Thursday, April 14, 2011

Good Bad Fantasy

Among Orwell's best essays is a gem from 1945 titled “Good Bad Books”. In it, he talks at length about various low or middle brow “bad” books that are “the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.”

He targets many of them as being frankly about escape: “They form pleasant patches in one's memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life.”

Orwell goes on to spend sometime drifting over the brilliant clumisness or trainwreck reasoning of this or that early 20th century writer before hitting on an essential truth about the durability of this kind of writing: “The existence of good bad literature—the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously—is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration. I imagine that by any test that could be devised, Carlyle would be found to be a more intelligent man than Trollope. Yet Trollope has remained readable and Carlyle has not: with all his cleverness he had not even the wit to write in plain straightforward English.”

I could write you a river about all the good bad books in my life--all the rough-edged punk rawk travel monologues of Aaron Cometbus or the savory manly-man cliches and tropes of Bernard Cornwell—but in a short on-and-off again series I patiently queued up I'd like to explore that rather obvious good bad heavyweight contender in our D&D-loving lives: the fantasy novel and how it influences our gaming. 

We are not talking your literary over-achievers here: no Lord Dunsany, no Eddison, no Gene Wolfe, and lord knows no Tolkien. 

Let's take one of the heaviest of the heavies for starters: Robert E. Howard.

Howard was by every definition of the phrase a hack writer. Paid by the word, he churned out an endless stream of them before the flash of his revolver cut it all short. And to be sure a good chunk of it like many of his boxing stories were just plain bad bad. But the Conan stories were something of a pinnacle of good bad pulp fantasy.

I could fill up several blog posts on how the stories influence this or that bit of my thinking as a GM--the effective description, for instance, of adventure setting dress whether it's ages-lost ruins, a bejeweled tower, or a dusty exotic caravan city—but how about a focus on one biggie: action pacing.

During sessions I often write in my ever-present spiral notebook a few “stage notes” about how to improve my performance as a GM. A few months back I scrawled in the margin “describe action and combat more like REH” (that thought launched this ship). Given the abstract nature of D&D combat, a good GM is invariably looking for ways to flesh out the narrative bits, I am certainly no exception.

In lieu of me continuing to hurl quotes at you to build my case, indulge me with this little exercise. Pick up any collection of Howard's Conan stories you have available—if your hand is on one of those cheeseball post-humous collections not written by REH put your hand down, you are disqualified—if you don't have any on hand scoot over to Gutenberg to read “Red Nails” here.

Skim along until you find the first battle, chase, or other scene filled with danger. Read it aloud, let it along your tongue. Read it again or proceed over to the next.

How's that? Hit a good bad nerve? A little embarrassing, yet satisfying? Come back and tell me about it. Now channel that kind of terse pacing—and violence—into your next session.

Friends and not-so friends, what's the good bad fantasy book taking up space in your life? Why? What piece of that author's work can you see playing a direct influence in upping your game?


  1. I tend to be a little overly forgiving of purple prose, so I usually only classify something I'm reading as bad if it is boring or incomprehensible.

  2. Sorry, I can't go with you there. I'm not willing to give higher "literary" category to Eddison or Tolkien than I am Two-Gun Bob, maybe not Dunsay either. I'll grant that not every effort of Howard's is stellar--and some of them are only passably entertaining, but just 'cause a guy isn't longwinded or "epic" in scope doesn't make him less literatutre.

    But I would say a lot of comic books fall into the broad category you're discussing for me.

  3. @Trey
    I think that's the point, Howard is as good or better writer than the ones that might make it onto a literary A-list. He may have been a bit of a Central Texas redneck (hell so am I) and his history and macho posturing flawed, but man did he turn a vivid phrase.

  4. Trey, Help! My magic box has failed me. Not even wikipedia knows what "literatutre" means. I'm guessing canon, but my google-fu has proved insufficient for the first time ever and I can't find more than a passing reference to the word!

  5. I guess I have to ask what, in your mind, specifically makes Howard's work "good bad pulp fantasy" as opposed to plain old "good fantasy"? Howard doesn't have literary pretensions, but that's because they aren't pretensions at all: they're the real deal. Howard poured his heart and soul into every story he wrote: paid by the letter he may have been, but that didn't stop him from infusing it with all the vigour and energy as if he was writing purely for love.

    "Hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life" - well, that's a matter of perception, I suppose, since a lot has been written about Howard's themes in critical anthologies, and noticed by such luminaries as Tom Shippey and Larry D. Thomas. There's a new one by Justin Everett and Deirdre Pettipiece on the horizon, for instance.

    Certainly the likes of Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Fritz Leiber, David Gemmel, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Leigh Brackett, Karl Edward Wagner, David Weber, and countless others seem happy to call Howard's work good without such qualifiers as "hitting a good bad nerve," or "a little embarrassing, yet satisfying."

  6. My favorite bit from Howard is where he steals the words of Pyrrhus, as written by Plutarch, hook, line, delivery and joke at the end. Pyrrhus the great general's words coming out of Conan's mouth. Brilliant bit of theft, that.

  7. "...macho posturing flawed..." Hemmingway, anyone? I'm a fan of both, recognizing the great and not so great aspects of each. Anyway...

    I can't say that I've got much more to add, Chris, but I'm commenting here to say "hell yeah" and submit that I'm never one to feel too guilty about my pleasures. Perhaps that's a result of being uneducated, or self-educated, or alternatively-educated depending on your views.

    My first exposure to Conan was through the filter of the Savage Sword of Conan comic. This happened simultaneously with my discovery of D&D, so the two have long been intertwined. The action in those comics was every bit as kinetic and the locations every bit as exotic as the source material and discovering R.E.H wasn't far behind for me.

    Lately, when needing inspiration for how I implement Faerie in my game world, I've gone both to the aforementioned Dunsany as well as Neil Gaiman comics and novels. Those are probably not considered "good-bad" fantasy now, but like I said I have trouble understanding those distinctions. It's probably a movable line anyway.