Beating dead men

There’s a quote from Ernest Hemingway (which I first learned in a Harlan Ellison article some years back) to the effect that in order to write anything worthwhile you must either come up with something completely new or “beat dead men at their own game.”
I found this (and still do) an interesting thought, even though not terribly relevant to me. Hemingway (or so I’ve always understood) burned to be Great; I just aspire to be as good as I can (which I’d like to think could mean great, but it’s definitely a different mindset). From my point of view, if I sell a sword-and-sorcery story or Twilight Zone fantasy, it doesn’t have to beat Rod Serling’s or Robert E. Howard’s work—it just has to be good. If it’s better than good, that’s just gravy.
And career wise, it doesn’t take beating dead men to make a living writing. Lin Carter’s Thongor and John Jakes’ Brak were hardly equals to Conan (or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or Elric) but they helped their authors put bread on the table just the same.
I had the same reaction to a statement in this column by Brian Hibbs (which I already linked to once this week) that with so much great comics work readily available, the bar has changed: If you want people to read you, you have to be better than Watchmen because access to Watchmen in TPB is so easy.
Not so: Having the original series in my comics collection, I’ve always had Watchmen available, and I still buy comics that aren’t as good. Just as I buy books I like that aren’t as good as other books I like; the truth is, even if you can’t beat dead men (overlooking for the moment that Alan Moore is alive), you can coexist with them.
Then again, what if it’s a choice between not Watchmen and something new but all of Silver Age Marvel or DC and something new? Or Bronze Age?
Between old TV shows I can rent on Netflix and this week’s episode of The Cape? (which I find interesting, but not quite there).
Between a new fantasy author and filling in the gaps in my Doc Savage collection?
It may be possible to coexist with one dead man—but all of them?
Hibbs argues that the sheer quantity of material available makes it harder for any one piece to gain a grip on us. He has a point: One of the reasons I don’t buy many new comics is because I buy a lot more Gold/Silver/Bronze Age reprints in TPB. At least as much fun, and often more pages for the buck (this also reflects my former employer’s conviction that cutting reporters’ pay while giving big bonuses to publishers and executives was a smart business model; as my income dwindled, my purchases got a lot pickier).
There was a time in the late seventies when I believed I could read every fantasy novel that came out, at least from any mass-market publishers. Even if I read nothing but fantasy, I couldn’t do that today (even if we eliminate the authors I drop after the first book). Plus there’s a plethora of used books available via bookfinders, and my own extensive collection to reread; rereading Clark Ashton Smith is not only as satisfying as much of what’s out there, but, obviously, cheaper.
I think what I’m trying to get at (but I’ve had very little sleep so I might be wrong) is that the availability of so much stuff really does alter the book/comics landscape (and also movies, TV, etc.—there was an era when I’d have watched The Cape without question simply because it would be the only genre offering of the season). More fun for readers (I’ve discussed the problems of genre reading in the seventies here); is it also tougher for writers? If so, does it mean fewer successes? More writers turning out fiction for a hobby rather than a living? Or something else I’m too tired to think of?

1 Comment

Filed under Personal, Reading, Writing

One response to “Beating dead men

  1. Pingback: Competing with the dead (and other writing links) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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