Beard Syndrome

I write this having consumed, currently consuming and planning on consuming more wine. That is wine consumption in both the past present and future, which is quite a feat. I say this now so that my loose approach to grammar and inability to write a sentence that doesn’t meander on and go off on tangents is put down to the imbibing of alcohol, not lack of talent.

First and foremost, I love the fantasy genre. This needs to be said because it will seem like I’m throwing a lot of shit at this beloved section of literature. There was a time when fantasy was much maligned. I remember trying, as a young adult, to find an agent for my young adult fantasy series. Most websites for such and a few smaller publishers (that were still excited by the prospects of new authors) who accepted unsolicited manuscripts categorically did not accept fantasy. It was as if it was the literary world’s shameful secret. Like an obscure fetish that should be hidden at all costs. It was something to be sneered at.  Why this was is beyond me. LoTR is fantastic and it depresses me that I’ll never see The Shire. Star Wars is life. Yes. Star Wars is fantasy. Spaceships and laser guns is not the definition of sci-fi. If anything, Star Wars is LoTR in space… old wizard, young unsuspecting farm boy, destruction of an ultimate weapon.

Good fantasy is far superior to any other genre out there. That is fact.

Noticing the literary world’s apparent disdain for the genre, esteemed academic (me) wrote in his (or her) dissertation Is Fantasy Fiction Worthy of Academic Study? That: “Yes… yes, it is.” Although, he (she/I) went on to say that, “Whilst it is undoubtedly worthy, maybe it shouldn’t be.” Primarily because I feel the idea of reading a book with the purpose of ‘studying’ it is the most preposterous pursuit one could ever undertake. To steal and then paraphrase a quote, and use it entirely out of context (my method throughout my academic career) E.B. White once remarked “Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.” It works the same for analysing a book.

This prompted my tutor to ask why I chose to do an English Literature degree. My go-to response was ‘Because theatre has very few career prospects.’ She laughed, but in hindsight I know she was laughing at the irony of it all.

Now as a proper adult (26), having given up on the young adult series and concentrated on some literary fiction,  every bugger seems to be accepting fantasy. I put this down to all the money Game of Thrones is making. The fantasy section is packed full of books. The Kindle marketplace has even more to offer (though this is largely down to the fact that just about anyone can publish there). There’s so much choice. There’s fantasy in abundance. However, the last three attempts I have made at reading a fantasy book have not gone well, and I have started to realise why (historically) fantasy has struggled so to finally find acceptance in literary circles. It’s because so many people are shit at writing it.

Fantasy seems to attract a lot of people to it. I put it down to the fact that it’s packed full of excitement and imagination. It can cover the entire emotional spectrum, feature interesting characters who have to make hard choices. It ultimately holds a mirror up to reality and allows us to see reality from multiple perspectives all whilst being entertaining. With fantasy, anything can happen.

Which makes it all the stranger that the same thing keeps happening over and over again.

It takes me a long time to settle on a book when I’m choosing, primarily because I have to sort through the books that suffer from what I have called ‘beard syndrome’. Beard syndrome is a funnier way to say a cliched piece of shit. I am drawn to a book by its cover, which is apparently something we shouldn’t do, but then if that’s the case why don’t books just have blank covers and why do publishers spend so much money making fancy colourful ones? Well? Why? Of course, you can judge a book by its cover, even if you’re taking it metaphorically. See a man with a man bun, you can almost guarantee he’s a cunt. Sorry… that’s the wine.

Any fantasy book that features a photograph of a model holding a sword is instantly out. They usually look all dark and brooding. Book covers should never have photos… it just seems wrong.

If I like the cover I read the blurb, which is usually where most books are discarded. Here is a blurb:

Centuries ago, the Thru’ghar were defeated and their dark powers contained by the Sandstone Order. Peace and prosperity have reigned over the land and innocence have been allowed to flourish. Alas, all good things come to an end. Rosha, an orphaned thief plies her trade on the streets of Vericia. Each night she dreams strange dreams.  A shadow is rising in the south.

 The gates to the Sandstone Temple have opened once again.

That was the blurb for The Shadow’s Heir a fantasy novel that was just made up by me just now to illustrate a point. This is the general format of the blurb found on books with Beard Syndrome.  A dark age, followed by a golden age, interrupted by the coming of another dark age. There will be Dark Lord’s galore. Cloaks will billow. A sinister and world-changing threat will loom on the horizon and at some point, a bloke with a beard will turn up. It might be a big long beard or a short well kept one, but it will be there. He’ll know a lot about a lot and will generally be fairly two dimensional.

Anyway, I’ll save a deeper explanation of beard syndrome for when I’m less drunk

So, of the massive amount of fantasy novels that exist, many are discarded because of their covers and many more are discarded because of beard syndrome. Then what of those that remain. Well, some will appear to have an interesting premise or a certain flair, after all, even if their plots do seem cliched and worn out, it’s often about the journey, not the destination… and all that. So it’s about the way they’re written. And so, some books shall eventually be bought by me. Then I shall start reading them. And then my frustration mounts. Because of this small percentage of chosen books, a large portion of them are written by people who can’t write.  And I seem to be the only person who notices!

I say this fully aware that I am not a published writer, so therefore have no grounds to accuse successful novelists of being bad writers. But I will do just that damn it. Not outright, just in case they read this and decide to track me down and try to kill me.

The book I’m currently struggling with has an average of 4 – 4.5 stars on most sites. That’s almost the highest number of stars you can have. In theory, this should be good. In theory.

“___ chest tightened a little as he watched her. As the last few months had flown by, he’d faced plenty of fears about becoming a Shadow. It had been only recently, though, that he’d realized that never being able to see Asha again was far and away the worst of them.”

This is immediately after the first female character has been introduced. I did a few creative writing modules at uni and discovered they were terrible. However, the main thing they kept banging on about is show don’t tell. This is a clear case of the latter. Whilst I disagree with the notion as if well written, telling can be much better than showing, this is not well written. The character has literally just turned up and straight away it’s rammed home that there will be some form of romantic subplot. I hope that the character develops into something more than an object of desire, but such is the demand for romantic subplots, I very much doubt she’ll escape this particular shackle.

“Students were not supposed to speak to non-Gifted about their training, but he and Mistress ___ regularly flouted that rule. She had looked after him for years after he’d been left to the school’s care as an infant. She had the right to know at least a little of what was going on in his life.”

Originally, this seemed to be from the point of view of the main character. Now it seems to have shifted to omniscient. If so, it’s clunky exposition. If it is still from the position of the main character, then his thoughts are odd to say the least. The author is trying to give us context, introduce context and characters, and their relationships. This is a novel that spans close to 700 pages. Why are these points crammed into lifeless paragraphs?

Why?

It’s this that gives fantasy its bad name. It’s this struggle that leaves me grappling with a love/hate relationship. It leaves me worrying what’s going to happen in the remaining 575 pages I’ve yet to read, not because I’m caught up in the adventure, but because the writing is sub-par.

I suppose that’s why literary fiction gets such an easy ride. When the story is about nothing and everything that happens must be grounded in reality. Then the writing needs to be damned good. Otherwise, what’s the point? Who’d read about reality otherwise? Reality is boring. You can see reality by looking out the window, it won’t cost you £8.99 to do that.

Anyway, that’s the third glass down. I’ll stop there, because I realise this has lost its way and the point isn’t really worth making.

 

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