The Mighty Moorcock
Introduction to
Death Is No Obstacle

b y   A n g e l a   C a r t e r (1991)


  THE FIRST THING YOU FEEL when you read Michael Moorcock's lengthy and illuminating responses to Colin Greenland's subtle, intelligent, informed probing, is: "The crazy fool! He's giving everything away!" Moorcock recklessly imparts all the trade secrets—how he does it, how to do it. How to construct a sword and sorcery novel, as follows: divide your 60,000 words into four sections ("15,000 words apiece"), then each section into six chapters. Allow a major event, something jaw-dropping, to happen every four pages. What about plot, though? How about running through the requisite number of variations on the theme of, say: "Only six days to save the world!" That should do nicely.

Now draw a map of the new world you've just invented, so that you know exactly where you are at any given time. Then make a detailed plan of action, so that you know what is happening. Now sit down.


Easy, isn't it. Can't think why everybody doesn't do it.

If you're a fast typist, perhaps you can match the daily totals Moorcock clocked up when he was young and limber and, he claims, fifteen thousands words a day at the keyboard wasn't too much. Mercifully, he's slowed down a bit, since then, or soon the world might well fill up with the Moorcock fiction that, seemingly, curls off his typewriter in an endless stream.

So it's all down to industry, enthusiasm and good typing speeds, you see. At least, that's what Moorcock seems to be saying. He appears to be intent on removing all the mystery from the craft he so masterfully plies. He concentrates on the 'craft' aspect—structure. It's all a matter of structure...

Industry, application, technique. How do you acquire industry and application? By doing it. What about technique? You acquire that by reading. If you want to write a novel, you really ought to read one, first. Read several. Read history, geography, anthropology. Read ancient epics, myths, romances. Read cigarette cards, the backs of cereal packages, yesterday's newspapers. He himself emerges as an omnivorously well-read man, but the inexhaustible curiosity that lies behind all that is something that can't be acquired, is something you are born with.

And the harder Moorcock works at cutting his own mystery down to size, the more extraordinary the exuberant fecundity of his achievement becomes. He throws off lightly one extra piece of advice to the aspiring fantasy writer: "You need a list of images that are purely fantastic; deliberate paradoxes, say, 'the City of Screaming Statues', things like that". But this is the bit that people who aren't Michael Moorcock find a little tricky. This is when they start chewing the end of their pencils and staring vacantly into space. For most of us, inventing something like a 'city of screaming statues' is a day's work in itself, even if the speed at which Moorcock works suggests that his imagination can sometimes go on automatic—that is, he reaches a point where, in a sense, his imagination starts to write him. He takes the ability to conjure up picturesque paradoxes at the drop of a hat for granted.

And he also takes for granted a due sense of the serious nature of the entire project of storytelling. “If you believe, as I do, in simple good and tangible evil, and that evil starts with petty greed and tends to get the ascendancy, you've got to find ways of expressing that in fiction, while still giving everything its proper shadings and subtleties," he says.

For Moorcock, fiction is primarily and essentially a moral entertainment. He believes, he says, that "morality and structure are very closely linked." His obsession with form, "always the solution to an artistic problem", must not be confused with a reliance on formula, even if he can gleefully give you all the formulae for every kind of story there ever was, because he's tried and tested all of them.

These interviews with the master story-teller of our time provide an invaluable record of his working methods, and take the reader phase by phase through an extraordinary career; they show us the workmanlike way he sets to and builds a narrative as if it were a house. But, finally, it is Moorcock's own lived experience and sense of the real world, his ability to censure and to judge, not in the least to censure and to judge himself, that gives his fiction its outstanding qualities, even the ability to put down 15,000 words a day stuns me into awed silence. (Really 15,000 words a day, Mike? How long did you take out for meals? How often did you break to go to the bathroom?)

He doesn't give anything away, because it isn't possible for him to do so. There are no real trade secrets. Fiction is as individual as a fingerprint, even if all the history of story-telling is somehow involved in every story.

Moorcock calls himself a 'popular' writer, always scrupulously making that distinction between 'popular' writer and 'literary' writer that his own work consistently blurs. Moorcock likes to put himself firmly on the other shore, in another country to the Booker prize-winners, invoking as positive proof of his differences to, say, Julian Barnes, those early days as a pagefiller for the Sexton Blake library in an atmosphere of sweated fiction not unlike that of the Grub Street hacks of Victorian London. But very few Booker prize-winners are more saturated in literature than he. Among his best loves are Conrad, also an influence on JG Ballard; and, especially, George Meredith, one of the most 'literary' of 'literary' of all writers but now virtually unread by the literati. Moorcock consciously compares his own prodigal production with that of Dickens.

Dickens was a 'popular' writer in his day, of course, one of the most popular writers of all time, and Moorcock is making an important point here—that all the BBC classic serials, the Armchair Theatre classics, were hugely popular best-seller novels in their own day. But that day was the day before, first, the cinema, and subsequently television took over many of the entertainment functions of the novel. Families used to gather round Father of an evening, for their fix of Dickens—that week's instalment of Little Dorrit or The Old Curiosity Shop as serialised in Household Words. The television soap opera, the thirteen-part serial, the three-decker mini-series have directly taken over a good many of the functions of those serialised novels and are often enjoyed communally in the same way, although they often seem to have a rather more tenuous relation to life, and even to fantasy, than their predecessors. But even the most avid fans don't assemble for family readings of this week's freshly published instalment of Moorcock, although it occurs to me that the Elric stories would make a terrific, ongoing television series.

Therefore to be a 'popular' writer, these days, means giving the reader something that the reader can't get from television—an excitement, an impulse of play, a seriousness. If Moorcock is Dickensian in his mode of production—get those words out! get those books out!—he is also Dickensian in his delight in the grotesque, the eccentric, the unpremeditated. If his essential generosity of spirit refuses to be contained by the orthodox rules of space, time and narrative, he is also, in a complex but irreducible way, very English. Not, never! in the 'teddibly English', self-congratulatory way of, well, your average Booker short-list victim, but English in the great tradition of music hall and penny dreadful, seaside pierrot show and pantomime, of radical dissent and continuous questioning, the other side of imperialism, if you like.

If the great body of Moorcock's work represents, in its totality, a vast morality play of the battle between good and evil, then it is presided over by a Lord of Misrule, whose work is the nearest thing we have in modern English fiction to a neverending carnival.

Michael Moorcock in Savoy:

Stormbringer Sojan The Jewel In The Skull The Golden Barge The Russian Intelligence My Experiences In The Third World War The Brothel In Rosenstrasse The Crystal and the Amulet Death Is No Obstacle

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