Monday 19 September 2016

About standards, about genre

Good, but not game changers. 
I am so very, very ambivalent about genre writing.

OK, so recently I revisited my copies of Barry Windsor-Smith: Storyteller, which was a comic that came out about twenty years ago, while I was a student, and which literally a handful of people ever read at the time. It was beautiful, every issue a full-sized European album, all designed with a lovely art-deco style and bespoke fonts, and it was just lovely.1 It flopped, and there's lots of reasons for that2 but the main one according to Windsor-Smith is that apparently its publisher wouldn't market it aggressively enough outside of nerd markets, because comic book nerds weren't smart and discerning enough to handle his "sophisticated storytelling". He wanted to therefore reach "wider markets".

Here's where the problem lies. This was a really great comic, OK. It was funny, it was pretty grown up (I like it better aged 40 than I did aged 21), and it looked beautiful but in the end, its three serials were Paradoxman, which was about a man abdcted by aliens from the future and being psychoanalysed by a bug monster that was disguised as his wife; Freebooters, a bawdy tragicomic fantasy tale about a retired barbarian having a midlife crisis; and Young Gods, the best one, about three Kirbyesque space gods on a stag night.

For all that Windsor-Smith thought that he wanted to reach a grown-up, literary audience, for all the literary tricks and clever bits he included, for all the arch dialogue, the stories basically depended on you being intimately familiar with the tropes of the nerd genres he was using. Like to really get the joke with Young Gods you had to know at least a little about Jack Kirby's space god comics, and Freebooters was an affectionate riff on Conan the Barbarian. They were still tied to fantasy and sci-fi. They weren't saying anything big – rather, all of them imbued the fantasy with small, domestic details. They were grown up genre stories, but they were still genre stories. He was never going to reach the literary world at large. He was never going to change comics.
So lovely though. 
Being trapped in genre is sometimes horrible. I mean, it's a little easier now, I suppose, since most Hollywood movies seem to be endless bloody superhero movies and more than half of everyone in the English speaking world appears to get excited about the vacuum of anything hopeful or positive that is Game of Thrones3 so maybe people like genre stuff more than they ever did before, but even so there's a way in which people who aren't really nerds like the pop genres, a way in which they consume them, and regardless of how popular these things are, the resistance to them is still there in the literary and artistic world. I mean, OK, you get the occasional article in The Guardian about how great Watchmen is4 or something but actually if you want literature, there are forms of it. There are rules that you must follow.

And I'm not going to lie, a lot of what gets the attention of the highbrow is horrible in different ways, it's often all about silver-spoon-sucking guys and their Rich People Problems and if it mentions poor people it's patronising as hell, let alone women or people in minorities or people who aren't living in developed countries and oh God Martin Amis and John Irving5 and Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers and all the other "geniuses" who play to the rich boy's club for all they're worth, people who've never struggled in their whole lives, never known what it is to miss a meal, they're supposed to be great literature, and it's dreadful.

And yes, OK, you have people like Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood who write stuff that gets Taken Seriously and which uses sci-fi tropes and themes to talk about Big Things, which is what sci-fi is about, but seriously, do you think Never Let Me Go would have been Taken Seriously if it hadn't been written by the man who wrote The Remains of the Day? And why do you think Margaret Atwood spent so many years denying The Handmaid's Tale was science fiction? 

(Edit: it struck me that poor Barry Windsor-Smith's failure with Storyteller was born of an ignorance of the way things were outside of his genre, so he somehow thought beautifully drawn barbarians having mid-life crises and sexy space gods on stag nights and domestic situation comedy injected into stories with the trappings of comic book adventure were somehow groundbreaking, when mainstream comedy and European comics have both been doing that stuff for decades. But, depressingly, it goes the other way, in that Kazuo Ishiguro writing about clones being used for spare parts is actually a well trodden science fiction trope, only most lit critics, not really knowing anything about science fiction, thought it was groundbreaking and new and risky. The difference being that Kazuo Ishiguro started out from a position of being Taken Seriously to begin with, so his treading of old ground had a head start in a way that Barry Windsor-Smith, a guy mainly known for drawing comic books about Super X Mutant Heroes, was never going to manage.)

I've talked too many times about how having written role-playing games has actually damaged my career as a writer and poet. It has. I've been discounted for it, told I'm not a writer, even on one memorable occasion laughed at to my face. For some years I tried to do an Iain Banks thing where I used my old university nickname for the games and stuff and my real name for the Proper Writing, but all that did was reduce my bibliography to near-nothing, so fuck it.

I think that genres are nothing to be ashamed of. They're for everyone in the way that Important Novels by lit professors for lit professors about lit professors can't ever be. Genre writing now is more democratic than ever; it has always been more welcoming to working class people, women, people of colour, LGBT people than the academy, no matter what the Puppies might tell you. And I think that genre writing can be art, and that it can inspire feeling, and that it can be about something.

But then everything is about something. There is no such thing as "just" a story. 

I'll say that again

There is no such thing as "just" a story. 

All narratives have meaning, show identities, present ideas, good and bad, even if they don't intend to. And in the interface of good writing and thoughtful subtext, there lies art.  

I want to make games that are art. I chose a trash medium in disreputable genres because it's democratic, because I've always loved it, in a weird, complicated way.6

I want to make something beautiful and telling in these genres, maybe even use games to make something cathartic, beautiful. I actually don't care about being Taken Seriously.

OK, that's a lie. I would quite like to be Taken Seriously, but I gave up on it. For a while I beat myself up for having been a games writer, in an "is this all I'm good for?" kind of way. Now, I don't know. Have I decided to turn my back on Proper Literature because it's elitist and has no place for me, or have I just internalised that I don't have what it takes to do anything good?

Don't know.

I doubt myself.

It would be so very easy to say that I write in genres, that I write game texts because I'm not good enough to write proper books. In fact I've said it, half in jest.

I often wonder if that's true, though, and part of the reason I wonder if that's true is that it seems to me that genre fans all too often really do not care about the technical quality or artfulness of the writing.

OK, example. I gave a seminar on writing genres some years ago, and for it I pulled out two character introductions from pulp fantasy novels. One is horribly written, one is not. I picked one as an example of how to do it and one as an example of how not to. I asked which people thought was the good one, and which the bad; and I asked the reader to consider what this guy's job is, where they think this story is going to go for him, how the guy feels about his role, what's going on with him. I show this exercise to people on the occasions when I'm asked for writing advice and more often than not, people are stumped.

Here's one.
Standing by her side, with a brawny arm around her white, trembling shoulders, bracing her against the shocks that buffeted the swaying cabin, stood the giant form of the barbarian hero Thongor of Valkarth, who had rescued her from a thousand perils and was now returning her to the city of Patanga and the throne of her fathers.

He was a great bronzed lion of a man, thewed like a savage God, naked save for the leather clout and bare trappings of a wandering mercenary swordsman. His tanned, expressionless face was majestic and stern beneath the rude mane of thick black hair that poured over his broad shoulders, held back from his brow by a leather band. At his side the steel length of a great Valkarthan longsword hung in its black leather scabbard, and a vast scarlet cloak hung from his shoulders, secured by a narrow gold chain about his throat. His lips were tight set but his strange golden eyes showed no trace of fear as he watched Karm Karvus struggling with the controls.
Lin Carter, Thongor of Lemuria
And here's the other:
It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone, resting on each arm of a seat which has been carved from a single, massive ruby.

The crimson eyes are troubled and sometimes one hand will rise to finger the light helm which sits upon the white locks: a helm made from some dark, greenish alloy and exquisitely moulded into the likeness of a dragon about to take wing. And on the hand which absently caresses the crown there is a ring in which is set a single rare Actorios stone whose core sometimes shifts sluggishly and reshapes itself, as if it were sentient smoke and as restless in its jewelled prison as the young albino on the Ruby Throne.

He looks down the long flight of quartz steps to where his court disports itself, dancing with such delicacy and whispering grace that it might be a court of ghosts. Mentally he debates moral issues and in itself this activity divides him from the great majority of his subjects, for these people are not human.
Michael Moorcock, Elric of Melniboné
OK, look, this isn't even about personal value judgement, right. Neither of these are Great Classics of Literature. Both are about guys with swords who fight monsters and go on adventures. Hell, if you prefer Thongor to Elric as a character, that's fine, because inasmuch as Thongor can only arguably be said to have any character at all, Elric is a genuinely awful person. Thongor's story has a happy ending. Elric's is miserable. Seriously, there's a case to be made for Thongor being more fun.

But. That second passage has so much more. Like, Thongor is big and mean looking, and he has a suntan and dark hair, and he's naked and not naked at the same time, and he's got a girl under his arm and he's not afraid (of what? No idea). What's his job? He's a wandering mercenary swordsman. You know that because it tells you directly. 

On the other hand, at no point does Moorcock say it explicitly, but, just from the passage, Elric is a) king, and b) not especially happy with being king, maybe even a bit bored with this king business. He is troubled by conscience and morals and stuff. He doesn't much feel in tune with his subjects. His people aren't human, and they're scary, and they're super, super rich and do crazy things like put thrones made of single solid rubies on tops of massive flights of steps. It evokes a history. You want to know what those people down there dancing don't care about, and you want to know exactly why he's not dancing, what his problem is, and you sort of know that this conflict, introduced on page one, is the heart of the whole novel. This is better writing. This is better. It is. It is economical. It has rhythms, a sort of formal poetry to it. You can read it out loud and it sounds elegant, like someone watching a ball.

There are people who I like a lot, and I don't think any less of them for it, who couldn't tell me which worked better. Some even insisted that the Thongor passage was the good one.

And that's because the world of genre – and especially games – doesn't rate writing. Art is the least of the concerns of people. And it doesn't just not care about writing, it doesn't recognise it, either way.

The games industry, such as it is, pays so little materially that good writing is the least of its worries, and so with such a horrible standard, I don't actually have any clue if I'm good or not. I want to be. I try to be.

I really don't want to be a primadonna about it, the way that poor Barry Windsor-Smith kind of was with all the talk about comic nerds not buying his comic because they didn't care for "sophisticated storytelling", because I kind of feel I might turn into that guy, might be already turning into that guy, inasmuch as actually I've just heard myself claiming a similar point. Oops.

But, well. I think the difference is that BWS kind of felt the public didn't appreciate his genius, and I'm never going to pretend I'm a genius, because it could well be that I'm just not very good.

I can't tell. I have no way of doing so.

At least if you write a really great novel about a professor having a mid life crisis, you know you can write, but how do you know if you're any good or not when you write games?

It's not that the standards are low. It's that they're irrelevant. I can't express how hard I find that.

1Windsor-Smith had been one of the illustrators of Machine Man 2020, which I think I read when I was maybe ten years old, because it was reprinted as a backup strip in the UK Transformers comic and while I never really took conscious account of things like artists and writers, I remember thinking that this, along with Mike Mignola's Rocket Raccoon, were the absolute best. I understand that he's actually best known for doing Conan back in the 1970s and a really pretty run on X-Men, but I've never read either, so I can't really say how good they are. (back)

2A lot of it is what you'd expect. Comic fans didn't like that it was too big to fit into plastic collector bags, and weren't into the stories, which were awkward and open-ended and arch and a bit meta and not usual comic book fare for the 1990s. Apparently it sold maybe 16,000 copies, total.

A few years later Windsor-Smith attempted to finish the strips for Fantagraphics Books in a set of lovely hardbacks (and yes, I have those too, and they are just as lovely to look at) and wrote about what happened, he couldn't end the story, because the stress of the whole affair meant that even going back to the characters triggered him really badly, so the books are partly unfinished stories with handfuls of half-finished pages at the back, and partly accounts of a terrible time in the artist's life, where, as he saw it, something he had loved and thrown his soul into was torpedoed by people who'd said they were his friends. Which I can sort of sympathise with.

One of the three planned volumes (Paradoxman) never even came out. (back)

3"Seriously, Jaime Lannister is totally a sympathetic character." Like, you expect me to root for a royal (strike 1) who fucks his sister (strike 2) and casually chucks children off tall buildings (strikes 3 through 207), all in the first episode. Like seriously? No. Sorry. No. No. (back)

4This is probably a controversial opinion, right, but really I don't think Watchmen (or much of Alan Moore's work in general) is really all that. But that's not an argument for this post. Maybe another time. (back)

5I have never despised a book quite as much as I hated The World According to Garp. Not even The Da Vinci Code wound me up as much. (back)

6One of the many reasons I really don't like being called a "geek", why I even have trouble typing the word, let alone claiming it for my own, is (apart from horror at the idea that I might want to derive my identity from consumption of mass media, and its indelible association with early life experiences I never want to relive) is that I do actually love this stuff. I love it too much, and I can't bring myself to hate in the way that geeks do. (back)