Literature

Provincial Life and My Difference of Opinion with Virginia Woolf

Middlemarch First Edition

I find Virginia Woolf to be remarkably clear-headed.  Her A Room of One’s Own is one of the few pieces of purely feminist (or purely political, for that matter) writing that I’ve ever read which feels that it was written by someone who was intelligent and thoughtful first and foremost, as opposed to someone defined by their agenda.  It is not only readable, but actually brilliant.

Unfortunately, when it comes to George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, I find myself disagreeing with Woolf violently–which is bad because I’m pretty sure most people will come down on Woolf’s side in any argument, and also because she has been dead for ages, and I can’t actually discuss it with her.

Woolf, as some of you might know, probably gave the most famous review of Middlemarch when she expressed the opinion that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”  Writing from the vantage point of 1902, that is very dismissive of everyone from Austen to Thackarey (and let’s not forget the Bell brothers).

Such a ringing endorsement made Middlemarch a must-read.  So read it I did.  And it fell reasonably flat (which is what all the other critics were saying, but I went and believed Woolf!).

Yes, it is for grown-ups.  Of that, there is little doubt.  But it is not for every grown-up.  It is for those men and women whom earlier generations referred to as “Serious-minded”, which seems to mean earnest people obsessed with important issues and for whom smiling was something of a lost art.  Humor, of course, is for children and the unwashed masses.

A Room Of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf, First edition Cover

In that light, Middlemarch works very well.  It plods along logically and earnestly, eventually becoming a character study of many of the types of people you would have found in the English countryside in the late 19th century.  It’s not bad, but one can’t help feel that it would have benefited from having Jane Austen edit it.  Better still, Thackeray whose character studies as much more biting.  No, wait…  Best of all would have been Oscar Wilde.

What I’m trying to say here is that the book is too lineal and earnest for its own good.  Real grown-ups, no matter what Virginia Woolf said, are people who appreciate humor as well as obligation, people who understand that a good life life contains levity as well as grey porridge.

Perhaps the lucid Woolf of A Room of One’s Own wasn’t the real one.  Perhaps she really was as humorless and agenda driven as so many others before and after her have been when they dedicated their lives to a particular cause.

But I choose to believe not.

So the only thing left to do is to read To The Lighthouse, I guess.  That should settle the matter pretty definitively, and show once again how little provocation is required for me to pick up a random classic book.

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James Bond? Not Exactly…

I’m a fan of Joseph Conrad.  I believe that his novella Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest explorations of what really resides in the souls of men ever written.  Today, it has fallen somewhat out of favor because certain vocal literary critics focus on the colonial trappings… and thereby manage to miss the point of the book entirely.  In fact, I like this book so much that I became a bit of a scholar regarding it, and was even asked to write the introduction to the edition linked above.

So when I sat down to read a Conrad book about spies and conspirators, I thought to myself “I am in for quite a treat.”

Turns out I wasn’t.

The Secret Agent - Conrad - First Edition

The Secret Agent, a seminal book about a terrorist plot in England seemed dry and stale and boring.  The bad guys seemed painfully incompetent and unimaginative, and the plot moved at the speed of frozen molasses in quicksand, ti mix three metaphors.

This was the book that, directly or indirectly led to–or at least influenced–the spy genre as we know it?  This is the one that inspired the Unabomber?  Really?

Well, yes, and the secret to understanding what went awry in my own reading comes down to one thing: expectations.

What I was expecting was a fantastic story about glamorous spies that flirts with the edges of plausibility.  What I got was the slightly dramatized retelling of a real-life story of badly-organized and somewhat incompetent anarchists.

Let’s start with that second part, first.  The bare bones of the plot are based around a failed bombing in London in 1894 whose only victim was the bomber himself (a man who intended to plant his bomb and walk away unscathed).   Names are changed, but that is the story. Not only is the plot uninspiring, but it is also told from the viewpoint of the bad guys… which is cool if your protagonist is Al Capone, or someone equally competent, but not so motivating in this case.

So yes, the book is somewhat at fault–even in 1907 there had to be better secret villains to write about–but let’s look at my other point: fantastic vs. slightly dramatic.  In hindsight, it becomes clear that, as the secret agent novel gained popularity, more baroque and twisted stories needed to be concocted and the heroes slowly migrated from regular men in extraordinary circumstances as in The Thirty-Nine Steps (another book with an intro by yours truly… I’m beginning to sense a pattern here) to very exceptional men and women tested to the limits of their own enormous capabilities.

Joseph Conrad

When we read a book in this niche today, we expect the writer to stand on at least some of the shoulders of the giants who came before him.  Yes, the Fleming books from the sixties are tame by today’s standards, but at least some of the tropes are already present, and the cover art is marvelous.

This immediately leads to the question of who those giants are.  And that is where this volume truly comes into its own.  When you dig into the mass of names: Fleming, Buchan, Householder, standing near the bottom, holding up many of the cherished authorial heroes, is old man Conrad.

So, if you are going to read one Conrad book in your life, read Heart of Darkness.  But If you want to understand where Tom Clancy and John LeCarré are coming from, The Secret Agent is worth the effort. At the very least you will have a good example of art that was a victim of its own success.

The Good and the Bad of Critiques

This time, our columnist Richard H. Fay brings us an opinion piece–one that, as writers and editors ourselves, is close to our hearts. You’re mileage may vary but one thing is certain: you will definitely learn something about the ins and outs of the process in the piece that follows.  If you like his pieces for us, we remind you that his blog is here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Walt Whitman Manuscript

While critiques and literary criticisms often contain useful advice for the aspiring author and poet, there is a dark side to this sector of the literary realm. What I hate most about the world of critiques and criticisms are critical insults cloaked in the guise of constructive feedback. Although critiques can help a budding writer’s skills blossom, and can even help more established writers catch unnoticed flaws, some writers claiming to dish out critiques (or comments resembling critiques) miss the entire concept that personal opinions, tastes, and interpretations of what is “good” and what is “bad” differ tremendously from person to person, from reader to reader, from “critter” to “critter”. They feel that their individual opinion is literary law, and that their personal interpretation of this law is written in stone. Clearly, this is not the case.

During my quest to become a published poet, I’ve encountered some comments and attitudes that obviously went well beyond mere criticism of my poetic works. In certain circles, I’ve been called a wannabe and a poetaster, remarks that were clearly less examples of constructive criticism and more examples of critical insults – “bad critiques”, if you will. However, in different circles, I’ve been called a master poet. Some people may strongly disagree with the way I write, finding fault in my preferred choice of voice and style. Others see great merit in the way I pen my works, and applaud my cadence, verbiage, and overall approach to poetry composition. Who is right, and who is wrong? Should I change the way I write poetry because some people feel it isn’t worthy, or should I keep doing what works for me, and what works for certain editors and certain publishers (and many of my readers)?

Should a writer listen to what others have to say? Of course, as any artist, a writer should learn to grow and develop their craft. And feedback from others, both positive and negative, is a vital part of this never-ending process of growth and development. I have certainly grown as a poet after listening to what some editors have said to me in personal rejection letters and revision requests. I have often followed their advice on how to add more depth, substance, and artistry to my work. However, I don’t feel a writer should dwell on critiques. A writer is not required to act on every negative critique or criticism received. At some point in a writer’s career, they have to rely just as much on their own judgment and instincts. They have to consider the value of each critique on a case-by-case basis. They have to realize when the critique being given is truly constructive, and when it is merely counter-productive. And sometimes, even a critique given with the best of intentions can fall far from the intended mark. It can be crazy out there, and quite toxic at times, and critique is one of those areas that can all too easily slip into the toxic versus the beneficial.

In my opinion, the difference between a “good critique” and a “bad critique” can often be a matter of the difference between critiquing the written work at hand and critiquing the writer of that work. It is the difference between stating that the story or poem under question is flawed, versus claiming the creator of that piece is a flawed writer or poet. Few human beings respond positively to personal insults, no matter how eloquently worded or full of literary jargon those insults may be. And even those critiques of a writer’s general skills that avoid blatant insults may still lose sight of the bigger picture, arriving at an improper judgment of someone’s overall ability based on the paltriest of evidence.

Ideally, an editor, slush reader, or “critter” shouldn’t really judge someone’s overall skills as a poet or writer based on only one or two pieces, especially if that writer or poet has already penned and sold several works which could be used to better judge that individual’s overall skills and abilities. Such commentary becomes a general criticism of the writer or poet, instead of a specific criticism of the story or poem under consideration. That sort of attitude strays too close to those that fling about the terms “wannabe” or “poetaster” for my own personal comfort. And, it could be argued, it certainly smacks of a personal dislike for an individual’s work, whatever the underlying reasons may truly be.

In terms of the nuts-and-bolts of critiques and criticisms, I grow especially irritated when opinions and tastes are presented as literary absolutes, which often happens with such things. Differing opinions of my work from different editors and readers leads me to believe that most criticisms are not literary absolutes. I suspect that the aspects being criticized are not unalterable laws that all poets and writers must follow, or else. Plus, in terms of critiques, comments, and rejections from editors, it may be sacrilege, but I don’t feel that editors walk on water. I believe that they can be wrong on occasion, that they can let their personal preferences shade their views, just like the rest of us. And some editors may plain dislike an individual’s style, while putting an editorial sheen on that dislike to make it look like literary criticism. Does this mean that the writer must change their style because of what one editor (or one group of editors) says, especially if that very same style works elsewhere? I honestly don’t think so. It brings one back to the idea of judging the value of each critique on a case-by-case basis.

Perhaps I simply found my literary voice, and confidence in that voice, early-on. Others still finding their literary voice, still searching for a style that fits, may approach critiques and criticisms differently. However, because I have developed a confidence in my voice and style, I don’t feel the need to make wholesale changes to my preferred voice and style based on individual critiques and criticisms. I may listen, but I don’t necessarily act on what I hear. I have no desire to make changes just to fit in at a certain market, just so I can add another notch to my tally of venues conquered. In some instances, I don’t think I could change enough to fit in anyway.

Many moons ago, I came to the realization that my style may not work for all markets. It happens. Writers and poets have to acknowledge that reality sooner or later. Some places just aren’t a good fit, no matter what one does to try to fit in. However, there are other markets, other publications, out there. And some of those may be a much better fit for one’s work anyway. It may take some trial-and-error, and the use of market listings like Duotrope’s Digest and Ralan’s Webstravanganza, to find the right venue, but it can be done.

As for those on the other side of critiques; if you are addressing potential problems with the text, then you are doing your job as an editor or “critter”. After all, a writer’s work should display a functional grasp of grammar and syntax. Writers should show that they have at least some understanding of what works and what doesn’t. And sometimes you need to be a bit harsh if a written work contains many glaring flaws. However, there is a difference between a harsh but honest criticism and an insult. You don’t have to insult the writer’s abilities in general when criticizing a particular example of that writer’s work. Insults may just stir negative emotions, rather than eliciting a positive change.

Critiques, whether positive or negative, are going to be reflective of the critic’s personal preferences and biases. While writers should never let hubris blind them to the opportunities to grow found within individual critiques and criticisms, such commentary should always be seen as one opinion among many. Other critics with different tastes may evaluate the same material differently. Those handing out literary critiques should keep the same thing in mind. Never let critical insults take the place of constructive criticism. Avoid the path to the toxic.

(Originally published in the Creator and the Catalyst, August 2009.)

Acton Bell was the Best of them

It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Acton Bell.  After all, this was a writer overshadowed by better-known siblings Currer Bell and Ellis Bell.

What?  You haven’t heard of them either?

Ah, you must not be a collector of first editions or a student of literary history.  You see Currer Bell published a novel entitled Jane Eyre, while Ellis was responsible for a tome entitled Wuthering Heights.

first edition tenant of wildfell hall

Yes, they were.  Google the first editions if you don’t believe me.

All right.  In their era, it was difficult to get published, so the Brontë sisters sold their work under male pseudonyms, Ellis, Acton and Currer being the sobriquets chosen by Emily, Anne and Charlotte.  But while even the most casual readers are familiar with the work of Emily and Charlotte–either via the written word or the countless TV and film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (or, for absolute bizarreness, the music video of the latter)–very few have been exposed to Anne’s work.

There is a reason for that.  Charlotte, who was the only one who didn’t die terribly young, kept Anne’s novels from being reprinted after her death (she is also rumored to have burned a manuscript of a second novel by Emily).  So while Charlotte’s work was becoming ever more well known, Annes languished, only beginning to get critical recognition much later, with the early feminist movement.

Political use of her work aside, it’s a true pity that Anne seems to be the forgotten sister (brother Branwell, by all accounts, squandered any talent he might have had due to a dissipated lifestyle).  Judging simply by her writing, she seems to have been, by far, the best of the three.

Yes, I know. That’s supposed to be Emily, the firebrand whose prose scars you as you read.

Yes, it’s true that Emily’s writing, and her characters are both more memorable than Charlotte’s.  They are tortured, egoistic souls stymied by their preferences and circumstances and as melodramatic as it is possible to be.  Definitely better than Charlotte’s stultifying boredom (yes, I know there was a madwoman in a tower.  Still boring)…

Anne Brontë by Branwell Brontë

But Anne, as a novelist, took more risks than Charlotte, and wrote a clearer, better-paced story than Emily.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the best of the Brontë novels.  If you don’t believe me, that’s because you haven’t read it.  It contains sympathetic protagonists who defy the conventions of their time enough that they feel almost modern, and the story is about the way they struggle against those conventions and the consequences of rebellion.  Also, it has an antagonist who deserves to be despised.

Though the novel’s re-acceptance into 19th century canon is cause for rejoicing, it’s a bit unfair that it’s been tarred with the “early feminist novel” brush.  That alone will keep many people from approaching this book–anyone familiar with the writing of Kate Chopin will have learned their lesson: writing that only survives because of a political push is always terrible, even if the politics are sound.  It’s a pity that this should be so because Anne’s novel is actually good literature, despite the anger that might or might not have informed some of its more memorable scenes.

Yes, the very act of writing and publishing this book was a feminist act (as was that of Wuthering Heights, which is just about the most un-feminist book I can think of), and yes, when Anne’s protagonist leaves her husband, it was the first time something like that had happened in a major English novel.

But there are more important things going on in this book, and the political significance, whether contemporary or post-mortem, was given to it by others.  It’s really just a book about characters dealing with their world as best they can.  And it excels in that light.

So go to your library and ask them for something by Acton Bell.  Hopefully, a librarian should know what you mean… if not, send them here!

Book Recommendation: Incursion by Gustavo Bondoni

So, for those of you who’ve been enjoying our content over the past four years, we wanted to drop you a line to let you know that our Editor-In-Chief has published yet another new novel and he’ll fire us if we don’t plug it here (not the first time we’ve used these words–he had published one called Siege late last year!)!

Incursion by Gustavo Bondoni - Cover

It was supposed to be a desperate suicide mission, a holding action designed to delay a deadly enemy bent on destroying humanity: five starships sent to their doom, thousands of men and women knowingly laying down their lives to buy time for the besieged human race.

And then things got really hairy.

Tristan, a highly trained shock marine, wakes up after the trip to find that nothing works: not his equipment, not his ship, not even his body…

He joins the race against time to bring their equipment back up to fighting trim and begin to understand what has happened to them and to unravel the layers of confusion and betrayal.

But the enemy waiting for them doesn’t care about any of that. They just want to destroy the human incursion as quickly as possible.

Despite having been launched recently, this one already has at least a few good reviews,and you can buy it from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Writing Ideas Come from the Strangest Places

Today’s post is written by writer Gustavo Bondoni, who also happens to be our Editor-in-Chief. He speaks a little to that age-old question about where writers get their ideas.

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey Cover

To be brutally honest, I thought that my reading of Thomas De Quincey’s best known work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, was going to be another of those things that I would simply have to file away under “I read it because it was supposed to be a classic, but it’s not really all that enthralling.”

This isn’t to say that the book wasn’t memorable. The subject matter, and the first person perspective combined to ensure that it is a deeply visceral work.  The main problem with it is that it manages, somehow, to be dry and overwritten at the same time.  The fact that it became a best seller was due more to the controversial nature of the work than the writing.  Both the subject matter itself and the fact that De Quincey seemed to harp upon the pleasures of laudanum and downplay the pains both contributed to a good number of books sold.

When I finished it, I was happy to have read it and thought about it for a bit, but did not feel that it would be among those books that would influence me when writing my own work.

The above just proves how much I know.

A year after finishing Opium Eater, I found myself writing a noir novel set in Buenos Aires during WWII.   Argentina was neutral in the conflict, and the cabarets of the city were likewise unaffiliated, catering to Axis, Allies, rich and poor alike.  And I found that laudanum and the opium it was made from played a key role not just in the recreational activities of the characters, but also in the political background.

Bottle of Laudanum

Now, I don’t know if the drug would have been there or not if I hadn’t read De Quincey’s book.  After all, there were fewer recreational drugs available back then, and there was a war on, which meant that some products–especially those from Asia–presented more interesting logistical and political ramifications than, say, cocaine, which is from the Americas.  So it’s possible that opium would have been present anyway.  But one thing that I’m certain of is that the image of how addicts behaved, the shape of  that particular situation in my mind, certainly wouldn’t have been the same.

So, of the dozens of books I read in a year, one that I expected to pass unnoticed had contributed significantly to one of my novels.  I certainly didn’t see that coming, but those things happen.  I had Incursion under contract by that time, so I wrote that book, which has no sign of opium in it at all.  Normality, it seemed, had been reestablished.

After incursion, I decided to writer a sort of elegy for the life of pre WWI Italy.  My next novel took place in the late spring and early summer of 1914.  It was a book that I initially intended to be a tale in the vein of Brideshead Revisited, with a sort of misty, soft-focus nostalgia made infinitely more poignant by the fact that we all know what happened after that summer, and we know all about the waste and suffering of the Great War.

But as I began to write, the characters decided that they had their own ideas about how they should act and what the book would be about (other writers will know what I mean), and the edge that was supposed to be delivered by the reader’s own knowledge of events began to make its way onto the pages.  Suddenly this wasn’t a comment on that last glorious summer of the traditional European aristocracies, but became a comment on both the good and the bad of their way of life.  Sex crept in (much more copiously than I’d planned–this one is by far the raunchiest of my books), as did the abuse of power relationships.  And drugs.  You can’t have a good post-fin-de-siécle blowout without a drug or two.

And which drug played the most prominent role?  Why, laudanum, of course.  And De Quincey is back once again.

I’d never list the man as one of my major influences.  I still feel he hasn’t contributed much to my style or my subjects.  But he seems to have delivered my particular drug of choice–at least for my mainstream novels set in the past century…

It just goes to show that you never can tell.

The Defining Moment of Modernist Literature

There are certain literary works about which it is universally agreed that everyone should read them once in their lives.  The traditional classics, of course: Homer, the other Greeks, Virgil and certain other Romans.  Dante and Beowulf.  Then there are the more modern works such as Cervantes and Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Voltaire.  There are books among the Romantics and Victorians that are considered mandatory: Austen, two of the Brontë sisters (probably the wrong ones, but that’s a post for another day), Dickens and Thackaray.  Melville.  After that, perhaps Hemingway and Fitzgerald, maybe interspersed with some Salinger and Woolf to keep people honest.  The list above does not attempt to be comprehensive, it’s just off the top of my head… but most people know which classics they should have read by now.

Ulysses by James Joyce - First edition

There are some gaps in my own reading, even of the limited list above.  I haven’t read enough of the non-Homer and Virgil classics.  And I’m missing a boatload of poets and dramatists, mainly because I prefer prose (which made reading Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Dante a chore).

But I can finally hold my head up high despite all of this.  You see, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses from cover to cover.  In fact, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Why, I can hear people asking as they scratch their heads, is Ulysses so significant?  It won’t change the fact that I’m woefully lacking in Yeats and Cicero, after all.

Well there are a couple of answers to that one.  The first is perhaps more banal: even among people who self-describe as extremely well-read, there are many who only pretend to have read the thing.  No one likes to admit that they haven’t cracked a significant volume open, but unless it was specifically mandated in college, most won’t have.  That, alone, makes me happy to have taken the effort.

The second reason is because Joyce was anointed as the absolute master of modernist literature and, since the Modernists (note capital M), like all -ists believed that their movement was the be-all and end-all of artistic relevance, he was therefore the greatest writer to ever live.

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but it’s fair to say that, by  adopting a number of then-revolutionary techniques, modernism (unlike its successor, post-modernism, which has contributed little to anything but irrelevant and impractical political stances) did help to mold what we consider contemporary prose.  If nothing else, stream-of-consciousness has become a perfectly valid modern-day tool.

And which book is the standard-bearer for stream-of-consciousness?  Well, it has to be Ulysses, doesn’t it?  An argument might be made for Woolf, but it would be a short one, mainly because most people agree that Joyce was the writer who epitomizes this technique, and Ulysses is the novel where he shows it off.

Joyce Ulysses Period REview Clipping

OK.  So the book is relevant.  But how is it to read?

That answer also has two facets.  The first is that of a reader approaching it for the first time.  The amount of ink dedicated to explaining how to go about that is astounding (it’s a good thing we don’t get our ink from squids, or mass extinctions would have ensued).  They tell you to first familiarize yourself with homer, then read the manuals and commentaries and then…

No.

If you’re a reader of this blog, then you are likely to be pretty well-read and of above-average intelligence and culture.  In fact, the mere fact that you’ve heard of Ulysses and are thinking of picking it up probably means that you don’t need to do all that to read a mere novel.  No matter if that book is the vaunted champion of the modernist world.

Pick it up.  Turn to the first page.  Read to the end.  You will catch some of the allusions.  You will miss others.  But, crucially, you will have formed your own opinion about it.  The book will have a shape inside your head unaffected by what others have said or thought.  It will be your reading.  And that is priceless.

Only afterwards does the second facet of the answer come into play.  Only once read and digested should you go back through it and understand its relationship with the classic material and the underlying irony of the comparative faithfulness of the two Penelopes, as well as the differing attitudes of the parallel Odysseuses.  And all the rest of what is hidden below the surface.

But whether that effort is worth your time must come from your first reading.  Does your mind get pulled in by the dangerous undertows of the underlying narrative?  If so, it is a book worth studying.  If not, onto the next.  Ultimately, the book needs to stand on its own.

Does it?  Well, I’m not going to answer that.  If you want to find out, you’ll have to take join the honorable ranks of those who have finished Ulysses.

As for me, I’ve read the supposed bugaboo of the twentieth century.  But we all know that this one is just the famous sibling.  The true elephant in the room is Finnegan’s Wake.  Kind of like Ulysses, but at night, while in a fever dream.

Hmmm…

Speculative Poetry: Past, Present, and Future

Über-polymath Richard H. Fay is back this week.  Over the past few weeks, he’s shown his deep knowledge of occult subjects, but this week gives us a beautifully-researched glimpse into the world of speculative poetry, from Gilgamesh to today.   You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Gilgamesh Tablet

Occasionally shoved into a dark, stuffy corner of the literary attic by its critics, speculative poetry actually possesses a heritage and current potential at least as rich and exciting as that claimed by its mainstream kin. Dealing with the fantastic as opposed to the mundane, speculative poetry travels winding roads leading to wondrous worlds, regions never traversed by mainstream verse. It mines the same creative vein as speculative fiction, using verse instead of prose to delve into the limitless depths of human imagination. With roots planted firmly in the mythic and folkloric epics and ballads of yore, and branches reaching high into the endless skies of modern fantasy, science fiction, and horror, speculative poetry is a historic and vital poetic genre.

Speculative poetry of one form or another has been with us a very long time. Ancient myths and legends presented in verse form were merely speculative poems cloaked in the shroud of belief. Even though these tales may have been accepted as fact at the time of their telling in the courts of ancient kings or before ancient hearths, their fantastic natures firmly planted them in the realm of the speculative.

One of the earliest literary works, the Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, was also an important antecedent of all later heroic epics. Written in cuneiform on clay tablets, the poem described the incredible adventures of Gilgamesh, the King-God of Uruk. The strongest super-human that ever lived, Gilgamesh was two-thirds god and one-third human. After besting Enkidu in a furious wrestling match, Gilgamesh befriended the hairy wild man. The hero king and his hirsute companion then battled Humbaba the Terrible, the demonic guardian of the great Cedar Forest, and slew the mighty Bull of Heaven. Enkidu’s eventual death sent Gilgamesh on a futile quest for immortality. All of these elements would feel right at home nestled within the pages of a modern fantasy work.

The Ancient Greeks continued the tradition of including speculative elements in their own versified myths. Homer’s Odyssey, one of the foundational works of Western literature, recounted the tale of Odysseus’ long journey home from the Trojan War. Along the way, the Ithacan hero encountered many fantastic creatures and situations. He blinded the Cyclops Polyphemus, resisted the shape-shifting spell cast by the sorceress Circe, sought counsel from the dead, avoided the fatal allure of the Sirens’ song, navigated past the double-threat of Scylla and Charybdis, and ended up a captive of the amorous nymph Calypso. With aid from the gods, Odysseus finally made it back to Ithaca after a ten-year odyssey. All the trials and tribulations faced by Odysseus during his long voyage home influenced later journey tales.

No less imaginative than their ancient predecessors, medieval bards and balladeers wove fantastic threads into the tapestry of their own mythic, legendary, and folkloric works. In the Old English epic Beowulf, the eponymous main character battled the monstrous Grendel, Grendel’s ogress mother, and a deadly dragon. Another Old English poem, “The Dream of the Rood”, told the tale of the Crucifixion as witnessed by the tree that became the Holy Cross, an unusual viewpoint reminiscent of the inhuman perspectives found in some modern speculative verse. In the Middle English chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the enchanted Green Knight lost his head without apparent ill effect. Some medieval ballads such as “Thomas Rhymer”, “The Unquiet Grave”, and “The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea” drew on supernatural themes, featuring fairies, ghosts, dragons, and other fantastical beings and beasts.

Spenser Faerie Queene

Although the veil of belief may have slowly lifted from the Renaissance on, poets still continued to incorporate elements of the fantastic into their works. The Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser set his allegorical epic The Faerie Queene in a “Faerie Land” populated by chivalrous knights, noble ladies, deceitful witches, shape-shifting sorcerers, heroic satyrs, and terrible dragons.

At times, the great playwright and poet William Shakespeare penned scenes containing fantastical characters and situations. Some of his dramatic verse delved into the realm of fairies, witches, ghosts, and sorcerers. Shakespeare featured fair folk meddling in the love lives of mortals in his romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Scheming witches foretold the future with ominous results in Macbeth. The ghost of the murdered Danish king haunted Elsinore castle as well as the prince’s troubled mind in Hamlet. Served by the airy spirit Ariel, the sorcerer Prospero conjured up a storm in The Tempest.

A proponent of the Sturm und Drang and later Weimar Classicism movements, the German poet, novelist, playwright and natural philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe echoed folk themes about malevolent forest spirits in his poem “Der Erlkönig“. Composed in 1782, this chilling ballad followed the haunting ride of a father and his doomed son through the Erl-King’s wood. Invisible to adult eyes just like any modern bogeyman or monster-in-the-closet, the increasingly aggressive Erl-King eventually took the boy by force. At the end of the journey, the father was left holding a corpse.

Several Romantic-era poets must be included among the predecessors of modern speculative poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Queen Mab” may have been a revolutionary philosophical poem, but much of the imagery involving the Fairy Queen and her chariot’s flight through time and space was fantastical in nature. John Keats’ “Lamia” drew heavily from the well of ancient mythology, but also contained a drop or two of fairy folklore. The macabre and occult poems of the American Romantic writer Edgar Allan Poe could be considered the grand-sires of some of the more horror-tinged verse composed by today’s dark speculative poets.

Later Victorian and Edwardian poets also created works that contained the fantastic, poetry that could be considered speculative in nature. “Goblin Market” by the Victorian English poet Christina Rossetti told the tale of two sisters and their experience with the deliciously evil fruit of goblin men. One fell into temptation and ate their fruit, then the other braved the goblins’ wrath to rescue her sister from a pining death. Alfred, Lord Tennyson created The Faerie Queene of his age when he penned the Arthurian cycle Idylls of the King, a work based on Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and the medieval Welsh collection of tales called the Mabinogion. Merlin’s magic and miraculous visions mingled with the chivalrous exploits of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table within the pages of Tennyson’s masterpiece. Rudyard Kipling explored mythic and fantastical themes, often as allegories of his own experiences, in some of his poetic works such as “The Centaurs” and “Pan in Vermont”.

William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet who bridged the gap between the Victorian and the Modernist and was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival, found inspiration in Celtic myths, legends, and folklore, as well as personal mystical encounters. “The Wanderings of Oisin”, one of Yeats’ earliest works, presented the mythic story of Oisin’s adventures in the isles of Faerie as told through his dialogue with Saint Patrick. Niamh called seductively as the fair folk rode out from Knocknarea in “The Hosting of the Sidhe”. The poem’s narrator tells of his imaginative vision of a sphinx, a Buddha, and a girl who danced herself to death in “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes”.

Some well-known authors responsible for the creation and popularity of modern fantasy literature also penned fantasy poetry. Robert E. Howard, father of the sword-and-sorcery genre, wrote poems such as “Cimmeria”, a work about the gloomy homeland of Conan the Barbarian. J.R.R. Tolkien, a writer often considered to be the father of high-fantasy and one whose works sparked a resurgence of interest in fantastical literature, interspersed song and poetry throughout his wondrous prose tales. He also wrote a collection of poems, ostensibly taken from the Hobbit manuscript the Red Book of Westmarch, entitled “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”.

With the advent of science fiction as a literary genre, poets soon found ways to put the genre’s varied wondrous subjects and themes to verse. Just as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells pioneered the writing of science fiction in prose, a handful of far-sighted poets pioneered the writing of science fiction in verse. Ray Bradbury, one of the masters of the science fiction or science fantasy genre, also wrote speculative poetry. In 2008 he was named the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s latest Grand Master. Several magazines devoted to publishing science fiction in prose, such as Asimov’s, also published science fiction poetry. Some journals such as Star*Line focused on publishing poetry of a speculative nature.

In the recent past, science fiction poets, or genre poets in general, have experimented with different poetic forms. One such form adopted by speculative poets is the haiku, a minimalist poem of Japanese origin. In 1995 Tom Brink laid out the rules for scifaiku in The Scifaiku Manifesto, but science fiction haiku had been around at least since the publication of Karen Anderson’s “Six Haiku” in 1962. Speculative haiku need not be inspired by science fiction alone; they may also utilize fantasy and horror themes, with horror-themed examples often called “horrorku”. Scifaikuest, a Sam’s Dot magazine published in both print and on-line versions, specializes in the publication of scifaiku and horrorku, as well as other Japanese-inspired forms like tanka and haibun (haiku combined with a prose paragraph). All these forms continue to be a valid method of poetic expression for speculative writers, and can be a great exercise in word economy.

As ancient poetry often presented fantastical myths, legends, and lore in verse form, modern speculative poets use verse so their readers can experience wonder, weirdness, and horror. Many of today’s genre writers and poets practice the art of speculative poetry composition, including Bruce Boston, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Kendall Evans, Deborah P. Kolodji, and Mike Allen. Many magazines and journals such as those mentioned above continue to publish works by speculative poets. Many venues, both print and on-line, offer opportunities for rising poetic talents, giving them a chance to let their imaginative voices be heard. With a potential limited only by the poet’s imagination, speculative poetry possesses the capability to grow far beyond its parent genres.

To muddy the waters just a bit, actual individual definitions of speculative poetry may vary almost as much as individual definitions of poetry in general. Some see speculative poetry in broad terms, covering all verse containing elements of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Others take a narrower view, claiming that speculative poetry is a special kind of genre verse, moving beyond the literal and into the suggestive and allusive. However you look at it, broad or narrow, speculative poetry is the poetry of the fantastic, poetry of the wondrous, poetry of the “what if?”. And such poetry should appeal to all fans of genre literature, whether they think they like poetry or not. After all, the family tree of speculative fiction has poetry at its roots.

 

(Article originally published in the on-line version of Abandoned Towers, January 2009, and also published in Issue 17 of the print zine Illumen, Autumn 2012.)

 

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– Carnahan, Timothy R. “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Academy for Ancient Texts. (2001). http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/.
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– Homer (translated by Andrew Lang and S. H. Butcher). Harvard Classics Vol. 22: The Odyssey. New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company (1909-1914). New York: Bartleby.com. (2001). http://www.bartleby.com/22/.
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– Kipling, Rudyard. “The Centaurs” & “Pan in Vermont”. A Complete Collection of Poems by Rudyard Kipling: Edward Bovner’s Poet Lovers’ Page. (2006). http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/kipling_ind.html.
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Millennium and the Weirdness of Other Cultures – Especially Ones We Think We Know

 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Cover

A lot of people on the planet have read the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium books so I won’t do a blow-by-blow report regarding my thoughts on the first two books in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Suffice to say that they both center around a young woman named Lisbeth Salander who has enjoyed a truly messed up childhood and emerged scarred and socially inept but brilliant from her trial by fire.  Despite being unable to trust anyone, she manages to team up with the editor of an activist magazine and make life miserable for any number of bad guys.  Her lack of compassion for people she hates makes everything all the more compelling.

The stories themselves are well-paced and good enough to stand on their own (as attested to by their sales numbers), but the truly fascinating stuff is on the fringes.

As I read, I found myself stopping at small, unimportant points in the narrative to shake my head and say “oh, those crazy Swedes.”  In everything from the way people view property, to the way the police act, to the sexual mores of some of the characters (what is considered perfectly normal vs. what causes outrage is interesting), you are reminded that this is not an Anglo-centric worldview, despite being from a Western country not so different from most other Western countries.

There are no truly exotic behaviors in this one, and that’s the fun of the whole thing: the sense that something is just slightly askew from one’s own everyday experience is much richer, in my opinion, than simply reading about the customs of the population of eighteenth century Shanghai (or anywhere else in the eighteenth century, come to think of it!).

The Girl Who Played With Fire Stieg Larsson Cover

We all know that Scandinavian socialism permeates every aspect of life, but perhaps we don’t understand just how deep it runs until you see someone thinking about buying a house or interacting with the police in a Larsson novel–at least I didn’t.

Another interesting thing is that the very center of the series, Millennium magazine, could only really be relevant in a place like Sweden.  Other countries have activist magazines… and they run exposés.  The hard truth of it, however, is that except for the editorial staff and the writers and perhaps their couple of dozen readers (all of whom earnestly believe that what they are doing is both important and relevant), no one cares.  An exposé like the ones Millennium is so good at would basically be shrugged at by the population at large.

It makes for a fun ride, even though, at times, one finds oneself saying “man, am I glad I don’t live in Sweden.”  But then, If you’re honest with yourself, you probably wouldn’t want to live in most fictional worlds (especially Westeros.  That’s just plain unhealthy).

The kicker, though is that the translators seem to have toned down a bunch of things (as I can’t read Swedish, I can’t attest to that except by secondhand reporting). They definitely changed the titles (the title of the first book was Men Who Hate Women) and also made the dragon tattoo much smaller (in the original it covered Lisbeth’s entire back as opposed to a small item on a shoulder) in order to make it more palatable to Anglicized taste.  I wonder what other fascinating small things they also left out.

So I’d recommend this to Classically Educated readers.  Most of you won’t find yourselves able to generate the moral indignation that someone from Larsson’s background might over the central issues (one of the pillars on which Larsson builds his stories is that corporate greed is something that we should spend all our days in horror of, and that the men behind it are the true monsters of our age…  which seems an odd and trivial thing to get worked up about) but you will still be able to enjoy the stories generated in this world and enjoy the slight moments of “what?  Why?” that pop up out of the blue.

But unless someone can tell me otherwise, I’d recommend against the continuation books.  Those were probably written with the English-speaking population in mind (even though their author is a Swede with a similar background to Larsson), and probably have the quirks dialed back to nearly nothing… killing a good chunk of the fun.

 

Book Recommendation: Outside by Gustavo Bondoni

So, for those of you who’ve been enjoying our content over the past few years, we wanted to drop you a line to let you know that our Editor-In-Chief has published a new novel and he’ll fire us if we don’t plug it here (not the first time we’ve used these words–he had published one called Siege late last year!)!

Gustavo Bondoni  - Outside - Cover

Outside is a novel of Interstellar Contact, Virtual Worlds, and the Essence of Humanity.

Earth is empty of humans. This surprising observation stymies Rome and his shipmates, crew of the starship come to re-establish contact from the colonies. What could have happened in the 500-years of the non-interference treaty to vanish everyone?

Meanwhile, on Earth, Emily is living her computer-simulated life, along with the rest of Earth’s residents: bodies stored in vast underground chambers, minds living without disease, poverty, or pain. But dramatic change is coming to their carefully regulated virtual world. Impenetrable black walls suddenly cut off cities. Monsters appear, destroying all they touch. Emily’s expertise has her on the front line of the investigation, trying to understand these frightening developments.

When Rome and Emily meet, it seems they’ve found the answers to each other’s mysteries. But as the colonists and Earth engage in tense diplomacy, suppressed histories are revealed, and a tyrant with frightening powers rises. Together, Rome and Emily discover the terrifying secret buried deep underground that threatens the existence of everyone on Earth.

 

Outside can be purchased from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.