Guest post: Fantasy and Vulgarity by J.L. Worrad

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Risingshadow has the honour of participating in J.L. Worrad's Pennyblade Blog Tour.

J.L. Worrad
J.L. Worrad

J.L. Worrad lives in Leicester, England, and has for almost all his life. He has a degree in classical studies from Lampeter University, Wales. He has found this invaluable to his growth as a science fiction and fantasy writer in that he soon discovered how varied and peculiar human cultures can be.

In 2011 Worrad won three grand on a lottery scratch card and so attended Clarion, the six-week SF workshop held at the University of California, San Diego. There, he studied under some of the genre’s leading professionals and also got to see a lot of wild hummingbirds.

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Click here to visit author official website.

Pennyblade by J.L. Worrad
by J.L. Worrad

A sharp-tongued disgraced-noble-turned-mercenary has to stop the world collapsing into chaos in this gripping, savagely funny epic fantasy packed with unforgettable characters, for fans of Joe Abercrombie.

Exile. Mercenary. Lover. Monster. Pennyblade.

Kyra Cal’Adra has spent the last four years on the Main, living in exile from her people, her power and her past. A commrach, she's welcome among the humans only for her rapierwork. They don't care about her highblood, which of the gleaming towers she came from, nor that her family aspires to rule the Isle.

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Guest post: Fantasy and Vulgarity by J.L. Worrad

My upcoming novel, Pennyblade, has been getting mixed reviews in that best possible way: by being, well, provocative. My editor at Titan Books called it early on, saying with sibyl-like accuracy, ‘I don’t see Pennyblade getting many three-stars on Goodreads.’

He was bang-on. At any given moment, it’ll be five stars in SFX Magazine’s back pages or one star in an ARC review on Netgalley. In fact, as of writing this, it’s fives and ones all over the place, with a solid turn out of four stars and a light drizzle of twos. You get the picture. Pennyblade is a ‘marmite’ book as we say in the U.K, either adored or abhorred (For the record I’m pretty meh about the spreadable ooze that is Marmite, so perhaps the analogy is inappropriate). Any author finding their work in this position becomes a human cocktail equal parts anxious and ecstatic. That is to say, shaken and stirred.

When a fantasy novel gets its ass sat down on such a critical see-saw it’s usually for one reason: it is thought to contain ‘vulgarity’. By which people mean profanity, toilet references and, above all, sex. Not the sort of sex, mind, that happens behind closed doors or just as the chapter ends. We’re talking the sort that jiggles unabashedly for several paragraphs in a room where no one thought to install so much as a beaded curtain.

Now I welcome any review, even the scathing ones. As any writer with sense knows, the alternative -- zero reviews -- is far, far worse. So please believe me when I tell you this blog post is not the product of bitterness. Far from it. I’m just fascinated, especially now as I have a ringside seat, by how the fantasy community handles talking about a ‘vulgar’ book when one slithers into view. I suspect it’s different to literary fiction which had its climax with obscenity and outrage way back in the sixties (Last Exit To Brooklyn, Naked Lunch, Lady Chatterley etc, most of which make Pennyblade look like Pepper Pig). Generally speaking, fantasy has never been cool enough to bag itself an obscenity trial, though hope springs eternal.

Even glowing reviews (Which I’m all for, readers! Really I am!) feel the need to excuse the tasteless and indelicate. I’ve seen it not just with my own offerings but with a few classics of the genre, for Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself (which had a lot of swearing for 2006) and Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart (which has enough boinking for any given year) among others. ‘Yes, I know there’s vulgarity,’ the advocate fan says, ‘but please, please read on.’

It’s an understandable predicament. Here’s a work close to your heart, that you desperately want others to experience, yet with it comes aspects that will not only make others prejudge it but possibly even prejudge you. Believe me, I’ve been that fan.

Maybe it goes back to Tolkien. It often does. He’s the founding stone of modern fantasy after all, at least of the Eurocentric kind, and none of his characters ever seem eager for horizontal refreshment. Nor, to my recollection, do any of them squat behind a bush and relieve themselves even once on the one thousand seven hundred and seventy-nine miles from the Shire to Mordor (Thanks Google!). Such things, after all, are neither epic nor noble are they? But they are human.

‘Oh come on,’ the filth-averse fantasy reader might say, ‘I’m no prude, far from it, but descriptions of such things are unnecessary. All this foul language is completely unneeded. It does nothing but get in the way of the tale.’ When I hear or read people saying this I always think of Alec Guinness in the 1949 comedy Kind Hearts And Coronets, when his dusty Church of England vicar describes a church window as having ‘all the exuberance of Chaucer without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of his period’. They hunger for a pre-modern world bereft of grit and earthiness. They want a sanitised, sterilised past, a laminated middle ages. They’re welcome to it, but as a fan of history I shall forever want my Chaucer complete with all the trimmings and extra raunch dressing.

Pennyblade is the most ‘vulgar’ thing I’ve written. Not the most vulgar thing ever written, far from it, not even in the fantasy genre, but it’s certainly replete with sex and swearing and occasional bodily function (Violence too, though that never seems to put quite as many backs up). Here’s the thing though: Pennyblade is also the most moral thing I’ve written, the most romantic too. That’s far from a paradox. Jewels shine brightest when pulled from the dirt and held to sunlight. In a glass display they can only ever collect dust.