Friday, June 21, 2013

A Problem of Pastiche

Jury duty is over. Thankfully. I didn’t get called for a jury. In fact, I did nothing for three days but sit around on my butt and read. I love reading but even I was getting a little stir-crazy by the end. I’m free today, though, so time to catch up on a little blogging.

I read quite a few good pieces while sitting around and will review some of them here in time. I’ve reviewed most on Goodreads already. But I read one yesterday that was not so good. I’m going to talk about it a bit here because of the writing lessons it provides, but not give the name because I know who the author is, though it’s not someone I correspond with or anything. I also believe the author genuinely loves the Conan character and is enthusiastic, even if he didn’t get down on the page what he was probably hoping for.

Anyway, so here I am reading a Conan pastiche that I got free from Amazon for the kindle. It picks up where the original Arnold movie left off, which is OK. The first pages aren’t too bad. I’m starting to settle in, when the problems begin. First, Conan and his companion stumble upon the tale’s evildoers. They are cave dwellers mostly, degenerate, etc. That would be fine but they are described as “gnomes.”  I know that “gnomes” have undergone a lot of changes over time but I’m afraid I had a problem seeing them as anything more than garden gnomes from then on. Although the description of them was of something pretty nasty, it was a bit of a problem for me. I could have handled that.

Second, the anachronisms began, and this was quite a bit more of a problem. Conan is supposed to live in the Hyborian Age, far in the past before recorded history. Yet, the author used terms like “mania,” “electrified,” “bronco,” and, worst of all, “cop-out.”  At one point Conan yells “Happy Holidays” to his foes. Sarcastically, I think. These terms really destroyed any sense of realism for me in the tale. The writer is supposed to strive to become invisible behind the flow of the prose, but when you throw in phrases like “cop-out” in a story like this, you are putting the writer front and center.

Fiction is a very carefully crafted lie. As soon as you see through the veil, anything else that is remotely a problem starts to jump out at you. The whole “house of cards” rapidly comes tumbling down. If it hadn’t been for the anachronisms, I might not have noticed other issues with the prose so clearly, most notably the overuse of alliteration, particularly with “G’s,” and the weird use of terms. The author obviously had a pretty large vocabulary but frequently seemed to slightly misuse terms. One example I remember is the phrase “relentless tunnels.”  Endless tunnels maybe. But I couldn’t follow “relentless tunnels.”

Another issue for me was that the character was not anywhere close to the Robert E. Howard character. This Conan was a pure selfless hero, with none of the nuances that Howard brought to the character. In this way, the character didn’t even match the Arnold-portrayed Conan from the movies. This was not a particular problem with the writing. Had the character been called something else it might have worked just fine.

How about you? Do anachronisms bother you? Do you notice phrases like “relentless tunnels?” How do you feel about alliteration?

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30 comments:

Jack Badelaire said...

Whew. I thought you were going to talk about my Nanok short story for a minute there...

I think it's all a matter of intent. When I wrote my Nanok short, I meant it to be very tongue-in-cheek, playing off not just Sword & Sorcery stories from REH's time but more the stuff that came later - 70's pastiches like Kothar, crappy 80's barbarian movies, D&D, and so on, so there's a lot of anachronistic profanity and some subtle (and not so subtle) wink-and-nod humorous references.

Some people liked it, some people found it a little too much, but everyone seemed to "get it" as far as what I was trying to do.

BUT, if my goal was to write an actual Conan pastiche, or follow in the footsteps of some other very conventional and established genre niche (Tolkien rip-offs, George R.R. Martin-esque fantasy, etc.), I'd be annoyed by such modern terms and phrases.

Tom Doolan said...

That happens to me in every genre, in some form or another. For fantasy novels, it's anachronisms, for action/adventure it's technical details (like military rank, branch, etc.). These things do threaten to pull me out of the story, and the only thing that can keep me going is if the story and writing themselves are good. Alliteration rarely bothers me, though I do notice it. I even catch myself doing it, sometimes.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jack, it was pretty clear in this story that it was meant to be serious. I did a Sailor Steve Costigan pastiche that was meant tongue in cheek. Anachronisms can be a big part of such stuff. I see it used a lot by shows like Southpark. Humor seems to have very different rules. Now I wan to read your Nanok short.

Tom, that's true, each genre has some things that you can't really do in a serious story and keep the reader glued to the fiction of it. Maybe a longer post on this topic is needed.

Keith West said...

Anachronisms are one of the quickest ways to throw me out of a story. Even though Howard plundered much of history for the Hyborian Age, he was careful to establish which kingdoms were at what level of technology. And all were pre-Industrial Revolution.

I've not read any of the Conan pastiches. Mainly because they aren't Howard's Conan. Most of the reviews I've read of them haven't made me want to read any. Although I do have a copy of Karl Edward Wagner's The Road of Kings around here somewhere that I'm going to read. Wagner is one of the few writers I would trust with Conan.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

For any 'period' piece, the language needs to reflect the time. That would've yanked me right out of the story.
And the garden gnomes. With their pointy blue hats.

Angie said...

Anachronisms in historical or historical fantasy fiction bug the heck out of me. I mean, I don't expect a writer to necessarily use the original meanings of "nice" or "curious" or "silly," mostly because 99.8% of the readers won't get it, but obvious modernisms should be avoided. I completely agree that "electrified" and "cop-out" and such have no place in a Conan story.

I read a medievalish fantasy a while back where one character asked another if they a conversation could be "put on pause" while he handled something else, and in another chunk of the book he said they were "good to go." The first expression didn't exist until VCRs became fairly common household items, and the second makes me think of NASA Mission Control.

For me, "relentless tunnels" would depend on the context. If he meant not only that they were endless, but also that they were (relentlessly) oppressive or something, then I'd be okay with it. If he just meant they kept going and going, though, then I agree "endless" or something similar would've been better.

Alliteration also depends. If the whole piece has a saga-like tone to it, then alliteration can work very well as part of that. But if it's a more standard narrative that just has chunks of alliteration scattered through it, and it's not obviously meant to be ironic or humorous? Yeah, that might bug me too. I'd have to read the story, though, to know for sure.

Angie

Ty Johnston said...

Of the many reasons I prefer not to make use of non-humans in my fantasy writing, reader expectations is one of them. Thirty years ago this wouldn't have bothered me so much, maybe even 25 years ago. But D&D, media tie-in novels, video games, and movies (especially of the last decade) have provided the public with "definitions" of what an elf is, or a dwarf, or a gnome. So, yeah, "gnome" would have bothered me.

Some minor anachronisms don't bother me, but "cop-out" and "Happy Holidays" might have made me put down the story. When it comes to fantasy, I really try to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, because if we went too far down the rabbit hole, no fantasy characters should be speaking English or any other recognizable language, let alone using those language's idioms. And I definitely don't want to read faux-Elizabethan English in my fantasy.

On the other hand, I never say never. The movie "A Knight's Tale" is totally filled with anachronisms, intentionally, but I felt it worked as a simple piece of fun. It all depends upon the writer. Some might be able to pull it off.

Charles Gramlich said...

Keith, I actually read a bunch of the pastiches back when I was in REHupa, mainly to report on how bad they were. Some were better than others. KEW's Road of Kings wasn't bad. I didn't mind Offut's offerings. Didn't care at all for Jordan really, which is why I never started his wheel of time series.

Alex, this writer's gnomes were indeed blue. So there was a Smurf element as well.

Angie, I like alliteration, but it really needs to have some musical or poetical qualities to it for me. The "relentless tunnels" looked to me like he was writing too fast and just didn't get the right word

Ty, I'm actually more forgiving of movies than of books in the anachronism department, especially if it is played tongue in cheek or light heartedly, as in A Knight's tale.

laughingwolf said...

good you're off that dizzying duty...

was there not a film: robin hood in tights... or some such?

this bozo seems an educated illiterate... kinda like a sober drunk....

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I don't recall coming across instances of alliteration in any of the books I read in recent times. I think it'd bother me if I did. I'd expect it more in children's stories and YA fiction. Anachronisms wouldn't bother me if they were used well in a story where they don't seem so out of sync with reality. That said, I can see why Conan needs to be written about in exactly the way Robert E. Howard wrote him. I think books like the one written by the author you read are the literary equivalent of music remixes that have killed many a good song.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I read mostly literary fiction and it's not as much of a problem there. With the Internet it is easy to check musical or movie references so they seldom get it wrong. I imagine the further you drift from reality, the harder it is. I would bother me though.

the walking man said...

Without sounding like a smart ass I'll have to cop out on this answer until I get around to reading a book written within the last 40 or so years. Though I understand what you're saying and if I was that deeply in search of suspension of reality I think I would catch those little things as I read and they would distract me to the point of annoyance.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Having read so many Conan novels when they were first released in paperback, yeah those quirks in the novel would have ejected me from the story. As you allude to in your post, Conan was a unique Howard manifestation with many shades of both darkness and light. He certainly wasn't a cardboard cutout.

Wow, using cop-out should have rang the bell during editing. That's for sure... and Conan yelling 'Happy Holidays'... just... no.

Lisa said...

Wow. Now I kind of want to read it, if for no other reason than to experience what you've described and learn from it--what *not* to do, of course.

The word 'electrified' might not have ejected me from my suspension of disbelief, provided a proper context, but I agree that blue gnomes and 'Happy Holidays' would have sent me into fits--sort of like the time I caught a cameo of Bluto from Popeye, name and all, in a Lin Carter Callisto yarn. It was tough to take anything in the book serious after that. (I kept waiting for Jandar to eat his spinach.)

As to 'relentless tunnels,' that does ring a bit false, if only because I expect something to be actively relentless. Tunnels, in spite of their possible inhabitants, tend to be more passive in my thinking.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, there was a Men in tights Robin hood film. I Think I even saw it, though I don't remember much about it.

Prashant, yes, that's a good analogy. Music remixes. Had not really thought of it in that way.

Patti, some if it just seemed so obviously wrong. That writer never switched into editorial mode, I guess.

Mark, I know you've read at least a couple of things written in the last 40 years. You even reviewed one by me! BTW, I intended to email you and it slipped my mind. I finished reading Polysyllabic. Enjoyed it much, as I expected, but I didn't find a place on Amazon or goodreads to review it. if there's somewhere you'd like me to review it email me and I will do so.

Bernard, Those two were especially "wince worthy."

Lisa, yes, I think it's the "active" tunnels that is the main issue. That's something else about the Bluto in Callisto. I read those and didn't catch it, or have forgotten it perhaps. I may have to reread just for that craziness.

Snowbrush said...

Yep, jury duty is often much ado about nothing. I'm glad it doesn't appear to have been odious for you.

Steve Malley said...

I'm in the middle of a couple of almost-but-not-quite Proctorizable (Proctable?) works right now: One is so subtly flawed that it's going to need more space than a comment. The other, Redshirts by John Scalzi, is pretty damn brilliant *except* for ONE thing...
The book is a sendup on Star Trek, told from the crew's point of view, as they struggle to avoid the obvious mortality of being assigned to an away team. It's a really fun story, which makes The Problem that much worse...
Every, every, EVERY scrap of dialogue has an attribution. Almost all of them are 'said'. Seriously. Every single time a person speaks, they get their name and 'said'. It's like a tic, and it's driving me nuts.
Doesn't help either that I'm listening to it as an audiobook. Will Wheaton is doing a fine job narrating, but you can even hear him struggle with the constant use of 'said'.
Grrr!

Charles Gramlich said...

Snowbrush, as long as I have a book I can tolerate most things.

Steve Malley, I bet that would be less of a problem in print than in audio. I wonder, though.

Deka Black said...

anachronisms bothering me? yes indeed! Aliteration... if used the right way can be fun. But only the right amount

X. Dell said...

Other than Caleb Carr, I don't really read historical fiction. So I really don't know if anachronisms bother me.

I don't mean to knock the genre, especially your contribution to it, but the fantasy tales have never impressed me as either real, or realistic. Perhaps that's why I'm not generally a reader of such stories.

I could imagine that if there were a whole lot of deliberate anachronisms, the result would be somewhat humorous. But the selfless hero, for me, might be the real turnoff.

Charles Gramlich said...


Deka, alliteration is definitely in the "less is more" category.

X. Dell, Because fantasy is clearly not realistic, I think that's why writers have to strive to be even more careful in avoiding anachronisms and other kinds of mistakes. It's very easy to throw a reader out of the tale, even those of us who do read it.

Travis Cody said...

I do have trouble with anachronisms and misplaced language. If a writer goes to all the trouble of inventing a world, then I think a critical aspect of that world is to take great care with the way your characters are named and with the way they speak.

Religions, military structure, and curse words are particularly troublesome for me in stories. I don't know why, but the use of captain or sergeant in a made up military hierarchy seems fine to me. But throw in any other modern rank and the world wobbles in my mind.

Oscar said...

I try to keep a lookout for anachronisms, but sometimes they just happen to sneak in somehow.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Cody, I too don't have a problem with Captain, or Commander. Other titles do bother me though. kind of weird.

Oscar, Its hard to keep 'em all out because we all think in the time that we live.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Wow...a lot of interesting stuff for comment in this posting. I don't have problem with any literary device as long as it works with the piece as a whole. And for some pulp, you need that language.

David Cranmer said...

Pastiche's are hit and miss for me and mostly miss. It takes an accomplished hand to pull it off. Some of those Sherlock Holmes are awful.

Victorian Barbarian said...

Alliteration has gotten a bad rep, but in the right hands, it is an important device. I'll grant it belongs more in poetry than prose (see Tolkien's King Arthur poems, recently published for the first time). Still, it is pretty awful when misused, which is the reason everyone warns against it.

Victorian Barbarian said...

Alliteration has gotten a bad rep, but in the right hands, it is an important device. I'll grant it belongs more in poetry than prose (see Tolkien's King Arthur poems, recently published for the first time). Still, it is pretty awful when misused, which is the reason everyone warns against it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Stewart, I like alliteration generally, as long as it's not overused. I don't particularly like alliteration using the "g" sound. Not quite sure why.

David, I've only read on Holmes pastiche and it was OK, though nothing to write "home" about.

Victorian Barbarian, As I mentioned to Stewart above, I often have a problem with alliteration using the "G" sound. I remember reading something like "goggling gasp" in a Robert Jordan book one time and it was awful.

jodi said...

Charles, I'm probably the only person you know that doesn't mind jury duty. I've served 3 times and recently got the notice that I will be called again. Hope it's an interesting case!