I have been fascinated with many Horror/Fantasy writers' view on the themes of "Beauty" and "Art" (see essay Undercurrent of Dark Muses in Weird Fiction ). In short, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, R.E. Howard...even Edgar Allen Poe...wrote essays/letters in which they professed their fiction as being Art with a level of Beauty. For them Beauty was defined more of an emotive-experience rather than something "pretty" or related to "sex/gender." These authors are interestingly (a) all men, and (b) rarely wrote about heroines, or from the female perspective.
Via the Sword & Sorcery Group on Goodreads-com, I engaged author Janet Morris (JEM) about these themes. JEM has pushed people's expectations of sexuality and the role of women in fantasy fiction since 1976; she has since published more than 20 novels, many co-authored with her husband Chris Morris (including the Sacred Band of Stepsons of the Thieves World series; she also created and edited the Bangsian fantasy series Heroes in Hell). She is still writing, recently contributing to Writing Fantasy Heroes: Powerful Advice from the Pros. Incidentally, her expanded editions of her Sacred Band books are being re-released now (Video Trailer). She frequently interacts in the Sword & Sorcery Group on Goodreads-com, which is currently running a Groupread on Heroines (everyone is invited, so feel welcome to join). Her below comment suggested she had a lot more to share:
"Men in woman-suits do not women make, and the novel's purpose in the world is to create story to carry forth common values and shared ethos; when those values are deformed, and that deformation taken for true, we all suffer." Janet E. Morris - 2013
JEM kindly agreed to an interview and simply overwhelmed me with her response. She is a font of information, and her responses should appeal to readers and aspiring authors (incidentally, Alexandra Butcher recently posted an insightful, interview with JEM on a broader range of topics). She shared loads of insights and inspirational messages, I highlighted a few in blue. Thank you JEM for your continued passion for writing, and for sharing your philospohy on Beauty and Art in Fantasy Fiction:
- Were you aiming to recast/redefine the definition of beauty at all in your work? If so, would the Silistra series be the most representative? Link to JEM's answer-1
- How exactly did you strategize writing fiction featuring a powerful woman without pandering to stereotypes (i.e. chic's in chainmail) or making her wear a "man-suit"? Link to JEM's answer-2
- Have you ever thought of your own fiction as beautiful art? Link to JEM's answer-3
Intro) JEM: Art is the process and Beauty the goalHerein we’ll briefly explore Art and Beauty in fantastical literature, which may include fantasy and horror for purposes of discussion, not only historically, but how this single core issue is changing today: is Art and its associated Beauty still a valid goal in modern fiction, despite the vast quantity of fiction written by those aiming to capture the lowest common denominator of readership?
JEM: When I wrote High Couch of Silistra, I was twenty-five and loved being female; my body and mind were my laboratory, and I wanted to write the book I couldn’t find to read: not a book that was a clumsy attempt to treat a woman as a man, or as an enemy or competitor of men, or as a victim of men, but as someone powerful in a different society for genetic and political reasons; a protagonist whose sensuality and sexuality are at the heart of her world, and whose travails are self-created, so that I could explore the genetics of behavior: Estri, protagonist, is a courtesan and an adventuress, but not a sword-swinging hero tougher than any man around her. The books explore the differences and complementarities between men and women and the exercise of power, both personal and societal; they aren’t about a man who happens to live in a woman’s body. The Silistra Quartet is well discussed by Kaler in The Picara, where she compares the Silistra Quartet to the Picara model, from which it does purposely diverge.
My strategy was simply to write a book that spoke for a unique viewpoint, not for the “woman’s movement” (who were offended that it diverged from their politics) or the conservative male-backlash audience. Like Disraeli, I always write the book I want to read. In Silistra, all stereotypes are turned on their heads; emotion rules; sexuality is sometimes graphic as it pertains to power among and between sexes: it’s a book about people balancing free will against their hard-wired natures, not about women in man-suits or men in woman-suits. At the end of Wind from the Abyss, the third in the series, Estri’s counterpart Sereth reminds us, “We are all bound, the highest no less than the meanest.” Human extravagances and limitations are what, for me, Silistra is about, but it is not a series for the erotically-averse, or the intellectually timid.
None of our heroines have ever worn chain mail: Estri's chains are on her wait and sometimes on her writs; Shebat Kerrion, our science fantasy heroine of the Dream Dancer/Kerrion Consortium trilogy, is a newcomer to the space-faring culture where she wanders and a catalyst for change; the various Sacred Band of Stepsons heroines include Jihan, who has scale armor and a few supernatural powers appropriate to the daughter of the god of wind and wave; Kama has leather and linen armor, just like the men she serves among (she wants to be a man so her father will respect her, but is a poet most of all); Cime wears god-forged armor or doeskin leathers, is a sorcerer-slayer by vocation, is also picaresque, and rules Tempus' heart and by extension, the Sacred Band at times. It's not their weapons or outfits or special powers that make them heroic, but their goals and deeds, hopes and dreams. When I saw the Boris High Couch cover for the first time, I was insulted that anyone could have derived the brass bra and Gucci boots image from my work.
Vallejo - High Couch of Silistra Cover Art
(this next paragraph is paraphrased from her Goodreads.com comment): I was a fine arts major in school. My first cover was the Boris High Couch, commissioned by Bantam for High Couch of Silistra. I didn't think it matched the description, so I got Bantam to arrange for me to talk to him and request changes (feathered wings to non-feathered, etc). He didn't like that. So we changed to someone else thereafter. I had always loved the Frazetta covers, and in Germany I had Chris Achilleos for the German versions of the Silistra series, then Frazetta for the German Tempus. But now that I have cover control, I'm choosing Rubens and ancient art that truly moves me. The new cover for Tempus, and The Sacred Band cover, and the Beyond sub-series with Rubens covera, are pleasing me because I can look at them for hours and always see something that evokes the heart of the stories within. Matching books to cover, when centuries separate book and cover creation, has been an adventure. Strangest experience was finding the three Rubens we're using for Beyond Sanctuary, Beyond the Veil, and Beyond Wizardwall and realizing that each of those three paintings fit one of the three books nearly perfectly.
SEL asks whether I’m aiming to recast/redefine the definition of beauty in my work and, if so, would the Silistra series be the most representative? The answer to that is simple: like everyone concerned with writing Art, I am always striving, always hoping to improve, always experimenting, pushing my limits, trying to reach Homeric heights – but for me in my time, not by copying him in his. What is most beautiful about literature as Art is its ability to transport, to materialize a vision, whole cloth, in the reader’s mind, and I’m still working on doing that. The most representative of my books is probably my most recent novel, written with Chris Morris, The Sacred Band, grappling as it does with what is common to all, and unique in some: taking hold of mythos and ethos, sexuality of every sort, and exploring power and emotion at their best and worst. My favorite of my books is I, the Sun, biographical novel of Suppiluliumas, Great King of Hatti, because his own words set my soul afire, and the task – flavoring my style with his writings, creating a relative chronology, and bringing so many historical people to life – was unparalleled in its demands on my ability. My favorite science fiction book, Outpassage, written with Chris Morris, is my greatest success so far with writing a group of futuristic, strong, heroic and villainous female characters.My female characters, no more or less than my male characters, speak for themselves, not for a grand plan to redress centuries of perceived grievances, or to be role models for a future of retributive bile, where men and women are retaught their roles, and those roles are precisely the same. If, indeed, Art is the process and Beauty the goal, and if ‘common values’ can still be transferred to future generations through literature, then only reality and its study can yield fantasy worth reading, and making women into men and men into women won’t have my desired result: a book that satisfies me, since I must go first into any adventure I write, and live there.
JEM: My answer is simple: Of course I do. And of course it is valid to consciously strive for greatness in any art-form, and literature most of all, since literature carries our culture forward, gives voice to our inner selves most directly, speaks for us in no uncertain terms to a future yet unformed. I think of my own work as a search for Art and strive for beauty in every line: for power, lyricism, brutality, mythos and ethos, and I do this by invoking character, not diatribe.
JEM: Certainly each man’s essays and letters (i.e. from Lovecraft, Howard, Smith, & Poe) reveal their intent to create Art with a level of Beauty in their fiction. Consider these among other writers equally persuaded that they were writing Art with Beauty. The Western Canon, and back to the earliest myths of Gilgamesh, give us fantasy and horror stories with Art and Beauty: since these are ‘literature’, we don’t refer to them as Horror or Fantasy anymore, despite the faeries in Spenser, the witches and ghosts in Shakespeare, the devils and demons in Milton.
Art with a level of Beauty (where Beauty is emotional impact and Art is a process of transcendent composition) does not exist in every piece of fiction, but it exists in many more fictions than today’s pernicious genre-fication would lead one to believe, or the ghetto-izers of literature would prefer. However, look sharp: if the book is really good, people will not call it Horror or Fantasy very long. For instance, is Moby Dick Horrific Fantasy? To me it is. Does Conan carry the flag of fantastical creation forward, and even include the emotional context and kick necessary in Art? Absolutely, although the non-Howard Conan stories written by others so far do not.
If Art is, as Zola famously observed, life seen through a temperament, then Howard’s Conan is Art. The spare prose and raw power of that work stimulated many to try to copy it whole cloth, resulting in a cripplingly limited vision of how Howard emplaces impact that has created a genre of crude imitators. No matter: Conan can take one’s breath away, and replace it with his own. The loaded style of Poe is peerless, in his darkly forsaken world, as much an echo of New England’s own inherent darkness as of the phantasms he evokes. Arthur Conan Doyle observed through the mouth of Sherlock Holmes that: ‘Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.’ Writing fantasy (whether one may become the next Dante or Poe or Homer), or reading it, requires imagination, and creating Art and Beauty is the goal of an informed imagination.
Now, what do we mean by Beauty? The most beautiful line I have ever read is from Hamlet: “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” In Poe, it’s “Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore! Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’” Howard stabs for your heart with his Beauty, evoking a barbarian soul in “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women”, but consider Howard’s “Fire and wind come from the sky, from the gods of the sky. But Crom is your god, Crom and he lives in the earth. Once, giants lived in the earth, Conan. And in the darkness of chaos, they fooled Crom, and they took from him the enigma of steel. Crom was angered. And the Earth shook. Fire and wind struck down these giants, and they threw their bodies into the waters, but in their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield. We who found it are just men. Not gods. Not giants. Just men. The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts.” In my own work I can show you my strivings for Art and Beauty more easily, since I know it best: “The chapel is dim, full of the god. So many of Tempus’ own ghosts are here. He bows his head and greets them one by one. Shades and revenants from years gone by crowd in, murmuring like the dead he carries in his heart. A gilded chariot gleams in the chapel’s soft light: a prop for a show he disdains, in these days when it is so hard for him to keep man and god separate, distinct from one another; when so many, many wraiths come with him, walk with him, ride with him from battlefield to battlefield, war to war.” or: “Woe betide the soul who loves too much, wants too much, dares too much. Soon now comes the hour of doom for some, victory for others.”
"Beauty requires that we breathe into our characters a unique view of the human condition, and show how that character experiences and suffers the world around him (her)." Janet E. Morris - 2013
So where does Art reside, and where Beauty? Art is the process and Beauty the result. These together reside in the totality of thought; in the dark of the soul; in the voice of your Muse and, finally, if you are very lucky, on the page. If you are male or female, and writing fantasy fiction today, are you at an advantage or a disadvantage in the marketplace? The answer should be ‘no,’ but now and previously, may be ‘yes,’ depending on how separate you can keep yourself from political correctness and societal pressure to write trite stereotypes, not characters. Is the first great fantasy writer “J” from the Old Testament? Probably. Harold Bloom thinks “J” was female, and says so. What makes Bloom think so? A lifetime of scholarship. I recommend to you his “The Book of J” so you can find out for yourself. Where does the Art and Beauty reside in the Old Testament? Try the oldest translation you can find of the ‘burning bush’ scene. Homer’s Iliad, the most male of tales, changed the world because Alexander of Macedon considered its treatise on war-fighting so much his inspiration that he carried it with him on campaign. Before the Iliad, the myths of powerful women in Greek, and before them in Hittite and Egyptian and Akkadian mythologies, abounded. After Homer, the age of early male heroes increasingly defined literature, but these heroes were aided and abetted by female goddesses, muses, nereids, all more powerful than the men who served them. Then came the inscription at Delphi: “Keep woman under rule.” Why? Perhaps women sibyls and rulers had abused their men, perhaps the warlord overcame the sorceress. After Constantine and his New Testament redactions, modern patriarchy took hold with a vengeance, eradicating not only the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, but much else that made women and men equally important – in the eyes of literature, at least.
"Today, the writer, be that author male or female, makes a choice, at the outset: to reach for greatness and challenge an audience, or even change them; or to please a common denominator of audience by writing a familiar tale told artlessly. It is rare to attempt both, even rarer to achieve both.
So why try for Art and Beauty, when what most people want is a short, easy read, simple and direct? For some, Art is its own reward, and Beauty brings Art to the life in the mind. Before these art-seeking souls today, a wilderness stretches: many more craftsmen exist than artists, and the good, invariably, is the enemy of the great." Janet E. Morris - 2013