From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: Jeff Crooks and the Ham-Sized Fist Award

This year, the Ham-Sized Fist Award was announced by editor Jeff Crooks. The award recognizes the best heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery fiction published between January 1 2009 and December 31 2009. We asked Crooks about the award and the motivation behind establishing it.

Why the Ham-Sized Fist Award? Do you think there are genre works getting overlooked, and if so – why?

Ham-sized is an adjective used by Robert E. Howard to describe Conan’s massive fists. I seem to remember Robert Jordan using it as well, back when he wrote Conan novels. It is, in my opinion, the perfect epithet for the genre at its best. It is big, meaty, and hits like a mattock.

It’s almost a cliche to say these genres are overlooked. They aren’t, really. There are tons of novels published every year, and they sell very well. One problem I think is a tendency among writers especially to try to justify the work, to try to sell it as great literature just as good as anything written by ‘fill in the blank.’ There is a desire to see speculative fiction and its great authors taught alongside literary authors in college courses, to not be mocked in college creative writing classes, and to obtain the jobs teaching creative writing and literature in colleges that usually go to people who devote themselves to “serious” literature.

In other words, in our desire to be taken seriously, we take ourselves and our work too seriously, and so even among fantasy and sci-fi authors, there are serious fantasy and sci-fi genres that explore more literary tropes. Then there are less-serious genres, like heroic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery, which are sometimes treated as juvenile because they are primarily about action and adventure. If it’s juvenile, then I’m juvenile, because I enjoy it. When it’s at its best, it’s the best reading around, but when it’s at its worst, there is hardly anything worse, except, perhaps, really awful poetry.

Who are the authors of the past who would have won the Ham-Sized Fist Award?

There are the obvious ones – Robert E. Howard being the grandfather of it all. Then his apostles, L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter. Clark Ashton Smith, Ursula K. LeGuin, Michael Moorcock, C.L. Moore, Charles Saunders, Karl Edward Wagner, George R. R. Martin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Michael Shea, Terry Pratchett, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Gardner Fox.

Two of my favorite heroic fiction short stories were published in the Magic of Krynn anthology – “The Legacy” by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and “A Stone’s Throw Away” by Roger E. Moore. It would have been difficult to chose a story that year. This book was my introduction to the world of Dragonlance. I read these stories before I read the first novel.

You can’t write about this genre and not mention Tolkien, however I feel Tolkien is best remembered as a novelist, so I don’t include him on this list. The author at the top of my list is Fritz Leiber and his Nehwon stories. These really are, for me, the sword and sorcery genre at its best.

As for writers writing today, certainly there are recognized masters still producing great stories in these genres, as well as up-and-coming writers who are prolific and well known in the online community. But rather than name any of them, I would rather let the award begin to answer that question.

What do you see as the future of the award?

I’m a big fan of the Million Writers Award for short fiction published online. I’ve served as a preliminary judge for this award, and I wanted to do something like the Million Writers, but without limiting it to online publications. Of course, I would love to see the award become the premiere symbol of recognition for excellence in the genre. Many awards offer recognition and sometimes money to the winning author. But when I had the idea for this award, I thought, if we really want to see more and better stories in these genres published, we need to recognize the publisher as well as the author.

I’m not looking to publish an anthology or anything, just offer a yearly award. Maybe we’ll present the award at a convention at some point, but for now I’d like to keep things simple. In other word, online. In the future, I would like to expand the award to include an award for best novel.

In the future, I would like to see the award become a fan-driven award, in some manner. Many awards are about professional recognition by your peers, but we’re not supposed to be just writing for our peers. We’re supposed to be writing for our readers. We should never forget that.

Where are you looking for nominations?

My main source is stories nominated by readers, authors, and editors using the webpage, Twitter, or email. The easiest place to find stories is online, but online subscription-only sites are a problem because unless someone nominates a story and the editor or author sends me a copy, I’ll probably never get a chance to read it. I can’t subscribe to everything. And of course I’m looking in the print magazines, which I can scan at the library or bookstore without having to subscribe to everything. There are a limited number of print magazines, so hopefully I won’t miss anything. I am really most concerned about overlooking anthologies. So many get published that, unless you’re hooked up in a major way, you might never hear about it until years later. I’m afraid that we’ll pick the winner and then someone will come along and say how could you not recognize such-and-such story by so-and-so?

The best thing is to receive nominations. That way I won’t miss it. Also, I’m open to pod cast nominations.

What excites you about sword and sorcery today? Do you think it’s changed from, say, several decades ago?

Sword-and-sorcery was originally a pulp genre, and pulp got its name from the cheapness of the production process – specifically pulp paper. That era, or one very much like it, has returned with the advent of the online publication. It has taken some years for online publication to get the sort of respect it deserves from writers, because everybody wants to see their work in print form, and readers have had to acclimate to reading primarily online, but gradually reader and writer expectations have changed. As these thing continue to evolve, I suspect we’ll see a lot more new online magazines popping up, as well as older magazines switching to the online format because of economic reasons. Ehem… cough cough. Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly are two prime examples of the sort of quality of production that can be achieved right off the bat, without the sort of huge investment you’d need to produce and distribute their equivalent in print. But even a simple ezine can be put together by just one person, using Blogspot or WordPress. Because the investment isn’t as great, you can more easily switch gears or shut down completely if things aren’t working as expected. I know because I’ve started, run, and closed two online magazines. I also believe new formats for publishing will begin to take hold, like one-off web anthologies. The only thing holding this back, in my opinion, is letting people know about it. Marketing still needs a lot of work. There’s just so much out there. How do you find your audience?

Anyway, it’s an exciting time, because the fans have the power to control it if they want. Publishing no longer has to be centralized and top-down, with publishers telling us what they think we want to read. I’m hoping this award will help catapult lesser known, possibly overlooked, inevitably underfunded venues and authors.

Sword and Sorcery has seemed to focus primarily on white heterosexual male heroes in the past. Do you think this will change? Is it something you’re thinking about in judging the awards?

I think one reason the white, heterosexual male has such a prominent place is because so many of the writers have been white, heterosexual males. The very nature of the stories themselves are masculine. Sword-and-sorcery, especially, is a vigorous style of storytelling, with stories that often focus on the violent resolution of conflicts. I think there is a place for female heroes and anti-heroes in these genres, but great care has to be taken not to write them as Conan with a vagina – bad-ass warriors who happen not to sport ham-sized fists but are otherwise indistinguishable from a similar male character. One of the great female characters in heroic fiction is Kitiara from the Dragonlance saga. She’s a bad-ass warrior as well as a cunning general, but you would never mistake her for a man. Same with Belit, and for that matter, Eowyn. So it can be done. It helps if its a woman doing the writing, but there’s no reason a man can’t do it and do it well. Women writers write perfectly believable male characters.

Naturally, there is plenty of room for non-white storytelling. Over the years, the all-white assumption about the genre has been overtaken by the really great stuff from Japan and China – anime and wuxia films. India also has a tremendous legacy of heroic fiction, and Africa has always been a favorite setting. There’s a lot out there waiting to be discovered and rediscovered.

I also think there is tremendous room for creating worlds where homosexuality is a long-established tradition in the culture in which the story takes place. It really opens the world up for broader storytelling, and not only as love interests. Simply imagining the different ways in which such cultures could develop along these lines can make for a fascinating setting-driven plot.

As for the award, I don’t intend to go out of my way to recognize stories that break the genre molds. If the best stories in a particular year are all written by heterosexual white males about heterosexual white male heroes, so be it. Of course, stories that stand out in some way have a better chance of being published, and thus recognized by the award, so I rather doubt the finalists will be completely homogeneous.

What does sword and sorcery have to offer readers? And what -is- sword and sorcery, why is it its own specialized genre?

Sword-and-sorcery and heroic fantasy fulfill the most fundamental needs of storytelling, and that is to hear or read a good, rousing tale. Heroic fiction is, and always has been, the most popular form of fiction. Toss in some magic and you get fantasy. Replace magic with fantastic technology and you’ve got sci-fi. But even Faulkner and Hemingway wrote heroic fiction. Jessica Amanda Samuelson has some great thoughts on this subject in her essay, ‘Thoughts on the Enjoyment of Heroic Fantasy.” She writes, “Heroic fantasy at its best observes things to be as menacing, amoral, simple, & inevitable as dying. It can be read escapistly, but it is not inherently escapist…Heroic fantasy is, for me, a celebration of life’s brief, transient joys & sorrows.”

Darrell Schweitzer gave a good working definition of the necessary elements of sword-and-sorcery in his essay ‘Sword and Sorcery, Dragon and Princess.’ They are 1) an imaginary, pre-gunpowder setting; 2) magic; and 3) a vigorous heroic warrior as a central character. I agree with the last two, but I would rather classify all three as the elements of high fantasy. To my mind, heroic fantasy (as well as sword and sorcery) can be set in any time period, even the far future, or any setting, including modern earth or distant planets, as long as magic (or some quasi-magic/psionic/superhuman/supernatural ability) has a prominent place in the story, and there are warriors with swords. To my mind, Star Wars isn’t science fiction, it’s heroic fantasy. Dune is also heroic fantasy.

Why aren’t Star Wars and Dune science fiction? Because science is not the driving force behind the fantastic elements that move the story. True, they are set in outer space and have space drive engines, ray guns and blasters, but the core plot elements of Star Wars revolve around the Force, Jedi powers, and warriors with light sabers. The core plot elements of Dune revolve around the mystical powers of the Bene Gesserit and the extraordinary hand-to-hand combat abilities of various cadres of highly-trained warriors. In both settings, there are greater powers arrayed against the technology of the time. It doens’t matter to me whether the technology is spears and horses, tanks and cannons, or space ships and laser blasters. The heart of each story is about magic and swords.

So what’s the difference between heroic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery? I think Joseph McCullough has written pretty much the definitive essay delineating sword-and-sorcery from heroic fantasy. I had largely come to the same conclusions before reading it. Sword-and-sorcery is heroic fantasy, but heroic fantasy is not always sword-and-sorcery. Basically, the difference lies in the type of hero the story portrays. Sword-and-sorcery usually involves anti-heroes, individuals who are, by profession or inclination adventurers of some sort, actively seeking conflict, loot, power, crowns, great magic, and pleasures of the flesh. Heroic fiction usually involves characters who are reluctant adventurers, individuals forced by circumstance into heroic acts they would rather have avoided. For that reason, as McCullough and others have stated, heroic fiction seems better suited to the longer form of novella and novel, where such plots have the room to develop. Sword-and-sorcery more often takes the short form, though it does work in longer form when it incorporates heroic fantasy aspects. But it should be noted that most heroic fantasies become, by the end of the story, sword-and-sorcery.

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