Friday, September 9, 2011

Fiction Friday: You are NOT J. R .R. Tolkien

I've only read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy once.  It was actually years ago, and I've very much wanted to read them again, but, dude!  Those books are long.  I would probably have to devote an entire summer to reading them, so maybe next year?

Even if I haven't read them in a while, they remain some of my favorite books.  Samwise Gamgee is my second favorite fictional character.  I can't watch the end of the last movie (Return of the King) without weeping.  The book The Return of the King made me weep, too.  After journeying along with Samwise and Frodo (and believe me, with as long and as well-written as those books are, you literally feel like you're journeying with them), it broke my heart to have to see them part at the end.  Hopefully I didn't ruin that ending for you.

Tolkien was a genius, and eventually I'd like to delve into some of his other work.  I have a copy of The Silmarillion that I have yet to read.  Why?  Because I'd probably have to devote a good month to that thing in order to give it proper attention, and I don't have that kind of time at the moment.  Tolkien's works need time to properly digest.  They deserve every bit of that time. 

Other books, however, don't deserve that kind of time and devotion.
There was a time when readers wanted to read books full of descriptive landscapes, wordy settings, lengthy passages about various unimportant objects that happen to be sitting around in a room.  A lot of these books are wonderful.  I have nothing against them.  It's just that most of them were written in the 1800s, and it seems to me that a lot of today's authors are suffering under some kind of delusion.  Either they believe they're still living in the 1800s, or they believe they are, in fact, J. R. R. Tolkien.

Tolkien did not write LOTR in the 1800s.  He wrote LOTR in the earlier half of the 1900s.  In the case of this work, however, it doesn't really matter, because it was ground-breaking.  LOTR was pretty much the first of its kind, which means it would have done well in whatever particular time it was written.  Just about every fantasy author since Tolkien has ripped off been inspired by LOTR.  If Tolkien had not written this work, I seriously doubt modern literature would be the same.

I'd also like to point out that Tolkien's use of the written language was amazing.  I haven't read the books in many years, but I have skimmed through them, just to relive the beauty of the language.  Tolkien knew how to weave words together.  The following is a brief excerpt from Return of the King:

The great shadow descended like a falling cloud.  And behold! it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank.  A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil.  And the Dark Lord took it, and nursed it with fell meats, until it grew beyond the measure of all other things that fly; and he gave it to his servant to be his steed.  Down, down it came, and then, folding its fingered webs, it gave a croaking cry, and settled...digging in its claws, stooping its long naked neck.

Wonderful!  Ooh.  I might have nightmares!

I've read a few more modern authors who seem to think that they have a similar grasp of the written language (Christopher Paolini and Cornelia Funke immediately come to mind), and well, they just don't.  I'm not saying that they aren't good.  In fact, I enjoy their work.  I simply enjoy their work for the stories, and not the long, detailed, and completely unnecessary descriptions and/or situations that I have to work through in order to read the stories.  The problem is, sometimes I'm not sure if I think stories like this are worth all the effort and time involved to actually read them.  And that's sad.

I'm not saying description is a bad thing.  Not at all.  Small details are nice. Is it vitally important that the main character is wearing a blue shirt? No, but it's okay if an author wants me to know that, as long as he/she doesn't, for no good reason, tell me that the main character is wearing a tagless, pocketless cotton blend periwinkle blue polo with a yellow stripe on the sleeves.  If the lengthy detail about the main character's shirt was to make some kind of clear point or was necessary to the story somehow, that's fine.  Otherwise, leave it out!  See, what I really don't like is when an author goes on and on about nonessential details that don't make the story more enjoyable.

What today's authors have to understand is that most of today's readers aren't interested in major detail that 1) isn't essential or at least relevant to the plot, or 2) doesn't significantly add to the enjoyment of reading.  That means that not all excessive descriptions have to be integral to the plot, but if they're not, then they had better be stinkin' good. 

Readers, for the most part, are not stupid.  They do not need an author to figuratively hold their hand.  It insults a reader's intelligence if an author includes too many non-essential descriptions. 

Maybe it's sad that society is all about instant gratification.  Maybe it's sad that we can't sit down and enjoy a lengthy book with incredible descriptive scenes.  But honestly, I haven't read many modern books that have long descriptions that take my breath away.  Most of them just make me want to put the author in the Literary Naughty Corner.  The most enjoyable literature (Harry Potter and The Hunger Games immediately come to mind) I've read lately has a good balance of description and pace.  The authors know what they need to include without putting in too much.  They know how to keep the story flowing without getting stuck in some kind of pointless drudgery that no one wants to read.  They know how to make the characters interesting and relatable without telling us a million little details that aren't relevant to the plot.  Believe me, Paolini, I could care less that Eragon likes to shave using magic.  If it's not important, or otherwise really good, don't include it.

And just so everyone knows I'm not picking on anyone, I'm going to go ahead and say that I was once quite guilty of believing that I was J. R. R. Tolkien.  I believed I had every right to write a 175,000 word YA fantasy novel, because I was just THAT good.  No.  I wasn't.  After much, MUCH, editing, that book is now under 75,000 words.  I still have some minor editing to do, but it'll probably stay under 75,000 words.  That means that about 100,000 of the words I originally included were unnecessary. 

I'm not Tolkien.

Neither are you.

Which kind of takes the pressure off every fantasy writer out there.  I mean, no matter how awesome we are, we'll never be as awesome as Tolkien.  Just something to think about.

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