Home > Books > This is me, Jack Vance by Jack Vance

This is me, Jack Vance by Jack Vance

Ah, yes, an autobiography? That would be a biography you write about yourself. That would be it. Which rather begs the question why people should bother to write a biography of themselves. This is naught but a feeble gesture of vanity, lacking in any objectivity that might question, analyse or prod the mystery of what makes someone great. Still more remarkable is why anyone else should be interested in the scribblings of the “great”. So many of the books adorning the virtual shelves of Amazon today are ghost-written for flighty celebrities whose greatness is as ephemeral as the headlines in today’s gossip rags. Indeed, I live in awe of a publishing machine that churns out the vapid thoughts of the insipid and manages to sell millions of copies. It’s one of the most remarkable of the current shell games where you have to pick between three books knowing that, under one title, there may be the occasional interesting fact.

Ah, yes, those pesky things we call facts. So tell me, my patient readers, why should it be interesting that X was born in such a place with parents of a given background. This is the nature/nurture game played out on a more global stage. Our actor has risen from rags to fleeting notoriety, so let’s rummage through his or her “ordinary” early years to see if we can identify what tipped him or her into fame and fortune. Perhaps then we could distil it, put it in a bottle and sell it on to the masses who crave the same celebrity. After all, no-one else wants to go through the same hard grind of study and practice to learn the skills. We all want to be [insert name star], gaining recognition through the luck of being in the right place at the right time, but having the magic ingredient gleaned from [insert name]’s autobiography to capitalise on the opportunity once it comes. So, plucked from obscurity as a shelf-packer in a supermarket, X acts everyone else off the screen/is a natural comedian/sings like a pro because he or she read a book supposedly written by Michelle Pfeiffer, Bill Cosby or Marlon Jackson (except the latter reversed the trend, going from childhood star to shelf-stacker).

Well, Jack Vance also bucks the trend. Of all the writers I have collected, I have delighted in Vance, having at one time owned every single stand-alone title before selling off almost all my books (courtesy of the excellent Andy Richards, who may still have some of the paperback 1sts left). There’s a magical quality about Vance’s approach to writing as he contrives to weave fantastical facts into a tapestry of wry narrative. I know of no other author who can make a list of local tourist attractions fascinating — for those who have not read Vance, most of his books have characters wandering from place to place, taking in the sights. Some of the time their travel is voluntary. Other times, they are forced through pressure of circumstance to cover vast distances (on one notable occasion, to get back to where they started from). He’s very much a writer of his time, giving us the opportunity to pass a few hours in an amiable way. Although some of his books have a more serious overtone, the majority are a pleasing froth of words and ideas. They may not be the greatest literature ever written (and who among us would ever dare suggest science fiction or fantasy could be literature) but I have reread them several times and have never failed to find new things to enjoy. Who could ask for anything more in a writer.

So now as he approaches the end of his life, his family and fans have prevailed on him to dictate an autobiography. He may be blind, but he can still spin words out over the pages and make a reasonably interesting read.

Except. . . Except what?

What is it we expect in an autobiography? Should it be full of revelations? I did this, said that, wrote the other because. . . As the reader, I am stunned with sudden understanding of motivation! Should it agonise over life-and-death decisions, delving into the deep recesses of the soul? As the reader, I empathise, I am inspired. . .

Well, for Vance, all this is bullshit! He has written the ultimate anti-autobiography that says almost nothing about the man except that he worked when and where he could, had a happy life with a loving wife, and made lots of good friends. Except, in this very self-effacing quality, we do perhaps see the man. It’s the absence of revelation that is the most revealing. This is not, you understand, a private man. He has led a very public life, globe-trotting, socialising with all he meets, and having the temerity to play a jazz cornet indifferently well. Yet he’s discreet, always aware of proprieties. What for him may be “near the knuckle” is nothing in today’s more profane world. So we are left with the conclusion that his fiction is his autobiography. When his characters drift from place to place, this is a travel story in the spirit of Jan Morris, Paul Theroux or Michael Palin, but with Vance as the main protagonist embroidering the fictional tale with his wry asides. Vance is Magnus Ridolph or even Cugel. We know this because Vance never once appears in his own autobiography except to say “Good-bye” to all his fans around the world.

For Vance fans, it’s an interesting list of places he visited and friends he met. For the rest of the world, meet Vance where it matters — in the pages of his admirable fiction.

For those interested in seeing someone writing in Vancean style, try looking at the work of Matthew Hughes. Here is a review of a more recent offering, Template. For an anthology of stories written in the style of Jack Vance, see Songs of the Dying Earth.

For the record, This is Me, Jack Vance! won the Hugo Award 2010 for the Best Related Book.

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  1. May 20, 2010 at 7:43 pm

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