|The wonderfully evocative covers (save one)|
As I promised in a recent post, a chance discovery of a new writer (for me) in a new genre, sometime just after my college years, changed the way I enjoyed reading. The genre was private eye fiction, and the writer was Raymond Chandler. I have no recollection of how I came to read Chandler. Perhaps it was that Humphrey Bogart played the detective hero Philip Marlowe in an adoption of his novel The Big Sleep. I was a big Humphrey Bogart fan. Or it may’ve been the Ballentine Book covers of the early 1970’s edition that enticed me to pick one up off the book rack and give it a try. In any event, I picked one up and read it – and proceeded to search out the nine, and eventually ten Chandler books Ballentine published around that time.
Why? Simply put, it was the way Chandler wrote. He could not only bring characters to life on the page, but southern California of the late 30’s and 40’s with a mix of neon and grime. In all my previous reading I had never encountered an author who could draw on so much of the English language and use it in his “hard boiled” dialogue. Somehow lyric descriptions of place and time, riddled with original similes could still sound hard boiled. His Los Angeles and Bay City were as alien to me as any SF world – brought to life with such vigor and wit. And the character of Philip Marlowe was also so vividly brought to life – a hard boiled private detective with the eyes of a poet. A man of principles as well as action. While Chandler was an American, and he was writing American detective fiction, he had received a classical British education at Dulwich College and I very much believe that this education had a great influence on his writing.
In reading the books of Raymond Chandler I discovered that there was more to a story than the story. I found delight in the way Chandler put words together. This delight in playfully putting words together has stayed with me all these years. I care less about the story than the words used to convey it.
|In my mind, the Penguin books with covers by "Ionicus" bring to life the classic Wodehouse world.|
And around the same time, I discovered another writer who delighted me in much the same way – his creative use of the English language in an entirely different genre. Like Chandler, P G Wodehouse had graduated from Dulwich College a few years before Chandler. Wodehouse’s comic stories, particularly, the Bertie Wooster & Jeeves stories, are in my opinion some of the best written fiction in the English language. They may not plumb the depths of the human experience, but for putting words together to create characters, scenes, and stories, I doubt that there are many better. Wodehouse produced more than 90 books 40 plays and 200 short stories and other writing in his life time. The quality of his work varied, and many books had similar plots, but at his best, his lighthearted stories could not be topped.
|More covers by Ionicus|
Between Chandler and Wodehouse, I discovered the joy of playing with words to produce clever, witty writing that made any story a delight to read, and reread again and again. Nothing I had read in SF up to that date could equal the pure delight in reading produced by those two writers. As we discovered in my last post, I may not have been reading the best SF could offer, still, I doubt that many SF authors, at least up to the 1970’s could’ve offered the level of pure writing than what these two authors produced.
This is not to say that SF doesn’t have its literary writers. Gene Wolfe is often mentioned as a writer of such dense and beautiful words that may people read his books just for his writing, though the denseness of his writing can make the stories very hard to understand. I am sure that there are other SF writers which readers can put forward as excellent wordsmiths as well. Jasper Fforde and Jonathan L Howard are the two contemporary writers whose style matches my taste -- witty, clever, and laced with humor.
|And still more Ionicus covers|
Reading Chandler and Wodehouse changed the way I read books. Even today, plot takes a distance third or fourth place, after writing, characters, and perhaps setting as well.