I posted an excerpt from this last year. Lately, another bit of it has been running through my head. It was my G&S-ified depiction of the scene where Palpatine declares himself Emperor, set to the tune of Ludwig’s song, “A Monarch Who Boasts Intellectual Graces” from The Grand Duke. (Note that throughout, “republican” and “democratic” are used in the general sense of political concepts, not the present-day parties in our own galaxy.)
Oh, the Chancellor who uses emergency powers
Will gain, if he’s smart, a good deal of support.
He can speak to opponents without getting glowers
And won’t have any need to lie or distort–
You know, I am sure, in these perilous hours,
That though a sep’ratist danger still towers
And threatens this Senate of ours,
I know of a plan that will make ‘em abort!
Oh! My motto is “safety;” I’m not a daredevil,
And while I rule here, we will all be secure.
With a powerful Emp’ror, who’s quite on the level,
Republican principle may long endure!
Oh! His motto etc.
When rule democratic simply fails to succeed;
And Congressional meetings are just a mess–
An Emperor clearly’s the thing that you need
To at once set ev’rything right in Congress!
With no more long meetings progress to impede,
Improvements extreme we can make with all speed,
It’s easy to do, and I will do the deed—
It’s done! And here’s to our having continued success!
I decided to post this after reading this post by Barb Knowles. Like her, I was disturbed to see that most of my favorites are white men. (And all but one of them is dead.) Also like her, I’d love to have suggestions on diverse authors. I plan to do a list of my favorite non-fiction authors–that should be a lot more diverse.
W.S. Gilbert: As long-time readers will know, I’m a huge Gilbert and Sullivan fan. Sullivan was a fine composer, but in all honesty, it’s Gilbert’s words that I love. Moreover, he has a huge number of other plays done by himself or with other composers. So much wit and genius. Truly, he “made his fellow creatures wise” by “gilding the philosophic pill”. He’s the reason I became a writer.
George Orwell: Most people know him for 1984, and it’s a great book. But I think his best fictional work is Animal Farm. These books are more than just political satires on events of the time–they are timeless examinations of human nature.
Charlotte Brontë: True, I’ve only read one book by her: Jane Eyre. And yes, it is in some ways dated with the trappings of Victorian melodrama. But it’s still a very good tale, filled with unexpectedly humorous moments.
Robert W. Chambers: The King in Yellow, and more specifically, The Repairer of Reputations, is the greatest weird tale I’ve ever read. Not even Lovecraft or Poe ever managed to create such a bizarre atmosphere in so few words. I’ve read it countless times, and each time, I have more questions about it.
Robert Bolt: He didn’t write books. He wrote films and plays–most notably Lawrence of Arabia and A Man For All Seasons. If you want to see historical fiction done right, look no further than these. Lawrence is one of my favorite films, partly for its beautifully spare script. Man For All Seasons is a fascinating take on questions of morality and pragmatism vs. idealism.
P.G. Wodehouse: As somebody once said: it is impossible to be unhappy while reading one of his books.
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most widely-read and beloved books in America. And yet I still think it’s underrated. Mostly, this is because so much of the talk about it focuses on Atticus Finch. He’s a good character, but it means other characters like Heck Tate, Miss Maudie, Calpurnia, and even Boo Radley himself don’t get their due. Go Set a Watchman, meanwhile, is not bad once you understand it’s a draft–which many people don’t.
Thomas Hardy: In some ways the anti-Wodehouse, as his stories are usually very grim. But he was a master at creating an atmosphere, and there are parts of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure that are shocking even now–I can’t imagine how they would have struck Victorian audiences.
John Kennedy Toole: I’ve only ever read one book by him. (For a long time, it was thought to be the only one he wrote.) A Confederacy of Dunces is a strange, strange beast. If I tried to describe it, you probably would think it totally crazy. And it is. But it is also brilliant–I’ve never seen such an intricate plot that fit together so neatly.
Chris Avellone: I did it. I put a video game writer in the same company as Brontë, Orwell and Hardy. And it’s justified. The script for Knights of the Old Republic II is a meditation on the spiritual and psychological effects of war that ranks as great literature. And the iconic Kreia is one of the all-time great female characters. I rank KotOR II slightly ahead of Avellone’s legendary Planescape: Torment, which explores many of the same themes, but both are absolute masterpieces.
Nothing is stranger than revisiting something you did a long time ago. People change over time, and so it can feel as if you are reading a brand-new author. If I were a third-party, I would be quite baffled to find that the person who wrote this absurdity also wrote this. And now I am forced to confront the fact that not only did the same person write it, but in each case, I was the perpetrator.
Effectively, I might as well be a completely different person than the stuck-up teenager who first sat down to write thinking he’d be the new P.G. Wodehouse or W.S. Gilbert. And yet, presumably that teenager is still stored somewhere in my brain, although try as I might, I sometimes have difficulty summoning him to explain what he was thinking.
Anyway, that’s all a tangent. Here is “The King”, or “What I Thought Was Funny At The Time”. Enjoy!
I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.[…] This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words…
Orwell then explains how, through shrinking the vocabulary of the language, heretical thoughts became unthinkable. He illustrates by quoting the following passage from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
Orwell then states that “it would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.”
Why do I mention this? Well, it is very relevant to our present political situation.
One of the most notable things about Donald Trump is how few words he seems to know. People mock his tiny hands, but to me what’s truly amazing is his absolutely minuscule vocabulary.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in his tweets, where he will often conclude one of his communiques insulting someone or complaining about something with an imperative “Sad!” or “Bad!”
If Trump needs to lengthen some statement, usually all he can do is add the word “very” or, if he is talking about something he does not like, interject “so terrible”.
When Trump wants to add extra emphasis to some point, he often adds that it will be “big league”. (e.g. “We are going to win big league.”) Thanks to Trump’s peculiar accent, many people have misheard this as “bigly”; a child-like non-adjective that seems extremely fitting for the man, with his penchant for gaudy, oversized buildings.
If the problem were merely that our President-elect was a man incapable of eloquence, that would be one thing. But it is far worse than that.
The scary thing is that his style of communicating is very infectious. People–myself included–have picked up his habits of saying “sad!” or “big league”. It’s addictive, I won’t deny it; and there is an alarming pleasure in mimicking him–even for people like me, who find him utterly appalling and oppose him completely.
But that is the frightening thing: once you start to talk like him, you will start to think like him. And once that happens, you could reach a point where “a heretical thought” becomes, as Orwell warned, “literally unthinkable”.
To be clear, I think Trump’s rhetorical style (if you can call it that) is more a symptom than the disease itself. I wrote back in 2010 that “Twitter = Newspeak”, and that was before Trump was even on the political map. I do think that the ascendance of Trump, who communicates through Twitter far more than most candidates, supports my point. It may be that Twitter itself made Trump possible.
“Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.” [He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.]—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Aphorism 146
On June 6, 2014, I was struck with the inspiration for a novella. It came to me in a flash as I was riding in the car. I had just begun work on what would become The Start of the Majestic Worlda few weeks earlier, but the idea for this other book came to me so close to fully-formed that I felt compelled to write it down. I finished the first draft in August of 2014, and then spent the next year editing it.
What was remarkable about the experience was how easily it all came to me. Normally (for me, anyway) writing a story is a difficult and tedious process. I have a general idea what I want to do, but filling in all the details is a long, painful ordeal.
Not on this one. 90% of it came to me in the space of a day. Everything from a detailed plot structure to the characters to minor bits of description and lines of dialogue appeared ready-made. It was almost as though the book wrote itself. Not only that, but I very quickly became convinced it was the best story I had ever written.
So why, given that, haven’t I already published it, since I wrapped it up over a year ago?
Well, the thing is, it’s really, really dark.
Most of my stories are horror, or at least have horror elements. I’ve written stories involving human sacrifice, murder, torture, demonic possession, and all sorts of other disturbing things. So it’s not like I’m a stranger to grim subject matter.
But this was different. It was creepier than even some of the stuff that Colonel Preston did in Majestic World that I ultimately cut for being too disturbing. And the ease with which it all came to me only made it more troubling.
I did a lot of soul-searching after writing this book. That sounds dramatic, but I really did start to wonder about what kind of mind would come up with this kind of story.
A lot of things have changed in my life since I first got the idea to write it, and for whatever reason, I haven’t felt the same desire to write horror since I finished it.
I was thinking about this recently, ever since the calendar turned to October. I still love this month, and Halloween, and spooky stories–but I think I want to return to writing less intense stories; more on the order of The Revival,that stresses atmosphere and mood. And maybe I’ll dabble in other genres as well.
With all that said, I am thinking of publishing this book soon. I spent the time to write it, so I think it is worth putting out into the world.
[The following is an email interview I conducted with Eileen Stephenson, author of Tales of Byzantium: A Selection of Short Stories. It’s a very enjoyable book, and a great introduction to an unjustly-neglected time period. Ms. Stephenson’s answers are very helpful for independent authors, especially those writing historical fiction. Enjoy!–BG]
Q: How did you first become interested in Medieval Byzantium?
A: It was all because of the 2-3 hours I spend commuting to the day job. I came to rely on audio books for my sanity. One Saturday at the library, searching the shelves I came upon John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium. I didn’t know much about them, and expected little. Then in the introduction, the author says that the one thing you could never say about the Byzantines is that they were boring. “Oh, really?” I thought skeptically. He was right, though, as the three bookcases I now have filled with Byzantine history will attest.
Q: The third story, “Alexiad” is about Anna Comnena writing “The Alexiad”. I liked that it focused on a woman as the central character. Can you tell me a little about women in Byzantine society?
A: Medieval women anywhere usually had few rights and less education. However, 11th and 12th century Byzantium saw literacy, even for women, become common down into the middle classes. There were women doctors – paid about half as much as the men, and expected to work twice as many hours, but still far ahead of western Europe.
The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) had three women ruling empresses. The first was Irene the Athenian, the 8th century widow of an emperor and mother of another emperor. However, her reputation is tainted by the fact that she blinded her son to take the throne. The next was Zoe in the 11th century. She was the oldest surviving child of an emperor and married three men who each took the title of emperor at their wedding. After Zoe and her last husband died, Zoe’s sister, Theodora, succeeded them and ruled alone for 19 months before dying.
During the Comnene era, from 1081 to 1185, women frequently influenced events, starting with the heroine of the novel I’m working on, Anna Dalassena, even if they never fully ruled in their own right. There were more than a few women of that period who left their mark in history.
Q: Both Anna Comnena and Constantine VII, who features prominently in the first story, seem to have been very notable because of their writing. Do you think that history is often, as you write in the notes to “Alexiad”, “told by the writer”? And if so, to what extent do you think that their perspective skews our understanding of history?
A: History is definitely told by the writer, although often the writer is paid by the winner. I think in Anna Comnena’s case she wrote partly because, with her intelligence and education, she needed something to do in the long years of her confinement, and partly to honor her father. Anna’s brother, the Emperor John II Comnenus, was a notably modest man and kept no historian on staff to record his accomplishments, so there is little history of his reign.
A better example of writers skewing perspectives is the 6th century historian, Procopios. A courtier in Justinian I’s reign, he wrote a typically bland official history and then he wrote his Secret History, a salacious retelling of every possible mistake and ugly rumor concerning Justinian and his wife, Theodora. I’ve never looked for a copy of his official history, but his Secret History is in paperback and still quite a read. That’s the one that people remember now.
Q: What is the most challenging thing about writing historical fiction? How do you balance historical accuracy vs. well-paced narrative, if the two conflict?
A: The most challenging thing about writing historical fiction is the writing. Grasping the elements of grammar is a start, but then there’s the need for a well-crafted story holding the reader’s attention. You can’t build a sturdy house just knowing how to hammer a nail.
Balancing historical accuracy vs. the well-paced narrative can be challenging but my reading of some stars of the genre – Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Colleen McCullough – have provided examples of how to do it. Often it means having long periods of time pass between some chapters, while other chapters occur in close time proximity.
Q: What is the number one reaction you would like readers to have to your book? Do you want them to be more interested in studying history, or do you want them gripped by the story/characters?
A: Reading historical fiction as a kid made me want to learn more about the history. With the Byzantines, it was the history that came first, and when I found little fiction about them, I knew that was what I had to write. The reaction I hope my readers have is that the story and characters so grip them that they want to learn more about the history.
Q: What other authors in the historical fiction genre influenced you?
A: Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, and Colleen McCullough would be highest on that list. Others are Bernard Cornwell, Thomas B. Costain, Philippa Gregory. I’ve been fortunate to meet other historical novelists in the Historical Novel Society and many of them have been kind enough to share their wisdom with me. It’s been a great experience.
Q: If you were to write an “alternative history” story about Byzantium, what historical event would you like to change?
A: I think most historians would wish the outcome of the Battle of Manzikert to be different. But Manzikert was just the result of forces put in play thirty years earlier when Empress Zoe chose as her third husband a frivolous spendthrift who disastrously weakened the empire. So I would probably say my alternative story would be a better husband for Zoe than Constantine IX Monomachos.
[My thanks to Ms. Stephenson for her time and very thoughtful answers. You can get Tales of Byzantiumhere.]
My initial reaction was that the reason for this was that Gilbert’s works are inaccessible to modern readers because he was sometimes a bit of chauvinist, and most publishers aren’t keen to push the works of another straight, white, male Victorian writer. Modern readers are looking for more diversity.
I was about to say this, but then I realized it wasn’t true–and my own literary interests showed why. (You can see my whole exchange with Mr. Crowther here.)
Specifically, I thought of H.P. Lovecraft, the early 1900s horror writer, whose influence on modern horror seems to be ever-increasing. His ideas creep into films like Alien and The Thing, his famous monster Cthulhu is the shorthand for Ultimate Evil in some parts of the internet, and there is an entire genre of horror named after him. Only yesterday I wrote a review of a horror novel clearly influenced by him.
And Lovecraft is way, way less accessible to the modern reader than Gilbert. Gilbert, as I said, was a bit of a chauvinist. Lovecraft openly sympathized with the Nazis. His letters, while in other respects brilliant and insightful, show a man prone to almost genocidal racial screeds, and his books often contain appalling racist diatribes and descriptions.
Everyone who reads and enjoys Lovecraft’s work ultimately has to grapple with this undercurrent of White Supremacist venom that runs through it. (For the record, here’s where I did it.)
So, if a racist Nazi sympathizer can have such an influence over modern writers, why can’t a lovable old Victorian dramatist have the same?
The answer is that Gilbert’s main claim to fame are the comic operas he wrote with Arthur Sullivan, and comic opera is out of fashion. In fact, not only is comic opera out of fashion, but the form of musical theater that evolved when it fell out of fashion is also out fashion.
Gilbert’s other famous work, the Bab Ballads, are witty, short poems in a style that is, once again, out of fashion.
Thinking about the Lovecraft v. Gilbert issue was what really brought home to me how out of fashion metered, rhyming poetry is. Because Lovecraft also wrote poetry, and yet, for all his influence, his poems don’t seem to get reprinted nearly as much as his short stories and novellas.
I have a collection that purports to be “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft” in front of me. It contains mediocre tales like “Pickman’s Model” and “In The Vault” , but not his great poem “Nemesis”. If Lovecraft had only written horror poetry, probably he would not have one-tenth the influence he does.
So, why did poetry fall out of fashion? I have no clue. It’s easy to memorize (that’s part of the point) and tends to be shorter than the sprawling novels that students in schools get assigned. And yet, poetry–or at least, rhyming and metrical poetry that adheres to rhyme schemes and other rules, is distinctly out of fashion.
About ten years ago, I wrote a comic opera adaptation of the Star Wars movies, with songs set to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes. It was just an exercise in songwriting that I did for fun, but it definitely helped me learn how to write a decent rhyme.
Re-reading it now, I see most of my lyrics were pretty bad–although to be fair to myself, few lyricists can ever hope to match the great W.S. Gilbert.
But there were a few songs I wrote that were pretty decent. For instance, this adaptation of the meadow scene from Attack of the Clones, in which Anakin explains his dictatorial political philosophy to Padme. It’s set to the tune of “Were I a King” from The Grand Duke.
ANAKIN: Were I in charge, in very truth,
And yet had kept my health and youth,
In spite of my ascension;
To keep us peaceful, keep us strong–
And make these blessings last for long–
I would request the voting throng
All their concerns to mention.
To some big council they would go
And voice with elocution,
Their little problems all, and lo!
They would find a solution!
The men who would be to this council elected,
Would all by popular vote be selected–
And if they all did what they said on campaign,
They could run for office again!
CHORUS: Oh, the men who would be etc.
ANAKIN: And if councilmen should disagree
The problem would then come to me–
And I’d make the decision!
One side may say to “Cut the tax!”
The other says “Prevent attacks!”–
Unlike our current plan that lacks
An executive with vision–
Both sides would have to go to me,
And I’d make ’em see reason!
And if they still would disagree–
I’d have them shot for treason!
Oh, the man who can mold a political sphere
Completely bereft of corruption or fear,
Can govern and rule, with of his brains a tenth
Intelligent life–and possibly Ennth!
Criticism is the only way you can improve as a writer.
It meant somebody actually read the book, and cared enough to review it.
The only thing about it that made me feel bad is that I’m sorry I couldn’t deliver a better experience to that reader. If somebody takes the trouble to buy and read something I wrote, I want them to enjoy it. So, dear reader, know that I will do better with my next book, thanks in part to your input.
This brings me to my second point, which is that I try to get in touch with and thank all my readers, whether they like the book or not. Reading a book takes time and costs money, and I appreciate that they are willing to invest both in mine.
But, thanks to the nature of the product, it’s hard to get find out who my readers are, unless they go out of their way to tell me. This is rare. When was the last time you wrote to some author to tell them what you thought of their book? Most people never write a review at all, let alone contact the author.
Also, my publisher has a strong policy against collecting user data. This makes sense, because users hate having their data collected. They worry that it will be sold, or that they will lose their privacy. That is totally understandable. Before I got into making and selling products, I felt the same way. I hate the idea of some company gathering information on me.
Once I started selling things, I saw the other side of the issue. That is, when you sell stuff–books, apps, whatever–it’s helpful to know who is buying it and why. That way, you can figure out what drives sales, and get more people to buy your product.
So, the question is: how to gather that information from your users (readers, in my case) without seeming like a creepy, intrusive, dystopian corporation?