My favorite scene in Lawrence Sterne’s classic comic novel, Tristram Shandy, occurs in the Shandys’ bedroom on the night Tristram is to be conceived. Mr. Shandy has taken great pains to choose the perfect night; and just as the begetting process is getting under way, Mrs. Shandy suddenly asks, “Have you remembered to wind the clock?” That ruined everything.
There are fantasy writers who do the same thing to their fantasies. I’m reading a book now, set in the 5th century and featuring Merlin and King Arthur, in which some of the dialogue reads like today’s text messages. Arghhh! Nothing quite breaks the spell of the story like having Merlin say something like, “Yeah, that guy sure is a crook.” (No, I’m not exaggerating. I wish I were.)
Why do writers do this? The whole point of a fantasy is to make the reader feel he’s in another place, another world. Why would you suddenly remind him that he’s stuck in this one? Why, after going to all the trouble of setting it up, does the writer shatter his own illusion? It’s like a magician letting you see him put the rabbit in the hat, so when he pulls it out again, there’s no sense of magic: it’s just some dork with a rabbit.
Lapses like this force us to ask, “What was the editor doing?” Editors are supposed to spot such gaffes and edit them out. But I think some of you would be amazed at the ignorance and laziness of certain editors.
Please! If you’re writing about King Arthur, or a non-human being in an imaginary world, do not permit him to call anybody “Dude.”
Just don’t do it. Ever.
P.S.: Happy Birthday, Paul Morphy (b. 1837)–America’s first international cultural celebrity, the greatest chess genius of all time, and my favorite player, whose recorded games continue to delight chess fans everywhere.