Tuesday, January 31, 2012



So anyway, I read a lot of books. Dipped a foot into just about every genre, as well as stuff which defies standard genre definition. Some books are interesting, some moving, some... well, they sure are collections of words. The one written mainstay in my literary life, though, has been terrible, trashy novels.

I think my love affair with them sort of spun off from two things in my childhood - Commando comics, which were essentially British Boys Own adventure tales, where squared-jawed heroes punch Nazis (and occasionally people from other nationalities, but they were all bad eggs) squarely in the jaw - and the Star Wars novels, which I actually ended up enjoying vastly more than the films they'd spun off of.

But before I go any deeper into this pit of literary refuse, perhaps I should define what I mean by trash? Well, it's fairly simply - I'm talking the most base and derivative of genre works; the stuff that holds the fewest narrative surprises, the most basically sketched out characters, and often (let's face it) the highest body counts. Story where the value of a human life is determined by exactly how sinister a person's gaze is, and by what kind of reptile he can be most compared to. Which reminds me - you'll get a lot of stock phrases in the prose. They'll pop up EVERYwhere. It's like all the authors have access to the same book of story terminology, and are allowed to draw from no other source. There's little-to-no experimentation with the text, and just about every event in the story is telegraphed long before it happens.

Obviously, this stuff has a lot in common with pulp fiction - indeed, pulp crime stories, penny dreadfuls' and dime-westerns were early forms of the same kind of stuff. They're rickety, slap shod works that fall apart under the barest scrutiny, and will probably rot your brain.

Besides all that, though, I find them to be a lot of fun.

What, then, is the appeal? Part of it might be an act of rebellion on my part - I don't know if you've read a lot of actual literary works, but the damn things are mentally EXHAUSTING. Not just because of their themes, but because a lot of them will spend a lot of time in simple description. Part of that is a hang-over from the Victorian-era novels (Dickens, for example, being famously paid by the word). But in any case, considering everything and every element of a story, whilst sometimes deeply rewarding, isn't very fun. Sometimes you just want the sad, allelic gardener to reject his inevitable station in life, not simply emotionally (by lusting after the landowners' comely daughter), but by literally picking up a war axe and carving his way through his world, violently rejecting everything but gushing blood and grim, pointless death. It's remarkably relaxing.

Obviously, trash can cover a lot (well, ok, generally not that many) of topics - romance is one of the more famous, for example - but my chosen poison is violence. Of course, there are many KINDS of violence in trash, and it took me a long time to refine for myself what seems to work best for me. The easiest way for me to explain it, I think, is to wave vaguely in the direction of Robert E. Howard an H.P. Lovecraft, and tell ya'll to work outwards from there.

In short, fuck chosen ones. Fuck being special because destiny says so. Fuck dynasties, fuck societal importance - the value of a person in these stories is generally defined either by simple virtues (such as killing ability, and manners), or as ultimately insignificant. Nihilistic? In a way, I suppose, though obviously one shouldn't view these sorts of stories as commentaries or morality plays (though Conan would occasionally toss in a thought or two on civilisation). I find that concept, though, utterly liberating - a giant middle finger raised in the face of determinism and supposed moral authority.

So, specifically, what sort of trash do I read? I'm sad to say that, lately, I've gotten a bit tired of Star Wars - the post-prequel direction of the franchise has made so many blunders, moving away from the aspects I enjoyed most about it, that I find it very difficult to enjoy anymore. Currently floating my boat, we have Warhammer novels - both fantasy and 40k. I enjoy these because their universes are wide enough that you can covers hundreds of different characters and stories, and don't have to tie them to a core cast of characters around which every event in the universe spins. Also, they unapologetically violent, and feature things like giant robots that fire warheads filled with demons, and swarms in insect aliens, and lots and lots of hopeless last stands (some of which are quite literally hopeless last stands). Pointless resistance in the face of utter annihilation - I loves me some of that. A lot of the authors are pretty meh, but there are a few who know how effective a literary flourish is here and there - stories like this aren't, by design, void of emotion, but they can come off as very dry if the writer spends too much time giving out detailed descriptions of the ebb and flow of battle. I much prefer stories where we get into a characters' head space - where the violence, though still aesthetically enthralling, has some real emotional weight to it. For those interested, check out authors like Chris Wright, Dan Abnett, and Aaron Demski-Bowden.

Now, if you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed that so far I've mainly spoken about shared-world franchise fiction (one spun off from a movie, one spun off from a table-top game). Part of this is because that's where the trashiest trash exists, part of this is because, frankly, I find world building can get in the way of the story I actually want to read. The world, for me, should be a backdrop, the stage on which the characters perform - not the foreground, a curtain that everyone trips over. That's because I enjoy character driven fiction most of all - and whilst a well developed world can be intellectually stimulating as one ponders the ramifications of, say, Elephant Overlords, ultimately a lot of those stories come to the same value judgements (ie: BE CAUTIOUS or SCIENCE IS DANGEROUS or TECHNOLOGY IS DEHUMANISING etc etc), and I don't often appreciate that. Fut her more, if character plays second fiddle to the setting, you get nothing but a group of card-board cut outs, pointing at the features the author wants you to notice. Ideally, of course, story, world building and character would all work in tandem - I'm just saying I have more time for an author who prioritises characters over world/plot than the other way around. And, given that the setting's already fairly well fleshed out in such franchises, they're not something that's usually examined in a lot of depth.

Other trash I enjoy - The Dresden Files make for some Buffy-style light reading. I've started David Gemmel's Druss books. Comics and video game and TV shows, of course - so much to work through there, I may save it for another blog.

One caveat - trash is often more about subject matter than moral philosophy. Never-the-less, I've learned as I've gotten older to be more demanding in what I actually enjoy. Call it a concession to maturity - I just can't dig on lack of effort man. MOVE ME WITH YOUR VIOLENCE. When that chainsword slices off your rival's face, I want to feel the impact of it! Emotionally! (Not physically, I need my face.) Just because you're writing trash, doesn't mean you can't be a craftsman about it! Objectivity still has a place, even in these sorts of stories.

So there's my opening salvo. Hopefully this will get something of a discussion going . If you're lacking in immediately responses, I'll ask a question: what sort of trash do you enjoy? Why? TELL ME YOUR SECRET SHAME.

1 comment:

1735099 said...

SECRET SHAME.....I guess it was Biggles..............