Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The One Hundred Year Test, or Let's Dust Off the Old Thoat [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Can you name one sports record from 1917? Football, baseball, hockey, anything? And to make it harder, a record that stands to this day? I rather doubt it. One hundred years is a long time when it comes to the ephemeral nature of pop culture.

And it’s the same for books. Looking at the top sellers of 1917, I see winners of the One Hundred Year Test (I'm a genre guy, so I'll stick to what I know): Oz books, John Buchan, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Katherine Green, Sax Rohmer, Arthur Machen, Jack London, Edgar Wallace, James Branch Cabell. So what happened to the rest? Perly Poore Sheehan, Garrett P Serviss, Burt L Standish, H Hesketh Pritchard, Edgar White, Raymond S Spears, Sapper, Oscar Micheaux, and the list goes on... Any of these sound familiar? Of course not. Despite being popular magazine and book writers in 1917, they are all footnotes or known only to pulp specialists. The One Hundred Year Test (or OHYT as I will refer to it from now on) has eliminated them from the larger consciousness.

And it will happen again in 2117. Most of the writers now will be forgotten figures, too. It's a fact. Which ones will be remembered? I would not hazard a guess. I'm sure to be wrong. The top selling genre writer of 1917 was HG Wells with Mr. Britley Sees It Through (not a genre book, but a mainstream novel), followed by Zane Grey with Wildfire. Both authors have survived the OHYT, though Wells better than Grey. Most of the mainstream writers fared worse.

Genres in 1917 were largely still forming. The mystery is probably the most consolidated, recognizable back to 1841 with Edgar Allan Poe. Equally old is horror, but this would be either a Gothic tale (1765) or a ghost story (after 1820), approaching a more modern look by Dracula (1897). Adventure yarns began in earnest after Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1881) and HR Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885); the Western in 1902 with Owen Wister's The Virginian and the Northern with Jack London as early as 1897. And science fiction, still unnamed in 1917, usually called "off-trail fiction" or just "fantasy" would have to wait until 1926 and Hugo Gernsback to give it a name, though Jules Verne was popular from 1864 and HG Wells from 1895. In the actual genre “fantasy,” the books of Lord Dunsany were big.

All of these genres were evolving quickly in the magazines and early pulps. Edgar Rice Burroughs had just invented his brand of jungle lord adventure three years before in 1914 (though Kipling had his Mowgli twenty years earlier), as well as the interplanetary romance in 1912 with "Under the Moons of Mars." Hugo Gernsback was still nine or more years in the future as were the hard-boiled detective, the space opera, and the gangster crime drama.

The OHYT removes politics, commercial hype, and in some cases, unavailability. A reader in 1917 would not have found Tarzan or Oz books on the shelves of their public library. Librarians for decades campaigned against them in favor of "better" books. Readers today don't have to worry about beginning with Volume 3 in a series of 6. Nor do they have to wait for the installments that the original serial readers did. They have the complete run at their digital fingertips. They don't have to suffer banners reading "In the tradition of Robert E Howard" for a book that inspired that very writer twenty years earlier. (I speak of Harold Lamb, whose historical adventures inspired much of sword-and-sorcery. When Lamb was re-released in the 1970s in paperback he bore that very banner on the top of his books.)

The OHYT is a kind of guarantee. Not that the book will be easy to read - for there are changes in style in a hundred years, along with prejudices on race, gender, politics, and creed. No, it's a guarantee that the story is a good story, that people a hundred years ago were intrigued, excited, or felt something valuable by reading it. Because if these works were shallow, trendy, poorly executed, unimaginative, or dull, they would not pass the OHYT. The also-rans fall by the wayside and you are left with books that appealed to many people. (And it might not be “you” today - or “you” yet. I waited until my forties to enjoy Dickens, Twain, Haggard, Rohmer, and Stevenson. There is a future “me” who might one day be able to wade through Henry James or James Joyce.)

Let's look at a test case: Edgar Rice Burroughs versus Harold Bell Wright. ERB wrote sixty-nine novels from 1912 to 1950, creating iconic characters such as Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. Harold Bell wrote melodramas with a religious theme like The Shepherd of the Hills in 1907, which sold a million copies. The two men share the following similarities: they both made huge fortunes from their writing, their books were both adapted into films, the critics hated or ignored them, both moved to California, both divorced and remarried, and both affected geography. Edgar Rice Burroughs developed and named the city of Tarzana, California. Wright has a subdivision in Tucson named after him, plus his novel also popularized Branson, Missouri, making it into a tourist destination.

Where the two men differ is that Edgar Rice Burroughs survived the OHYT and Wright did not. This is why we had a John Carter of Mars film. This is why Alexander Skarsgård is the next Tarzan. One hundred years is the copyright line in most cases (varying country to country). The public domain and online technology are making hard-to-find works available again. There is no guessing how many books will be rediscovered because of this line in the sands of time. But as they say in infomercials: Wait, there’s more!

With the advent of the public domain claiming legacy works, new "unauthorized" creations are springing up. This can be a big budget film like Tarzan (1999), John Carter of Mars (2012), or The Great and Powerful Oz (2013); all cases of Disney waiting until copyright has lapsed to avoid paying royalties. Or it can be less obvious fare. With the popularity of zombie rewrites like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) by Seth Grahame-Smith, writers are coming up with some unusual ways to enjoy old classics again. The steampunk writers have taken a shine to Baum's post-Victorian fantasy and turned out some new tales from the stuff of Oz. And this is great, for let's be honest, both Burroughs and Baum are great storytellers (largely unappreciated by critics until recently), but their works are a century old and a little dated. A new spin on old novels gives modern readers a way to enjoy the innocent favorites of childhood or teen years. It also gives you a way to go back and enjoy new stories in familiar places, if you've read all twenty-six Tarzan novels, all forty-one Oz books, or the eleven Barsoom sagas.

Now you may be tempted to write your own Tarzan novel. I know I've thought about it a few times. (While Burroughs’ first novels are out of copyright, the name “Tarzan” is still protected – for now.) Look at all the Sherlocks that have been written since 1987. There could be a mad rush on new jungle adventures appearing on Amazon already. Tarzan of the Apes with Zombies. John Carter of Mars versus the Sparkling Vampires. I'm waiting. I won't read them, but it wouldn't surprise me. What I hope to see is something more like the works of Guy Adams who writes post-Wellsian novels like The Army of Doctor Moreau (2012) or JW Schnarr's Shadows of the Emerald City (2009).

There is a movement under way right now in which writers are playing in other people's backyards, for example the comics of Alan Moore or the Anno Dracula stories of Kim Newman. It's exciting, but it is also... a little dangerous. It's great if it drives new readers to old classics. This will cement the fame of these OHYT winners with new generations and continue their fame into the 21st Century. It's dangerous if it floods the Kindle shelves with very poor hackjobs and juvenile fan fiction. (Though I have to wonder what the difference is between "fan fiction" and an "unauthorized" reworking. Not much outside of court, perhaps.) The result could be a muddying of the waters that results in a lack of interest. But I don't worry about this too much. Four million bad Lovecraftian pastiches and an equal number of bad Howardian Conan copies haven't blunted their swords. The Cthulhu Mythos and sword-and-sorcery are as healthy as ever. (Cthulhu and Conan are in a kind of grey area copyright-wise and we'll see them join the OHYT crowd soon enough.)

Reader sophistication is really what we're talking about. You can read the original Tarzan of the Apes, appreciate how it broke new pulp ground, how it's more than a little racist by modern standards, scientifically impossible, and not quite science fiction, but appeals to SF fans anyway, etc, etc. How you enjoy it is up to you. You can also then read the last two authorized pastiches: Tarzan and the Valley of Gold by Fritz Leiber (1967) or Joe R Lansdale's Tarzan: The Lost Adventure (1991), a book that is 25% Burroughs and 75% Lansdale. Or Philip Jose Farmer's The Adventure of the Peerless Peer (1977), an unauthorized one! And you can decide if they hold up against ERB's wonderful storytelling. And now you can plunk down $4.99 and buy that latest novel, Tarzan and the Pyramid of Blood by Wryter B Anonymous or I Wright Kindles or whoever, and see if Tarzan pastiche is worth the time. Personally I would grab it if it was written by Joel Jenkins, the only writer I know who has captured Burroughsian excitement without slavish imitation. His Dire Planet series is as much fun as Barsoom. Your sophistication allows you to enjoy the Burroughsian or Ozian novel from a standpoint of connoisseur, as co-conspirator in a literary game that promises some new fun in old places.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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