03 April 2012

Changes in Oz We Can Believe In

At VoVatia (mirrored at the Royal Blog of Oz), Nathan DeHoff extended the discussion begun in part here of the power and appeal of the status quo in the Oz books.

After L. Frank Baum’s first two Oz novels, nearly all those stories are structured around the preservation of and return to the status quo. Ozma remains in charge of the Emerald City. Some kids get to go home, others find a home in that city, and still others (especially in Ruth Plumly Thompson’s sequels) are restored to their rightful royal roles. That pattern’s surely a big part of the series’ appeal.

Books that make too great a change in that status quo are unpopular with fans. For example, most Oz fans dislike the way John R. Neill portrayed life in the Emerald City in the three books he wrote. Suddenly the houses become sentient, as Xamyul catalogues. Soon sentient cars roam the streets. Characters like Ojo, Kabumpo, and Sir Hokus don’t have the identities and homes that preceding books established. No later official Oz authors followed up on Neill’s stories, and the few examples of fanfiction that I’ve seen use some of his characters set his biggest changes aside.

The problem isn’t just consistency with the rest of the series, however. In fact, Baum was inconsistent on details large and small. He described characters dying in Oz and wrote that no one died in Oz, cut Oz off from the outside world and showed people traveling there with little trouble, said that magical artifacts could not travel to Kansas and depicted Dorothy encountering a magical artifact in Kansas. Oz fans don’t reject those contradictions; instead, spotting and if possible explaining them is part of the fun.

What makes Baum’s inconsistencies acceptable but Neill’s irksome? I suspect fans would accept the changes Neill made to the Emerald City more readily if his stories were any good. A talented fantasy illustrator, he didn’t have a good sense of character or narrative, nor good editors. As a result, it’s very hard to make any sort of emotional connection to Neill’s books and thus to become fond of them.

Had Neill written stories that readers deeply wanted to be part of the Oz series, we readers would be quicker to accept that the Emerald City became a stranger place in those years. More of us would accept the unexplained changes in the status quo that other books had established.

Edward Einhorn’s Paradox in Oz shows this rule in action from the other direction. It requires deep changes in our understanding of the Oz universe, with all versions of the myth existing in parallel. Yet I haven’t found any Oz fan expressing deep distaste for how that book changes Baum’s creation, probably because it’s a more enjoyable story.


Hungry Tiger Talk said...

As the editor of PARADOX in Oz, my view was that we could not contradict anything Baum ever wrote about Oz. It was certainly the goal of the book to be entirely true to Baum's vision and the fairyland as he created it.

So it seems funny to me that you single PARADOX out as a sort of radical text that people basically like in spite of it's radicalness.

J. L. Bell said...

Although Paradox in Oz doesn’t contradict anything of Baum (and also fits well with many widely accepted sequels), it also offers multiple alternative pictures of Oz, and thus suggests that it’s impossible for anything to contradict the myth. In some ways, that’s a more radical challenge to the idea of a settled continuity than a depiction of Oz as we’ve known it with some newly invented sentient cars rolling around.

Yes, there’s the official Oz continuity that Ozma knows, the status quo that Paradox eventually returns us to. But there‘s also the continuity with an intact, ax-wielding Nick Chopper, the continuity with a Scarecrow who looks like Larry Semon, presumably even a continuity with Scalawagons, unseen only because they’re still under copyright.

Paradox is unlike most preceding Oz novels in other ways as well. Aside from counting to seventeen by twos, Oz novels don’t have the Carrollian logic puzzles that Tempus brings in. Aside from the inadvertent twist of time in Lucky Bucky, Oz novels don’t try to twist straightforward narratives. Those qualities offer Oz fans other ways to deem the book “un-Ozzy.”

Yet I’ve seen fans embrace Paradox even as they acknowledge its differences from older Oz novels. And I think that’s the result of it being fun to read.

Hungry Tiger Talk said...

Thanks for the kind words - and generally I agree with what you've said.

Still I'm not convinced writing quality or story quality is the ingredient responsible. From myu POV as editor (and Oz fan) I felt an absolute need to make sure the book didn't violate Baum's basic construction as I felt that would pull the reader (or at least me) right out of the story.

While Ozma does encounter some alternate, whacky, and violent versions of Oz in her adventure, we are in her head and she lives in and knows Baum's Oz. As long as Ozma can say, "Ewww, yuck, that is not the right Oz this is horrible!" i think the readers can go right along with her and stomach the weirdness because Ozma's agreeing with the reader that it's all kinda whacked.

James C. Wallace II said...

It's good to see that alternate views of Oz can be embraced, even when it irritates one's own view of Emerald City, Princess Ozma, or the more-than-occasional mention of Potato Soup. BTW, the Morels are out and about.

J. L. Bell said...

I think that's true, but I also think that if Edward Einhorn hadn't written a good story a significant number of readers would look at Paradox and say, "Okay, it doesn't disagree in any 'factual' way with the Oz I imagine, but it's kind of weird, and I'm not sure about the implications, and overall it feels more like an intellectual exercise than an Oz book." The story gave the book an emotional pull, as good fiction has.

In terms of consistency with the established series, it would be far easier to accept yet another tale of an American child traveling to Oz, having a few adventures, and getting sent home. Someone could write such a book in complete accordance with the standard series yet not convince many fans to accept that Oz book as "real" if the story and characters aren't appealing. At least that's my theory.