When we were at the State Fair last week – yes, we do usually go more than once
– we made a point to see several of the free shows. “Walking with Lions” was mostly nice for a chance to view some beautiful animals. “K9 Kings Flying Dog Show” was full of enthusiasm. However, for us, the no-question favorite was the performance by the Yangdong Chinese Acrobatic Troupe.
In the span of about twenty-five minutes, we saw pole-climbing (and some fascinating controlled falls), hoop diving, astonishing leaps and bounces performed without benefit of a trampoline, an amazing contortionist, and a charming and dextrous woman who spun various lightweight objects (such as a paper umbrella) on her feet.
The troupe’s coach took the stage to give an awesome demonstration that involved highspeed twirling of a wide-blade trident. This he whirled not only between his hands, but up and down his arms and over his back. This was an impressive enough display of controlled dexterity when he did his first set, but when, for the second round, both ends of the trident were set on fire, it was really amazing.
To make all of these performances more interesting, monsoon season is upon us. Gusty pre-thunderstorm winds meant that props often had their own idea where they should be heading. This was hard enough on the hoop divers and the contortionist (part of her performance involved five lit candelabras). However, several times the winds removed the umbrella the young woman was twirling on her feet right off the stage.
Even so, for all of these, the winds were an inconvenience. The finale was a routine that the winds made not only challenging, but possibly dangerous. Those of you who have seen Chinese acrobats are probably familiar with some version of this routine. An acrobat, in this case a young woman, comes forth carrying a square-built chair and places it on the stage. Then she gets up on the seat and does handstands of various sorts.
The act becomes thrilling when an assistant brings out another chair. This one is set on top of the one below, upside down, so that the back of the upper chair rests on the seat of the lower chair. Now the young woman mounts to the upper reaches of this unfastened platform and does more handstands and the like.
This continues through a third chair, a fourth, a fifth, with the woman mounting about three feet higher each time. Jim and I were sitting in the center section, right in front of the stage and I am not exaggerating when I say that we could see the chairs swaying slightly when the winds hit. If the tower had gone down, the chairs and the acrobat would have been in our laps.
However, despite occasionally stopping for a moment when the winds were particularly strong, the young lady persisted. When she had built a tower five chairs high, a sixth one was lifted up to her. Not satisfied to repeat the routine she had done on the lower tiers, she braced this last chair at various angles and struck increasingly daring poses.
The photo accompanying these wanderings is of one of these.
Please remember, the acrobat is not in a theater with safety nets beneath her, but on an outdoor stage amid gusty winds, winds that must have been augmented by the thunderous applause and shouts of appreciation from the audience below. The acrobat did have three spotters, but had she come down, they all would have been dodging chairs as they hoped to arrest her fall.
But she didn’t fall. She finished her final twist, then, chair by chair, she dismounted, taking her bows with a beaming smile.
Now, as I already said, this routine is something of a classic. Even I, who have not seen that many Chinese acrobatic performances, have seen it before. Thinking about the act afterwards, I found myself wondering. When does something become a classic as opposed to “tried and true” or, far worse, “hackneyed,” “old hat,” and “cliched”? Does something cease to be of value simply because you’ve seen it before?
Certainly, this was not the case for this tower of chairs routine. I’d be happy to watch it again – with or without high winds – many, many times again. Skill is skill. Talent is talent, at least in athletic performances.
However, writers (and others in the creative arts) face a different challenge. For writers (and the rest), often it is not enough to do the classic well. There is a craving for novelty – especially on the part of reviewers and editors. They want to see something new. Sometimes I’m not sure that this “new” thing needs to be particularly good. On the other hand, there are readers who want nothing new at all.
I once had my hair cut by a young woman in Santa Fe who, when she learned that I wrote for a living and even wrote fantasy, was very excited. She told me that she read fantasy. She read Terry Brooks. When she had read whatever he had that was out and new, she went back and re-read old Terry Brooks novels. That was, apparently, all she read.
Now, I admit, this is an extreme example. However, as the writer of twenty-one published novels, I definitely have seen both sides of the issue. For every fan letter I get expressing enthusiasm about a new project, I get two asking when I’m going to write a new Firekeeper novel, or a new Changer novel, or a fourth “Breaking the Wall” novel or maybe a sequel to my novels Child of a Rainless Year or The Buried Pyramid.
Sometimes fans of a particular series will not hesitate to tell me they cannot stand the other works I have done, as if this will encourage me to fulfill their request. Even short stories can trigger this “more, but the same” response. When I read my short story “Hunting the Unicorn” at Bubonicon, the first question was “What happens next?”
Yet reviewers and editors are the first to say “ho, hum” to the classic. Sometimes, more puzzling, especially from those on the buying end, a writer hears, “Can you give us more of the same but different, please?”
So what is better? Do you crave novelty in what you read? Is something that’s classic in theme automatically boring? If so, why is it that some of the biggest hits of the last few years have been variations on well-played themes?
As someone who likes to write a wide variety of types of stories, but also doesn’t write just to be different, I must admit I’m curious about where you stand…