Neil Gaiman. Descendant of Monty Python and Stephen King

Writer Neil Gaiman always seems to be in the headlines. If it isn’t because he invited Jonathan Ross to host the Hugo Awards, it’s because he might be adapting Sandman into a movie or because he has grown a beard. In other words, Gaiman is enormously popular. And rightly so. He is a very talented writer. But as we all know, it takes more than just talent to become a success.

Why, then, are people so fascinated with Neil Gaiman?
I believe it is because his writing fits in with two other things people can’t get enough of — Monty Python and Stephen King.

The British comedy group Monty Python made its debut in 1969 with the first episode of the BBC comedy TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Circus stayed on the air until 1974, after which the group went on to film classic movies such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life Of Brian and The Meaning of Life. Not long ago, the group announced a number of reunions shows. All of them sold out in minutes.

The impact of Monty Python on comedy and popular culture can’t be overstated. The absurd sense of humor and the mix of low-brow and high-brow have even coined a new word, “Pythonesque.”

What Gaiman shares with Python is the juxtaposition of the absurd and the mundane as if the pairing is perfectly normal. For example, where Python in The Holy Grail let the Knights of the Round Table charge the filming location of a historical documentary, in the short story Chivalry, Gaiman has one of the Knights knock on the door of a lonely widow who happened to buy the Holy Grail in the Oxfam shop down the block. This type of story telling can also be found in Gaiman’s novels, for example in Anansi Boys, where it is perfectly normal that the trickster and spider god would have two kids.

Anansi Boys brings us to what Gaiman shares with Stephen King. Arguably the most popular horror writer of all time, King tells many of his stories from the point of view of a child, even when that child has become an adult. King uses this point of view most notably in the novella Stand By Me and the novels It and The Shining, as well as most recently in the latter’s sequel, Doctor Sleep. Apart from Anansi Boys, Gaiman uses the point of view of the child, as well as the child as an adult, for example, in Coraline, The Absolute Death and, most recently, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

One more thing that Gaiman shares with King, and which makes them into the compelling storytellers they are, is that they know when to end a story. Both Gaiman and King draw you in with a narrative that ends the moment just before all hell breaks loose. Instead of reading the story’s conclusion, you stare at the last sentence while in your head images of the end play out followed by a rumble and crash as the world you just immersed yourself in mercilessly comes tumbling down. This writing strategy is deployed by Gaiman in the short story The Price, about a cat that protects a family from evil. King uses this strategy in one of his novels written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, Thinner. Never before has a slice of pie been as frightening.

There are writings by Gaiman where these influences come together, most notably in Good Omens, although that could have something to do with the fact that he had a co-writer in Terry Pratchett. In Good Omens an angel and a demon live undercover among humans as owners of an antique shop which is open on appointment only.

I believe that Neil Gaiman is as popular as he is because he is a talented writer who merges the absurd with the mundane, innocence with loss of innocence, while having complete control over his own storytelling.

And because he looks like a rock star.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

What the Dickens! Poetic License in Historical Fiction

How accurate does an author need to be when writing historical fiction? This is a question I have wrestled with for quite sometime, on Twitter and here on The Boomerang. This third installation in my ongoing discussion on history and historical fiction came about after reading Peter Damien’s book review of Lynn Cullen’s Mrs. Poe on Book Riot.

VirginiaPoe
Water color painting of Virginia Poe (1822–1847)
Source: Midnightdreary, Wikimedia Commons

The novel Mrs. Poe is a story about Edgar Allan Poe’s wife, Virginia, and the relationship between her husband and one of his admirers, a poet named Frances Osgood. Damien’s review of the book is a positive one. However, he does a double-take when Cullen lets Poe discuss Charles Dickens.

According to Cullen’s portrayal of Poe, he is not impressed by the writings of Dickens, even sneering at his portrayal of England’s less fortunate classes. Damien, who is obsessed by Dickens, notes here that Poe, too, was obsessed by this author. In other words, Cullen has given Poe opinions that contradict Edgar Allan Poe. As a consequence of this, Damien understandably begins to question the accuracy of the entire novel.

3a52078r  Charles_Dickens_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_13103
Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)                  Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Source: Library of Congress                    Source: Tagishsimon, Wikimedia Commons

Here lies the crux of historical fiction. The genre is called historical fiction. In other words, what you read is made up. However, the genre is called historical fiction. This means that what you read also has a basis in events that once took place.

As I stated in the blog post Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane, historical fiction is necessary to make historical research accessible to the general public. Historical research needs to be made sexy and historical fiction is a nifty way to do it. To make the story work some poetic license is needed or there would be little difference between fiction and research and the value of entertainment would be accordingly.

The problem with historical fiction is how an author can use poetic license and still call it historical fiction?

My answer to this question is that as long as the author does not change important facts or the essence of a character, poetic license can be applied quite freely.

The problem with Cullen giving Poe a negative view of Dickens is that in so doing she makes the fictional character of Edgar Allan Poe contradict the essence of the historical character of Edgar Allan Poe. This is where historical fiction leaves history behind and just becomes fiction.

According to Damien, the scene where Poe discusses Dickens is a minor one. But, as the saying goes, The Devil is in the details.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Previous posts on the topic of the relationship between history and historical fiction are
Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane
Five Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and not an MFA

A Writer’s Resolution: I Shall Not Kill My Darlings

2013 is coming to an end. At this time of year it is customary to make some kind of New Year’s resolution. I usually don’t make such resolutions but this year I will. My New Year’s resolution for 2014 will be that I, when I write, will not kill my darlings. I will dismember them.

One of the most common pieces of advice hurled at any kind of writer is that you should Kill Your Darlings. This means that you should not be afraid to cut passages out of your text that don’t work. “Work” means here a passage that does not forward the narrative, is repetitive or redundant. These passages can consist of specific scenes or even chapters. Sometimes it is a character that needs to be removed.

As the name indicates, to Kill Your Darlings can be very painful. Removing a piece of the art you have created can be the equivalent of stabbing yourself in the heart.

Some of this pain comes from the fact that the phrase tells you to “kill” something you love. When something is killed it is removed as a living being from the realm of human consciousness. Therefore, it seems as if the phrase tells us that what you remove from your text cannot be used again.

What the phrase refers to is the editing process. The editing process is something that all writers do to improve their writing. When we edit, we take the text we have written, and we pick it apart to see what works and what does not. The parts that don’t work, we take out.

But when we edit, we don’t kill. We dismember.

If we were to discard completely the piece of writing that we just removed then we would be killing a darling. But we don’t. We keep it. We use it for the part of the backstory that will never be published, but that we need to know to be able to tell the story. We use it as the starting point for another story. We give it to fellow writers as writing prompts.

If we were actually to kill the piece of art that for the moment does not fit in, we would be doing ourselves a disservice. It would be a waste of time and effort and the world would perhaps we robbed of a profound experience.

Like Dr. Frankenstein we take the severed body part and put it in a jar of formaldehyde solution for future use when we create our next monster.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

5 Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and Not an MFA

When querying an agent, what should you include in your letter? The answers to that question are as many as there are literary agents. But one thing that most responses have in common is, If you have an MFA (in creative writing), mention that. At first I was intimidated by this. I don’t have an MFA. But then I realized that I have something better.

I have a PhD.

If you want to become a writer, especially a writer of historical fiction, in my opinion a PhD is a wiser way of spending your money.

Here are five reasons why.

1) Language and style.
In historical science a writer’s language and style are of utmost importance. Historical science is dedicated to the study of human activities through the written word. These studies are conveyed to the rest of the human population through the writings of the historian. Language and style are important in historical science because if an historian abuses his/her privilege as a scholar, historical facts can be distorted, as in the case of Holocaust deniers and believers in exogenesis. Therefore, when writing historical research, the scholar needs to choose his/her words very carefully, consequently developing a close relationship to the written language.

2) Editing.
When writing a research article or a dissertation, the scholar needs to be able to determine what pieces of information are important to the argument and what pieces are not. Moreover, all academic publications, except perhaps the dissertation, are limited to the amount of words allowed. Whenever submitting an article or a chapter, you need to follow the guidelines of the editor or the publisher. If an article cannot exceed a certain amount of words, that rule becomes your law. Moreover, that limit often includes the footnotes and references, as well as the actual text.

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Daguerrotype of unidentified woman, possibly Mrs. Knox Walker, c. 1844
Photographer: Mathew B. Brady (c. 1823–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Daguerrotypes

3) Thick skin.
Just like the publishing business, the world of academia can be both tough and rewarding. While writing your dissertation, your results will be heavily criticized by people who care about you and by people who don’t give a damn about you. Your research results will be scrutinized in minutest detail, questioned and picked apart. These reactions can have just as much to do with the quality of your work as they can be completely unrelated to anything you have written. As a graduate student you will learn how to discern the honest critics from those who play at politics. And you will learn how to incorporate the criticism in your work and improve it.

4) You will be published.
The question of graduate students publishing research while still working on their dissertation differs from university to university and from country to country. During my years as a graduate student I published several articles while I was working on my dissertation. By doing that I learned how to submit manuscripts, deal with editors, and, most importantly, wait for editors. When I graduated, the dissertation became my first book.

5) You have proven yourself.
When you graduate and receive your doctorate, it is the same as if you would become a master craftsman. You have created something and been rewarded. You have been allowed entrance to a community of peers. If you have a PhD in history with the ambition of writing historical fiction, the PhD is your ticket to archives, libraries, universities and university faculty expertise. You do not need to convince them of your skills. Your PhD will take you wherever you want to go. And once you get to the archive or library where your source material is located, you know how to find your way among the shelves and the documents. You know how to conduct sustainable research.

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Crimean War cavalry camp, 1855
Photographer: Roger Fenton (1819–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Fenton Crimean War Photographs

Graduate studies are tough. There is a reason why I say that my dissertation was written in blood, sweat and tears. At the same time, writing my dissertation and receiving my doctorate was the best thing I have ever done. Graduate school may be hard and demanding, but it is a safe haven where you are allowed to fail and pick yourself up again. You are allowed to make mistakes. In fact, it is expected of you. When you graduate you have already gone through many of the emotional ups and downs of writing and publishing. When the agent doesn’t respond to your query or when a book critic tears your work to pieces, you will doubt yourself, your heart will be broken, but you know that you have the strength to continue. Because you have been there before.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return. 

Al Gore and the World’s Oldest Corporation

Earlier this year, Al Gore published The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013), his latest book on what the future holds for planet Earth. In it, Gore outlines what he believes are the processes that will determine the future course of human existence. It is an interesting, as well as dystopian, read.

The reason for this post, however, is not for me to comment on Gore’s views on climate change or global development. As an historian who was written a dissertation and a number of research articles on Scandinavian medieval and early-modern history, one statement made by Gore gives me reason to discuss, from a Swedish perspective, the historical development of what dominates the world today. I am talking about the historical development of corporations.

In The Future, Gore states:
“The longest running corporation was created in Sweden in 1347, though the legal form did not become common until the seventeenth century, when the Netherlands and the United Kingdom allowed a proliferation of corporate charters, especially for the exploitation of trade to and from their new overseas colonies.”
(p. 105–106)

From an historical point of view there are three points in this passage that need to be discussed.

First, the statement that a corporation was founded in Sweden in 1347. When I first read this I was genuinely confused. If a corporation had been founded in Sweden in 1347, I would have known about it since the king of Sweden at the time, Magnus Eriksson, is a person whose reign I am very familiar with. What on Earth was Gore talking about? I went to the notes section of The Future and discovered a reference to an article published in TIME Magazine in 1963. The article in question discusses the copper mine at Falun, Sweden (Falu koppargruva). To find out about Magnus Eriksson’s part in the foundation of the mine, which during its peak-production years was responsible for two-thirds of the world’s copper extraction and is the reason why most buildings in the Swedish countryside are painted red, I then consulted the online database of medieval documents published by the Swedish National Archives. The result of that consultation showed that in 1347, Magnus Eriksson issued an official letter stating the terms for the labor organization among miners in the area. This letter is not a corporation charter. It is a ratification of local mining activity that can be traced as far back as the 11th century. Moreover, this is far from the first time the mine is mentioned in Swedish medieval documents.

Overall, during the Middle Ages it is not possible to speak of the type of corporation here implied by Gore. In the city states of Northern Italy there were financial organizations that displayed traits that would later appear in corporations of capitalist societies, but in Sweden at the time, the economics of society were not sophisticated enough to reach even to that level. Moreover, the information that is available regarding the economic system of medieval Sweden is too scarce for us to be able to say anything valid regarding financial organizations and enterprises. Even the existence of guilds, seemingly the most medieval of all organizations, is being debated.

The second point that made me react when I read Gore’s statement was the phrase that this kind of corporation, of which Falun Copper Mine supposedly was one, did not become common until the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. What Gore is referring to here are in fact companies, which were common-place during the economic system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, called mercantilism. Gore is correct in stating that the geopolitical entities today referred to as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom issued charters for companies in order to exploit colonies all over the world. For example, the first English colonies in North America were founded and run by a chartered companies.

However, these realms were not the only ones to issue colonial charters. In Sweden, the royal government issued several charters to various companies. The New Sweden Company (chartered in 1637) founded a short-lived colony on the Delaware River. The Africa Company (chartered in 1649) engaged in slave trade in present-day Ghana. The East India Company (chartered in 1731) traded with China and the West India Company (chartered in 1786) ran plantations on Saint-Barthélemy. However, Falun Copper Mine did not become a chartered company. Instead, the mine answered to a government department dedicated solely to mining, called Bergskollegium, which existed between 1637 and 1857.

The third point that needs to be discussed is the source of Gore’s information. Gore refers to an article with the title “Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, published in TIME Magazine on March 15, 1963. The article states exactly what Gore says, namely that Falun Copper Mine is the oldest corporation in the world and that this corporation was set up in 1347. However, the article states that the corporation in question was a “corporation of master miners”. In other words, a guild, which, as I pointed out above, regarding their existence in medieval Sweden, are being debated.

The greatest problem with the article in TIME Magazine is that it is hopelessly outdated. It was written exactly 50 years ago. At the time of publication, the information contained within the article was correct: Falun Copper Mine was one of the largest and most profitable mines in the world and had been so for centuries. Despite this, in 1992 Falun Copper Mine was decommissioned due to depletion of the ore. In 2001, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the site is a museum with guided tours.

Sources:
Nationell Arkivdatabas Svenskt Diplomatariums Huvudkartotek: http://www.nad.riksarkivet.se/SDHK
Bishop Peter of Västerås, June 16, 1288, SDHK-nr:1406
King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden, Norway, and Scania, February 17, 1347, SDHK-nr:5394
Nationalencykopledien:
http://www.ne.se Falu gruva
http://www.ne.se Bergskollegium
“Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, TIME Magazine, March 15, 1963
Al Gore, The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013)
Thomas Lindkvist & Maria Sjöberg, Det svenska samhället 800–1720 (Stockholm, 2013)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return