I had ordered some comics; Spiderwoman #1 is the chief one I remember, from Mile High Comics. As a result, I wound up on their mailing list and received a pulp paper mailer on a regular basis. I think it was once a month but might have been more often. It was mostly a combination back issues price and availability guide and previews of upcoming new comics. It did have some columns, including one about books.
One issue the book columnist started with a story. He had meant a woman at a party, and the conversation had turned to books. He asked her what her favorite books to read were. She went on for a bit about Terry Brooks. At the time, this meant only The Sword of Shannara and The Elfstones of Shannara. The Wishsong of Shannara and Magic Kingdom for Sale – SOLD! were a year in the future. Taking the Shannara books as a cue, the columnist commented that she must love Tolkien then. The woman replied, “Oh, no. Tolkien writes about things.”
The columnist used this to claim it seemed like a good month to review books about things. I was very impressed at the time, although as I’ve gotten older, I wondered about the attitude where “books being about things” too often being code for “worthy” or “intellectual.”
James Scott Bell has me rethinking books about things. Chapter 21 of The Art of War for Writers is called “Put Heart into Everything You Write.” Bell defines heart as the union of passion and purpose. As examples, he picks two books published the same year, 1957, still published and read today, On the Road and Atlas Shrugged. From two very different books, he finds three similarities between them, all three of which fit into his definition of heart.
The first similarity? “They were about something.”
That is a definition of “books about something” I can get behind. It also, in a roundabout way, returns us to Shannara.
In the introduction to the revised version of The Gunslinger, Stephen King discusses his inspiration. He starts with the line, “Hobbits were big when I was nineteen.” I doubt anyone is surprised that The Dark Tower series has at least one root in The Lord of the Rings. King points out that was true of most long fantasy novels written by people of his generation, name-dropping Brooks and Stephen Donaldson. He says that after reading Tolkien, he knew he would tell a story like that, but what story. So he waited.
A few years later, he watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. At that moment, he knew his grand story would be the tale at the intersection of Leone west as large as the Earth itself and Tolkien’s sense of magic.
He waited another decade to write the first book, The Gunslinger, and did not finish the epic until twenty-two years later with The Dark Tower. Why? King knew writing his epic in 1970 when he saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, he would only be writing a reflection of Leone and Tolkien. He needed space to find his story.
Translating King into Bell, he had a purpose, tell a story “that contained Tolkien’s sense of quest and magic but set against Leone’s almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop.” What he needed was passion. He needed the things that would matter, the things such an epic story would be about to be able to write it.
In that, he escaped the reputation of a hack who can only write Tolkien pastiche that haunted Brooks for too long. As Shannara has grown, Brooks has gained the passion that King waited for while fulfilling the purpose. Neither path is wrong. Brooks got labeled a hack for a while but never risked dying with the story of Shannara never or only barely told. King’s reputation was better in his early years, but he risked not only dying with the tale of Roland untold but without he himself knowing it.
I do, wonder, however, if that young woman, whose existence I doubt, to be honest, but probably existed in a less perfect form, came to love books about things as Brooks found his voice in the later Shannara books or wondered why he wasn’t fun as a writer after a time.