Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Old School S&S

I recently went to a local used book store, and managed to score some really good stuff in the S&S genre. Based on some recommendations from the Swords & Sorcery League Facebook page, I picked up a couple of books by Gardner F. Fox, one by Lin Carter, and one by John Jakes, as well as a collector’s hardback Conan book. One thing all of these have in common (aside from the Conan book, for obvious reasons) is that the main characters all fit into what I call the “Clonan Mold” – basically, muscular, barbaric warriors who battle dark magics with cold steel and iron will.
These books were all part of a trend that was very popular in the 60’s and 70’s. With a resurgence in the popularity of Conan thanks to the Ace/Lancer paperbacks, as well as the long-running comics from Marvel, publishers were looking to capitalize on the readers’ need for more of Conan’s ilk.

This got me to thinking; is this trend truly dead? Are simple, straight-forward characters like these out of vogue now? Have we, as discerning fantasy readers, evolved beyond the hulking barbarian cutting a swath of death and destruction through his enemies? It seems that most fantasy characters, even those who profess to be “Sword & Sorcery” ones, are layered with complexities and “depth” that was previously understated, or non-existent.

And if that is true, and these characters have indeed becomes relics of a bygone era in the publishing industry, then why are there so many people haunting used book stores and snatching up these out of print books? Is it perhaps that readers just don’t have the confidence in today’s writers to deliver a good, old-fashioned action yarn? Perhaps it’s because new authors don’t want to be pigeon-holed into being a “Howard-pretender.”

Personally, I think it boils down to “literary snobbery.” The Pulp Era is derided by the literary community, thus why it is never covered in English classes, or included in scholarly studies of literature, aside from being a footnote. Sort of a “literary Dark Age” so to speak. And those who do know of the treasures brought to life back then are relegated to the “fringes” of society. They’re looked at the same way comic books are often looked at. Cheap entertainment for the masses, with little to no literary or intellectual value.

Ok, I think I am getting off-track here.

The point is, those of us who do enjoy this genre of stories, are often forced to seek facsimiles of the tried and true tropes. Modern barbarians are really just angry savages with personal issues that create drama and depth. There are no more unapologetic barbarians, proud of their heritage, who deride “civilized” weaklings.

So, the question is, is this a result of readers? Or publishers?

And if someone wrote S&S in the old-school vein, how would it be received now?

Note: Most of the opinion expressed here is based on, admittedly, limited exposure to modern writers. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or money to invest in a lot of reading. So, I find myself spending most of my resources on used books. And because I tend to get bored with books if they are too long (I get limited reading time), I tend to like shorter works, which is also a thing of the past. You’re hard-pressed to find a new book of less than 250 pages these days. That may seem like a small amount. But to me, it can be big when I can only snatch a few minutes here and there to read.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

I think you're absolutely right. I loved these old stories. Very simple, straightforward, but just fun adventure. Really like that top cover too. man that ignited my imagination back in the day.