Maijstral (Comedy is Hard)

by wjw on June 20, 2011

I thought I’d write down some thoughts on the Maijstral books, in anticipation of their imminent release in e-formats.

(And first of all, the matter of pronunciation.  I pronounce it My-STRAHL.  You are, however, welcome to pronounce the protagonist’s name any way you like.  I’ll know who you’re talking about.)

I wrote these books pretty much accidentally.  It wasn’t part of any plan.  I had just finished Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind, both of which would become Tor hardbacks.  Neither of them had appeared yet in print, and I had the proposal and the first 100 pages of Angel Station ready, but my editor informed me that Tor was unwilling to acquire a new hardback before they found out how the first two did in the marketplace.

I was taken aback by this sudden drop in Tor’s confidence level.  (Now that I’m more experienced, I know that publishers do bonehead stuff like this all the time.   It’s normal for a publisher to fork over money for some books that they think are promising, and then freeze in sudden terror as they realize they have actually made a bet that an author might succeed.  They then spend a couple years hiding under their desks at the thought that the author might actually walk into the office with a manuscript under his arm.  Then, if the author’s books are successful, they publishers get angry because the author doesn’t have a followup ready.  And because there’s a two or three-year gap till the next book, all the author’s momentum is lost, and the career often crashes . . . and it’s all the publishers’ fault, because they are stupid stupid stupid. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to clean out editorial offices with a flamethrower.)

A more experienced Walter would have told Tor to go fuck itself and written a book for someone else, probably for more money.  But instead, a little taken aback, I proposed a quickie paperback trilogy.

What I wanted was a way to distinguish my quickie paperbacks from serious (and far more lucrative) novels like Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind. So I thought I’d write comedies that couldn’t be mistaken from my weightier works.  I furthermore set them off by referring to them, in the “other books by this author” list (opposite the title page) as “divertimenti.”

That said, they were books that I kinda wanted to write, if not exactly right at that moment.  I’d always wanted to try my hand at comedy, and in fact “write a comedy” was on my to-do list.

I had a lot of funny stuff to inspire me.  When in my teens I read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse, till I realized all his books had the same plot and I lost interest.  (Now, as a writer, I can only admire Wodehouse his ability to write ninety-odd books with the same plot.)  In college I’d read a vast amount of Shakespeare— practically majored in the Elizabethans— but the comedies that really struck my fancy were those of Ben Jonson, Moliere, and (most of all) the English Restoration, writers like Congreve, Wycherly, Vanbrugh, and Aphra Behn.  These were a good deal more ruthless than those by Shakespeare.  They were sharper.  More satirical.  Less sentimental.

Maijstral is a Restoration buck— self-centered, aristocratic, stylish, without funds, yet privileged— and, though not quite as heartless as Wycherly’s heroes, he does at least as well with the ladies.   And his servant, Roman, is Jeeves with a black belt, who truly deplores the terms of his employment as a leg-breaker as well as a valet.

There was also a tradition of droll science fiction that I’d absorbed:  Panshin’s Villiers books, Poul Anderson’s Flandry and Nicholas van Rijn, Jack Williamson’s Giles Habibula, Laumer’s Retief stories (before they got all angry and didactic).

This was pretty much an extinct subgenre even in 1985, when I started writing The Crown Jewels.  You could no more sell a Flandry-type story now than you could The Country Wife.  The whole field has moved away from that sort of thing.  (As, incidentally, it has moved away from the type of satire so prominent in the 1950s, as practiced by Fred Pohl, William Tenn, and Cyril Kornbluth.  Possibly because it’s impossible to produce satire in the modern world— you simply can’t think of anything more outrageous than what’s in the daily news.  I remember when Paddy Chayefsky’s Network was cutting-edge satire— now it’s just a documentary.)

As for why Maijstral’s genre is extinct, I refer you to its name: it’s the Comedy of Manners.  You can’t have a comedy of manners in a society that isn’t mannered, and ours isn’t.  As a culture, we don’t even have a memory of a mannered society.  Which is why the remake of The Women bombed.   A story that made sense when it was about 1930s New York sophisticates doesn’t work in a world with Casual Fridays.

(There’s plenty of comic SF and fantasy out there now, but it’s mostly parody.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, a good parody is a joy forever, as Terry Pratchett has frequently proved.  There’s also a small subgenre of screwball comedies, by folks like Lawrence Schoen and Connie Willis.  And, occasionally, by me— I refer you to “The Tang Dynasy Underwater Pyramid.”)

Another big influence were the works of Donald Westlake, particularly the Dortmunder books, which feature a buncha guys who steal for a living.  My hero likewise steals, he just steals on television.

The contract paid me $8000 for each book, and I got half on signing.  The $12,000 got me through the first two books, after which I needed a hit of higher income— and by that time Tor was ready for Angel Station.  The third book kept getting delayed and delayed, because I couldn’t afford to write a book for that final payment of $4000.  The contract succeeded in impoverishing me, but slowly.   Eventually Rock of Ages appeared in 1995, seven years after House of Shards. (So far as I could see, no one noticed— even diehard Maijstral fans didn’t know that Rock of Ages was available.)

Anyway,  I set to work.  The books feature what I was writing about anyway— crime, obsession, violence,  sex, rebellion, conspiracy, and digital media.  Except funny.

This brought to the fore a point of craft: How make funny?

The answer to the question How make funny? is short and to the point: A whole fuck of a lot of work.  Which brings to mind the last words of the actor Edmund Kean: “Dying is easy, but comedy is hard.”

This was supposed to be a quickie series, tossed off lightly and effortlessly.  It was neither quick nor effortless.  It was a whole load of work, and for very little return.

One of the ways I made funny was Deadpan, inspired perhaps by Buster Keaton.   People who are inside a joke, I realized, are not laughing.  Everyone in the books is dead serious about what they’re doing, and in complete earnest.  If the end result is hilarity, it’s not because the characters were trying to be funny, it’s because they were trying to be themselves.

Another way to make funny is Distance.   Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy from close-up, and a divine comedy from a distance.”  If you’ve got a knockabout scene in which people are being banged on the head by shovels, you don’t actually want the audience to be close to those people, because then they’ll feel their pain and won’t be inclined to laugh.

Not if they’re normal, anyway.

A corollary of Distance is Not Too Caring.  You want the audience to care enough about the characters to want to follow their story, but they can’t care about them so much that they won’t be amused when they’re socked in the jaw, stuffed into a garbage chute, escape only to find themselves naked and covered with muck in the white-upholstered bedroom inhabited by a screaming stranger and the stranger’s spouse, who is a knife-throwing champion with a bad hangover.

See?  You’re smiling already.

Another way to make funny is Opposites Go Boom.  Cops and robbers become incendiary when in close proximity.  Cranks get huffy in the presence of other cranks.  Egotists collide with egotists, and go crazy when people aren’t paying attention to them.  Snobs go in a tizzy when someone eats with the wrong fork.  Just think Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont.  Arlecchino and Pantalone.  Ferris Bueller and Ed Rooney.  Dame Edna Everage and the Royal Family.  The Three Stooges and Eleanor Roosevelt.

And then there’s Piling On.  If one cop and one robber is funny, three cops and three robbers is funnier, particularly if the robbers are disguised as cops and the cops are undercover disguised as robbers.  And then they get confused with a couple dozen people dressed as cops and/or robbers for a costume party, except for the one person who’s dressed as Kaiser Wilhelm because he got the wrong memo.

Another rule is Everyone is There For a Reason.  (Except maybe for the guy at the lemonade stand, who’s just standing there minding his own business until Harpo and Chico show up.)  What this means is that Everyone Has an Agenda.  And everyone is very serious about their Agenda,  especially when their Agendas start colliding in a series of explosions.

So in House of Shards, for example, we’ve got two master thieves, one obsessed cop, one footsore cop, an undercover actor, a couple of celebrities, a man in disguise, an apprentice celebrity, a reporter, an enigmatic alien, a number of purposeful females to complicate the hero’s life, and THE GREATEST TREASURE IN THE GALAXY, which is up for grabs.  All the characters have their agendas, not all of which are visible on the surface, but which are bound to come into conflict.

These books have the most complex plots of any I’ve written.  And I’ve written a lot of complex plots.

So . . . how did these books do?

Horribly.  They came out in paperback in a period when any important book was published in hardback.  They were comedy— and, as Woody Allen sadly observes, “When you do comedy, you are not sitting at the grownups’ table.”  I was supposed to be this hard-as-nails cyberpunk— which I was, in my own peculiar way— and the Maijstral books just confused everybody.

These books sold worse than any of my books.  They didn’t even earn my pathetic advances back.

I think they probably set back my career, possibly permanently.  If I had followed Voice of the Whirlwind with Angel Station or any other work suitable for the grownups’ table, I would have gone from strength to strength.  Instead my career took this weird loopy track off into the wilderness for a couple years, and much of the momentum drained away.

Still, the books have a loyal, if numerically insignificant, audience.  They might find an audience yet.

We’ll just have to hope the Long Tail Effect takes over.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Oz June 20, 2011 at 10:20 am

You had me at the Alexi Panshin Villiers’ novels. After that, I just enjoyed the discussion of how to write comedy.

Lawrence M. Schoen June 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I’m devastated to discover that you and I are not pronouncing Drake’s name the same way (and that I’ve been reading it with a bit dyslexia all these years).

The idea that these three books sold so poorly simply stuns me. I’m afraid to ask what the SFBC paid out for the omnibus of TEN POINTS FOR STYLE, but I hope it was enough to cover a few good meals somewhere. I loved these three books, and I’m very pleased that they’l be available as ebooks.

Maijstral was one of the influences cooking in the pot of my imagination when I was crafting Conroy. I’d say thank you for that, but if I start itemizing the things I have to thank you for we’d be here all day.

Stacy June 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Count me in as a devoted follower of the Maijstral books. I love all your educated, mannered characters. (I still go back and enjoy “The Millenium Party” every so often, because your descriptions are so good). I still have all the dead-tree versions of the three books, but I just picked all three e-versions at Barnes & Noble yesterday as a Father’s Day present to myself. They’re so modestly priced, I couldn’t resist and now I have them with me wherever I go.

As soon as Aristoi is available, I’ll be picking that up as well (hint hint)

Thanks for making these available.

Colin Smiley June 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm

You can count me among the followers of the Maijstral books. I have all 3, and I even have the hardcover of Rock of Ages signed by you (at a World Con).

As for how I got interested in the series? I picked the first up based on name recognition, having enjoyed Hardwired and Whilrwind, and then something interesting happened. I had just read a Star Trek humor book, How Much For Just The Planet, which mashed up Gilbert & Sullivan musicals with a Looney Tunes slapstick sensibility. So when I picked up your books, I was ready for the humor. I was hooked.

Ingvar June 20, 2011 at 6:29 pm

For what it is worth, I initially read Hardwired, then House of Shards (and actually own a paperback copy of Rock of Ages, as it was the only Maijstral book I could find for sale) and found them both eminently readable, although quite different.

But, I don’t consider “having a range” as a bad thing in an author and have, since then, tried to keep my shelves stocked.

Annoyingly, I keep needing to buy copies of Aristoi as my copies always seem to end up not in my bookshelf. I am, I believe, on my third copy now. I console myself that it probably ends up being a (small) line item on your royalty statements.

Brad DeLong June 20, 2011 at 10:41 pm

So enough already! Where are they?

Shash June 21, 2011 at 3:19 am

I love the Maijstraal books. Except that I was not able to locate a copy of House of Shards. I’ve read the other two several times. There’s always something new to my mind, each time I read. However, no matter how I try to get the correct spelling and pronounciation in my head, my dyslexia constantly swaps the “i” and the “j” in his name. The gift of the Maji, I expect.

wjw June 21, 2011 at 4:56 am

Shash>> you mean the Maij, surely . . .

And Brad, here ya go: http://www.walterjonwilliams.net/2011/06/maijstral-at-last/

John Appel June 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Thanks very much for this, along with your many other posts about writing and the writer’s life. I’ve pointed my daughter (an aspiring writer with a penchant for comedy, especially Terry Pratchett) at this entry.

For what it’s worth, I find comedic writing of any kind virtually impossible. Pain? I can do pain. I think anyone can do pain, if one has lived a remotely challenging life. But writing intentionally for laughs? I might as well be trying to write in Sanskrit.

wjw June 21, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Writing for laughs is scary. You never know whether the humor will translate to prose. You never know whether you’re going to get a Saturday night crowd filled with liquor and ready to have a good time, or a Sunday matinee of elderly pensioners who can’t hear you and wouldn’t understand the jokes even if they did.

Trauma is a lot easier.

But I have to disagree with Edmund Kean— as an =actor=, I always found comedy easier.

Sarah Stegall June 21, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Are. You. F’ing. Kidding??? They didn’t sell well? They ruined your career? This is terrible news. Walter, I love these books. I read all three of them at least once a year. They are falling apart from use. I will never, on my best, most perfectly talented day, write anything as marvelous as the court dance, or the Ronnie Romper fight, or the Elvis competition. When I grow up, I want to BE an Allowed Burglar. Or at least work for one. So to read that they were such a struggle, for so little reward, and did so much damage, well, it just breaks my heart. Know that I, at least, treasure all three books, read them with love and laughter all the time, and envy you the ability to write like this. I only wish they brought you as much joy as they brought me.

JaniceG June 21, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Perhaps the series will do better at this point in history – after all, comedies did really well during the Depression! I’m hoping that’s the case not only because I wish you much success, of course, but because if they’re *really* successful, perhaps you could be /c/o/e/r/c/e/d/ convinced to write another one :->

BTW, regarding why the remake of The Women bombed: I’ve seen the 30s movie countless times and still love it for the acting, clever dialogue, and period feel but there’s no denying that it is a spectacularly sexist work. (Of course, adding extraneous characters and dumbing down the dialogue in the remake probably didn’t help either.)

Rebecca June 22, 2011 at 11:35 am

Fascinating slice of history! I’m saddened to find that the series had such a disproportionate and negative effect, because I adore those books. I will even confess to a firmly held belief that he picked the wrong girl, but perhaps that was the point. :) I have the omnibus and reread them all every couple of years. The spine has recently cracked, so I guess I’ll be replacing it with an e-version at some point.

Even after many readings, the “Flower lover!” “Barbarian.” exchange still makes me laugh, as do the Khosali in general, “sporting with wet-muzzled damosels in the moonlight” and all (I hope I got that right).

Virginia Lyon June 22, 2011 at 4:21 pm

A friend who knows I am a big Maijstral fan (I do try to share books I love) sent me a link — wonderful news, thank you! Sorry to hear about the lack of sales and popularity that have given you such a headache. I, for one, have been very grateful for the stories and have re-read them several times. I have always wished there were more!

wjw June 22, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Sarah, I think it’s certainly an exaggeration to say that they ruined my career.

Held it back, yes. They weren’t the right thing to do, purely from a commercial perspective.

Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) June 23, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Well, I for one fell upon “House of Shards” with cries of joy when it first came out. I’d already read the first two books and was very impatient for another. I can only imagine that the books didn’t do well because few readers heard about them; surely if there had a critical mass of initial readers word of mouth would have brought in more.

Maybe it’s just my eccentricity, but while I enjoyed “Hardwired” and “Voice of the Whirlwind” (and reread them yet again just a few months ago), I like Drake Maijstral’s stories even more, and would gladly pay hardback prices for a new one.

It may be true that we live in an unmannered society, but I don’t think that means we aren’t interested in reading mannered writing. In fact, I think just the opposite is true: I find I’m even more interested in reading about qualities of life that seem to be missing now. I didn’t really get interested in James Branch Cabel’s mannerist fantasies until about 20 years ago, as manners were clearly disappearing from the world around me.

wjw June 24, 2011 at 4:02 am

Y’know, I forgot to mention Cabell in my list of droll ancestors. I certainly read enough of him: my local library had a lot of his works. I wish I’d stolen them, because they’re no longer on the shelves and almost certainly been destroyed.

Beth June 24, 2011 at 5:01 am

I was browsing Smashwords. I saw a name I thought I recognized. I puttered over here, gave things a look-see, and have snaffled up the 99c one to see how I like it. I fear I have high hopes, considering this post! *grin*

By the by, a quick search of Project Gutenberg suggests they have a LOT of James Branch Cabell stuff. So hopefully you can get the Cabell books without the weight of stolen books upon your head?

Virginia June 24, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Speaking of hard cover, I did purchase them a second time and pay for hardcover when I bought “Ten Points for Style”.

Dave Bishop June 26, 2011 at 11:12 am

I bought several of the James Branch Cabell books that Lin Carter edited for the Ballantine ‘Adult Fantasy’ (unfortunate name!) paperback series in the late 1960s/early 1970s. I suppose that I bought them because Jack Vance (my ‘fave rave’ at the time) quoted Cabell as an influence. To be quite honest, I never quite ‘got’ them. Maybe I should re-visit them (?)

RonInAz June 27, 2011 at 5:43 am

Count me among those that love the Drake Majistral series.

I bought House of Shards off of name recognition and continued to purchase the books in the series as I found them.

I was delighted when I found an Omnibus version of the three at a local book store.

There are many things in it that cheer me up when I need it; A childhood favorite character as a harbinger of doom, Elvis impersonations as high art and the Yell of Hate when engaging in a combat to the death.

It’s sad to hear that these works were not financially successful. Hopefully you will find some satisfaction in knowing they can turn someones week around when they need it.

Scotoma June 29, 2011 at 2:02 pm

I was impressed by Hardwired, Voice of the Whirlwind and Aristoi when I first read them, but loved the Drake Maijstral books when they came out (thought I only read the first and the second one, as the third one was never translated).

Brent June 30, 2011 at 7:17 pm

I re-read the Majistral series every year or two. Great books. They raise the very important literary question: Why didn’t Shakespeare write any westerns?

Eric Greystone July 2, 2011 at 3:26 am

I can’t begin to tell you how much I love these books. I hope the ebook versions sell well, and it becomes possible for you to write more in the series. I’ll see if I can get the ball rolling on a few sales, just to get you started.

Joel July 15, 2011 at 12:21 am

I loved the Majistral books as well — in fact, they were the first works of yours I read, and it was quite a surprise to me to find that you also wrote “serious” stuff!

M Styborski October 22, 2011 at 8:59 am

You had me at Knight Moves, but…

Count me among the ‘numerically insignificant’. I found a coverless copy of KM in a paper grocery bag filled with diverse and mostly bad paperback fiction my mother brought home one day. It was the only sci-fi in the bag so it went into my library immediately. After that you were competing with Niven & Pournelle when I visited the bookshops. (OK, not really, you were definitely ahead.)

Next came HW then it’s a blur between VotW and Crown. All I know is Crown was the book that had me thinking “This Sultan Of Books can really write.” It’s one thing to write good hard SF, but what you created in the Maijstral series was a rich and complex universe that held up under the nitpicking scrutiny many SF fans seem to be born with.

I thank you deeply for the trilogy and can’t wait until you become so desperate for money that you’re forced to write another!

While I’m here, I may as well thank you for everything else… Atonement, DEF, the Metropolitan duo, and The Rift and TINAG, among others. The Rift was simply stunning. It and the Drake series got me through Katrina’s aftermath. Just finished TINAG and the Act I scenes of the internet rally to save Dag brought back memories of those strange days after the storm when we were all trying to coordinate and sift the bull from the facts by internet and text messages.

You are, and will always be, the first author I look for on the shelves. Thank you!

wjw October 22, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Thank you, sir. You made my day!

Rowyn April 26, 2012 at 8:59 pm

I love the Maijstral books. They’re my favorite of your novels. I’m so happy you’re e-releasing them! We misplaced our copy of the Crown Jewels years ago, to my sorrow, and I will be delighted to buy an ecopy of it. :) Heck, I’ll probably buy them all just because e-versions are more convenient. :)

Bryan May 8, 2015 at 12:56 am

So I guess coming here to demand (beg) for more of these books isn’t going to work out for me. :( Frowney face.

wjw May 8, 2015 at 1:17 am

Bryan, all you have to do is bring a big enough check. With money, all things are possible.

Danny in Canada January 24, 2016 at 8:30 pm

What about a Patreon?

wjw January 25, 2016 at 12:27 am

[looks up Patreon]

Hmm. Interesting. I’ll check that out.

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