The OF Blog: Interesting discussion on fantasy writers

Monday, June 15, 2009

Interesting discussion on fantasy writers

Saw this exchange over at wotmania the other day and thought I'd reproduce part of it to see what others here make of this. This discussion began with some concerns about how well Brandon Sanderson would do completing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, before broadening into discussing certain perceptions of newer (epic) fantasy writers:

I think Sanderson's case is different. Unlike Anderson is he is intelligent and a good storyteller, though since he writes in secondary worlds with some scope, he would do well to learn to take a step back from the action and actually look more into the characters, the setting and the issues in his secondary worlds. It's not something unique to Sanderson. The present generation of Fantasy writers differ in one crucial way from the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, Kay, Jordan, GRRM etc. Fantasy used to be a genre where the best writers were men and women who had seen and experience the world, met tons people from various cultures, lived a bit, quite often had seen horrors and war firsthand - often they also had decades of reading about anything or everything, or actually working in intersting fields - and then they translated all this into a rich, fascinating secondary world. Nowadays, it tends to be written by very young 'professional authors' who often studied 'creative writing', have grown up loving Fantasy and reading in general. They are creating their worlds, their cast of characters, the issues in their story not from the heart and experience, but from book knowledge. It's exceptional for people so young to have enough experience, have had enough relationships of all kinds (or witnessed enough of other's) and a personal enough perspective on the world to be able to translate this into good fantasy. This is a bit what I see in Sanderson. He has obvious talents, interesting ideas. He will probably be a great writer when he's a bit older, but he might want to slow down writing and get out of his Utah basement to live a 'real life' a bit. KJA is a bit like that too - there doesn't seem to be much more to his lifestyle than writing, reading, hiking and promo tours. Worse, his wife is the same. If we look at the greatest books of SF/Fantasy - those that stood the test of time etc., that's not exactly the sort of situations from which they arose.
Never really considered it from that angle before, but after reading it, I have to say that I've noticed that many of the authors that I enjoy most today (among them, M. John Harrison, China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, Jeff Ford, Michael Moorcock) all have had something interesting in their backgrounds, whether it be being exposed to various cultures at a young, impressionable age, or working at some interesting "blue collar" or experimental labor jobs, or working in publishing/editing at a young age, or just participating in what today might be called "extreme" sports. Regardless of their disparate approaches to writing, one thing that I've learned about each of these authors (and several others) is that, as the quoted bit alludes to, each has "lived a bit" and experienced something in life that might be a bit "unusual" or at least would hold some sort of influence on their perceptions of life and how to write fiction.

But does the inverse hold true? Is "book knowledge" really a pale substitute, or does it too constitute some sort of positive influence on the creation of "meaningful" fiction works, especially those of a speculative nature? What do you think? Who would you cite to support your point of view?


Liviu said...

I saw this criticism popping up in odd places before - usually to me it indicates sour grapes: "how could that geek, self-promoter..." outsell me, my favorite author...?

Experience is varied and while I agree that having a varied life-experience gives a different perspective on some things, I do not really believe that it truly reflects in writing which as any skilled pro endeavor does, it needs lots of practice, so the myth of the wearied traveler setting up to write the masterpiece of literature is a myth imho...

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the experience cult.

Do you remember that episode of the Simpsons where Bart and a hamster are compared? Lisa rigs up a cake attached to an electric current, and both protagonists then shock themselves trying to eat the cake. The hamster retreats into a corner, but Bart keeps electrocuting himself.

Well, it often seems to me that when people talk about the importance of 'life-experience', what they're really meaning is that they think the hamster who electrocutes themselves most often ought to write the book about how not to be electrocuted - because he, after all, has got experience of the subject. The hamster who never touched the cake at all? Well, he's got no experience of life at all, so what would he know (other than not to electrocute himself).

There also seems to be at play some sort of image of knowledge as a contagious disease. If you shake a man's hand, suddenly you will know him. Travel the world and you will have 'experience of other culture'. It seems, going by the popular perception, that the most little-minded oaf, if he take one trip to China, will have greater knowledge and understanding of alternative cultures than the most dedicated anthropological scholar. Being in a war means understanding war, apparently; witnessing death makes you 'know about' death.

I think we should extend this to other subjects, like engineering. If I've seen a wind turbine and you haven't, you've only studied and designed them, clearly I know more about wind turbines than you do.

Or medicine - imagine how much you must know about cardiology if you have a heart bypass! Far more than the doctor, who's probably only 'learnt' his 'knowledge' from books, and other despicable sources of illusory understanding. Medical patients should really write the textbooks.

Yes, Tolkien fought in a war. Yes, that might have added a shade of colour to a handful of scenes in his books, though it seems he did his best to excise such influences (eg the early version of the fall of gondolin was far more WWI-inspired, complete with flamethrowers and mechanical engines, iirc). Yes, he was an orphan. So he had 'experience'.

But to my mind the richness of LotR could far more accurately be placed at the door of his 'book-knowledge' - his study of Catholicism, his study of the norse sagas, his translations of Beowulf and the bible, his philological work for the OED. I see a lot more of his scholarship in his work than his war, his childhood, or his marriage.

Hal Duncan said...

I don't think I could measure experience and book-learning against each other. Both have been essential to some aspect of my work or other, to the extent that if I hadn't lived X or read Y, I doubt I *could* have written whatever, never mind *would*.

Anonymous said...

I'm wary of placing an automatic definition to what constitutes "living" or "experience." Isn't the career path of a creative writing student turned professional author an experience in itself? Does a single woman from Akron "live less" than a family man from New York City, or do they merely live differently?

- Zach

Charles said...

For me it's down to execution.

So what if you have real-world experience? If you can't translate it into fiction, then you're a poor writer nonetheless.

Similarly, you may not have a lot of real-world experience, but if you pull it off convincingly in the narrative, should it matter?

This talk of experience is a meta-fictional reading in the sense that we're investigating the author instead of the text.

(Don't even get me started on imaginary worlds, how a "mundane life" can contribute to experience, etc.)

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