BOOK REVIEW: “Faeries” by Brian Froud & Alan Lee

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
– Harlan Ellison
 

Faeries by Brian Froud is unique among any books I’ve ever read. The book is part reference manual, part artist sketchbook, part short story compendium, and some would dare say, part anthropological fieldguide. Faeries isn’t a book that can be neatly tucked into a tidy description. Like the author Brian Froud, Faeries is truly in a class by itself.

Written and illustrated by Brian Froud and Alan Lee (mostly known for his conceptual design work on The Lord of The Rings films and his uncredited design of Legend by Ridley Scott), Brian is a world-renown fantasy artist and author of several books featuring his second-sight hypnogogic images of the realms of faerie. In addition to his wonderful illustrative talents, Brian Froud is also responsible for the conceptual design of timeless films such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. He also worked on the wonderful Jim Henson television series The Storyteller.

During the summer of 2003, I had the great honor of meeting Brian Froud, two days in a row. The first time we met was at the illustrious Labyrinth Masquerade Ball (which took place in Santa Monica that year) and the next time we met was at a little curio shop where he was doing a book signing, I believe somewhere over in Brentwood.

Wonderful gentleman. At the Masquerade Ball, I hung out with Brian, and his lovely wife Wendy, and I chatted with their son Toby for a time as well. Wendy is an incredible artist in her own right, helping design characters such as Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and the gelflings Jen and Kira in The Dark Crystal. Wendy and I discovered that I actually used to take family vacations up near the little town in Michigan where she was born, Traverse City. We reminisced about that for awhile and had a great chat. We hung out for a good hour or so, just talking. That was when they told me about the signing the next day and invited me to come along. Strangely enough, no one seemed to recognize Brian or Wendy Froud, so they weren’t being swarmed by people pleading for autographs or anything. We were kicking back in a little lounge area, all by ourselves, overlooking a wrought-iron balcony onto hundreds of people who were milling about on the dancefloor and socializing in other parts of the ball.

The next day, I arrived at the book signing about 2 hours early, because I wasn’t interested in getting anything signed, but I simply wanted to hang out with Brian and Wendy again. And it was wonderful because, once again, no one had shown up yet. We had the shop all to ourselves on a quiet Saturday morning and we sat around having a charming conversation in this quaint and lovely little store for a good hour or so. And that was it. I never kept in touch with the Froud family. I never saw them or met them again. On two unassuming summer days in 2003 in Los Angeles, I just had one pleasant evening and one serene morning of hanging out with some of the greatest fantasy artists of my time.

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re wondering why the hell I’m talking about hanging out with Brian Froud when this is supposed to be a review of his Faeries book. What does my stupid Hollywood namedropping have to do with the book? Right? But talking about hanging out with Brian Froud does make for a legitimate review of the Faeries book, because his visionary talent ties into who he is as a person, as well as the artwork of the book. When an author like myself is writing a novel, that’s a makebelieve story that may only reflect a fractional facet of my own personality. Faeries is the type of book that reflects an integral part of who Brian Froud happens to be. So, telling you that he and I shared a delightful discussion during a magical moment is very relevant to reviewing Faeries.

Faeries has been in print for over 20 years and for good reason. Faeries is an endless well of inspiration, influencing the imagination of tattoo artists and novelists alike. Brian Froud images have ended up on the hips of beautiful women and the Celtic legends have imbued novels like my own. The stories and faerie tales contained in Faeries are dreamy and compelling and stand as an enchanting combination of newly invented fiction combined with age old folklore. The artwork is enrapturing and every pencil-line, every brush-stroke promises to reveal new secrets each time the book is opened. You will constantly find yourself discovering a treasure trove of images and imaginings you never saw before. Imbued with the magic to constantly unveil itself to you, the book is something you will return to again and again. Because the images hold such richness and detail, everytime you read the book, it will feel like you are opening up to pages you had never noticed before.

Movies like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and Legend are loathed and derided by most of the world because most of the world is filled with zombies and devils and those who are dead to all magic. The few of us who love these movies and these worlds are of a different breed. Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and Legend speak to a very particular and peculiar type of person. Those films are still cherished as the favorite movies of certain people, even 30 years after they were made. To me, that kind of ageless appeal correlates directly to the spirit imbued into those motion pictures though the magic of Brian Froud’s vision. Brian Froud sees the world in a way that all of us instinctively understood as children, yet we soon forget. Brian has never forgotten. Brian never lost sight of how the world looked when we were still young enough to know that magic truly exists. Only when we become older do we become stupid and uneducated and robbed of our wisdom. As children, we are still insightful enough to recall what the world really looks like. That is why all of Brian Froud’s artwork looks so familiar. From movies to television to books like Faeries, we have all seen these worlds before. We know them. We remember them. Somewhere in our collective subconscious, we remember when The Crystal cracked. We were there when the Skeksis and the Mystics appeared. We have been lost in that very same labyrinth before. We know those walls. We can still feel their texture.

How is it that we know those things?

Why do we remember that stuff?

How does Brian Froud recall enough to reconstruct those dreamscapes on movie sets and in the pages of Faeries?

Pick up a copy of Faeries for yourself and you’ll start to find the answers. I’m willing to bet the images will all look a little familiar to you. You’ve seen these seelie and unseelie courts before. In dreams. In nightmares. In childhood memories you’re not sure really happened or did you make them up? You know you’ve seen these creatures somewhere before. For some of us, you’ll love a book like Faeries, because it always reminds you of home.

You Have Been Lied to About Storytelling

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“You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do – and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught.”
– Ray Bradbury
 

The ideas I want to share with you today are an excerpt of something I originally mentioned in the epilogue of my novel, Annwn’s Maelstrom Festival.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about writing, the biggest “secret” was something that no one ever told me. I never read it in any books or heard any teachers talk about it. No screenwriting courses teach it. No writing-advice forums on the Internet mention it.

So, what is the big “secret” I learned?

I learned that the common ideas of what makes “good” writing, and the constructs within which to compose a story, such as the Hero’s Journey or the Three-Act-Structure, are all bullshit.

In truth, the formula to concoct compelling writing requires only two things:

1. Characters the reader cares about.

2. Interesting experiences for those characters to have.

That’s it. Period. Nothing else matters.

Few “professional” writers will agree with me.

Every creative writing teacher on earth will tell you I’m wrong.

I’m not wrong.

I can prove it.

What is your favorite story of all time? Now, hold on, before you answer that, let me quantify the question – I am not talking exclusively about books or movies or television shows. I am talking about every story in your entire life. Which one is your favorite? Think about our most common form of storytelling. What is it? How are our most predominant stories constructed?

It’s not movies. It’s not books. It’s not television.

It’s our friends and family.

Right?

Think about it.

Which story is your favorite? I bet it’s not your favorite book. I bet it’s a story your grandfather tells about meeting your grandmother. A story your uncle has told you about his days in college. The story of you and your brother getting lost in the woods during the blizzard. Those are the most important stories in your life. Those are the stories of who you are.

We are all storytellers. Every conversation we have with people tends to consist of storytelling. The largest and most prolific and influential source of storytelling in our lifetimes comes from our verbal interaction with fellow human beings. The oral tradition is alive and well. Everyone is constantly telling each other about things that happened to them at work, or on a date, or with the kids, or at the family reunion, or going out to the nightclub, or what happened at the bowling alley, or their day at the beach, or the plane ride on their vacation.

Now, I ask you, have you ever listened to your grandparents talk about their day at the grocery store and when they are finished, you say, “Well, that story didn’t have a proper Three-Act-Structure.”

Of course not!

Did you ever listen to your friend tell you a hilarious story of their vacation, then say, “Well, that was a great story, but it didn’t follow the motif of the Hero’s Journey.”

No! That would be moronic!

Critics of books and movies make those ignorant comments, because they don’t understand anything about what makes a great story.

Don’t get me wrong. The Hero’s Journey and the Three-Act-Structure are very legitimate and valid ways to build a story. I’m not trying to undermine the legitimacy of these constructs or imply that the analysis of tales following these motifs are incorrect. I’m simply noting that when stories are diluted into their most raw and essential ingredients, they are far more simple than we have been lead to believe.

Hence, I reiterate, stories require only two elements:

1. Characters the audience cares about.

2. Interesting experiences for those characters to have.

In the grocery store example, the characters are your grandparents. If you care about them, and their story isn’t boring, you will listen. Plain and simple. Their tale will hold your attention. Doesn’t matter what the “structure” of the story happens to be. There doesn’t need to be an antagonist, or a conflict, or a character arc, or any of the bullshit they teach you in writing classes.

You need to have characters people care about.

Those characters have to be in interesting situations.

That’s it.

The end.

That’s the whole of secret of storytelling!

One of the greatest literary examples of this is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The book has no plot. The book has no structure. The book has no antagonist. There is no character arc. It’s a story about a kid wandering around New York City and hanging out. Despite breaking all rules of writing conventions and storytelling, it is one of the most enthralling books you can imagine.

Why?

Why does The Catcher in the Rye work so well, despite being written so unconventionally? Why is it so magnificent, despite breaking the rules?

Because it follows my two rules:

1. A character you care about.

2. He does things that are interesting.

Being a great storyteller requires nothing more.

Now, I do have to add, your technical skill does play a factor. One must be articulate and have a savvy vocabulary in order to obey those two rules. That is how a character becomes endearing and has those interesting experiences. Command of language is vital. Going back to the example of the grandparents and the grocery store, if your grandfather has a crippling stutter, it could make it very difficult to enjoy his story. Even though you adore him and he’s telling something interesting, if you can’t understand his speech, the story still falls apart.

Which leads me to another myth of writing, which I long ago learned is false, and that is when people constantly say, “The story is everything.”

Absolutely not.

You hear writers and filmmakers repeat that over and over again.

“The story is everything.”

“The story is the most important thing.”

Bullshit!

The story is irrelevant! The telling is everything.

Remember the 1985 hit “One Night in Bangkok” by Murray Head? Topped the charts in Europe and peaked at #3 in the United States? The song is about chess. Do you suppose there was a big demand for chess-themed pop songs? No. The song was catchy. That is why it became a hit. The story of the lyrics didn’t matter. What mattered was the way the song was composed. Good hook. You could dance to it. Storytelling is not about the story, it’s about the telling.

As a writer, you’re not a “story”, you’re a “storyTELLER”.

An audience never “reads a story”, they “experience storytelling”. As a storyteller, your job is to make that experience compelling and memorable. But more than that, because “compelling” and “memorable” are bullshit words your English teacher will use. What you write has to live in people. You are Dr. Frankenstein, giving life to the corpse of words. Sewing them together, electrifying them, making them walk the earth for eternity!

A great storyteller can make a story about drying paint, compelling.

A terrible storyteller can make a story about the first lunar landing, dull.

“Drying too fast in the arid heat, she watched the paint splinter; crevices forming across the surface, like skin on her grandmother’s brow.”

“The spaceship landed for the first time that ever happened before!”

Your telling can ruin anything.

Your telling can make anything beautiful.

That’s the secret to great writing.

The story isn’t what matters. What matters is the way you tell it.

 
“When you’re all alone out there, on the end of the typewriter, with each new story a new appraisal by the world of whether you can still get it up or not, arrogance and self-esteem and deep breathing are all you have. It often looks like egomania. I assure you it’s the bold coverup of the absolutely terrified.”
– Harlan Ellison

BOOK REVIEW: “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
– Harlan Ellison
 

Few things irritate me more than people who constantly insist the world is so different now and things change so much. This typically happens between people with age differences. Notice I’m not singling out any particular age group because they are all equally guilty of this narrow-minded behavior. Grandparents tell college kids the world is so different now. College kids tell gradeschool children the world has changed so much for them. Children in junior high tell adults they don’t understand how much the world has transformed. See? Everyone does this. Preteens. Teenagers. College students. Adults. Senior citizens. All of you think your age makes you special. All of you out there, every generation, is guilty of deluding themselves into believing your age group is somehow unique in all of human history and therefore, no one outside of your age group can possibly comprehend what your world is all about or what you are going through. No matter what generation you identify with, your mind is clouded with self-important misinformation and misguided delusions of grandeur based on nothing but your birth certificate.

Stop it. All of you, just stop it. Stop thinking your generation is so goddamn extraordinary – and again, notice, I’m not singling out any particular generation. It doesn’t matter which generation you are in because all generations exhibit the identical stupidity and ignorance. From birth to death, we’re all the same, yet you constantly insist that the world has vastly evolved, compared to every generation that is not your own.

First of all, allow me to redefine the word “generation” for you. I need educate you, because you’re using it wrong.

Within the minuscule and irrelevant decades of your lifetime, we often define 20 years as a generation. Right? Give or take, but that’s a good approximation. A newborn baby is a “different generation” compared to a 20 year old and a 40 year old is a “different generation” from a 60 year old. Can we all agree on that? 20 years is the typical cutoff.

Now, let me tell you, that’s wrong.

That viewpoint is a very selfish and feeble-minded perception of time.

In truth, generations actually span a much larger range of history. And frankly, you already agree me, so long as it’s outside of your lifetime.

Allow me to give an example. Do you see people born in 1820 and 1840 and 1860 as being very different? Do you perceive those groups of children as “new generations”?

No! You see them as people born in the 1800’s. Correct? You don’t think of them as separate generations. You lump them all together. Why? Because you have an infantile perception of time. When you look at moments of human history that occurred decades or centuries before you were born, the word “generation” takes on a new meaning. Instead of “generations” originating every 20 years, you might acknowledge spans of 50 or 100 years. Right? Obviously a person born in 1830 and 1930 are clearly different generations. But, when we are talking about decades from past centuries, like 1820 and 1840, we don’t really differentiate that 20 year span as a new generation.

Therefore, I reiterate, the perception of every 20 years being a “new generation” is wrong. Inserting yourself in your rightful place in a larger cosmic timeframe, a “generation” is defined as the time between the lifetimes of every living relative we meet while we’re alive. The bookend of those family members represents our generation.

For example, the oldest living relative I ever met was my great grandfather. He was born in the late 1800’s. If I ever have children and greatgrandchildren (which is never going to happen because it would require meeting a woman with a pulse, but bear with me), then my generation would end with their deaths. That’s the true definition of a human generation – it’s the span of time within which your life has touched other living souls. Those people consist of your generation.

My definition of “generation” is superior. Because my definition reminds you that humanity is one, and we are far more connected and similar than anyone seems to be aware of. Regardless of our age-difference, so long as we are alive upon the earth at the same time, then we are of the same human generation. This is our time. This is our generation.

Let me repeat that. Because it’s important. It’s important for you to stop alienating everyone you didn’t go to high school with. So long as you and I are alive on this earth at the same time, we are of the same generation.

What does all of this have to do with a book review for The Catcher in the Rye?

I made this review in December of 2013 and author J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye over 60 years ago, in 1951.

Once upon a time, I read a commentary from a schoolteacher who lamented that none of her students related to The Catcher in the Rye. She then drew an ignorant conclusion – that the voice of Holden Caulfield had grown obsolete with the current generation. That’s bullshit! The truth is, she had an entire class full of lousy phonies. The whole point of The Catcher in the Rye has always been that 99% of people aren’t going to get it. Most people aren’t going to relate to it. That’s the whole idea! The book was never meant to appeal to teenagers just because they are teenagers. The book is relatable to anyone, at any age, who isn’t a fucking lemming. Most people are braindead goddamn sheep. The Catcher in the Rye isn’t for them and it never was. The fact that a teacher had a class full of kids who didn’t appreciate the book isn’t any great shock. But to presume that the problem is a generational one is forgetting that most people, of every generation, are a bunch of pudding-brained reality-show-addicted zombies surgically grafted to their cellphones and televisions. These aren’t people capable of critical thinking or exerting free will. They are the children in the rye. They aren’t the catchers and they never will be.

The explanation is truly that simple. All the children will hate it. Only the catchers will understand it.

Anyone stupid enough to think The Catcher in the Rye is a book about teen angst and you stopped relating to it when you became an adult, missed the point. The truth is, you never understood it. You’re nothing but a big phony and Holden would have let you walk right off the cliff, because lousy phonies like you could never be saved. You were always a lost cause.

Those people who dislike the book often become very defensive and argue that just because they dislike it doesn’t mean they don’t understand it.

Um, yes it does.

The book is about the rage of having to deal with the blissful ignorance of humanity. Don’t you see? Everyone should share in that anger. Remember that old saying? “If you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention.” Thus, to deride people by saying “you didn’t understand it” is a compliment. We are giving you the benefit of the doubt. Because if you truly understood the story and you still disliked it, there is something clearly wrong with you. So when we fans of the book tell you that you didn’t understand it, shut the fuck up and concede to that. The alternative is that you’re a fucking demon. Because if you see what’s wrong and you just don’t fucking care, then you are part of the goddamn problem.

The Catcher in the Rye isn’t about whining teen angst. Not at all. Never was. Anyone who perceives the book as such has no reading comprehension skills. Although, considering the broader degradation of intellect in western culture, that’s not shocking. The story is about the frustrations of how oblivious people are to the world around them. For gods sake, J.D. Salinger tells you the entire meaning of the book in the fucking title itself! Ever notice that there has never been a negative review to comment on the title? That’s because people who dislike the book aren’t intelligent enough to spot the obvious. The entire meaning of the book is about the blind childish stupidity of the world and how Holden just wants to be The Catcher in the Rye, the only one mature enough to see above the problems of the world and protect all you kids from falling into oblivion. Dreaming of being the savior to you all. You can’t see how fucked up you are because you can’t see the cliff. We stand above you not in arrogance, but because we’ve just been here a little longer than you. Why the the fuck do you think he used that as the title? There’s nothing to debate or discuss or analyze. The fucking meaning is right there. There’s nothing cryptic about it. It’s as clear as a punch in the fucking nose. You fucking sissies have probably never been in a fistfight, so you wouldn’t understand that metaphor.

If you ever stop relating to that, if that message ceases to resonate with you as you grow older and you suddenly think The Catcher in the Rye is about some whiny prep school jerk, written in the voice of an obsolete generation, then you have devolved into a phony of the worst kind. You’ve become a traitor to your own ideologies. You never understood what it means to be The Catcher in the Rye. And you never will. The price you pay to maintain your ideals is a lifetime of isolation and accepting that fate without regrets. Preserving your ethics is a charge you’ve never possessed the fortitude to do.

Nothing changes.

You can instantly tell those readers who remain true to themselves and those who compromise and become phony. In that vein, The Catcher in the Rye is another “dating test” book. Never go out with a girl who doesn’t like this book. Never go out with a girl who doesn’t love this story. She’s not worth it. She has nothing to offer.

For those of you who haven’t read it, The Catcher in the Rye centers around Holden Caulfield, a teenage boy who was kicked out of his prep school and spends a few days wandering the streets of New York City. The book has no plot. No antagonists. No action scenes. No love interest. By the end of the book he ends up institutionalized for his nervous breakdown but as a person who had dated and loved those girls who end up in institutions, that’s a load of crap. There is nothing wrong with Holden. There’s no justification for him to be locked in the looney bin. The world is flawed and deranged. You know the old saying, “In an insane world a sane man must appear insane.” I said there are no antagonists in the story, but I misspoke – the culture itself is the antagonist and those who see the insanity of our society too clearly are typically the ones we shut away. The story breaks all the conventions of storytelling structures and does so in a way that is absolutely poignant and captivating. The kind of book you read in one sitting and when you look at the clock, you’re stunned at how quickly the hours flew past.

Holden is an idealist. A dreamer who really wants to the world to be better than it happens to be and he meets all these people and has all these conversations and slowly comes to see how his view of life and his idealism is simply not shared or understood by the rest of the world around him. The rest of the world conforms to compromise and too readily eschews any nobility or idealism. Although it was written over 60 years ago, it still resonates with an insightful meaning and it reflects a kind of exasperation that is just as prevalent today as it was in 1951.

One statistic I found claimed the book still sells 250,000 copies a year. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Author J.D. Salinger passed away in 2010 and all of us who were alive in that year, shared the lifetime of J.D. Salinger. Even through it was written decades before I was born, this book and his writing was a voice for your generation and mine.

In closing, allow me to apologize for one thing. Forgive me for doing a review on The Catcher in the Rye and using the terms lousy and phony. There is no greater cliche than an imbecilic book reviewer using Holden Caulfield idioms in order to appear as a hip and cool genuine fan. That shows a pretty weak and pathetic lack of creativity. I got a bang out of that. Compared to J.D. Salinger, we’re all a bunch of crumby flits. That killed me.
 
“In America the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience… In fact, it may be truly said that no American child is ever blind to the deficiencies of its parents, no matter how much it may love them.”
– Oscar Wilde