Friday, February 09, 2007

A House Divided

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do gabe's 'do-a-novelette-in-a-weekend' challenge due to a tight schedule. However, his bitch-slap did get me jumpstarted again to try something in a longer format.

Before, I used to have these notes on a number of 'created worlds' that I had come up with. Nothing fancy though: I'm no Tolkien with an actual Elvish language tucked in my pocket. These were more like notes for the setting that I had come up with in order to write my story. Granted, a lot of this was due to the influence of epic fantasies that I was reading but at least I could say there were no elves nor dwarves around.

Which is why I just shrugged when I heard noted literary fantasist M. John Harrison posted a stinging attack on the concept of 'world-building' in current fantasy books. To be exact, he called it "the great clomping foot of nerdism." Obviously, this did not sit well with most fantasy-readers, with pat (of fantasyhotlist) in the lead in slamming Harrison for his 'elitist' and 'arrogant' beliefs-- especially on the idea that reading is a matter of 'escapism.' In return, well-known agent provocateur gabe angrily riposted about the "anti-elitist faction' raising their "plebeian heads" again and cited where he thought Pat and co. got it wrong with regard to Harrison's post.

I'm not surprised: generally, both sides of the speculative fiction spectrum (from genre to literary) time and again butt heads. Hmph, I bet you don't see bestselling authors calling literary writers out, eh? Makes me wonder why in a ghetto so small, we still manage to draw blood. (Not that I prefer we all 'get along somehow'; debate is good for the soul.)

Actually, you know what gets me really riled up? In the local scene, it's people who buy/read books because everyone is reading it. A lot of people can say that they read Harry Potter or Paulo Coelho or Star Wars/Star Trek. But how many can say that after reading Harry Potter, they can go read Philip Pullman or Diana Wynne Jones? Or with Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, they can go read The Zahir or Veronika Decides to Die? Or SW/SF, they can now go read anything else?

I read because I like to read. What gets my guff is people who read because they don't want to be left out of the latest fad.

*rolls eyes*


skinnyblackcladdink said...

i hate the word 'elitism'. it's ridiculous and tells you nothing about the real merit of either side of the argument, but creates totally unwholesome connotations.

that said, i don't think Mr Harrison was being any more 'elitist' than the pro-world-building reader/writers out there of an equally extreme and polarized opinion.

personally, as i've stated, i think we need a bit more world-building; but i see Mr Harrison's point and would never doubt its worth. i do a lot of world-building myself, but it is always qualified by being essentially something 'made-up', 'in my head', and never meant to be a place to crawl in and die from the stagnation of having 'the rules' of the 'imagined world' dictated to you. when i write a story, it isn't (or isn't solely) to let you in my head. you have to use yours as well ('active' reading).

on your own personal 'beef'...i don't begrudge these people. that they find enjoyment in reading, whether they 'grow' from it or not, is good enough for me. as long as they don't coat their personal opinions with the dictates of 'the vogue', most of these people are enjoying their own kind of reading much as you do, but on their own terms, even if it is dictated by what's 'in'.

the market is distasteful in many ways, but on the other hand, one also needs to keep it going *somehow*.

banzai cat said...

Actually, same here on the word 'elitism.' But I realize that the world in essence is unfair in that one will always be better than another and so we will always have 'elites'.

On the matter of 'world-building', you know how I feel about setting and how it should rank up there with characterization. Even in the most general strokes, a story's setting must be defined else the reader feels the characters are floating in a void. But I also agree with you: if in the process of world-building, the rules are limiting your story-creation, then the world-building is definitely getting out of hand.

Heh. I suppose I'm getting cranky with old age (and my blocked sinus). Somehow I've come to a realization that if I must take an extreme position, it's that reading should never be taken for granted, and that one must never limit one's reading material. Hence my dredging up this old rant. ;-)

skinnyblackcladdink said...

just thought i'd qualify, the particular sort of 'world-building' i personally object to is the approach taken by Tolkienesque epic fantasists, and i feel that though Harrison has taken an extreme stance, this is the root of his objection as well; these writers seem to feel that proper world-building requires the construction of multi-volume, doorstop narratives, when people such as, say, Borges, Gaiman, Gibson, Harrison, VanderMeer, Di Filippo and, yes, Bob Dylan (to use Mr Harrison's own example) and Stephen Merrit (to add my own songsmith-example to the list) can create complex, mythic, multilevel 'realities' in a short story, novella, poem, or song, or at least a novel that doesn't clock over 500 pages.

Charles said...

On M. John Harrison: For me world-building depends on the reader since there are various kinds of readers. To the typical reader, he has a point--don't overwhelm them with world building. It usually should be in the background, not at the forefront. It should only appear if it is in the service of the story. Write a Lord of the Rings, not The Silmarillion (or the other Tolkien books which are nothing but world-building treaties and only got published to earn money from the Tolkien name).

Of course having said that, that is not to say that on one appreciates such world building. If it is "the great clomping foot of nerdism", then obvious "nerds" will like it. And as an example, just take a look at the Tolkien world-building book glut. So the advice depends on who your target audience is or who you're writing for.

Charles said...

On Reading Because It's the Trend: It's not a unique phenomenon. In fact it applies to most industries. That's why marketing and advertising are modern day businesses--and why people claim it works.

And the fact of the matter is that it does get people to start reading or exploring something that they haven't considered. Whether they grow from it or stick to it is another matter. It's like spreading the gospel. The phenomenon gets the word out. Whether you believe is up to you.

Of course if you look at the bigger picture, we all fall under the type of people who simply gets into things because it's popular or it's a fad. It's just because we're book nerds that we're sensitive when it comes to books. I mean look at your cell phone (or the very fact that you own one): it's probably a Nokia. I'm sure the techno-elites will complain at Filipinos's trend to favor Nokia cell phones. Or when it comes to computers, you Windows users. =) Computer geeks will probably tell you to use Linux or get a Mac, depending on which platform they're campaigning for. Or it could be a movie, a TV show, a band, etc. I mean non-discriminating music listeners will probably only listen to what's on the radio instead of searching for indie albums and the like. And the list goes on. It's only the "experts" in the field that are keen on their field, and we can't expect every single person to be a bibliophile.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

just wanted to add: i haven't read all the links and relevant comments, but it appears to me that the most offended or at least most vocal reactors to Mr Harrison's comment are SF adherents.

this seems a bit misguided as Mr Harrison never claimed to be a champion of genre, and even confesses to being 'hurt' and 'confused' by being called a 'genre staple' (find relevant post on uzwi). the 'nerds' that make up hardcore SF fandom has never been his 'target'.

there's no doubt that taking the reader on a 'guided tour' of strange, fantastical 'secondary realities' is something that distinguishes the 'genre' from 'other types' of fiction; that said, writers in the genre would do well to note Mr Harrison's comments. epic fantasy has the tendency, for me, of getting boring once the 'secondary reality' is established, and the story, at last, takes over the narrative. obviously, world-building can only take you so far, no many how many tomes or how much ephemera you produce to 'back-up' that so-called 'secondary reality'.

banzai cat said...

skinny: I would agree I think though it depends. My belief is that the 'right word, at the right time' and I think that with just a few words, one can describe a world. Yanno, like the blue sweep of a paintbrush can describe a rushing river?

On the other hand, where did Harrison claim he was 'champion of the genre'? In fact, given how he and writers of his 'new wave' generation (including Moorcock) tried to transcend genre, I'm surprised that people would still think him as one who would follow genre principles.

I suppose the funny thing here is that those reacting take potshots at him like that but where were they when Moorcock said the same thing? Is it because Moorcock is a big name in fantasy?

And well-said in your last paragraph. *thumbs up*

charles: Obviously, the point here is that nerds know they're nerds-- heck, they're proud of it-- but bristle when other people call them on that. It's part and parcel of being in the ghetto. I'm proud of spec fic and genre but get annoyed meself when people speak about the same in an ignorant manner-- even if they weren't. Remember how I commented in the forum last weekend during the science speaker's talk?

On the reader thing, I concede you have a point there. (Also, interesting essays on reading on your last few posts.) However, I gotta say, I use a Nokia phone because (a) it's easiest for me to use, (b) I've used the same type since day 1, (c) I'm afraid of technological change, i.e. technophobic, and (d) it's the cheapest I can get. Can I still apply this as a bibliophile? ;-)