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Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?

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  • ERATRIANO@aol.com
    In a message dated 04/28/01 12:16:40 PM Eastern Daylight Time, dbratman@stanford.edu writes:
    Message 1 of 16 , Apr 28, 2001
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      In a message dated 04/28/01 12:16:40 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
      dbratman@... writes:

      << and he is never a "collect the coupons" fantasist, a type of writing
      Tolkien fans have been complaining about for a long time. >>

      A what? Can someone give me some examples? TIA

      I can't help but bet that that author's negativity, the one who didn't read
      any Tolkien I mean, is another example of the same kind of negativity
      described earlier this week with regard to book reviews.

      Lizzie
    • David S. Bratman
      ... PLOT COUPONS. Term coined by UK critic Nick Lowe, who identified collect-the-coupons plotting as characteristic of uninventive Fantasyland narratives:
      Message 2 of 16 , Apr 28, 2001
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        >At 05:41 PM 4/28/2001 -0400, Lizzie wrote:

        >In a message dated 04/28/01 12:16:40 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
        >dbratman@... writes:
        >
        ><< and he is never a "collect the coupons" fantasist, a type of writing
        >Tolkien fans have been complaining about for a long time. >>
        >
        >A what? Can someone give me some examples? TIA

        "PLOT COUPONS. Term coined by UK critic Nick Lowe, who identified
        "collect-the-coupons" plotting as characteristic of uninventive Fantasyland
        narratives: the coupons are typically magical items (amulets, rings,
        swords, etc.) all of which the characters must collect before, in Lowe's
        phrase, they can send off to the author for the ending. Scattered Plot
        Coupons are a too-convenient means of motivating a Cook's Tour of the map;
        fresh ones may be introduced en route, making the story indefinitely
        extensible. Plot Coupons are most pernicious when used to decouple cause
        and effect - e.g. when they grant their holder disproportionate power, or
        when a Dark Lord is defeated solely through the manipulation of Plot
        Coupons, leaving a sense of unearned healing."

        - The Encyclopedia of Fantasy

        Books cited in the article as examples of Plot Coupon fantasies include
        "The Black Star" by Lin Carter, "Land of Unreason" by Pratt & de Camp, "The
        Chronicles of Corum" by Michael Moorcock, the Swords series by Fred
        Saberhagen, and "The War of Powers" by Vardeman and Milan. A sequence
        cited as resembling this, but rising above the pure Plot Coupon level, is
        "The Dark Is Rising" by Susan Cooper. The article also distinguishes
        Tolkien's Ring from a Plot Coupon.

        David Bratman
      • WendellWag@aol.com
        David, You beat me to the punch here. I was copying out the same definition. Anyway, it s a fairly standard term now to explain one bad habit of plotting in
        Message 3 of 16 , Apr 28, 2001
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          David,

          You beat me to the punch here. I was copying out the same definition.
          Anyway, it's a fairly standard term now to explain one bad habit of plotting
          in fantasy.

          Wendell Wagner


          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
        • ERATRIANO@aol.com
          In a message dated 04/28/01 7:16:18 PM Eastern Daylight Time, dbratman@stanford.edu writes:
          Message 4 of 16 , Apr 29, 2001
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            In a message dated 04/28/01 7:16:18 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
            dbratman@... writes:

            << A sequence cited as resembling this, but rising above the pure Plot
            Coupon level, is "The Dark Is Rising" by Susan Cooper. The article also
            distinguishes Tolkien's Ring from a Plot Coupon. >>

            Thanks, David. The Cooper is the only one of the examples which I've read
            (and reread). The idea sounded sort of familiar, but I guess it's just
            another gap in my reading. LOL. I bet there are many more examples, but
            usually characters stay with me longer than plots do, so I can't think of
            any. I appreciate your taking the time to spell the Coupons thing out for
            me. And that biblio page is something else!

            Lizzie
          • Trudy Shaw
            ... From: ERATRIANO@aol.com To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Sent: Saturday, April 28, 2001 4:41 PM Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien? In a
            Message 5 of 16 , Apr 30, 2001
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              ----- Original Message -----
              From: ERATRIANO@...
              To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
              Sent: Saturday, April 28, 2001 4:41 PM
              Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?


              In a message dated 04/28/01 12:16:40 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
              dbratman@... writes:

              << and he is never a "collect the coupons" fantasist, a type of writing
              Tolkien fans have been complaining about for a long time. >>

              A what? Can someone give me some examples? TIA

              I can't help but bet that that author's negativity, the one who didn't read
              any Tolkien I mean, is another example of the same kind of negativity
              described earlier this week with regard to book reviews.

              Lizzie



              Rather common situation--that the person criticizing something (Tolkien) has never read it.
              I hadn't heard the term "collect the coupons" fantasy, but it sounds apt. A little Pokemon, anyone?

              I know I've mentioned this before, some months ago, but I place a lot of the blame on role-playing games. Not that they're bad in themselves, but they're the only type of fantasy some people are "reading." Many writers' guidelines for fantasy magazines include something like, "No RPG threads made into stories," so they must be something the editors are tired of dealing with.

              Two inherent problems with the RPG model of fantasy writing are the lack of real plotting and the lack of--in my opinion--real magic.

              Real magic is something greater than we can control, definitely beyond what we can grasp or understand. Because of the very nature of games, RPG magic _has_ to have observed rules, delineated boundaries, and laid-out circumstances of use. Real magic (to avoid any misunderstanding--I'm using "real" in the sense of a secondary creation) wouldn't be bound by such things. Even the person using it wouldn't completely understand or control it. As an example of this being done _well_ in recent fantasy writing, I'd name C.J. Cherryh's Fortress series.

              I have the same problem with stories that turn magic into a kind of substitute science, with reproducible results, for example, every time a certain spell is used. Sure, wizards and their kin can study and learn about magic, but they can't expect to absolutely control it--unless the outcome of the story shows they were _wrong_ to expect this. A prime example is Sauron's expectations of the One Ring. Perhaps this is one reason, as Tolkien notes regarding the Ring, that it's a common fantasy element for characters to put a large part of their power in something external to themselves; this gives it an aspect of uncontrollability, such as real magic would have.

              Like everything else within a secondary creation, the magic has to be internally consistent--but this will be the magic's own consistency, not one imposed on it by someone else. *Thus endeth the sermon.*

              --Trudy Shaw


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            • ERATRIANO@aol.com
              In a message dated 04/30/01 11:32:36 AM Eastern Daylight Time, tgshaw@earthlink.net writes:
              Message 6 of 16 , Apr 30, 2001
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                In a message dated 04/30/01 11:32:36 AM Eastern Daylight Time,
                tgshaw@... writes:

                << I know I've mentioned this before, some months ago, but I place a lot of
                the blame on role-playing games. Not that they're bad in themselves, but
                they're the only type of fantasy some people are "reading." Many writers'
                guidelines for fantasy magazines include something like, "No RPG threads made
                into stories," so they must be something the editors are tired of dealing
                with. >>

                LOL I have to laugh because I have always avoided books that had seemed like
                they might have a shred of RPG in their makeup, although I love to play D&D.
                Now, however, as I have been talking to more gamers, some 20 years of play
                and writing under their belts, I am noticing that their characters, systems
                and worlds have a depth and balance that I have to appreciate. So I'm
                setting my shudders aside and planning to read some, I don't know, some
                DragonLance or something, this year. Maybe it's just that I haven't been
                writing solidly the last ten years, just kind of in fits and starts, but
                there are holes in my creations that my gaming friends have, quite gently and
                nicely, been able to drive trucks through. Australian juggernauts, in some
                cases.

                I do prefer magic as being something beyond our understanding most of the
                time, but shouldn't it be consistent? Or can it seem to be sort of
                inconsistent, the way God doesn't always answer prayers, because after all
                it's magic?

                I have enjoyed some C.J. Cherryh in the past and perhaps should look up the
                Fortress books. So much reading, so little time.... I still have those
                issues of Mythlore tantalizing me. And where in the vast library of Tolkien
                I have yet to read do I find the most poetry? I love his poems. What modern
                authors use so much poetry? Anne McCaffrey does, or did, but the writers
                that haunt one more, like Tepper and McKillip, I can't recall whether they do.

                As for Pokemon, my son misplaced his Goldeen this morning. She's red and
                white, like a carp with a horn on her nose, and about the size of the end of
                your thumb. So if she turns up anywhere please let me know! Thanks.

                Lizzie
              • David S. Bratman
                ... No, magic needn t be consistent, and we needn t draw on religion to prove it. The problem is, few things in human experience work consistently and
                Message 7 of 16 , May 1, 2001
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                  At 09:13 AM 4/30/2001 , Lizzie wrote:

                  >I do prefer magic as being something beyond our understanding most of the
                  >time, but shouldn't it be consistent? Or can it seem to be sort of
                  >inconsistent, the way God doesn't always answer prayers, because after all
                  >it's magic?

                  No, magic needn't be consistent, and we needn't draw on religion to prove it.

                  The problem is, few things in human experience work consistently and
                  predictably the way magic in consistent magic-using novels does. Science
                  doesn't, though scientists pretend it does: real science is messy, and
                  scientific laws are derived by from averaging a lot of messy, approximate
                  observations.

                  One thing that does purport to work consistently and predictably is
                  technology. But we all know it doesn't really do so, or has your computer
                  never crashed on you? Consistent magic in these books winds up looking a
                  lot like an idealization of technology, the way it's supposed to work.
                  That's not magic, that's science-fiction writers' pet dreams.

                  I prefer to read about magic as working like interpersonal psychology.
                  There are known procedures for getting people to react the way you want,
                  and they've been codified. But they're rules of thumb: they don't always
                  work, they work on some people more than others, some people are much more
                  talented at applying them than others, and the mental state and care taken
                  by the practitioner makes a big difference on how well it works.

                  Also, the best magic books don't have impossible things happen. Magic
                  works by manipulating the laws of probability. See Diana Wynne Jones's
                  _Fire and Hemlock_.

                  David Bratman
                • David J. Finnamore
                  ... That s what all those different dice are for, ya know. ... What a coincidence! So does Game Mastering. ;-) -- David J. Finnamore Nashville, TN, USA
                  Message 8 of 16 , May 3, 2001
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                    David S. Bratman wrote:

                    > I prefer to read about magic as working like interpersonal psychology.
                    > There are known procedures for getting people to react the way you want,
                    > and they've been codified. But they're rules of thumb: they don't always
                    > work, they work on some people more than others, some people are much more
                    > talented at applying them than others

                    That's what all those different dice are for, ya know.


                    > Magic
                    > works by manipulating the laws of probability.

                    What a coincidence! So does Game Mastering. ;-)

                    --
                    David J. Finnamore
                    Nashville, TN, USA
                    http://personal.bna.bellsouth.net/bna/d/f/dfin/index.html
                    --
                  • Trudy Shaw
                    ... From: David S. Bratman To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Sent: Tuesday, May 01, 2001 6:25 PM Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien? Also, the
                    Message 9 of 16 , May 3, 2001
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                      ----- Original Message -----
                      From: David S. Bratman
                      To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
                      Sent: Tuesday, May 01, 2001 6:25 PM
                      Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?


                      Also, the best magic books don't have impossible things happen. Magic
                      works by manipulating the laws of probability. See Diana Wynne Jones's
                      _Fire and Hemlock_.

                      David Bratman



                      Gee, I wasn't planning on doing PR for C.J. Cherryh's Fortress series--but this is exactly how it works in those books. She also makes a distinction between wizardry, which someone has to study, and magic, which is innate in a person. Even those with innate magic, though, have to learn to discipline and focus it and--even more important--to consider the possible outcomes of their manipulation, including ones that might be very different from what they intended. The comparison to interpersonal relationships, which I didn't keep in this reply, also fits very well with this series (all four books have been published now: Fortress in the Eye of Time, Fortress of Eagles, Fortress of Owls, and Fortress of Dragons).

                      I haven't read the Diana Wynne Jones book; thanks for giving the suggestion.

                      Trudy Shaw



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                    • David S. Bratman
                      ... I haven t read these books, but I should add that there are some novels whose authors understand this -- and which still make magic work mechanically.
                      Message 10 of 16 , May 3, 2001
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                        At 04:20 AM 5/3/2001 , Trudy wrote:

                        > Gee, I wasn't planning on doing PR for C.J. Cherryh's Fortress series--but
                        >this is exactly how it works in those books. She also makes a distinction
                        >between wizardry, which someone has to study, and magic, which is innate in
                        >a person. Even those with innate magic, though, have to learn to discipline
                        >and focus it and--even more important--to consider the possible outcomes of
                        >their manipulation, including ones that might be very different from what
                        >they intended.

                        I haven't read these books, but I should add that there are some novels
                        whose authors understand this -- and which still make magic work
                        mechanically. Whenever you have a situation with 1st level wizards who can
                        do A, 2nd level wizards who can do A and B, and 3rd level wizards who can
                        do A, B, and C, and this is rigidly applied (except perhaps for the hero,
                        who has the Gift and can do them all except for needing training to control
                        that Gift), it's probably still mechanical. Consider science again: some
                        people without degrees are naturally skilled without being possessed of
                        perfect Gifts; some Ph.D.'s are ignorant klutzes, especially if they assume
                        their degree implies mastery over all fields of science.

                        David Bratman
                      • WendellWag@aol.com
                        As Trudy said, one of the reasons for bad fantasy novels is that authors import into novels characteristics that work reasonably well in games but which don t
                        Message 11 of 16 , May 6, 2001
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                          As Trudy said, one of the reasons for bad fantasy novels is that authors
                          import into novels characteristics that work reasonably well in games but
                          which don't apply to novels. Indeed, these characteristics often trivialize
                          the point of a good novel. A game has to have simple, quantifiable goals so
                          that the game will eventually end and one player will be declared the winner.
                          That's why the goal of most RPG-type games is something like "Find the gold
                          in the dungeon. Completely explore the castle and collect the most magical
                          items. Kill all the other players. Survive to the end of the game." None of
                          those goals consistently applies to good novels. A good novel could have the
                          hero sacrifice himself to save other people, or triumph over evil while
                          ending up penniless. A hero in a good novel doesn’t travel all over the map
                          on pointless tours or collect magical items for the heck of it. At best, the
                          plot habits acquired in RPG's are useful only in a very narrow subset of
                          fantasy novels.

                          I think that there's another problem though. Too many fantasy authors steal
                          plot devices from Tolkien without understanding what the point of those plot
                          devices were for Tolkien. A lot of these clichéd plot devices are catalogued
                          rather thoroughly in _The Encyclopedia of Fantasy_, from which David quoted
                          that definition of "plot coupon." It's a great book that I recommend it all
                          of you, but a quicker way to learn about these clichés is Diana Wynne Jones's
                          _A Tough Guide to Fantasyland_. This pretends to be a tourist guide to a
                          generic fantasy world (the title is a pun on the British tour book series _A
                          Rough Guide to . . ._, which are guides for off-the-beaten-track traveling),
                          but really it's a list of clichés in modern fantasy. When I read this book,
                          I found myself looking at each entry and saying, "Which part of _The Lord of
                          the Rings_ did some author misunderstand in order to turn this plot device
                          (or type of character or standard setting or whatever) into a cliché?"

                          This leads me to a dilemma I find in reviewing any sort of narrative. (I'll
                          use narrative to refer generally to novels, short stories, movies, plays,
                          epic poems, legends, mythologies, or anything with an overall plot. I'll be
                          using movie examples because I do film reviews on a website, but I think my
                          point applies to any kind of narrative.) On one hand, it's not a good idea
                          if a narrative steals plot points from previous works without trying to
                          understand how those plot points fit into those works. On the other hand,
                          great works often can be fitted into a general plot schema or a tightly
                          defined genre. So sometimes I find myself putting down a work for stealing
                          and misunderstanding plot ideas from other works and sometimes I find myself
                          praising a work for stealing its general structure from other works in a more
                          artful fashion. I wonder then if I'm being consistent or if I'm merely
                          making my criticism arbitrarily fit whatever intuitive feeling I have about a
                          work.

                          Let me give some examples. Take a look at the D.C. Film Society website
                          (http:www.dcfilmsociety.org). Click on Reviews. Click on the reviews for
                          _The Star Wars Trilogy_ and _The Phantom Menace_. (The review for _The
                          Phantom Menace_ appeared in a slightly different form in _Mythprint_.) It's
                          my contention that what makes the Star Wars films great isn't special effects
                          (which look a bit old-fashioned now), nor acting (which wasn't really that
                          good), nor is it that they have thrilling plots (in the usual sense of plot).
                          What the Star Wars movies excel in is that they have a great Story, in the
                          sense that C. S. Lewis uses this term in his essay "On Story." This is not
                          plot in the sense of the events of the narrative, but some sort of
                          overarching pattern to these events. It's reasonably close to what Joseph
                          Campbell calls the mythic or archetypal elements of the plot. I contend that
                          to some extent, the Star Wars movies, along with _The Lord of the Rings_ and
                          _The Wizard of Oz_, and to a lesser degree the Prydain Chronicles, the Ring
                          cycle, the King Arthur legend, and the Earthsea books are all exemplars of a
                          Story pattern that I sometimes refer to as the Archetypal Quest Narrative.
                          This isn't a perfect name, I suppose, since some of these narratives are more
                          like anti-quests than quests, since they want to get rid of an item, but it's
                          as close as I can get to describing it. Incidentally, most of the people who
                          notice this about the Star Wars movies ascribe it to the fact that George
                          Lucas read Joseph Campbell and deliberately tried to fit his plots into
                          Campbell's Monomyth from his study _The Hero with a Thousand Faces_. I may
                          be alone in thinking that Lucas does better when he goes back to the original
                          works and ignores Campbell's attempt to fit them into a neat pattern.

                          That's the good side to stealing ideas from older works. For the bad side,
                          see my reviews of _L.A. Confidential_ or _The Gingerbread Man_ where I
                          discuss the problems of filmmakers trying to make a film noir-type movie
                          without really understanding what the point of film noir is. You can't have
                          a film noir end with a blazing shoot-out in which the hero triumphs (that's
                          an action film) or an ending in which a flawed hero is disappointed but
                          resolves to become a better person (that's a sitcom with a moral at the end).
                          Film noir is about the lack of trust in society. Such a film can only end
                          with evil triumphant because the supposed hero was never anything but a
                          patsy, or with everybody dead, or with a naive innocent surviving because
                          everyone else has killed each other off, or with a hero surviving but no
                          happier because no one trusts him. Film noir isn't about conventional happy
                          endings, and any supposed film noir that ends with one has missed the point.

                          So how can I resolve these two contrary statements about how an author should
                          treat the narratives he wishes to imitate? On one hand, I want authors to
                          understand the structures of the great narratives and to imitate them, but I
                          don't want them to imitate minor plot devices in those narratives. I think
                          the distinction I'm trying to make is that an author has to understand the
                          overall Story and not try to steal minor plot points without fitting them
                          consistently into a good Story. The reason that the clichés of fantasy
                          listed in _The Encyclopedia of Fantasy_ and _The Tough Guide to Fantasyland_
                          are annoying isn't that they are stolen from Tolkien but that they are stolen
                          without understanding their use in the overall Story. A fantasy author who
                          says that he admires Tolkien but who then writes a novel supposedly in the
                          tradition of Tolkien, except that the novel ends with the equivalent
                          character to Frodo becoming rich, getting married, becoming king, and living
                          happily ever after, has completely missed the point of _The Lord of the
                          Rings_.

                          Wendell Wagner


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                        • Trudy Shaw
                          ... From: WendellWag@aol.com To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Sent: Sunday, May 06, 2001 2:50 PM Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien? A game has
                          Message 12 of 16 , May 7, 2001
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                            ----- Original Message -----
                            From: WendellWag@...
                            To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
                            Sent: Sunday, May 06, 2001 2:50 PM
                            Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Authors misunderstanding Tolkien?


                            A game has to have simple, quantifiable goals so
                            that the game will eventually end and one player will be declared the winner.
                            That's why the goal of most RPG-type games is something like "Find the gold
                            in the dungeon. Completely explore the castle and collect the most magical
                            items. Kill all the other players. Survive to the end of the game." None of
                            those goals consistently applies to good novels. A good novel could have the
                            hero sacrifice himself to save other people, or triumph over evil while
                            ending up penniless. A hero in a good novel doesn’t travel all over the map
                            on pointless tours or collect magical items for the heck of it. At best, the
                            plot habits acquired in RPG's are useful only in a very narrow subset of
                            fantasy novels.

                            Wendell Wagner



                            Reading these comments made me think of another aspect of many (not all) RPG's. There really isn't "good" and "evil." There's just "us" and "them." Talk about missing a major theme! How does a hero sacrifice, or even risk, himself for the good of others if there's nothing at stake except who gets the gold? How would you even define a "hero" in such a plot?

                            I also notice that Wendell specifies *plot* habits from RPG's not being very useful. That's probably a good point, although I would add characterization that goes beyond special abilities, etc. The world-building skills might be useful--for certain types of fantasies--but there are other ways of learning those.

                            The ones who have the biggest problem are people who don't read what Wendell calls "good novels," but think they know how to write one from what they've learned from RPG's.

                            Trudy Shaw


                            [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]



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                          • ERATRIANO@aol.com
                            In a message dated 05/07/01 8:53:35 AM Eastern Daylight Time, tgshaw@earthlink.net writes:
                            Message 13 of 16 , May 7, 2001
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                              In a message dated 05/07/01 8:53:35 AM Eastern Daylight Time,
                              tgshaw@... writes:

                              << That's why the goal of most RPG-type games is something like "Find the
                              gold
                              in the dungeon. Completely explore the castle and collect the most
                              magical
                              items. Kill all the other players. Survive to the end of the game." >>

                              tournaments, sure. But not regular games. Regular games are more like life,
                              they have a temporary goal (find the gold or whatever) which will in a good
                              game also involve issues of loyalties and other human (so to speak) themes...
                              then after the gold is found, another quest usually appears. At least if
                              you have a good group that enjoys playing together. It is not really
                              appropriate to try and apply the same standards to gaming as to novels. Can
                              someone put this better?

                              << At best, the plot habits acquired in RPG's are useful only in a very
                              narrow subset of fantasy novels.>>

                              So I think that my initial comment, about learning from gaming things that
                              can be applied to writing, does not apply so much to actual plotting (which
                              is a problem for me anyway), as to world-creating and character balance. A
                              good DM puts a lot of work into his or her world, it has to have an
                              incredible level of detail to stand up to the rigours of a good game. But
                              there is I suppose an aspect of that control which would be a drawback in
                              fiction, at least for me, where I like a more lifelike unknowable atmosphere.
                              Something like that. Maybe we are actually in agreement, Wendell, and just
                              can't make the words mesh. LOL

                              Lizzie
                            • WendellWag@aol.com
                              In a message dated 5/7/01 11:31:42 AM Eastern Daylight Time, ... True, and it s not really appropriate to apply the same standards to novels as to gaming. So
                              Message 14 of 16 , May 8, 2001
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                                In a message dated 5/7/01 11:31:42 AM Eastern Daylight Time,
                                ERATRIANO@... writes:


                                > It is not really
                                > appropriate to try and apply the same standards to gaming as to novels

                                True, and it's not really appropriate to apply the same standards to novels
                                as to gaming. So the point is that only a limited set of criteria from
                                gaming carries over to novels and only a limited set of criteria from novels
                                carries over to gaming. I guess we are in agreement here. If you want to
                                write (or criticize novels), you have to learn about how novels work. You
                                shouldn't just automatically import things from gaming. If you want to
                                create (or criticize) games, you should learn about how gaming works. You
                                shouldn't just automatically import things from novels.

                                Wendell Wagner


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                              • David S. Bratman
                                ... As I put it in a review once, Tolkien s gold, like the fairies , turns to dust when it is stolen away. It is possible, though, to use Tolkien s gold
                                Message 15 of 16 , May 8, 2001
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                                  At 12:50 PM 5/6/2001 , Wendell wrote:

                                  >I think that there's another problem though. Too many fantasy authors steal
                                  >plot devices from Tolkien without understanding what the point of those plot
                                  >devices were for Tolkien.

                                  As I put it in a review once, "Tolkien's gold, like the fairies', turns to
                                  dust when it is stolen away." It is possible, though, to use Tolkien's
                                  gold without stealing it at all: in Brian Attebery's estimation (and mine),
                                  Le Guin's Earthsea is the most successful example of this. (Has everyone
                                  seen the new book, _Tales from Earthsea_, by the way?)

                                  >So sometimes I find myself putting down a work for stealing
                                  >and misunderstanding plot ideas from other works and sometimes I find myself
                                  >praising a work for stealing its general structure from other works in a more
                                  >artful fashion. I wonder then if I'm being consistent or if I'm merely
                                  >making my criticism arbitrarily fit whatever intuitive feeling I have about a
                                  >work.

                                  Maybe you are. But it's more likely that your intuitive feeling is telling
                                  you something important that your intellect is merely trying to analyze
                                  afterwards. There is no point in evolving a personal criteria of literary
                                  quality unless it helps explain what you like and dislike, and why. All my
                                  own high-flown theories of what is good or bad in fantasy I've derived
                                  inductively, by reading books and noting what works and what doesn't. To
                                  create a theory of what's good and apply it rigidly, describing books as
                                  good or bad by means of this pre-existing theory in isolation of whether
                                  you liked them or not - that would be the worst sort of criticism.

                                  >I discuss the problems of filmmakers trying to make a film noir-type movie
                                  >without really understanding what the point of film noir is. You can't have
                                  >a film noir end with a blazing shoot-out in which the hero triumphs (that's
                                  >an action film) or an ending in which a flawed hero is disappointed but
                                  >resolves to become a better person (that's a sitcom with a moral at the end).
                                  > Film noir is about the lack of trust in society. Such a film can only end
                                  >with evil triumphant because the supposed hero was never anything but a
                                  >patsy, or with everybody dead, or with a naive innocent surviving because
                                  >everyone else has killed each other off, or with a hero surviving but no
                                  >happier because no one trusts him. Film noir isn't about conventional happy
                                  >endings, and any supposed film noir that ends with one has missed the point.
                                  >... A fantasy author who
                                  >says that he admires Tolkien but who then writes a novel supposedly in the
                                  >tradition of Tolkien, except that the novel ends with the equivalent
                                  >character to Frodo becoming rich, getting married, becoming king, and living
                                  >happily ever after, has completely missed the point of _The Lord of the
                                  >Rings_.

                                  There's another possibility, though I admit it doesn't actually happen very
                                  often. The author or filmmaker could be trying to do something different,
                                  by playing on your expectations for the genre and then subverting them.
                                  (The term "deconstruction" is sometimes loosely used to describe this.)
                                  _Tehanu_ certainly subverted most readers' expectations for a fourth
                                  Earthsea book, but it was clear that the author was retroactively
                                  reimagining the entire premise, rather than merely failing to understand
                                  what she had created. I don't know whether the makers of _L.A.
                                  Confidential_ thought they were making a film noir or not. But there's no
                                  law that says they can't make a film that starts out looking like a film
                                  noir and then turning into something else. And if the less perceptive
                                  critics keep calling such a film a film noir, that's not the film's fault.
                                  I thought _L.A. Confidential_'s ending had more problems with sheer
                                  believability than whether it fit into the conventions of the rest of the film.

                                  David Bratman
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