|Michael Moorcock (continued)|
Writing generic fantasy means that you are writing a strict form. Admittedly a form to which you contributed rather a lot of the rules (or refined them, anyway). The reader has certain expectations, which it is your duty to fulfil. But once you have done that, you can take all sorts of quiet risks. They only show up as risks if the reader finds them disagreeable.
Writing non-generic fantasy is as demanding as writing "mainstream" -- essentially you develop a form to suit the material -- not suit the material to fit the form (which is a lot easier, of course). That's why generic modernist fiction ("realistic") is as interesting or uninteresting as any other genre, depending on the skills of the writer and what new colour the writer can put on the old riffs.
I have always chosen the form to suit the subject. Some subjects are best suited by "realistic" fiction. Some are best served by some form of imaginative fiction. By moving my characters through all these different forms, I keep a connection.
My fiction is notably character based -- almost always described in terms of its characters. Those characters are who allow me to move between the universes. The characters are just like me. They are as at home with Chaos as they are with Law... They are happiest with a bit of both.
I don't find much difference between ordinary smart American readers and ordinary smart British readers. Readers read. They have information and know how to get more. They read British as well as American books. Soon they learn all the salient references and those they don't know they know how to find...
Publishers have contempt for readers, thus Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone becomes Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. This is the bane of America. It is a contempt most elitist republics hold their populations in (compared to the Soviet Union). The failure is of culture-mongers to respect the vast millions of smart people out there.
You hear in Lewis Lapham's tone a deep raising of his and his readers' self-esteem at the expense of a rather badly educated but not stupid public. That's not gentlemanly behaviour, even if you are an elitist republican pretending to be a democrat. It is what Romans did a lot of as the Republic crumbled into autocracy -- ungentlemanly behaviour and sneering at the bread and circuses public. Elitist republics slip easily back into taking the shape of what they actually have become (i.e., monarchies). Deregulation means the quest for the lowest possible common denominator. Liberal economics and orthodox politics produce a very dysfunctional voter.
I write for a reader like myself -- who has read widely and has enjoyed a wide range of music and the other arts -- but is part of a broad, common culture, not an isolated academic culture. There are, as I kept saying on that panel, more of us than there are of them. More of us who read (or watch) Shakespeare one day and [Theodore] Sturgeon the next.
Horses are said to fear people, because they believe we are bigger than them. Readers seem to have much the same impression of academics and critics. Who needs the approval of so few? Or, as ever, I return to Tom Paine -- it is ludicrous that such a small country should determine the fate of such a large country. I write for a community of readers.
I have been fortunate enough to have been published in France, for instance, more or less since I was published in England. I have always had a very good presence in Germany, Spain, Italy and the other EU/Scandinavian countries. I am now being published in Estonian, Latvian, Finnish, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Czech, Hungarian -- in official editions whereas I once only appeared as samizdhat. My books have been best-sellers in Japan and in Poland. I find that all these readers have much in common. There is no fundamental difference (except in the cultural experience brought to the dialogue of course) between a French reader and an American reader.
I am very fortunate in my readership. Even the baffled and angry little boys who pick up Byzantium Endures thinking it's Elric in the Empire of the East and then accuse me of attacking them or betraying them -- even many of them eventually wind up enjoying Byzantium Endures for its own sake. My signing lines are sometimes made up of extremely disparate people -- from seven-year-old infants to 50-year-old four star generals... This again is a source of pride and confirmation to me.
To my astonishment recently I was described as a "cult writer." I have always seen myself as a writer addressing a very broad and interesting audience -- as a popular intellectual in the old-fashioned sense -- and wonder if "cult" has come to mean something different, like "pulp," these days. In the real world "pulp" means vulgar and vital. Maybe cult means -- not much mentioned in the same breath as [Kingsley] Amis, [Salman] Rushdie and [Grant] MacEwan?
Funny how certain little descriptions can throw you. The review was excellent. But all I noted was that baffling word. I think it was youthful headline writer's ignorance, but I don't like being marginalised. My whole effort, since [editing] New Worlds, was to do with insisting on not being marginalised and that's why the magazine never addressed a "knowing" science fiction (SF) readership -- it always addressed the common culture. Which was a crucial difference. And probably why people say it had more effect on the general literary world than on SF. I, of course, think it had both!
[On the secrets of a few universes and other closing remarks.]
I picked up a lot of structuring habits from music. Mozart is sublime. His secret was his understanding of structure. That's any prolific prodigy's secret, actually. You read it once and understand it. You hear it once and can repeat it. A gift. It takes you a while to realise not everyone has that gift. You keep thinking they just have to get the trick of it right, and everyone will be able to do it! So I tried to teach people a bit about structuring as an editor on New Worlds and in stuff like Death is No Obstacle, my book about writing.
And from show business I learned that "You'd better burn from the first bar," (Oscar Peterson) -- i.e., you give it all you have from page one and you don't stop till you get to THE END. You know you have to find the energy and keep it directed and that that's what the audience is paying for. If they're buying anything less, it's a habit they'll eventually lose.
Familiarity and snobbery are powerful factors in any literary career, but they only hamper immediate profit, if that, and much of what arouses their contempt has, instead, longevity. [Thomas Love] Peacock or [Mervyn Laurence] Peake are still in print. Marie Corelli, the best seller of her own time, rarely gets reprinted these days.
The great thing about having a career as long as mine is that you can test all these ideas! Stay on the carousel long enough and you go in and out of fashion like black leather stage costumes. I knew I could change New Worlds radically, risk dumping most of the old readership and get a larger new readership, because I'd done it twice before on Tarzan Adventures [a British magazine that reprinted the U.S. comic strips] and, with Bill Howard Baker, on Sexton Blake Library. I'd learned that familiarity is what people mourn and that something new quickly becomes familiar...
Comic vision. Americans are taught not to trust themselves in strange ways -- lots of self-esteem but little self-trust sometimes -- and that means sometimes they don't know if they should laugh. Once they know its okay, they laugh.
One point I've made recently is that while the American political system may be even more of a laughing stock than usual, America is not a laughing stock and neither are Americans. This is because the world can see America making the best jokes about itself. Which shows a very healthy population and a very sick governing system.
I've given this example many times -- people at their best are brave and smart. They are rarely given a chance to be at their best because, happily, crisis doesn't strike most of them. But put them in Oklahoma City or the Battle of Britain, and then you see nobility at every turn. I've witnessed people at their very best so I know the best is there. I try to play to that best. If an interested reader doesn't know something, but you have earned their authority by giving them a good read, they will probably look it up. Your respect for the reader expects an ongoing relationship, a constant dialogue to which all contribute. In this respect, I find the Internet a familiar place.
Stephen John Smith and Jean Marie Ward
The following links provide additional information on Michael Moorcock and the worlds of his devising:
In addition, Moorcock's characters and concepts form the basis for a number of White Wolf Games