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Month: August 2016

A defense of popular fiction

Posted in Genre, and Plot

I was reminded today of an excellent essay by G K Chesterton (1901), thoughtfully preserved for us by Martin Ward. Like all such things, the specific references are not necessarily still recognizable, but the core of the essay is both persuasive and witty. Some background on penny dreadfuls here and here.

UPDATE: On the Frank Reade dime novels — some of the earliest Science Fiction.

A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls

G K Chesterton

SpringHeeled JackOne of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy's novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically–it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.

In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.

RobinHoodTo-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again. There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys' literature of the lowest stratum. This class of composition has presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac. In the East the professional story-teller goes from village to village with a small carpet; and I wish sincerely that any one had the moral courage to spread that carpet and sit on it in Ludgate Circus. But it is not probable that all the tales of the carpet-bearer are little gems of original artistic workmanship. Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. A work of art can hardly be too short, for its climax is its merit. A story can never be too long, for its conclusion is merely to be deplored, like the last halfpenny or the last pipelight. And so, while the increase of the artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and impressionism, voluminous industry still marks the producer of the true romantic trash. There was no end to the ballads of Robin Hood; there is no end to the volumes about Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine. These two heroes are deliberately conceived as immortal.

The reader as partner

Posted in Just for Writers, and Readers

Understanding ComicsI'm rereading a wonderful book: Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. If you've never read it, stop reading this post right now and remedy the situation.

I'll wait.

Don't let the fact that he's talking about illustrated work disturb you. His take on how to tell stories is directly related to the writing of fiction in all its forms.

In this post, I'll focus on what he has to say about how the reader is your partner in story-telling.


As McCloud says about the above pair of panels (p. 66)…

Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. An equal partner in crime known as the reader.

I may have drawn an axe being raised in this example, but I'm not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why.

That, dear reader, was your special crime, each of you committing it your own style.

All of you participated in the murder. All of you held the axe and chose your spot.

To kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths.

Let me repeat that — the reader does the work; the artist merely sets it up. If you were writing a bedroom scene, think how little you actually need to show for the reader to fill in the details in ways far more vividly than you can conjure. It's a very clear presentation of how less can be more.

For the love of god, learn something about historical periods before writing about them

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers


I wasn't going to post another Irritated Review™ so soon, but I was reading a Regency Romance novella and I couldn't restrain myself. I'll refrain from naming book or author, but going by the author picture, she's young.

The problems come in two particular flavors: errors of fact and behavior for the period, and modern points of view projected into the past.

Normally I object to these sorts of problems because they throw me out of a book, sometimes violently. In this case, they were so numerous that it was like trying to make out the plot while facing a hail of bullets, one after another. Soon I was no longer reading for the story, but looking for the next blooper, like a game. Here are some of the highlights.

Misused words

There is only the haziest understanding of how a visitor to a town is housed, and it's not in a guesthouse, the term chosen by the author, which does not exist. Inns in villages and hotels in towns are actually what she meant, but other than one reference to lodgings, we keep reading about the guesthouse.

There are waistcoats which are portly (rather than the men wearing them), and brows on ships, where men can stand.

Men want to step onto the “Regent's British soil.” “Regent” is not a synonym for “king” — do you suppose we should be singing “God Save the Regent”?  Later there's a reference to “now that the Regent sat the throne.” Thrones are the seats of anointed kings, not regents, even if they are princes as in this case.

The management of households

The rank of the heroine is never declared, but she is subject to an arranged marriage to the 5th son of a Duke and her parents were the wealthiest in the town, so she must be a member of the lower reaches of the aristocracy, if not higher. Her house is (sketchily) described in matching fashion — it's at least large and well-appointed, though envisioned more as a townhouse than an estate.

And apparently the house has not one single servant.

Kitchen staffNo one to bring tea, no one to dust all the furniture, no one to answer the door when someone knocks, no maid to help her dress, no cook, no one to tend the gardens, no one to do the laundry, no one to empty the chamber pots. If she has horses, no one responsible for their care. There is absolutely no one else in and around her house, not so much as a lapdog. And, apparently, no steward or business manager to run whatever estate or business her income derives from. If the income comes from rents, who collects them? If from a business (not appropriate to her presumed class), who manages it, now that her parents are dead?

Did her parents live this way, too? If not, was there a great firing of servants, a casting off of pensioners in the few weeks since her parents' deaths?

She answers her own door, and brings water to a guest. Every thing else about her household must be tended by the brownies, one presumes. I wonder where she gets the milk to pay them?

A rollicking tragic tale

Posted in Other Voices

The Shooting of Dan McGrew herbert blache 11

The Shooting of Dan McGrew: Robert W. Service

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

There's men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do,
And I turned my head — and there watching him was the lady that's known as Lou.
His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze,
Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze.
The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool,
So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands — my God! but that man could play.

Why inconsistencies in fiction matter

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

Book 1 of the Joe Pickett series

Another Irritated Review™. I'm just making my way through the 17-book Joe Pickett series by C J Box. On the whole, I like them well enough to buy them (at the grossly inflated traditional publishing prices), but I'm also noting small inconsistencies in factual matters that are irritating enough that I want to expand upon them as a case study in a blog post.

These are mysteries set in Wyoming, and our hero is the game warden Joe Pickett. Each book has an ensemble of continuing characters, and introduces new ones, chiefly to serve as the villains and victims of the particular book — no different from dozens of other, similar series. The writing is professional and reasonably polished, the plots are all right, and the characters suffer the standard long series weaknesses of static personalities or situations — after two decades, you expect them to have matured more than this. All of this is par for the course.

What keeps irritating me are the unnecessary errors of fact regarding the real world, and the unforced errors of prop inconsistencies. (While these are all the author's responsibilities, aren't editors at traditional presses supposed to help catch these?)

Errors of fact

Any genre where the details of the tools or weapons used are important attracts readers who know those tools intimately. It's a truism of the thriller genre that authors dwell lovingly on particular models of guns, for example, and as murder mysteries set in a hunting environment, the Joe Pickett books are no exception.

While I'm willing to give writers a pass on absolute arcana in this area, they need to get the basics right that anyone acquainted with the field would know. Otherwise I'm knocked right out of the story. And it's not just weapons — ordinary tools need to be used correctly, too. For example…


Would you twirl this on your finger?
Would you twirl this on your finger?
Someone checks out a new very large caliber revolver. It weighs three pounds, and it has a mounted scope. Now visualize this — three pounds is a lot, and a scope on top of the barrel for a handgun means something that's almost as tall as it is long. Got that picture? Good.

Now picture him twirling the handgun by its trigger guard to get a better feel for it. On one finger, necessarily. Now, I'm willing to believe that this is possible, but it would certainly be very clumsy and I can't picture anyone doing it. Can you?

The gunfighters who do this in Western movies are using much lighter guns, without scopes. And they're doing it for effect, not to get a feel for a weapon.