Michael Moorcock Killed My Darlings



I started teaching creative writing in 2003. I distinctly remember my first class for two things. The first, that I managed to draw a marker pen line on my forehead while parting my floppy fringe with my hand and the second, the question a student put to me at the end of the session.

“Have you read Michael Moorcock?”

At the time, I confess I couldn’t remember whether I had or not. In the blur of science fiction and fantasy I had read, his name did not pop out. The multitude of his work had somehow escaped me. I went home and waited for a set of online orders and the books gradually trickled in; fiction, critical writing, forewords, introductions, interviews.

The first thing that impressed me was how well read and knowledgeable Michael Moorcock is. The second thing that impressed me was his opinions. Whether discussing his own writing, or the writing of others, he has a view and unlike others, can back it up with clear examples and comment. As a critic, Michael is insightful and perceptive in his observations and his view is backed up with credentials. He has written commercially successful fiction for decades and is rightly praised for his literary skill. He defined many of the accepted tropes of science fiction and fantasy long before others came to refine them.

In fantasy, Michael Moorcock is a different kind of holiday rep to those you’ll see on the coach trips. He doesn’t belong in the Tough Guide, instead he takes you to the secret places and lets you stare at the sky and the sunset for yourself. Occasionally he suggests a bit of reading; Poul Anderson, China Mieville, Fritz Leiber or Mervyn Peake. You’ll learn something from every book he recommends.

As a commercial writer, Michael has been successful for decades. His books are written in a variety of voices, a veritable showcase of styles and ideas. He is restless and experimental, varying modes of address, adding (at the time) current events from newspapers, links to other writers and all sorts of other techniques. This makes his work tricky to pin down and tricky to assess, other than to admire it.

But Michael Moorcock did kill my darlings.

As a child, I read Lord of the Rings avidly, one time in seventy-two hours (or less) with very little sleep. I played with toy soldiers for hours, pretending they were the Elves, Orcs and Men of Middle Earth.

In one patient and carefully constructed essay written in 1978, entitled ‘Epic Pooh’, Michael explained and demonstrated exactly the type of text Tolkien had written and the weaknesses of it. He put my childhood under a microscope and took out his red pen, drawing comment and criticism over all I held dear.

And in doing so he set me free.

Michael’s criticism of Tolkien shattered the illusion for me that many would-be young writers labour under, namely that there is a set way to do things, like Tolkien. Abandoning the frame frees the mind and took me back to what I should have been doing when I chose to write fantasy in the first place - imagining things for myself. Why play in Middle Earth, or some derivative version of the same, when you can make up your own rules and have your own ideas?

My advice to any young writer is to read avidly. Reading Michael Moorcock can hurt, it can make you angry and emotional, but you’ll learn from the experience. All the best books teach you something and his always do. Learn from his experience, open your mind and dream.