Saturday, March 31, 2012

Playing in Different Sandboxes

Scott D. Parker

For the past two months or so, I’ve been in an adventurous mood, reading-wise. It started with the lead-up to the John Carter movie and the re-reading of the initial trilogy from the eleven-book series. I have since gone on to read books 4 and 5. As much fun as those books are, I wanted to maintain my enjoyment of the Barsoomian universe by giving myself a little break. Besides, it’s pretty obvious that Edgar Rice Burroughs had one go-to plot—kidnap female; have male chase kidnappers; prevent wedding—and, well, I needed a break.

Taking a cue from one of the film’s writers, I segued over to Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road. This is his homage to adventure tales and swashbuckling stories of the past. He name drops Michael Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, Alexander Dumas, and George MacDonald Fraser as inspirations. Chabon’s story follows two partners in the 10th Century Middle East and their exploits along their circuitous journey.

Chabon has gone on record as lamenting how genre stories—what, with their focus on simple things like, you know, plot and fun—often get ostracized when compared to the more staid, “important” field of literary fiction. One of the obvious differences is writing style. When you pick up a Chandler detective novel or an Asimov space opera, you know very quickly what you are reading. In the same manner, if you pick up a literary novel, the word choice alone will indicate the type of book. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but it is a distinct difference.

But what about those books where the lines are blurred? Gentlemen of the Road has some action, sword fights, and other fun set pieces. Were this novel written by another person, the style and manner of telling would be quite different, natch. But Chabon is the writer and, as such, you have a man whose natural tendency towards “literary” writing is actually crafting an action tale. Does it work?

For me, yes, partially. When the characters talk, they talk in the high style typical of a Chabon work or, to be honest, like Burroughs. Not necessarily all “thees” and “thous” but speech with flourish. Chabon’s style works great for this. Some of the action scenes, however, tend not to have the immediacy of a more dedicated genre writer. Where someone like Hammett would revert to shorter sentences to punch you in the gut with the visceral action, Chabon maintains his whimsical style. The language is still pretty, but the action is a bit hazy.

All of this got me to thinking and wondering: are certain writes better at certain types of writing? The obvious answer is yes. You take any random sample of pulp authors—modern or classic—and they might be hard pressed to write a languid tale of a young person’s coming of age in the claustrophobic climate of 1950s America. You give them a dude with a pistol or a hero with a ray gun and you are going to be flat-out entertained. You take a group of literary writers and ask them to write a mystery story or a fantasy, and you might end up with a mess.

Yes, some genres call for certain writing styles, but can you mix them? Think of this: remember when you are play acting or talking with friends and you adopt a different accent to make a joke or something? You adopt the accent, say your words, and then revert back to your normal self. Can writers do the same? Can someone mimic Hammett without resorting to pastiche? Can someone mimic Chabon without a reader seeing through the veil?

More importantly, can different types of writing be applied for different types of story? If so, what are some examples? I'd like to know.

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