Sunday, February 14, 2021

Bones of the Moon (1987).

I've spoken more than once on this site about an informal collection of writers and artists.  They made their respective names during a rough span of time that went on, more or less, from the mid 1970s, all the way to the end of the 80s and start of the 90s.  You may be familiar with some of their names.  Guys like Stephen King still don't need much in the way of an introduction.  At least, not yet.  The same applies to fellas like Neil Gaiman, Dave Mckean, or Alan Moore.  They are all a specific brand name-style of artist.  All I've got to do is just say their names, and sooner or later someone's going to turn up with a list of their favorite moments from a book like Watchmen, From Hell, or The Dream Country.  The same phenomena pretty much applies if you bring up names like Carrie, Christine, or Cujo.  It's that vaunted and dubious level of public recognition that goes along with popular awareness.  

It's the type of success that works as its own kind of double-edged sword.  On the one hand, there's a lingering sense of recognition about your name.  The flip side is there's always the danger that it all amounts to just passing familiarity.  Perhaps there's a difference between how many times you get your name in the papers or the news, versus how many folks have actually read anything you've published.  Is Stephen King a writer, or a filmmaker, for instance?  I think it would be interesting to find out just how many in the audience believe that guy is the latter, rather than former.  It might just tell us a lot about how the audience perceives both the artist, as well as the artwork in their midst.  There's the troubling sense that a lot of the common perceptions of authors like King really amounts to just a kind of halfway knowledge.  It's nothing more the than basest of trivial facts.  The full story, meanwhile gets lost in the image generated by the popular perception.  In that sense, perhaps the best definition of pop culture is to describe it as a place for you to put things in so that you can forget about them.  I suppose I wouldn't mind if my own experience has taught me that such actions carry too great a risk to be carried out with no strings attached.  Forgetting the past can sometimes be a good way to get caught out by it.

In the case of the type of artists I'm thinking of, one of the results has been that while everyone thinks they know about guys like Gaiman, King, and Moore, who else besides a small handful knows about a name like Peter Straub?  What about Dean Koontz, for that matter?  How about Robert McCammon, or Dan Simmons?  Do those names ring any bells?  I think the best answer most of us are left with is: perhaps not.  That's kind of a shame, really, because they make up just as much of the story as the creators of Morpheus or Miracleman.  It's something I might have spoken about more than once before.  For some crazy reason it just helps out if I think about all of these writers as part of an unofficial artistic movement.  One of those minor waves that like to happen every now and then in the field of the arts.  It just seems like a natural enough recurring occurrence, a regular part of the gig, if that makes any sense (and let's face it, is it any more of a puzzle than life itself?  Doesn't mean there can't be perks to it, though).  I can even remember discovering there's an actual, pretty good name for all the stuff they got up to way back in the day.  The phrase I've heard used to describe them is New Wave Fabulism.  It can be found in an essay composed by the author of Ghost Story and The Talisman.  

That's the first place I can ever recall hearing either Pete Straub, or his fellow literary contemporaries referred to in such a neat catch-all term.  I've got to admit, if you need to have a title for all of those scribbling names, then it's a pretty good label, so far as it goes.  I think part of the reason it's so fitting, however, is because it might just be possible to pinpoint its origins.  I wonder if the title might derive from an old 1967 Sci-Fi anthology edited by Harlan Ellison.  It was called Dangerous Visions, and it was billed as a flagship collection.  The stories in it were supposed to be offered as samples of all the new directions the speculative genres were headed for the latter half of the 20th century.  It is just possible that Ellison was aware of the direction things were headed in the writer's field.  If so, he was definitely there to see it all happen.  The curious (maybe even somewhat ironic) part is how few of the names found in the book (the one Ellison meant to act as a kind of brave new standard bearer) ever seemed to go on to leave their mark in this movement.  Most of the famous names in Dangerous Visions belong to older writers like Frederick Pohl, Philip K. Dick, or R.A. Lafferty.  The one writer who could be said to have any future influence was that of J.G. Ballard.  The rest of the field seemed to wind up in the hands of King, Straub, and Moore.  It's one of those weird twists of fate, yet I'm not sure there's much to apologize for.

The single, most recognizable, and shared trait among all the New Wave Fabulists mainly comes down to the way they had of giving a new voice to a lot of older fantastic tropes and concepts.  They could stumble across a cob web infested idea such as a vampire looking for victims, and give it fresh blood (so to speak) by taking that archetype, and placing it in a modern suburban setting, complete with phones, fax machines, and Monday Night Football.  The result would often amount to an interesting clash and creative tension between the old and the new.  The idea of ancient figures of myth and dream sharing the same space with a bunch of ordinary working stiffs has proven to be a surprisingly durable and enduring artistic paradigm over the last few years.  The trope and its assorted imaginary figures could even be said to have carried on even to a point in which their original creators are now in their elder statesmen years.  Part of it is down to the way it makes the old seem original again.  It carries the same type of charm as Michelangelo doing a riff on the image of a bunch of dogs playing poker.  The very idea itself in incongruous, and yet its carried off with such skill that you can't help being impressed. 

There is one name in particular, that belongs very much in the New Wave wheelhouse, which I haven't mentioned yet.  I also don't believe I caught him among the list of authors Straub mentions in the course of his article cited above.  I'm not even sure what kind of reputation or name recognition he has nowadays.  His name is Jonathan Carroll, and it's kind of difficult to know where to start with this one.  It could be argued, for instance, that his way telling stories is an almost perfect summation of the kind of fantastical surreality that you can find in many of the other Fabulists.  The danger with that sort of approach is that it makes him sound like an untalented copycat, and I'm not at all certain that's the case.  Part of the difficulty is knowing just how to talk about the writer without spoiling a lot of what's to come.  He can sound like some of the authors mentioned above (Jonathan Lethem is one easy example that comes to mind), and yet it's a mistake to say that he has no style or method of approach that's unique enough to be called his very own.  I guess part of the problem is knowing how to describe that approach in a way that makes sense.  Perhaps the best way to get that done is to just talk about it.  The best way to do that is to bring up the third book to published in his career.  It's called Bones of the Moon, and there's not much else way to describes it except...You know what, let me explain.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths (1).

This entry is really the first one that has to stand on the shoulders of others.  In particular it was the work of the Truth Inside the Lie blog that brought the whole thing to my attention.  I once recall reading that the basic function of criticism was to stand as a mere sideshow for the main attraction of the story itself.  I'm willing to admit a lot of truth in that statement.  At the same time, even if literary criticism can never be the main event, there's grounds enough to call it a vital function, in and of itself.  When a review is written in such a way that it makes the reader decide to pick up their own copy, then I'm afraid the only logical conclusion is that a genuine service has been provided.  That deserves at least some kind of recognition, even if just for a job well done.  That just leaves the main event itself.  The book in question was an anthology collection entitled Xo Orhpeus, by Kate Bernheimer.

The review of that book from Truth Inside the Lie is perhaps best described as an all-purpose overview.  The potential buyer is given a neat and concise series of summaries regarding the anthology, and its contents.  Each item in the text is given its own brief description, along with a recommendation of whether each individual entry is good or bad.  The results for the  review itself are commendable.  The main reason for this is down to the way information is handled in the critique.  All the relevant information the reader needs to know about each story in the collection has been condensed with a skill that perhaps can be considered worthy of actual print journalism.  The critic appears to have an instinctive skill for what needs to be kept in, and what elements can be labeled as secondary enough that they can be left out.  The final product gives the reader enough information, delivered in the right way that is capable of rousing enough curiosity to enable to the reader to want to find a way to get their hands on a copy of their own.  Such then is the basic function of criticism when its done well.

I bring all this up just to highlight the fact that I'm afraid I've had to go at Bernheimer's book in a very different fashion.  For whatever reason, I've found it better to take the text one item at a time, rather than all at once.  This method of approach can have its own advantages.  For one thing, the fact that we are dealing with an anthology, and not a novel, allows the critic some leeway in how they want to handle the text.  The very nature of the material allows you a bit more freedom to pick and choose which is the best doorway into the content itself.  I think my real reason for not tackling the whole damn thing all at once is pretty simple.  For some reason, my mind is better at examining a story when it's limited to just one narrative at a time, rather than altogether.  I just have that turn of mind, the kind which likes to unpack as many details of a story and hold them up to the microscope for a while.  

The more I can limit my attention to just one item of text, all's well.  I seem to have more trouble turning all the trees into a forest.  If that's a weakness of some sort, I'm sure I don't know what to do about it.  I'm not saying its impossible for me to provide the kind of concise summary of the contents of a book.  If that were the case, this blog probably wouldn't even exist.  It's just that the task becomes a lot easier after I've digested a single text.  When it's a question of being asked to perform the same task on a book which is really a number of differing texts, then I can see it as a lot more of a challenge.  This issue just gets compounded by the question of whether or not an anthology can be said to be operating under any possible kind of guiding principle.  The presence of such a main theme can help to make things a lot easier, at least as far as I'm concerned. 

I've said that the short story collection offers a number of differing doorways into its subject matter.  The one I've chosen for my purposes is the front entrance.  I want to focus on Bernheimer's introduction to the whole anthology for a number of reasons.  A lot of it has to do with her main topic of discussion.  Bernheimer's entire book is concerned with the matter and nature of myth.  It is, in essence, an entire, complete short essay on the subject.  What she has to say about the topic colors her choice for the contents of the anthology as a whole.  It just makes sense that her views on the issue might be worth digging a bit into in their own right.  It might be interesting to find out what Bernheimer's views on myth can tell us not just about the topic itself, but maybe also the outlook of the editor.  I suppose the real question, however, is not just whether the anthologist or editor is able to verbalize or state her thesis.  In addition, I'd argue there are two other matters that are involved here.  The first is whether Bernheimer is able to live out her thesis.  The second is how well her main idea stacks up to the reality of everyday life.  There may be some interesting answers in regard to the last of these three questions.

As a result, this essay won't have much choice except to come off as a discussion between a pair of book nerds debating on a pet subject of theirs. This isn't the sort of deal that's going to bother me all that much.  I'm the kind of guy who actually likes to think about literary matters.  I'm also smart enough to know that places me in a distinct minority.  That means the real challenge is how do you make a discussion of myth at least sound entertaining?  If I'm being honest, all I can do is follow the writer's lead and share my own two cents on it.  The good news is Myth is another favorite subject of mine.  Whether the reader feels the same is a different matter.  I suppose the real trick is to learn what is it about myth that is able to hook and reel the audience in.  A lot of it is down to enthusiasm, and the proper ability to convey it.  This is something guys like Tolkien or Joseph Campbell were good at.  They knew how to talk about myths in a way that managed to engage a sizable cross-current of the world audience.  Whether Kate Bernheimer or I can do the same remains to be seen.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mank (2020).

 Amadeus is one of the first films I can recall watching.  That's no joke, by the way.  It's all true.  My parents introduced me to that flick, and its subject, when I must have been no older than 8.  It's in retrospect that it begins to sink just how rare and odd that kind of circumstance is.  Most family households would think of waiting a goodish number of years down the road until trying to get their kids into such high concept art.  I think the one excuse my folks will ever have is that they were still somewhat in the thrall of what I like to call a late 70s Woody Allen phase.  The upshot is that I grew up knowing at least something about Mozart and Classical Music before I even knew the musical genre existed as an actual concept.  Here's the real point, though.  Some of you reading this are probably thinking, "Yes, but how can you trust that you really know anything about the life of Mozart, or Salieri, for that matter?  How can you be sure the film is an accurate reflection of the life of either composer"?  If anyone out is entertaining thoughts anywhere close to what I've just written above, then I hear what you're saying.  I also can't pretend I'm all that surprised.

Milos Forman's 1984 film has long since entered into the realm of canonical masterpiece status.  That hasn't stopped fans and critics from arguing over its historical veracity.  On the contrary, it really does seem as if it's that very love and acclaim for the movie that keep these debates alive, and in turn guarantee it at least some kind of immortality.  It's probably earned all the praise and criticism in the best way possible.  A lot of that is down to sheer narrative skill.  Even the biggest skeptics are able to applaud Forman and Schaefer's imaginative capabilities, and talent for dramatic characterization.  To this day it still has to be one of the rare examples where a motion picture is recognized for its literary qualities.  Some other films aren't that lucky, however.  

Let's take the case of David Fincher's Mank, for example.The genesis of this project just strikes me as somewhat unique.  It's got to be the first movie I've ever seen that was generated out of a debate among cinema critics.  The starting place seems to have been a New Yorker essay written by the critic Pauline Kael.  It was titled "Raising Kane", and its main purpose was to try and debunk an idea called the Auteur Theory.  It was a concept popularized by critics and filmmakers during the French New Wave of the 50s and 60s.  It's basic thesis was that the director is the one ultimately responsible for the creative idea and final product behind any given film he or she is able to create.  It is just possible to see how this concept can be applied to other creative formats, such as writing or painting.  On the other hand, it could be possible to mount a converse argument.  There is nothing to keep the observer from making the inference that the Auteur theorists were just taking the concept of the writer as sole creator of the finished story, and applying that idea to the director of a film.

Andrew Sarris was one of the influential writers on movies that was a huge believer in, and proponent of, the New Wave theory.  He spent a lot of his time trying to introduce the concept into the conversation of the American mainstream.  He made it the paradigm, or lens through which he used to compose his article on various films that came under his inspection.  Sarris would judge every motion picture according to how well the director as Auteur was able to make the final product succeed.  In all of this, Kael appears to have more or less been Sarris's opposite number.  She seems to have held a distinct disbelief in the idea of the director as Auteur.  Her view seems to have been that film was too much of a collaborative effort for there to be any one single sole voice at the helm.  At least that's what appears to be the case she was trying to make.  My own reading of her essays reveals a very shaky and ill-defined criterion for what a film is, and what makes any given example work and fail.

Anyway, the upshot is that "Raising Kane" was written as a shot across the bow of the likes of Sarris and the Auteur enthusiasts.  One claim that made up part of the essay concerned the movie Citizen Kane.  Kael used her essay to make the claim that is was Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the screenwriters, who deserved the singular credit for penning screenplay of the finished film.  I'm not sure how much any of this is still on the radar of public awareness in this day and age.  If this is the first any modern reader has heard of the conflict, then I volunteer for the position of the last guy to be shocked about it.  Nevertheless, the upshot of Kael's article was that it got just enough attention back in the day to kickstart a minor sort of turf war in film critic circles during the 70s.  It didn't take long for Sarris and others to respond in kind.  The result has been a series of skirmishes that have erupted here and there throughout the decades.  The whole argument is divided into two camps.  On the one hand, you have those like Kael, who argue that Mankiewicz is the real genius behind the greatest film ever made.  Then there are others like Joseph McBride who believe that credit should go more to Orson Welles.

One person who subscribed to Kael's essay was Jack Fincher.  He was the father of a son who would one day go on to make a name for himself in the industry.  The elder Fincher seems to have been in such an agreement with "Raising Kane", that at some point in time, he decided to go all out and write an entire screenplay meant to substantiate Kael's claims.  The name of the script was Mank, and it was Jack's wish that someday it get its time in the spotlight.  The father never lived long enough to see that dream fulfilled.  It would be sometime before his son, David, would be able to compile all the necessary resources to realize that vision.  The few questions that remain are what does this idea of the late Jack Fincher's mean, anyway?  More to the point, is it any good?

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Luck of the Lynns (1952).

One of the perks of being a bookworm is that it can sometimes allow you to discover the unexplored corners of life.  I'm not talking about anything esoteric, so much as the avenues that got overlooked by time.  It doesn't happen often, however my own experience is that if you dig around the forgotten corners of the great library known as the world, you can come upon a text, or a name that can sometimes be so worth your time it's a wonder (and almost something of a crime) that there was never at least some kind of recognition.  That said, it's also possible enough to uncover a bunch of junk that probably should have stay in the trunk.  I'm not sure where the subject of today's post fits into this scheme.  I've talked about him once before.  From what I've been able to uncover about him, he never seems to have been one of the Big Names.  However, that didn't stop him from knowing at least some of them, and of making a few artistic contributions of his own.

Talking about someone like Roger Lancelyn Green can be a challenge.  It's one I've discussed before, here and there, on this blog.  One of the hazards of being an author is that even the the promise of publication can't guarantee any kind of Brand Name recognition or longevity in and of itself.  That's all up to how much the reading public decides whether it likes you or not.  Some of these scribbling types are able to garner a small handful of the audience.  This minor sort of fame might give off a brief sense of satisfaction.  At least there's someone out there who likes what you do.  The trouble with that type of circumstance is that there's no real assurance that even the best word of mouth reputation will grow from there.  Many of them never get beyond that initial step.  An author like H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, got lucky in that sense.  He started out as a sensation among a small circle of fans and friends, only to gain worldwide fame after his death.  A lot of the others who followed in his train are barely on the tip of the tongue anymore.  Who, for further instance, has ever heard of a moniker like Clark Ashton Smith?  That's got to be too fanciful to be real.  Right

Then of course, you have authors so obscure that part of the problem is being able to find any reliable background information on them.  The best example of this latter type is H.F. Arnold.  If the name sounds unfamiliar, that's no real surprise.  He's remembered today for publishing a short story called The Night Wire, and his reputation is kept alive mainly by fans of the Weird Circle of Cosmic Horror authors that center in and around the works of HPL.  The trick is a lot of folks know what Arnold wrote, and it's almost impossible to find any reliable info on his life.  The man himself remains a total enigma.  It's almost as if the story itself appeared out of thin air, complete with byline, and nothing else.  As a result, Arnold could be thought of as one of the most famous authors who wasn't there.

Roger Green seems to have escaped that level of literary fate.  It's possible to dig up some information on him, though what little there is remains patchy and scarce in places.  His date of birth can be traced to somewhere right around the end of the First World War, on Nov. 2nd, 1918.  This all happened in Norwich, to a couple listed as Helena Mary Phyllis and Maj. Gilbert Arthur Lancelyn Green.  The Green family itself is, or was part of the landed gentry of the English Upper Class.  It's lineage is reported to trace back all the way to the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First (web).  As is the typical case with most families of the nobility, there was a deeded and titled estate on which generations of the family grew up.  Roger appears to have been no exception.  His childhood was spent living in Poulton Hall.  It's was and remains one of those old English manor houses that can sometimes contain a storied history.  

It's nowhere near as vast or impressive as any of the old royal households, such as Hampton Court, and to be fair, that's kind of in its favor.  Unlike the grand, forbidding presences attached to an estate such as Beverston Castle, Poultan Hall's compact appearance tells of a more expansive and generous nature.  It's atmosphere is less that of the genuine Nobility, and more in the line of the Old County Squires.  It is just possible (once you've scaled the whole thing down to an appropriate size) to imagine a family of Hobbits emerging from its doors, maybe one of the Tooks or Brandybucks.  Perhaps that's why it seems fitting to discover that the old place has become the kind of setting that various artists like to arrange their projects in.  The house and grounds even served as a backdrop for a children's series known as The Owl Service.  This happened back in 1969, when its last owner was still alive.  It's somewhat telling about Green himself that he was willing to allow or open his own home to such a production.  It's also the dwelling that served as his first great window onto the world.  

Being the scion and heir of an old, established, military family was often viewed as being born into a fairly conservative milieu.  In England, that same framework still appears to be in operation today, at least among the ruing classes.  It is just possible to expect that Green would have experienced the same difficulties as those faced by a writer like E.A. Wyke-Smith.  The opening setting is almost so prototypical that it won't be too much of a surprise to learn that Roger grew up in the shadow of a strict, and authoritarian father figure.  Instead, the truth itself seems to amount to a more or less complete subversion of the trope.  Far from being a strict disciplinarian,  Arthur Green comes off as unconventional by the usual standards of the gentry.  His own son is able to provide the best possible snapshot of his upbringing in Poultan Hall through a brief snippet of memoir found in the opening pages of his later critical survey, Tellers of Tales.

"Being myself a rather bookish child, more often at home than at school owing to ill health, my reading played a very important part in my life.  It had always done so, as I was fortunate in having a father who delighted in reading aloud, began to do so long before I could read, and continued the custom, when occasion permitted, right up to the last year of his life when I was nearly thirty.  My own reading of children's book went on longer perhaps than is usual, and was succeeded by a delight in the story-tellers of the Nineties that I never lost; but it did not exclude other tastes, and I remember when I was fifteen or so reading Shakespeare plays and Tarzan stories alternately, and my reading lists of the time show an amazing variation between Stevenson or Haggard and Thackeray or Greek drama (8)".

If the interactions with his father were his first big influences, the second most important element in Green's introduction to Literature was the library housed on the estate.  This is one of the salient facts that marks Green's trajectory out as yet another type.  One of the commonalities to be found in the public statements of a lot of famous writers is how they all tend to go on, sometimes at a length which must seem absurd to casual reader, about the importance of libraries, or any kind of booksellers in their lives.  It seems to be one of the few, constant, real-life tropes that is able to unite an ongoing series of lives that are different in most every other respect.  Stephen King, for instance, noted that his education in books got started from at least two places.  One was the Stratford Library, in downtown Connecticut.  The other were the occasional bookmobiles that would drive through his hometown neighborhood of Durham, Maine.  For Ray Bradbury, meanwhile, it seems to have been the public library of Los Angeles that initiated him into the broader arena of world literature (Weller, 9).

Green's own experience of this same process appears to be a Victorian - Edwardian spin on the same process as that undergone by the other two mentioned above.  If his father wasn't there to read for him, the young Roger could often be found browsing through the volumes contained in the house.  From the sound of it, that library appears to have been an example of one of those old, private collections that some of the higher nobility could afford to compile for their own amusement, leisure, and in some cases, a genuine interest in literacy and learning.  The results could sometimes amount to several whole rooms given over to the shelving and stocking of various assorted tomes.  It is from this age old enterprise that we owe the by now still somewhat familiar image of the classical library; a vast and echoing hall lined with shelves of various leather-bound volumes of forgotten lore; most of which tend to alternate in color from red, to green, to brown, and always with the titles highlighted and bordered in gilt-edged gold.  Green seems to have been lucky enough to have inherited a variation of this image.  As first Bradbury, and then King would later do, once the young lad was let loose in that living image, he seems to have taken to it with the natural skill of a salmon running in its main stream.

It is from this experience both of parental bedtime reading, combined with the discovery of the library that shaped the contours of Roger's mental architecture.  This is where his story conforms to type, as it fits in with an established pattern that may have begun as far back as the Renaissance.  It would often be the custom for middle and upper class families in England, before the advent of public education, to pass on their learning to both heirs and descendants by introducing them to the contents of these private libraries.  The practice probably isn't as widespread now.  However, at least before the beginning of the 20th century, this household practice of educating through the library remained more or less the sole means of giving a future to one's children.  In addition to Green, other names like John Ruskin, William Morris, Prime-minister Arthur Balfour, and Oxford scholars like R.G. Collingwood were able to achieve as much as they did because of their exposure to this tradition.

Just like Morris and Ruskin, Green's introduction to the library (just as a type, or thing in itself) fostered a love of the written word.  The passion grew enough to the point where it determined his future career.  The rest of it is surprisingly available in the public record.  That said, the record itself is scant, almost constipated.  If that counts as a fault, then it's mainly down to the lack of curiosity shown to the writer's own output.  The fact that he's remembered enough at all is something of a small miracle.  The relevant data is here laid out in full, as it provides a decent enough beginner's summary of all the salient points of Green's life and his once and future career.  The following is taken verbatim from the back of the book promotional material of the Puffin Books edition of Myths of the Norsemen.

"Roger was a man who loved storytelling and was fascinated by traditional fairy tales, myths, and legends from around the world...Roger was often ill, though, and couldn't go to school - so he spent lots of time at the family's manor house in the country of Cheshire.  His family had been wealthy, and there was a huge library in their house.  He spent many hours reading the old books in there, and this is probably where his love of myths and legends started...

"...Roger loved reading adventure stories and fairy tales, and as he grew up he became fascinated by the myths of ancient Greece and Egypt, and the legends of the Norse countries of Scandinavia.  He went on to retell their ancient stories in his books Tales of Ancient Greece, The Tale of Troy, Tales from Ancient Egypt and Myths of the Norsemen - a continuous story gathered from the ancient Norse folktales, ballads and poems...He was well known for his retellings of traditional stories.  Including those mentioned above, he wrote The Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, all published as Puffin Classics.  He also wrote many books for adults, including a biography of...J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan (262-3)".

That is the extent to which the public knows him.  In all, Green was responsible for six of these compilations from world mythology.  They comprise the sole number of his books that remain in print to this very day.  The result is an author who exists as sort of like an anomaly.  Very few people seem to know he even existed at some point in time, and so his books are never taken off the shelves.  The result is that they continue to make a steady enough profit to keep restocking their places in the racks.  The whole thing sounds like a series of impossibilities that keep happening with a persistent regularity.  The whole or complete truth, meanwhile, remains in obscurity.  It's like what the Puffin blurb observes above.  Green's life as an author encompassed a lot more than just a series of folklore collections.  He wrote material of his very own, for a start.  The fact that all of it has vanished from memory is what accounts for the length of this opening.  When you're dealing with an unknown quantity, first introductions tend to take a bit more time.  That's what this entire article amounts to, in a way.  

If Roger Lancelyn Green is an unfamiliar name on the lists of published authors, then it just leaves one question.  Where do you start?  Perhaps the best way to begin is to take things slow, and not all at once.  It's with this in mind that I think the best place to start is by looking at one of the first entries in his career as a writer.  He'd published just one other book before this one.  The Luck of the Lynns appeared on the shelves two years later.  The tale goes as follows.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

A Book that Inspired Tolkien?

It's got to be the most fundamental question in the entire field of the creative arts.  "Where do you get your ideas?"  A variation of it goes as follows: "Where do the stories come from?"  Most artists tend to answer that a lot of it just popped into their imaginations out of the clear blue.  For instance, here's how the creator of Middle Earth said it all got started, at least when it came to writing the book that first placed him on the map.  "All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting school certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children.  On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'  I did not and do not know why (Collected Letters, 125)".

To be fair, perhaps it is just possible to understand why it happened when it did with a little bit of psychology and hindsight.  Tolkien seems to be conforming to a pattern when those words occurred to him.  He was placing his signature on a number of "red tape" papers.  This was a process his job required him to complete, over, time, and again, ad infinitum.  In another interview, Tolkien described the job as "laborious, and unfortunately, also boring (web)".  In other words, it was just one big, make-work detail,  The task itself might have been a dull, dry run.  However, it seems to have been the very repetitive nature of the task, its inherent monotony, that allowed the surface level of the writer's mind to not so much fall asleep, as go into a kind of holding pattern necessary for the lower levels of his mental activity to stir and awaken.  Once this happened, his imagination took the opportunity to send up a flare.  The result was a character with a funny name in a peculiar dwelling.  

It's a pattern that a lot of other writers have fallen into.  More than that, some authors out there are self-conscious enough to realize they rely on such processes to bring out their best work.  I can remember hearing second hand about a correspondence from a young author who claimed she had difficulty getting stuck on a work while cooped up in a hotel room.  She wished more than anything that she had her vacuum cleaner.  If she had just a bit of cleaning around the house to do, then the ideas just began to flow naturally for some reason.  That reason appears to be the same one at work in Tolkien's case.  Both writers needed to lull their minds into a sort of passive state in order for the imagination to do its thing.

This examination may have given us some insight, however it doesn't answer the full question.  What's been explained to us is just the process of having an idea, rather than the actual art of the craft.  We're no closer to learning about the actual content, or creative idea that makes The Hobbit the kind of story it is, and why the book remains such a perennial favorite down the years.  That's a more involved form of the question, one that takes a longer format than can be provided in just the span of a single article.  What makes a book line The Hobbit so rewarding from the perspective of the average bookworm is that it's the sort of text where several lifetimes have to be spent unpacking all of its narrative and thematic riches.  It's a strange enthusiasm to have for blots of ink on a page.  It's also one a lot of us can offer no apologies for.  It's just happens to be the kind of hobby that can have its own importance on occasion.

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are perhaps best thought of as a giant cauldron of story.  Each book tells its own self-contained narrative.  However both stories are a feast made up of several differing, yet often interrelated ingredients.  Discovering and tracing down the roots of these inspiration elements has been a pastime in Tolkien fandom for a while now.  It's one particular ingredient that I'm interested in for the moment.  If places like Middle Earth are made up from the various strands of folktale and legend, then another legitimate, yet oft-neglected source of inspiration sometimes came to Tolkien from the popular literature of his own timeline.  We like to picture Tolkien as this semi-reclusive old hermit who liked to shut himself away from the world.  If that was the case, then it's a wonder LOTR even exists.  Books like that are never the work of shut-ins.  It takes a great deal of life experience to conjure up the the level of humanism contained within its pages.  Looked at from that perspective, there is a sense in which Tolkien can be described as a Renaissance man.

His tastes were not confined to the medieval or its preceding ages.  It's a basic enough fact that the Professor also liked to dabble in the fantastic scribblings of both the Victorians and the more mythical oriented Modernists of the early 20th century.  Some of the modern authors that Tolkien admired hinted that his tastes were often more eclectic than even the most fervent admirers will allow. The best name that signals this out might have to belong to Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck.  Indeed, the latter raises interesting possibilities about how Tolkien might have viewed his most famous creation.  Another one of these modern names was called Edward Augustine (E.A.) Wyke-Smith, and its his work that  concerns us here.  Perhaps the best way to describe him is to say that he is one of (though by no means the sole) inspiration for the name that cropped into Tolkien's mind one day.  

Wyke-Smith had never heard of Hobbits in his whole life however, and the book we are looking at today doesn't even bother to mention them.  At the same time, it's almost like neither author could avoid creating the subject.  Wyke-Smith and Tolkien shared at least two things in common.  Both were writers who discovered they were pretty good at it.  The second was that they are the creators of a certain type of secondary world character with a remarkable number of physical similarities.  Perhaps that's not all that each of their books share in common.  It's a story that's well worth telling, so there's no better time to start.  

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Disney TV (2004).

The problem with success is that it gives everyone the perfect excuse to ignore you.  That's the one catch of pop-culture that nobody ever bothers to tell you about.  If an artist comes along and is able to leave the kind of impact that seeps rights into the social mainstream, then a kind of curious metamorphosis takes place.  The kind of impact I'm thinking of doesn't happen often.  However, on the few historical occasions when they do occur, the result tends to be a slow burn form of change in the atmosphere of a culture.  The new phenomenon is able to gain such a wide cultural acceptance in a way that is so vast that it's almost hard to notice it when it happens.  There have been just a handful of artists who have left that huge a level of impact on the world's stage.  Shakespeare might have been one of them.  Walter Elias Disney is definitely another.  Walt, or at least the brand and company that he left behind, has got to be one of the current constants in our modern aesthetic landscape.  For better or worse, both the man and the studio remain as benchmarks of pop-culture.  

The tricksy part, however, is what happens when the artist and the art is able to attain a certain high level of cultural ubiquity.  My own experience is that once that happens, there is a real threat that the artist is in danger of achieving what I've heard described as "Mainstream Obscurity".  It's what happens when an artist's fame ironically becomes the very means for his or her partial occlusion in everyday social awareness.  This can have a deleterious effect on their work.  In Walt's case, most people know the Seven Dwarves theme from Snow White ("it's off to work we go").  All well and good.  Now what's the movie about?  I mean can you give, name, or know specific elements about the flick?  Can you name and discuss specific plot points.  Do you even know whether or not the film is based on any kind of source material?  If you haven't got a choice except to answer no, well then I'm afraid that makes you living proof of just how it's possible for Disney to remain a pervasive known unknown.  His efforts have succeeded to such an extent that it's easy to fool ourselves into forgetting there was a time when things were otherwise, or else might not have been at all, if certain things hadn't gone right.    

Stop and think about it for a minute.  The guy writing these words can best be described as an 80s Kid.  I was born the year Orwell made famous.  That means I was just in time for Amadeus, Ghostbusters, and the breakout performances of Eddie Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The trick, however, is that I was in no position to even realize they existed until much later.  This would have been during the 90s for me.  That's when I first saw posters and standup billboard cut outs for something called Terminator 2: Judgement Day.  There was a brief span when I couldn't set foot into a local Blockbusters without having to walk past that same damn thing, time in and out.  Pretty soon, Arnold left, and in his place one day was a black background with the image of a T-Rex skeleton on, painted in shades of black and red.  The irony is I missed Jurassic Park on its initial theatrical run.  The key point about this memory is that one of those touchstones had been around long before I even knew T2 was a sequel.  It had achieved complete and total ubiquity.  The case of Spielberg's film was different.  By that time, I was of an age where I got to observe it starting to leave its impact everywhere I went.  The latter movie had this sense of a fresh, new discovery, while the former one already had this sense that it had always been here from the start.  My experiences with Walt's legacy ran pretty much the same way.

I don't how many others went through the same experience as me.  I think the way it all happened was my parents discovered the Disney Company somehow got its own cable channel.  They showed a lot of the old Mickey and Donald cartoons, as well as some other stuff that looked harmless.  So they plopped me down in front of the idiot box and that channel became my first real experience of both media and the world.  The one person I have to thank for it all is Uncle Walt.  I got to know him through that channel.  What I took a long time catching up with was the realization neither Disney, or his channel were ever "from the beginning".  Heck, Walt didn't even create the cable incarnation of his brand.  That was the work of his successors.  And yet here it is again.  Once more we see the process of an artist whose impact is so big that it's able to keep that ripple effect going long after the originator is shuffled out the door.  This can be good and bad.  On the one hand, we still know who Walt is.  The downside is that both the man, and the history behind him tends to get obscured.  In his case, its not so much due to the passage of time, as it is down to the way the Company has chosen to market its own legacy.

I'm sort of left to wonder how many of the post-2000 Disney fans out there really know just how vast and varied the creative history of their favorite company really is?  It goes back a lot further than just an ear worm like "Let It Go".  That's just a fact of history.  However, these days it seems to be the kind of fact that too many are willing to overlook or deliberately forget.  For some reason, that kind of mindset just comes off as a mistake to me.  It's the kind of social amnesia that sooner or later comes with a heavy price-tag.  I don't know how that must sound, it just seems to be the way history works.  It has a nasty habit of being unkind to any age or person who forgets all the lessons it has to teach.  The good news is that sometimes being a fan of the Mouse House tends to mean you get guys like Joseph L. Telotte.  

He fits into a very interesting category of the fandom.  Guys like don't like to take a copy of Zootopia off the shelf every now and then, just for a few moments of enjoyment.  That's about as far as most of it goes for us, but not for some of the fans, not by a long shot.  They believe it's important to try and dig down into the history of all their favorite films from that studio.  They want to know what were the creative decisions that went into them.  Where did the inspiration come from.  How did they manage to create all the most iconic scenes from the studio's history.  These are the questions that make a particular slice of the fandom tick.  I have no idea how wide or numerous their numbers are.  I'm also not going to lie.  I'm mighty glad they're around.  It's efforts like that which help to keep a good legacy alive.

Telotte's book, is interesting for the nature of the territory it covers.  Rather than focusing in on the making of any one entry in the Disney catalogue, or another re-telling of the history of the studio, Tellote instead decides to train his lens on an oft-forgotten aspect of Walt's career.  His study is called Disney TV, and it chronicles the first time Walt decided to bring his studio into the television age. I said at the beginning that this aspect of Walt's legacy is one of those elements that has gotten overlooked because of how ubiquitous it has grown in the years since its creator's passing.  I also pointed out that wasn't always the case.  It's one of those facts of history that are so damn easy to forget.  The good news is that Tellote's book might be able to help remind us of where some our favorite childhood memories come from.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit (2019).

They can't all be easy.  One of the major tasks of the critic is to figure out just how much the author knows about their chosen subject.  That's the big rule of thumb when it comes to reviewing a biography.  Once you enter that territory the job isn't just about trying figure out what a metaphor in a work of fiction means.  Now all of sudden, you've got to find out how all those metaphors relate to the life.  I don't suppose it's too much of a stretch to believe this basic rule applies not just to the critic, but also to any biographer who hopes to present an accurate and successful picture of the life they've devoted their book to.  This goes double in those cases when the biography's subject happens to be an accomplished artist.  Perhaps the worst gig in the non-fiction section falls to those historians who are able to discover an unsung talent, and then find themselves saddled with the conviction that their subject deserves to gain a voice at the popular level.  Good luck to them is all I can say.  It's not an impossible goal.  It's just the the task is a lot harder than if you devote a book to a well-known personality (however long that's supposed to last).

I guess that's what makes talking about Edith Nesbit something like a real challenge.  She seems to occupy one of those strange, liminal places in the great pantheon of Fantasy fiction.  She doesn't appear to be an unknown name.  On the other hand, I've never seen or heard of her being mentioned as high up there with the big names as she perhaps deserves.  She was a very popular children's author in her day.  That's the basic fact of her claim to fame.  She seems to have done a more than decent enough job of it, all things considered.  Her accomplishment lies in the way she helped set up a lot of the images, themes, settings, and plot points that sort of define the way we think about certain fantasy novels.  She's been described as a pioneer more than once, and the label seems to fit.  That becomes pretty obvious once you decide to leaf through the pages of even one of her short story collections.  Her secondary worlds can sound familiar, until you stop and realize that the reality is you're encountering a lot of familiar faces for the first time.  Here is how Eleanor Fitzsimmons opens her study of the author.

"When I was a little girl who borrowed weekly adventures from my local library, my favorite stories were by E. Nesbit.  Best of all were her tales of magic, and of these the book I loved most was The Story of the Amulet.  I accompanied her fictional children to ancient Egypt, Babylon, and the lost city of Atlantis.  I met Emperor Julius Caesar as he stood on the shores of Gaul looking across toward England.  I was filled with hope on reading her account of a utopian London where everyone is happy and wise.  In "Praise and Punishment," chapter nine of Wings and the Child, her manual for a successful childhood, Nesbit herself explained: 'There is only one way of understanding children; they cannot be understood by imagination, by observation, nor even by love.  They can only be understood by memory.  Only by remembering how you felt and thought when you yourself were a child can you arrive at any understanding of the thoughts and feelings of children'.

"Confirming that the children in The Story of the Amulet were the "second cousins once removed" of her beloved Bastables from earlier books, she confided: 'The reason why those children are like real children is that I was a child once myself, and by some fortunate magic I  remembered exactly how I used to feel and think about things'.

"The key to her brilliance was that she was one of us, and her magical adventures felt as if they could easily happen to you or to me.  Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography explains this: 'Her characters were neither heroes nor moral dummies, but real young human beings behaving naturally.  This gift of character drawing, aided by the ease and humor of her style, place her in the highest rank among writers of books for children'.

"A profile published in September 1905 in The Strand Magazine, where Nesbit's most popular stories were serialized, praised her "astonishing versatility" and her "almost uncanny insight into the psychology of childhood."  A review in John O'London's Weekly noted: "Take a book by E. Nesbit into any family of boys and girls and they fall upon it like wolves."  Of her own style, she wrote: "I make it a point of honour never to write down to a child."  In an interview with the Dundee Evening Telegraph, she insisted: "It's quite natural that a child should believe in fairies."

In Treasure Seekers and Borrowers, Marcus Crouch suggested of E. Nesbit: "No writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman."  He believed that she "managed to create the prototypes of many of the basic patterns of modern children's fiction."  Nesbit came of age in the Victorian era, but she did not leave us more of the stiff, moralizing tales that characterized the nineteenth century.  Instead, as Crouch explained, she "threw away their strong, sober, essentially literary style and replaced it with the miraculously colloquial, flexible and revealing prose which was her unique contribution to the children's novel."  She wove her whimsy and magic into the everyday lives of children, and they would not easily let this go (ix-x)".

Before we get to the biography itself, there's just one or two details of the passages above that stick out like thorn branches in an otherwise smooth looking field of green.  Maybe it's just the pedant who took up residence in my head sometime after learning to read, however it seems like the two authors might have missed something.  To start with, Crouch and Fitzsimmons claim that Nesbit replaced a so-called literate, Victorian style with her own modernized form of prose language.  Perhaps I made a mistake?  I'd always thought since high-school that it was guys like Charles Dickens who were responsible for creating what a new "sober...colloquial, flexible" prose style with novels like Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.  In books like those and others, Dickens was able to take the stylistic flourishes honed during his years as a journalist and then applied it to to his artistic imaginings.  What he did was take the local dialects, accents, and ways of speaking, and give them a voice that had never been seen on the page before.  In doing so, Dickens was able to create a kind of stylistic space that allowed pretty much all the best authors who came after him (Nesbit included) to find their own voices.

As for the claim of Nesbit's creative work being a "breakaway from all "the stiff, moralizing tales that characterized the nineteenth century", I have just one question.  Are you talking about books like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn?  If so, then the choice is odd, to say the least.  I don't think I've run across a nineteenth century text which was more irreverent and disrespectful of all the social idols of its day, a lot of which are still with us.  If such a book is the epitome of stiff moralization, then its a wonder that it still remains the most controversial and banned text in existence.  It really does seem as if Twain had managed an artistic feat that I don't think he intended.  He has managed to create a text which has gone on to become both totem and taboo at the same time.  Different things to different people, in other words.

I mention both of these literary lights because of the way Nesbit's own efforts might be seen as both mirrors or continuations of, and divergences from the same type of story.  What unites all three writers boils down to just a number of things.  All three of their lives encompassed the entire Victorian Era.  Each of them was a master of satire.  Nesbit's fantasies sometimes contain an element of humorous self-knowing that allows her to poke fun at her own pretensions.  This may account for one reviewer calling her the British Mark Twain.  Like Nesbit, the real Twain and Dickens were good at delivering barbs at a lot of well chosen targets.  I think the most important link between them all however comes down to the way in which each of them managed to discover they had an affinity to the fantastic.  The word I use for this is Victorian Romanticism.  It's a phrase I've used here and there, and I don't know how it must sound to others.  It also doesn't change the fact its the best term I've got for the kind of rubric under which each of the three authors listed fall under, no matter how different their chosen subject matter.      

It's because of this, that I've got to maintain that any critic or reader who gets the crazy idea of trying wrap their head around an artist like E. Nesbit has to understand how both her life and art were shaped by the aesthetics of the culture she was raised in.  This in turn can help the critic get at a better understanding of who she was, and what she did.  The way Nesbit put all her fantastical landscapes down on paper, the events, ideas, and literature that inspired her, the various ways she discovered new uses for dragons and flying carpets, and how it all led her to become a literary pioneer is a story that's well worth telling.  I'm just left wondering if the biographer did a good job in this case.