The one thing you can count on is that pretty much anything the Poindexter types sneer at is going to be uncommonly good. That’s no joke. Everything they hate is awesome: male power fantasies, colonialism, Madonna-Whore complexes, the failure to pass the Bechdel test, cultural appropriation…. Seriously, if you just make sure to do all the things they tell you not to, you’re well on your way to creating something special.
The one that always baffled me was the thing about purple prose. Somehow, this comes off as being the one literary sin that trumps them all. Certainly “terrible wordsmith” is among their post potent weapons which they use to suppress anything and anyone they don’t like. There’s something vaguely autistic about the way they talk about this, as if the knowledge of a handful of contemporary “best practices” somehow allows them to claim greater accomplishments than writers that are infinitely more influential. It’s petty.
So let’s take a look at a bit of prose that would no doubt cause these sorts of people to recoil in horror:
On sailed the ship. And on and on–by what signs or reckonings or to what port Kenton could not know. Sleep after sleep it sailed. The huge bowl of silver mists whose edge was the horizon, contracted or expanded as those mists thickened or thinned. Storms they met and weathered; roaring storms that changed the silver of the mists to lurid copper, ambered jet, darkness deeper than night. Sudden storms threaded with lightnings weird and beautiful. Lightnings that were like the shatterings of immense prisms, the breakings of rainbows of jewels. Storms that trod on feet of thunder. Thunder that was metallic, tintinnabulary; hurricanes of clashing cymbals following showers of multicolored, flaming gems.
Gorgeous. Maybe not quite as awesome as Madonna-Whore complexes, but yeah… this is way up there.
Is there a way to determine which style is better…? I think there is. The answer is wrapped up within that other sneering put-down they deploy: that all these old pulp stories are kids stuff. To determine whether a book is any good, put a few twelve-year olds in the back of the car and head out on a road trip. Put an audio book on for forty-five minutes or so and then ask them whether or not you can change it to something else. The degree of vehemence you get back will tell you everything you need to know!
This one is particularly striking to me:
Between sleeps Sigurd chanted to him Viking tales, Sagas unsung, lost epics of the Norse.
That sort of thing is ubiquitous in the works of these old pulp writers. They were intimately familiar with real myths and legends and literature and not just genre fiction– the sort of thing I would tell someone to read if I they wanted to become a better writer. There’s something else to it as well: the old works weren’t just something to study to them. There’s a deep love that shines through in little offhand bits like this. Heroes might win all manner of treasures, but their most mind-boggling gift is to have access to tales that have been lost in our world.
Divorce a generation from the old works and they start writing characters that act as if they are from nowhere– as if they have as little culture as the person that is penning them. Having the benefit of an education while also being unshackled by convention, guys like A. Merritt could come up with singularly original situations like this:
Zubran is with Klaneth, arguing about the gods. Zubran, although sworn to Nergal, thinks him a rather inferior copy of Ahriman, the Persian god of darkness. He is also convinced that this whole matter of warfare between Nergal and Ishtar for the ship lacks not only originality and ingenuity, but taste–something, indeed, that his own gods and goddesses would not do; or if they did, would do much better. This angers Klaneth, which greatly rejoices Zubran.
The ideas really are as lush as the prose. And a great many people were influence by this stuff. Phillip Jose Farmer’s work has more in common with A. Merritt and Edgar Rice Burroughs than with anyone else that came before him. Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon reads as if it’s a simplified version of A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar wrapped up in an homage to Barsoom.
And then there’s this:
“Have no doubts about Zubran,” snapped Gigi. “He, too, was tricked upon this ship and is even more eager than I to be free. Some day he shall tell you his story, as I have mine. Ho! Ho!” laughed the drummer. “Ever seeking the new, ever tiring of the known is Zubran. And this is his fate–to be shot into a whole new world and find it worse than his old. Nay, Wolf, fear not Zubran. With shield and sword will he stand beside you–until he tires even of you. But even then will he be loyal.”
You know… I’d thought that the opening chapter was reminiscent of de Camp and Pratt’s The Carnelian Cube. Based on this paragraph alone, it’s a safe bet that they were A. Merritt fans because this is a better summary of that book than anything I could come up with.
A. Merritt is unaccountably obscure today, but to some of the biggest names in science fiction, he was synonymous with the very best that the field had to offer.