Formula, Fiction and the Work of Michael Moorcock
This is the second in my ongoing Series on the work of Michael Moorcock, which will include a review of his latest book The Best of Michael Moorcock, and finally an interview with the man himself.
Some readers may have been surprised at my admiration for Moorcock's formulas for writing fantasy novels, considering previous statements I've made disparaging formula in fiction. I've been especially critical of the tyranny of the three-act structure in film, because so many films are shoe-horned into it that it becomes predictable and rote.
However, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with formula in fiction per se. No less than William Shakespeare used them quite often, and even the strictest literary fiction will often use structural conventions, such as the "moment of epiphany". It occurs to me that a good comparison can be made between music and fiction here— stories that hew closely to formulas, such as the typical closed-door mystery, can be compared to Blues, where the structure from song to song is almost identical and the interesting stuff is what you do on top of it. Looser, say, would be rock music, with its standard forms like ABACAB but no hard-and-fast chord structures, and then there are any number of other forms with varying degrees of complexity and looseness, from the classical sonata to the most experimental out-jazz. What forms you use depends (obviously) on what kind of music you want to make; for someone like Frank Zappa, the ever more bizarre song structures is what makes the work interesting, while for B.B. King, what he plays and sings over the standard structure is where the magic lies. Which is all to say that formula is only bad if you do it in a boring way.
Michael Moorcock has always shown an obsession with structure and an eagerness to play with it. In his early fantasy writing, he took his lead from Robert E. Howard, who wrote relatively simple stories about heroes fighting monsters in which the innovation lay in making the monsters and settings weird and fascinating. Conan the Barbarian may have been the star of the show, but it was the soul-sucking devil-dog or the tortured, blind elder-demon-thing that kept you reading. To this Moorcock added a hallucinatory, sixties sensibility and moody, unpredictable characters, especially the doomed albino Elric. A decade later he followed the lead of a very different writer, William Burroughs, and created the absurd, plotless book A Cure for Cancer, part of the ever-more-experimental Jerry Cornelious series. Even A Cure for Cancer, though, follows deliberate structural decisions; a note at the beginning describing it as being "in something approximating sonata form." Further, all the Cornelious books (which each take place in a different, parallel universe) have ripples and patterns flowing through them, characters and situations following similar courses or being reinvented in intriguing ways. Likewise, the entire Cornelious series references and is referenced by the rest of Moorcock's work, with, for instance, the first part of the first book (The Final Programme) being essentially a rewrite and update of the first Elric story with elements of the psychedelic (and Philip K. Dickian) short story "The Deep Fix" thrown in for good measure.
Throughout his career Moorcock made a project out of mastering different forms and styles, refusing to stay still or stop experimenting, and in this, he is comparable to Pablo Picasso or David Bowie. In one sense, Moorcock's work can be seen to be a reflection of the entirety of 20th century literature, a map of modernist, post-modernist and pulp sensibilities. In another sense, Moorcock's work is a complete, self-contained universe, a game of mirrors, connections, clues and red herrings. And it's Moorcock's obsession with structure which allows him to create his narrative puzzles, and to blueprint so many different styles and fill them up in new and interesting ways.