Formula, Fiction and the Work of Michael Moorcock

This is the second in my ongoing Series on the work of Michael Moorcock, which will include a review of his latest book The Best of Michael Moorcock, and finally an interview with the man himself.

Some readers may have been surprised at my admiration for Moorcock's formulas for writing fantasy novels, considering previous statements I've made disparaging formula in fiction. I've been especially critical of the tyranny of the three-act structure in film, because so many films are shoe-horned into it that it becomes predictable and rote.

However, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with formula in fiction per se. No less than William Shakespeare used them quite often, and even the strictest literary fiction will often use structural conventions, such as the "moment of epiphany". It occurs to me that a good comparison can be made between music and fiction here— stories that hew closely to formulas, such as the typical closed-door mystery, can be compared to Blues, where the structure from song to song is almost identical and the interesting stuff is what you do on top of it. Looser, say, would be rock music, with its standard forms like ABACAB but no hard-and-fast chord structures, and then there are any number of other forms with varying degrees of complexity and looseness, from the classical sonata to the most experimental out-jazz. What forms you use depends (obviously) on what kind of music you want to make; for someone like Frank Zappa, the ever more bizarre song structures is what makes the work interesting, while for B.B. King, what he plays and sings over the standard structure is where the magic lies. Which is all to say that formula is only bad if you do it in a boring way.

Michael Moorcock has always shown an obsession with structure and an eagerness to play with it. In his early fantasy writing, he took his lead from Robert E. Howard, who wrote relatively simple stories about heroes fighting monsters in which the innovation lay in making the monsters and settings weird and fascinating. Conan the Barbarian may have been the star of the show, but it was the soul-sucking devil-dog or the tortured, blind elder-demon-thing that kept you reading. To this Moorcock added a hallucinatory, sixties sensibility and moody, unpredictable characters, especially the doomed albino Elric. A decade later he followed the lead of a very different writer, William Burroughs, and created the absurd, plotless book A Cure for Cancer, part of the ever-more-experimental Jerry Cornelious series. Even A Cure for Cancer, though, follows deliberate structural decisions; a note at the beginning describing it as being "in something approximating sonata form." Further, all the Cornelious books (which each take place in a different, parallel universe) have ripples and patterns flowing through them, characters and situations following similar courses or being reinvented in intriguing ways. Likewise, the entire Cornelious series references and is referenced by the rest of Moorcock's work, with, for instance, the first part of the first book (The Final Programme) being essentially a rewrite and update of the first Elric story with elements of the psychedelic (and Philip K. Dickian) short story "The Deep Fix" thrown in for good measure.

Throughout his career Moorcock made a project out of mastering different forms and styles, refusing to stay still or stop experimenting, and in this, he is comparable to Pablo Picasso or David Bowie. In one sense, Moorcock's work can be seen to be a reflection of the entirety of 20th century literature, a map of modernist, post-modernist and pulp sensibilities. In another sense, Moorcock's work is a complete, self-contained universe, a game of mirrors, connections, clues and red herrings. And it's Moorcock's obsession with structure which allows him to create his narrative puzzles, and to blueprint so many different styles and fill them up in new and interesting ways.

Why I Love Short Stories

I love the short story form. Unlike JF Quackenbush, Flash Fiction always feels incomplete to me, like an appetizer without a main course. And I love novels, but sometimes an idea can and should be expressed compactly; indeed often the joy of the short story is seeing how the author pulls off the full expression of something in so few pages.

Genre Fiction, Best Of and Media

Michael Peterson's latest comics column in The House Next Door, which is a fascinating analysis of comics as cartography, contains this aside:

The Best American Comics was established three years ago as a counterpart to other "Best American" collections of prose writing and has largely maintained the same roster of talent in each annual edition.


I was digging through some old notes in preparation for this installment on an especially bitter night in 2005, after attending a gallery opening here in Chicago hosted by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, editor of a Yale anthology of comics very similar to the "Best American" books. The gallery featured the same few folks; I hurled out some invective that evening, some of which I'm inclined to retract and some of which is still true today:

Brunetti is part of that society of cartoonists that holds our most public faces—Spiegelman and Ware, Chester Brown and Seth and Joe Matt, Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine and the rest of those who hold Schultz and Crumb as the binary star which we should orbit. They're the ones that sit at the Big Kids Table, and at this point, we're resigned to it. They're married to our roots in the daily and Sunday strips, and for many, that form is what informs their every creation, a view that cannot be disentangled. The comic book as a unit is the stuff of old pulps. To stray too far into genre territory, other than as an ironic metaphor, is to obfuscate your message and resign yourself to obscurity.

This all reminded me quite a lot of my own questioning of genre's acceptance by the mainstream critical world. After all this site was practically founded as a reaction to the predominance of quotidian, autobiographical, realist fiction in the "literary" world, exactly the kind of fiction that dominates both the Best American Comics and (usually) the Best American Short Stories anthologies.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the critical estimation of works in verious media, as judged by some well-known "best of" lists.

Fantasy and Science Fiction and the state of Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction recently made a marketing push, sending out copies of their latest (July) issue to any blogger who asked for one. I have mixed feelings about The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. On the one hand, everything about it from the covers to the editorial position seems generally rooted in 60s and 70s New Wave (strange how a magazine of a genre that thinks constantly about the future can dwell so much in the past). On the other hand, the stories in F&SF are generally better than those of its rival publication Analog (which is not just SF, but Hard SF, the most tired and irrelevant type of that genre), and more over, I'd much rather read F&SF than Glimmer Train or The Paris Review or any of the other publications running the MFA meat grinder for what passes for literary short fiction these days. At least I can read F&SF without falling asleep. Still, compared to quite edgier magazines like A Public Space, Weird Tales or Strange Horizons, any given issue of F&SF seems like a relic from another age.

Fuck Narrative Magazine

Narrative Magazine has gotten a write up in the San Francisco Chronicle recently which seems to make a game of how completely it can crawl up the Magazine's asshole. The editors, Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarton, are revolutionaries, the article tells us, because they've put fiction on the Internet and gotten "40,000" subscribers instead of the "5,000" subscribers "most 'small magazines,' on- or offline" have. (Try 500 and you might be closer to the truth, but I digress.) Yes, Jenks and Edgarton, a loving couple, a "symbiotic" match made in yuppieville, took time off from writing their own, "acclaimed" novels and went to Martha's Vineyard to put together their revolutionary website. How revolutionary?

Narrative is also atypical in terms of quality. There is no whiff of literary hipsterism here, no veil of coolness to cover up the mediocre writing that is often found in new publications by editors who have spent their college years boning up on David Foster Wallace.

Fuck you.

Instead, Jenks and Edgarian offer a wide, well-edited and stimulating selection of narrative forms.

If by "stimulating selection of narrative forms" you mean countless interchangeable, meandering, pointless slice-of-life vignettes that go nowhere, then yes, I see exactly what you mean.

But there is one major, overriding reason to hate Narrative Magazine, which can be seen in their submission guidelines:

Except during our open-submission periods, we require a reading fee for submission, as follows:

—a $20 reading fee for short short stories of 750 to 2,000 words.

—a $10 reading fee for up to five poems in a single submission.

—a $10 reading fee for short audio (MP3) submissions of poetry. Audio poetry submissions may be up to five minutes in length.

—a $10 reading fee for short audio (MP3) submissions of prose, for our TELL ME A STORY category (see description below). Audio prose submissions may be up to five minutes in length.

—a $20 reading fee for a single manuscript (fiction or nonfiction) of 2,000 to 10,000 words in length.

—a $20 reading fee for novellas and book-length works.

And when is their open submissions period?

Narrative is not currently accepting open submissions.

This is a magazine that asks its potential writers to pay them for the privilege of submitting work. I can't imagine a bigger middle finger to the working fiction writer, a way a magazine could treat the already struggling and unpaid short fiction writer more poorly. I mean, fuck you Narrative Magazine.

As for their supposed "40,000" member subscriber list: we linked to Narrative Magazine once in our original mission statement, and the magazine promptly started sending us regular emails about the crappy writing they were publishing, which makes me think their business ethics fall somewhere between porn spammers and casino spammers, and calls into question any numbers that come out of them. But even at face value the number is incredibly weaselly. A "subscriber" to Narrative Magazine is merely someone who has registered (for free) at their site, which you need to do to read anything on it. So someone who signed up on the site once, read a few stories and never went back is still considered a "subscriber", which is nothing like someone who plunks down money to get every issue of a magazine mailed to them. Calling registered users "subscribers" is not only misleading, it's just plain dishonest. Besides the fact that forcing people to register to look at work on your site is kind of a dick move to begin with, especially since it seems to be done with the express purpose of boosting these fraudulent "subscriber" numbers.

In short, fuck Narrative Magazine. If they're "the future of reading" then reading is not something I want to be a part of.

EDIT 3/28/2008: See my follow up for information about Narrative Magazine selling your information to spammers and junk mailers.

What Are You Going to Do, Bleed On Me?

There's been a lot of talk on the Interwebs about the state of the short story, especially since Stephen King's introduction to "The Best American Short Stories 2007" anthology, in which he observes that the short story is a dying art. People have objected to this assertion (from King and others), but most of the objections come off specious and empty. For instance, a recent blog post on Galley Cat called "The Short Story is Doing Fine" says

Quick, somebody tell Alice Munro she doesn't have a valid career. She's up in Canada; you can swing by George Saunders's house on the way and break the news to him as well. I'll stay here in New York and let Amy Hempel and Deborah Eisenberg know it's time for them to move on.

I can see the whiny, no-doubt-anonymous objection now: "Yeah, but if those last four weren't creative writing professors..." But if we started saying you couldn't be "successful" as a writer unless all you did to make money was write—well, let's just say the ranks of successful writers would be a lot less interesting.

Granted, measures of success are different among different people, but Alice Munro's "career" is not writing short stories. Her career is teaching creative writing. Writing short stories is at best her vocation and at worst her hobby.

Or consider this reaction in the Quarterly Conversation. First, evidence of the short stories' decline is attempted to be reframed so that it's actually a good thing, as in, "maybe just writing for other writers is all we want". Then, arguments are made for the supposed health of the form that are bafflingly poor, the worst of which is this quote from Alexander Chee:

"I have modest blog traffic at best for my blog, Koreanish: 150 to 300 hits per day. But that means in a week my blog is read by at least a 1,000 people. Many small literary magazines hope to sell a 1,000 issues per print run."

Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of websites knows that 1,000 hits a week is not anything like 1,000 readers, and for the author to not even point that out just reinforces the utter desperation lurking behind the whole thing, peering out between the sentences. PLEASE believe me the short story is FINE! PLEASE!

Finally, the author says, "Writers, like everyone else, will continue to need day jobs or sugar daddies." which has so many levels of wrong I don't know where to start. Not only do lots of people most emphatically not need a day job, but lots of writers don't need day jobs. TV and movie writers, for instance, make quite excellent livings. And you know, people who write TV and movies and don't make a living at it don't get to be called professionals. Aspiring professionals, maybe.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (a decrepit and anachronistic organization if ever there was one) defines a professional short story publication as three cents a word, a laughable figure which hasn't changed in decades. As for "literary" short fiction, the number of publications which pay decent rates for it can be counted on the fingers of one hand -- The New Yorker, Harpers, Playboy, Esquire, and once a year the Atlantic Monthly. Did I forget anyone? On the other hand there are an ever increasing abundance of "literary magazines" with circulations in three or even two digits, published by universities or the equivalent of two guys in a garage. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but it's incredibly obvious that today having a "career" in writing short fiction and reaching out to a large audience on a regular basis simply isn't possible.

Let's be clear: I like short stories and I both read and write them. But we wouldn't need a Save the Short Story campaign if it wasn't in trouble. Let us not play pretend, let us not close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears and make believe the art form that once provided an income for a multitude of professionals isn't becoming (or hasn't become) irrelevant to the population at large. The short story is not a healthy art form, but rather a once mighty appendage of the greater literary body that's been gradually severed off and reduced until all that remains is a single lonely ligament, desperately clinging for all its worth.

I don't want it to be this way. I want the short story to be widely read, and I too have hopes for the potential of the Internet and for the future of iPod and Kindle-type devices to allow people to read short stories easily and thus reinvigorate the form. But pretending that there's nothing wrong with the short story is not helping. It is, in fact, counter-productive, akin to the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, insisting he's fine and ready to fight after having his arms and legs chopped off. ("What are you going to do, bleed on me?") And that's just kind of laughable.

This is What Awesome Looks Like

The Scott Pilgrim Graphic Novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Every once and a while a cultural artifact emerges that is capable of completely dividing generations. When I was in high school, for instance, Pulp Fiction came out and I remember vividly how in the theater people of my generation laughed at some of the graphic violence, and people of my parents' generation were shocked by it, and even more shocked by our laughing at it.

With that in mind, witness, and appreciate if you can, the brilliance of Scott Pilgrim.

BR Myers and Where He Differs with The Blogosphere

Recently, there's been some uproar in the blogosphere about BR Myers' review of Denis Johnson's latest book. Without going into a lot of detail about my opinion of Denis Johnson—the short version: Angels kicked ass, Jesus' Son was overrated, and Already Dead was so boring I didn't finish it and haven't bothered trying to read anything Johnson has written since)—I do think that Myers's detractors are not being fair to him. Some folks seem to have confused Myers aesthetic stance with James Wood's, seeming to think that Myers assault on what he sees as bad writing is in fact a call for a return to Flaubert style psychological realism. Others seem to think that he's more in the Dale Peck school of literary car bombing, taking imprecise aim at the contemporary literary lights and not really caring who gets caught in the cross fire. In fact, neither reading of Myers is the case, and in an attempt to take seriously the ideas of a critic who I think deserves to be taken seriously, I'd like to take a moment to describe how I read Myers critical stance.

The overall thrust of all of Myers critical writing is an inversion of contemporary standards of good writing. To put it another way, Myers believes that a lot of what is taken for good writing in contemporary prose fiction is in fact bad writing and most of his criticism is an attempt to illustrate what those things are and why they are mistaken. In this pursuit, Myers appears to me to hold to several general principals.

1.) Contemporary criticism is over focussed on the sentence as a unit of composition. Myers often points out where critics are praising an author's sentences and goes so far in his Reader's Manifesto to talk at length about how he thinks its bizarre how much import has been placed on a writer's sentences. The review of Denis Johnson on Powell's blog that caused so much furor is in keeping with this criticism because he opens with pointing out how Johnson's sentences have been praised in keeping with his over all thesis. Myers has marshaled a lot of evidence for this in his oeuvre, but frankly I think he makes over much of it. Yes, there are a number of well regarded contemporary authors who seem to write sentences at the expense of everything else, but I think what is going on here with Myers is more a criticism of other critics and this doesn't have much to do with what he likes and doesn't like about authors. That is, I think he thinks this is where contemporary critics go wrong in their reading of contemporary authors, not necessarily where contemporary authors go wrong.

The Future of the Fantastic: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 1

In this space I was going to review, as promised, the book ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories. This anthology turned out to not be very good for a number of reasons I won't bother to enumerate; with stuff from very small presses, a bad review just seems egregious and unnecessary—no one's reading the book anyway. Instead I'll be reviewing The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 1, edited by Jonathan Strahan, which turned out to be excellent, and easily the best of the anthologies I've reviewed so far in this series.