What’s In A Name?: Famous Authors Who Wrote/Write Under Pen Names

It’s safe to assume that we’re all familiar with the concept of the pen name. The pen name is a fake name – whether something that sounds like an actual name, or something that sounds more like a cool code name – used by authors to disguise the fact that they are who they are. Why authors would want to hide under a made-up persona is personal, of course. It may be that a person does not want other people to know that they’re writing genre fiction, and so would use a pen name when publishing their works. It may be that an author who usually publishes in one genre wants to write in a totally different genre, and so to avoid possible negative reactions, or just outright shock readers might experience, would write instead under another name. Reasons vary, and they can all be equally valid. They may eventually reveal who they really are, anyway, when they see that what they’re writing under a pen name is well-received and considerably successful.

Which authors, really, wrote under pen names? Let’s look at a few authors and their reasons why.

  • Famous horror writer Stephen King wrote several novels under the name Richard Bachman. It was his attempt to go around being restricted from writing more than one book a year, and also a test to see if he really was successful because he was talented, or if he just got lucky.
  • Another horror/speculative fiction writer, I Am Legend writer Richard Matheson, wanted to be known under the name “Logan Swanson” when I Am Legend was adapted into film in the early 1960s. It was done because he wasn’t happy with changes made on his screenplay. He did the trick again when his work on Twilight Zone and Combat! were edited to the point that he didn’t like them.
  • An example of an author wanting to write in a different genre this time. Famous mystery author Agatha Christie wanted to write romance stories, but understandably, her readers would have been shocked if she’d suddenly start writing them. So she chose to write under the name “Mary Westmacott,” and managed to write around six romance novels before being found out.
  • The Bronte Sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, all published their first works under pen names, taking on the male aliases Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The choice of male pseudonyms made sense as, Charlotte herself reasons, ‘we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’
  • Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote under the name Paul French when he started writing a YA sci-fi book – that was also picked up for a TV show. He felt embarrassed about the YA sci-fi series he wrote, but eventually admitted to writing them.

So those are just some examples of authors who chose to write under pen names. And there are a lot of different reasons – from trying to avoid prejudice because they were women writers, to trying to avoid being associated to works that they’re not particularly attached to, to trying to find out if people really thought they were talented writers. What is important to point out is that each of the writers in the list – and the many others who are not in the list – wrote under pen names for reasons that may or may not be good, but reasons that meant a lot to them personally.

What do we pick up from this, though? Are we encouraging you to write under a pen name? Not necessarily. It’s fun to know which authors wrote under which names, and why, but taking on the decision of writing under a pen name yourself is an entirely different thing. There are many reasons why you should – and shouldn’t – but that will be a discussion for another day.

Other Interesting Links

Do you know other reasons why writers choose to write under pen names? Would you write under a pen name? Let us know in the comments, or tweet us @creativwriters!

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Fear Factor: Understanding the Fear of Writing

We all know the feeling of fear. It can be spurred by so many things, whether abstract or concrete, whether facing us now or just being a thought in our minds. And different people, of course, are afraid of different things. There are so many kinds of horror that the different media today basically has everything for everyone who wants to feel fear – and excitement and adrenaline rush from watching horror movies. But of course, the fear we get from movies – whether they’re in-your-face gore-fests or the subtle and creepy kind – is different from the fear we get when we deal with things in real life. The real-life things we’re afraid of aren’t ghosts, or monsters, but smaller, more pressing concerns that we have to deal with every single day. A missed deadline. Quota we failed to meet. Running late for exams. They sound simpler, but you can’t just turn off the screen on them and forget about them.

Now, I said different people are afraid of different things, but I think it gets more weight in real life when I say that different people with different preoccupations are afraid of different things that may or may not happen. That sounds like a mouthful, right? In any case, by saying that, the point is this – that writers deal with the fear of things that possibly only they can feel. And writers may be in the unique position of being afraid of the precise same thing that they need to do. Writing.

The fear of writing may stem from many things. The likeliest reason may be writer’s block – one moment you’re writing something great and you’re feeling good about yourself, the next moment you have nothing and you start panicking and you’re not really sure if you should pick up the pen and write again. It’s a real fear that just about any writer has encountered. And that’s just the beginning. In her article The Four Fears That Stop You From Writing” for terribleminds, Andrea Phillips outlines the four fears that: fear of the lack of talent, fear about feedback, fear about publication, and fear about being judged. These are very real fears, and Phillips articulates them well. Take this one about the very basic fear of the lack of talent:

Writing is an uncomfortable act. You’re making yourself vulnerable — exposing the softest, squishiest bits of your psyche and putting them out there in public where people will know what is in your deepest heart of hearts, and just might stomp on it with extreme prejudice.

Your good ol’ reptile brain perceives this as a threat to your personal safety. No sense hating the reptilian bits of your brain, though. Its job is to minimize risk, and it does it to keep you as fat and happy as it can. So it comes up with tons of fantastic reasons for you to not actually take any risks at all.

Phillips nails it. Scared of being called talentless, scared of experiencing prejudice, you, the writer, just decide not to write at all. Which effectively stops everything else, from feedback to publication, in its tracks. It’s understandable, but also ultimately something that you have to overcome if you really want to write. As Phillips says at the end of her article:

…The absolute best work you have in you is always going to be the stuff that’s closest to your heart, the stuff that’s absolutely the hardest to let another human being read. It’s risky to show people those deep and true parts of yourself, but life is risk. Look that fear in the eye, spit it in the face, and then write more effing words.

Those are four basic, general fears, of course. But Dan Blank’s article for Writer Unboxed, Writers: What Are You Afraid Of?” looks at fears specifically pointed out by authors. It’s worth reading, but the part that really struck me was this:

Too often, I believe “new” writers assume that if they just get over some mythical hump in their writing career, that things become easier, at least on an emotional level. I haven’t found that to be the case when talking with writers. Everything is relative, and no “success” can stop us from being human beings who oftentimes run on survival instincts, and who have a difficult time processing a complex social world.

All this to say: I don’t think fear is a shameful thing that we must rid ourselves of. It is a natural part of taking the risks that writers do. And that the logical reaction to fear should indeed be bravery.

Here, Dan Blank is referring to being afraid of continuing to publish your work even after you’ve already published something and it’s gone on to be successful. Success is not a deterrent, and authors – whether or not they’ve already been published and have been successful – still need to deal with the fear of being criticized or being ignored when they’re next work is on the line. So fear isn’t just something that sits with writers who haven’t proven themselves yet. Fear assails everyone – whether you’re successful or not. Is that a comforting thought? It depends on you of course, but it may be a consolation if you think about how you and your favorite writer are possibly constantly in the same boat.

So what now? We acknowledge that we get scared of writing, of getting published, of getting feedback, of getting rejected. How do we overcome these? I’m sure we have a lot of personal strategies to overcome the fear of writing, and if they’ve been effective, then we should keep going with them until we feel at ease enough to start writing again. You can always look for suggestions, like The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Your Writing Fears,or you can always wing it and look for something else to do – walk around, listen to music, absolutely try to ignore the fear for a little while.

Fear of writing – and just about anything that’s closely associated with it – is normal, and there’s no shame at all in acknowledging that you’re afraid. What counts is understanding that fear, and taking steps in willingly overcoming them. There’s no end to it, of course. You’ll experience fear over and over again. But what’s important is that you always get the job done, even if “the job” is just writing a few paragraphs a day – just to beat that fear into shape.

Do you know other things that writers are afraid of? Do you have strategies when overcoming the fear of writing? Let us know in the comments, or tweet us @creativwriters!


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Channeling Creative Forces: The Reasons Why We Should Make Art

A few years ago, Neil Gaiman, delivering a commencement speech to graduating university students, implored everyone to do one thing: make good art. Make good art regardless of the circumstances. Make good art in the face of adversity, or happiness, and all the emotions in between. It’s an inspiring statement that can fuel our drive to do something creative, regardless of what kind of art it is, whether written, visual, or aural.

Still, what we don’t really talk about is the vast number of reasons why we should make art – whether it’s good or bad (it really depends on who’s evaluating the piece of art, anyway). In this post, I’ll talk about a few things I saw on the Internet about making art – primarily through the visual and the written media – and why we should make art. And the reasons go beyond just wanting to pen a single story that encompasses a certain experience, or to make some thoughts known through verse.

One of the more immediate ways that art is made is through the written word. Writing is a highly accessible activity that doesn’t have to take up much of one’s time – unless one is inclined to, of course. It could be quick, like a line or two that you think is particularly brilliant that you want to write down just in case you might need it later. It might be a longer, more arduous process, such as the writing, trimming, and perfecting of a poem, or the writing of a novel. It is also pretty much everywhere, and not necessarily confined to creative or literary pursuits, although we are here to talk about art.

Another is, of course, the visual medium. And as far as hobbies can go, it may also be as inexpensive as writing. Just a pen, some paper, and imagination, and you’re good to go. Of course, visual art is such a broad term, and encompasses a lot of things from paintings to sketches to sculpture, maybe even advertisements and photographs.

We’re familiar with so many forms of art, but again, I’ll lead you back to the question of why we should make art in the first place. Artists in their respective fields have weighed in on the issue already, as the post “Why We Make Art” by Jeremy Adam Smith, published on the Greater Good Science Center website, proves. Smith asked some artists to answer the question why, and the responses are diverse. Gina Gibney, the artistic director for the Gina Gibney Dance Company, for instance, shares this:

I make art for a few reasons. In life, we experience so much fragmentation of thought and feeling. For me, creating art brings things back together.

Harrell Fletcher, who started the website Learning To Love You More with Miranda July, responded thus:

In my case, the projects that I do allow me to meet people I wouldn’t ordinarily meet, travel to places I wouldn’t normally go to, learn about subjects that I didn’t know I would be interested in, and sometimes even help people out in small ways that make me feel good. I like to say that what I’m after is to have an interesting life, and doing the work that I do as an artist helps me achieve that.

For Fletcher, making art appears to open the world to him – a wonderful reason, certainly, to make art. Then there is James Sturm, who responds to the question thus:

Perhaps the only insight I’ve gained is the knowledge that I have no idea and, secondly, the reasons are unimportant.

The view that the reasons for making art are unimportant is interesting, certainly, and not the kind of perspective you’d come across everyday. Or at least, perhaps something that people won’t admit to. In a way, however, Sturm’s response can be related to the idea that art serves so many purposes and cannot be boxed into a single. Make art – the reasons, whether you have them or not, are not that important. What is important is that you make them. In any case, art can have various meanings, besides, to anyone who’s beholding it, or reading it, or listening to it.

“Why make art” is not a question that can only be answered by supplying personal reasons, however. In Sean Kane’s article for Tech Insider, 7 science-backed reasons you should make art, even if you’re bad at it,” tells readers exactly that: scientific reasons that answer the question of why you should make art. In the article, Kane says:

Painting, sculpting, dancing, making music, and all the other artistic pursuits have benefits that go far beyond pure enjoyment or cultural creation — these activities can also strengthen your brain and improve your mood. Here are seven reasons to give yourself time to make art, even if you think you’re bad at it.

The science-backed reasons may surprise you. Mindless sketching (under certain circumstances), for instance, actually helps you focus. Writing about your problems can help you cope with them. Making art can basically act as one huge stress reliever. And in this day and age, we need all the stress relief we can get. But the benefits of making art are there, and should be reason enough for you to make art, if in case you’re someone who has no gigantic literary or artistic ambition that you’re itching to fulfill.

I’m sure there are a million and one more reasons why we should make art, and I doubt I’ve been able to cover them all in one post. However, it’s safe to say that the general, big vision, the big picture, that we want to put into view is this: we should make art because making art heals, fulfills, and communicates. Making art allows us to talk about certain subjects and deal with certain things. It helps us to share or articulate our experiences and thoughts with others. It allows us to touch others’ lives. With these ideas in mind, we can safely say that whoever you are, you should make art. Even if it’s just one doodle, or one line, or one note at a time.

Interesting Links:

I’ve rounded up a few links related to the topic. Check them out!

Do you know any articles or reasons – personal, scientific, or otherwise – why we should make art? Do you have art to share? Let us know in the comments, or tweet us at @creativwriters!

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Blog Roundup: Get the Write Help Now!

It’s always a good idea to look for places on the Internet that could offer some (or, let’s face it, a lot) of writing tips, but sometimes it’s not always easy to know where the good ones are. Not that they’re hidden or are few and far between, but that there are just so many blogs that cater to different writing and writers’ needs, to begin with. This post collects some of the blogs we’ve come across on the Internet, tackling different things from character development to general resources for writers. Hopefully these links will help you on your writing!

  1. The Writing Box – run by author Angeline Trevena, The Writing Box reblogs a lot of diagrams from grammar and vocabulary help, to popular authors’ writing tips for other writers. There’s a lot of writing advice that The Writing Box reblogs (most notably reblogs of posts that give word lists to help writers avoid such words as “very”), and they’re very helpful regardless of what your genre is or what kind of writer you are. Angeline Trevena also has a WordPress blog that caters to writers of speculative fiction, so if you’re a spec fic writer, you can check that out, too.
  2. The Writers Helpers  – The Writers Helpers primarily accepts questions on just about anything in writing, from general questions like plot concerns, to more specific ones like creating descriptions for LGBTQA+ characters. It’s basically a detailed, helpful Q&A for any writer needing help with their writing.
  3. FYCD – FYCD is a blog dedicated to discussing concerns and asking questions about character development and writing. What’s great is that they supply legitimately helpful resources to those who ask about how to write certain kinds of characters, as well as technical details on some topics like medicine, whenever it’s relevant to someone’s question on character development. They reblog stuff too – from world-building to drawing how-to’s, so it’s not all limited to character development. They also have a helpful page directing you to all the discussion threads in their blog, as well as book recommendations on writing characters.
  4. pen > sword – This blog is a wonderful mix of amusing art, quick writing tips and templates, and writing- and literature-related trivia. There are a lot of resources that can be found here, and will give you a smile as much as it will give you help.

That’s all for this round-up! There’s definitely a whole lot more than these four sites, and we’ll be sure to write about them more when we do another round-up, but even with these four sites alone, you’ll hopefully be able to find a world of writing help. Definitely don’t hesitate to ask or drop these sites’ admins if you ever need help.

Know more great websites for writers? Drop us a line!

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An Introduction to Slipstream

It’s been pretty quiet on CreativInfluence lately, and we’re not going to make any excuses for that. But as a sort of comeback post, it seems appropriate to discuss one of the “newer” genres of literature – “newer,” because it’s less of an actual genre that has surfaced and is negotiating its own generic boundaries, and more of something that has been pieced together from existing genres. Which, one may argue, is basically the case for a lot of genres in writing. But I digress.

What we have here now, folks, is a neat thing called slipstream, which sounds like a pretty slick genre. A quick look at the Wikipedia page on this subject gives you this:

Slipstream is a kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction.

The given definition doesn’t sound quite as helpful as it should be, as it still does sound rather vague. How does slipstream cross “conventional genre boundaries” between genre fiction and literary fiction? In fact, we exist in a world where writing has become experimental in terms of genre identity. What defines science fiction? What defines fantasy? There are things we call science fantasy, even, and military fantasy, to name a few. How tenuous are the so-called conventional genre boundaries of these genres, and how does this tenuousness affect slipstream’s attempt to challenge these boundaries?

That may be a story for another day. The answer for the penultimate question in the previous paragraph, interestingly, may just simply be slipstream. We are already questioning genre boundaries anyway. Are science fiction texts defined by their settings, their features – aliens, space, the like? Likewise, fantasy fiction? How can genre fiction be literary? Slipstream tries to answer that. There are texts that are elusive enough that they cannot fit a single genre, and so have to make one “new” genre to encompass that.

Slipstream falls between speculative fiction and mainstream fiction. While some slipstream novels employ elements of science fiction or fantasy, not all do. The common unifying factor of these pieces of literature is some degree of the surreal, the not-entirely-real, or the markedly anti-real.

The main thing about slipstream is that it has to be unreal. So perhaps one can also consider it magical realism. Or fantastic literary. A lot of names and words can be used to describe slipstream, but one cannot truly feel what it is until one is given a sampling of the genre’s texts. British writer Christopher Priest (who is, apparently, and incidentally, a slipstream writer himself) offers his own list of top ten slipstream books, and the list is marked by names like J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, and Jose Luis Borges. Priest also gives Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – a dystopia that does not necessarily carry the traditional elements of science fiction (incidentally, it won the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award, which is a prestigious award given to the best science fiction novel among a list of nominated texts) – as an example of a slipstream text, and cites authors such as Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as slipstream authors.

If it gets a little confusing, that’s alright. The authors mentioned, as well as the texts given, all test boundaries of the genres they’ve been fit into. They go outside of their generic boundaries – J.G. Ballard’s Crash, for example, is not necessarily science fiction, but it carries elements that invite your suspension of disbelief – and define their own settings and content. If you can’t define slipstream with a clean definition, you can at least get a sense of what it is through the authors and the works associated with it. Here is a great article called Slipstream 101 by the Science Fiction Research Association, and introduces you to the basics of slipstream. You may want to look at that post and read through all of it.

What one can get from slipstream, though, is this: that you can also test your writing boundaries, or the boundaries of the genres that you know. Let elements of other genres bleed into your own writing, because that can add zest and flavor to your piece. And not just your own piece – it’s amazing what you can find when you run through a list of books and read through them, the common feature of all these texts being that they refuse to be confined to one specific genre. This allows for the luxury of experimenting with the text. Try to expose yourself to slipstream – it might yield some interesting results.

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Why Fairy Tales are Appealing (and the Creative Things We Can Learn from Them)

Fairy tales these days are hastily associated with one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry: Disney. One certainly can’t deny that Disney’s done a lot to deliver fairy tales in easily digestible, not-quite-morbid visual treats, the kind that kids and adults alike can enjoy. Disney-fied fairy tales give the stories happy endings, and don’t capitalize on the dire implications that are present in original versions. There is no lady who cuts off parts of her own foot so she could force the foot into a glass slipper. Sleeping Beauty doesn’t get pregnant and give birth – while still sleeping – in the Disney film. And while Hercules’ story is not a fairy tale, Disney has altered the narrative so much that one would be, maybe, shocked to find out that Hercules – while pretty strong – isn’t the gallant gentleman that he is in the Disney film.

But the Disney versions of fairy tales deliver a specific thing, and probably wouldn’t have worked as well, if they had depicted fairy tales in their original forms. Which is interesting, because a lot of people seem to be more interested in the original – and considerably more morbid – versions of fairy tales, despite the Disney films having special places in peoples’ hearts.

The fairy tale’s enduring appeal may be, in part, because of Disney’s treatment, but if it ends with Disney, then certainly the implication is that the fairy tale is not appealing in itself. Fairy tales often talk about princes and princesses, true love and happy endings, trouble in the middle, godmothers and evil witches, dragons and all sorts of terrible creatures that threaten to keep the prince and the princess apart. But though it’s easy to read the fairy tale as a straightforward story of magic and wonder, there’s certainly a deeper meaning. Fairy tales, among other things, may serve as critiques of expectations of beauty, of the desperation for one to have a beautiful, comfortable life – so much so that one is willing to sacrifice parts of himself or herself to achieve this. There are troublesome villains whose motives may not be entirely clear at first glance, but some of them are actually ostracized and oppressed, and these often plant seeds of hatred.

There’s always the didactic element in fairy tales, but sometimes these tales – especially the ones during the Victorian era, when fairy tales weren’t necessarily limited to the Grimm stories, among other things – deliver valuable lessons that are relatively more dense and nuanced. Fairy tales can be interpreted in many different ways, without compromising the element of enjoyment. That’s why children and adults alike may be able to appreciate them. Look at the fairy tales by George MacDonald, for example. The Light Princess presents reversals of gender roles (it is the princess who saves the prince) – something rather radical, considering the era in which it had been written. Mary de Morgan wrote A Toy Princess, which may be read as a critique of the impractical and pointless ceremony of the upper class, of too much dependence and embellishment put on royalty, of the beauty and practicality of a simple life.

So what can we get from this? Simple. If you’re taking cues from fairy tales, it’s this: that we should be able to try, at least, to craft nuanced narratives that are deep enough for them to be read in certain ways, but light, easy, and fun enough for the younger audience to be able to appreciate them. In short, be able to find what can appeal to your audience. Certainly, the fairy tales already do that, Disney-fiable as they are, even. Fairy tales are timeless stories, perhaps more enduring than the modern classics we have today. They’re valuable gems that deliver lessons and meaning, and are told in a manner that is easy to comprehend but certainly beautiful in their simplicity.

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Strange Love: Unhappy Endings in Literature

Most people take the fourteenth of February – Valentine’s Day – as an opportunity for a person to (and I apologize in advance for how chokingly saccharine this might sound) shower love on his or her special someone. So of course – but this may also depend on the culture, and on the country – February 14 means a lot of chocolates and flowers, couples going around, Valentine’s Day specials on television and elsewhere, and the world bleeding profusely with fifty shades of red. Basically, most – if not all – jump on the bandwagon, taking it as a chance to prove undying love.

Literature is, of course, rife with love stories of all persuasions, transcending ages, transcending generations, transcending real-life love stories that have come to an abrupt – sometimes violent – end. But love in literature is balanced. The sweet is tempered by the bitter. Death rears its ugly head to tear lovers apart.

For a season-appropriate post, I’ve come up with a list of tragic or unfulfilled love stories in literature, to remind us that the world is not always –as Taylor Swift puts it – “burning red.”

John the Savage and Lenina Crowne

Not necessarily the “couple” of the narrative – one can argue that Bernard Marx should instead be partnered with Lenina – but this comes from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Unfulfilled, due to the two’s inability to see eye to eye, and the nature of Lenina’s upbringing – conditioned as she is by the World State – which automatically flicks an off switch to feelings, whenever these genuine feelings arise. In the neat, systematic, futuristic society of Brave New World, there doesn’t seem to be any real room for love.

Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh

I heard someone say that Peter Walsh is Clarissa Dalloway’s biggest “what if,” but we will never know. Two central characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway, prior to the events of the story (in a sense, because Mrs. Dalloway is very fond of flashbacks/time skips/general messing up of the timeline) marries the sensible Richard Dalloway, who is able to provide a stable family life for Clarissa and their daughter, Elizabeth. Prior to Richard, however, Clarissa was involved with Peter Walsh, who spends a significant part of the narrative attempting to convince himself that he doesn’t love Clarissa anymore, years after their break-up. It’s an interesting story peopled with interesting characters, and Clarissa and Peter certainly attempt to test the bounds of the idea of the “biggest what-if” for a good part of the story.

Greek Myths

The Greek myths themselves are overflowing with strange or unfulfilled love stories. “Pygmalion and Galatea” is about a sculptor who falls in love with his sculpture. “Orpheus and Eurydice” and the Persephone myth both use the Underworld as a prominent setting in crafting – or breaking – the love story. And of course, we have Narcissus, who falls in love with himself.

Adolf Verloc and Winnie Verloc

The Verloc couple – from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent – suffers from a love story that is completely devoid of romantic love. Instead, Adolf Verloc acts as a father figure – in terms of what he brings to the table, literally and figuratively – to Winnie and her brother. The Secret Agent culminates in an awakening that consummates what is essentially a marriage of convenience (Verloc was a practical choice for a husband, being able to provide for Winnie’s family) in the most interesting of ways: a dagger through Verloc. Who kills him? Winnie.

Romeo and Juliet

And this one goes without saying. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, contrary to popular belief – or what the songs tell you – is not a romance. It is a tragedy. And while it’s easy to cut out the rest of the play from consciousness and keep only the legendary balcony scene in your head (certainly the media has been able to do this), it always pays to remind yourself that the teenaged Romeo and Juliet die – and by their own hand – at the end of the play.

Many pieces of literature cast a rather grim lens on what might otherwise be something just beautiful, but certainly it’s worth remembering that not everything about love is beautiful. Look at it this way: at least literature has the courage to tell people what they refuse to see, or believe.

Happy Valentine’s.

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Myth Madness: Books On Myths and Legends That You Should Experience

Myths and legends make up a good chunk of any nation’s cultural foundation. We’ve got the Norse myths, the Greek myths, Japanese creation myths, Egyptian myths, among many others. Everyone’s familiar with at least some of the members of the Greek pantheon, and certainly you must have, at the very least, heard of Egypt’s Ra. Marvel, in particular, has assimilated Norse deities Loki and Thor in its pop culture hero ensemble, along with heroes like The Hulk. Then, of course, there’s the ever-present, all-powerful, and legendary Disney, whose magical work over the decades include retellings of myths like Hercules. With a more kid-friendly, good-versus-bad, good-triumphs-over-bad approach, of course.

Why all these retellings and borrowings? It’s because myths, as they are, are timeless. There’s a lot of material buried underneath a culture’s myth-and-legend structure, and of course it’s always interesting to find out how a certain culture explains the creation of the world and of other things, through the lens of stories either written or passed down. I’ve been very much interested in myths myself, primarily of the Western sort, and have decided to list down a few pieces of fiction that one who is interested in myths should experience. I’m also going to be toeing a blurry line here. But to lay down a more concrete idea of what I mean by myths and legends, I will be quoting the website “Myths and Legends” for definitions.

A legend is:

a semi-true story, which has been passed on from person-to-person and has important meaning or symbolism for the culture in which it originates. A legend usually includes an element of truth, or is based on historic facts, but with ‘mythical qualities’. Legends usually involve heroic characters or fantastic places and often encompass the spiritual beliefs of the culture in which they originate.

A myth, meanwhile is:

a story based on tradition or legend, which has a deep symbolic meaning. A myth ‘conveys a truth’ to those who tell it and hear it, rather than necessarily recording a true event. Although some myths can be accounts of actual events, they have become transformed by symbolic meaning or shifted in time or place. Myths are often used to explain universal and local beginnings and involve supernatural beings. The great power of the meaning of these stories, to the culture in which they developed, is a major reason why they survive as long as they do – sometimes for thousands of years.

Okay so far? Alright. Here’s my list, and why they should be read/watched/played (whichever is applicable):

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman. One of Neil Gaiman’s heftier works, certainly, though no less entertaining than his short stories and other novels. It isn’t my favorite of Gaiman’s works (that spot is taken – perhaps permanently – by Neverwhere) but it paints an interesting picture of a battle between the old and the new, beliefs long forgotten and newly-formed faiths, with a smattering of pop culture references here and there. Where does the myth fit into this? The myth seeps in everywhere. Odin, Anubis, Thoth, Anansi – just some of the mythical figures from different cultures all over the world. African, Norse, Egyptian, it’s there. And Gaiman blends it all into an interesting, compelling roadtrip.
  • The Mabinogion. I’m probably blurring a few lines here. The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh prose tales, with the central tales revolving around a figure known as Pryderi. Welsh – well, Celtic – belief involved putting a lot of premium in the Otherworld and the supernatural, and The Mabinogion demonstrates Welsh interest of the setting through the prose tales. There’s also a lot of interesting stuff going on: dead bodies reanimated after being thrown into a magical cauldron, a man striking a deal with a figure from the Otherworld, and a woman being accused of killing her own son. The Mabinogion also contains early versions of the Arthurian legends, with the stories themselves revolving not around Arthur, but around The Mabinogion’s version of the Knights of the Round Table.
  • Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Of course, we are all familiar with the legend of King Arthur. Disney made The Sword in the Stone, a movie about young Arthur/Wart. Then there’s also the TV show Merlin. Lord Tennyson wrote the cycle of narrative poems, Idylls of the King, which retells the legend of Arthur. T.H. White wrote The Once and Future King, which is about Arthur (and White’s own beliefs, injected in the narrative). It goes without saying that the Arthurian legend has touched pretty much everything, but it’s interesting to look at one of the most influential foundational works about the legend. Le Morte d’Arthur collected the loose pieces of the Arthurian legend, and tried to make the entire thing into one cohesive narrative. There are a lot of translations, of course, and you’re free to choose which translation/version of Le Morte d’Arthur you’d like to read.
  • Mythology by Edith Hamilton. A no-brainer, of course. Hamilton’s Mythology is one of the most popular pieces on Greek myths – and Norse – to date, with Hamilton having painstakingly collected all the important stories (and there are a lot) and put them in one volume. I like to think of this as the Le Morte d’Arthur of Greek myth, and it’s certainly more recent a collection compared to Malory’s, but it does what Malory did for the Arthurian legend. That is, create a comprehensive, categorized, coherent collection (as coherent as Greek myth can be, that is) on Greek and Norse myth.
  • Celtic Myths and Legends by. T.W. Rolleston. A personal favorite of mine. Published in 1911, Rolleston collects myths and legends from Britain – that is, Wales, Ireland, England – and intersperses these short, condensed narratives with commentary and information on the Celtic culture.

There’s definitely a ton more on myths and legends that you should read. Fairytale and folktale collections should be right up your alley if you’re interested. I’ve deliberately left out the Eastern variety, as I don’t think I’ve read enough of the myths and legends from those places to be able to draw up a mildly interesting list.

I wonder, though. What are your favorite books on myths and legends, and why?


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Artificial Nature: On Jungles, Concrete, and the Modern Days in Literature

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to read Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Written and published just as the twentieth century was settling in, it talks about the titular secret agent, Adolf Verloc, and the landscape of a pre-twentieth century London, where anarchists plan to attack the Greenwich Observatory to make a statement. Needless to say, things go haywire, and people who are not supposed to die, die. Within The Secret Agent, we have a character known only by the title of “assistant commissioner,” who, at some point in the book, treats the book’s London – a London at the cusp of the modern, industrial age – walks around viewing the city environment as a jungle in the classic, leafy woodland sense.

Meanwhile, I’ve had the privilege to procure copies of J.G. Ballard’s works – from the science fiction post-apocalyptic debut The Drowned World, to the (in)famous Crash, and even The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard. I have yet to finish Crash and its companion piece, Concrete Island, but I’m aware of what they are about. Concrete Island, in particular, as a riff on Robinson Crusoe and the classic adventure tale of getting marooned on a desert island.

You’d have to read the books I’ve mentioned yourself, I’d say, but I’d like to point out an idea. Months ago, in my class’s discussion of The Secret Agent, the idea that we’re basically in a loop came up. “Old problems with new solutions,” basically. The general perception is that hundreds, thousands of years ago, humanity was rooted in nature and problems were rooted in nature, and that today we’re technologically advanced, certainly, and much more civilized, and it’s easier to find something to eat because we don’t have to worry about getting speared through by our prey’s tusks. Architecture and man-made things dominate the urban landscape, and “nature” – that is, trees, greens, shrubs – exists in order to fill in the gaps in the concrete. For display.

But how different is the manufactured, concrete landscape from nature, in how we perceive it? These days, we live in “urban jungles,” civilization working on the veneer of advancement on all fronts – technology, society, government – but under the surface, wouldn’t you say man can still be beast, that the geometric, shiny surfaces of office buildings polished to a fault as “natural” now to the working urban human as trees and caves were to the cavemen?

What’s my point? My point is that these are ideas that literature posits. The Secret Agent, Crash, Concrete Island – they’re just some of the pieces that can do this. Challenging the normal, general perception of daily life – especially Ballard’s works, as they’re more appropriate, I suppose, given our time frame, our own age – by making what we know as part of our mornings and evenings as strange, wild, jungle-like and formidable, is one of the things that literature does. It may sound as if I’m shoehorning a point in a patchwork of premises in literary pieces decades old, but I’d say there is truth to this. Literature challenges expectations and destroys perceptions, which makes it succeed, precisely because what we choose not to question will be held up in front of us, maybe punch us in the face.

Meanwhile, yes, you might want to read the books I’ve mentioned, and see for yourself how the modern world is treated, and what themes are tackled. The ideas might fester under your skin, and you might be better off having them there.

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Of Epic Proportions: The Problem of Lengthy Fantasy

One of the more attractive umbrellas in literature is speculative fiction, and it’s easy to see why. If literature can be escapist, speculative fiction touches on this the best by actually offering a variety of texts that detach the reader from reality for a couple hundred pages, and immerse him or her in a world that is entirely fictional, with improbably things happening within the world. I’m here to talk about a particular genre in the group, though: fantasy.

Fantasy is, of course, a well-established genre spanning a pretty large spectrum of texts. Fantasy has people like J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit), George R.R. Martin,(A Song of Ice and Fire) and Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time), alongside authors like R.A. Salvatore (The Legend of Drizzt) and Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (various Dragonlance books). And those are just names that I consider to be under the high/epic fantasy subgenre, because Neil Gaiman is also a fantasy writer, and I’d argue that Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake is also fantasy. What these authors have done with their texts, though, is obvious: create a living, breathing, engaging world, and populate it with characters. Then weave a plot that gets the reader and pulls him or her in. It takes a lot of work – you’re looking at several years’ worth of writing a single series, plus spin-off novels, and it takes effort to get details to mesh together with other details and offer consistency.

And for the most part, this works. If you find yourself looking forward to the next installment of your favorite fantasy series, then you know it works. Even stretched out to more than three books (the trilogy, I think, being a trend in fantasy writing now), if the story engages, it engages. But fantasy, if too epic, if too intricate, if too huge, spawns its own monster. The late Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, I think, is the biggest violator when it comes to creating too huge worlds. Fourteen books – with a single volume averaging around eight-hundred pages – in The Wheel of Time already sounds daunting, and it takes effort on the reader’s part to slog through the middle, because when you get to the middle of the series, something happens. Which is, precisely, nothing.

And I think that’s the problem of too epic fantasy. I am currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, the first book in the Stormlight Archive, and while I do find it enjoyable and interesting, it’s just too long. The mass-market paperback edition is easily longer than most – if not all of – The Wheel of Time’s paperbacks, and that’s saying something, because Jordan was overly fond of being wordy. Perhaps The Way of Kings’ length owes itself, in part, to the fact that Sanderson had to finish The Wheel of Time on Jordan’s behalf. The Way of Kings does well to build up its characters, their conflicts, and their backstories, but it becomes an exercise of slogging through the introspective chapters and detailed descriptions of what a character is doing (Shallan as she draws, for example, which takes up an entire page and a half – although I might be exaggerating), hoping for the action to pick up.

Perhaps the moral is this: if you can say it in a few words without compromising the quality of writing, do it. Characters are important, definitely. They’re what ties a story together. But if every single detail is given undivided attention, it becomes a drag, no matter how well-written the story is.

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