The OF Blog: Why is this "worldbuilding" such a big deal to some?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why is this "worldbuilding" such a big deal to some?

A week ago, M. John Harrison wrote a short piece in his blog about why he is wary, or "afraid," of some of what "worldbuilding" represents. I posted a link of this both on wotmania and Westeros' messageboards. The responses, on the whole, have been rather critical of Harrison's stances (and by implication, some of my own comments on the subject). I would suggest reading each of the sites' commentaries before continuing on.

Although I've given my basic opinion in some of the threads there, I felt like elaborating a bit on a related issue away from the heat of the MB battlefields. It is not surprising, of course, that on sites which are devoted, more or less, to the works of authors who wrote secondary-world fantasies that there would be fairly impassioned defense of this nebulous thing called "worldbuilding." In fact, that very word, "defense" I think lies at the heart of the so-called debate on the issue.

Most of the people who responded with criticisms of Harrison's position tended to state that they couldn't imagine a fiction existing without "good worldbuilding." OK, that's very nice, I thought, but what is "worldbuilding?" Are these people, and others like them, defining it as being most everything that deals with scene-setting? Or could it be that this "worldbuilding," which as far as I know wasn't a commonly used word until the past few years, ought to be restricted more towards its apparent original sense of describing the process of creating a secondary world?

I myself tend to take the latter approach when using such a word and I would suspect that Harrison was referring to such a thing as well. And oddly enough, in spite of or perhaps because of some of the comments made, I would imagine that it is quite possible, "arrogant" as Harrison may or may not be (I leave that to the jury, as I have no dog in this hunt), that an argument could be made that the responses end up justifying Harrison's last comments. A very odd QED, if it were.

But I think many of his critics on this issue are not looking far enough afield. If Harrison meant secondary-world creation (with its often laborious exercises in writing "histories" for characters that are in the end just figments of a single person's imagination) for "worldbuilding," then what about all the other types of fiction that are out there that most certainly do not depend on a lengthily-described "world?" I wonder if it might be a case of there being a great many more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in the philosophies of a myriad Horatios.

I read a few secondary-world creations. Some, like Tolkien or R. Scott Bakker's works, are enjoyable, but I do not find myself wanting to be "immersed" in imagined "worlds." I read for the story and to see what the Text communicates to me, being the medium by which an Author might wish to share his/her ideas with me. I do not read to "lose myself" in a world, even if it might be richly described. Characters are often appealing to me and I would like to see more authors having more representative ones in their stories, but even they ultimately are but roles in a Story. The better written a Story, or perhaps better told would be more suitable, the more likely I shall recall the Story within the book's pages later. Macondo might be a fascinating imagined village and the Buendias might be intriguing characters, but it is the story contained within the pages of Cien años de soledad that ultimately was the deciding factor in my love for Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece. It was a triumph of communication, of writing, of storytelling that made that book as beloved as it is today, not how his "world" was constructed.

When I read a story, I don't want the surroundings described at length, unless it is absolutely necessary for the story to be told in full. I do not think of characters as being any more "real" than those that populate my dreams - good for a sometimes-provocative thought, but secondary to the communication with myself that might be taking place within. When I hear of people at certain sites talk of "writing" a fantasy novel, it sounds more like someone who is just laboring over trying to make something imagined sound as exciting and as dense as a Lonely Planet guide to Timbuktu. I think Harrison should have gone further in what he put down in his article (but then again, it seems from reading other entries that his blog is more for passing thoughts than for long treatises). I do agree that there is indeed something almost stereotypically "nerdish" about expending so much time and energy on what ultimately should amount to a few brief supporting "details" to what ought to be a well-written/told Story.

I recall reading something somewhere that Jeff VanderMeer (I think) wrote about dialogue. All too often, the dialogue in many secondary-world fantasies sounds like nonsense to me. It is as if a great many authors are tone-deaf when it comes to nailing the "humanity" of the conversations. Perhaps this is related to a desire to emulate other such works in these imagined "worlds," where people don't sound like people bullshitting, but rather like a pale xeroxed copy of imagined archaic talk? If only some of the authors (and Erikson can be used here as an example, although he does have his good points in other areas, as I see his dialogues generally lacking in a "genuine" feel) would spend as much time working on polishing their prose and considering how most human beings actually speak, perhaps the subgenre of secondary-world fantasy wouldn't have such a pejorative ring to it.

But these are merely my opinions. I am not one who heavily reads within the types of fantasy being criticized here. There are others, I know, who prefer seeing what another has imagined and spending hours poring over drawn "maps" and extensive glossaries of invented places and characters. More power to them. Sounds more like a weak and twisted version of studying history, without the desire of those that do study history to apply that knowledge toward a greater understanding of ourselves. I wouldn't be surprised if that is part of what frightens Harrison so. I know it frightens me on occasion.

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