The OF Blog: Reflections

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Ever since I made those posts a week ago on wotmania and then Westeros (and writing the blog entry below this), I've been reflecting quite a bit on what I've learned about myself while engaging in those discussions. It isn't a good discussion if nothing is learned, right?

I learned, or perhaps recalled is a better word for this, that I have a lot of pent-up anger and frustration. Not exactly towards those who were taking opposing sides to me, but for the direction in which my thoughts were taking and what I was perceiving as underlaying much of the passing comments.

I am not one of those who engages in "literature/art" debates, as I see the two as being just merely facets in particular material cultures. That is my background, that is my take on matters. How things can be applied and why they have come into being to be applied are what interests me most. No story exists in a vacuum. There must be something "out there" driving it to be told and/or written. Even if it is just for the author's eyes/ears alone, there is something almost compelling about this transmission of ideas and the codification from thought to spoken and/or written language.

This is probably why I find claims of reading for "escapism" to be frustrating. It shortcircuits any real responsibility on the part of the reader. If the author cannot write in a vacuum, then I believe neither can a reader do the same. All sorts of cultural baggage is being brought to the table every single damn time someone reads or listens to another's thoughts. There are those who might read this post and others by me and immediately dismiss it as being idle twaddle, just because it runs counter to their own Weltanschauungen. They may do so, but I think in a sense it would be QED, since my words would not have been read in a cognitive vacuum.

Which I guess brings me around to the issue of "worldbuilding" that has been kicked about here and there for a while. I find it not just odd, but vaguely worrisome that what ought to amount to being just a plausible background setting for a story has been raised in the eyes of many to the level of paramount importance in certain types of storytelling. Not just because of those "unhinged" people who actually believe in such "worlds," but that the indulgence in such worlds can be used as an excuse, subconscious or not, to "escape" from the responsibilities of dealing with our own. If there are no vacuums in truth, then there may not ought to be any attempts to claim that one can just "go away" from the surroundings around them. It just cannot be - the baggage is going to follow them.

So if that is the case (presuming, dangerous as that might be, that one cannot "escape" in reality or from reality), then what is being explored by the reader? What is it that draws them to such creations in which a lot is spelled out that usually isn't in other subgenres of speculative fiction or in the other genres of literature (and by extension, this facet of material culture)? Could it be that some are drawn to the notion that the author ought to explain or tell everything to the reader, so as to make it little more than an authorial puppet show? If so, then what would that say about the mindsets of many readers? I shudder to think of those possibilities.

Or perhaps it is just simply a desire not to have to think too much, because after all, we have to use our noggins quite a bit in this world at work or at play. But again, the issue of why the reader is bothering to read that particular work or style and not another would be raised. Is there a difficulty in processing certain styles and therefore one might reject out of hand that which is not easily conceived? Could that be an explanation in part of the increasing struggles that students as a whole have (outside of a very shitty home life, which more and more is the case of those I've taught over the years) with dealing with concepts that are foreign to them? Reject that which is alien and accept only that which is familiar and comforting? Perhaps, but there might be even more to this.

I could not help but think this week as I was formulating my responses elsewhere to others that here I was, a youngish (32 is still very young for a teacher!) post-graduate-educated male who has lived between various cultures much of his adult life. Gringo, yet with a passion for the various dialects and cultures of the Spanish-speaking world. Someone who has never starved or slept on the streets at night to avoid beatings, but yet who had worked at length with those that have. Someone who is idealistic, yet dealing with those that find hope to be a luxury too expensive to indulge oneself. Here I am, with my nice clothes and ready high-speed computer access, living in a different type of world than most of those that I teach. And then those have been the lucky ones, as many have known others to have been shot or stabbed to death in American urban centers or who had suffered from the hands of corrupt government officials back in their home countries. What would they make of these imagined "worlds?"

I became quite angry thinking about it. Spilled out in my afternoon 7th grade Geography class today. Discussing the effects that oil has had on Nigeria's people, especially along the Niger River delta. Reading the current issue of National Geographic to them, seeing those images of the downtrodden and those rising up against their perceived oppressors. No time for leisure or to try to "lose oneself" in an imagined "world" - it was fight or die season for many there and elsewhere in the world. There are no vacuums. We exist in this world as well, as spectators or perhaps even unwitting supporters of those who are too corrupt to care for the welfare of their people.

And here we've been, arguing at length on "worldbuilding." I feel disgusted with myself now. This world of ours, this very real world, is suffering and we just don't seem to want to own up and to take increased responsibility for it. I feel almost damned as a result...but then I do recall, that in some stories at least, people do confront these demons amongst us. And people have taken hope from that. That is what I think is the most important aspect of literature as a subset of material culture - offering up possible solutions to those waking nightmares around us. I just hope others will wake up and push for changes, rather than being content to dream of other idealized situations that try to distance themselves from the realities of this world. Something to reflect upon some more, I believe...


GameMaster said...

I just wonder if one dwells too deep in these issues, as you and some others seem to be doing, do you still enjoy these fantasy and fictional books as much as you once used to.

Many of us, myself included, read just for the value of entertainment and not any form of "escapism." I don't dwell too much and read too closely on the prose merits or the worldbuilding merits of a book. Ultimately the story is what matters to me, and if I like it and it moves me in some way, then to hell with what Harrison or someone have to say.

Does this mean that I do not care about the actual global events, the reality? Not at all, you have to be able to separate certain issues and not compact them all into one. But since civilization began, entertainment has been part of our lives and that's all I'm looking for sometimes and one form is reading books, not to study the merits of the writing style of some authors. I'll just leave that to obsessed people and critics that like to do that for whatever reason. As for the real world, I would rather take actions than read books about it, but entertainment I will always seek because the world is a much more pleasant place when combined with all kinds of aspects of activities and doings not just looking at it in one way.

Neth said...

My First reaction is that you just don't get it. Of course, I neither think that is fair or true. I a lot of ways it comes down to two not so complicated issues - the definition of escapism and your being a very passionate person.

The way I define escapism is really not inconsistent with what you say - I define it very broadly. Just because I call my main reason for reading 'escapism' doesn't mean that I don't gain anything from or bring anything back with me. A book without any lasting impact beyond the final page is a poor form of escapism IMO. I would suspect that most people tend to lump the various positive emotions and experiences (including entertainment) from reading into a broad category and call it something like escapism.

I think it's probably a rather small amount of people who would fall into some 'extreme' escapism. I would doubt that this would a form of shirking responsiblity - but more of emotional coping mechanism. It's a bit harsh for you to be so critical of it without knowing an idividual situation - they could be 'escaping' from something as horrible (or more) than some of the children you mention or at least coming to terms with some 'inner demon'. Someone really needs to be able to help themselves before they are ready to help others.

You also come about pretty preachy in general - I undertand that you are passionate about social justice (don't know if that's the best phrase, but it'll do). But really who are you to accuse in the way you come across? Not everybody is a passionate as you are, and most of us can do more - but I'd argue that most of us do something. Generally readers are much more educated that the general population and much more aware of social injustices - I'd bet they do more.

Anyway, I'm sure you didn't always read the same type of books as you do now. Reading is journey (and I'm not talking about just reading a single book) - my tastes are always evolving, waxing and waning. You arguments could easily help someone along in their reading journey - it could just as easily set someone back. I guess I'm saying that helping someone along on that journey is good, but being too preachy is bad - and I think your walking a very fine line at the moment.

I can certainly empathize with your view of the world and all too often sad state of much of this nation and world (espcially the education system). I'll take the optimistic view that reading is good - any reading (though I suppose some is better than others). Encourage and nudge those that are reading, but chastizing someone for reading for escapism is the wrong battle to fight.

Oh well, this went on much longer (and less coherent) than I intended. I agree, an issue to continue thinking about.

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