Some time ago, a conversation with a friend of mine about recent fantasy literature came to the general conclusion that many of the books we’d mutually read were twice as long as they needed to be. It is, in fact, a bit disconcerting (and more than a bit intimidating) for a young writer to see just how hefty many recent fantasy novels have become; little in the 200-300 page range seems acceptable any more, and standalone volumes? Quite rare. I can understand the publishing industry’s logic: more pages gives the illusion of money better spent. Yet, I feel, rarely do doorstopper fantasies really earn their high word counts. When I write a story I don’t think about length: the story will end up as long as it has to be. My problem: many novels, both adventure and fantasy, don’t fulfill that simple maxim.
Tie this in with recent discussions about fantasy on this blog and others, where the focus turned to prose. The stories weren’t, actually, padded, so much as trapped in a bland bourgeoisie discursive style where little is left to the imagination. This is not the over-descriptiveness often attributed to Tolkien; instead of purple or fanciful prose we get straight reportage of events. As David Cesarano Jr. commented, “I don’t know where all of these modern fantasists are learning to write. Technical manuals?”
A good many people say a writer to recede in the background: style should be unobtrusive; it’s story, character and action that matter. Asimov actually came out and called this sort of thing “clear as glass” prose: words obstructed the experience of a story. The writer shouldn’t bar the path to escape. And still others say adventure fiction of any sort doesn’t need such trappings; that style’s not the point because it is just escapist trash.
But style is important, and not just in “literary” fiction. In fact, a well-wrought adventure tale (and most fantasy falls into the “adventure tale” category) requires good prose. In the end, all fiction boils down to words on a page. These words matter: their sound, their rhythm, the way they bring life to a text. Look at the old epics: very much in tune with the pulse of language; The Epic of Gilgamesh may be a simple story, but the rhythms of the story are anything but simple. Every word had weight and import.
Which, come to think of it, would lead to much shorter books these days. If writers choose their words carefully, they’re not so inclined to take more time than necessary to convey a situation, a feeling, a smell. A good writer trusts the reader to fill in the gaps. A good adventure writer does not go on for twenty pages describing a sword duel in every detail (I’ve read far too many novels that take such an approach). This is simply tedious. Instead, he or she gives us an impression of the duel in a few words to begin with, and only makes reference to the specifics that make this duel so special. Because, in the end, a writer only manipulates images already in the readers’ mind. A writer doesn’t create them wholesale.
A great adventure is difficult to write. It requires both art and skill. Let’s call it…The Art of High Adventure.