Monday, December 10, 2018

Mark Twain's Rules

Mark Twain sets out the rules of adventure fiction in a scathing review of James Fenimore Cooper's Deerslayer:

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," [James Fenimore Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "Deerslayer" tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

As Tom Simon said, "it is a pity that Twain never tells us the rule that Cooper did not violate."

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Pulp Radio: The Shadow - "The Mark of the Bat"

Walter Gibson died on this date in 1985. In honor of the master, here is a radio play featuring his best-known character, the immortal Shadow.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Science Fiction Legacy of Marvel

Over the last couple weeks, I might have sounded a bit bullish about Marvel Science Stories and its effect on science fiction. This pulp by Red Circle, the parent company for today's Marvel Comics, certainly brought science fiction to the eyes of more publishers than just Street & Smith. However, I will disagree with Isaac Asimov's assessment of the magazine. Marvel Science Stories was not a spicy; it was a weird menace pulp.

Weird menace was a skin and sadism genre that sparked an increasing backlash by the public. To build upon its thrills, weird menace featured stories of younger and younger women in impending peril. Red Circle as a line reveled in these stories of torture and porn. Public outrage built, and teens and children stopped reading pulps. When a Red Circle pulp ran a story where a crowd of leering men crucified a twelve-year old, with descriptions that bordered on the lascivious, the government stepped in, banned weird menace, and censored the pulps.

The weird manace tale did leave an imprint on the development of the genre. Even as early as the 1930s, science fiction strove for respectability. During the Campbelline Revolution, Jack Williamson recounts that”science fiction had to be pure as snow”. Fandom wanted no trace of weird menace in its science fiction.  And the censors in place after weird menace’s fall kept sexual content out of Amazing, Astounding, and their competitors. Or as much as possible, for:
It became a grim or frivolous game for some of the writers who were, of course, not fools, to see what they could slip by without editorial knowledge or consent. One famously was able to get through J. W. Campbell and Kay Tarrant a description of a tomcat as a “ball-bearing mousetrap” and Asimov’s 1951 “Hostess” in Galaxy reeked of the perversity of sexual attraction between an alien diplomat and a repressed academic’s wife but these triumphs were few and, more to the point, unnoticed. If they had attracted wide attention, the writers would have paid the price.
Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 523-528). Baen Books.
Barry Malzberg further explains in Breakfast in the Ruins that “as late as 1965, science fiction was still a genre which in the main denied the existence, let alone the extent, of human sexuality” and that it wasn’t until “the beginning of the nineteen-seventies, [that] novels of great or relative explicitness (Silverberg’s Dying Inside, The Second Trip, and The World Inside, my own Beyond Apollo) bore the label of category science fiction.”

In short, fan and government backlash against weird menace removed sex as a topic of science fiction for over thirty years, until the rise of the New Wave--who then ran the topic into the ground with as much excess as possible.

As for authors who associated with Red Circle and Marvel Science Stories? Henry Kuttner contributed "Time Trap" to Marvel Science Stories, a move that tainted him from then on. In the eyes of many fans, Kuttner was nothing more than a smut merchant from that point onward. He became the second of the Campbelline grandmasters to be scrubbed out of the popular history by fannish contempt.

So the real legacy of Marvel Comics in science fiction is a record of three decades of censorship and the erasure of one of pulp fiction's best from the popular canon.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Quick Peep at the Spicy Pulps

Starting to look into the spicies via the Blood N Thunder guide. Looks like I'll have to add Spicy Mystery to the most influential pulps list. It started the weird menace craze that damn near caused the government to kill the pulps. Weird menace also drove the kids into comics.

Part of the reason the spicies remained popular with authors is because they PAID. Not just on time, which was a novelty, but well--as in 5 cents a word at a time where 1 cent a word was professional rate. The problem is, in markets limited to innuendo and indirect description of undress, only a score of authors could write within the rules.

Guess how many of those were Weird Tales authors writing under pseudonyms.

Three, including R.E. Howard as Sam Walser . (As I said, at least the spicies paid, which wasn't always the case with Weird Tales under Farnsworth Wright.) Add three more WT writers willing to write spicies under their own name, including E. Hoffman Price and Henry Kuttner.

That said, the rest of the field wasn't quite up to the same quality. The catch was being able to write suggestively without resorting to tab A into slot B depictions of the act, and few could deliver.

Anatomical descriptions were out, as was complete nudity and any details of the act the heroine submitted to. The women could disrobe voluntarily or have their clothes torn from them, but some scrap of cloth had to remain. The idea was to have a strong sexual element without being obscene or vulgar. That said, right now, many YA, LNs, and romance novels would be too explicit for the spicies.

But with (the barest hint of ) sex selling, the rest of the story not surprisingly fell by the wayside. Many of the spicies chose exotic settings as to offer more convincing opportunities for the ladies to be in undress. Unfortunately, the exotic settings and plots don't compare to the descriptions found in the hero pulps and Weird Tales. Everything was a thin excuse to get to the ellipses, where the real action occurred in the readers' minds.

To no surprise, with the restrictions of the spicies compare to outright girlie or "smoosh" magazines such as Stage and Screen Stories and Tattle Tales, which both featured far more revealing covers, writers made up for lack of titillation with a penchant for peril, which became impending torture, which became weird menace. Afterwards, the spicies burned out as stronger thrills and more explicit images became easier to acquire. But for five years, the Spicy was queen.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Uncanny: How Marvel's Spicies Saved Science Fiction

Pulps and comics are kissing cousins. Not only have comics plundered the pulps for heroes, stories, and franchises, in many cases, comics and pulps were owned by the same publishers. For instance, Street & Smith's Chelsea House imprint ran comics of most of their pulp books. But Marvel holds special ties to science fiction. Not only does The House of Ideas continue to provide opportunities for science fiction writers to work in comics, it set the stage for the Campbelline Revolution through Marvel Science Stories, a nine issue pulp that ran between 1938 and 1941.

Like Marvel's predecessor, Timely Comics, Marvel Science Stories was part of the Red Circle imprint, published by Martin Goodman, who would later become a cousin by marriage to Stan Lee. Red Circle books covered the gamut of westerns, detective stories, weird menace, and adventures, but they appealed to a baser instinct than most of their competition. That's right, Red Circle dealt with the "spicies", those salacious stories of sin and sadism that seem so utterly quaint in today's age of Game of Thrones.

Originally, Marvel Science Stories adhered to the growing fannish standard of science fiction. But as editor Robert O. Erisman learned, sex sells:


Williamson was not the only one in science fiction to despise Marvel Science Stories. Fandom's impressions were generally negative, if not outright hostile:

"I was just about to write you a letter of complete congratulations when my eyes fell upon Kuttner's "The Time Trap". All I can say is: PLEASE, in the future, dislodge such trash from your magazine."--William Hamling

"For some half a dozen issues or so, a magazine I won't name" published "spicy" stories about "the hot passion of alien monsters for Earthwomen. Clothes were always getting ripped off and breasts were described in a variety of elliptical phrases" for its "few readers" before "the magazine died a deserved death" -- Isaac Asimov

Some of this is just fannish snobbery, as Williamson explained. And Marvel's sister magazines "Dynamic Science Stories", "Uncanny Stories", and more fell along the same pattern, with similar disdain for the quality. "Historians identify only three stories of quality: Nelson S. Bond's "The Message from the Void" (published under the pseudonym "Hubert Mavity"); L. Sprague de Camp's "Ananias"; and Manly Wade Wellman's "Insight"."

But what Marvel Science Stories represents is the first new science fiction magazine since the original rush of science fiction stories. "After 1931, when Miracle Science and Fantasy Stories was launched, no new science fiction magazines appeared until August 1938, when Abraham and Martin Goodman, two brothers who owned a publishing company with multiple imprints, launched Marvel Science Stories." It kindled publisher interest in science fiction and fantasy as a genre, leading to the creation of Unknown, Planet Stories, and more. And to compete in this new boom market of science fiction, Astounding hired John Campbell...

So, if it was not for the publication of Marvel Science Stories by a smut peddler of its day, science fiction would have continued to stagnate in the mess caused by Hugo the Rat's predations. After all, as Gus Grissom said in The Right Stuff, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Storytelling and Communication

Over the weekend, The Frisky Pagan put on an impromptu writing clinic over at his blog, The Emperor's Notepad. And when he ponders, he ponders deeply. Of particular note are his first three days.

On the 9th, he tackles what he calls "Deep POV"--or a strict, character-locked version of the limited third-person point of view:
I believe that what defines [deep POV] is something that doesn’t appear in any of its definitions, it’s something that is implied but not acknowledged, an unintended consequence: killing the narrator as an independent character and observers. In other words, no text will be written unless it’s perceived or processed through some character’s (deepish or not) POV. I don’t believe deepness is really the point here; it’s that the narrator disappears as an independent character.
On the 10th, first-person narrators:
I became very aware of that when I found myself reading a story, I think it was a short story but it could have been a novel, an urban fantasy I believe, with a first-person, past-tense narrator. The narrator was in the middle of a car chase and did all sort of cool stuff, very detailed cool stuff, and I thought, this is it, that’s what is wrong with these stories: there’s no way anybody could remember all that. 
All these first-person narrators have an eidetic memory. They keep pointing out the people’s shoe colors, or that they were fiddling with their cuffs, or that their own eyebrows arched at a precise microsecond… And this is supposed to be someone telling you his personal story, his life, perhaps years later after the fact? It’s not, of course, it’s just a traditional third-person narration with the pronouns switched.
And on the 11th, the traditional method vs. the traditional wisdom of story openings:
Now, I’m not saying this will make me throw out the book, but you notice the difference, right? All the older books start by setting the scene, the setting, even the plot… contemporary fiction starts by telling you someone you know nothing about leans to one side of his chair.  
Although modern fiction tries to imitate movies, if this were a movie, this is not how the movie would start. A movie doesn’t start with a close, very close shot of someone smiling and leaning on his/her chair. It starts with a wider shot of the television set, establishing the scene, telling you it’s not a live interview, THEN you focus on the characters.
In response, Misha Burnett joins in teaching the clinic:
What Emperor X got me thinking about, though, was that there is another side to the fictive conversation. Voice is determined not simply by who is talking, but by whom is being talked to. 
Imagine that you are relating the story of an accident that occurred at your workplace. You are going to tell the story very differently to the police, to your boss, to a coworker who was off that day, and to a friend who knows you, but has never been to your work. 
Even assuming that you tell the absolute truth in all instances, the way you tell the story, which details you include or leave out, how you describe the actions and personalities of the people involved, the order in which you describe the events, all of these things will be determined by the person listening to the you tell the story. 
Hence the “Invisible Character”, the Listener.
Taken together, the blog posts reaffirm the ancient wisdom of communication, that the act of communicating requires a speaker, a message, and an audience. Given that writing has such a separation between the speaker and the audience, it is no surprise that many writers forget about the audience altogether. Many literary novelties are written for the speaker's sake--such as three codas to a story written in the three persons of point of view--and not for the effect on the audience. The faults tackled in these blogs all boil down to writers forgetting about the audience and focusing on the flash of writing, like a metalhead speed freak who can shred through guitar riffs but cannot play a song.

Check out all the articles, there's more gold to be gleaned.