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The Elfish Gene

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The writer and journalist Mark Barrowcliffe seems to be many things to many people. To some, he is the author of the excellent D&D memoir, the Elfish Gene (Amazon.co.uk link). To others, he is the author of the vicious attack on D&D and its players, the Elfish Gene.

To me, he is the man who wrote a book which ended up being linked with my novel, Game Night, thus producing a rather healthy surge of sales and therefore someone who I've in the past I've declared to be one of the greatest human beings who ever lived.

So which is it?

Well last week, I found out that Mark (I'll refer to him as Mark not because he's a personal friend of mine, but because referring to someone you've now exchanged twitter messages with by their surname seems oddly formal) had not only written a book that was twinned with mine on Amazon, but also lived in the same town as me (Brighton) and was a veggie to my vegan. So I dropped him a line on twitter to say hi, and ordered a copy of his book, something that I'd previously neglected to.

That I'd not yet done so was mainly due to apathy and inertia; but it did owe something to the, how shall we say, "shitstorm" that it had generated in certain circles after its release. I once ended up having a conversation about it with a punter who'd bought a copy of Game Night from me at a convention, with his description of the book being something like:

"Imagine if at the end of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, after he's described his life as a football fan, he turns round in the last chapter and says, 'But I don't watch football any more, because only wankers watch football.' It wouldn't have been so popular with football fans, wouldn't it?"

Having read the book, I can see where he's coming from, or at least how he got to where he is - but I don't think it's a fair assessment. Let's start off by saying what the book is.

The Elfish Gene is a very funny and astute story of an adolescence spent playing D&D, with the author being breathtakingly honest about his various failings, not just during that period, but in later life. There were many times it struck deep chords with me, not only in its description of roleplaying, but also in its description of what it was like to grow up as a slightly nerdy boy in that time period. (Mark is about four years older than me, close enough that his descriptions of life are very familiar to me).

Two things in particular come to me now: an observation that of all memories, it's those associated with embarrassment that stay the sharpest; and the observation that in those days, people of our class talked not of breakfast, lunch and dinner, but of breakfast, dinner and tea.

It's a really good book, one that I've devoured in a few days, and one  that's certainly worth the read.

But this would be a pretty incomplete and perhaps cowardly review if I left it at that and didn't address the issues that have made it somewhat infamous in roleplaying circles, possibly to its detriment. (And before anyone hauls out the tired old canard that all publicity is good publicity, I'd ask them how many records they think that Gary Glitter - a man who's had a lot of publicity over the past several years - has sold recently).

I think the thing you have to remember is that this is a memoir, and memoirs aren't required to express universal truths, only those truths that applied to the memoirist themselves. It's easy when reading the book, especially the jacket quotes and the first chapter, to come to the conclusion that the book is saying the following:

"I could have been normal, but then I got involved with D&D, and that ruined my life. I eventually managed to kick the habit and then I become normal."

Now I don't think the book actually is saying that. Firstly, a lot of what is written is actually entertaining tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, not - I think - to be taken too literally. And secondly, because the author himself at one point declares:

"The fact that most people turned out to be decent human beings away from the group and under the influence of women leads me to conclude that it wasn't D&D that had caused us to behave so vilely to each other but masculinity itself. Shutting ourselves away in male-only company for our entire youth was like distilling that maleness, taking all other influences away and just leaving us with our dark selves. The only way that D&D was to blame is that it gave us a reason to be in those rooms, face-to-face for all those years, like an extended reality TV show that you couldn't be voted off."

Unfortunately perhaps, that statement is buried away in the last but one chapter, as a sort of conclusion. Those people who hated the book, and said so on every online forum they could find, probably didn't get that far.

This isn't really a book about D&D. It's something much more interesting that that. It's the story of an unhappy adolescent who played D&D. But even if we accept the proposition that the author is saying that playing D&D ruined his life, we still have to remember this is a memoir, and that we can see wider truths beyond the truths it presents does not render either its truths nor ours invalid.

Consider a misery memoir by a recovered alcoholic, whose text can pretty much be summarised as:

"I was a happy person up until the age of 15 when I had my first taste of alcohol. Then alcohol seized me, and destroyed me. Alcohol ruined my life. Alcohol is a terrible, evil thing."

Now I, who's been partaking of various alcoholic beverages since the age of 17 on a very much take it or leave it basis, would be able to see a wider truth that the author of said memoir had missed: that it wasn't alcohol that ruined his life, it was the fucked up addictive genes with which he had been born. But to realise that wider truth is not to invalidate the memoirist's truth; from his perspective, alcohol is an evil thing that ruined his life. And the wider truth here is that (in my humble opinion) two things "ruined" Mark Barrowcliffe's life:

Firstly, it sounds like he was an unhappy boy (nerdy, bullied, misunderstood, and looking to belong) who got way, way too much into D&D. For me, D&D was just a game that I played every Saturday with my mates. For him, it was clearly something far more. The word "addict" might not be out of place.

And secondly, it appears that many of the people who played with him were, to use a technical term, complete and utter wankers. (Some of the so-called friends I played with blackmailed me several times over my family's church attendance and yet, with all that, when I read the book I still managed to feel sorry for Mark over the friends he ended up playing with).

But that still doesn't explain the shitstorm. After all, the shelves are packed full of misery memoirs where alcohol consumption (either on the part of the person experiencing the misery or the person causing the misery) is the villain the protagonist eventually dispatches. But online forums aren't full of wine snobs frothing with anger over perceived "attacks" on their beloved beverage.

Well I have a couple of theories about that. (Those that know me know that I have theories for everything. I'd have a theory for why the sun rises each morning if some other bastards hadn't got there first.)

There are two important differences in the ways that the memoirs of an alcoholic will be received compared with the memoirs of a D&D addict.

Firstly, popular culture is full of books and TV programmes about alcohol and wine. Go into a WH Smiths and you'll probably find dozens of books about wine and wine tasting. A wine snob wanting a book about wine will get a book about wine; the only reason for them to grab the misery memoir of an alcoholic would be because they fancied a little depressing bedtime reading.

Not so with roleplaying. In fact, the Elfish Gene might be the first book on the subject ever to make it into WH Smiths. People were buying it not because they wanted to read about D&D addiction, but because they wanted to read about D&D. What we had here is analogous to a literary starved wine snob - desperate to read something, anything, about his favourite tipple - picking up a copy of a misery memoir which starts off with the subject drinking wine and ends up with him licking boot polish out of a tin he found round the back of Timpsons.

Secondly, alcohol is something most of the population consume. It's mainstream to the point that it's the people who don't consume it who have to justify their position. People who drink aren't made to feel weird, or strange, or different, and its not something they have to hide from the employers, friends or families. It's easy to be relaxed and magnanimous about perceived "attacks" when you're the safe and secure top dog. Not so when you're already feeling attacked and discriminated against.

If my theory is correct, then misery memoirs about cannabis addiction should face greater opposition that those about alcoholism, given that cannabis use is illegal, still often frowned upon, not something you would tell your employer, and something that would only require a hard-line approach by a new Home Secretary to result in lots of other-wise law abiding citizens acquiring criminal records.

And I think this is the case. A few months ago, there was a moderate media storm caused by the publication of a memoir by a mother whose son had supposedly become addicted to cannabis and had as a result gone totally off the rails, ending up as a liar and a thief. Were pot smokers content to allow her to peddle the truth as it applied to her? No. They weren't. They flooded online discussion pages with comments along the lines of:

"I've smoked pot for twenty years and I don't lie and steal. How dare you blame your son's behaviour on pot! If he's fucked up it's because of your inadequate parenting and now you're just trying to deflect the blame."

A truth is merely a two-dimensional view on a three-dimensional reality. There are as many valid truths as there are views. The Elfish Gene is a good book, and like any memoir it tells the truth that was experienced by its author.

It's got a definite thumbs up from me.

But there is just one thing I still don't understand. On the back of the cover is a quote from a Daily Mail Review:

"While any fool can write about a horrendous childhood, it takes artistry to write entertainingly about a happy one."

Happy? Happy? The bloke was so confused and bullied he got addicted to D&D and ended up in a park trying to cast magic spells! Happy? Were they reading the same book as me?

* * * * *

And just as an added extra, Mark's publisher has just released the trailer for an upcoming US version of the book. It's quite funny, and I really hope it does well. (It will still be linked to Game Night, right?)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WFddg_38r0