Thursday, July 16, 2009

Genre Corner

Yesterday's New York Times contains a lengthy and well-informed appreciation of Jack Vance (click here). If your time for net-surfing is limited, hop over there and read the piece, a far better use of your time than hanging out at ::Acquired Taste. I've long argued that Vance is one of the great 20th century writers, ignored by the critical establishment for having the temerity to write science fiction (you can get away with writing crime and still be appreciated, but sf is the last bastion of the nerd...). It's refreshing to see Vance treated to a serious piece in a respected publication.

Over the past week I've been reading another writer from the genre ghetto, Patrick Rothfuss. His debut fantasy, The Name of the Wind, came out a couple of years ago. It's earned a lot of favourable attention, and I can see why. It's a very traditional fantasy (he's trying neither to reinvent nor subvert the genre) of a young man, Kvothe, a precocious magician and musician. The novel follows his admittance to a wizard-school which owes more to Earthsea than Hogwarts, surrounded by a framing story which at once undercuts and intensifies the central narrative. The book isn't really finished: it's one of those trilogies where the individual volumes don't stand alone - never something that worries me as a reader. If a story takes 600,000 words to tell, then it takes 600,000 words to tell.

If you're going to tell a very traditional fantasy story, there are particular challenges, because it's all been done before: you have to do it better. Rothfuss is a gifted writer: his prose is at once concrete and allusive, he has considerable emotional range and the underrated knack of integrating the comic and the tragic. The way in which the framing story and the back story dovetail is highly accomplished, and makes the book significantly more interesting than if the story were retailed chronologically.

For me the book has only two weaknesses: Kvothe is just too implausibly talented (child prodigies are very hard to bring off and I'm not convinced Rothfuss quite manages it), and the storyline is studded with foreshadowing which ultimately becomes distracting. Foreshadowing is a wonderful literary device, but it's easy to overdo.

Nonetheless The Name of the Wind is a highly accomplished novel from a talented writer. I'm looking forward to future instalments.
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David Isaak said...

Thanks for pointing me to the article on Vance. It's good to see an intelligent appreciation of him...and I'm glad to see that there's so many other writers out there who, like myself, are enamored of "The Dying Earth" tales.

Tim Stretton said...

Vance is very much a writers' writer - I often think that only other writers buy his books.

Am I right in thinking the New York Times is a pretty big deal over your way?

David Isaak said...

In matters literary outside academia, it's pretty much the top of the heap. JV has just been canonized, and writers in MFA programs around the country can now admit to reading him.

Better late than never, I suppose...

Tim Stretton said...

"writers in MFA programs around the country can now admit to reading him"

... this was one of the main objectives of the Vance Integral Edition. It looks like we got there!