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I Found That Essence Rare December 6, 2010

Posted by monty in authors, books.
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I’ve told this story before, but I’m going to tell it again because it’s important to what comes after.  I wouldn’t be the reader I am today without Stephen King.  I don’t know what led me to pick up Cujo when I was in 7th grade – the lurid cover, maybe? – but it stands out as the single most important reading decision in my life.  I think avid readers can trace moments like these, the times when we’ve read something that fundamentally alters not just our reading trajectory, but our lives.  I loved Cujo so much that I spent the next couple years devouring anything and everything King wrote.  This locust-like rampage through King’s bibliography eventually got me to Danse Macabre, wherein he describes some of his favorite authors.  And it was in that book that I first encountered Harlan Ellison, a sorta-kinda science fiction writer who remains one of my favorites to this day.

Genre fiction (e.g., horror, fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, etc.) is what got me into reading.  Along with King (horror) and Ellison (science-fiction), Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (fantasy) was a huge touchstone in my reading autobiography.  Before I could get to T.C. Boyle and Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, I had to have genre fiction show me just how much fun reading could be.  Just as importantly, though, my early (and continued) immersion in genre fiction made realize something important: the best genre fiction is every bit as good as the best “literature” (e.g., the highbrow stuff that is often automatically considered to be superior to its genre-based siblings).  In a McSweeney’s collection from 2002, Michael Chabon (no stranger to highbrow awards himself) laments how we’ve left behind the genre-based, plot-driven stories that were so popular in the early part of the 20th Century (think Chandler or Hammett or Lovecraft, and Poe before them), or rather, we’ve left behind the idea that these stories can be any good.  That’s largely due to the popular names in genre-based fiction, whose work currently sells scads of copies (now think Sparks or Patterson or Koontz) despite being about as sophisticated and gracefully-written as a 10th grader’s essay arguing in favor of pot legalization.

Starting tonight, I’m going to periodically offer up brief descriptions of some of my favorite genre-based authors – the ones whose work apparently isn’t supposed to be good for you, but which I believe no serious reading diet should be without.

Harlan Ellison

If discovering Cujo is the high-water mark of my reading autobiography, then picking up The Essential Ellison runs a close second.  I’d never encountered anything like Ellison’s stories. They were immensely rich in their imagination, but the biggest impact they had on me was in hearing Ellison’s voice.  He was sarcastic, he was bemused, he was inspiring, he was self-righteous, he was mischievous, he was angry – and there was no mistaking the passion that ran through each and every one of his stories, whether it took place on an alien planet or in Hollywood.  I was drawn to that voice, and as a developing writer myself, his was the first voice I tried to emulate.

Ellison is like Vonnegut in that he was unfairly pegged from the very beginning as solely a science-fiction writer.  Yes, he wrote stories that were cast from that particular mold (“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”) but he also wrote stories in the here and now, stories that incorporated trenchant social criticism (“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”) or that were as much about the relationships between the characters as they were about the plots that consumed them (“Neither Your Jenny Nor Mine.”).  He’s written slam-bang action stories (“Along the Scenic Route”), but he’s also responsible for one of the most heartbreaking tales about aging that I’ve ever encountered (“Jeffty Is Five”).  And he can also do just plain funny (“The Voice in the Garden”; “Gnomebody”).  He’s published two of the best books of television criticism I’ve ever read (The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat), written episodes of Star Trek and Babylon Five, edited a groundbreaking anthology of science-fiction, and sued James Cameron for stealing two of his stories (read Ellison’s “Soldier” and “The Demon With the Glass Hand,” and then watch The Terminator. And people said Avatar was derivative).

Depending on what day you ask me, I’ll name Harlan Ellison my all-time favorite author – and I wish he’d publish a new collection of stories so I didn’t feel so guilty writing about him in the past tense.

George R.R. Martin

I’m late to this particular party, but I haven’t been this excited about an author since I discovered Cormac McCarthy in the late 90’s.  See, I used to read a lot of fantasy when I was growing up.  Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain and J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit were my introduction to the genre, and, as I mentioned above, when I was in junior high I feasted on Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, as well as Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance books.  But I figured I grew out of the genre when I hung up my pouch of Dungeons & Dragons dice.

But then, through the recommendation of some trusted folks, I picked up Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first volume in his series, A Song of Ice and Fire. My expectations weren’t very high, assuming, as I did, that I was about to start reading something sort of silly and juvenile – the literary equivalent of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Martin’s series (and, full disclosure, I’m currently only halfway through the third book) is staggeringly rich, densely plotted, and peopled with characters that are as complex and multi-dimensional as anything I’ve ever read.  Yes, there’s swords and armor and battles and magic and castles and all of that, but here’s the thing: this is a series about the people in it, not about the fantasy trappings that serve as their backdrop.  It’s a fantasy series that can be enjoyed by people who don’t like fantasy, that’s how good it is.  And even though the series is undeniably fantasy in nature, the accoutrements of the genre don’t distract from Martin’s real business: telling a ripping yarn about real people in perilous times.  It’s a stunner.

And – bonus! – HBO is producing a ten-part series based on the first book that looks to be remarkably faithful to the author’s vision.

Next time I return to this topic, look for something from the mystery genre.  John Sanford’s lengthy Prey series is shaping up to be one of the most impressive bodies of work in modern fiction.

*****

Current listening:

Psychic TV  – Force the Hand of Chance (1982)

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Comments»

1. Katie Reed - December 6, 2010

Ellison is fucking amazing.


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