How did you learn to do what matters to you? Who were the teachers, the foils, the models who shaped that process? When I try to answer those questions, I find myself coming back to the writers I read and reread not just for the familiar pleasure of it but to renew my sense of what I do for a living and why I try to do it well: A. J. Liebling for the way he couches an argument in a humane story; Edith Wharton for crisp descriptions of characters in resonant settings; Robert E. Howard for his swinging rhythm; Charles Portis for mastery of tone.
At the head of my list, and at the very foundation of my understanding of the whole enterprise of using language with meaningful purpose, there’s Jack Vance, who died last week at age 96. Vance, who published dozens of books in his long career, was a distinguished writer of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. He liked to present himself as a regular guy who wrote fast and for the money, but he handled language with an expert joy that inspires readers — and that has had the signal effect of turning some of his readers into writers. Michael Chabon, Ursula Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, Tanith Lee, Neil Gaiman, and Dan Simmons are among the prominent authors who identify reading Vance at an impressionable age as a turning point on their own path to their calling.
Vance caught me early, too. I spent a large portion of my high school years reading pulp fiction instead of doing my homework, and chief among my diversions was Vance’s “The Eyes of the Overworld,” which I reread an absurd number of times. Not only did its darkly comic elegance of language give me a strong nudge on my way to what I would end up doing for a living, but I remember giving silent thanks to pulp fictioneers in general and Vance in particular when I took my SATs. The seemingly idle time I’d spent ingesting Vancian words like punctilio and largesse was suddenly, unexpectedly helping me get where I needed to go.
Here’s a specimen paragraph from Vance’s novel “The Asutra,” a thumbnail portrait of a village passed through on the way to somewhere else:
“At the inn they paused to survey the settlement. The afternoon was warm and placid: infants crawled in the dirt; older children played at slave-taking among the tents, leaping forth with ropes to drag away their captives. At the trough under the windmill three squat dark-haired women in leather pants and straw capes bickered with the ahulphs. The women carried sticks and struck at the ahulphs’ long sensitive feet whenever they attempted to drink: the ahulphs in turn kicked dirt at the women and screamed abuse. Beside the road a dozen crones in shapeless straw cloaks huddled beside offerings of goods to be traded: mounds of dark-red meal, thongs of dried meat, blue-black finger-grubs in boxes of wet moss, fat green beetles tethered to stakes, sugar-pods, boiled birds, cardamoms, salt-crusts. Above, the vast bright sky; to all sides, the hot flat plain; far in the east a band of riders, visible only as a vibration of black specks, with a thin plume of lavender dust above. . . .”
Vance, one of genre fiction’s great world-thinkers, renders a whole way of life with a few deft strokes. The playing children caught up in dire social forces, the invented creatures described with reference only to what makes them vulnerable to their masters’ cruelty, the pervasive mating of beauty to violence, the portent of trouble looming in the distance — it all comes fully to life in just 166 words that somehow feel both lushly evocative and stripped down to lean essence.
Vance was a well-traveled man, and his characters spend a lot of time on the road, getting the lay of the land, mixing with grasping strangers in dubious hostelries. His fantastic tales have served as my models of going out into the world to get a look at the awful and funny and occasionally heroic things that people are up to, and putting it all on the page in precise, singing prose.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’