Stark Reviews: West & Soda (1965)
Friday Five: 5 Things You Might Not Know About London

KJ Parker's Two of Swords x The Easy Way Out

Two of SwordsFrom K.J. Parker's Two of Swords (Episode 9):

"You want to know a secret? Writing what you call good music is easy, piece of cake. You're writing for intelligent, educated people who are prepared to meet you halfway. It's the army songs and the romantic ballads that made me sweat blood."

"I don't believe you."

"Because they're simple and accessible? You don't know anything about writing music. Simple and accessible is the hardest thing there is. It's like designing a clock mechanism with only two moving parts. It's working with both hands tied behind your back. You're limited to a simple melodic line, which has to conform to strict form. You've got the voice and one instrument and that's it, no orchestra, no counterpoint, nothing.... And that's why I earn good money. Because I can give people what they want. Not just the smart ones. Everybody."

"All right," she said grudgingly. "If money is all that matters -"

"It's the only reliable way of keeping score," he said. "A thousand cultured folk will tell you they love your symphony, but can you believe them? But if a hundred thousand poor people decide they can afford two stuivers to hear you sing, that probably means you're actually getting something right."


Worth noting that the sardonic reference to 'smart' people is done in character; the speaker here is Oida, a snooty triple-agent/composer/performer who enjoys the privileges of success but isn't always so impressed by the upper crust with whom he mingles.

On the whole, this is one of the most cogent defenses of epic fantasy - or any commercial fiction - I've ever read, and it is buried in the ninth part of an ongoing serial.

Being populist is seen as the 'easy way out', and Oida's arguments to the contrary are rather compelling:

  • Making things simple is harder, not easier, than making things complicated
  • You're giving people what they want to receive, not what you want to give
  • Working with the familiar (tropes!), in a way that makes it interesting can be the greater challenge

And, perhaps even more controversially:

  • Popularity is a quantifiable metric of success
  • Therefore, getting it right isn't about the pleasing the 1% - but the 99%

This is, of course, the character's view, not necessarily the author's, but I'm stashing it here for reference in future discussions. 

If we're using this definition of success, doing it 'right' is a matter of doing simple well. Of course, what we mean here by success - popularity - is the controversial part, but it is measurable and it isn't elitist, two factors that may not chime well with everyone, but at least it gives us a shared platform for discussion.

As noted elsewhere (generally when I'm going through the DGLA lists every year), 'best' = 'most popular' is a definition of 'best' that may not resonate with my personal taste, but at least it is a definition, and one with measurable criteria. It isn't the best definition of 'best', but it is a definition of 'best', and that's more than we get for most uses of the word. 

Just to run with it: Two of Swords is one example of the 'simple' done right. With assassins, emperors, generals, rogues, farmboys-turned-hero - this serial has all the familiar trappings of epic fantasy. All conveyed (as you can see) in Parker's straightforward, no-frills prose. One of the delights of reading Parker is that the writing is always direct and clear; even when it comes to complex concepts. The mechanic of the serial is also a way of delivering the story as simply and as accessibly as possible - crunchy, bite-sized chunks of epic! But, as we can see from the extract above, despite the traditional building blocks, the restrictions of the setting and the challenges of the format, Two of Swords still finds ways of making things interesting and being about more than assassins, emperors and farmboys turned hero. It is simple, and that simplicity contains all the complexity you might ever desire.