Why I’m Here – Part Two: Some Thoughts on Old Books and Appendix N
Four years ago, I posted an explanation of what I’m trying to do with my reviews for Black Gate. My stated goal was, and remains, to be someone who says to readers, “Here’s a book I think you’ll get a kick out of.” There were several people who did that for me, turning me on to books and authors I still hold dear, and I want to do that for others. Like most fans of something, I want to convince people the things I like are worth their time and are still relevant.
It can be hard to pierce the barrier built of cultural noise, the vast wealth of new fantasy being written every year, and the simple passage of time, and convince someone a book that’s fifty years old or more is worth his time. Pop culture reflects the larger society that produces it, and people want to see their concerns and interests in it. That people still read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert E. Howard more than eighty years after both their deaths, though, tells me it’s not a hopeless battle.
I’m not the only person doing this, not by any stretch of the imagination. Of particular interest has been the wealth of discussion about Appendix N that has taken place over the past five or six years on message boards, blogs, and podcasts. For the two of you who don’t know what Appendix N is, it’s a quirky list of fantasy and sci-fi books that inspired Gary Gygax, the primary creator of D&D. There are few works on it I haven’t got to, though I was recently taken to task for my negligence of A. Merritt.
The list was in the Dungeon Masters Guide. Back in the day, it didn’t mean too much to me, only because I’d already read most of the authors on the list, and so had most of my gaming friends. Still, it was cool to see Gygax liked the same books we did. Because so much of the present Appendix N conversation has tended to focus on gaming, something I don’t do anymore, I’ve mostly just listened. Other than a couple of conversations about individual books, I’ve sat off to the side.
However, just recently I was asked to participate in an upcoming podcast episode of the Appendix N Book Club. Two guys (Jeff Goad and Ngo Vinh-Hoi) have been working their way through Gygax’s list with gusto. In order to learn how they like to do their show, I’ve been listening to their back catalogue and it’s been a lot of fun. My favorite shows are the ones where at least one of the hosts hasn’t read the book or the author previously, and I get to hear a book I hold dear discussed with totally fresh eyes.
I hadn’t really thought about Appendix N until James Maleszewski started blogging about it at his old and much-missed site, Grognardia. While he wasn’t a newcomer to the books on Gygax’s list, a lot of the people commenting were, and it was fun to read new takes on old works. They were totally sold on books which had either created the tropes that have come to dominate mass-market fantasy, or that were defiantly original, yet with roots proudly tracing back to the pulp tradition. It was the first intimation that so many of the books I grew up with were finding a new audience.
Later, Jeffro Johnson at Castalia House began a long series of posts examining the books and authors of Appendix N. The pieces were all collected and released as Appendix N: A Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a strongly opinioned and valuable take on a varied and idiosyncratic assortment of books. His commenters’ excitement over discovering a whole wealth of new-to-them fantasy writing definitely warmed this critic’s heart.
Watching the rising and falling popularity of the books that formed the foundation of my genre-reading has become something I do with increasing interest. How and why exactly do terrific books fall of out of fashion? The other day, in a conversation about Appendix N with Howie Bentley over on Facebook, I wrote:
So much of it’s a question of age. If you grew up in the seventies, there was only so much stuff to read, and people passed it around like samizdat in the USSR. Elric books got passed around from friend to friend to friend like a copy of Doctor Zhivago. For the past 20 years there’s been so much stuff, it’s easy for old stuff to get missed by all the “kids.” We watched B&W movies because that’s what was on. Too many people, young and old, only want what’s new, nothing old.
But a few days later, I was wondering if there was something else going on. When I was a kid the main way you found out about the cool sf/f books to read was from friends’ recommendations. At the same time, we didn’t have anything like the choices readers have today. Genre pickings were really, really slim. The only reason anyone watched Buck Rogers or Quark on TV was because we were desperate for any sort of sci-fi. Today’s reader has loads to choose from. Maybe modern fans aren’t reading the books I grew up on because those books stink?
Reading (or listening) to the wildly positive reactions of fans discovering Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, and others has reassured me I’m not on a fool’s errand. There are gamers debating the usefulness of Appendix N in gaming. I can’t speak to that, only to an amazing introduction to some of the best primary works of genre fantasy.
Most of the reviews I’ve done over the past four-and-a-half years here at Black Gate have been of older works and I think I’ve made a good case for each one. While I don’t think there’s an imperative to read any of the books I’ve reviewed, I think they can add to an understanding of the genre — where it’s come from, where it’s been. I’m not saying you should read Appendix N or my recommendations just because they’re old. That would be nuts. I think they’re worth reading because they are among the very best the genre has to offer. You might not miss much if you skip Gardner Fox, but if you skip Jack Vance or Roger Zelazny, I honestly think you are missing out. Looking at my own reviews, I’d say the same thing about P.C. Hodgell and Andre Norton. If you don’t believe me, pick up Eyes of the Overworld or Nine Princes in Amber and see for yourself. So, until my fingers cramp too much from typing, I’m going to keep sounding the call for old books and their place on modern readers’ shelves. And that’s why I’m still here.
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him. Right now, he’s writing about nothing in particular, but he might be writing about swords & sorcery again any day now.
Nicely said. I golf clap from the sidelines.
Time is the greatest filter for quality. Age doesn’t make anything better than it was when it was new, but time casts everything but the very best on the recycling paper pile of history.
I’ve long stopped keeping track of new releases in movies and videogames. Hype comes, hype goes. But when you keep seeing people talking about something three or four years later because they are still enthusiastic about it, then it catches my attention. I very rarely see any movies in theatres now, but for the past ten years or so, I’ve never watched or played anything that made me regret it. (Except for The Hobbit and Rogue One, but I was invited.)
Funny you should write this — I’ve been chin deep in the post-apocalyptic genre for some time now and just this morning I discovered the so-called Appendix N of Gamma World, which apparently appeared in the foreword of the first edition.
I love reviews and book listicles for exactly the reasons you underscore: as recommendations. Time is a good filter, as Martin said, but so is an articulate reader.
The Appendix N of Gamma World, by the way, consists of only four works: Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey (which is also listed in the DMG), Starman’s Son by Andre Norton, and Ralph Bakshi’s film Wizards.
@Howard – Thanx! In reviewing the Grognardia posts about App. N, I found one reporting on Joeseph Goodman’s announcement about DCC and its emphasis on App. N.
@James – Thanx!
@Martin – I agree with that re:time as a good filter of the good from the less good. I used to run and see new movies all the time, but now, I’m mostly with you – wait and see if anyone cares about it in three or four years.
@Jackson – I didn’t remember that. I still haven’t read Starman’s Son – which I think might make me have to turn in my Andre Norton fan membership. The other three range from good to alright, but I would definitely check them all out again if I was running a GW campaign.
My own Gamma World Appendix N would probably include Philip Jose Farmer’s Dark is the Sun and the cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian, although both of those things post-date the game, I believe.
I thought Appendix E in the 5e Player’s Handbook did a decent job of updating the original Appendix N to include some more modern works although I did roll my eyes just a bit at their inclusion of some actual D&D novels.
Thank God you’re here and spreading the word on the classics of the genre, Fletcher. Writing fantasy and ignoring these books is like writing “literary” stories and ignoring the classics of early literature. As for readers, they’ll be missing out on a lifetime of true wonder, mystery, and joy. And if readers and writers are only reading what’s new, work becomes more and more derivative and dumbed-down over time.
I’ve recently started an Appendix N book club with a subset of my D&D 5E group. We’re all in our 40s, 50s, and 60s and most of us started playing D&D with 1E and B/X. A number of us have never read the Appendix N authors. In my own case, my love of reading comes directly from D&D. I was 10-years old when the first Dragonlance Chronicles book, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, came out. That series made me love reading and books and fantasy/SF.
I really admire Goodman Games and Dungeon Crawl Classics for the continued focus on what inspired the development of dungeons and dragons. I don’t get why that is so hard for RPGPundit to understand.
Jeff Goad also runs a G+ Appendix N community, including a virtual or online Appendix N book club. H.P. Lovecraft was discussed this month.
Joe H. mentions Appendix E in the 5E PHB, but the question I would raise about the updated list is to what degree have these newer works inspired actual game mechanics or adventure hooks? Or is this just name-dropping of books we like that also happen to be fantasy?
Finally, I’ve made this point here before and I’ll make it again, why must there be a dichotomy between novels and stories and RPG supplements/adventures/modules. Why do we treat novels and stories as if they are somehow more valuable as an art form? I like to read modules/supplements for entertainment, not just for use in my gaming.
A laurel and a hearty handshake to you, Fletcher. Well said. May there never be an Appendectomy N.
I’m really looking forward to talking to you on the podcast! Black Gate is a daily destination for me and I’m always happy to see a new entry at Stuff I Like. BTW, also a big P.C. Hodgell fan ever since the YA librarian in the town I had moved to at age 13 handed me a copy of God Stalk….
Cheers to the whole Black Gate crew!
And yep, I guess I’ll be subscribing to another podcast …
@JoeH – Well, an addition of Thundarr to pretty much anything makes it better. I never read the Farmer, but I sure as heck remember that DK Sweet cover.
@RobertZ – Thanx! It’s a labor of love getting newer or younger readers to give older works a chance. Again, old books don’t deserve to survive just because they’re old, but when they’re great, they deserve a fighting chance to remain part of the greater fantasy library.
@NOLAbert – I don’t think you NEED to read any of the books to run/play a game, but, I gotta say, my circle never played a LotR style epic campaign, but always pretty low stakes pulp ones.
I bought lots of the old two-color modules in my youth with no intention other than reading them and mining them for ideas.
@Ken – and to you, sir! Maybe Fox won’t survive, but most of the rest, I’m pretty sure are solid now.
@Hoi – I’m really getting jazzed to take part. You guys are doing an ace job and it’s a load of fun just listening in.
That’s one great librarian. Hodgell’s amazing. I’m so glad she’s persevered and carried on all these years.
Now, I’ve got to get back to a post I’ve been working on for the last month over at Stuf I Like 🙁
@Fletcher. You may be right about Fox, though I like him well enough. http://www.kenlizzi.net/gardner-fox-appendix-n/
FWIW, as far as Fox is concerned, he might survive simply because much of his back catalog is available cheaply in eBook format (and if you pay attention, titles are often made available for free for a limited time).
The books do not stink. That’s nonsense. Moorcock, Vance, Leiber, et al are just as fantastic today as the day they were written, much as other classic, foundational literature is. Dickens, Poe, Nabokov, Shakespeare and others are no less great today, nor any less relevant, and neither are the classics of sword and sorcery.
They weren’t great because they were the only fantasy around. They were great because the writers were great.
Have now listened to the first three episodes of the podcast (well, episodes 0, 1 and 2) and I do believe I’ll be settling in for the long haul …
This is why I’ll always keep coming back to Black Gate.
[…] at the premier fantasy blog of the internet, fellow pulp fantasy junkie and all around cool cat Fletcher Vredenburgh has made Appendix N a […]
Bravo for sounding your call for people to remember the old books in today’s world. Too many good books have been memory-holed, and too many good authors have been forgotten; anything that you do remind people of them will be remembered with thanks by fans in the future. I must check out this podcast.
Thanks also for blowing your horn for P.C. Hodgell, one of the best writers of fantasy today.