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Posts Tagged ‘genre fiction’

The Dreams in Which I’m Dying

August 29, 2014 | by

The vanity of the zombie apocalypse.

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A publicity still from The Last of Us.

There are few things as narcissistic as an apocalypse fantasy. The apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of the world, just the end of humankind, and considering such a fate can lead us into a sentimental peace with the present day. Suddenly, in spite of all its flaws—flaws that might be harder to accept in less dire circumstances—the world seems worth keeping intact. In recent years, zombies have been a catalyst of fictional doom in every conceivable manner, from popular horror and comedy to moral parable and literary send-up. They offer us freedom from death in exchange for our subjective consciousness and social identity. But we’d sooner have death, if it means our egos can be spared for a bit.

The Last of Us, a PlayStation game whose latest version was released last month, is a story about a zombie apocalypse, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Its creative director, Neil Druckmann, said in a 2011 interview that he wanted the game to be more of a love story, one between a middle-aged man and a fourteen-year-old girl. So maybe it’s more accurate to describe The Last of Us as a story about a kind of taboo love that requires a zombie apocalypse to normalize—and, by extension, a story that, through love, gives the fungal zombification of humanity a silver lining. Our species may be on the verge of extinction, but if we’re able to fall in love and learn a little about ourselves along the way, it can’t be all bad. Love is where all educated people go to bury their narcissism. Read More »

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The Unknown Ajax

June 5, 2014 | by

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Georgette Heyer

Like most families, mine makes frequent use of shorthand. In the case of me and my mother, much of the talk derives from the work of Georgette Heyer, the prolific author who created the genre of Regency Romance in the first half of the twentieth century. As my mother had, I read all of the books in my early teens, and even today, our exchanges are liberally peppered with the idiosyncratic language of Heyer’s novels—or, as she might put it, “Regency cant.”

Something popular is “all the crack.” Exaggeration becomes “doing it much too brown.” A young relative fresh from the sticks “needs a little town bronze.” A snob is “high in the instep.” And our favorite, of course, is “impervious to the most brutal snubs,” a phrase which one finds applicable with dismaying frequency.

Heyer was a famously scrupulous researcher with a vast archive of materials and detailed notes on all aspects of the eras she portrayed. (In addition to the Regency, Heyer set books in the Georgian and Medieval periods; she also wrote modern mysteries.) Her files contained subject headings like “Beauty, Colours, Dress, Hats, Household, Prices, and Shops.”

While devotees will argue passionately for their favorite Heyers (mine, not that you asked, are Cotillion, Devil’s Cub, and, of course, The Grand Sophy—I don’t like the May-December jaded-rakes ones) it can’t be denied that there are certain recurring tropes in her work. One biographer defined these as the “saturnine male lead, the marriage in danger, the extravagant wife, and the group of idle, entertaining young men.” To this I would add a mad chase at the book’s end, which oftentimes brings together disparate characters at a remote and random inn. But all are characterized by their real wit, fully realized characters, and utterly satisfying conclusions. (Okay, A Civil Contract, not so much.) Read More »

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Some Pulp

May 27, 2014 | by

Dashiell Hammett, born today in 1894, found a home for a lot of his fiction in Black Mask, one of America’s great bygone pulp magazines. Raymond Chandler, Carroll John Daly, and other masters of detective fiction all placed their work in Black Mask, which first published Hammett in 1922, and which serialized The Maltese Falcon in 1929. The magazine had high-minded origins—H. L. Mencken cofounded it in 1920 as a lucrative companion to his more literary (read: less profitable) journal, The Smart Set, which also published Hammett, though later he decided to slum it and began to appear solely in Black Mask. Mencken and his partner sold the pulpier magazine only eight issues into its run; I guess they thought they’d made enough money on it by then. Tant pis—The Smart Set (“A Magazine of Cleverness”) met its demise in 1930, when Black Mask had a circulation of 130,000.

Alack, the forties saw a decline in fortune, as a fan’s history of Black Mask explains:

By 1940 circulation had dropped ... and the owners decided to sell Black Mask to their competition, Dime Detective. A new editor tried to make the magazine tough again and brought in new writers, but the problem was no longer the magazine. The technology of entertainment was changing. Readers had taken up comic books and mass-market paperbacks during the Depression, and by 1940 radio was also taking away audience. These media were, variously, either cheaper or more durable or resalable or more immediate. Its days numbered, Black Mask staggered on, using lurid covers of sex and violence, featuring espionage stories during World War II and finally cutting back to fortnightly publication. The magazine’s size was reduced, the price raised—nothing helped. The last issue appeared in July 1951. After thirty-one years of publication, Black Mask folded: it had printed over 2,500 stories by some 640 authors and been the dominant magazine in hard-boiled fiction.

It was Black Mask, particularly the aforementioned grotesqueries of its later years, that inspired Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and the covers here offer images out of a Tarantino wet-dream: unabashedly titillating, chock full of lantern-jawed private dicks and glinting gunmetal and doe-eyed doll-faced dames who like to leave messages in lipstick (or blood). Serialized novels were called novelettes, not novellas (“The Flying Hearse: A Cellini Smith Novelette”); headlines ran to all shades of yellow and purple. “Leaving Killings to the Cops.” “Let’s All Swing Together.” “The ‘Phantom Crook’ Returns in ‘Tommy Talks.’” “And a Little Child Shall Bleed Them.” “Alcoholics Calamitous.”

Of course, Hammett’s frequent appearances in these pages might imply that he was just part of the hard-boiled schlock-peddling machine, and I suppose he was. But all you do have to do is read a few lines of dialogue from The Maltese Falcon to see why he outlasted his contemporaries—there was no tough-as-nails before Sam Spade was tough-as-nails.

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A Nation of Postcards, and Other News

April 21, 2014 | by

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Image: Boston Public Library

  • On that ever-mysterious rubric, “literary fiction”: “It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature—and therefore Important, Art, and somehow better than other writing … Jane Austen’s works are described as literary fiction. This is nonsense … Austen never for a moment imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity decided that—not her, not John Murray, not even her contemporary readership. She wrote fiction, to entertain and to make money.”
  • The French economist Thomas Piketty has alighted upon our shores, “like a wonkish heir to de Tocqueville, to tell Americans how to salvage what he called their ‘egalitarian pioneer ideal’ from a potentially devastating ‘drift toward oligarchy.’”
  • A salve for irritated prescriptivists: this new browser extension literally replaces every instance of literally with figuratively, all over the Internet.
  • Gillette’s new razor does violence to the spirit of entrepreneurship: “It’s a men’s razor that does what every other men’s razor since time immemorial has done—removes hair from your face—but with ‘a swiveling ball-hinge’ that the company says will make it easier to get a clean shave … The razor represents everything terrible about America’s innovation economy.”
  • Online, the Boston Public Library has more than 25,000 U.S. postcards from the thirties and forties, all of them vividly illustrated.

 

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Kingsley Amis’s James Bond Novel

April 16, 2014 | by

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Happy birthday to Kingsley Amis, who would be ninety-two today. In his 1975 Art of Fiction interview, Amis says,

I think it’s very important to read widely and in a wide spectrum of merit and ambition on the part of the writer. And ever since, I’ve always been interested in these less respectable forms of writing—the adventure story, the thriller, science fiction, and so on—and this is why I’ve produced one or two examples myself. I read somewhere recently somebody saying, “When I want to read a book, I write one.” I think that’s very good. It puts its finger on it, because there are never enough books of the kind one likes: one adds to the stock for one’s own entertainment.

Amis was always a staunch defender of genre fiction—and one of the “examples” he speaks of having produced is Colonel Sun, a James Bond novel he published in 1968 under the pseudonym Robert Markham. Read More »

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The Language of Men

April 16, 2012 | by

The New York Times made its first mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs on June 14, 1914, when the paper’s Book Review included Tarzan of the Apes among “One Hundred Books for Summer Reading.” Having asked publishers to supply the hundred titles, the Review editors did “not pretend to say what consideration has inspired each . . . particular selection”—a note of caution that veers toward alarm in the editors’ capsule assessment of Burroughs’s recent creation: “The author has evidently tried to see how far he could go without exceeding the limits of possibility.” The plot description that followed made it clear that, “possibility” aside, plausibility had certainly been breached:

Lord Greystoke and his wife are marooned on the African jungle coast, build a cabin, and become accustomed to the wild life there. A son is born and the mother dies. A herd of giant apes invade the cabin, kill Lord Greystoke, take away the child, and rear it as their own. When the child has become a man he possesses the habits, the language, and the great strength of the apes. One day a white woman is put ashore from a ship, and the ape man falls in love with her, and rescues her from many perils. He also plays the part of instructor to a scientific expedition. The scene then shifts to Wisconsin, where the heroine is rescued from more perils. Meanwhile the ape man has been educated in the culture of his kind, and he finally proves that he has a soul as well as superhuman strength.

Burroughs was surely unfazed by this. Read More »

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