After that, I proceeded to the Second Book of Lankhmar -- and while it started off well enough, it turned into something of a monumental struggle. I put it down for a while, and came back months later. And put it down and came back again. Finally, recently I picked it up off my bureau and made the final push on my commutes to finish it. About midway through there's an enormous change in theme and tone that made it achingly painful, and confusing, to get through the rest.
Frankly, this is the same observation that I've made about other pulp-era fantasy writers that I've read in depth: in particular, Asimov (in his Foundation stories), Moorcock (with his Elric stories), et. al. My thesis runs like this:
- Early pulp-magazine fiction is in the form of short stories, and they are brisk, imaginative, brimming full of creative ideas, action-packed, and exciting.
- Decades later, these authors are motivated to return to these properties, now in the form of more marketable full-length novels that will fit on a bookstore's shelves, and then they are bloated, plodding, boring, dumb, and just a real torturous ordeal to get through.
The interesting thing here for me is that it represents an excellent science experiment in things pulp: Were the early creations really better? When we ask the question in terms of D&D or Star Wars, the argument usually gets tangled up in the issue of, "you're just being nostalgic; you don't remember correctly". But obviously in terms of Asimov or Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser I wasn't reading them in the 1940's; I've read the entire F&GM oeuvre in the span of the last year. And once again let me say clearly: The early stuff is fantastic and leaps off the page. The later stuff is dreadful and exhausting. This is not nostalgia speaking on the part of this reader.
If you think about it, why would this not be the case? In some sense the earliest stuff must be of exceptional quality, in order the "break through" into the wider culture and become some kind of phenomenon. But once that "brand" is established, then later works will have a guaranteed group of fans/buyers who will purchase any new release. The quality can really only vary in the downward direction (because the original was so high), and there is little incentive or pressure to do otherwise (because of the established customer base). See also: Stephen J. Gould's book Full House on populations varying away from some limiting wall (upwards or downwards) over time.
More on Wednesday.