Copyright 2016 by Gabriel Salter
I want to talk more about a point I made in my last post.
In that article, I talked a lot about how it is important for writers to have excellent writing style, and to connect with their readers. At the risk of being hideously misunderstood and angering thousands of English teachers, I am going to talk about how one of these two qualities is more important than the other.
Both qualities are important, but when all is said and done and critics decide which books are classics, connecting with audience trumps writing style. I’m not encouraging anyone to have a bad writing style, but it is more important for writers to learn to connect with their readers than it is to develop good writing style.
We know connecting with audience is more important than good style because popular style changes drastically over time. Let me give you an example from Kipling – for those of you who don’t know, Rudyard Kipling was a British poet, short story writer and novelist who lived from 1865 to 1936. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, and would have received a knighthood for literature if he hadn’t kept turning it down. His best known work is probably The Jungle Book, which was adapted into a Disney film.
Anyway, this is an excerpt from Kipling’s short story A Matter of Fact, published in 1892. The story involves three journalists traveling on a steamer boat from South Africa to England. One day a massive fog covers the ship, and suddenly two large sea monsters rise out of the ocean. The narrator describes the first sea monster in this way:
“The Thing was so helpless, and, save for his mate, so alone. No human eye should have beheld him; it was monstrous and indecent to exhibit him there in trade water between atlas degrees of latitude. He had been spewed up, mangled and dying from his rest on the seafloor, where he might have lived till the Judgment Day, and we saw the tides of his life go from him as an angry tide goes out across rocks in the teeth of a landward gale. His mate lay rocking on the water a little distance off, bellowing continually, and the smell of musk came down upon the ship making us cough.”
There is something old-fashioned about this writing style. The words used are all English words, and most of us can recognize them individually, but Kipling uses these words in the style that is now old-fashioned. Some of the words he uses in the story (“petticoat,” “lascar”) are rarely used today, or mean something entirely different. Nobody, except people who write pastiche stories, writes like this anymore.
Yet in spite of the obsolete writing style, this story has survived. It’s been around for about 125 years now, has been reprinted in several collections of Kipling’s work (I personally discovered it in Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror and Fantasy) because Kipling knew how to connect with readers. He knew that regardless of whether his readers knew what “atlas degrees of latitude” are or what musk smells like, they would enjoy an exciting tale about strange, unusual events on the high seas.
Now that I’ve made my point with good fiction, it’s time to talk about really bad fiction. It’s interesting to analyze which writers have survived the longest, because when you start to get into of the nooks and crannies of literature (particularly my subdivision, speculative fiction) you find writers who’ve been immensely influential, but their writing style was awful.
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) was a prolific writer for pulp magazines. As the name somewhat implies, pulp magazines were fiction publications printed on cheap wood pulp paper, and while many great writers sold stories to pulp magazines, a lot of the stories were the same quality as the paper itself.
Howard’s best known stories were about a warrior named Conan the Barbarian, who travels across a prehistoric fantasy world on all kinds of adventures – usually ones that involved magic, wealth or beautiful women. The stories also have blatant flaws in them.
To begin with, Howard enjoyed unlikely plot twists. In Howard’s 1933 story The Scarlet Citadel, Conan has been captured by a sorcerer named Tsotha and left to die in the sorcerer’s stronghold, known as the Halls of Horror. The doors are locked tight, the chains holding him are strong, and it looks very much as though Conan is going to be eaten by the primordial monsters that inhabit this prison – until it turns out one of Tsotha’s slaves used to be a chieftain in a faraway land and Conan killed his brother years ago. Conan steals the keys from the slave when he comes to taunt him.
Another major flaw is Howard’s female characters, who are every misogynist’s secret fantasy: shallow, sensual beyond belief, and absolutely throwing themselves at our well-muscled warrior hero. The Bond girls seem positively brilliant after reading a Conan story.
So why have these absurd stories survived the pulp magazine era? Why is Howard hailed as one of the most important modern fantasy authors?
The answer, quite simply, is Conan. Here’s an excerpt from Howard’s 1936 novel The Hour of the Dragon to explain what I mean. In this passage, a group of magicians and kings have resurrected an ancient sorcerer named Xaltotun to help them kill Conan, who at this point rules the kingdom Aquilonia:
“‘I wish that I might see this king,’ mused Xaltotun, glancing toward a silvery mirror which formed one of the panels of the wall. This mirror cast no reflection, but Xaltotun’s expression showed that he understood its purpose…
‘I will try to show him to you,’ [Orastes] said. And seating himself before the mirror, he gazed hypnotically into its depths, where presently a dim shadow began to take shape.
It was uncanny, but those watching knew it was no more than the reflected image of Orastes’ thought, embodied in that mirror as a wizard’s thoughts are embodied in a magic crystal. It floated hazily, then leaped into startling clarity – a tall man, mightily shouldered and deep of chest, with a massive corded neck and heavily muscled limbs.
He was clad in silk and velvet, with the royal lions of Aquilonia worked in gold upon his rich jupon, and the crown of Aquilonia shone on his square-cut black mane; but the great sword at his side seemed more natural to him than the regal accouterments. His brow was low and broad, his eyes a volcanic blue that smoldered as if with some inner fire. His dark, scarred, almost sinister face was that of a fighting-man, and his velvet garments could not conceal the hard, dangerous lines of his limbs.
‘That man is no Hyborian!’ exclaimed Xaltotun.
‘No; he is a Cimmerian, one of those wild tribesmen who dwell in the
gray hills of the north.’”
Conan is a barbaric and yet enigmatic character, hopelessly macho in a way that so many boys and men still dream of becoming. A warrior who never settles down, who just keeps looking for the next great adventure, and it’s always a fast-paced one with incredible battles and exotic treasures. People loved those stories then, some of them wrote in the same style and built a whole new subgenre called Sword and Sorcery, and today people still read and love the original Conan stories.
I could go on and on about the other pulp writers who caught lightning in a bottle, but one is enough and you wouldn’t recognize most of the names anyway. The characters they created have long survived their creators. The same is true for writers like Kipling who styles are so obsolete today and yet still good enough to keep readers coming back to them.
Writing style changes like fashion trends. Stories that connect last forever.
If you’re interested in reading more about pulp fiction, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
Featured image source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33482.The_Coming_of_Conan_the_Cimmerian