

She takes no pains whatsoever, on the other hand, in separating out what we would today, by and large, term sword & sorcery, and what she calls heroic fantasy, as unworthy of discussion:

There would be no use at all in talking about what is generally passed off as “heroic fantasy,” all the endless Barbarians with names like Barp and Klod, and the Tarnsmen and the Klansmen and all the rest of them—there would be nothing whatever to say. (Not in terms of art, that is [...])

Le Guin goes on, of course, and gives many examples of what she considers the true fantasy writing style, from the past masters of the genre.

It's taken me 26 years to realize just what bothered me so profoundly about “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” It isn't that Le Guin had (and still has) such fixed ideas about art or the genre. Everyone is allowed those, and Le Guin far more than others, considering her iconic status and undeniable talent.

No, what bothered me about Le Guin's Elfland was in the little things she said that betray a larger issue in her perceptions of what fantasy should and should not be. When berating Kerr for her not-sufficiently-fantasy fantasy novel, she makes this comment about one of the characters who says “I could have told you that at Cardosa”:

Speech expresses character. It does so whether the speaker or the author knows it or not. When I hear a man say “I could have told you that at Cardosa,” or at Poughkeepsie, or wherever, I think I know something about that man. He is the kind who says, “I told you so.”

Nobody who says, “I told you so” has ever been, or will ever be, a hero.

The Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sign or symbol of real inward greatness.

There, in those 101 words, Le Guin betrays her own character as a writer, whether she knows it or not; her own prejudices and presuppositions emerge. First, that a fantasy hero cannot/would not use pedestrian language (and to be fair, the whole essay is trying, in part, to make that point) and second, in an unstated, perhaps unintended, but quite direct way, that the heroes of Elfland must also be the Lords of Elfland.

It is inferred, this idea that a hero must be nobility, a ruler, one of the elite (though in a twisted sort of way it makes sense, since the nobility of Elfland can presumably afford diction and rhetoric tutors, thus ensuring that they will never speak such pedestrian, unheroic sentences as “I could have told you that at Cardosa.”)

But I wondered at seventeen, and still wonder today, why someone like me would ever want to visit somewhere like Le Guin's Elfland, a place where common speech precludes you from being heroic, where, if you are not a Lord, you are a spear carrier, unworthy of your words being set down, however much they might mean to you personally.

In Le Guin's Elfland, one is not allowed to merely ask for a cold leg of rabbit, oh no. One cannot merely say, “I am hungry; share your food, won't you?” One must ask for it heroically:

Detestable to me, truly, is loathsome hunger; abominable an insufficiency of food upon a journey. Mournful, I declare to you, is such a fate as this, to one of my lineage and nurture!”

Heroic, or bombastic? I think you can guess what my opinion is.

The entire point of “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” is, ostensibly, that the would-be writer of fantasy must tread a very narrow path, sanctified by the stylists of the past. It is that, more than anything, which bothered me at age seventeen, though I could not at the time phrase it in such a concise, rational way. 

Ultimately, Le Guin's Elfland is an incredibly elitist place. It is not a national park. It is a game preserve for some great lord, with stiff penalties for trespassing, and even stiffer ones for poaching.

But the truth is, Elfland did not suddenly spring into being when Lord Dunsany first whipped out his pen. It is a far older, far more wild place, and it is inhabited not only by lords and those creatures that give them the opportunity to be heroic. Its roots, the life that makes it “superrealistic” can be found in all the old fairy tales, from Snow White to The Three Ivans. Elfland was breathed into life, literally, by peasants and commoners and passed down orally from generation to generation by those who had no notion of what fantasy style “ought to be.”

Yes, there is something that makes Elfland a special, dangerous place. But I'm terribly sorry to say it isn't whether an ostensible hero of Elfland ever utters the phrase “I could have told you that at Cardosa.” And when we move away from the idea that the lords are automatically the heroes, so too will we move out of the game preserve and into the wider, wilder expanses of Elfland which, as G.K. Chesterton once said, 'is a world at once of wonder and of war.'

Le Guin rails against pedestrian language in a genre that should, by rights, be something special, something magical. I agree whole-heartedly with the special and magical part. But I believe she missed her mark in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” She mistook special for exclusive. Worse, she mistook form for content. After all, when have heroic words ever made a satisfying substitute for heroic deeds?

We, as readers, and hopefully as humans, judge a hero by their actions, not by their lineage or the way they use second person singular. We judge writers of fantasy by the sense of wonder they engender in us, and by the depth of engagement and immersion the world they have devised affords us. We may well turn to fantasy for the “distancing from the ordinary” that Le Guin assumes, but I'm completely certain such a distancing does not require the load of stylistic prescription that Le Guin tells us it does. Most fantasy readers want a good story, well-told, that transports them to Elfland. That's all they want, and they aren't terribly concerned about whether they go on foot, on dragon's back, or in a minivan. The destination is the journey.

I could have told thee that at Poughkeepsie, Ursula.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ahem. Tap-tap. Is this thing on?

Just a brief couple of announcements:

Item One: The first two books in the Amra Thetys series are currently free, as in gratis, no money down, no payments for 9,999 months:

Kobo: Not available because Kobo is weird & glitchy & the book just disappeared one day & I've been too busy writing to bother to sort it out.

Item the second: It may interest you to know that the third installment in the series is currently being edited, and is now available for pre-order. It'll ship on December 10th, 2014, but you could order it, like, today. You know, if you want to make sure you get yours before they run out on the release day. Christmas season and all. Only so many electrons in the universe.

Right. I think that about covers it. I now return you to your regularly scheduled internet skiving.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Comes The Conqueror: New epic fantasy serial

New to everywhere but the inside of my head: Comes The Conqueror, an epic fantasy in serial form. This one I started more than a decade ago, but it was so vast in scope, and so strange in its premise (no spoilers, sorry) that it frightened me, and I shelved it.

Things are different now. I can write it, which I had no confidence in being able to do more than a decade ago. I can also self-publish it, which means I don't have to rein in the weirder aspects of the story in order to get it published by a traditional publisher.

The first two episodes are free, and live at Smashwords in your favorite flavor of format:

Episode 1: Blood & Roses

Episode 2: Dead Birds

Episode 3, in case you were interested, is called "The Knot" and will be available in a few days.

Oh, and Episode 3 is where the weirdness really starts to kick in.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013


After years of telling authors they could not give out the numbers of free downloads at the Apple iBookstores, a few days ago Smashwords downloaded all this information to authors' accounts, apropos of nothing. I won't get into bashing Smashwords; it does no good and changes nothing. Instead, I'll focus on the numbers:

My 2012 Apple sales (free and paid), were 37,109. Subtract the 385 paid downloads I had there last year, and that's 36,724 ebooks given away at Apple, globally. Throw in another 8,000 and change from Barnes & Noble, and I gave away damn near 45,000 ebooks.

I'm still trying to figure out what this means, to be honest. My stated goal was to break out of obscurity. I don't see how I could have done much better than that: There are tens of thousands of people who've read (or at least downloaded) my stuff now, who hadn't in 2011.

Maybe this means it's time for 'free' to come to an end. Maybe I should be contrarian and give even more stuff away for free. Maybe it means nothing at all, except people will, hoarder-like, take whatever you're passing out, whether they intend to read it or not. I don't know.

I do know that I've got some writing to do.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Amra #3: An excerpt

When Hurvus returned it was full dark. He’d obviously filled his skin while he was out. His hands had stopped trembling. He brewed a willow bark tea for the boy and forced it down his throat, then put some foul-smelling plaster on my cheek and a liniment on my hands. Then we ate, he and I. Black bread, clam soup from a clay pot, a quarter wheel of a young gray cheese. When it was plain that Kiel wasn’t going to be eating anything, Hurvus ate his share of the soup and more of the cheese as well, and wrapped the rest up in cleanish linen.
When he’d sucked the last crumbs from his graying beard, he looked up at me with those bloodshot, still-clever eyes of his and said “People looking for you. At the public house.”
I felt a knife of fear slide into my guts, but didn’t let it show.
Do they know where to find me?”
No. Not from me.”
Why not?”
You still owe me two silver. Besides, didn’t like the look of ‘em. Or the smell.”
He shook his head. “No. Don’t know what. Don’t know what you’re into. Don’t want to be part of it.”
We’ll be gone in the morning.”
He nodded his head, then stoked up the fire a bit. With the falling sun, the temperature was dropping. After a time he put the poker away, put a bottle of cheap stuff by his chair and settled in.
What did they look like, these people who were looking for me?”
Two of ‘em. One a bruiser, shaved head. The other a weaselly merchant type, expensive clothes, silk and ermine and lace. The both of ‘em smelled like the marshes. Were asking after a woman looked hard, maybe with an injured gutter boy, maybe alone.”
Marshes, eh?” Smugglers? Who knew? “Did anyone else pipe up?”
They weren’t offering a reward, only threats. People ‘round Hardside, they don’t pay much attention to such. Unless they got a personal stake.”
That much at least hadn’t changed. I sat and stared at the fire while he filled his pipe, thinking. They’d get around to checking bone-setters soon enough, whoever they were. Hurvus would be on their list. Best I moved on with Keil before dawn. I couldn’t just leave the kid. He didn’t know anything about me, but that wouldn’t stop them from beating him to death to find it out, most likely, if they had anything to do with the fire. And I still had questions to ask him. I had too many questions all around.
They must have set someone to watch Keil, else they wouldn’t have known I might be with him or that he was injured. That they didn’t know if I was still with him probably meant they’d lost track of us in the confusion following the explosion. In any case, they had the brains to search Hardside. Which was too bad, really. I prefer any possible enemy to be as stupid as mossy rocks.
Well, if they were looking for me low, and I wasn’t ready to face them, then I’d hie myself up on high. I had enough to take a room at one of the posh inns near the top of the Girdle. And I had enough to hire a few thugs of my own, if it came to it. I just didn’t want it to.
Mainly what I needed was information. There was too much going on, and I didn’t understand any of it.
I glanced over at Hurvus. He had nodded off in his chair, pipe gone out and dangling from his mouth. I gently nudged his chair with a boot tip, then harder when that had no effect. He sat up, snorting and blinking.
I have a few questions. I'll give you gold if you can answer them.”
He wiped his eyes with a thumb. “I'll answer if I can.”
You heard of anyone masquerading as Ansen lately, come back from the dead?”
He snorted. “Every year, it seems. The Syndic and his Council don't get any less popular as time goes on only because once you hit bottom, there's no further to go.
So what's the story of the latest Ansen, then?”
I honestly couldn't say, beyond slogans scrawled on walls. 'Return the people's power' and such like.”
All right. What about the Child Robber?”
His face got a little hard. “Some monster's snatching children, has been for at least two years. They disappear, no sign, no clue left. And they disappear utterly. No bodies have been found. Makes me think slaver, but who knows? The marsh is frightening deep in places.”
I grunted. He wasn't wrong.
If I wanted to find somebody, on the quiet, who's the best person to talk to?”
The Hag; who else?”
Kerf's crooked staff, she's still alive?” She'd been ancient when I was a girl, and more than half legend. But I knew where to find her. Everybody in Hardside knew where to find her. It made it easier to avoid her.
Let me ask you a question,” Hurvis said. “Why do you want to know all this?”
I thought about it a long time before I answered him. Decided to be truthful, Kerf only knows why.“I was born and raised in Hardside, Hurvis. I know you know it; you can hear it in my speech as surely as I can hear it in yours.”
He nodded. “There's no mistaking the Hardside drawl, sure. Though yours has gone soft around the edges.”
I've been away a long time, and coming back's not something I ever planned on doing,” I replied.
So why have you? I know it's your business and none of mine, but if I were less of a wreck and managed to climb out, nor hells nor the dead gods could drag me back. But it's too late for the likes of me.” He took a swig from the bottle, as if to prove his point.
I have a debt to pay,” I told him, “and the marker finally got called in.”
He looked over at me, and even drink-fogged, his eyes were keen. “You sit there in your raw silk trousers and doeskin tunic, carrying knives the like I've never seen except on noblemen who had no least clue how to use 'em properly, wearing boots that cost what most people make in a year, offering me gold to telly you what anyone would tell you for the time of day, and you tell me you came to Hardside to pay a debt? Don't talk rubbish. Whatever you are, however you made your moil, you could've sent somebody else to settle it.”
I shook my head. “It's not that kind of debt. And coin won't cover it.”
What will, then?”
I don't know. Maybe nothing. Maybe blood. Probably blood. Maybe my life.” Whatever Theiner needed, I owed. And would pay. And that, I finally admitted to myself, was why I hadn't wanted Holgren along.
He was quiet for a while. When he spoke, his voice was rough with drink, and with some obscure emotion. “I had a debt like that, once.”
I cocked my head. “How'd you settle it?”
He smiled, but there was nothing of humor in it, just some old, private pain. “I never did. Or I still am. Can't decide which it is anymore.” And he took a long, long drink from the bottle and stumbled off to his bed without another word.
I banked the fire and dug out a blanket from my pack, then went to sleep there on the floor, one of Holgren’s gift-knives in each hand.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Status: Editing

Just a short note, Dear Reader, to inform you that I am still alive, and working, if only tangentially. Mostly what I'm doing is editing, going back over previously released material with a fine-toothed comb, and finding an embarrassing number of typos, especially in The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble's Braids.

It started out as a general once-over in preparation to get on with Amra #3; looking for continuity issues (did The Blade That Whispers Hate scar her hand permanently or not? That sort of thing).

I don't know if I'm avoiding the writing with the copy editing or not. I just know it needs to be done.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Status Update: functional, if not optimal

Dear Readers,

I'm alive. In some ways I'm healthier than I've been for years. I've lost a fair amount of weight, most of it fat, through a changed diet, exercise, and admittedly a certain indifference towards the gustatory arts. Physically I'm stronger and have more energy than I have had in years. I'd like to put some more weight on, this time muscle. We'll see.

What else? I sleep more now. Enough to give me mental balance, evenif it isn't unbroken or untroubled. I dislike having to resort to pharmacology to get it, but I'm not silly enough to argue with results. Emotionally I'm still pretty raw, but I've gained some real insights into what I feel and why. I no longer feel as if the simple act of waking up is waking on the edge of a precipice. If you ever find yourself in such a situation, I have only a little advice, but it is heartfelt: be honest with your self. Thoroughly honest. But infuse your honesty with compassion. Often the pain, guilt or shame you feel has its roots deep down, and springs from the actions of those around you when you were small, or vulnerable. Find compassion for the self that endured those misfortunes, and see your actions in that light. Then resolve to to act with compassion, for yourself and those in hour life, moving forward. Whatever guilt or shame you bear, don't let it smother you. You can only make amends going forward. You cannot change the past, much as you want to. You can only let the past inform your future.

Finally, writing. I'm doing a little. I write when I am moved to, on subjects that catch my interest. I'm not forcing it. I was truly afraid for a while that I would never write again, and am still easing back into it, so I have not forced deadlines on myself for all the various projects I left in medias res. they will come, in time, if they are meant to. Amra and Holgren especially I have no doubt will continue to report in, though their adventures may well not be what readers might expect. And Marie from Waste Land has been on my mind lately. When it's time for me to pick up the pen again for them, I won't keep it from you.

Before I work on their stories, though, I have to work on mine.