Sunday, March 11, 2007

"Homaging" the best

Science fiction/fantasy writer Lawrence Watt-Evans hit on an interesting idea a few years ago that I came across again the other day. In a column about some of the science fiction and fantasy books of the sixties that he feels have been overlooked, Lawrence talks about the art (or craft) of working in the style (and presumably voice) of another writer. Most of us do this early on in our careers. But there are a few who do it throughout their years at the keyboard. (This is from Lawrence's 1998 website The Misenchanted Page.)

Star Rogue, by Lin Carter

Here's another of my favorite books, believe it or not. Okay, I know what you're saying -- ''Lin Carter? Gimme a break! All he ever wrote was junk!''

Well, yeah, that's mostly true. Most of his fiction was bad imitations of Edgar
Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and others. A lot of it was sword-and-sorcery, a genre that's usually pretty bad anyway, and Lin Carter wrote some of the trashiest ever (though not as bad as Gardner Fox -- I've never understood how Fox could write so wonderfully for comic books and so very, very badly when he wrote novels).

However, think for a moment -- how can anyone write well, when imitating Howard, or Burroughs, or Lovecraft, all of whom were basically second-rate writers? Sure, they wrote nifty stuff, but stylistically, most of their work was horrible.

And usually, you see Carter imitating those horrors, so of course it sucks!

In Star Rogue, however, he was trying to imitate Heinlein, and Heinlein is not the sort of purple-prose paid-by-the-word Victorian hangover that Burroughs, Howard,and Lovecraft were. The result is actually quite tolerable.

The story involves an adventure of Saul Everest, Earth's only immortal man and the galaxy's top freelance secret agent, semi-retired. The star rogue of the title -- a gravitational anomaly cruising the galactic rim -- is simply something to get him into action, totally irrelevant to the plot and explained away in a single sentence near the end of the book. It's all sort of free-form space opera, with terraformed asteroids, telepathic aliens, psionic warfare, intelligent spaceships, galactic empires, attempted coups, and all sorts of fun stuff going on. It's a lot of fun. Not great literature, but really one of the best space operas I've read. Honest! From Lin Carter!

Makes you wonder how he'd have done if he didn't imitate anyone, doesn't it?

Star Rogue was a Lancer paperback original, never reprinted so far as I know, but
it sold pretty well and turns up used a lot.

Ed here: If you'd like to read the rest of the piece, go here

What intrigues me about Lawrence's take on Carter (and he was a bad but sometimes enjoyable writer ) is the notion of him improving his writing simply by knocking
off a higher grade of writer.

I suppose this notion has something in common with Hemingway's "Great writers don't imitate, they steal" and Fitzgerald's advice to his daughter Scottie that her
prose will only be as good as the writers she reads and studies.

In fact I remember a piece by Harry Whittington back in the fifties in which he
said that if you wanted to hit the downmarket paperbacks then you read the people writing them but that if you aspired to hit Gold Medal you read Falkner and Fitzgerald and Hemingway etc.

None of this is as spurious as it may sound. I'm one of those writers who, far
from NOT wanting to be influenced even after a quarter century of writing professionally, am always eager to read writers who can help me improve my craft.

I've never read Space Rogue by Carter but I'll have to look it up. An actual GOOD Lin Carter novel? Worth a few bucks to find out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Carter wrote some of the worst prose ever published, and Robert E. Howard fans curse his memory for propagating those terrible Conan pastiches, but my God, the guy was all over the newsstands in his heyday from a dozen different publishers (Dell, DAW, Berkley, Fawcett, Ace ...), so somebody must have been buying.

My favorite of the '60s/early '70s paperback SF guys was the late Keith Laumer. Laumer might have been almost as imitative as Carter in his own way (Carter mostly imitated Lovecraft, Howard, and Burroughs -- Laumer's stories were strongly flavored by Van Vogt, Heinlein, and Chandler), but he was a fine storyteller who always gave good read. Luckily, some of his best stuff (DINOSAUR BEACH, GALACTIC ODYSSEY, A TRACE OF MEMORY, THE DAY BEFORE FOREVER) has been reprinted in recent years.