Avoiding The Horned Elephant

I was in a fancy beer and wine shop the other day and they were playing a really beautiful string arrangement of Love’s Alone Again Or. I’ve loved that song since I was in my twenties and turned out this version was by the Vitamin String Quartet, taken from their album of music from Wes Anderson movies.

I've always had a thing for string quartets, whether we mean the pieces of music by that name or the setup of four players. There's something simple and direct about it, something intimate about four, stringed voices working together, building their dynamic, communicating their vibes. It's music that you can reach out and touch in way that full-on orchestral is not and it has an emotional resonance all its own. Consider Prokofiev’s Quartet No.1 in B Minor or the utterly transcendent adagio from the Quartet No. 2 in F Major by the same composer.

Don't get me wrong. I love a heady symphony or concerto: Debussy’s La Mer, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica. They’re all tremendous. There is nothing more sublime than an orchestra in full-flow, nothing more epic, more enormous, but sometimes that's not what we want. Sometimes we want the subtlety you can only get when the component parts are stripped down to their essentials, when you know the undertaking is not going to demand a huge chunk of your life and you can follow the interweaving strands of instrument, melody and colour without having to keep notes.

Inevitably this got me thinking about writing, partly because I’ve just put a new novella online. It’s short and only has a few key characters - four, in fact - and the story is not that complex. This runs counter to the most common form for fantasy. Most fantasy fiction is orchestral: properly epic, with lots of moving parts, sounds and shifts, ebbing and flowing over a considerable amount of time and demanding you commit. The default for a fantasy novel is that it should be long, 120,000 words minimum. You're not getting your money's worth - or your full genre fix - unless the pages of that novel could wallpaper a room. A big room.

The odd thing is that, before the advent of seminal triple-deckers like Lord of the Rings, your average ‘fantasy’ yarn was short. Consider the fairy tales of Charles Perrault or the Grimms - concise tales adapted from the oral tradition with a clear moral and a handful of characters, and it’s their oral roots that give such tales their form. These were stories intended to be told rather than read. While I’m not self-consciously following in that tradition, I like writing shorter stories, ones that seem more like the kind of thing that would be shared round the fireside - another reason why they’re in the first person. Setting aside the obvious Homeric precedent, most storytellers tell brief, punchy tales with a strong message and lively events. Stories like The Broken King are all quite modest, with only a few characters and one or two locations. So, in a way, these novellas are like the quartet when compared to the more traditional symphony of your usual fantasy, something more immediate, more personal.

Now, there is a huge, horned elephant in the room because, in truth, a more fitting comparison for fantasy is not so much the symphony as full-on, in-yer-face, sturm und drang, multi-act OPERAS, massive Ring-cycles where huge mythic forces do battle for entire worlds but this is where I start to wander off. I can take only so much bombast in my life and whether it’s Wagner or any one of a huge number of multi-part fantasy series, I run out of patience with all that weight. Give me something lighter on its feet.

So, let's hear it for the shorter fantasy-fiction. And don’t forget, just like the difference between a night at the opera and an a hour in the company of a string quartet, the ticket price is usually cheaper. Possibly even free…


The Broken King

Vitamin String Quartet

Prokofiev’s Quartet No.1 in B Minor

Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 2 in F Major