The New vs. the Old

Sunday , 1, April 2018 20 Comments

This. . .

This past week, a friend who had called me up told me about this Gardner Dozois quote:

“While we’re talking about fantasy, I’ve been reading a lot of what’s being called “the New Sword & Sorcery” lately, stuff by people like Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, K.J. Parker, Daniel Abraham, and it struck me what the one essential influence was that aesthetically separates the New Sword & Sorcery from the Old Sword & Sorcery, since both have sword-wielding adventurers, monsters, and evil magicians: it’s the Spaghetti Western.

Clearly Spaghetti Westerns have had a big influence on the TONE of this new work. Gone are the gorgeous, jewel-encrusted temples stuffed with huge snakes and giant idols with jeweled eyes and slinky sinister priestesses in jeweled bikinis where Conan used to hang out. Instead, the most common setting seems to be a remote jerkwater village, either parched and sun-blasted or drizzling and half-buried in mud, extremely poor and mean, swarming with flies, packed with venal, dull-eyed, illiterate peasants who are barely smarter than morons, if they are, and who have no power or influence in the wider world, and certainly no money, and who stare blankly and slack-jawed at our heroes as they enter town, either kicking up clouds of dust at every step or splashing muddy water.

You know this place. Think of every degraded village in every Spaghetti Western you’ve ever seen.”

I tracked down the words though I don’t know the original place of this quote. I found it very interesting considering my recent review of his recent The Book of Swords. Dozois must approve in the end as The Book of Swords contains stories by Scott Lynch, K. J. Parker (Tom Holt), and Daniel Abraham.

I think the trend to the dirty and grimy setting is across genres. Someone mentioned in an online pulp sword and sorcery discussion group I belong to that space opera has the same thing going on. I have noted before how the new fiction supposedly branded as sword and sorcery is often dialogue driven and has little or no description. A colorless dream indeed. That is one of my gripes with Glen Cook’s “Black Company” novels and stories. You have no

Or this?

idea of what kind of weapons they are using or any idea of what the characters are supposed to look like.

One of the things that attracted me to old school sword and sorcery almost 40 years ago was the technicolor settings and grandeur. There were hard-boiled characters and situations but the settings were often anything but bland.

I have been reading quite a bit of new fantasy, some of it labeled as sword and sorcery the past few months. I am not getting the same buttons pushed in comparison to when I first read the anthology Heroic Fantasy (D.A.W Books, 1979) or Andrew Offutt’s Swords Against Darkness (Zebra Books, 1977-1979). The last time I had any degree of consistent excitement was with Rogue Blades Entertainment’s Return of the Sword (2008).

I am not a fan of the spaghetti western. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a historical mess including  the anachronistic weapons that did not exist yet during the Civil War. Spaghetti westerns have dull spots that put me to sleep. Those degraded villages that Dozois mentions are to be found around Almeria in Andalusia where those spaghetti westerns were filmed. I just am not in thrall of the genre.

These new sword and sorcery stories that riff on the spaghetti western end up being more grimy than gritty. The emphasis strikes me as on the wrong things. The overall hard-boiled character of fiction has diminished over the years. Or I should re-phrase that, the overall masculine character of fiction is shrinking. Doesn’t most fiction written in the past 20-25 years strike you as somewhat wimpy or just boring in comparison to things written 1920-1940? You would never see something like Eric John Stark today.

The culture is different than the one that originally produced sword and sorcery fiction. There is another possible factor. Average testosterone levels in men have dropped around 1.2% per year from 1987-2004. A 40 year male today has 40% less testosterone than a 40 year old male in 1987. These newer writers are writing at best with 40% less testosterone than those in the middle 1980s. Consider what the percentage would be against the pulp writers of the 1930s!

I want to give the new fiction a fair hearing but I keep comparing it to what I read 35 years ago. I have been giving thought to revisiting Bran Mak Morn’s heath meadows of Alba, Hugh Rae’s Harkfast, Don Tracy’s The Black Amulet, Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea etc.  Is it nostalgia pulling me back or did the fiction from an older day appeal to me better?

The Real Swords Against Darkness

20 Comments
  • John E. Boyle says:

    I think the older writers were better “story tellers” if not better writers than today’s field. Or it may be a combination of several factors.

    I feel the same pull though.

    • H.P. says:

      Traditional publishing this millennium really seems to put a premium on writing over storytelling. You would find surprisingly clunky prose in fantasy books from the 80s and 90s but the stories were good. Today the writing is almost uniformly excellent but the stories are often dull as ditchwater.

  • Andy says:

    I’ve found that a lot of art today has a basic competence to it that you often didn’t find in older stuff and I rarely react to movies or books by thinking, “Man, that SUCKED!” But the tradeoff is that so much of it is uninspired, dull, and/or expressing a perspective that I find ridiculous. Basically, fewer highs or lows, just a straight dull line through everything.

    • deuce says:

      “Basically, fewer highs or lows, just a straight dull line through everything.”

      In other words, fiction that has been Prozacked. One could also liken it to the leveling effect desired/produced by end-state socialism.

  • I agree with Andy’s statement. Much newer short fiction I read is better written than a lot of older stuff, but it’s not gripping or interesting in any way. It’s slickly written but tedious. The dialogue driven thing irritates me. So many modern authors seem to believe characterization can only come from dialogue, not showing what a character does. I’m a big fan of Spaghetti Westerns, but they are best alongside classic styled ones.

    • H.P. says:

      The idea really seems to have taken hold that characterization is what happens when story doesn’t. That ain’t right.

    • Andy says:

      I like spaghetti westerns, too, but it has to be said that the vast majority aren’t very good 🙂 Also, I’ve noticed that a lot of current generation folks love them but have no taste for the real thing. They’ll go on about everything Leone did but they’ve never seen a John Ford or Howard Hawks movie and probably wouldn’t be able to articulate an opinion on one beyond, “I dunno, it’s just, like so old and black and white. John Wayne’s a racist!” Intellectually lazy.

  • The artist DuChamp one said that painters with talent do exciting, creative work until one day they realize, “My God! I’m an Artist!” After that, their work is never as good. –And I think too many writers today think, “My God! I’m an Author!”–sometimes before they have written anything. And their technically correct writing is just too precious. But a few always think, “Thank God! I’m a Storyteller!” And just enjoy spinning good yarns. An old Swedish proverb, derived from the Norse Havaaml, has it that “The head only knows what lies near the heart.” So I try to write from the heart, not the head. It’s more fun for me and the reader!

  • Bruce says:

    Just bought Hugh Rae and Don Tracy on your recommendation.

  • MegaBusterShepard says:

    Why on earth fantasy started to shun elements of the fantastical and make their storytelling more mundane I will never understand.

  • J. Manfred Weichsel says:

    Very interesting. I just started reading the Heroic Fantasy anthology from D.A.W. I’m still on the first Andre Norton story… and so far it’s the worst Andre Norton story I’ve ever read, and this is coming from a fan. literally nothing is happening except for descriptions of how this isolated culture treats childbirth and childrearing with fan-service references to the first Witch World novel. I keep on falling asleep reading it. I am going to slug it out though and still look forward to the rest of the stories.

    • Nathan says:

      Hmm… released in 1979. That’s about the time of On Thud and Blunder and other such “correctives” recommending a slavish adherence to fact in fantasy.

  • Very interesting take, though I️ have to admit to hoping I️ bridge the classic Sword and Sorcery with the spaghetti western in my novel BRUTAL.

    • deuce says:

      I certainly think you did, David, though the setting wasn’t entirely without some faded glory. It definitely wasn’t “grimdark”. I wouldn’t use a stylistically similar setting for the next Sellsword novel, though. “Opulent” can be just as dangerous and grim as “rundown and grimey”. I had a blast reading BRUTAL, by the way.

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