Pompous Cocks; Idiom in Fantasy

Joe Abercrombie knows how to start a novel. Here’s the beginning of Best Served Cold (reproduced more fully on his website):

“‘You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza.’

“She sighed, as if that was an accident. As if she hadn’t spent an hour preening herself before the mirror. ‘Facts are facts. Stating them isn’t a gift. You only prove you’re not blind.’ She yawned, stretched in her saddle, made him wait a moment longer. ‘But I’ll hear more.’

“He noisily cleared his throat and held up one hand, a bad actor preparing for his grand speech. ‘Your hair is like to . . . a veil of shimmering sable!’

“‘You pompous cock. What was it yesterday? A curtain of midnight. I liked that better, it had some poetry to it. Bad poetry, but still.’

“‘Shit.’ He squinted up at the clouds. ‘Your eyes, then, gleam like piercing sapphires, beyond price!’

“‘I’ve got stones in my face, now?’

“‘Lips like rose petals?’

“She spat at him, but he was ready and dodged it, the phlegm clearing his horse and falling on the dry stones beside the track. ‘That’s to make your roses grow, arsehole. You can do better.’”

Abercrombie is a smart writer, and this opening shows him playing with the linguistic ground of fantasy. Monza, of course, speaks contemporary English, while Benna, the purveyor of compliments here, is working in what we might call a classic fantasy idiom – a sort of bastard hodge-podge of what could pass (if we don’t listen very closely) as early modern English (half-remembered from a play we dozed through in eighth grade), complete with the overblown sensibility that afflicts poets in nearly every era.

Consider the following syntax: “Your hair is like to a veil…”

Like to…  It’s straight out of Shakespeare (“Wishing me like to one more rich in hope…”) or Spenser (“My love is like to ice…”) or Wyatt (“Like to these unmeasurable mountains…”) Abercrombie is winking at us here, right at the novel’s outset. “Hey!” he seems to say. “Isn’t this how characters in fantasy novels are supposed to talk?”

Well, maybe.

If we go back (again) to Tolkien, we find a number of the characters employing a slightly elevated idiom. Aragorn, for instance: “Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay.” The inverted syntax is, of course, archaic.  We do not say, “Many bills there are that you have not paid.” Or, “Many beers I drank last night.” We tend to lead with the subject rather than the direct object. Other characters in Middle Earth, notably the dwarves and elves, also employ syntax that sounds unusual to our modern ears.

And yet, it is crucial to note that Tolkien isn’t just tossing around haphazard archaisms to give his tale a patina of age. In fact, plenty of his characters, especially the hobbits, speak perfectly contemporary English. Here’s Bilbo: “Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.” Or Frodo: “It is no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad.”

Tolkien, as his fans know, was an Oxford professor of English Language and Literature. He was more than at home in English philology, and he uses the different linguistic registers in the Lord of the Rings intentionally, to suggest to the reader differences in culture, history, and character.

Of course, most fantasy novelists in the latter half of the twentieth century cut their teeth on Tolkien. Unfortunately, many of them paid more attention to the occasional archaic idiom of Aragorn or Galadriel, and brushed aside the plain-spoken modern English of Sam and Frodo. It makes a sort of sense, after all. Epic fantasy (traditionally) was set in a quasi-European medieval world (though we are, thank god, moving away from that as a given), the characters fought with quasi-European medieval weapons, and they spoke (what was supposed to be) a sort of quasi-European (meaning English for those of us who speak English) medieval language.

Thankfully, plenty of writers have eschewed this practice, aiming for a dusted-off and updated vernacular that allows their characters a little more convincing griminess.  Much as we love Aragorn, it’s tough to imagine him ever taking a shit. A major character in A Song of Ice and Fire, on the other hand, is killed while doing exactly that. Syntax and word choice, in other words, aren’t just an aesthetic matter; they impinge directly on the development of character, something at the heart of epic fantasy.

Of course, there are challenges involved in updating the idiom. Most of us read fantasy because we want something larger than life. The “larger” refers to swords and castles, of course, but also to the prose. There’s something wonderful in the alien majesty of Beowulf, or the Mahabharata, or the Sundiata, and it would be a shame to lose it entirely. The question is when to let it run, and when to rein it in. Thoughts?

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William Faulkner’s Unknown Epic Fantasy

Poetry, according to a casual polling of the thousand or so high school students I taught in my truncated career, sucks.

There are outliers, naturally – both poems that do not suck and students who like the ones that do – but by and large, the sentiment of America’s youth is clear: poetry ranks on the list of possible leisure activities somewhere below forced labor and dental work, but possibly above physics.

Kids (and, less frequently, adults) can usually be brought around to the joys of poetry (as I’ve discussed at more length here), but it’s crucial to first overcome the central grievance, which, as I understand it, seems to be the opacity of the language. And it’s easy to see why when we encounter the first lines of Hopkins’ ass-kicker, The Windhover:

“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/ dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air…”

Generally speaking, the language we consume is not like this. It is transparent, or better, entirely invisible. When I ask my wife where I put my half-eaten banana from yesterday and she replies that it’s in the fucking trash where it belongs, both of us understand the meaning of the other at once. This, after all, is the point of communication and, not incidentally, the reason we are so happy together. Neither person pauses to reflect on the language itself, and, as a result, neither of us tries to craft that language in any obtrusive way. She does not, for instance, tell me, “I threw that yellow brown and fickle fruit, before it could fade utterly to mush, into the trash.”

Then again, I am not married to William Faulkner. On page one of Absalom, Absalom (which is, by the way, the best novel in English), we encounter the following sentence:

“[…] Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bold upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreaming and victorious dust.”

Clearly Faulkner is doing something here that goes above and beyond basic communication. Some people call it “literature,” or “literary fiction,” but I distrust both those people and those words. Rather than cage it up with a term, I’d just observe that Faulkner wants you to notice his language. Certainly we can look through it, to the scene he’s describing, but we are also encouraged by the syntax, by the odd contractions, by the unexpected juxtapositions, to look at it. Both the scene and the language used to describe the scene share the reader’s attention.

Today, however, as I worked through my review of the copyeditor’s notes on my own book, I was struck by how differently we approach language in genre fiction. With a few exceptions, writers of genre, and here I’m particularly interested in fantasy, attempt to buff and polish their language until it is utterly clear, a perfect window. We might get a stylized opening passage, or a rhetorically embellished conclusion, but the bread and butter of most of these books is nothing at all like Faulkner.

Now obviously, I’ve loaded the deck by choosing Faulkner (and this novel in particular) as my example of linguistic opacity, but even a more temperate comparison might make the point. The first two quotes below are from Annie Proulx, a “literary” writer, but a popular one known more for character than verbal shenanigans. In other words, she could write recognizable fantasy. The third is from China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. I picked it because, among people writing fantasy today, Mieville is reputed (rightly, in my opinion) to be a keen prose stylist. Proulx first, with her description of Diamond Felts:

“Five-foot three, rapping, tapping, nail-biting, he radiated unease.”

Or this:

“He picked up a night ride with Tee Dove, a Texas bullrider, the big car slingshot at the black hump of range, dazzle of morning an hour behind the rim, not a dozen words exchanged.”

In both excerpts the language shoulders its way to the fore. It doesn’t obscure the description because Proulx has her shit together, but it makes itself known as language – beautiful, arresting, and a little unexpected. Compare with Mieville:

“The food stalls stretched the noisy length of Shadrach Street. Books and manuscripts and pictures filled up Selchit Pass, an avenue of desultory banyans and crumbling concrete a little way to the east. There were earthenware products spilling down the road to Barrackham in the south; engine parts to the west; toys down one side street; clothes between two more; and countless other goods filling all the alleys.”

This is a wonderful descriptive passage, the tempo, syntax, and play of consonants all masterfully handled. But look at the difference – aside from that one word, “desultory,” the language defers almost entirely to the content it is tasked with describing.

My statistician friends will not appreciate my basing the whole case on three data points, but I’ll do it anyway: fantasy (and genre fiction more generally) encourages, even relies on, the invisibility of language. Let me be clear, I am not elevating one style or indicting the other, not coming down in favor of either Proulx or Mieville; I love them both. The question that interests me is whether or not there is room on the shelves for swashbuckling sword and sorcery novels in the style of Faulkner, or Proulx, or Anne Carson. Would people read them? Or perhaps they are already there?

Please Take Your Hand Off My Thigh; Intimacy in Narrative Voice

I don’t trust the Huggers. You know the people I’m talking about: that guy you only met that one time at that party (the one where some asshole flushed the metal doorknob and no one could use the toilet all night), who, despite not having seen you in three years and misremembering your name, insists, when you run into him at the ABBA cover band concert, on shouting, “Dude, what is up?” And then hugging you.

Or that woman you work with who you hugs you every time you see her, saying, “It’s so good to see you!” as though you’re the survivor of a wrecked whaling ship lost two years at sea instead of the guy who works three doors down from her every day. I don’t think the Huggers are evil, mind you, and I love a good hug when the time is right, but I’m always a little leery when people I would definitely make no effort to save in a zombie apocalypse insist on hugging me warmly and repeatedly. As they’re patting me on the back, I want to whisper, “When the undead come, I will let you die…”

Which leads me to my point about third-person narration: just as there are physical huggers, there are narrative huggers. Oddly, though, while I’m wary of the former, I find that the latter can make for quite effective storytelling.

Narrative huggers? Take a look at these lines from David Eddings’ delightful and venerable novel Pawn of Prophecy:

“In the early autumn just before Garion’s fourteenth birthday, he came very close to ending his career. In response to some primal urge all children have – given a pond and a handy supply of logs – they had built a raft that summer.”

This seems to be an objective little bit of narration; we learn the season (autumn), the location (a pond), the unfolding action (raft-building), and the second sentence could read simply: “Garion and his friends had built a raft…” Only, the narrator isn’t content to furnish us with the facts only. He wants to comment on those facts, to make a larger point: it’s not only that these particular kids at this particular time are building a raft, he wants to remind us, but that all kids in similar circumstances will tend to build rafts.

This is a move away from the action at hand. Toward what? Toward you, reader. Prepare to be hugged. The assumed agreement here, the sense that this proclamation regarding kids and rafts is one that the reader will readily accept, provides a type of literary intimacy, a bond inviting trust between the storyteller and listener. “You know how kids are,” the narrator seems to say, “and so do I.”

Tolkien is a great hugger. Right near the start of The Hobbit, we find this sentence: “There is little or no magic about [hobbits], except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along…” The most obvious hug here is, of course, the assumption that the narrator and the reader are similar, that both are large, stupid blunderers. This sentence, however, asserts its intimacy in another way. The narrator claims that hobbit magic is “the ordinary everyday sort.” Both of these adjectives – ordinary, everyday – assume a shared frame of reference with the reader, shared values. In just the same manner as the Eddings narrator above, this narrator suggests, “We have the same view of the world. We will agree as to what constitutes ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ because we are fundamentally alike, you and I.”

Maybe a hug isn’t quite the right analogy here, but you can imagine the narrator pausing in his tale to wink or put a conspiratorial hand on a shoulder. Different readers have different tastes, and reasonable people can disagree over how much hugging and pawing they want from their narrators. There can be dangers with this approach, which I’ll get to in a future post, but I’m curious, at the moment, to hear how people respond when the narrator leans in close and puts a hand on your thigh. Do you pull away? Or let yourself be drawn in?

“Redolent of Plum with a Hint of Urine”: Wine Snobs, David Hume, and Fantasy

Last night, as I continued to make my way through N. K. Jemisin’s fascinating and inventive novel The Killing Moon, I came across this sentence:

“General Niyes’s home was in the spice district, where the evening breezes smelled of cinnamon and inim-teh seed.”

Nice description: the tactile appeal of cool evening breezes, the wafting cinnamon, the… inim-teh seed? I was in bed, sans internet, and so I flipped to the novel’s excellent glossary (see my previous post on glossaries in speculative fiction) to learn that inim-teh is “a plant grown in the Blood river valley. The seeds are harvested and ground to make a pungent spice useful in pickling and flavoring.” The wonderfully named seed is (as far as Google will tell me) Jemisin’s own invention, and so the glossary and usage are all we have to go by in determining its nature, and here we run into an interesting problem, a problem both writerly and philosophical: there is no way to know what inim-teh smells like.

The fact that it is “pungent” doesn’t tell us much, nor does the fact that it is “useful in pickling and flavoring.” All manner of herbs and spices can go into pickling: peppercorn, chili, dill…

Although inim-teh is included as a sensory detail, it carries no sensory content. Not only that, it cannot, given the very nature of language, carry sensory content. Consider: the only way we know what cinnamon smells (or tastes) like is that we have smelled (or tasted) cinnamon. It’s true, of course, that approximations and comparisons are possible, hence the litany of exotic foods that “taste like chicken.” Only, they do not taste like chicken, not exactly.

Likewise, compound tastes (like compound sounds) can be described, hence the sententious pronouncements of wine snobs: “The pinot is drinking beautifully. On the nose you’ll notice thyme, raspberries, and a whiff of feral cat. The palate blends chocolate and shoe leather with just a hint of rotten plum,” but such descriptions require a) our familiarity with the individual elements and b) our acceptance that they’re not just bullshit, that if you actually cooked up your shoe leather with some chocolate and a rotten plumb, you’d get something that tasted like your wine. I doubt it.

Either way, the argument for compound flavors is irrelevant in the case of inim-teh seed, because Jemisin does not provide the secret recipe. I’d argue that she’s smart to refuse. Inim-teh seed would suddenly become a lot less bewitching and exotic if we were to learn it smells like a corn dog topped with vanilla ice cream.

David Hume, the brilliant Scottish philosopher, attacked this problem at the root. Hume divided perceptions (mental content of which we are conscious) into two categories: impressions (a perception experienced directly, in-the-moment, first-hand, from the senses) and ideas (the recollection and recombination of impressions, with no in-the-moment experience necessary). In Hume’s terms, as we chomp down on the chicken, we have an impression of chicken; when we recollect the meal later, we have only the idea of chicken.

Hume goes on to claim that “every idea which we examine is copied from a similar impression.” In other words, if you’ve smelled cinnamon, a novel can evoke the smell of cinnamon. If you haven’t, then it can’t. (There is, by the way, a fascinating objection, raised by Hume himself, to this claim – “the missing shade of blue” – but I don’t have time for it here).

So we’re back to Jemisin’s inim-teh seed. The question, from a writer’s perspective, is whether or not to include it.

Pros: Its presence is exotic. It reminds us that we are in a foreign land, a strange and exciting place where the rules we know no longer apply, where people can walk through dreams. The inim-teh seed is almost necessary, in fact. After all, if everything in this world could be described with our own words, we’d be dangerously close to our own world, dangerously close to losing the mystery and the magic.

Cons: It doesn’t mean anything. The description might as well read, “…the evening breezes smelled of cinnamon and some other shit,” or, “the evening breezes smelled of cinnamon and something that you’ll never smell,” or, “the evening breezes smelled of cinnamon and xxxxxxxxxxx.”

In my opinion, Jemisin makes it work. How? She pairs the empty word with two details that we will recognize: evening breezes and cinnamon. Those data points frame the sensation, and we know that inim-teh fits somewhere in the frame. We know, for instance, that the mysterious seed probably doesn’t smell like urine, or steak, or rotting trash. She manages to circumscribe the possibilities for this unknown sensation while leaving some scope to the imagination of the reader.

That said, I think it’s possible to overdo this sort of thing. There are dangers in tossing around words the true meaning of which no one can ever know. I’m curious to hear from others where the balance lies – how much is too much?

The Fuck You Method: Glossaries in Speculative Fiction

So, one thing you don’t hear a lot from someone finishing up a fantasy novel is, “Damn, that book had a great glossary.” Like all appendices, the glossary is usually considered (by writers and readers alike) an afterthought, a necessary evil, a way of passing the time when you’ve finished the book but your flight is still twenty minutes from landing.

Today, however, as I sat down with great anticipation to begin N. K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon (the start of her Dreamblood series), it occurred to me that perhaps we’ve all been giving the glossary short shrift. Jemisin, for those unfamiliar with her work, is a master of world-building. Not for her the hoary tropes of medieval Europe trotted out once more, armor dented, swords dulled. In this new series she looks more to ancient Egypt than to Europe, while the religion and the fascinating system of magic that accrues from that religion is all her own. Of course, world building involves, you know, a new world, and with new worlds come new words. Enter, the glossary.

I consulted the glossary at least twenty times in Jemisin’s opening chapter, always finding intriguing definitions such as the following:

“Dreamseed: One of the four dream-humors that form the basis of Gujaareen magic. Culled from erotic dreams, it is useful for stimulating growth that ordinarily occurs only in the womb (e.g., new limbs).”

So, clearly, this is going to be a book that kicks ass. And there are lots of entries just as exciting. It is possible to read the opening chapters without the glossary. My wife, who detests all textual apparatus (maps, glossaries, family trees, etc.), did exactly that, and she says the first chapter reads just fine without it. No doubt. Jemisin is a great writer, skilled enough to provide adequate context for her neologisms; haters of glossaries can plow ahead without missing much. It would be hard to convince me, however, that they’re missing nothing. The chapter is not richer for some scrutiny of the glossary, which brings me (finally) to my point:

There are really only three methods of handling the new words so necessary to world-building, each with its strengths and weaknesses.

First: The contextual method. This is probably the most common and certainly the easiest to read. Whenever a new term is introduced, the author bends over backwards to ensure the reader understands the meaning. Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World furnishes us with plenty of suitable examples. For instance, the first time someone mentions the Dark One (which, by the way, seems pretty self-explanatory already), we get this little bit exposition: “The Dark One and all the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, beyond the Great Blight, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time.” Someone actually says this, right there, just like that, in the middle of the action. So that settles that.

The advantages of this method are clear: the reader is never confused and there is no flipping back and forth to the glossary. The Jordan passage just quoted, however, should reveal the major disadvantage. Often the new words and concepts introduced in the process of world-building are complex. Contextualizing them takes time and diverts us from the central thrust of the unfolding narrative. There are ways to mitigate this problem, but the fact remains: a sentence (or paragraph) spent on definition is a static sentence (or paragraph).

Second: The Glossary Method. I don’t want to put Jemisin firmly in this camp because, as I noted above, she’s done such a nice job with the first chapters that you don’t really need the glossary. Nonetheless, she’s not willing to go as far as Jordan when it comes to filling in the background details, at least not right up front. I think this is a strength of her writing. She tells the story first, and readers can decide whether to check the glossary or wait for further context. The central disadvantage of this method, however, is also clear: readers like me, that is to say, anal-retentive readers who want to understand everything the first time through, will be forever flipping back to the glossary, which can be, in its way, just as distracting as the Jordan method, although I think it’s important to note that Jemisin (by including the detail in the back) makes the distractions optional. In Jordan they are mandatory.

Third: The Fuck You Method. This is used to spectacular effect in Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. The book (sci-fi, not fantasy) hits you in the first sentence with a new concept: the Warmind. What’s a Warmind? Fuck you. No immediate context that proves particularly useful. No glossary. “Hang on, asshole,” the book says, “and try to figure it out as we go.” And there’s a lot to figure out. Gevulot? Fuck you. Sobornost? Fuck you. Tzaddikim? Fuck you. Starting to get a feel for the method? And you’ll notice these aren’t gimmes like “the Dark One,” either.

It may sound as though I dislike this book/method, but nothing could be further from the case. I found Rajaniemi’s novel one of the most imaginative I’ve read in years, and, by the end, you do figure out the meaning of everything (provided you’ve been paying attention). I enjoy this type of detective work, but, again, there is a disadvantage: the experience of trying to understand the basic vocabulary of the world is very different from the fluid fictional dream offered by Robert Jordan in Method One. Time and again I found myself flipping, not for a glossary, but for previous references, cross-checking the vocabulary against itself to come to a fuller understanding. The advantage, I suppose, is in the uncompromising purity, the absolute immersion in new world unmediated by either a helpful narrator or a compiler of glossaries.

So where does that leave us? Beats me. I have tremendous admiration for all three books mentioned above, and I suspect much of this is a matter of personal taste (again, on the part of both the writer and the reader). In fact, I’d argue that this is a good problem to have: it means the book in question involves a new world, one strange and fascinating enough to warrant our close attention. There are, undoubtedly, people who disagree with me, and I’d love to hear from them. Is there a method I’ve missed? Or have I misunderstood the function or effect of one of those listed above? How else might we do it?