Monday, July 13, 2009

On Charm

It took a short story collection from 1908 to finally crystalize an aesthetic principle that had been sloshing about in my brain. Reading The Sword of Welleran and Others by Lord Dunsany (the incomparably named Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany) was a revelation. In reading it I was transported in a way that is much too rare. In approaching this review then, I had to try to elaborate what exactly about it I loved so much. The too-obvious answer was that it reminded me very much of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories (unsurprisingly, as Gaiman will sing Dunsany’s praises every time he’s asked about influences). Digging deeper, I had to ask: What is it I love so much about Gaiman? That required meditation.

During that time of reflection, duty called and I continued reading slush pile stories for Strange Horizons. Here’s what they don’t tell you about the slush pile before you start: it’s really not that bad. Very few of the stories are submitted by illiterate mouth-breathers. Most of them are at the very least competent. The vast majority (unsurprisingly) fall into the RUMIR category. Yet we still reject at least 98% of them (see Jed Hartman for exact statistics). A number of the stories cover subject matter very similar to Gaiman and Dunsany: the gothic, the epic, the mythical. Yet so few of them achieve the heights that those two authors reach reliably. What’s the difference? For the most part, the slush story lacks a certain spark. It’s probably indefinable, but my meditations have finally yielded a name for this mysterious quality: I’ll call it charm.

The charm of Gaiman and Dunsany stories (and others spring to mind, not just in fantasy: I believe Connie Willis’ charm has propelled her to her vast number of Hugo statuettes) comes from their ability to hold the big and the small in mind all at once. While the stories are often epic, mythic, and touching, they are also aware that things don’t always go smoothly. Not in a “The Dark Lord is thwarting me” way or even an “All my choices have come to ill” way, but in more of a “herding cats” sort of way. These stories have the confidence to be playful. The dream-speaker runs afoul of the overly literal mind; the heavenly song is interrupted by the soulless being who talks during the theatre (see Rev. Book’s ‘special hell’); “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” is laid low—who knew?—by none other than Sacnoth; Lines such as: “And the long ride was a hard and weary one for Soorenard and Akanax, for they both had mortal wounds; but the long ride was easy for Rollary, for he was dead.”

What makes for a charming story? At the very least, it can’t take itself 100% seriously. There must be some perspective, some awareness that humor is what keeps our worlds from crashing in on us even when they are literally crashing in on us. The stories should have at least some people that act like people: not everyone is a hero or a villain; most of them just try to get by on their own ground (see the Discworld novels and the “pile of money the size of St. Paul’s” it has charmed out of its legions of readers). It helps when the prose sings on the sentence level as well. I hasten to add that this is not because of any Hemingway/Asimovian journalistic “transparency,” but because the words are a joy and you want to keep going from one to the next. Dunsany’s is an odd brand of poetry; you’d think too many of his sentences begin with “And…” for it to work (“And Iraine was the last of the captains, and rode away alone”), but from those humble, biblical roots he spins unforgettable imagery. And while this doesn’t directly relate to Dunsany so much, I’d also like to make a pitch for that brand of charming dialog that manages to sound natural while being funnier, more rhythmic, and more charming than any of us can ever manage in real time (see Mssrs Shakespeare, Whedon, and Scalzi for various examples of that craft).

So many of the very deep, very serious gothic investigations of grief, philosophical deconstruction of fae, and musings upon the fates of gods that come through the slush pile could use a dash of charm: an awareness that gods come and go but that someone out there will always be trying to herd cats with only the most marginal success. Does every story need to be charming? Not at all, it would be antithetical to the purpose of certain kinds of fantasy and science fiction—the kinds that focus on the grand ideas of things, and less on the human scale. I can’t see what this sort of aesthetic would really add to Greg Egan’s work, and he’s one of my all-time favorites. But even some of those grand and serious works could do with a little more confidence—the confidence to bring up the silly to further enhance the sublime (see also Neal Stephenson, he manages it even in Anathem).

So what of The Sword of Welleran and Others? I’ll leave you with this: GO READ IT. Not every story in it is a flat-out winner, but the first three entries count amongst the finest fantasy I have ever read. If that wasn’t clear enough: EVERY PERSON WHO ENJOYS THE WORK OF NEIL GAIMAN MUST GO READ DUNSANY. Go forth, all the legions! (And as it’s available on Project Gutenberg, there is no excuse for avoiding it.)


Gary Farber said...

"During that time of reflection, duty called and I continued reading slush pile stories for Strange Horizons. Here’s what they don’t tell you about the slush pile before you start: it’s really not that bad. Very few of the stories are submitted by illiterate mouth-breathers."

I perfectly believe you about your experience with Strange Horizons, but based on such experiences as spending a couple of years in the early-mid-Seventies reading slush for Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories magazines, and a while in the mid-Eighties reading and reporting on both slush and reputable-agent-submitted manuscripts, as well as books that had previously been published but were up for consideration for buying the rights to and republishing (at houses such as Dell, Ace, Bluejay, before moving on to an inhouse position at Avon Books in the later Eighties supervising the slush readers, and still getting some slush directly that I'd pass off to our slush readers to look at to see if it warranted me taking a more serious glance, and then actually farming it out to one of our paid readers, I'd have to suggest that slush varies according to publisher, and the larger/more prominent the publisher, the worse the proportion of truly unreadable slush, versus just Stuff With Problems.

Stuff at the major publishing houses where sf is just one of many imprints, for example, that isn't even sent to an editor, or even to the imprint, but just to the general address of the publisher, is of a different quality than that sent to the imprint, which in turn is different than that sent to an actual editor by name. Each is, respectively, a step up in cluefulness, which is generally accompanied by a -- roughly -- proportionate rise in quality.

So there are limitations to how far you can generalize about slush sent to one place.

Karen Burnham said...

Gary - Wow, that's a lot of history to pack into one sentence. I'm sorry you've had to deal with more illiterate mouth breathers in thirty years than I have in one. However, my main point was trying to get at how Charm can lift an average, RUMIR story up to a higher level.