Since we’re on a literary kick

Here’s the text of a little speech I gave at a friend’s book launch in Zurich last month. Jyoti and Suresh Guptara are teenage twins who recently published a mammoth fantasy novel, “Conspiracy of Calaspia”, which they began writing when they were only eleven years old:

While the names Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are familiar even to those whose literary interests remain safely outside Science Fiction, the history of her sister genre, Fantasy, is rather unknown in comparison. Although fantastic influences can be seen to stretch back beyond the beginnings of recorded history, and range from the spoken tradition of Homer’s Iliad to the folk tales of medieval Europe, modern fantasy truly began in 1858 with the publication of a novel aptly named “Phantastes”.

“Phantastes” was written by a Scottish minister by the name of George MacDonald, and published six years before Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, seven years before Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and before H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany were even born. MacDonald is largely forgotten these days, despite the popularity of books such as “The Princess and the Goblin” and “At the Back of the North Wind”, which the daughter of an American writer named Samuel Clemens enjoyed so much that Clemens wrote to MacDonald requesting a copy to replace his little girl’s beloved, but worn out book.

Clemens, of course, is better known by his nom de plume, Mark Twain.

And if MacDonald’s work is forgotten today, the impression it made on three men in a small Oxford literary society will not be. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein and Charles Williams were all powerfully influenced by the prolific Scotsman, and indeed, those who have read and loved “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” will likely experience a distinct sense of deja vu should they ever encounter the opening paragraphs of “The Princess and the Goblin”.

But fantasy literature has changed greatly since erudite Englishmen gathered to read their work to each other in a small and smoky pub, and it has not changed for the better. While there is no inherent reason why fantasy should be relegated to a literary ghetto, especially when its early practitioners are ranked among the best and most beloved authors of the 20th century, it is nevertheless unlikely that even so popular a fantasy writer as J.K. Rowling will be read widely six decades from now.

I believe the reason for this is that a world without a sense of wonder finds it very difficult to produce works capable of inspiring awe and igniting the imagination. Richard Dawkins attempted to argue the opposite in his book “Unweaving the Rainbow”, but strangely, the great devotee of empirical evidence was unable to produce any, and was reduced to insisting that Keats and Yeats would have written better poems had they been inspired by science instead of faith. But consider where sixty years have gotten us: Lewis takes us to a whole new world, Rowling, on the other hand, merely drags us off to school. Tolkein gives us an epic, Pullman offers little more than a polemic.

This is why it is their faith, more than their youth, that impresses me most about what I see in Jyoti and Suresh Guptara’s work. For without an understanding of the distinction between good and evil, could Dostoevsky have written “Crime and Punishment”? Without Joyce’s rich Irish-Catholic roots, “Ulysses” would have been little more than superficial literary pyrotechnics. And without a sense of transgression, of fatal violation, there would not be much of a plot for either “Madame Bovary” or “Anna Karenina”; those novels could barely be regarded as complete stories, let alone great literature.

Anchored in their faith, Jyoti and Suresh are heirs to the oldest tradition in fantasy literature, the tradition that draws both its power and its meaning from the truth to be found in Aslan, in Gandalf the White, in Gaal of Anthropos and in the Emperor-Over-the-Sea.

I am confident that with this intellectual anchor for their active imaginations, it will never even occur to them to inflict upon the world the tedious sort of novel revolving around a mythical balance between good and evil that infests fantasy today. And with that anchor, in this tradition, with the ambition that led two boys to embark upon a lengthy task of this magnitude and with many years ahead of them to polish their prose and hone their skill, there are no limits to what they may dare and what they can achieve.

You see, I am not here to congratulate Jyoti and Suresh, but to challenge them. It is my fondest wish for Jyoti that he should one day be unable to crack open the cover of “Conspiracy of Calaspia” without cringing. It is my hope that Suresh will eventually come to regard “Conspiracy of Calaspia” with as much embarrassment as pride. For there are few sadder sights in the literary world than the writer whose best work is behind him.

In these latter days, it has become all too customary to offer effusive praise for one’s literary fellows at every opportunity. Therefore, I shall leave that to the rest of you. Instead, let me close with a tale of another literary group, one that met ten years ago to criticize the final draft of a young author’s first completed manuscript. The group met at the home of Lois McMaster Bujold, one of the most eminent figures in modern fantasy today, with four Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards to her credit. As if her august presence wasn’t intimidating enough, Joel Rosenberg, Patricia Wrede, Bruce Bethke and Peg Kerr were also there.

It was a painful evening for me, because that was my manuscript. Those best-selling and award-winning authors held nothing back. Miss Wrede, in fact, was kind enough to give me six double-sided, single-spaced pages of notes, the title of which was “Major Problems”. I didn’t have the heart to ask her how long her list of minor ones ran. Their criticism was merciless and the worst part about it was that it was indisputably correct in nearly every detail.

But at the end of that long evening, Lois Bujold tapped her copy of the manuscript and said something that I have never forgotten. It was, in fact, the most important compliment that one author can pay another. She said: “You know, for all of that, there is a story in there.”

Jyoti, Suresh, there is a story in here. Congratulations to both of you, and welcome to The Fellowship of the Pen.

It may interest some of you to know that Jyoti was instrumental in getting another young author published. I contacted the UK publisher at his recommendation, however, it was with the idea of getting my books published there. And we all know how that went….